Medeas Love

and the Quest for the Golden Fleece

She lies fasting, giving her body up to pain, wasting away in tears all the time ever since she learned that she was wronged by her husband.

(The nurse) Euripides, Medea
Euripides, Medea, 24-25, trans. David Kovacs, in: Cyclops. Alcetis. Medea, Euripides Volume I, Loeb Classical Library 12, ed. David Kovacs, Cambridge MA, 1994.

Medea’s Pain
Euripides, Medea

Medea shortly before murdering her children, wall painting from Pompeji, 62-79BC 120cm x 97cm, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Naples

Medea, the beautiful princess of the faraway land of Colchis, is devastated by loss – her lover, the hero Jason, has abandoned her. The horror of her revenge can scarcely be imagined: seeking retribution, she will stop at nothing – and will ultimately even murder her own children.

Fearsome sorceress, crazed lover, powerful woman constrained by society: Medea has many faces, and remains one of the most compelling female figures in Greek mythology.


The exhibition “Medea's Love” at the Liebieghaus tells the myth of Medea and Jason: The story of a disastrous love affair, full of adventure, heroes, and traitors. Celebrated antique works bring the story to life, from the perilous expedition of Jason and the Argonauts and the quest for the Golden Fleece to the lovers’ murderous deeds. Gold objects and items of jewellery that have survived millennia and originate from Medea’s home in modern-day Georgia provide an impressive backdrop to the ancient tale.

Medea with the sword, wall painting from Villa Arianna in Stabiae, 1st c. BC 38 cm x 26 cm, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Napels

As Golden
as the Sun

There it shines: the golden ram’s skin. A symbol of power and glory, hung over the branch of a great old oak in the forests of the Kingdom of Colchis, the Golden Fleece was known far and wide across the ancient world.

Medea’s father, King Aeëtes, set a fierce dragon as large as a ship to guard the Golden Fleece. No one was to take his treasure from him.

But where did this magnificent fleece come from? It was the golden skin of the winged ram Chrysomallos, on whose back Phrixos and his sister Helle escaped certain death. Their scheming stepmother had planned to sacrifice them to the gods, so the two young adolescents fled on the ram from Thebes to Colchis, at the foot of the Caucasus. During the flight, however, Helle’s grip faltered, and she tumbled to her death in the waves below. The strait of the Dardanelles – known in antiquity as the Hellespont – thus came to bear her name.

Jean Peutin (goldsmith), Collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece, after 1516 detail: pendant with the golden ramskin, private collection (De Croy)
Phrixos on the ram, Apulian tray, clay, Phrixos-painter, 3rd quarter of 4th c. BC 17,5 cm x 47,5 cm x 46,8 cm, Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, National Museums Berlin, Collection of Antiquities
Phrixus and Helle, mural from Pompeji, 1st c. CE 54 cm x 48cm, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Naples

Phrixos alone arrived safely at their goal and made his fortune in Colchis. The ram was sacrificed to Ares, god of war, and his golden fleece taken to adorn the forest of the gods. The image of Chrysomallos was immortalised, however, in the constellation Aries.


A Skin
Full of Gold

A golden sheepskin? The myths of the antique world are filled with fantastical images and ideas, and yet they tell of the social life of an actual distant past. The Golden Fleece may be related to the ancient practice of panning for gold. Historical methods of gold mining using sheepskins are well-known in the Svaneti region of present-day Georgia: The skins were dipped into river courses to catch fine pieces of gold and gold dust, then hung in the trees to dry. The gold could then be shaken or combed out of the wool.


A Deadly

What led Jason to Colchis and Medea? His story begins on the shores of Iolcus in Greece.

Jason, the son of the king, is born in Iolcus, and will one day set out from there on his quest for the Golden Fleece.

Jason grows up far away from Iolcus, however. His life took a decisive turn when he was only a child: His father, King Aeson, was violently overthrown by his half-brother Pelias, and Jason, as his father’s eldest son and heir to the throne, was forced to flee.


