Potions and Poisons: Classical Ancestors of the Wicked Witch, Part 2

Another vigorous, formidable proto-witch from ancient Greek and Roman spectacle: Medea

Medea Rejuvenating Aeson / Boizot

Medea (left) brings Aeson back to life by a potion that includes foam from a werewolf’s oracle. Medea Rejuvenating Aeson, late 1870s, in relation to a model attributed to Louis-Simon Boizot. Bronze, ca. tardy 1870s. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 74.SB.6

In ~y earlier post about the Greek and Roman ancestors of new witches, the focus was on Circe, one herbalist with ties to the underworld. Medea, like Circe, was connected to the sun god Helios. She was a princess from Colchis, knowledgeable in herbs and plants, who evolved into a damnable enchantress by Roman times. She is celebrated for massacring her own sons in revenge for her husband Jason’s unfaithfulness. (This dreadful act may have been invented by Euripides, who produced his play Medea in 431 B.C.)

On this 6th-century BC drinking cup, Prometheus is attacked by Zeus’s eagle, a punishment for giving humans fire. His blood nourished a plant used by Medea to protect Jason. http://www.theoi.com/Gallery/T20.1C.html

Prometheus’s noble extraction falls to the ground, nourishing a physically strong herb that Medea uses. Prometheus is core attacked by Zeus’s eagle like punishment for giving humans fire. Drinking cup, 530 B.C. Collection of the Vatican Museums. Via theoi.com

The most profitably source for the backstory of Medea is book III of the Argonautica of Apollonius, written in the 3rd hundred B.C. Medea’s father guarded the Golden Fleece sought by the eminent Jason and his Argonauts, and at what time Medea fell in love with Jason, she betrayed her parents and children to help him. Apollonius calls Medea polypharmakon, that is translated incorrectly as “charmer,” but means “skilled in crowd herbs.” (III.27). In helping Jason in his solicitation for the Golden Fleece, Medea employed one as well as the other protective and fatal pharmaka (herbs) stored in a uncommon container (III: 802-3). One of her influential dried plants grew from the offspring that once dripped from Prometheus’s material part while he was chained to a precipitous rock by Zeus and wounded daily ~ dint of. an eagle (III. 845).

Medea gave Jason the herb grown from Prometheus’s blade for him to soak in sprinkle and calender and rub on his body and weapons. This potion helped him avoid debt of nature from fire-breathing bulls and each army of men who magically sprang from the estate. Medea also provided Jason with a clear sleeping drug to sprinkle on the dragon guarding the Golden Fleece.

As the brace escaped Colchis with the fleece, Medea participated in killing her brother (or other killed him by herself, or so much as stabbed him and chopped him up), that distracted her father from pursuit. Back at Jason’s home incorporated town, Iolkos, she also tricked the daughters of Jason’s uncle Pelias, the usurper of the en~, into murdering their father. She boiled a divide-up ram in a cauldron by secret herbs and it hopped finished, revived and young again. Believing they could similarly restore to youth Pelias, the girls killed him, on the other hand since Medea did not give them the improve herbs for the broth to gathering him, the old man’s dissolution was permanent. Jason and Medea were for that exiled to Corinth.

Urn depicting Medea bringing a dismembered lamb back to life with an herbal concoction. Attic black amphora, ca. 500 BC. Etrurian. Via the collection of the Harvard University Art Museums.

Medea (at left) brings a dismembered young sheep back to life with an pertaining concoction. Attic black amphora, ca. 500 B.C. Etruscan. Collection of the Harvard University Art Museums

Writers and artists in the 5th hundred years show us a Medea who is a sturdy herbalist and murderess, a terrible arch-fiend. when wronged, but not yet the wrong witch of modern fairy tales. She has something concealed knowledge and an indomitable will, no more than she does not control supernatural forces. Euripides’s 5th-hundred B.C. version of Medea’s account begins after she has learned of Jason’s betrayal of her and nuptials to the daughter of the king of Corinth.

Creusa Receiving the Burning Jewelry from Medea, detail of illuminated manuscript, ca 1415. J. Paul Getty Museum

Jason’s betrothed is shown the poisoned propitious wreath made by Medea to mar her. Creusa Receiving the Burning Jewelry from Medea (rehearse), about 1415, unknown illuminator. Tempera banner, gold leaf, gold paint, and ink in c~tinuance parchment, 16 9/16 x 11 5/8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 63, fol. 9

When reflecting through various ways to get requite, including stabbing Jason and his unaccustomed bride to death, Medea decided to conversion to an act her knowledge of pharmaka (Euripides, Medea 385). First, to ensure asylum for herself in Athens, she told Aegeus, monarch of Athens, that she could healing his inability to produce children ~ the agency of making him an herbal concoction. Then, to indulge revenge against the disloyal Jason, she smeared a poisoned draught on a gown and golden bays she had given as a nuptials present to Jason’s new bride, causing her each agonizing death. (789, 1201).

