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Medea and Witchcraft in Ancient Greek Art



Introduction to Medea

Medea lived in the period just before the Trojan war, about 1200 BCE, if in fact she was a mortal. She may have been a goddess and there is some indication that she was worshipped as such. She was the daughter of Aeetes, king of Colchis, and his wife Eidya. Eidya was the grandaughter of Helios and sister to Circe. When Jason came to Colchis after the golden fleece, Medea fell in love with him. Medea used her powers to help Jason and fled with him to Greece. She used herbs to restore Jason’s father to health, and she used this example to kill his persecutor Pelias in Iolchus. Medea and Jason were driven from Iolchus and settled in Corinth. Jason became involved with the princess of Corinth and Medea, in a jealous rage, killed The princess, the king and her own children.


Events in the life of Medea

  • Medea is born to Idyia, daughter of Ocean and Aeetes, the son of Helios.
  • Aphrodite charms Medea to love Jason, the son of Aeson.
  • Medea provides a potion to save Jason from bulls he must yoke to plow a field.
  • Medea helps Jason destroy the army.
  • Medea may have drugged the dragon.
  • Medea may have helped Jason slay the dragon that guarded the fleece.
  • Medea and Jason escapes with the fleece.
  • Medea either dismembers her brother Apsyrtos as a child or kills him because he is pursuing her.
  • Medea enchants the brass man Talos and destroys him.
  • On their retun to Iolkos Media shows the daughters of Pelias that she can make a ram young by cutting it up and boiling it in herbs. So the daughters cut up Pelias to save him but they kill him.
  • Medea and Jason leave or are driven from Iolkos and move to Corinth.
  • Jason plans to wed the princess of Corinth so Medea poisons her, her father the king, and destroys two of her children.
  • Medea curses Jason so he will die a base death
  • Medea finds sanctuary at Athens at the court of Aigeus with her son Medeios.
  • Medea get Aigeus to send Theseus to challenge the Marathonian Bull
  • Medea tries to poison Theseus but Aigeus cathes her in time.
  • Medea is banished from Athens and takes her son to Persia where he founds a dynasty.
  • Medea dies and is transported to Elyseum where she marries Achilles.


Derivation of the name ‘Medea’

Medea — ‘Μήδεια’ — in ancient times interpreted as ‘schemer’ from ‘medesthai’, ‘to devise’. This name seems to be a name with an Indo-European root. But Medea must be distinguished from Medusa. Many potential derivations of Medusa also apply to Medea but these are obviously separate names. But Medusa’s connection to Indo-European culture is doubtful while the connection of Medea seems likely in view of her origin in Colchis. Medea seems to derive from Indo-European ‘med-‘, ‘To take appropriate measures’ and ‘ya’ ‘To be aroused’. Her name seems related to medicate, mediate, moderate, and mode. The name might most closely mean mediator. And this seems consistent with the myths about her. The name is also related to ‘Mede’ the Greek word for ‘Persian’.


Ancient Greek References to Medea

In the Theogony Hesiod mentions Medea, first (ll. 956-962): “And Perseis, the daughter of Ocean, bare to unwearying Helios Circe and Aeetes the king. And Aeetes, the son of Helios who shows light to men, took to wife fair-cheeked Idyia, daughter of Ocean the perfect stream, by the will of the gods: and she was subject to him in love through golden Aphrodite and bare him neat-ankled Medea.” (About 700 BCE)

In the Theogony Hesiod mentions Medea, second (ll 992-1002): “By the plans of the eternally living gods, Aeson’s son led away from Aeetes, that Zeus-nurtured king, Aeetes’ daughter, after completing the many painful tasks upon him by the great overweening king, arrogant and wicked, violent-working Pelias. When Aeson’s son had completed these he came to Iolcus, after enduring much toil, upon a swift ship, leading Aeetes’ quick-eyed daughter, and her made her his vigorus wife. After she had been overpowered by Jason, the shepherd of the people, she gave birth to a son, Medeus, whom Chiron, Philyra’s son raised upon the mountains–and great Zeus’ intention was fulfilled.”

Pindar, Odes Poem 4: Pythian 4 For Arcesilas of Cyrene Chariot Race 462 B. C.

  • [216] Aphrodite of Cyprus brought the maddening bird to men for the first time, and she taught the son of Aeson skill in prayerful incantations, so that he could rob Medea of reverence for her parents, and a longing for Greece would lash her, her mind on fire, with the whip of Persuasion. [220] And she quickly revealed the means of performing the labors set by her father; and she mixed drugs with olive oil as a remedy for hard pains, and gave it to him to anoint himself. They agreed to be united with each other in sweet wedlock.
  • [249]Jason killed the gray-eyed serpent with its dappled back by cunning, [250] Arcesilas, and stole away Medea, with her own help, to be the death of Pelias.

Herodotus 440 BCE The History (Book 1.2) –“…the Greeks were guilty of the second piece of injustice; for they sailed with a long ship to Aea in Colchis and the river Phasis, and from there, when they had done the business on which they came, they carried off the king’s daughter, Medea. The king of the Colchians sent a herald to Greece to ask for satisfaction for the carrying off of his daughter and to demand her return. But the Greeks answered (this is the Persian story) that the Persians, on their side, had not given satisfaction for the carrying-off of Argive IO, and so they themselves would give none to the Colchians.”

Fragment #2 —
Argument to Euripides Medea:
`Forthwith Medea made Aeson a sweet young boy and stripped his
old age from him by her cunning skill, when she had made a brew
of many herbs in her golden cauldrons.’

