One day almost a decade after Jason and Medea had taken up their life of exile in Corinth, the king of Athens, whose name was Aegeus, arrived in Delphi. Normally a mild-tempered man, known for being good company around the banquet table, he was not at all his usual self on this occasion. He was withdrawn and irritable, and had a strange haunted look in his eyes. At last, the Delphi town elder, who was of about the same age as Aegeus and had enjoyed a rapport with him for many years, pulled the king aside and asked him to say plainly what was the matter. After some further coaxing, he did so.
“The long and the short of it, old friend, is that Megara, the beloved wife of Heracles, is dead along with all three of her sons. And Heracles himself is the one who killed them!”
The elder could only gape at this news. Heracles’s devotion to his family was legendary; word of the way he had resisted the temptations of Lemnos on the voyage of the Argonauts had traveled far and wide. “How could this be? What on earth could have happened?”
“I will explain so far as I understand it,” replied Aegeus. He took a deep breath. “I come to Delphi direct from Heracles’s home of Tiryns. I went to that city on a routine mission of state which had nothing to do with the hero, but once there was unfortunate enough to see the whole tragedy unfold before my eyes.
“One evening when my delegation was sitting idly at table in the town square, chatting with King Eurystheus and others among our opposite numbers in the government of Tiryns, two shining apparitions descended out of the sky and walked up to us, boldly as you please. Truly I have never seen their like! They told us they were none other than Iris and Madness.”
The Delphi elder showed his surprise yet again. Iris and Madness were lesser immortals than the Olympian gods, but immortals nevertheless, who were rumored to be the special servants of Hera. Iris, it was whispered, acted as a sort of debased version of Hermes, the official messenger of the gods, carrying Hera’s malicious gossip and devious schemes from party to party. Still, Madness was by far the more feared of the two; she could visit her namesake upon any man whenever she wished. Hera, the people said, put her to uses both good and ill; it was Madness who had prompted many heroes to join Jason on the Argo, but also Madness who had once driven Athamas and Ino to murder their own children. Remembering that story, the elder feared that he already knew the gist of what had happened here as well. “Go on,” he muttered.
“They asked to be shown the house of Heracles. This was easy enough. As you know, it occupies a place of honor right there on the town square. And then… they passed inside it. Passed right through the door as if it wasn’t there.”
Aegeus now trailed off again, lost in obviously unpleasant recollections. Once more the elder had to prompt him. “And then?”
“Old friend, I fear I will hear the sounds that came out of that house every night for the rest of my life!” Aegeus cried. “First a weird, hypnotic piping and drumming. And then… and then the cries. The children, the mother, old Amphitryon, crying in confusion and terror… and Heracles, bellowing with rage. ‘Has the blood of those you’ve slain made you mad?’ we heard Amphitryon shout. ‘You are their father! Will you kill your sons?’ cried Megara. And… ‘Father, Father, do not murder me! I am your own son!’ And yet what we heard next were indeed the sounds of murder…
“We didn’t know what to do, flock of soft middle-aged men that we were, against the greatest hero Greece has ever known. We made no show of bravery, I’m afraid; we merely stood there rooted to the spot. But then came a splendid sight amidst the horrible sounds: Athena swooped down in her silver armor and shield. She picked up one of the boulders that ring the square and passed into the house without a word to us. A moment later, we heard a single blow ring out, and then all was silence.
“After some minutes more, we screwed up our courage, knocked down the door, and entered the house ourselves. Oh, the scene inside, old friend! One boy lay impaled by a spear, another lay beside him with a smashed skull. The third son lay atop his mother, both pierced by the same arrow. Heracles himself was unconscious, struck low by a rock that would have killed any ordinary man; this was apparently the handiwork of Athena, who had disappeared along with the other two apparitions. But she had come too late. Of Heracles’s beloved family, only old Amphitryon was left alive.”