Only as a young man does he resolve to return to Iolcus. Meanwhile, an oracle’s prophecy has troubled the usurper king Pelias: A stranger wearing just one sandal shall wrest the crown from him and bring about his death.

On the shores of a rushing river on the way to Iolcus, Jason meets the most powerful of all goddesses, Hera. Taking the form of an old woman, she asks him to help her cross the water. As Jason steps onto the opposite shore, carrying the goddess on his back, one of his sandals sticks in the mud!

Pelias recognizes Jason, wall painting from Pompeij, 1st quarter of the 1st c. BC 190 cm x 142cm, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Naples

Pelias senses his chance to rid himself of Jason. He promises his nephew the crown if he will travel to far-off Colchis and bring him the Fleece. What Pelias does not suspect, however, is Hera’s hand in the affair: It was the goddess who gave Jason the idea of the allegedly impossible task during their encounter at the river.

Divine Aid

Hera plans to use Jason as a weapon against Pelias, who has been wantonly neglecting the ritual worship of the queen of the gods.

Fragment of a figure of Aphrodite, Roman copy (2nd c. CE) after a Greek model (5th c. BC) marble, h. 33,5cm. Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, Frankfurt o. M.

But one goddess alone is not enough! To support Jason in his mission, Hera calls on the skilful Athena and the goddess of love, Aphrodite. Together, they will see him through the many perils of his journey.


The Great Ship Argo

For the journey into the treacherous waters of the Black Sea, Jason requires not only a sturdy ship, but also an extraordinary crew.

The Building of the Argo, Roman Campanarelief, ca. 100 CE clay, 63,5 cm x 55,88 cm, British Museum, London

Athena personally oversees the construction of the Argo, a ship of amazing supernatural power. This clay relief from London shows Athena attaching the sail. The goddess of war, wisdom, and strategy can be recognised by her helm, her round shield, and the small owl perched behind her.

The Argonauts

Jason is the leader of the Argonauts. His hero companions all have remarkable gifts: Heracles is known for his superhuman strength; Orpheus is a brilliant musician whose song can enchant nature itself; Mopsus is clairvoyant. The two winged sons of the god of the north wind, Zetes and Calais, can fly as fast as the air; also on board are the twins Castor, the horseman, and Polydeuces, a great boxer. Each of their abilities will prove essential to the success of the mission.

Lorenzo Costa, The Ship of the Argonauts, after 1500 tempera on wood, 47cm x 58 cm, Museo Civico, Padua, Photo: via Wikimedia Commons,

The Adventures of the Argonauts

Perilous adventures await the Argonauts on their journey to Colchis: They encounter foreign peoples, mighty kings, and terrifying hybrid creatures.

Novios Plautios, Cista Ficoroni (detail), 340-330 CE Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia Rome, Photo: By Sailko [CC BY-SA 4.0 ]

The Argonauts come to the isle of Lemnos, inhabited only by women. They welcome the heroes of the Argo with hospitality. Because the women had made no sacrifice to Aphrodite, the goddess of love punished them with a short-lived but foul-smelling body odour. Their husbands subsequently became unfaithful, and in a jealous rage, the woman killed them all. When the Argonauts reach Lemnos, the women are delighted by the presence of men – Jason even fathers two sons with their queen.


The Argonauts would gladly have stayed longer on Lemnos. But at last, with heavy hearts, they force themselves to continue their mission. Leaving the Aegean Sea behind it, the Argo crosses the Sea of Marmara and comes to the Bosporus, the passage to the Black Sea. When the sailors land on the coast to refresh their water supplies, they encounter a powerful and dangerous king.

The Blind Seer

Near Amykos´s spring lives the blind king Phineus, who suffers under a terrible curse.

The gods had once granted Phineus the gift of foresight. Against their will, he told people of their fate, and as punishment, he was struck blind. But that is not the end of his suffering: Ravenous Harpies – horrible winged creatures with women’s bodies – have for years stolen the old king’s food from his table and poisoned even the scraps with their stench.

