17. MEDEA THE SORCERESS
She turned away from her father’s eyes and she went into her own room. For a long time she stood there with her hands clasped together. She heard the voice of Chalciope crying because Æetes hated her sons and might try to destroy them. She heard the voice of her sister crying, but Medea thought that the reason that her sister had for grieving was small compared with the reason that she herself had.
She thought of the moment when she had seen Jason for the first time—in the courtyard as the mist lifted and the dove flew to her. She thought of him as he lifted those bright eyes of his and then she thought of his voice as he spoke after her father had imposed the dreadful test on him. She would have liked then to have cried out to him, “Young man, if others rejoice at the doom that you go to, I do not.”
Still her sister cried. But how great was her own grief compared to her sister’s! For Chalciope could try to help her sons and could cry for the danger they were in and no one would blame her. But she could not try to help Jason or cry for the danger he was in. How terrible it would be for a maiden to help a stranger against her father’s wishes! How terrible it would be for a woman of Colchis to help a stranger against the will of the king! How terrible it would be for a daughter to plot against King Æetes in his own palace!
Then Medea hated Aea, her city. She hated the furious people who came together in the assembly, and she hated the bulls that Hephaestus had given her father. Then she thought that there was nothing in Aea except the furious people and the fire-breathing bulls. How pitiful it was that the strange hero and his friends should have come to such a place for the sake of the Golden Fleece that was watched over by the sleepless serpent in the grove of Ares!
Still Chalciope cried. Would Chalciope come to her and ask her, Medea, to help her sons? If she should come she might speak of the strangers too, and of the danger they were in. Medea went to her couch and lay down on it. She longed for her sister to come to her or to call to her.
But Chalciope stayed in her own room. Medea, lying on her couch, listened to her sister’s crying. At last she started to go to Chalciope. Then shame that she should think so much about the stranger came over her. She stood there without moving. She turned to go back to the couch, and then trembled so much that she could not move. As she stood between her couch and her sister’s room she heard the voice of Chalciope calling to her.
She went into the room where her sister stood. Chalciope flung her arms around her. “Swear,” said she to Medea, “Swear by Hecate, the Moon, that you will never speak of something I am going to ask you.” Medea swore that she would never speak of it.
Chalciope spoke of the danger her sons were in. She asked Medea to devise a way by which they could escape with the stranger from Aea. “In Aea and in Colchis,” she said, “there will be no safety for my sons from now on.” to save Phrontis and Melas, she said, Medea would have to save the strangers also. Surely she knew of a charm that would save the stranger from the bulls in the contest the next day!
So Chalciope came to the very thing that was in Medea’s mind. Her heart pounded with joy and she embraced her. “Chalciope,” she said, “I declare that I am your sister, indeed—yes, and your daughter, too, for did you not care for me when I was an infant? I will try to save your sons. I will try to save the strangers who came with your sons. Send one to the strangers to the leader of the strangers, and tell him that I want to see him at daybreak in the temple of Hecate.”
When Medea said this Chalciope embraced her again. She was amazed to see how Medea’s tears were flowing. “Chalciope,” she said, “no one will know the dangers that I shall go through to save them.”
Then swiftly Chalciope went from the room. But Medea stayed there with her head bowed and the blush of shame on her face. She thought that she had deceived her sister, making her think that it was Phrontis and Melas and not Jason that she wanted to save. She thought about how she would have to plot against her father and her own people, and all for the sake of a stranger who would sail away without thought of her, without the image of her in his mind.
Jason, with Peleus and Telamon, went back to the Argo. His friends asked how things had gone, and when he told them about the fire-breathing bulls with feet of brass, of the dragon’s teeth that had to be sown, and of the Earth-born Men that had to be overcome, the Argonauts were greatly distressed, for this task, they thought, was one that could not be accomplished. He who stood before the fire-breathing bulls would perish immediately. But they knew that one amongst them must try to accomplish the task. If Jason held back, Peleus, Telamon, Theseus, Castor, Polydeuces, or any one of the others would undertake it.
But Jason would not hold back. The next day, he said, he would attempt to yoke the fire-breathing bulls to the plow of adamant. If he perished the Argonauts should then do what they thought was best—try other means to gain the Golden Fleece, or turn their ship and sail back to Greece.
While they were speaking, Phrontis, Chalciope’s son, came to the ship. The Argonauts welcomed him, and in a while he began to speak of his mother’s sister and of the help she could give. They grew eager as he spoke of her, all except rough Arcas, who stood wrapped in his bear’s skin. “Shame on us,” rough Arcas cried, “shame on us if we have come here to seek the help of girls! Speak no more about this! Let us, the Argonauts, go with swords into the city of Aea, and slay this king, and carry off the Fleece of Gold.”
Some of the Argonauts murmured approval of what Arcas said. But Orpheus silenced them all, for in his prophetic mind Orpheus saw something of the help that Medea would give them. It would be best, Orpheus said, to take help from this wise maiden. Jason should meet her in the temple of Hecate. The Argonauts agreed to this. They listened to what Phrontis told them about the brass bulls, and the night wore on.
When it was dark Medea went from the palace. She came to a path which she followed until it brought her into the part of the grove that was all black with the shadow that oak trees make.
