Worst Marriage Ever: The story of Jason and Medea
Jason was 'an absolute hypocritical pig of a husband’: Classics Professor
*Originally published on September 19, 2022.
The ancient Greek story of Jason and Medea starts as a love story and ends as a horror show — just the way the Greeks liked it.
Jason was young, handsome, the heir-apparent to the throne of Thessaly. Medea was princess of Colchis, on the Black Sea, in what is now Georgia. They would never have met if not for the quest of the Argo, the ship commissioned by Jason to search for a magical golden fleece.
But they did meet. They fell in love, stole the fleece and escaped like a primeval Bonnie and Clyde, complete with a grisly ending to the tale. But the story isn't confined to its ancient setting: Medea's fate, as the woman who killed her own children out of revenge, is — sadly — a story that occurs even now.
Falling into a trap
Jason was meant to be a royal.
"But his dastardly uncle managed to keep him off the throne and sent him on a challenge, which he hoped would kill him, Edith Hall told IDEAS. She's a professor of Classics at Durham University in the U.K.
The challenge: Jason had to get the golden fleece, the hide of a magic ram glittering with gold and hanging from a tree in the far-off land of Colchis.
"He's not supposed to be able to do it," said Florence Yoon, an assistant professor of Greek Language and Literature at the University of British Columbia. "It's like in many fairy tales, sending a hero to kill a dragon."
It's a trap. Jason's evil uncle, Pelias, wants to keep the throne to himself.
Adventure meets betrayal
The story will be familiar to anyone who's left the TV on late at night any time over the last 50 years and has come across, deliberately or otherwise, another re-broadcast of the 1963 classic film Jason and the Argonauts. The movie features the stop-action animation by Ray Harryhausen, a film anachronistic by today's computer-generated standards, but still a thrill for the nostalgic.
"I can't help but when I imagine [the myth of Jason], I'm doing it with the 1963 classic film in mind," said Rosie Wyles, a senior lecturer in Classical History and Literature at the University of Kent in the U.K.
"That's how I encountered this story."
The quest for the fleece is pure adventure: a giant bronze statue that comes to life, encounters with crazed Harpies, clashing rocks that threaten to sink the Argo. But the story turns from comic book exploit to heart-wrenching tragedy when Jason meets Medea and the stakes change.
As princess in Colchis, she should be protecting the fleece from marauding Greeks, but instead falls for Jason and conspires to steal it with him, and escape back to his homeland with it to the quarry.
En route, she kills her own brother to cover their tracks.
Most of this is told in an epic poem by Apollonius of Rhodes from the 3rd century BC (and the 1963 Harryhausen movie, of course, with its army of animated skeletons and flying Harpies) which leaves Jason and Medea in search of friendly harbour.
But the heart of the tragedy is revealed in an imagined sequel, the play by Euripides in 431 BC in which the focus shifts away from Jason's heroics to his betrayal of the woman he once — presumably — loved.
"The play begins," said Yoon, "with a situation in which Medea has been told that Jason is going to re-marry, that Jason is going to marry the daughter of the king of Corinth, and that she [Medea] is being set aside. And this in the Greek world is a terrible fate, because she has no resources, she can't go anywhere, she can't go home, that's for sure. She has burned all her bridges at home."
Meanwhile, Jason, once a great hero, and friend to Hercules, "has been an absolute hypocritical pig of a husband," said Hall, "[who] has abandoned her the minute a better opportunity came along."
And so she plans her revenge.
The ultimate vengeance
"Hate," says Medea in the play, "is a bottomless cup. I shall pour and pour."
"She decides that the way to hurt her husband most is to kill her children [two young boys]," said Hall.
This, Medea decides, is how she can inflict the most pain on her cheating husband. It's a terrible scene, played offstage, all the more to feed the audience's imagination. It's the ultimate taboo, a mother killing her own children to get back at her scheming husband.
In his memoir Chronicles (2004), Bob Dylan writes that the earliest American folk songs have always been about "debauched bootleggers, Cadillacs that only got five miles to the gallon, floods, union hall fires, darkness and cadavers at the bottom of river… [and] mothers that drowned their own children."
The English folk song called, variously, The Greenwood Side or The Cruel Mother, tells of a mother who kills her children with a pen-knife, wiping the bloody blade on the bottom of her shoe. It was covered by Ian and Sylvia on the album Four Strong Winds.
In other words, the story of Medea has never been confined to the Euripedes play. It happens in our world, too.
"I did a lot of research into filicidal parents," Hall told IDEAS, filicide being the term for mothers or fathers who kill their own children. "And it almost always happens in exactly the situation Euripedes describes in this play. It happens within the first two weeks of the split, and the parent who's left alone is usually faced with sexual jealousy."
All of which prompts questions, not just about the doomed couple of Jason and Medea, but about the point of Greek tragedy: do we learn anything about how we live, other than that some of us live to destroy?
"There's quite a strong strand in the reception of the play," said Wyles,"where it has been used to discuss issues of ethnicity, to discuss immigration. The text invites it. It is there. And it can become this very powerful narrative."
Medea is a stranger to Greece, a woman brought back from the Black Sea, a land considered barbaric. Without her husband, and the family she betrayed, she's cornered, lost.. There's no call to excuse filicide but there are echoes in the play of what happens when strangers and newcomers are isolated.
If there's a point to the play, it's to suggest there's room for empathy for the worst of us. That's one message in Euripedes, and in the American and English murder ballads: there are reasons, if we're human and humane enough to receive them.
Guests in this episode:
Edith Hall is a professor of Classics at Durham University.
Florence Yoon is an assistant professor of Greek Language and Literature at the University of British Columbia.
Rosie Wyles is a senior lecturer in Classical History and Literature at the University of Kent.
James Clauss is a professor of Classics at the University of Washington.
Lucy Jackson is an assistant professor of Classics and Ancient History at Durham University.
Connor Heaney is a collections manager at the Ray & Diana Harryhausen Foundation in Edinburgh.
Lyndsy Spence is the author of Cast a Diva: The Hidden Life of Maria Callas, published by The History Press.
Recording of Medea by Euripedes, 1976, with Judith Anderson as Medea and Anthony Quayle as Jason are from the Internet Archive.
*This episode was produced by Tom Jokinen.