Medea is one of the most well-known characters in Greek literature and perhaps the most changeable. Made famous in antiquity by Euripides, Apollonius of Rhodes, Seneca, Ovid, and others; betrayed by the man she loved and made infamous for her infanticide; she has been described as the ‘philanderer’s nightmare’ and an ‘icon of feminism’. She has also sparked scholarly debate on whether she acts as a helper-maiden or hero in the Argonautica. Though most scholars believe she acts as a helper-maiden, here she will be examined in a new light which suggests she is depicted as both, and by the end of the poem has usurped Jason’s role.
The story of the Argo dates to the dawn of Greek literature with Jason and the voyage of the Argo being mentioned in perhaps the best known pieces of Greek literature: the Iliad and the Odyssey. Since antiquity, it has been noted that the sources surrounding Medea are ‘inconsistent’ concerning plot, character, and motivation. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in Apollonius of Rhodes’s Hellenistic Epic the Argonautica (3rd century BC), where he presents Medea embodying two contrasting roles: that of a helper-maiden and hero.
Book Three of the Argonautica introduces Medea, where Apollonius has continued the Pindarian tradition in depicting Medea as a helper-maiden. This is made explicit when Medea gives Jason the drugs: ‘she took the drug from her fragrant breast-band, and his hand grasp it … “listen now to the help I will devise for you.”’ Here Medea is a helper-maiden: she is giving Jason the tools to complete the task. The historian Marco Fantuzzi points out that ‘it is an unavoidable anchor of the Argonautic myth that the help of Medea provided to Jason … was the condition of his success in the capture of the Golden Fleece.’ Yet there is still foreshadowing of her development. Medea replies to Jason: ‘nor am I the equal of Ariadne’, a clear reference to the fact that while Ariadne, abandoned by Theseus, was condemned to endure her fate passively, Medea certainly does not.
While Medea is presented in the role of a helper-maiden in Book Three, the fourth book reworks and revalues scenes and language. The scholar Emma Griffiths has argued that ‘as the narrative progresses she becomes a far more active, dominant figure, as the focus shifts from her emotional state to her magical powers.’ It has even been proposed that she usurps Jason’s heroic role. There are two scenes, in particular, from the Fourth Book that highlights Medea’s change from helper-maiden into a hero: the capture of the Golden Fleece and the defeat of Talos. Apollonius describes the capture of the Fleece as follows:
As it rolled towards them, the maiden fixed it in the eye and called in a lovely voice upon Sleep … Behind her followed the son of Aison, terrified. … Even so, however, it lifted its terrible head, seeking to enwrap them both in its deadly jaws. With a fresh-cut sprig of juniper which had been dipped in a potion, Medea sprinkled powerful drugs over its eyes while she sang, and all around sleep was spread by the overwhelming scent of drugs. … Then Jason removed the golden fleece from the oak at the maiden’s instructions
Here, where Medea fills the role of a Homeric hero, she is fundamental to the capture and begins her development into a hero. Jason’s role in the capture of the Fleece is so microscopic, that it is easily missable: Jason merely must ‘collect the Fleece when the coast is clear’. Medea does all the actual work retrieving the Fleece.
Medea’s final appearance involves a showdown between her and the giant Talos. Here, Medea has achieved her status as a hero. Apollonius describe the defeat of Talos as follows:
The heroes quickly rowed the ship back from the land in fright. They would have been carried far from Crete in their wretchedness, bearing the burden of thirst and pain, had not Medea spoken to them as they shrank back from the island … ‘Use gentle oar-strokes to hold the ship here out of range of the rocks, until he yields to destruction at my hands.’
This scene in particular is crucial to Medea’s evolution into a hero since Medea completes everything by herself, without any aid. It was even her idea to stay and fight; the Argonauts wanted to flee. This is further strengthened by Apollonius’ use of the rare epithet polupharmakos (‘knows many drugs’). Medea acts on her initiative, not taking orders from others or giving them the tools to succeed, she saves the crew without the help of anyone else – something that Jason could never manage to do. Through the epithet there is also a further connection to her heroic nature; this epithet is similar to polumetis, used in the Odyssey to describe Odysseus: both use the prefix poly, which means many, Odysseus is a man ‘of many turns’ and Medea is a woman who ‘knows many drugs’. If this scene is where Medea achieves her heroic status, and it is the finale of the book, then is the Argonautica functioning as Medea’s origin story into the hero seen in Medea?
