Posts Tagged ‘Greece’
Have you ever walked into the other room and forgotten why you went in? Or been in the middle of a presentation for work or school and forgotten your next line? Though modern science has investigated and standardized the human information processing system that encompasses remembrance and recall, the concept of Memory and its importance was recognized very early on in human culture.
Without memory, much of everyday human interaction is meaningless. We operate within a system of recognized social queues and norms, and we cooperate best with those people and sub-systems which are most familiar to us. We all recognize that green means go and red means stop. And we know to trust our family and friends rather than the random stranger lurking on the street. We know these things, because they are embedded as part of our memories. We build up our knowledge base cumulatively utilizing memory. And thus, any new creations and inspirations can be tied into our ability to do this. The anthropologists of the past several decades have worked to formalize our understanding of this concept (Tomasello, etc). But it was recognized long ago, most famously by the ancient Greeks who cast memory into the personified form of the goddess Mnemosyne, and the bright ideas built off of memory became her inspirational daughters, the Muses.
Mnemosyne was a Titaness, one of the many deities representative of the earlier pantheon of the Indo-European Greek mainland which was supplanted by the more famous Olympians. Legend has it that for nine passionate nights, Zeus was allowed to forget about his troubles and stress as new divine ruler of the world by remaining in the arms of Mnemosyne. And from their union, nine months later, the nine Muses were born at the oracular springs of Pieria. These sacred waters were probably a prophetic pilgrimage site for those seeking to gain the favor of Mnemosyne and the ability to either remember or to forget. Mnemosyne holds sway over both of these qualities. She is said to control the River Lethe and subsidiary waters in the Underworld which grant forgetfulness of one’s previous life or continued remembrance of it into the next.
But she was not just honored for otherworldly role, but for the power she could imbue in her adherents in the mainstream world. Kings and politicians particularly sought her favor. And as the mother of the nine Muses, she was constantly evoked alongside her daughters. Indeed, it is likely that the Muses themselves were all initially aspects of Mnemosyne herself, which over time, became divisible and separated out as distinct deities of their own. When Homer so evocatively calls upon The Muse at the start of his Odyssey (“Sing to me of the man, Muse, that man of twists and turns drive time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy…Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus, start from where you will –sing for our time too”) it is likely early versions referenced Mnemosyne as a conglomeration of all the innnovative aspects which later became attributed out to her children. The oral nature of Homer’s work entails additions and alterations along the way. The singular general term ‘Muse’ as opposed to naming one of the specific deities, most likely Clio, Muse of History, implies higher levels of generalization or else a different entity than that which classical audiences would have assumed. The phrase ‘daughter of Zeus,’ though included in modern translations, is representative of a later alteration or addition to the text from periods whereby the relationship between Zeus and the Muses is more formalized. It may initially have said nothing of Zeus whatsoever, or else specified a different relationship to him.
The cosmology of Mnemosyne and her creative kiddies is most explicitly outlined in Hesoid’s Theogony or ‘Birth of the Gods:’
“(ll. 36-52) Come thou, let us begin with the Muses who gladden
the great spirit of their father Zeus in Olympus with their
songs, telling of things that are and that shall be and that were
aforetime with consenting voice. Unwearying flows the sweet
sound from their lips, and the house of their father Zeus the
loud-thunderer is glad at the lily-like voice of the goddesses as
it spread abroad, and the peaks of snowy Olympus resound, and the
homes of the immortals. And they uttering their immortal voice,
celebrate in song first of all the reverend race of the gods from
the beginning, those whom Earth and wide Heaven begot, and the
gods sprung of these, givers of good things. Then, next, the
goddesses sing of Zeus, the father of gods and men, as they begin
and end their strain, how much he is the most excellent among the
gods and supreme in power. And again, they chant the race of men
and strong giants, and gladden the heart of Zeus within Olympus,
– the Olympian Muses, daughters of Zeus the aegis-holder.
