Advent Calendar of Witches, Day 6, Medea

I didn’t know Jason and the Argonauts is really The Witch Medea Gets Your Golden Fleece for You, You Fucking Incompetent. But that’s the story in a nutshell.

I read the picture book version of Jason and the Argonauts to my daughter on a day when she was shaken by a boy as he told her to “Shut up, Bossy.” She thinks a tale of adventure will make her feel better.

On the night of her escape with Jason and her father’s fleece, Medea chopped up her brother and strew the parts of him around the forest so their father would be stopped by grief and the duty to gather the pieces of his son back up.

I can’t read this scene without wondering what that brother did to her, what her father did. The book says Hera cursed her to love Jason. But how many times have I read the word seduced when what happened was raped? Read loved but understood imprisoned? I think a curse from Hera meant escape from an abusive situation by any means necessary.

I wrote about Medea and the lessons I have learned from my kid’s books of fairy tales and adventure stories in “The Invention of Mothers,” in a recent issue of Gulf Coast. Among the lessons:

Beyond the sea came many more adventures resolved by Medea’s magic. She showed some daughters a spell whereby she turned an old ram into a young one after dropping it in her boiling cauldron. Do we believe the daughters when they say they only wanted to restore their father’s youth? They swore before his boiled corpse they thought surely it would work. Personally, I think of this chapter as Medea’s “Spell for a Good Cover Story Which She’ll Give to Any Woman Who Asks.”

and

Another of Medea’s clever deeds was to feed raw meat to the Witch of the Woods and her hounds so the Argonauts could pass safely. The men ran in terror past the crone crouched and devouring, her face blood-stained with gluttony, while our sorceress lingered to say goodbye with affection to a woman we realize is her friend and sister in the craft. If any moment in this story can be made real, I want this friendship with the woman who will grow up to become Baba Yaga in her house of sweets to be the one.

Were I ever going to advise a daughter that boys will be boys, it would be in the face of what was done to Talos. Talos, a man of stone and fire, stood at the shore doing his job stopping people who should be stopped. It seems clear to me that Jason should be stopped. But Medea tricked the monster into letting her unplug the nail that held in his ichorous fire. He dies in her arms, floating in the sea, asking when she was going to fill him back up with the immortality she promised. How tenderly she cradles him as she is killing him. Then I remember he was a volcano man who wanted immortality on top of that. Typical.

But most importantly

You will never get me to believe Medea killed her children and showed their corpses to cheating Jason just to make him grieve. I don’t care how many times you put Euripides on a stage. I don’t believe it in part because Medea isn’t real so I don’t have to, but also because there are many versions of the story, some recorded and some lost in the mist of a long oral tradition, each its own work of art or propaganda for whichever city state in whatever geopolitical crisis a writer found themselves in. There were times and places when Medea’s story had no end at all, just island after island. Sometimes she is powerful, sometimes angry, often happy, fighting maybe or victorious or eating a hunk of meat with her sister beside a warm fire crackling forth ephemeral constellations, a hibiscus flower in her hair like a girl, a sword at her waist like a queen. For as many nights as the children can stay awake to listen.

You can read this essay in its entirety at Gulf Coast.

Published by Kathryn Nuernberger

Kathryn Nuernberger's latest books are THE WITCH OF EYE (Sarabande), an essay collection about witches and witch trials coming out in February 2021, and RUE (BOA, 2020), a collection of poems about plants historically used for birth control and pissed off feelings about patriarchal bullshit. The End of Pink (BOA 2016) won the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets. Her collection of lyric essays is Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past (The Ohio State University Press, 2017). A recipient of fellowships from the NEA, American Antiquarian Society, Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life, H. J. Andrews Research Forest, She teaches in the creative writing program at University of Minnesota. Recent work appears in 32 Poems, Cincinnati Review, Copper Nickel, Gulf Coast, Paris Review, The Southern Review, and Waxwing.

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