The Delphi elder, having long suspected that Eurystheus had conspired with Hera to make the erstwhile labors of Heracles so absurdly difficult, looked at Aegeus seriously. “Do you think Eurystheus had a hand in this tragedy?”
But Aegeus immediately shook his head. “No. I would swear no, judging from the look on his face when we entered that house. I know he’s had his problems with Heracles. But no… not even he could engineer something like this. It pains me to say it, but, judging from snatches of conversation we heard pass between Iris and Madness as they were entering the house, I believe this was the work of Hera alone. I would guess she simply could not bear to wait any longer to take revenge on Heracles for the personal insult she believes his parentage and his name to be.” His tone as he said these words was much more bitter than strict piety would allow. Finally the accusation burst out of him. “Forget Hera! How could Zeus allow this to happen to his own son?”
The elder was himself a pious man, as befitted his position here as head of the most sacred town in all of Greece. Yet even he couldn’t muster the energy to mount a defense of either Hera or Zeus. Homilies to the inscrutable wisdom of the gods and all the rest were inadequate for the scale of this tragedy. He merely nodded. “And what transpired after Heracles awoke? I presume he did awaken?”
“Yes, he did. We had bound him with strong ropes, out of fear that the madness would still be on him when he woke and he would kill us as well. But by the time he opened his eyes his rage had passed, replaced by confusion. Cowards that we were, we left it to Amphitryon, who had already suffered so much, to explain to his stepson what he had done.”
“And how did he react?” asked the elder, dreading the answer.
“In its way, his grief was more terrible to witness than everything that had come before. He begged us to kill him — by stones or sword or fire, it mattered not, he said. He said we should only be careful not to touch him as we did so, for he was a foul pollution. I still remember his words, blasphemous though they are: ‘Let the noble wife of Zeus begin the dance, pounding with her feet Olympus’s gleaming floors! For she accomplished what her heart desired, and hurled the greatest man in Greece down in utter ruin. Who could offer prayers to such a goddess? Jealous of Zeus for a mortal woman’s sake, she has destroyed Greece’s greatest friend, though he was guiltless.'”
The elder nodded again. He had been thinking much the same thing himself.
“Yet Heracles’s stepfather was made of sterner stuff than any of us — even, I dare say, than his heroic son,” said Aegeus. “He begged Heracles to have courage, to bear unflinchingly what the gods had sent him. After all this! Can you imagine?”
When the elder still said nothing, he continued. “He told Heracles he was still mankind’s greatest mortal benefactor, and that Greece still had need of him. He said he must endure. And Heracles came around. ‘I shall prevail against death,’ he said at the end. And then he asked us to bury his family for him with all the proper rites, for the law of course forbade him, their killer, to do so. Old friend, I do believe that speaking those words to our little group of prissy old men required more courage than all twelve of his labors put together.”
The elder just nodded, his heart full of impious doubts and recriminations.
Word of what Aegeus had related got around Delphi quickly. It cast a pall over residents and visitors alike, one that still hung low when Aegeus made his way into the temple to see the oracle — the real purpose of his visit.
Indeed, the problem which had prompted Aegeus to hire a ship and sail across the Gulf of Corinth to Delphi before returning home was a pressing one. His wife had recently died without ever having borne a child. Getting up in years as he was, he now faced the prospect of leaving Athens with no clear-cut successor — a dangerous state for any monarchy to be in. He therefore had come to Delphi to beg the god Apollo to tell him why he and his wife had been childless for so many years, and what he should do about it now that he was a widower.
But the answer he got back from the god did nothing to set his mind at ease. Apollo delighted on occasion in delivering ridiculously cryptic responses, and this was one of those occasions. “Fill your third jutting foot with wine, then loose it in the city of Pittheus,” the god told his oracle with a mischievous grin. And he would say nothing more. All the oracle could do was relay the message, feeling a little ashamed of the god she worshiped as she did so.