(ll. 53-74) Them in Pieria did Mnemosyne (Memory), who reigns
over the hills of Eleuther, bear of union with the father, the
son of Cronos, a forgetting of ills and a rest from sorrow. For
nine nights did wise Zeus lie with her, entering her holy bed
remote from the immortals. And when a year was passed and the
seasons came round as the months waned, and many days were
accomplished, she bare nine daughters, all of one mind, whose
hearts are set upon song and their spirit free from care, a
little way from the topmost peak of snowy Olympus. There are
their bright dancing-places and beautiful homes, and beside them
the Graces and Himerus (Desire) live in delight. And they,
uttering through their lips a lovely voice, sing the laws of all
and the goodly ways of the immortals, uttering their lovely
voice. Then went they to Olympus, delighting in their sweet
voice, with heavenly song, and the dark earth resounded about
them as they chanted, and a lovely sound rose up beneath their
feet as they went to their father. And he was reigning in
heaven, himself holding the lightning and glowing thunderbolt,
when he had overcome by might his father Cronos; and he
distributed fairly to the immortals their portions and declared
(ll. 75-103) These things, then, the Muses sang who dwell on
Olympus, nine daughters begotten by great Zeus, Cleio and
Euterpe, Thaleia, Melpomene and Terpsichore, and Erato and
Polyhymnia and Urania and Calliope (3), who is the chiefest of
them all, for she attends on worshipful princes: whomsoever of
heaven-nourished princes the daughters of great Zeus honour, and
behold him at his birth, they pour sweet dew upon his tongue, and
from his lips flow gracious words. All the people look towards
him while he settles causes with true judgements: and he,
speaking surely, would soon make wise end even of a great
quarrel; for therefore are there princes wise in heart, because
when the people are being misguided in their assembly, they set
right the matter again with ease, persuading them with gentle
words. And when he passes through a gathering, they greet him as
a god with gentle reverence, and he is conspicuous amongst the
assembled: such is the holy gift of the Muses to men. For it is
through the Muses and far-shooting Apollo that there are singers
and harpers upon the earth; but princes are of Zeus, and happy is
he whom the Muses love: sweet flows speech from his mouth. For
though a man have sorrow and grief in his newly-troubled soul and
live in dread because his heart is distressed, yet, when a
singer, the servant of the Muses, chants the glorious deeds of
men of old and the blessed gods who inhabit Olympus, at once he
forgets his heaviness and remembers not his sorrows at all; but
the gifts of the goddesses soon turn him away from these.
(ll. 104-115) Hail, children of Zeus! Grant lovely song and
celebrate the holy race of the deathless gods who are for ever,
those that were born of Earth and starry Heaven and gloomy Night
and them that briny Sea did rear. Tell how at the first gods and
earth came to be, and rivers, and the boundless sea with its
raging swell, and the gleaming stars, and the wide heaven above,
and the gods who were born of them, givers of good things, and
how they divided their wealth, and how they shared their honours
amongst them, and also how at the first they took many-folded
Olympus. These things declare to me from the beginning, ye Muses
who dwell in the house of Olympus, and tell me which of them
first came to be.”
Though Mnemosyne’s magickal powers were not preserved, her divinatory nature and her control over knowledge, remembrance, and the transitioning soul entitle her a role as a goddess for witches. Knowledge is power. And knowledge is created by Memory, which is ruled over by Mnemosyne.
As the United States collectively pauses to celebrate the memory of those we have lost in times of battle, it is fitting that we also celebrate our own ability to remember them. And perhaps wonder what lives they have moved on to now, and what memories they will retain of their former glory.
If you want to learn more about mythical and historical figures like Mnemosyne and delve into the deeper more fabulously magickal realms of the Witches of Antiquity, now is your chance! The Sacred Mists newest class, History of Witches in the Western World , is now open for enrollment. Created and taught by yours truly, the class utilizes the mythical, literary, and historical biographies of witch-figures to explore the history and anthropology of magick from prehistory through to the last century. I hope to see you around its digital hallowed halls!
Initial Image is Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Lamp of Memory or Mnemosyne. Completed in 1877, the canvas’ frame is inscribed with the phrase “Thou fill’st from the winged chalice of the soul/ Thy lamp, O Memory, fire-winged to its goal.”
Wine has been a dietary staple of mankind for millennia upon millennia. Since the creation of the first ritual vessel over 9,000 years ago it has been possible for men and women to create a wine like substance of fermented fruit. Fruits gathered as ancient hominid nomads first roamed the valleys and mountains of the world, exploring its marvels and magick for the first time. And stored in the hopes of keeping the delicate treat for a harsher season: and voila ~ wine was born!
From these earliest times up to the modern day, wine has held a special place among the drinks of men. Sometimes merely a staple beverage, sometimes taken purely for its intoxicating powers, but more often than not, the popularity of wine has been due to its ritual significance in culture after culture that discovered this remarkable indulgence.
The Origins of Wine
Wine, as we most commonly know it today in aisle 17 of the supermarket, is made from fermented grapes. As such, it first appeared approximately 7,000 years ago in the mountains of the Middle East, specifically at two known archaeological sites: Shulaveri, the late Neolithic typesite of the Shulaveri-Shomu culture in Georgia and Hajji Firuz Tepe, a slightly later (5400-5000 BCE) Neolithic village in the Zagros mountains of Iran. The earliest grape presses, used to mass produce larger quantities of wine, date to the 3rd millennium, and have been found at sites in Turkey, northern Greece, and on the plains of central Mesopotamia. The domestication of the grape and widespread viniculture likewise appears to stem from this same timeframe.
Historically, viniculture spread out from the mountains of the Near East. And with the rise of complex cultures in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, wine gained an even greater foothold ~ burrowing its way into the meals and the sacred religious traditions of the peoples it came into wider contact with. Traditions we are aware of courtesy of ancient art, early texts, and of course, classical myth.
