Ovid's Metamorphoses: Medea's Spell

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

Jason asks Medea to lengthen Aeson’s life

The elderly Haemonian mothers and fathers bring offerings to mark their sons’ return, and melt incense heaped in the flames. The sacrifice, with gilded horns, that they have dedicated, is led in and killed. But Aeson is absent from the rejoicing, now near death, and weary with the long years. Then Jason, his son, said ‘O my wife, to whom I confess I owe my life, though you have already given me everything, and the total of all your kindnesses is beyond any promises we made, let your incantations, if they can (what indeed can they not do?) reduce my own years and add them to my father’s!’ He could not restrain his tears.

Medea was moved by the loving request, and the contrast with Aeetes, abandoned by her, came to mind. Yet, not allowing herself to be affected by such thoughts, she answered ‘Husband, what dreadful words have escaped your lips? Do you think I can transfer any part of your life to another? Hecate would not allow it: nor is yours a just request. But I will try to grant a greater gift than the one you ask for, Jason. If only the Triple Goddess will aid me, and give her assent in person to this great act of daring, I will attempt to renew your father’s length of years, without need for yours.’

Medea summons the powers and gathers herbs

Three nights were lacking before the moon’s horns met, to make their complete orb. When it was shining at its fullest, and gazed on the earth, with perfect form, Medea left the palace, dressed in unclasped robes. Her feet were bare, her unbound hair streamed down, over her shoulders, and she wandered, companionless, through midnight’s still silence. Men, beasts, and birds were freed in deep sleep. There were no murmurs in the hedgerows: the still leaves were silent, in silent, dew-filled, air. Only the flickering stars moved. Stretching her arms to them she three times turned herself about, three times sprinkled her head, with water from the running stream, three times let out a wailing cry, then knelt on the hard earth, and prayed:

Night, most faithful keeper of our secret rites;
Stars, that, with the golden moon, succeed the fires of light;
Triple Hecate, you who know all our undertakings,
and come, to aid the witches’ art, and all our incantations:
You, Earth, who yield the sorceress herbs of magic force:
You, airs and breezes, pools and hills, and every watercourse;
Be here; all you Gods of Night, and Gods of Groves endorse.
Streams, at will, by banks amazed, turn backwards to their source.
I calm rough seas, and stir the calm by my magic spells:
bring clouds, disperse the clouds, raise storms and storms dispel;
and, with my incantations, I break the serpent’s teeth;
and root up nature’s oaks, and rocks, from their native heath;
and move the forests, and command the mountain tops to shake,
earth to groan, and from their tombs the sleeping dead to wake.
You also, Luna, I draw down, eclipsed, from heaven’s stain,
though bronzes of Temese clash, to take away your pains;
and at my chant, the chariot of the Sun-god, my grandsire,
grows pale: Aurora, at my poisons, dims her morning fire.
You quench the bulls’ hot flame for me: force their necks to bow,
beneath the heavy yoke, that never pulled the curving plough:
You turn the savage warfare, born of the serpent’s teeth,
against itself, and lull the watcher, innocent of sleep;
that guard deceived, bring golden spoil, to the towns of Greece.
Now I need the juice by which old age may be renewed,
that can regain the prime of years, return the flower of youth,
and You will grant it. Not in vain, stars glittered in reply:
not in vain, winged dragons bring my chariot, through the sky.

There, sent from the sky, was her chariot. When she had mounted, stroked the dragons’ bridled necks, and shaken the light reins in her hands, she was snatched up on high. She looked down on Thessalian Tempe far below, and sent the dragons to certain places that she knew. She considered those herbs that grow on Mount Ossa, those of Mount Pelion, Othrys and Pindus, and higher Olympus, and of those that pleased her, plucked some by the roots, and cut others, with a curved pruning-knife of bronze. Many she chose, as well, from the banks of the Apidanus. Many she chose, as well, from the Amphrysus. Nor did she omit the Enipeus. Peneus, and Spercheus’s waters gave something, and the reedy shores of Boebe. And at Anthedon, by Euboea, she picked a plant of long life, not yet famous for the change it made in Glaucus’s body.

(800 words)

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