So, Aegeus decided to return to Athens via Corinth, where he hoped he might get some help with his conundrum. He had been among the dignitaries who had traveled to Iolcus years ago to fete the return of the Argonauts, and he had been very impressed at that time with Medea. In fact, after spending some hours in conversation with her, he had judged her to be the cleverest woman or man he had ever met. He knew well the grisly events that had followed Jason’s triumphant homecoming, but he opted to ask for her aid in deciphering Apollo’s pronouncement despite them. The question of an heir was, after all, getting urgent.
Yet he found Corinth too to be a troubled city. The streets buzzed with talk of how Jason, Corinth’s most prominent resident refugee, had recently tossed aside his marriage to Medea, saying they had never been properly married in the first place and, anyhow, Medea’s horrible crime in Iolcus had annulled any bond they might have had. In her stead, he had married a daughter of Creon, the king of the city (a different Creon from the one who had lived and died in Thebes). While Jason spent his nights with his new bride in his new bed, Medea spent both nights and days alone in their old one, refusing to eat, refusing all visitors, refusing even to see the two sons she had with Jason, refusing to do anything other than cry and groan away the long hours. Creon feared what her sorrow might become if roused to anger; he couldn’t forget the fate suffered by the last king who had vexed her. Saying that he saw no reason to continue sheltering her from the consequences of that crime, he had just issued a decree to drive her and her children out of the city, with Jason’s apparent consent. “Old ties make way for new ones,” whispered the people. “It seems he no longer feels a duty to the house he built before the finer one he occupies now.” Aegeus learned upon his arrival that Medea and her children were to leave Corinth by first light on the morrow.
Upon hearing all this, Aegeus rushed over to see Medea, whom he found in a state of utter abjectness. “He says he fears me,” she said of King Creon. “Fears that I will do some harm to his child, the one who has stolen my husband. I offered to pledge my troth to do no such thing, but he said my reputation preceded me. Perhaps I should arrange to justify his prejudice. He may come to regret this brief time he has allowed me to remain in Corinth…”
Not at all liking the sound of this, liking even less the cold light that came into Medea’s eyes when she said it, Aegeus hurriedly chose a different tack. “Have you spoken to Jason? Surely he could intervene — if not for your sake, for that of the children.”
But these words only added kindling to her smoldering anger. “I have spoken with him. He dared to say that I had brought all this on myself, and then had the gall to offer me gold to go away quietly. The coward! He knows, despite all his supercilious posturing, that he hasn’t honored his oath to me. Were it not for me, he would lie dead in Colchis, or in any of a dozen other places where I single-handedly saved the Argonauts on the journey back to Greece. Small thanks I ever got! I accepted permanent exile from my homeland to be with him, then conspired to murder my own brother for his sake. And now he says that the gods are the ones who should really be thanked for all his successes, and that our love was never a true one anyway. Curse the day I shared with him my suspicion that the shafts of Eros were responsible for our love’s beginning! I never imagined he would use it as an excuse for betraying me. He’s become quite adept at such sophistry, you know. He’s convinced that he can cover up any wrong he might commit with his pretty words.”
“No,” muttered Aegeus, half to himself. “I certainly can’t approve of his behavior…”
Medea looked at him shrewdly while he dithered. Then: “But tell me, what brings you to Corinth? You are too important a man to visit just for the sake of it.”
And so Aegeus told her about the oracle’s cryptic message, albeit not without a sense of guilt at so burdening her with his own problems. When he had finished, her mien changed completely. “I can solve the oracle’s riddle!” she cried. And then, much to his surprise, the proud woman fell to her knees before him. “Aegeus, I make myself your suppliant. Pity me, pity my misfortune! Don’t stand and watch as I’m exiled all alone. Receive me in your land, give me shelter at your hearth. You have no idea what a windfall I can be to you. I’ll end your childlessness!”