Before we begin our exploration of the magickal history of wine, viniculture, and viticulture, there are three intriguing facts that bear remembering throughout the article: Firstly, that most wine in the ancient world was red wine according to modern chemical analyses of the remaining vessels that have been uncovered. Few samples of white wine have been found, the majority of which have come from the same source: none other than the famous King Tutankhamun’s tomb.
Secondly, that wine was typically consumed in a diluted format: mixed with water, other fruit juices, honey, etc. Ancient man would pretty much be appalled at the sheer strength of modern wine, which to their palate and alcoholic endurance would be entirely unsuitable. In other words, wine was not always drunk just to be, well, drunk, to use the other meaning of the word. Intoxication was not always what wine was consumed for. In a world where water wasn’t safe to drink alone, other things, like wine and beer substituted as the daily go-to drink when it was readily available. And when it was not readily available it was highly prized for its scarcity.
And thirdly, when archaeologists say they have found wine at a site, with the rare exception of some thick sludge at the bottom of an ancient amphorae; more often what they have found is the dried remnants of a wine compound on broken or whole vessels. Using complex and exciting modern technologies like infra-red spectrometry and liquid chromatography, scientists can identify the specific chemical compounds of what was once contained by vessels. In the case of wine, scientists are looking for large quantities of calcium salt from tartaric acid (something that occurs in such quantities only when grapes ferment) and some type of preservative signifying that what was held in the vessel was not simply just grape juice. In the case of Hajji Firuz Tepe’s wine, for instance, the resin of the terebinth tree, a natural preservative, was identified alongside calcium salt indicating that the grape juice was intentionally fermented to make wine.
Wine in Ancient Greece
Wine hit Greece and the islands of the Mediterranean circa 6,300 years ago as it flowed out of the Middle East. And it was the Greeks who would later import wine to Egypt and much later to their Greek colonies in Italy, and therefore eventually the Romans.
Greek religion is dominated by the idea of the cycle of life, death, and re-birth ~ of the flowing of the seasons from the bountiful spring through to the desiccated winter. And viniculture easily permeated this ever present interest in the magick of nature. Grapevines bud in the spring, burst forth their fruit in the summer and fall, and lie dormant in the winter, waiting until spring will wake them up again, drawing them forth from the afterlife. The Greek god of wine, Dionysus, was a dying god ~ who like his beloved grapes was ritually killed each winter only to be reborn in the spring.
A variety of wine rituals existed throughout ancient Greece, in its two precursor cultures the Minoan and the Mycenaean, as well as during the classical Greek period of the first millennium. Throughout the Minoan island empire, wine was a popular offering for their mysterious mother goddess Potnia ~ who required bloodless offerings unlike some of her divine counterparts and accepted wine as a suitable substitute in her rituals (she also, incidentally, accepted wool, cheese, honey, fennel, and coriander). Poseidon, a much older god than mainstream mythology gives him credit for, likewise favored wine as an offering ~ if statistical analyses of known offerings to him are correct. On the prehistoric mainland, where Mycenaean culture thrived, the Feast of New Wine (the me-tu-wo-ne-wo) was a popular ritual for the Mater Theia, an early mother goddess, rather than Dionysus, despite his already contemporary role as a dying god of wine. Feminist anthropologists suggest that this transfer of the normally male role was part and parcel of the fertility dynamic of the ‘new wine.’ Whether this ‘new wine’ was the first bud of the season in the vineyard or the first open bottle of the season (societal parallels would suggest the former) ~ posterity may never officially know, as the Pylos Text, our source for the Feast of New Wine is decidedly vague.
In classical Athens, the year was filled with festivals devoted to wine, vineyards, and their chthonic patron god Dionysus. In April, around what the Greeks considered their new year, was the Anethesteria~ the Festival of the Vine Flower: three days of celebrations in honor of the opening of the wine jugs from the previous successful crop. It also featured a sacred marriage between the god Dionysus (in the form of one of his priests) and a high ranking wife of local society ~ similar to the sacred marriage between the dying god and the goddess in several other earlier and contemporary Mediterranean cultures. Wine was celebrated likewise at each stage of its production. For the ancient Greeks it was not just the final product that was of importance, but the sacred site of the vineyard and the process whereby wine was created from the earth. The Greater Dionysia in late spring celebrated wine’s and Dionysus’ powers of inspiration and creative merriment with sexy parades through the city of the god’s image, theatrical performances, and yep, you guessed it ~ lots of wine drinking. The Lenaea festival in winter celebrated the birth of one of the forms of the god Dionysus in conjunction with the successful completion of the fermentation of the previous season’s wine. It, like the Dionysia, featured theatrical performances albeit of a much more somber, tragic nature. The Lesser Dionysia, meandering over the summer, took the Greater Dionysia on the road: brining the festival and its performances to the outlying villages. And the Argionia, another country festival, was part revelry and part Mystery Cult: re-enacting a mythic nighttime hunt for the god through the forest by his slightly drunken revelers.
