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Medea pampharmakos (i)

Manipulative witch? Revengeful wife? Fatal woman? Is Medea evil personified, or is she a mere victim?

Medea is a complex personality who moves in dark areas of human existence and society, despite the fact that she is the granddaughter of Helios, the god of the Sun. She emerges cold-blooded, from the absolute darkness with acts as shocking and decisive as her magic that causes them. She explores the vague boundaries of moral and immoral behavior, in a different context each time, but while possessing knowledge of life and death and always in the light of her preternatural powers.

The myth that surrounds her is ambiguous, with supernaturally incomprehensible and naturally unimaginable elements, always associated with drugs, magic potions, cursed words and riveting looks just as those befit a terrible witch. The name of Medea (ii) is associated with otherwordly powers and indicates the capacity to invent, engineer, and, above all, carry out disastrous plans.

The origin of Medea is literally magical. She was the daughter of the king of Colchis and famous wizard Aeëtes, niece of the witch Pasiphae and the witch Circe but also the daughter or granddaughter of Hecate. Within this family, Medea could not and did not want to escape from her fate to become herself a powerful witch, with her own art, and persuasion but also with her own greatest specialization, at the two opposite points: to make medicines and potions that lead to torturous death, but also drugs and ointments that protect and defeat supernatural monsters in order for love and life to prevail.

Her myth interweaves erotic passion, betrayal, and justice with the magical powers of a woman in a male-dominated world. It looks into the reasons that pushed her to these acts. Was it for her own apparent benefit or for the substantial benefit of her beloved Jason, keeping in mind that there are times that the effects of her dark magic are tragic for all those involved, herself included.

Medea met Jason, fatefully, inside the temple of Hecate, in Colchis where she was the priestess, and where she fell madly in love with him. There, at her suggestion, Jason prayed to the goddess to protect him from the labor set for him by Medea's father: in order to deliver the golden fleece (iii) to Jason, Aeëtes instructed him to plow and sow with dragon teeth a field, after taming bulls that had bronze legs and breathed fire from their nostrils. At the same time, Medea gave him an ointment from the prometheon (iv) that would protect him for a whole day, long enough to perform the labor of Aeëtes. She also advised him that when he sows the dragon's teeth, he should hide and immediately throw a stone among the armored warriors who will sprout at the same time as the sowing, to kill each other, thinking that the initial attack was made by one of them.

Jason followed his witch's advice and although he succeeded, Aeëtes broke his promise and did not give him the golden fleece. Then again Medea came to his aid with her magic potions. She betrayed her own father and put the dragon who was guarding it to sleep so that Jason could steal the golden fleece.

The couple escaped together while Medea made a terrible premeditated action. Without any hesitation, she took her brother Apsyrtus with her, to set a trap for Aeëtes. When Aeëtes was nearly overtaking them, in order to delay him, she slaughtered Apsyrtus, dismembered him and strewed the pieces into the sea. While Aeëtes was stopping to gather the pieces of his child, Medea and Jason escaped.

Immediately after their escape and purification by her aunt witch Circe in Aeaea, they continued their journey to Iolcus, stopping in Crete, since Circe did not allow them to stay on her island. There, with spells and her hypnotic gaze, Medea neutralized the terrible giant and protector of Crete, Talos, who also did not let them stay and rest at first. She convinced him to pull out quickly the nail that withheld the blood of his vein if he wanted to become immortal, essentially leading him to his death instead of immortality.

When Jason returned with the golden fleece and Medea to Iolcus, king Pelias did not keep his promise to return him the throne, either. Out of her love for Jason and extreme fury for the injustice that Pelias did to her beloved one, Medea disguised herself as a priestess of Artemis, dyed her hair white, smeared an ointment to make her skin look wrinkled, and set her next dark plan in motion.

She used the art of magic and while dancing ecstatically she hypnotized Pelias and his daughters. Then, she persuaded them to dismember their father and throw his pieces into a cauldron with magic potion to boil, under the pretence that old Pelias, through this magical ritual, would find his youth again. She even demonstrated it with a goat and made them see what she wanted them to see- either indeed transforming it with a magic potion or by hypnotizing them and making them see a wraith.

When the Daughters of Pelias realized what they had done it was already too late. They went crazy! But Medea had taken her revenge on Jason!

The life of Medea and Jason flowed happily. But in the tenth year, Jason fell in love with the most beautiful and young Glauce or at least did not refuse the offer of her father, Creon, to marry Glauce and inherit the throne of Corinth. The fate of Medea would be immediate exile.

Jason did not give a second thought. He left Medea, a fact which brought the final and total destruction alongside the announcement of her exile. Medea asked for one day's time, under the pretext that she wanted to arrange the details of her expatriation.

