Jason & Medea

But Aphrodite was on Jason’s side, and already she had worked her magic. Aeetes’ daughter Medea was a witch with the power to destroy her enemies. But now she was consumed by love. Hesiod says she was ‘bashful-eyed’ as she gazed at Jason; Apollonius describes her ‘lifting her veil to look at Jason with her slanting eyes, her heart on fire with suffering, and, as he left, her spirit slunk from her and fluttered after him, as if it were a dream’; while in a passage recalling real Greek magic Pindar has Aphrodite teaching Jason occult spells to woo Medea:

The queen of the most deadly arrows, Cyprus-born Aphrodite, bound a wryneck woodpecker fast to a four-spoked wheel (the first time that mankind had seen the maddening bird) and taught the clever Jason charms and incantations, to coax Medea to forget her parents and burn with desire for Greece, lashed by Persuasion’s goad.

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Torn between respecting her parents and saving Jason, Medea crept out to the temple of Hecate, goddess of the dead, to mix a magic salve. Here, guided by the gods, Jason met her. Hurriedly Medea told him what to do: he must sacrifice a sheep to Hecate at midnight before smearing the salve over his body and his weapons to render him invulnerable. When the armed men sprang from the furrows, he should throw a boulder into their midst to make them fight not Jason but each other.

As he listened to Medea’s words, Jason fell in love with her. If he survived, he promised he would take her back to Iolcus and marry her, so she would be the envy of all Greece, a goddess among women. Medea ardently accepted, and, in Pindar’s coy words, ‘they willingly agreed to join with one another in sweet union’.

Encouraged by Athene an oddly puny Jason steals the golden fleece while the serpent hisses fiercely. (Attic red figure vase, possibly c. 470-460 BC.)

Thanks to Medea’s potion and advice Jason completed Aeetes’ challenges unscathed, but the king refused to honour his bargain and plotted the Argonauts’ destruction. Medea discovered his intentions. Apollonius vividly describes her running from the palace, barefoot, down narrow alleyways, with one hand keeping her veil close to her face lest anyone recognize her, and lifting up her dress with the other so she could run faster. Reaching the Argo, she urged the crew to row with all speed to the sacred grove and steal the fleece.

Jason and Medea jumped ashore and made for the oak tree, where they saw the fleece already glowing in the light of the rising sun. But they saw too the sleepless serpent’s yellow eyes. And now it was upon them, rearing its head, drool dripping from its fangs. Undeterred, Medea sang a soft enchanting lullaby and sprinkled a soporific drug on the monster’s head. Its heavy eyelids closed; its neck drooped to the ground; it slept. Clutching the fleece, Jason and Medea fled back to the Argo. The crew cast off and, as dawn broke, they bent keenly to their oars and the ship sped out across the glassy calm of the Black Sea.

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