Wine in Ancient Egypt
Ancient Egypt had a love-hate relationship with wine. Given Egypt’s minimal capability to grow grapes, with only a few sections of Egypt (like the Nile Delta) capable of cultivating such a crop, most wine was imported into Egypt. Thus for much of ancient Egyptian history both local and foreign wines were considered elite, and were therefore used only for ritual purposes or drunk by the uber elite and royal family (who, along with the temples owned most of the vineyards); with the exception of festivals like that of Hathor in Bubastis, where it was common for all people to be given free wine courtesy of temple lands. With wider trade routes and greater technological expansion, by the middle of the first millennia BCE however, wine had spread from temple and elite consumption to the wider masses and was, of course, wildly popular.
Wine was a popular grave good among the wealthy echelons of Egyptian society because it was, of course, something they wanted to take with them to drink and be merry with in the afterlife. Most wine in ancient Egyptian society was red wine, which was known as irep. A sweetened red wine, used more often for ritual purposes and drunk by the Pharaoh was called shedeh. With the discovery of white wine in King Tut’s tomb it is believed that it, too, was popular in the religious efforts of Egyptian high society, particularly for ritual purposes and as a grave good. Prior to the discovery of white wine in King Tutankamun tomb, white wine was not believed to have been around in Egypt until the first century BC, when vineyards producing whites are mentioned near Alexandria by Roman authors. If white wine was around for the two thousand or so years prior to their written inclusion and only appear the once on behalf of King Tut, it would appear that it must have held a particularly elite role within Egyptian society, perhaps even being a sacred wine of the temples which was rarely released to even the highest stratum of society.
The similarity of appearance between red wine and blood in particular disturbed the Egyptians and added to its mythical power within their society. To drink it was to drink the blood of the earth. Early cults among the Delta, dedicated to deities later known more commonly as Osiris, Isis and Seti, most likely used wine in their ceremonies and offerings, believing their gods to be rather vampiric in nature and that the wine might stand in for human sacrifices (a concept Anne Rice explores rather marvelously as the origin myth for her literary Vampires). Wine continued to be an offering to the gods of the earth in later, brighter periods of Egyptian culture and was, particularly associated with the blessing of crops and, Catch-22 style ~vineyards.
In the Moralia the later Roman author Plutarch mentions a particularly intriguing period of Egyptian history circa 60 BCE when the superstition regarding wine as blood had become so fervent among the Egyptian people that even the royal family ceased its consumption, believing it to be not just the blood of the earth, but the blood of the enemies of the gods whose bodies had swallowed by the grave. Naughty blood nobody wanted to drink and have be a part of them.
Wine in Ancient Rome
Rome was ultimately responsible for the spread of wine throughout Europe, and in particular for bringing the grape to France~ the modern world capital of viticulture. Technological progress in wine production and a sound infrastructure meant that Rome could make large quantities of wine wherever they wandered. By the start of the Roman Empire in the first century AD, wine was a staple of the Mediterranean diet: from commoner to elite. They, like their preceding and contemporary cultures, were enamored of vino and incorporated it in offerings to their household gods, state deities, and ancestors. But they likewise were cautious of the effects of over-drinking and sought to curb ritual activities that encouraged drunkenness. The Greek god Dionysus was sometimes called Acratophorus ‘ the giver of unmixed wine’ for his patronage of drunkenness, the frenzy called the bakcheia , a term that lent itself to Dionysus’ Roman name Bacchus, and his principal Roman festival the Bacchanalia (sometimes also called the Liberalia, in honor of the local god of Rome Liber, a figure often very similar to Bacchus). In 186 BCE, one of the earliest extant decrees of the Roman Republic sought to restrain the traditional widespread merriment of the Bacchanalia, which typically consisted of a night and day of feasting and initiation rites conducted by women on the outskirts of Rome around March 16th and 17th. While curtailed for the next several hundred years, the prohibition against indulgence only solidified the festival and the god’s power among the Roman people, particularly women ~ who found freedom in Bacchus’ cult and were allowed to hold high ranking position within.
Incidentally, the Romans were also very keen on the idea space having significant meaning and sacred symbolism, kind of like a Mediterranean feng shui. With regards to wine, they believed that a room for storing wine should be built with its doorway leading out to the north, because the north was not as subject to constant changes and cosmic turmoil which might disrupt the harmonious creation of good wine (Vitruvius, De Architectura 1.4.2).