She secured the help of Aegeas, promise him that she would cure his impotence with her magical herbs. But in fact, she used this time to prepare a wedding gift for Glauce – a peplos steeped in flammable poison, which as soon as Glauce wore engulfed her immediately in flames. Creon, who ran to help his daughter, also burned with her, spontaneously. Such was the power of the magic poisons and potions of Medea, but mainly of her psychic and spiritual power that infused them with, as a mighty witch.

The furious Medea did not allow any of her wounds to be seen. She killed her children with Jason, not with witchcraft, but in the most gruesome way, she slaughtered them, according to Euripides. Jason (v) found himself in front of the abominable spectacle of the charred Glauce and his slaughtered children. This was his greatest punishment, he had lost them all, while suffering the most.

Remaining in the analysis of the character of the witch Medea, its pattern is obvious. Οne can have a strong influence on the logic and opinion of others and manage to convince them even for, obviously to others, absurd things. Her manipulative behavior and her abominable acts constitute, in a sense, a ruthless person but also a person deeply aware of his special knowledge and its results, which depending on the circumstance can function therapeutically, as the absolute, selfless good or deadly, as the absolute evil.

The motives in such cases are usually hidden and very selfish but are revealed by the actions while they continue to be incomprehensible to common sense even after recognition.

One could say that these actions are mainly done to satisfy nasty emotions (anger, fear, rage, revenge, wrath, thirst for vengeance). But is that so? Or is it simply said because it is in the general interest of the one who incites them, in a patriarchal society? Is it not the inalienable right of a woman to fight and defeat her enemy to the last drop?

According to Euripides, judging by the sacrifices and self-exile of Medea, the betrayal of her beloved father, the murder of many people - among them her own brother's - culminating in the murder of her children, Medea maintains over time an archetype with very deep wisdom and responsibility that very few understand, as well as her power in life and death, literally or symbolically and the fact that she does not accept the status quo and what is unjustly imposed, at any cost.

The common element and motif, which is also passed on in literature from life, is the unlimited support of a woman to the man, with whom she is in love, even while committing betrayal of her own loved ones resulting in a cowardly abandonment by him. This motif, due to the particularly intense and extreme emotions that carries, is attributed as a blame to the woman, characterizing her as a "witch" in order to achieve in inexplicable darkness, regardless of the season, the complete acquittal of the man's behavior, or any member who she wronged. Of course, if a woman happens to be a witch indeed, then things can take a very dark turn, and who can say "unjustly" at all...

These archetypal motifs, in combination with love and the thirst for power but also with extreme forms of psychopathy, narcissism, or schizophrenia, have been widely and very successfully used, over time to clash and narrate tragedies, acts of conscience. Narcissistic and manipulative characters with psychiatric disorders are described in myths, legends, and tragedies in recent years and horror stories and movies. Apart from literature, theater, and cinema, these archetypes still exist and are ... used in our daily lives.

There is of course another very important version in the myth: Medea did not kill her children but the Corinthians killed them, to avenge her for the misfortunes and deeds they attributed to her, the foreigner. And then they attributed the act to her, too. How much more could Medea be wronged, how much more misunderstood could she be?

And, more importantly, how much more stereotypically could this model of the stranger, the witch, who brings misfortune to the place where she lives, be rendered and moved? In the Middle Ages, the so-called witches were sacrificed and burned for the same reason, while Medea is burned in the fire of eternity, although it is said to have escaped with her magic winged chariot, a gift from her grandfather, Helios...

After all, is Medea an avenging witch or bewitched and unappreciated? Doomed to misery, doomed to make personal sacrifices in search of the most precious elixir of all; the one she did not possess even though she ruled it, not the one of immortality desired by many, but the one of happiness...

And remember ... "How great an ill to man is love!" (vi)


(i) adjective characterizing Medea in Pythian 4 (line 233) by Pindar, from pan- + pharmakon, meaning experienced and knowledgeable of every kind of magic remedy, all powerful in magic.

(ii) Entry "Medomai", "Homeric Dictionary" (I. Pantazidou, 1967)

(iii) Jason set out on the quest for the golden fleece and the journey to Colchis, by order of king Pelias (who had unsurped the throne of Iolcus from his half-brother Aeson, who was also Jason's father) in order to place Jason rightfully on the throne of Iolcus upon successful completion.

(iv) A herb that had sprouted from the blood of Prometheus.

(v) Jason's death came soon, by the stern of Argos that fell and crushed him.

(vi) Euripides, "Medea", verse 330.

Evangelia Papanikou

Imaginarium Magazine Issue 8 September 2021

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