Aegeus hardly knew what to do. His heart went out to this forlorn woman kneeling before him, whatever her crimes in Iolcus, and her promise to decipher the oracle’s message spoke to his deepest desire in life. Yet he remained Athens’s head of state in all things. As befit his rank, he was in fact staying with Creon himself in the royal palace of Corinth. He knew that to take Medea’s side openly in this dispute could cause a dangerous rift between his city and Creon’s. After a long pause for thought, he spoke. “Here’s what I can offer you: first, you must explain to me, here and now, the meaning of the oracle’s injunction. Then, if you can reach my city on your own, I will give you a home there. But I cannot be seen to take your side here in Corinth.”
Medea’s tears dried with amazing speed; she rose to face him. “So be it. Please, repeat the oracle’s message for me.”
“Fill your third jutting foot with wine, then loose it in the city of Pittheus,” said Aegeus obediently.
Medea almost smiled. “The riddle is simple enough, I think. Your third jutting foot is of course — to speak plainly — your penis. Pittheus is king of the city of Troezen. So, you obviously must get drunk and lie with some girl or woman in that city.”
Aegeus was anxious enough to be delighted at this clarification, however undignified the commandment itself might be. He thanked her profusely.
“Yes, very well. But remember your promise. May I have a guarantee of it?”
Even-tempered man though he was, he was taken aback by this implicit questioning of his kingly honor, coming as it did from a foreign commoner — and a woman! But he remembered the great service she had just done for him, and stifled most of his outrage. “Surely you trust me?” he asked.
“Yes, I trust that you mean what you say… now. But the cities of Iolcus and Corinth are now both my enemies. I don’t trust that the king of one or both won’t decide to quietly end my life and that of my children after we leave here. If you are bound by an oath, you won’t give me over to them, should they come for me. But if you are not so bound, you might elect to protect your diplomatic friendships and give in to their demands. After all, the position of a single woman is weak. The men have all the power.”
“Very well,” said Aegeus with a heavy sigh. “By which gods should I swear?”
“Swear by all of them!”
“And exactly what oath should I swear? You say it.”
“Swear never to expel me from your land, and never to willingly hand me over to an enemy, as long as you live.”
“Well, then… I swear by all the gods to abide by the oath you’ve just stated.”
“Good,” said Medea. “And what will you suffer if you go back on your oath?”
“Why, I’ll suffer the punishment all men ought to suffer who spurn the gods,” said Aegeus, a little impatiently now. “The details are up to the gods themselves.”
“So be it. I will come to your city as soon as I can.”
And so Aegeus said farewell. But as he did so, he once again saw that cold light in Medea’s eyes that had so bothered him earlier. She no longer seemed as weak and piteous as she had just a few minutes before. Already he wondered about the wisdom of what he had done.
That evening, Medea asked for Jason to come to her one last time before they were parted forever. He did so, but without good grace. “I’ve been summoned and I’ve come, in spite of your ill will,” he sulked. “What do you want from me?”
But much to his surprise, Medea’s response was honeyed. “Jason, I must ask for your forgiveness. Since we last spoke, I’ve thought to myself what an idiot I am. You’re only trying to do what’s best for your existing children by marrying this princess and having more of them — high-born brothers for my low-born sons! I see now that you’re doing the wise thing. Indeed, I should have been part of the planning. I should sit there by your bed when you make love to your new bride, rejoicing in the connection! But we are what we are, we women — and of course my heart will always be bound to you by the shaft of Eros. Nonetheless, I promise to do better now.”
Jason’s self-satisfaction prevented him from noticing any hint of sarcasm behind her speech. He positively rejoiced in his own magnanimity. “I approve of your words now, my dear,” he said, “but rest assured that I didn’t really blame you before. It’s normal for women to be carried away by their emotions in these situations. Now you’ve seen the light. This marks you as a prudent woman.”
At this, Medea called their children into the room. “Your mother has made peace with your father,” she said to them. “You should do the same.” And she bade them to hug him.