The Rise and Fall (and the Rise again!) of Wine around the World
With the decline of the Roman Empire, the infrastructure which had encouraged the widespread production and trading of wine faltered. Western Europe descended into a brief bit of chaos known as the Dark Ages, and when it recovered, it had a new master: the Catholic Church. Fortunately for wine, the Catholic Church had early on incorporated wine into one of its most sacred ceremonies: the Eucharist aka Holy Communion. In this ritual, wine and bread/wafer cookies are consumed before a priest, representing the blood and flesh of Jesus Christ. It is a brief melding of the supplicant with his/her god. Intriguingly, just as the Egyptians and other cultures viewed wine as a metaphor for blood, so too does the modern world, where the Eucharist is still taken every Sunday by the Catholic Church’s resilient parishioners. It seems some perceptions of the world around us are too deeply ingrained to etch out: wine=blood being one of them. Lucky for wine though, because it was through the Church that wine survived the next thousand plus years and spread across the world. It was personally introduced to the Americas by no less than the Spanish conquistadors and their accompanying priests.
Today, wine is of course, one of the most popular alcoholic beverages on the market, merrily consumed by many a responsible adult of legal drinking age. But even in the secular modern world, the rituals of the grape lie lurking just around the corner.
In Eastern Europe for instance, there is the Trifon Zarezan quietly practiced every spring by Eastern Orthodox Communities. On February 1st, on the feast day of St. Trifon, grapevine branches are ritually trimmed to provide for new growth. The vineyards are blessed, and special bread is baked amidst lots of singing and merriment in anticipation of spring. St. Trifon is, by the way, the patron of wine-growers, wine-producers, and pub owners and is basically the modern, politically correct-local version of dear old Dionysus himself.
And on subtler levels, the vineyard too has come back into its own in the contemporary times. Once the site of blessings, rituals for growth and prosperity, and a site that connected the people to his gods; this connection with the natural world and with the movement of the cycles of the seasons so well respected in ancient times, was forgotten in the medieval period. Stodgy seeming monks and nuns controlled the vineyards of the dark Middle Ages, working to make the wine but not ritualizing the process of creation itself like the ancients did. Growing, and pressing, and preserving the grapes: but not enjoying the merriment that was to be had from the resulting product themselves. The rise of vineyards as a tourist destination is proof positive of a revitalized, maybe even subconscious, recognition of the sacred symbolism they represents. Life, death, rebirth. Merriment, inspiration, and the hard knocks of the hangover. Growing grapes and drinking wine is a microcosmic metaphor of life and living. The soil round the grapes absorbs the subtle flavors of its environment, the vines respond to the tending care of its keepers, and who knows, maybe the vineyards still provide a romping ground for the ancient gods themselves.
Honored through the ages for the natural magick it represents, wine and its vineyards are magickal elements woven into the everyday tapestry of life. Given this, it’s no wonder that Sacred Mists chose Napa Valley at its headquarters and as the location of its first real live store. Like the grapes growing in the valley, it too draws in the ambience of the marvelous and magickal nature surrounding it and people involved with it. The Shoppe opens tomorrow, Friday the 27th. Be there in person if you can. But if for whatever reason, you can only be there in spirit: then why not raise a glass of wine in toast of the Sacred Mists and of yourselves. And take a sip of a little bit of magick.
Berkowitx, M. 1996. World’s Earliest Wine Archaeology Vol. 49(5).
Burkert, W., 1985. Greek Religion Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
McGovern, P.E., 2003. Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Vergano, D., 2006. “White wine turns up in King Tutankhamun’s Tomb. USA Today
The Romance & Plight of Medea
Once upon a time, long long ago, in Colchis on the far eastern end of the Black Sea, there was a princess called Medea. And one day, a band of travelers came to Colchis, in search of the Golden Fleece which belonged to King Aeëtes, Medea’s father. The travelers, known to posterity as the Argonauts after their ship, The Argo; were led by Prince Jason of Iolcus; who had been challenged by his throne usurping Uncle Pelias, to capture the fleece and bring it back in return for the crown. King Aeëtes received Jason’s delegation amicably and decreed that if Jason could complete three epic challenges, Jason could sail away with the Fleece. Medea, present for their meeting and seeing Jason, either of her own volition or cursed by Aphrodite and Eros, the gods of l’amour, fell instantly in love with Jason. And unbeknownst to her father, agreed to help him in return for his hand in marriage and his making an offering to her goddess Hekate. At each of the challenges, Medea used her magick and herb-craft to keep Jason safe and bring him triumph: Medea gave him an herbal charm to protect him from the fiery breath of the Khalkotauroi (bronze oxen); advised him as to the best way to defeat a magickal group of soldiers sprung from dragon’s teeth; and gave him a sleeping potion to use on the fearsome dragon that guarded the Fleece.
