Thomas Bulfinch > The Age of Fable > Vols. I & II: Stories of Gods and Heroes > XVII. b. Medea and Æson
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Thomas Bulfinch (1796–1867).  Age of Fable: Vols. I & II: Stories of Gods and Heroes.  1913.

XVII. b.  Medea and Æson
 
AMID the rejoicings for the recovery of the Golden Fleece, Jason felt that one thing was wanting, the presence of Æson, his father, who was prevented by his age and infirmities from taking part in them. Jason said to Medea, “My spouse, would that your arts, whose power I have seen so mighty for my aid, could do me one further service, take some years from my life and add them to my father’s.” Medea replied, “Not at such a cost shall it be done, but if my art avails me, his life shall be lengthened without abridging yours.” The next full moon she issued forth alone, while all creatures slept; not a breath stirred the foliage, and all was still. To the stars she addressed her incantations, and to the moon; to Hecate, 1  the goddess of the underworld, by whose power plants potent for enchantment are produced. She invoked the gods of the woods and caverns, of mountains and valleys, of lakes and rivers, of winds and vapors. While she spoke the stars shone brighter, and presently a chariot descended through the air, drawn by flying serpents. She ascended it, and borne aloft made her way to distant regions, where potent plants grew which she knew how to select for her purpose. Nine nights she employed in her search, and during that time came not within the doors of her palace nor under any roof, and shunned all intercourse with mortals.   1
  She next erected two altars, the one to Hecate, the other to Hebe, the goddess of youth, and sacrificed a black sheep pouring libations of milk and wine. She implored Pluto and his stolen bride that they would not hasten to take the old man’s life. Then she directed that Æson should be led forth, and having thrown him into a deep sleep by a charm, had him laid on a bed of herbs, like one dead. Jason and all others were kept away from the place, that no profane eyes might look upon her mysteries. Then, with streaming hair, she thrice moved round the altars, dipped flaming twigs in the blood, and laid them thereon to burn. Mean-while the caldron with its contents was got ready. In it she put magic herbs, with seeds and flowers of acrid juice, stones from the distant east, and sand from the shore of all-surrounding ocean; hoar frost, gathered by moonlight, a screech owl’s head and wings, and the entrails of a wolf. She added fragments of the shells of tortoises, and the liver of stags,—animals tenacious of life,—and the head and beak of a crow, that outlives nine generations of men. These with many other things “without a name” she boiled together for her purposed work, stirring them up with a dry olive branch; and behold! the branch when taken out instantly became green, and before long was covered with leaves and a plentiful growth of young olives; and as the liquor boiled and bubbled, and sometimes ran over, the grass wherever the sprinklings fell shot forth with a verdure like that of spring.   2
  Seeing that all was ready, Medea cut the throat of the old man and let out all his blood, and poured into his mouth and into his wound the juices of her caldron. As soon as he had completely imbibed them, his hair and beard laid by their whiteness and assumed the blackness of youth; his paleness and emaciation were gone; his veins were full of blood, his limbs of vigor and robustness. Æson is amazed at himself, and remembers that such as he now is, he was in his youthful days, forty years before.   3
  Medea used her arts here for a good purpose, but not so in another instance, where she made them the instruments of revenge. Pelias, our readers will recollect, was the usurping uncle of Jason, and had kept him out of his kingdom. Yet he must have had some good qualities, for his daughters loved him, and when they saw what Medea had done for Æson, they wished her to do the same for their father. Medea pretended to consent, and prepared her caldron as before. At her request an old sheep was brought and plunged into the caldron. Very soon a bleating was heard in the kettle, and when the cover was removed, a lamb jumped forth and ran frisking away into the meadow. The daughters of Pelias saw the experiment with delight, and appointed a time for their father to undergo the same operation. But Medea prepared her caldron for him in a very different way. She put in only water and a few simple herbs. In the night she with the sisters entered the bed chamber of the old king, while he and his guards slept soundly under the influence of a spell cast upon them by Medea. The daughters stood by the bedside with their weapons drawn, but hesitated to strike, till Medea chid their irresolution. Then turning away their faces, and giving random blows, they smote him with their weapons. He, starting from his sleep, cried out, “My daughters, what are you doing? Will you kill your father?” Their hearts failed them and their weapons fell from their hands, but Medea struck him a fatal blow, and prevented his saying more.   4
  Then they placed him in the caldron, and Medea hastened to depart in her serpent-drawn chariot before they discovered her treachery, or their vengeance would have been terrible. She escaped, however, but had little enjoyment of the fruits of her crime. Jason, for whom she had done so much, wishing to marry Creusa, princess of Corinth, put away Medea. She, enraged at his ingratitude, called on the gods for vengeance, sent a poisoned robe as a gift to the bride, and then killing her own children, and setting fire to the palace, mounted her serpent-drawn chariot and fled to Athens, where she married King Ægeus, the father of Theseus, and we shall meet her again when we come to the adventures of that hero.   5
  The incantations of Medea will remind the reader of those of the witches in “Macbeth.” The following lines are those which seem most strikingly to recall the ancient model:
        “Round about the caldron go;
In the poisoned entrails throw.
.  .  .  .  .  .  .
Fillet of a fenny snake
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing:
.  .  .  .  .  .  .
Maw of ravening salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digged in the dark,” etc.
Macbeth, Act IV., Scene 1
   6
  And again:
        Macbeth.—What is’t you do?
Witches.—A deed without a name.
   7
  There is another story of Medea almost too revolting for record even of a sorceress, a class of persons to whom both ancient and modern poets have been accustomed to attribute every degree of atrocity. In her flight from Colchis she had taken her young brother Absyrtus with her. Finding the pursuing vessels of Æetes gaining upon the Argonauts, she caused the lad to be killed and his limbs to be strewn over the sea. Æetes on reaching the place found these sorrowful traces of his murdered son; but while he tarried to collect the scattered fragments and bestow upon them an honorable interment, the Argonauts escaped.   8
  
In the poems of Campbell will be found a translation of one of the choruses of the tragedy of “Medea,” where the poet Euripides has taken advantage of the occasion to pay a glowing tribute to Athens, his native city. It begins thus:
        “O haggard queen! to Athens dost thou guide
  Thy glowing chariot, steeped in kindred gore;
Or seek to hide thy damned parricide
  Where peace and justice dwell for evermore?”
   9


Note 1.  Hecate was a mysterious divinity sometimes identified with Diana and sometimes with Proserpine. As Diana represents the moonlight splendor of night, so Hecate represents its darkness and terrors. She was the goddess of sorcery and witchcraft, and was believed to wander by night along the earth, seen only by the dogs, whose barking told her approach. [back]

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