Fragment #4 —
Scholiast on Euripides Medea, 273:
Didymus contrasts the following account given by Creophylus,
which is as follows: while Medea was living in Corinth, she poisoned Creon, who was ruler of the city at that time, and because she feared his friends and kinsfolk, fled to Athens. However, since her sons were too young to go along with her, she left them at the altar of Hera Acraea, thinking that their father would see to their safety. But the relatives of Creon killed them and spread the story that Medea had killed her own children as well as Creon.”

Euripides’ Medea was written in 431 BCE. This is the tragedy in which Medea kills her children.

Apollonius Rhodius 295-215 BCE wrote the Voyage of the Argo in which the early life of Medea was treated romantically.

Apollodoros LibraryI.9.23: “While Jason puzzled how he could yoke the bulls, Medea conceived a passion for him; now she was a witch, daughter of Aeetes and Idyia, daughter of Ocean….Medea brought Jason by night to the fleece, and having lulled to sleep by her drugs the dragon that guarded it, she possessed herself of the fleece and in Jason’s company came to the Argo….When Jason swore to do so, she gave him a drug with which she bade him anoint his shield, spear, and body when he was about to yoke the bulls; for she said that, anointed with it, he could for a single day be harmed neither by fire nor by iron.”

It seems as though Apollodorus is the first to connect Medea with magic. He calls her a witch but the word for witch in Greek is very similar to the Greek word for magic. The words derive from the Indo-European word ‘magh-1’, ‘To be able, to have power’. The question is whether this power is natural or supernatural. A number of the words associated with magic also have Indo-European roots: spell from ‘spel-3’, ‘To say aloud, recite’; ‘potion’ from ‘poi-1’, ‘to drink’; ‘invoke’, ‘wekw-‘, ‘to speak’, ‘pray’ from ‘perk-1’, ‘To ask entreat”, ‘wand’ from ‘wendh-‘, ‘To turn.wind. weave’, both ‘enchant’ and ‘charm’ from ‘kan-‘, to sing, ‘anoint’ from ‘ongw-‘, ‘To salve anoint’, .


Witchcraft in Ancient Greece

In Apollodorus, Library, 1.9.23 “φαρμακίς” is applied to Medea. This is translated as ‘witch’. In English this would mean that Medea had dealings with the devil or was able to have supernatural power over persons through the use of evil spirits. Medea cannot be a witch in this sense because she knew nothing of the Devil as the Devil was not part of the Greek religion nor did the Greeks have any concept of evil spirits in this sense. But she knew about spells, potions, and charms, and how to use them effectively. There was sorcery and witchcraft in ancient Greece but it was actually part of their religion and it worked in a different way from what is understood by Christians.

Different kinds of beings could be involved in witchcraft according to the ancient Greek religion. Circe was a witch but she is a immortal goddess. A goddess has supernatural power by nature. It is interesting that her power is limited an Odysseus is able to use that limitation to his advantage. Medea may be a goddess but she acts like a mortal. She is more an example of a mortal witch. She does not have supernatural power and must acquire these powers from elsewhere. The main ways such powers would be acquired would be to study the ways of the deities and work with them. In general this type of person would be a priestess of the ancient Greek religion.

Regarding poisoning Plato states: Plato, Laws 11.933b “we shall entreat, exhort, and advise that no one must attempt [933c] to commit such an act, or to frighten the mass of men, like children, with bogeys, and so compel the legislator and the judge to cure men of such fears, inasmuch as, first, the man who attempts poisoning knows not what he is doing either in regard to bodies (unless he be a medical expert) or in respect of sorceries (unless he be a prophet or diviner).” His discussion of poisoning suggests that the priestess could be a doctor or a sorcerer. He also expresses concern that untrained person could raise fears along these lines that are not to be tolerated. So in ancient Greece there were real witches that could actually bring about results, and others that were just acting on others fears. Medea seems to have been a real witch.


Images of Medea:



  • sculpture of Medea by William Wetmore Story
  • Medea by Bernard Safran
  • “Medea” Painting by Frederick Sandys
  • Medea, Theseus and Aegeus: Painting by W. Russell Flint, c. 1910
  • Medea: Medea Painting by A. Feuerbach, 1829-1880
  • List



  • You can read about forcasting the future with the Greek alphabet at:
    Click here
  • Nardo, Don (Edt), “Readings on Medea” (The Greenhaven Press Literary Companion to World Literature), Greenhaven Press, January 2000, ISBN: 0737704020, Drama/Ancient, Classical & Medieval.
  • Papageorgiou, Vasillis, “Euripides’ Medea and Cosmetics”, Coronet Books, December 1, ISBN: 9122007970
  • list of resources on Medea
  • The Burning Times (VHS), Director: Donna Read, Genres: Education/General Interest – Documentary, Religion, First release: 1996, Video release: December 21, 1999, Studio: WinStar Home Entertainment, Language: English Original
  • Clauss, James J. (Edt)/ Johnston, Sarah Iles (Edt), “Medea : Essays on Medea in Myth, Literature, Philosophy, and Art”, Princeton University Press, 02/01/1997, ISBN: 0691043779.
  • Medea (VHS), Starring: Marina Dogerdzishvili, Vladimir Julukhadze, Genres: Musical & Performing Arts – Dance, Classical Music, Ballet, First release: 1979 , Studio: Kultur Films Inc.,
    Language: English Original, This extraordinary one-act ballet, never before seen by western audiences, freely interprets the classic drama of Euripides.
  • Euripides/ Morwood, James/ Morwood, James (Edt), “Euripides : Medea, Hippolytus, Electra, Helen” (Oxford World’s Classics), Oxford University Press, July 1998, ISBN: 0192824422, Literary Criticism & Collections/Ancient and Classical.


Questions and Answers about Medea

Answered Questions about Medea.