With the challenges complete and the Fleece won, Jason whisked Medea away from her homeland with her protesting father and brother giving chase. In the resulting skirmish, Medea’s brother, Apsyrtus, is killed, thus angering the gods. Now cursed, Jason and Medea head to sea and back into the odyssey-like vignettes that characterized the Argonaut’s initial voyage to Colchis; except this , they have Medea and her magick to aid them. Initially, at the ship’s request (that’s right, The Argo could talk), they stop at the island home of Medea’s aunt, the sorceress Circe of Homeric fame, to have the ship magickally cleansed for the crime against Apsyrtus. Continuing on, post-purification, the Argonauts run into the sirens; before travelling on to Crete, which was guarded by a robot-like bronze guardian called Talos. Medea be-spelled Talos long enough to wound him fatally ~ using her apparent knowledge of metallurgical magickal arts to know the golem’s weak point.
Next they sailed to Jason’s home of Iolchus, at which point in the story, it is often assumed that Medea and Jason have been officially married; but alas, even with a foreign wife of noble blood and the Golden Fleece in tow, Pelias would not give up his brother’s crown to Jason, its rightful heir. It thus falls to Medea to get the kingship back for her husband. And so Medea tricks Pelias’ three daughters into believing that she can return the aged Pelias back to youth. Having given Jason’s father Aeson back some of his youth, she is rumored to have power over life and death. So she shows them a ritual similar to the one she performed for Aeson, whereby an elderly ram is chopped up, brewed in a cauldron of magickal herbs, and comes back out as a lamb; and then instructs the daughters to do the same for their father. They merrily (and gruesomely) chop him up, but Medea withholds the correct magickal formula for the herbs, and Pelias remains old, and dead. Unfortunately, Medea’s ploy to win the crown for her handsome hubby backfires: the people of Iolcus, led by Jason’s cousin and Pelia’s son, Acastus, run Jason and Medea out of town for her trickery.
Jason and Medea then flee to Corinth and set up shop. And they have two children, usually said to be sons. But in the Greek culture of the historic classic period, when the tales of Jason and Medea were finally written down; a foreign wife, like Medea, did not have citizenship: leaving the family status and Jason’s prestige in the lurch. Yearning for more power, Jason claims his family at home is not legitimate given Medea’s dubious legal status; and he ends up betrothed to the local Princess Glauce (sometimes called Creusa). Medea, furious, vows revenge, and sends a poisoned wedding dress to the lucky princess. Glauce and her father, King Creon, both die by the dress; leaving Jason once again without a throne to look forward to. And in some versions of the tale, Jason accosts Medea, only to learn that she has also murdered their two children, fearing both Jason’s wrath and the wrath of the citizen’s upon them for her regicide (Although in one version it is the crowd which kills the children; after Euripides’ play featuring the above storyline, few have deviated from the more dramatic element of Medea killing them herself).
Medea is swept away from Corinth by her grandfather, the sun god Helios and continues to travel around Greece. She first takes refuge in Thebes with her friend and former Argonaut, now the King, Herakles (Hercules,) before again being cast out when word of her wicked reputation reaches the Thebans. Next she takes refuge in Athens, where she meets and married King Aegeus, father of the hero Theseus and namesake of the Aegean Sea around Greece. Medea, now a skilled political schemer, arranges for her new son (some say by Jason, others by Aegeus), Medus, to become the heir apparent for the Athenian crown; and all goes well until Theseus appears and claims his birthright. Attempting to win the crown for her son, Medea attempts to kill Theseus and is caught in the act by Aegeus who promptly kicks her and Medus out of Athens. They run back home to Colchis, where Medea dethrones an evil uncle and puts one of her other brothers on the throne. And then, according to Herodotus at least, Medea and Medus move farther east into Iran where they become the namesakes of the Medes, an early incarnation of the cultural group that will eventually become the ancient Persians.
Jason, meanwhile, regains his throne in Iolcus, but lives out his life scorned by the gods for reneging on his promises to Medea. Ultimately, aged and ruined, he takes up residence under the remains of his once glorious ship, the Argo; only to be killed when the rotting wood of the hull fell apart on his head.
How do we know Medea’s Story?
Medea’s story is a tale of a woman scorned; the tale of the Hester Prynne & Scarlet Letter of the Ancient World. Her story is both the simple, heart-rending quest of a woman looking for love a la the Lifetime Channel; and a complex wander through the realms of ancient Greek myth. Even the basic tale of Medea is a sprawling epic of many names, multiple places, and considerable socio-political and fairy tale elements. It would have been told orally for possibly a millennia before it was ever written down, with elements added, subtracted, and altered to reflect the understanding of the audiences it was being told to. For instance, take the dubious legal loophole through which Jason divorces Medea. This is an element of the political and legal system of classical Athens circa the 5th century BCE, but in the story it is applied to the period of the tale, which is typically dated to have occurred (if it did indeed occur in any way, shape, or form) sometime around the 12th century BCE at the beginning of the Greek Dark Ages. But not everything is reworked and old elements slip in, staying because they are fragments of society still in use or those recognized as ancient: for instance the use of bronze when by now the Greeks had discovered harder metals; or the idea of their being a King of Athens and Corinth, when by the classic period, only Sparta had kings, most other city-states had adopted other more democratic forms of government.