The Argonautica functions as a literary work that bridges the gap between Medea as a helper-maiden in Pythian Four and her as a hero in Medea. In Book Three, Medea’s role is that of a helper-maiden, whereas Book Four shows Medea’s development into the tragic heroine. By the end of the poem, Medea has usurped Jason’s role as a hero; she is the key figure on whom everything depends, with Jason’s heroism decreasing and Medea’s increasing.
The character of Medea is crucial because of what she has come to represent and it is through Apollonius’ Medea that her development into the iconic heroic character took place. Of course, the Medea was not intended to be a feminist play; there was no concept of feminism in ancient Greece at that time, let alone a prominent writer advocating for it. Despite this, the character of Medea has still been influential within the feminist movement, with the famous ‘Women of Corinth’ speech being labelled ‘’the most famous feminist statement in ancient literature’. She has also come to symbolise oppressed racial groups and the exploited colonised. With performances of Medea in Africa, Haiti, and Ireland being used as a proclamation of liberty. Perhaps one of the most prominent examples is Brendan Kennelly’s Medea, which addressed: ‘the exploitation of women by men, Ireland by England, and the vengeance lurking in the rear of exploitation.’ Thus Medea has come to represent different things to different people: just as in antiquity her character is extremely diverse and changeable.
Image: Krater depicting the defeat of Talos, Attic Red Figure Column-Krater, ca 450-400 BC, Montesarchio (Museo Archeologico Nazionale del Sannio Caudino). Beazley pottery database nr. 5362 from wikicommons.
Maddison Kelly graduated from Winchester University achieving a degree in Classical Studies, and is currently at the University of Reading, completing a master’s degree in Classical and Ancient Studies. Her research interests are in Greek literature, with a focus on the character of Medea, and the helper-maiden motif found in literature.
Apollonius of Rhodes. Jason and the Golden Fleece. Translated by Richard Hunter. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2099.
Diodorus Siculus. Library of History, Volume IV: Books 9-12.40. Translated by C. H. Oldfather. Loeb Classical Library 375. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1946.
Euripides. Medea and other plays. Translated by James Morwood. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Martin Hammond. London: Penguin Books, 1987.
Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles. London: Penguin Group, 2001.
Attic Red Figure Column-Krater, ca 450-400 BC, Benevento (Museo del Sannio, Benevento).
Barkhuizen, J. H. “The Psychological Characterization of Medea in Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 3, 744–824.” Acta Classica, Vol. 22 (1979): 33-48.
Clauss, James J. “Conquest of the Mephisophellisn Nausicaa: Medea’s role in Apollonius’ redefinition of the epic hero.” In Medea: Essays on Medea in Myth, Literature, Philosophy, and Art, edited by James J. Clauss and Sarah Iles Johnston, 149-177. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1997.
Fantuzzi, Marco. “Which Magic? Which Eros? Apollonius’ Argonautica and the Different Narrative Roles of Medea as a Sorceresses in Love.” In Brill’s Companion to Apollonius Rhodius, edited by Theodore D. Papanghelis and Antonios Rengakos, 287-310. Leiden: Brill’s Companions in Classical Studies, 2008.
Griffiths, Emma. Medea: Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World. Oxon: Routledge, 2006.
Hunter, Richard. On Coming After: Studies in Post-Classical Greek Literature and its Reception. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co, KG, Gottingen, 2008.
Jackson, Steven. “Apollonius’ Jason: Human Being in an Epic Scenario.” Greece & Rome, Vol. 39, No. 2 (October 1992): 155-162.
Kenney, Edward J. “Est Deus in Nobis: Medea meets her Marker.” In Brill’s Companion to Apollonius Rhodius, edited by Theodore D. Papanghelis and Antonios Rengakos, 362-385. Leiden: Brill’s Companions in Classical Studies, 2008.
McDonald, Marianne. “Medea as Politician and Diva: Riding the Dragon into the Future.” In Medea: Essays on Medea in Myth, Literature, Philosophy, and Art, edited by James J. Clauss and Sarah Iles Johnston, 287-323. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1997.
Michelini, Ann Norris. Euripides and the Tragic Tradition. London: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.
Reddoch, M. Jason. “Conflict and Emotion in Medea’s ‘Irrational’ Dream (A.R. 3.616-35).” Acta Classica 53 (2010): 49-67.