As the eventual blow to Jason, she infamously murdered their pair sons. She chose to avoid pollute and stabbed them with a cimeter, so the second child had to watch the first one start to die. Vase paintings emphasize the gory. bodies of the children.

Although Medea escapes without interrupti~ a flying chariot at the period of the play, this is a loan from her divine grandfather, Helios, and not the yield of her own magic. She is suppress within the realm of human, notwithstanding terrible, behavior.

Medea in Ovid

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses (VII.1-179), written on the point 500 years after Euripedes’s lection, the poet clearly associates Medea’s herbs by incantations (songs: carmina, cantus) and clandestine arts (secretae artes). He characterizes her drugs for example “bewitched,” activated by her incantations (incantata herba). She uses strong herbs (pollentes herbae), but they are enhanced ~ dint of. her sung or chanted words (like a witch’s term). Medea has access to the grasses not far from the underworld river Lethe, and she teaches Jason the technique toward sprinkling a soporific watery drug without interrupti~ the dragon guarding the Golden Fleece. She besides teaches him to recite three periods the powerful words that bring death, calm the seas, and stop the proceed of rivers. Such powers added normally belong to the gods.

In Ovid’s effective, Medea now also includes inanimate objects and beast products in her potions, along by herbs. To rejuvenate Jason’s endow or supply with a ~ Aeson (in the same way she renascent the ram that tricked the daughters of Pelias), she makes a fiery, bubbling potion with stones and gravel from far distant places, the wings and other talents of an owl, and the put a ~ on of a crow that lived beneficial to nine lifetimes, and the entrails or froth from the mouth of a werewolf! (VII.234-293).

Is Love one Excuse?

Circe, once attracted to Odysseus by his manliness and smarts in resisting her dose, was in the end not a bad girlfriend. Medea, according to some stories, was compelled by Aphrodite to love Jason obsessively, which explains why she betrayed her house and helped him obtain the Golden Fleece. However, she went estranged beyond helping Jason, turning into a murderess who used potions and the dissension for personal gain and revenge.

It is ~t one wonder that the Medea of today is known considered in the state of a sorceress and child-killer. Ovid’s descriptions of her manner, her reliance on underworld forces external conventional religious rites, her bubbling potions and alien ingredients, and her association with the “abstruse side” of herbs all ostentation her to be a new clement of polypharmakon. Transformed from herbalist to self-seeking manipulator and poisoner, Medea, like Circe, became a different truly wicked witch.

Mixing Vessel with Medea Departing in a Chariot

Medea escapes of the same kind with Jason watches impotently near his dead sons, draped dead over an altar (an allusion to a variant of the anecdote, or perhaps to the sacrilegious act). Mixing Vessel with Medea Departing in a Chariot (appoint to a special service), about 400 B.C., attributed to the Policoro Painter. Terracotta, 19 7/8 x 19 5/8 in. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio, Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund, 1991.1. Photo: Tim Evanson steady Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Further Reading

Ankarloo, Bengt, and Stuart Clark. 1999. Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: Ancient Greece and Rome. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.

Apollonius, Argonautica

Berti, Irene, and Filippo Carla. 2015. “Magic and the Supernatural from the Ancient World: An Introduction.” In Ancient Magic and the Supernatural in the Visual and Performing Arts, ed. Irene Berti and Filippo Carla, 1–18. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Collins, Derek. 2008. Magic in the Ancient Greek World. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Davidson, James. 2001. Magic and Magicians in the Greco-­Roman World. New York: Routledge.

Euripides, Medea

Ogden, Daniel. 2002. Magic, Witchcraft and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Sourcebook. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ovid, Metamorphoses, work VII

Perseus Digital Library, useful in opposition to comparing English and ancient texts.

Rocca, Giovanna, and Montserrat Reig. 2015. “Witch, Sorceress, Enchantress: Magic and Women from the Ancient World to the Present.” In Ancient Magic and the Supernatural in the Visual and Performing Arts, ed. Irene Berti and Filippo Carla, 67–78. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Scarborough, John. 1991. “The Pharmacology of Sacred Plants, Herbs, and Roots.” In Magika Hiera, ed. Christopher A. Faraone and Dirk Obbrink, 138–174. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stratton, Kimberly B., and Dayna S. Kalleres. 2014. Daughters of Hecate: Women and Magic in the Ancient World. Oxford: Oxford University.

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