The tale above is one I have amalgamated for you, as a timeline of Medea, taken from the primary historic literary versions of her tale. Each of those stories varies in its details and some only tell part of her tale, relying on the pop culture knowledge of its contemporary audience, much of which we are no longer aware of, to fill in the blanks. Although Hesiod, Pindar, and Herodotus both mention her, the earliest full source is Euripides classic play Medea , a tragedy which was written and performed first in ancient Athens in 431 BCE century and onwards and which focuses only on Medea’s time in that same city, though it mentions earlier events and foreshadows later ones within its script. It is considered the classic version of the story, as well as one of the most venerated plays in all of theatric history. Next comes Apollonius of Rhodes’ Alexandrine epic The Argonautika from the third century BCE. This text is unique in its romantic and epic language, and its use of extensive research to fill in the earlier portions of the story in particular. For Apollonius was a scholar at the library of Alexandria and in writing his tale, he preserved for us snippets of earlier texts, poems, and oral lore which recounted the melancholy tale of Medea. A smattering of others reference her in between classical Greece and Imperial Rome until finally there is Seneca’s Medea and Ovid’s 1st century AD versions of her in his Metamorphoses and The Heroides (which translates to The Heroines), which Ovid based on the classical mythology and clues from the decorative artwork of Greece that had been handed down to the culture of Rome. Ovid was much enamored of the story of Medea, and indeed wrote a third, full length text telling her tale which has sadly been lost to mankind by the ravages of time. However, his Metamorphoses provides ample anthropological details on the magickal rites of Medea and therefore what was considered pop culture magick or ancient ritual by his time period, and his Heroides delivers a poignant “letter” of Medea’s story, telling the tale as if from the point of view of the witch herself.
The Anthropological Background of Medea
Medea, an eastern figure, enters what we now know as Greek myth at an important time in proto-history; as the eastern European tribes of the Asian steppes migrated into the Balkan Peninsula, mixing with the so-called Pelagasian population that was already living in what is now modern day Greece. The mixture of populations as thus would have resulted first in a period of cultural conflict as the two societies’ belief systems and sacred stories fought for supremacy before ultimately settling into an amalgamated version which reflected the dominance of one and the submission of the other. In other words, the two sets of stories got shoved together and the powerful witch/goddess of Eastern legend becomes subject to and wife of the more western hero Jason; with the role of Medea and her dark arts possibly considerably toned down from what they may have once been and twisted to cast her as the villain. The culture that resulted from the mix of the Eastern nomads and the “Pelagasians” becomes the Mycenaean society of Dark Age Greece, circa 1200-800 BCE. Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, contemporaries of the story of Jason and the Argonauts, are likewise born from this same mish-mashing of East meets West, and indeed all three stories cross-reference each other considerably, both in the use of the same characters and the use of certain linguistic phrases to describe people, places, actions, and cultural facets.
Medea’s story, in particular, is an ethical quagmire of the ancient world. Undeniably a villain for much of her tale, she starts off as the bright, innocent heroine, eager to help her hero succeed. Through circumstance and experience she is shaped into the nasty piece of work the society of her tale needed her to be in order to understand her place within their contemporary mythology. Medea, as a woman, was too powerful for them to begin with. Her magick afforded her a weapon against society, which put her on equal stance with men and allowed her loopholes around the burgeoning legal rules which ancient Greek society was starting to view as necessary and unbreakable. Her role as an outsider, a member of a barbarian nation to the East who has migrated into the “civilized” world of the Greek city-states, adds to the fear surrounding Medea. She becomes the misogynist’s boogeyman, terrifying three millennia’s’ worth of men with the tales of her magickal destruction and her symbolic role as the ultimate woman scorned. Even when sympathetic versions of her are introduced, like Ovid’s letter from Medea to Jason in the Heroides: she cannot even excuse herself for the evil acts she has and is about to commit. Modern opinions of Medea are perhaps more lax, in that expanded women’s rights and increased general psychological knowledge give us a deeper insight into the mind of Medea, who’s actions, though still not excusable, can be arguably seen as having a motive.
The later sections of Medea’s journey are also of anthropological note as not only does Medea travel from her native Colchis, she moves from Greek city-state to city state: Colchis to Iolcus to Corinth to Thebes to Athens, back to Colchis, and then potentially to the Iranian plateau. This could speculatively be associated with the cult of Medea or an ancient sorceress/goddess figure quite like her, moving across the prehistoric landscape and being variously adopted and then neglected just before or during the so-called Greek Dark ages (1200 to 800 BCE). But even with this cult gone, a vague memory of it lingered into the historic period to be included as one of the tourist stops along Medea’s life voyage.