Phineus and the Harpies, hydria, clay, Klephrades-Painter, ca. 480 BC h. 39 cm, Ø 15 cm, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Naples

Two of the Argo’s heroes come to the rescue: Zetes and Calais, the winged sons of the god of the north wind, lay an ambush for the monsters. When the Harpies again swoop down on Phineus’s food, the brothers leap out. In a magnificent pursuit across the sky, they drive away the king’s tormenters. In gratitude, the seer gives the Argonauts crucial advice for their continuing journey to Colchis.

Journey into
the Unknown

The heroes’ cup their hands over their ears to protect against the deafening sound of jutting rocks clashing against each other in a roaring sea. They have reached the Symplegades, the Clashing Rocks.


The Symplegades guard the way out of the Bosporus and into the Black Sea, and with it, the way to Colchis. Every ship that approaches them is crushed to pieces in the rocks; the Argo, too, must attempt the passage.

Following the blind seer’s advice, the Argonauts release a dove from the ship. When the bird passes the Clashing Rocks, it triggers the closing mechanism. The rocks lurch menacingly forward, but the dove manages to barely make it through the needle’s eye, losing only a few tail feathers in its escape.

The Argonauts gather their courage and row at top speed towards the gap between the opening rocks. Once again the rocks begin to close – the ship risks being crushed! At the last second, the goddess Hera comes to the Argo’s aid and gives the ship a final shove – it emerges, nearly undamaged, on the other side. According to legend, since that day, the Symplegades have held still.

At the Edge
of the World

The Symplegades represented ancient Greek sailors’ last familiar point of orientation. It is for good reason, then, that they appear in the saga of the Argonauts as an apparently impassable barrier. The Clashing Rocks marked for the Greeks the frontier between their civilised world and the foreign realms of the ‘barbarians’. The word ‘barbarian’ was not used in antiquity to mean inhumane, crude, or cruel, but simply ‘of incomprehensible speech’, ‘speaking a foreign language’. When the Greeks began to advance into the Black Sea region at the beginning of the first century BC, they returned with gold as loot or traded wares. For the majority of the Greek population, Colchis was a distant and foreign land, shrouded in myth and mystery.

A Super­natural Love

At first, King Aeëtes welcomes Jason to his palace and receives him warmly. When the young hero demands the Golden Fleece from him, however, the king breaks out in fiery wrath.

Banded together with your friends from Hellas, not for the fleece, but to seize my sceptre and royal power have ye come hither. Had ye not first tasted of my table, surely would I have cut out your tongues (…).

(King Aietes) Appollonius of Rhodos, Argonautica
Appollonius of Rhodos, Argonautica, Book III, trans. R.C. Seaton, Loeb Classical Library, Vol 1. London, 1912
Jason tames the bulls of Hephaistos, Apulian bell crater, ca. 370 BC, Detail clay, circle of the Eumenides-Painter, h. 38,5cm, Museo Archeologica Nazionale di Napoli, Naples

Aeëtes sets Jason a task: In the king’s place, he must sow the field of Ares, the god of war. First, he must yoke two fire-breathing, bronze-hooved bulls to the plough. Into the furrows he must then sow seeds of enchanted dragons’ teeth, which will grow into ferocious warriors. Only when he has defeated them in battle may Jason attempt to vanquish the terrifying dragon who guards the Fleece. While these tasks present no great challenge to Aeëtes, a demigod, for a mortal like Jason, they seem all but impossible.

Aphrodite, goddess of love, rushes to Jason’s aid. As her instrument, she chooses Medea, King Aeëtes’s daughter, who is clever and adept at magic. In Medea’s heart the goddess awakes an overpowering love for Jason – from the first moment she sets eyes on him in the palace, she is willing to do anything for him.

Her heart fell from out her bosom, and a dark mist came over her eyes, and a hot blush covered her cheeks.

Appollonius of Rhodos, Argonautica
Appollonius of Rhodos, Argonautica, Book III, 962-63, trans. R.C. Seaton, Loeb Classical Library, Vol 1. London, 1912.