“Ah, my strapping lads!” said Jason. “In due course, you’ll join your as-yet-unborn brothers here in Corinth, where you’ll enjoy much power and status. Until you are grown to manhood, we’ll let your mother tend to you.” But then he saw that Medea had begun to cry. “Why the tears?” he asked. “Aren’t you glad for what I’ve said?”
“It’s nothing,” she answered. “I was just thinking of our sons.”
“I’ll make things right for them. No need to cry for their sake!”
Her voice took on a pleading tone. “I must go away forever. I understand that now. But please, not our children!” she cried. “Ask Creon not to exile them. Let them grow up here, in your care.”
Jason wasn’t sure he liked this idea. “I don’t know that I can persuade him…” he prevaricated.
“Then ask your wife to appeal to her father!”
“Why, I’ll send her gifts to help convince her,” said Medea. And she rushed away momentarily, returning with the ceremonial dress and golden headband she had taken with her on that fateful night when she had run away from the palace of Colchis to join the Argonauts. She handed these things, her last links to her homeland, to her children. “You, my sons, take these to your stepmother, whom I hope you will soon come to think of as your one and only real mother.” The boys looked confused at this.
Jason looked no less consternated. “You’re foolish to give away these last mementos of your homeland. Keep them! I assure you, they are not required.”
But Medea was obstinate. “I must use every tool at my disposal! Gifts have more power over men and women than words. They can persuade even the gods. I’d give my own life to save my sons from exile if I thought it would help.” And she turned back to the boys. “Go now! Give these gifts to your father’s new bride and beg her not to exile you. Be sure that she receives them in her own hands, mind!” And she hugged Jason in farewell, telling him to go with his sons to plead their case to the princess.
And so the children scampered the short distance to the palace of Corinth behind their father, to where his new wife waited nervously for him to return from his final meeting with his old one. At first, she was shocked and offended to see him enter her chambers with these living reminders of the family she had shattered. But, while she was a spoiled, selfish girl, she wasn’t a malicious or vengeful one. When the boys presented Medea’s peace offerings to her, and hesitantly relayed their mother’s request, she immediately pulled both gifts and children to her bosom, promising to intervene with her father and to treat them henceforward as if they were her own progeny. So, Jason sent his sons back to Medea, to tell her that his new wife had acceded to her request and to spend a last few hours with the birth mother they might never see again.
Medea clutched the children tightly to her in a way she hadn’t done for many weeks. The servants bustling around her, making preparations for her departure, were all struck by her expression as she sat there rocking back and forth with the boys in her arms. Yes, at times it evinced a mother’s natural grief at leaving her children behind forever. But there were other things there as well. Her body language seemed to vacillate between triumph and… guilt? Sadness and… rancor? Resignation and… satisfaction? The servants shrugged at this strange, ofttimes sinister-seeming woman and went about their business. Thus they didn’t notice when she raised her arms above the heads of her children and twisted her hands through a series of arcane movements in time with a singsong incantation.
Meanwhile Jason’s new wife, shallow creature that she was, was absolutely entranced with the gifts Medea had sent her. Long after sending the children away, long after her husband had left her to attend to other matters, she continued to prance around the room wearing the dress and crown, admiring herself in the mirror. But suddenly her skin turned white as parchment and she began to tremble in every limb. Foam gushed out of her mouth, her pupils turned back in their sockets. She raised her head to let forth a blood-curdling shriek of pain and fear which echoed through the rafters of the palace.
When Creon, Jason, Aegeus, and the rest of the royal household rushed to the source of the noise, they found the girl running frantically around the room, trying to lift the crown from her head to no avail. Waves of heat arced downward from it, melting her features while she still lived, even as the dress seemed to gnaw at her skin. Finally, she collapsed to the ground and lay still. There was little left of her but an indeterminate mass of gore; the flesh oozed away from her bones like sap from a fir tree.
Her father tried to gather the formless lump of bone and skin into his arms. “Oh, my child!” he cried. “Who takes you from me, an old man as good as dead? Let me die with you, my child.”
