Published in First City, New Delhi, March 2006.
Long ago, a ship sailed east from Greece across the unknown waters of the Black Sea to the faraway land of Colchis, inhabited by barbarians and home of the rising sun (according to the Greeks at least). The ship was called the Argo. The sailors, the Argonauts. They were led by one Jason, who was looking for the legendary sheepskin known as the “Golden Fleece” that was nailed to a tree in that eastern land, guarded by a fearsome dragon. The Fleece was the prized possession of the king of Colchis, who had no intention of parting with it. Jason had to get it back to Greece, by hook or by crook, if he hoped to inherit his ancestral kingdom of Iolcus ruled by his uncle Pelias, who had killed his father and usurped the throne.
After many adventures, Jason and the Argonauts reached Colchis. There he met the princess of Colchis, Medea, who instantly fell in love with him. “If you promise to marry me and be ever faithful to me, I will help you steal the Golden Fleece and become king,” she said. Jason could not refuse such an offer. He agreed and secretly married her.
Medea was no ordinary loverlorn barbarian princess. She was a witch. She concocted a magic potion and gave it to Jason so that he could put to sleep the dragon and steal the Golden Fleece. She then boarded his ship and like a dutiful wife agreed to leave her father and her family and make Greece — a land where she knew no one — her home.
Betrayed by his own daughter, the heartbroken king of Colchis was determined to stop Jason. He boarded his royal barge and pursued the Argo. Foreseeing this, Medea had smuggled her young brother, her father’s favourite, on board the Argo. She had a deadly plan to stop her father. She slit her brother’s throat and cast his body, piece by piece, into the sea. The king of Colchis recognized the drifting limbs of his son and wailed. Too aggrieved to continue the chase, he spent hours gathering each piece of his son’s body and took them back home so that he could bury his son whole.
When they reached Iolcus with the Golden Fleece, Jason realized his uncle had no desire to give up the throne or making him heir. An angry Jason decided to kill his uncle. But the oracles informed him Pelias could be killed only by his own daughters, who loved him very much. Jason did not know what to do. Medea came to his aid once again. She presented herself to Pelias as a barbarian witch who could make old people young. To demonstrate her powers she killed an old goat and resurrected him young. This excited Pelias. He instructed his daughters to kill him. “So that this witch can bring me back from the land of the dead young,” he said. The daughters obeyed their father. They killed Pelias but Medea refused to bring him back from the land of the dead. She just laughed and danced, having succeeded in giving her beloved Jason what he desired.
Unfortunately, for Jason, the citizens of Iolcus refused to accept him as king, especially since his wife was not of Greek blood, and a barbarian at that. Besides she was the witch, murderer of their king. Bound by promise, Jason could not abandon her. Together they migrated to Corinth.
Corinth was the ancestral home of the king of Colchis — who had migrated to the east long ago, leaving behind a regent. This made Medea the princess of Corinth, and Jason, a contender to the throne of Corinth. Medea managed to poison the regent of Corinth and Jason was able to stake his claim as the son-in-law of their old ruler. The Corinthians were only too happy to have the great leader of the Argonauts as their new king.
Medea went on to bear Jason two sons. Seven sons and seven daughters, say some authors. But then, one day, he decided to divorce Medea and marry Glauce, the young daughter of Creon, king of Thebes. She was asked to go into exile, leaving her children behind, on the day of the marriage.
Why, asked a distraught Medea. Because, said Jason, by marrying the princess of Thebes he would gain wealth and power for himself and his sons (according to some versions, Glauce was the princess of Corinth and the only way for Jason to become king of the city was by marrying her).
“How can you abandon me?” asked Medea, “I betrayed my own father so that you succeed in the quest for the Golden Fleece. I killed my own brother to save you from my father’s wrath, I who killed your uncle to satisfy your vengeance. I helped you become king of Corinth. I am the mother of your children. I left my people to be with you in this land which despises barbarians. And you swore long ago in Colchis to be forever faithful to me.”
Jason argued, “A promise under duress is no promise. I brought you into the civilized world. Rescued you from a barbarian fate. By following me, you became famous. What is greater in life than fame? Besides I have not abandoned you. Take all the provisions you need. I will put you in touch with friends who will take care of you.”
Submitting to her husband’s decision, the heartbroken Medea prepared to leave Corinth. Before leaving she gifted Glauce a beautiful gown, to express that she harboured no ill feelings for her husband’s new wife.
No sooner did Glauce wear the wedding gown, however, than it burst into flames, burning her and many people around her, including her father. Jason managed to escape. He ran into Medea’s chambers and found there his two sons dead, their throats slit, a bloody sickle in the hands of Medea who then mounted a chariot pulled by serpents and flew into the sky, laughing hysterically, revelling in her husband’s horror and misery.
Are these the actions of a loving woman who is driven to insanity by the loss of her husband’s affections, or of a jealous, hateful woman who cannot tolerate someone else’s happiness while she suffers from rejection?
Since 431 BC, when the Greek tragedy, ‘Medea’ was written by Euripedes, scholars have argued on the nature of the story. For some, Medea represents passionate emotion, both in its purest forms and in the wildest aberrations, that controls, troubles and destroys men. For others Medea is a woman struggling in a man’s world. A feminist. They agrue that Medea never killed her children — that this is a lie fabricated by the patriarchal establishment who bribed Euripedes to write this play, that in the original story the children are killed by Jason or sacrificed by the Corinthians themselves to ritually cleanse themselves from the crime of killing the king of Thebes and his daughter. There are those for whom Medea represents the madness of love — irrational and wild — who can reduce a powerful enchantress to a weak weeping woman.
Medea is undoubtedly a killer. But when her killing benefits the hero, she is hailed by all. When her killing hurts the hero, she is despised by all. Medea is judged not for killing another human being, she is judged based on the context in which the killing took place.
A study of Medea forces us to rethink the way we judge the world. Why is someone’s terrorist, someone else’s freedom fighter? Why is one nation’s mutiny another nation’s uprising? Why is freedom of expression in one part of the world seen as disrespectful and outrageous speech in another part of the world? Why is love accepted as normal in one country and considered unnatural in another? Why is a particular costume vulgar in one culture and beautiful in another? Why is one dress code divinely ordained according to some and a patriarchal imposition to others?
Medea forces us to accept that all human beings are at once victims and victimisers. We get hurt but we also hurt. We are all heroes and villains depending on the context and the perspective and the standards being followed.