Medea and Jason: The Backstory

By the time Euripides’s play (and Cherubini’s opera) begins, Jason and Medea already have a long and dramatic history together. Since many of the elements of this Greek myth are incorporated into the opera’s libretto, it’s worth reviewing their story—including how they met, how they fell in love, and how they ultimately arrived in Corinth.

A Fateful Prophecy

Aeson was the rightful king of Iolcus, but his half-brother, Pelias, had usurped the throne. So when Aeson’s son Jason was born, he sent the boy to be raised by a centaur (a mythical creature with the upper body of a human and the four legs and body of a horse). Pelias, meanwhile, was a cruel and paranoid king, and when an oracle told him that he would one day be deposed by a man wearing a single sandal, he resolved to find and eliminate the man who would be his downfall.

Many years later, Pelias announced that he would host a sports tournament, and Jason, now grown, decided to join the games. He left his mountain home and headed for Iolcus. On the way, he helped an old woman cross a stream. In fact, this old woman was none other than Hera, queen of the gods, and Jason thereby earned her gratitude and protection.

While crossing the stream with Hera, however, Jason lost one of his sandals. Thus he arrived in Iolcos wearing only a single shoe, and Pelias—who had never forgotten the oracle’s prophecy—instantly recognized the grave threat to his throne. He slyly asked Jason what he would do if someone were looking to kill him. Jason replied that he’d send the would-be assassin to collect the Golden Fleece (the pelt of a flying sheep, made entirely of gold), which belonged to King Aeëtes of Colchis and was famously guarded by a dragon. All previous attempts to steal the fleece were fatally unsuccessful. Pelias listened to Jason’s excellent suggestion, and then he promptly ordered Jason to retrieve the Fleece.

The Golden Fleece

Jason set sail on his boat, the Argo, with his sailors, the Argonauts. When he arrived in Colchis, Aeëtes said that he would hand over the fleece only if Jason could perform a pair of impossible tasks: First, he must yoke a team of fire-breathing bulls. Second, he must plant a row of dragon’s teeth.

This was where Hera’s gratitude came in handy. Knowing that these tasks would be fatal for a mere mortal, she convinced her son, Eros, the god of love, to make Aeëtes’s daughter Medea fall in love with Jason. Medea, a talented herbalist, concocted an ointment to protect Jason from the bulls’ fiery breath. Next, she warned Jason that the dragon’s teeth, once planted, would instantly sprout into soldiers. Duly warned, Jason tricked the soldiers into attacking each other. Finally, Medea dosed the dragon guarding the Golden Fleece with a sleeping potion, allowing Jason to steal the treasure while the dragon slept.

The Return Journey

Aeëtes was not happy to discover that the Fleece was stolen. He set sail after the Argo, and his ships seemed poised to overtake Jason—until Medea offered to help. She grabbed her little brother (who had left Colchis with her), killed him, chopped his body into pieces, and threw the pieces overboard. Aeëtes ordered his soldiers to collect the corpse’s various bits from the water, which gave Jason ample time to escape.

Medea also cooked up a plan to vanquish Pelias. Arriving in Iolcus, she called the courtiers together and told them that, with her magic, she could make old people young again. As proof of her powers, she slaughtered an old sheep, chopped the meat into pieces, and boiled the pieces for hours in a pot of water and herbs. Then she released a young lamb that she had hidden under her cloak. To the assembled onlookers, it seemed as though the old sheep had been reborn as its youthful self. Medea then offered to perform the same trick on the old and ailing king. She instructed him to have his daughters chop him into pieces and deliver them to her; she would then boil him in the same herbal broth she had used in the trick with the sheep. Pelias and his daughters agreed. Of course, when his daughters chopped the king into pieces, he simply ended up dead.

Once again, Medea and Jason had to flee. Creon, king of Corinth, offered them safe harbor. Medea gladly accepted this haven for her family—until she realized that Jason’s eyes had strayed to Creon’s daughter… and that’s where the story of Cherubini’s opera begins.