To the horror of those looking on, he got his wish. The material of Medea’s dress stuck to him like ivy to a laurel branch. He tried to push it away, but that just caused it to cling all the tighter. When he tried to wrench it away more forcefully, he pulled the flesh away from his own bones, sending geysers of blood flying through the room. Then the dress wrapped itself around his throat. The king’s body fell in a heap atop that of the princess, the breath squeezed out of it.
Even as the rest of the household continued to stare at the corpses in shock, Aegeus tugged urgently at Jason’s sleeve. “Come! Time is short. These people will soon figure out that this must be Medea’s doing, and their cries of grief will turn to calls for vengeance.”
Jason looked back at him as if he had gone mad. “What care I? I dare say I’ll join the killing ranks for what she has done tonight.”
Aegeus met his gaze levelly. “Very well. Understood. But think of your children! I dare say the people here will exact payment from them as well for their mother’s crimes. At least let us try to save their lives!”
These words made sense to Jason; he may have discarded his first wife out of a combination of fear, lust, and ambition, but he still loved his children with all his heart. The two men rushed over to his former house.
When they arrived there, they found that the sitting room where both had talked with Medea earlier that day was now empty. They ran shouting through the house, a foreboding of yet more disasters to come pressing down on them. They found the servants in front of the closed door to Medea’s bedroom, banging futilely on its heavy boards. The servants told the two new arrivals that she had snatched up a sword along with her two sons, then locked herself inside. Jason was frantic. “Somebody find the spare keys to this door! Or find me an axe! Or…”
Suddenly a golden light, as bright as that of the sun itself, shone in through all the windows of the house. Responding to an urge they couldn’t possibly resist, Jason and Aegeus walked outside. There they found the rest of the city as well gathered on the streets and squares. Above them hovered the source of the strange illumination: a magnificent golden chariot. In the chariot stood a figure, clutching the bloodied corpses of the children, one in either hand.
It was Medea — and yet somehow it was not. The woman who stood in the chariot was obviously no ordinary mortal. She was plainly divine — or profane. She radiated pure malevolence; she was hatred personified. The people shrank before her as she opened her mouth to speak to Jason alone. “Don’t look so surprised,” she said, with no trace of the love and kindness her voice used to evince when she spoke to him. “You must have realized by now that I am… special, with magic beyond any mortal’s capabilities. I am descended from the Titans. Our family heritage slept within my ignorant father, but through my explorations of the arcane arts, beginning with my long consultations with the nymph Circe on her island, I rediscovered it. And now, I reclaim it in its entirety. This chariot is but one small part of my birthright.”
Jason was the only person among those present with the courage to stand up and face her down. “Contemptible thing, who ran a sword through the children you bore and suckled. I want you dead! I was insane to bring you away from Colchis. I should have known your true nature by how easy it was for you to betray your father and your homeland — not to mention killing your own brother! No Greek woman could have done what you have done, either on those occasions or on this one. I married a creature more savage than any lion. But there’s no point in trading words with you. You are immune to shame, foul beast that you are.”
“You protest too much, my lord!” jeered the figure that had been Medea. “Don’t speak to me of shame — you who dishonored your marriage bed and mocked me, your lawful wife, by taking up with your pretty princess. She and King Creon have already paid a just price for their actions. As for you… I shall let you live, to think about what you have visited on those you claimed to love so.” And she brandished the broken bodies of her sons before her like trophies.
“You monster! They were your children too! Have you no remorse?”
“Of course,” she answered. “But it’s worth any amount of pain to cause you pain.”
“I don’t believe you. If you weren’t evil when I met you, you are certainly evil now,” said Jason. “What of the arrow of Eros? If nothing else, it should have prevented you from hurting me so grievously.”
“Ha! I broke its hold over me as soon as I embraced my true heritage, not that long after we came to Corinth. I’ve been biding my time ever since, curious how long the honorable hero Jason would manage to uphold his sacred oath to me,” she cackled.