Tormented with worry for Jason, Medea takes a great risk: In the middle of the night, she secretly brings him a magical salve she has made with enchanted herbs. This will protect him from both fire and blade.


Thanks to Medea, the next day Jason is able to overcome the bulls. To defeat the field of warriors, Medea suggests a trick: Jason throws a stone into their midst. Unable to determine the source of the attack, the warriors turn on each other, slaying one another until the field is strewn with their corpses. Jason has mastered the task – but Aeëtes refuses to hand over the Fleece.

The Magic
and Power
of the Goddess

The winged figure in this vase painting of Medea, Jason, and the bull is Nike, the goddess of victory. Her posture and gestures mirror Medea’s. Nike frequently appears in antique vase scenes as a symbol of victory. Here, she represents Jason’s successful passing of the test. Nevertheless, it is clear who the true architect of his victory is: Medea, whose magic and cleverness have achieved the impossible.

The Seizing of
the Golden Fleece

When he realises his plan has been foiled by his own daughter, the merciless King Aeëtes resolves to kill the Argonauts and burn their ship. Medea warns Jason, however, and helps him to steal the Golden Fleece.


Medea coaxes the dragon who guards the Fleece into an enchanted sleep. Jason seizes the Fleece from the tree, and the couple escape together with the precious loot.

As a traitor to her country, Princess Medea faces severe punishment. She asks her beloved Jason to marry her and to take her back with him to Iolcus. They flee together on the Argo, but Aeëtes and his army follow on their heels.

Medea stuns the dragon and Jason steals the Golden Fleece, Apulian volute-crater, clay, Painter of Naples 1778, ca. 310 BC h. 70 cm, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Naples

Antique Sources

The best-known version of the “Medea” myth comes from the Greek writer Euripides, whose tragedy Medea premiered in Athens in 431 BC. But his play is not the only version of the story; its origins are much older. The tale was continually passed down and re-shaped throughout the ages. By the time of Homer’s “Odyssey“ in the seventh or eighth century BC, the saga of the Argonauts was already ancient. Apollodorus’s “Bibliotheca“ (The Library), an important and comprehensive collection of myths from the first century BC, also describes the love between Medea and Jason, as well as the voyage of the Argonauts. Another important antique source is the “Argonautica“ by Apollonius of Rhodes, from the third century BC. Each version expands and enriches the centuries-old myth of the voyage of the Argonauts and the quest for the Golden Fleece.

Papyrus with fragments of the Erechtheus-tragedy by Euripides Fragment C, University of Paris, Sorbonne, Institute of Papyrology

Medea’s younger brother is among their pursuers and is the first to reach the Argo. Without a trace of remorse, Medea advises the Argonauts to kill her own brother, cut his body into pieces, and throw them into the sea. Aeëtes is forced to stop and collect his son’s dismembered body for proper burial, and the Argonauts escape unharmed.

But the Argonauts have taken on an unforgivable bloodguilt. The gods, enraged, send a devastating storm which knocks the Argo off course. Only after the heroes have been cleansed of their guilt by the sorceress Circe do the waters calm.


The story of Jason and Medea now takes an even darker turn: Back in Jason’s homeland of Iolcus, murder and vengeance become the order of the day.


The illegitimate king Pelias has killed Jason’s father, Aeson. Racked with despair, Jason’s mother takes her own life. Jason and Medea exact a malicious revenge.

Pelias must die! Medea tells the king’s naïve daughters that she knows a way to restore their ageing father’s youth. As proof of her magical skill, she cuts an old ram into pieces and throws them into her boiling cauldron. Moments later, the animal springs out again, alive and rejuvenated. Amazed by the miracle, the daughters take it upon themselves to do the same to their father. But this time, Medea holds back the spell that would resurrect the king. Thus the usurper comes to the gruesome end foretold by the oracle’s prophecy.

