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Padraic Colum

Medea Comes to Circe

dropcap image HEY sailed up the River Ister until they came to the Eridanus, that river across which no bird can fly. Leaving the Eridanus they entered the Rhodanus, a river that rises in the extreme north, where Night herself has her habitation. And voyaging up this river they came to the Stormy Lakes. A mist lay upon the lakes night and day; voyaging through them the Argonauts at last brought out their ship upon the Sea of Ausonia.

It was Zetes and Calais, the sons of the North Wind, who brought the Argo  safely along this dangerous course. And to Zetes and Calais Iris, the messenger of the gods, appeared and revealed to them where Circe's island lay.

Deep blue water was all around that island, and on its height a marble house was to be seen. But a strange haze covered everything as with a veil. As the Argonauts came near they saw what looked to them like great dragonflies; they came down to the shore, and then the heroes saw that they were maidens in gleaming dresses.

The maidens waved their hands to the voyagers, calling them to come on the island. Strange beasts came up to where the maidens were and made whimpering cries.

The Argonauts would have drawn the ship close and would have sprung upon the island only that Medea cried out to them. She showed them the beasts that whimpered around the maidens, and then, as the Argonauts looked upon them, they saw that these were not beasts of the wild. There was something strange and fearful about them; the heroes gazed upon them with troubled eyes. They brought the ship near, but they stayed upon their benches, holding the oars in their hands.

Medea sprang to the island; she spoke to the maidens so that they shrank away; then the beasts came and whimpered around her. "Forbear to land here, O Argonauts," Medea cried, "for this is the island where men are changed into beasts." She called to Jason to come; only Jason would she have come upon the island.

They went swiftly toward the marble house, and the beasts followed them, looking up at Jason and Medea with pitiful human eyes. They went into the marble house of Circe, and as suppliants they seated themselves at the hearth.

Circe stood at her loom, weaving her many-colored threads. Swiftly she turned to the suppliants; she looked for something strange in them, for just before they came the walls of her house dripped with blood and the flame ran over and into her pot, burning up all the magic herbs she was brewing. She went toward where they sat, Medea with her face hidden by her hands, and Jason, with his head bent, holding with its point in the ground the sword with which he had slain the son of Æetes.


When Medea took her hands away from before her face, Circe knew that, like herself, this maiden was of the race of Helios. Medea spoke to her, telling her first of the voyage of the heroes and of their toils; telling her then of how she had given help to Jason against the will of Æetes, her father; telling her then, fearfully, of the slaying of Apsyrtus. She covered her face with her robe as she spoke of it. And then she told Circe she had come, warned by the judgment of Zeus, to ask of Circe, the daughter of Helios, to purify her from the stain of her brother's blood.

Like all the children of Helios, Circe had eyes that were wide and full of life, but she had stony lips—lips that were heavy and moveless. Bright golden hair hung smoothly along each of her sides. First she held a cup to them that was filled with pure water, and Jason and Medea drank from that cup.

Then Circe stayed by the hearth; she burnt cakes in the flame, and all the while she prayed to Zeus to be gentle with these suppliants. She brought both to the seashore. There she washed Medea's body and her garments with the spray of the sea.

Medea pleaded with Circe to tell her of the life she foresaw for her, but Circe would not speak of it. She told Medea that one day she would meet a woman who knew nothing about enchantments but who had much human wisdom. She was to ask of her what she was to do in her life or what she was to leave undone. And whatever this woman out of her wisdom told her, that Medea was to regard. Once more Circe offered them the cup filled with clear water, and when they had drunken of it she left them upon the seashore. As she went toward her marble house the strange beasts followed Circe, whimpering as they went. Jason and Medea went aboard the Argo,  and the heroes drew away from Circe's island.