She raised her hands and called upon Hecate, the Moon. As she did, there was a blaze as from torches all around, and she saw horrible serpents stretching themselves toward her from the branches of the trees. Medea shrank back in fear. But again she called upon Hecate. Then there was a howling as though from the hounds of Hades all around her., Medea grew fearful, indeed as the howling came nearer and she almost turned to flee. But she raised her hands again and called upon Hecate. Then the nymphs who haunted the marsh and the river shrieked, and at those shrieks Medea crouched down in fear.
She called upon Hecate, the Moon, again. She saw the moon rise above the treetops, and then the hissing and shrieking and howling died away. Holding up a cup in her hand Medea poured out an offering of honey to Hecate, the Moon.
Then she went to where the moon shone its light on the ground. There she saw a flower that rose above the other flowers—a flower that grew from two joined stalks, and that was of the color of a crocus. Medea cut the stalks with a knife, and as she did there came a deep groan out of the earth.
This was the Promethean flower. It had come out of the earth first when the vulture that tore at Prometheus’s liver had let fall to earth a drop of his blood. With a Caspian shell that she had brought with her Medea gathered the dark juice of this flower—the juice that went to make her most potent charm. All night she went through the grove gathering the juice of secret herbs and then she mixed them in a phial that she put away in her pocket.
She left that grove and walked along the river. When the sun shed its first rays on snowy Caucasus she stood outside the temple of Hecate. She waited, but she did not have long to wait, for, like the bright star Sirius rising out of Ocean, she soon saw Jason coming toward her. She made a sign to him, and he came and stood beside her in the doorway of the temple.
They would have stood face to face if Medea did not have her head bent. A blush had come upon her face, and Jason seeing it, and seeing how her head was bent, knew how difficult it was for her to meet and speak to a stranger in this way. He took her hand and he spoke to her respectfully, as one would speak to a priestess.
“Lady,” he said, “I beg you by Hecate and by Zeus who helps all strangers to be kind to me and to the men who have come to your country with me. Without your help I cannot hope to succeed in the test that has been given me. If you will help us, Medea, your name will be renowned throughout all Greece. I have hopes that you will help us, for your face shows you to be one who can be kind and gracious.”
The blush of shame had gone from Medea’s face and a softer blush came over her as Jason spoke. She looked at him and she knew that she could not live if the breath of the bulls took his life or if the Earth-born Men killed him. She took the charm from her pocket and put it into Jason’s hands. As she gave him the charm that she had gained with such danger, the fear and trouble that was around her heart melted as the dew melts from around the rose when it is warmed by the first light of the morning.
Then they spoke standing close together in the doorway of the temple. She told him how he should rub his body all over with the charm. It would give him, she said, boundless and untiring strength, and make him so that the breath of the bulls could not hurt him nor the horns of the bulls pierce him. She told him also to sprinkle his shield and his sword with the charm.
Then they spoke of the dragon’s teeth and of the Earth-born Men who would spring from them. Medea told Jason that when they arose out of the earth he was to throw a great stone amongst them. The Earth-born Men would fight over the stone, and they would kill each other.
Her dark and delicate face was beautiful. Jason looked at her, and he realized that in Colchis there was something else of worth besides the Golden Fleece. He thought that after he had won the Fleece there would be peace between the Argonauts and King Æetes, and that he and Medea might sit together in the king’s hall. But when he spoke of being joined in friendship with her father, Medea cried,”Do not think of treaties or friendship. In Greece they are regarded as important, but not here. Ah, do not think that the king, my father, will keep any peace with you! When you have won the Fleece you must hurry away. You must not hang around in Aea.”
She said this and her cheeks were wet with tears to think that he should go so soon, that he would go so far, and that she would never see him again. She bent her head again and said, “Tell me about your own land, about the place of your father, the place where you will live when you win it back from Colchis.”
Then Jason told her of Icolus .He told her how it was circled by mountains not so high as her Caucasus. He told her of the pasture lands of Iolcus with their flocks of sheep.He told her of Mount Pelion where he had been brought up by Chiron, the ancient centaur and he told her of his father who spent his life waiting for his return.
Medea said, “When you go back to Iolcus do not forget me, Medea. I shall remember you, Jason, even despite my father. It will be my hope that some rumor of you will come to me like some messenger-bird. If you forget me may some blast of wind sweep me away to Iolcus, and may I sit in your hall an unknown and an unexpected guest!”
Then they parted. Medea went swiftly back to the palace, and Jason, turning to the river, went to where the Argo was moored.
The heroes embraced and questioned him.He told them of Medea’s advice and he showed them the charm she had given him. That savage man Arcas scoffed at Medea’s advice and Medea’s charm, saying that the Argonauts had become weak indeed when they had to depend upon a girl’s help.
Jason bathed in the river and then he rubbed all over himself with the charm.He sprinkled his spear and shield and sword with it. He came to Arcas who sat upon his bench, still angry, and he held the spear toward him.
Arcas swung his heavy sword at the butt of the spear. The edge of the sword turned. The blade leaped back in his hand as if it had been struck against an anvil. Jason, feeling within himself a boundless and tireless strength, laughed aloud.