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Padraic Colum

Medea the Sorceress

dropcap image HE turned away from her father's eyes and she went into her own chamber. For a long time she stood there with her hands clasped together. She heard the voice of Chalciope lamenting because Æetes had taken a hatred to her sons and might strive to destroy them. She heard the voice of her sister lamenting, but Medea thought that the cause that her sister had for grieving was small compared with the cause that she herself had.

She thought on 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; then she thought of his voice as he spoke after her father had imposed the dreadful trial upon him. She would have liked then to have cried out to him, "O youth, if others rejoice at the doom that you go to, I do not rejoice."

Still her sister lamented. But how great was her own grief compared to her sister's! For Chalciope could try to help her sons and could lament for the danger they were in and no one would blame her. But she might not strive to help Jason nor might she lament for the danger he was in. How terrible it would be for a maiden to help a stranger against her father's design! 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!

And then Medea hated Aea, her city. She hated the furious people who came together in the assembly, and she hated the brazen bulls that Hephaestus had given her father. And then she thought that there was nothing in Aea except the furious people and the fire-breathing bulls. O 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 lamented. 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 upon it. She longed for her sister to come to her or to call to her.

But Chalciope stayed in her own chamber. Medea, lying upon her couch, listened to her sister's laments. At last she went near where Chalciope was. 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 stir. As she stood between her couch and her sister's chamber she heard the voice of Chalciope calling to her.

She went into the chamber 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 henceforth." And 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 brazen bulls in the contest on the morrow!

So Chalciope came to the very thing that was in Medea's mind. Her heart bounded with joy and she embraced her. "Chalciope," she said, "I declare that I am your sister, indeed—aye, and your daughter, too, for did you not care for me when I was an infant? I will strive to save your sons. I will strive to save the strangers who came with your sons. Send one to the strangers—send him to the leader of the strangers, and tell him that I would 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."

Swiftly then Chalciope went from the chamber. But Medea stayed there with her head bowed and the blush of shame on her face. She thought that already she had deceived her sister, making her think that it was Phrontis and Melas and not Jason that was in her mind to save. And she thought on how she would have to plot against her father and against 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 comrades asked how he had fared, and when he spoke to them of 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 cast down, for this task, they thought, was one that could not be accomplished. He who stood before the fire-breathing bulls would perish on the moment. But they knew that one amongst them must strive to accomplish the task. And if Jason held back, Peleus, Telamon, Theseus, Castor, Polydeuces, or any one of the others would undertake it.

But Jason would not hold back. On the morrow, he said, he would strive to yoke the fire-breathing, brazen-footed bulls to the plow of adamant. If he perished the Argonauts should then do what they thought was best—make other trials 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 crave the help of girls! Speak no more of 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 him and them, for in his prophetic mind Orpheus saw something of the help that Medea would give them. It would be well, Orpheus said, to take help from this wise maiden; Jason should go to her in the temple of Hecate. The Argonauts agreed to this; they listened to what Phrontis told them about the brazen bulls, and the night wore on.

When darkness came upon the earth; when, at sea, sailors looked to the Bear and the stars of Orion; when, in the city, there was no longer the sound of barking dogs nor of men's voices, Medea went from the palace. She came to a path; she followed it until it brought her into the part of the grove that was all black with the shadow that oak trees made.

She raised up her hands and she 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. And now there was a howling as from the hounds of Hades all around her. Fearful, indeed, Medea grew as the howling came near her; almost she 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 goblet in her hand Medea poured out a libation of honey to Hecate, the Moon.

And then she went to where the moon made a brightness upon 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 brazen 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; then she mingled them in a phial that she put away in her girdle.

She went from that grove and along the river. When the sun shed its first rays upon snowy Caucasus she stood outside the temple of Hecate. She waited, but she had not long to wait, for, like the bright star Sirius rising out of Ocean, soon she saw Jason coming toward her. She made a sign to him, and he came and stood beside her in the portals 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 grievous it was to her to meet and speak to a stranger in this way. He took her hand and he spoke to her reverently, as one would speak to a priestess.

"Lady," he said, "I implore you by Hecate and by Zeus who helps all strangers and suppliants to be kind to me and to the men who have come to your country with me. Without your help I cannot hope to prevail in the grievous trial that has been laid upon me. If you will help us, Medea, your name will be renowned throughout all Greece. And I have hopes that you will help us, for your face and form show 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 upon him and she knew that she could hardly live if the breath of the brazen bulls withered his life or if the Earth-born Men slew him. She took the charm from out her girdle; ungrudgingly she put it into Jason's hands. And 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 portal of the temple. She told him how he should anoint 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 wither him nor the horns of the bulls pierce him. She told him also to sprinkle his shield and his sword with the charm.

And 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 cast a great stone amongst them. The Earth-born Men would struggle about the stone, and they would slay each other in the contest.

Her dark and delicate face was beautiful. Jason looked upon her, and it came into his mind that in Colchis there was something else of worth besides the Golden Fleece. And 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:

"Think not of treaties nor of covenants. In Greece such are regarded, 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 hasten away. You must not tarry 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 look upon him again. She bent her head again and she said: "Tell me about your own land; about the place of your father, the place where you will live when you win back from Colchis."

Then Jason told her of Iolcus; he told her how it was circled by mountains not so lofty as her Caucasus; he told her of the pasture lands of Iolcus with their flocks of sheep; he told her of the Mountain Pelion where he had been reared by Chiron, the ancient centaur; he told her of his father who lingered out his life in waiting for his return.

Medea said: "When you go back to Iolcus do not forget me, Medea. I shall remember you, Jason, even in my father's despite. And 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 counsel and he showed them the charm she had given him. That savage man Arcas scoffed at Medea's counsel and Medea's charm, saying that the Argonauts had become poor-spirited indeed when they had to depend upon a girl's help.

Jason bathed in the river; then he anointed himself with the charm; he sprinkled his spear and shield and sword with it. He came to Arcas who sat upon his bench, still nursing his anger, and he held the spear toward him.

Arcas took up his heavy sword and he hewed 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. And Jason, feeling within him a boundless and tireless strength, laughed aloud.