“Oh, my children, what a wicked mother you had…”
“My sons, you were ruined by your father,” said Medea in return.
“It wasn’t my hand that murdered them!”
“No, it was your lust and insolence.”
“To punish me for that, you judged it right to kill your innocent children? This act will surely bring the justice of the gods down upon your head.”
“Ha! The gods know who really caused all this suffering. I shall leave you now. I loathe the sound of your carping voice.”
But Jason reached toward her now, almost in supplication. “At least give me the bodies of my children so I may bury them properly.”
“And let my enemies violate their tombs? Ha! I will bury them in a place far from here, accessible only to us divine beings. Then I will go to live with Aegeus in Athens, for he has offered me shelter,” she said, in a tone which oozed with menacing sarcasm. Understanding only now the consequences of the bargain he had struck with Medea out of pity and urgent necessity, the king of Athens withered under the astonished gaze of the crowd. “As for you, Jason,” continued Medea, “you will die alone and unhappy, but only after you have been allowed sufficient time to reflect on your misdeeds.”
“May the gods destroy you!” cursed Jason.
“What god will listen to you, breaker of vows?”
“Child killer!” Jason shouted back, impotently.
“Enough of this. Go inside, bury your new wife and father-in-law. Your children are lost to you, even in death.”
“Oh, my dear children…” Jason moaned, his rage having collapsed at last into the bitterest grief.
But Medea was implacable in her cruelty. “Dear to their mother. Not to you.”
“Please, let me kiss them one last time.”
“Why, after you pushed them away in life?”
“Let me touch them!” Jason begged.
“It cannot be,” said Medea. “Good bye, my lost and unlamented husband.” And her chariot soared away toward the stars, leaving the vaunted hero of the Golden Fleece wailing like an infant in the street.
All came to pass just as Medea had predicted.
With a heavy heart at seeing a second great hero laid low by a woman in the space of a month, but decidedly not eager to return to Athens in light of the rash promise he had made to Medea, Aegeus journeyed onward to Troezen. There he deliberately drank his fill, as Medea had ordered him to do. Yet, honest soul that he was, he did so only after telling King Pittheus of the oracle’s message. This king, a clever and rather ruthless man, promptly sent his own daughter in to the drunken Aegeus. The next day, amidst a stream of unnecessary apologies — Pittheus was in fact delighted to bring a future king of Athens into the family — Aegeus promised that, assuming the oracle had spoken truly and the fruit of the union proved to be a male child, said child would indeed be the heir to his throne. Then, with a heart still filled with more sorrow than joy, he returned to Athens.
Medea arrived the day after his homecoming. She took up residence on the acropolis that marked the center of the city, right next to the temple of Athena, its patron deity. From this perch she terrorized Athens nightly for the next several years, swooping down upon its streets without warning in her chariot of gold, her mocking cackle trailing always behind her. The people whispered that she came to men in their beds — even at times to the king himself — and forced them to please her in whatever way she desired; just, she said, as the same men were wont to do to their women.
But it seems she eventually got her fill of bullying and raping the men of Athens. She simply disappeared one day, never to be seen in Greece again. Some said she had decided to return to far-off Colchis — whether to torment her father or to ask for his forgiveness, no one ventured to guess. King Aegeus could at least take comfort in his declining years that her interpretation of the oracle’s message to him had proved to be correct and honest: a handsome young boy, destined to become the next king of Athens, came to join him in his palace shortly after Medea’s departure.
As for Jason, his fate too was exactly as predicted by Medea. He was never the same man after that terrible night in Corinth. He took to drink, and spent his days in an inarticulate stupor, a reminder to all of the dark side of Dionysus’s great gift to mankind. Eventually the son of corrupt old King Pelias, who had actually proved a better man than his father in all respects, took pity on him and invited him to return to Iolcus; having consolidated his power by now, and seeing that Jason was now free of Medea’s malevolent influence, the new king saw little reason to continue to exile a citizen whose exploits were still second only to those of Heracles in the people’s estimation. He even gave said hero permission to live aboard the Argo, which still sat beached in the harbor of Iolcus as a memorial to the adventurers who had sailed so far in it.
