Ovid's Metamorphoses: Medea and Pelias

After having successfully restored the youth of Aeson, Jason's father, Medea now turns her attentions to King Pelias, Aeson's evil brother. Pelias had stolen the throne from Aeson, and he was the one who sent Jason to retrieve the Golden Fleece, thinking that he would surely die in the attempt. Jason, as you saw, did not die, and with Medea's help he successfully retrieved the Golden Fleece. Now, with Medea's help, he will bring about Pelias's death. Ovid tells this story in detail, and then quickly summarizes the rest of the Medea myth: how Jason spurned her and married Glauce, the daughter of King Creon of Corinth, and then how Medea sought revenge in a way reminiscent of poor Procne (remember Procne?). For more about Medea, see the detailed article in Wikipedia.

[Notes by LKG]

This story is part of the Ovid's Metamorphoses unit. Story source: Ovid's Metamorphoses, translated by Tony Kline (2000).


Medea’s destruction of Pelias

Bacchus saw this wondrous miracle from heaven’s heights, and realising from it, that the Nymphs of Mount Nysa, who had nursed him, could have their youth restored, he secured that gift from the witch of Colchis. There was no end to her magic. Phasian Medea, pretending to a sham quarrel with her husband, fled as a suppliant to Pelias’s threshold, he who had usurped Aeson’s throne. There, the king’s daughters received her, since he himself was weighed down by the years. The lying Colchian soon won them over by a skilful show of friendship, and when she told them of one of her greatest gifts, the removal of Aeson’s many years, and lingered over it, hope was aroused in Pelias’s daughters that similar magic arts might rejuvenate their father.

They begged her, and told her to set a price however great. She was silent for a moment, and appeared to hesitate, keeping the minds of her petitioners in suspense by a show of solemn pretence.

When, eventually, she promised to do it, she said, ‘To give you greater confidence in my gift, your oldest ram, the leader of your flocks, will by turned into a young lamb again, by my magic drugs.’

Straightaway the woolly creature, worn out by innumerable years, was dragged forward, his horns curving round his hollow temples. When the witch had cut his wizened throat with her Thessalian knife, hardly staining the blade with blood, she immersed the sheep’s carcass in the bronze cauldron, along with her powerful magic herbs. These shrank its limbs, melted away its horns, and, with its horns, the years. A high-pitched bleating came from inside the vessel, and while they were wondering at the bleating, a lamb leapt out, and frisked away, seeking the udder and milk.

Pelias’s daughters were stunned, and now the truth of her promise had been displayed, they insisted even more eagerly. Three times Phoebus had unyoked his horses, after their plunge into the western ocean, and on the fourth night the stars were glittering in all their radiance, when the deceitful daughter of Aeetes set clear water, and herbs, but ineffectual ones, over a blazing fire. And now the king and his guards also were deep in death-like sleep, achieved by her incantations and the power of her magic spells. The king’s daughters, at her command, crossed the threshold, with the Colchian witch, and stood around his bed.

‘Why do you hesitate, so timidly?’ she said. ‘Un-sheath your blades, and let out the old blood, so that I can fill the empty veins with new! Your father’s life and youth are in your hands. If you have any filial affection, if those are not vain hopes that stir you, render your father this service, banish old age with your weapons, and drive out his poisoned blood with a stroke of the iron blade!’

Urged on by these words, the more love each had for him, the quicker she was to act without love, and did evil, to avoid greater evil. Nevertheless they could not bear to see their own blows, and turned their eyes away, and with averted faces, wounded him blindly with cruel hands.

Streaming blood, the old man still raised himself on his elbow, and, though mutilated, tried to rise from his bed. Stretching his pallid hands out among the many weapons, he cried ‘Daughters, why are you doing this? What has made you take up weapons against your father’s life?’ Their strength and courage vanished. But as he was about to utter more words, the Colchian witch cut his throat, and plunged his torn body into the seething water.

Medea flees and reaches Athens

She would not have escaped punishment had she not taken to the air, with her winged
dragons. [...]

At last, the dragon’s wings brought her to Corinth, the ancient Ephyre, and its Pirenian spring. Here, tradition says, that in earliest times, human bodies sprang from fungi, swollen by rain. After Jason’s new bride Glauce had been consumed by the fires of vengeful Colchian witchcraft and both the Isthmus’s gulfs had witnessed flame consuming the king’s palace, Medea impiously bathed her sword in the blood of their sons.

Then, after performing this evil act, she fled from Jason’s wrath. Carried by her dragons that are born of the Titans, she reached Pallas’s citadel of Athens. This once knew you Phene, the most righteous, and you old Periphas, both flying in the air, as birds, the eagle and the osprey: and Alcyone, granddaughter of Polypemon, resting on strange new wings. It was Aegeus who gave Medea sanctuary there, damned thereafter by that one action: and not content with taking her in, he even entered into a contract of marriage with her.




(900 words)

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