Medea in front of the vessel, from which the living ram will spring, Attic stamnos, clay, Hephaisteion-painter, ca. 470/460 BC h. 34, 1 cm, Ø max. 30,4 cm, Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, National Museums Berlin, Collection of Antiquities
Medea and the Pleiades, marble relief, new-attic copy from c. 100 BC after an original from c. 420 BC, 110cm x 94,5cm x 8cm Vatican Museums, Rome

and Horror

The myth of Medea is full of bloody deeds: People are murdered, dismembered; their flesh boiled. Twentieth-century horror films may show such grisly scenes in excruciating detail, but the ancient depictions are another story. Compared to the hair-raising tales, the aesthetic, almost charming images seem to make light of the events. In this marble relief from the fifth century BC, Pelias’s daughters are shown as ideal beauties. Nothing hints at the fact that they have their father’s blood on their hands.

Medea and the Pleiades, marble relief, copy after a classical original from ca. 420/410 BC modern reworkings (sword to laurel-branch), 116,5 cm x 89-96 cm, Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, National Museums Berlin, Collection of Antiquities

Medea’s Revenge

Jason and Medea flee to Corinth and are happy there, for a time. They have been married ten years and have two sons together – but the lust for wealth and power will bring the family to ruin.


Creon, the king of Corinth, offers Jason the hand of his daughter Creusa and with her, the throne of the city. The prospect of a crown and a lovely young bride – without a moment’s hesitation Jason abandons Medea.

Medea is devastated; her life is over. She has betrayed her family, killed her own brother, and left her homeland behind – all for love of Jason. All alone in a foreign country, bereft of husband, family, and friends, she struggles with thoughts of suicide.


Medea as
a Woman

Medea sees no way out of her predicament. As an unmarried woman and a foreigner, she has no means or protection. Euripides’s drama Medea incorporates important aspects of the social reality of ancient Greece: Gender roles were strictly divided in the patriarchal society. Young girls of fourteen were married to thirty-year-old landowners, and women’s participation in political, social, and cultural life was extremely limited. A distinguished Greek woman kept house and had many children. The figure of Medea shatters all these expectations.

Of all creatures that have breath and sensation, we women are the most unfortunate.

(Medea) Euripides, Medea
Euripides, Medea, 230-232, trans. David Kovacs, in: Cyclops. Alcetis. Medea, Euripides Volume I, Loeb Classical Library 12, ed. David Kovacs, Cambridge MA, 1994.

Medea’s Speech
Euripides, Medea

Medea as
a Foreigner

Medea is not just a woman; she is also a foreigner. Medea's physical appearance and her presence in Greek mythology underline her role as an outsider. The Colchian princess represents an older civilisation shaped by magic and metalwork. Antique depictions of Medea emphasise her otherness and mystery: Her foreign identity is often signalled by seemingly Oriental garments with long patterned sleeves.

Grief eventually turns to wrath: Medea is possessed by furious jealousy. She plans a terrible vengeance, directing all her power at destroying her unfaithful husband. She proceeds methodically: She pretends to accept Jason’s marriage to Creusa, but in reality she bides her time until she can carry out her plan.

Medea kills her rival and her own children, Greek colossal crater from Apulia, ca. 330 BC clay, Underworld-painter, h. 118 cm, Staatliche Antikensammlung, Munich

Cold-hearted Medea: She sends her young sons to deliver a bewitched wedding gown to Creusa. When Creusa puts on the dress, the poisoned cloth burns her alive. King Creon attempts to rescue his daughter, but he, too, perishes in the blaze.

After the deaths of Creon and Creusa, only Jason’s sons remain to him. But Medea is determined to take everything from him as he has taken everything from her. She does the unthinkable: She takes a sword and slays her own children.


The threat of Corinthian retribution for her horrific deed drives Medea from the city. Her grandfather, the sun god Helios, sends his own magnificent chariot, pulled by winged dragons, down to her. Medea escapes to Athens, where she begins a new life with a new husband and new children. Behind her she leaves a trail of scorched earth.