Yet Jason’s return from exile did nothing to improve his lot. He still spent his days and nights alternately drinking wine and sleeping it off. Late one night, as he stumbled to his rest in his usual drunken state, he collided violently with the figurehead of Athena at the ship’s bow. The rotting wood gave way; the figurehead fell upon him, killing him. When he was found the next day, all who had known him agreed that his death was a mercy. The only matter up for debate was whether the mercy had been granted by Medea or by the gods.
And as for Greece’s greatest hero of all: Heracles too struggled long with his memories of a single awful night, a night engineered by his own, even more powerful female oppressor. He never collapsed into abject drunkenness like Jason, but he did grow more vengeful and erratic. Although he had many more adventures, and was responsible for more noble deeds, they were alloyed with less noble ones. His old good humor deserted him, and he began to kill with little provocation, enough so that the people of Greece came to fear as much as admire him. He finally met his end at the hands of another woman, albeit one who hadn’t intended to harm him at all: his second wife was tricked by an evil centaur into giving him a tunic with magic laid upon it much like that of the dress of Medea which had killed the king and princess of Corinth. This accursed clothing, however, was even more cruel; it tortured him endlessly rather than killing him. At last, driven mad with the pain, he uprooted trees to make his own execution pyre and begged his friends to light it. They did so out of pity, and the flames consumed him.
Was it perhaps Hera’s minions who had planted the notion of tormenting him in the mind of the centaur? That, like so much involving the gods, was another matter for speculation only. At any rate, the promise Zeus had made to Heracles in Delphi when he was still a wide-eyed youth had come to pass. His prodigious life encompassed more triumph and tragedy alike than that of any other mortal Greek, before or after him.
All of these events gave the old men of Delphi yet more fodder for discussion on those winter evenings when the town was nearly deserted and only the faintest echoes of the revelers at the Corycian Cave up above could be heard over the crackle of their fires. They discussed, as they had so often before, how it could be that so many heroes survived such great adventures, only to be waylaid at the end by the problems of hearth and home. How could the gods allow this? Was there some other test of a man’s character — other, that is, than the conventional ones of bravery and fortitude in battle — which these heroes failed?
To lighten the mood, the old men joked with one another about the spiteful nature of women in general. They had done quite a lot of this on one particular night, when the town elder — the same one, now an old man indeed, who had talked with Aegeus about the fate of Heracles’s family years ago — made his way back home a little worse for drink. As he flopped into bed beside his wife, he shared some of the jokes that been passed around, for he knew her to be a genial woman with a fine sense of humor of her own.
But her reaction this time was not what he had expected. She turned to him and spoke hotly. “Small wonder that some women — I don’t care whether they’re mortal or divine — are driven to these lengths! Of all creatures that live and understand, we women suffer most. We must buy a husband for a vast dowry, but once we have him we find that he has in fact bought us. Whether he’s good or bad, we can’t deny him, in bed or outside of it. We find ourselves trapped in a new household with new habits and new rules, and must adapt as best we can to circumstances over which we have no say. When a man is unhappy in his home, he can go outside of it to ease the disquiet in his heart. But we have nowhere else to turn. Men like to say of us that we have it easy, being sheltered at home while they fight with spears. How wrong they are! I’d rather fight in three battles than give birth once!”
The elder was stunned and a little shaken by this assault; he had never known that his wife carried such feelings around with her. For that matter, he couldn’t ever recall hearing her say this many words together at once on any topic. He turned away and laid his head on his pillow, murmuring sleepily to himself about the unreasonableness of all women. But when he asked her for his breakfast the next morning, he did so a little more politely than usual.
(This series's cover art is by Dorte Lassen, who hereby releases it under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)