Sprntzou, Efrossini. “Stealing Apollo’s Lyre: Muses and Poetic άθλα in Apollonius’ Argonautica 3.” In Cultivating the Muse: Struggles for Power and Inspiration in Classical Literature, edited by Efrossini Spentzou and Don Fowler, 94-116. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Van Zyl Smit, Betine. “Medea the Feminist.” Acta Classica 45 (2002): 101-22.
 Marianne McDonald, “Medea as Politician and Diva: Riding the Dragon into the Future,” in Medea: Essays on Medea in Myth, Literature, Philosophy, and Art, ed. James J. Clauss and Sarah Iles Johnston (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1997), 297; Betine Van Zyl Smit, “Medea the Feminist,” Acta Classica 45 (2002): 101.
 Hom., Il. 7. 467-69, 23. 747; Hom., Od. 12. 59-72.
 Diod. Sic., 4. 59. Before the Argonautica, the main sources for Medea were Pindar’s Archaic work Pythian Four (466 BC) and Euripides’ Classical tragedy Medea (431 BC).
 Sprntzou makes an interesting observation where he believes that Medea functions as a human muse-figure working in Book Three of the Argonautica, linking back to Medea as a Muse in Pindar. See Sprntzou, “Stealing Apollo’s Lyre: Muses and Poetic άθλα in Apollonius’ Argonautica 3.” See also James J. Clauss, “Conquest of the Mephisophellisn Nausicaa: Medea’s role in Apollonius’ redefinition of the epic hero,” in Medea: Essays on Medea in Myth, Literature, Philosophy, and Art, ed. James J. Clauss and Sarah
Iles Johnston (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1997), 160; M. Jason Reddoch, ” Conflict and Emotion in Medea’s ‘Irrational’ Dream (A.R. 3.616-35),” Acta Classica 53 (2010): 53-5; Ap. Rhod., Argon. 3.616-35; Hom., Od. 6.25-40.
 Ap. Rhod., Argon. 3.998-1026.
 Marco Fantuzzi, “Which Magic? Which Eros? Apollonius’ Argonautica and the Different Narrative Roles of Medea as a Sorceresses in Love,” in Brill’s Companion to Apollonius Rhodius, ed. Theodore D. Papanghelis and Antonios Rengakos (Leiden: Brill’s Companions in Classical Studies, 2008), 287.
 Ap. Rhod., Argon. 3.1110.
 Richard Hunter, On Coming After: Studies in Post-Classical Greek Literature and its Reception (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co, KG, Gottingen, 2008),51.
 Emma Griffiths, Medea: Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World (Oxon: Routledge, 2006), 89.
 It is not just Medea whose personality and role have been debated but also Jason’s. It is this, what could be called lack of heroicness in Jason’s character that allows for Medea’s heroic side to emerge. Efrossini Sprntzou described Jason as ‘notorious[ly] unmanly’ and ‘striking[ly] anti-epic’ (Efrossini Sprntzou, “Stealing Apollo’s Lyre: Muses and Poetic άθλα in Apollonius’ Argonautica 3,” in Cultivating the Muse: Struggles for Power and Inspiration in Classical Literature, ed. Efrossini Spentzou and Don Fowler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 96.) While Steven Jackson labelled him a ‘weak and insignificant hero’ (Steven Jackson, “Apollonius’ Jason: Human Being in an Epic Scenario,” Greece & Rome, Vol. 39, No. 2 (October 1992): 155.).
 Ap. Rhod., Argon. 4.148-164.
 Edward J. Kenney, “Est Deus in Nobis: Medea meets her Marker,” in Brill’s Companion to Apollonius Rhodius, ed. Theodore D. Papanghelis and Antonios Rengakos (Leiden: Brill’s Companions in Classical Studies, 2008), 368.
 Ap. Rhod., Argon. 4. 1650-1659.
 Ap. Rhod., Argon. 4. 1677.
 Polly Stoker, Email exchanged, March 23, 2022; Hom., Od. 1.1.
 J. H. Barkhuizen, “The Psychological Characterization of Medea in Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 3, 744–824,” Acta Classica, Vol. 22 (1979): 33.
 Van Zyl Smit, “Medea the Feminist,” 104; Eur., Med. 214-66.
 McDonald, “Medea as Politician and Diva: Riding the Dragon into the Future,” 302.
 Ibid, 304-5.