The sometime finale to the story of Medea killing her children could also be explained as a regional variation of this religious following. In Athens, there is indeed evidence of an early mother goddess cult, often associated with Hera and Medea alike, which involved either the ritual death of children or else was in honor of the early death of children and the mourning mothers (let’s hope the latter). In Corinth there are indications of a cult specifically focusing on Medea and Jason’s two deceased children themselves. Temple excavations at several archaic Greek sites associated with this early mother goddess group contain the burials of children within or around the foundations of the building. Although macabre to modern tastes, this focus on death, especially the death of young people, is common throughout world cultures, both ancient and modern; especially in the developing stage between a nomadic existence and settling down in towns and cities. In the ancient Near East, it was quite common for the bodies of younger members of societal groups to be relegated to distinct burial areas separate from the living spaces and the adult burial grounds; either in commemoration, or in fear that those who had not had a chance to live would retaliate on the still-living or their remains.
Another possible cult detail hidden within Medea’s tale regards the use of Pelias’ three daughters. In almost all versions of the story, they are basically seen as faux-initiates of Medea who are meant to learn magickal workings from her but are ultimately, for political/vengeful reasons, not allowed into the full secrets of Medea’s magickal craft. This is potentially indicative of some element of the cult whereby magickal knowledge was transferred from teacher to student until ultimately, with the cult’s downfall, the power of the magick faded and initiates were left in the dark, literally.
Exploring the Witchcraft of Medea
The sheer antiquity of the character of Medea is also attested to in the types of magick Medea practices within what remains of her tale. Medea’s magick is not the ritual temple magick, secret devotion, or cosmopolitan charlatanism that came to dominate the classical Greek period: it is a darker breed altogether. Medea acts more as a tribal shaman cum medicine woman of the older hunter-gatherer days. Her ways are less the ways of the city-states she visits and more those of the countryside and the mysterious “other” of foreign lands outside the realm of “civilized” society. She is a darker, chthonic goddess of life and death, power and destruction. She builds kingdoms and watches them fall, only to help them rebuild again. Her magicks, like her, are representative of the older ways on the outskirts of the Greek culture that built the city and the myth around her.
Medea is first and foremost, a devotee of the goddess Hekate. But whereby the acts and devotions of priestesses of her ilk had become privatized by the classical Greek period when her story was written down, Medea, wild-child that she is perceived to be, practices her prayers in public and private alike. She has no qualms about involving others in her rituals and at multiple points in her story invites others to witness her magick, pushing them away only at the peak of ritual thus preserving only a small element of secrecy. Apollonius has Medea and Jason perform an offering prior to his trials together, where in she instructs him on how to invoke magick herself. And in most versions, Pelias’ daughters as well as a possible royal retinue witness the midnight youth ritual both the times she conducts it properly and the time she purposefully does not, again, only being kicked out for a brief portion of the ritual. Despite these witnesses, Medea’s magick is not the communal magick of a temple, it is a personal relationship with a goddess. It is an individual chanting alone in a sacred grove rather than a throng singing together as a priest makes a sacrifice.
Medea’s affinity for Hekate runs in the family. Her mother Idyia, her aunt Circe, and potentially her sister, are likewise devotees of the goddess and of her student the goddess Artemis/Diana. Intriguingly, most versions of Medea’s story indicate that a grove or shrine sacred to the goddess existed near the “palace” of King Aeëtes in Colchis. Colchis, or Kolkhis, is not so much a city as a region in modern day Georgia (the country, not the state mind you ~ you have no idea how often that confuses people). King Aeëtes would have not been so much the ruler of a city and its people as the leader of one large or several nomadic groups along the edge of the Black Sea, with a potentially movable “capital” and immovable sacred sites. Ovid’s Heroides insists that not only is there a grove, but that in it, is a golden statue of Diana, “wrought by barbarian hands” ~ an anthropological detail backed by archaeological and historical evidence of the religious practices of the Balkan and Caucasus regions around the Black Sea: sacred groves with central features, often a statue, which has been embedded with precious metals. Notably there is the later sanctuary at Sarmizegetuza in modern day Romania, which was built over a pre-existing sacred site quite similar to the sacred grove in Colchis under discussion. However, for all that there are sacred sites which Medea works her magick in, she and her magick are not tied to the site alone. She does not have to be working within the confines of the goddesses’ sacred space, be it a grove or a temple, in order to call upon the goddess. She uses her powers this just as easily from the bow of The Argo, in a field outside Iolcus, and in the streets of Athens as she does at the beginning of her story in the grove of her goddess.
Medea’s magickal litany consists of several practices which are still highly regarded within witchcraft today; namely: the arts of invocation, purification, herb-lore, and rituals combing these elements. It is her herb craft which distinguishes her more as a witch and less a simple pagan priestess. She uses her herbal skills multiple times throughout her life: twice to help win the Golden Fleece, in the youth ritual for the ram and Pelias, and as a poison against Glauce, her father, and later Theseus. She also uses her herbs to heal, in what are often side notes to the primary tale which are typically disregarded or made little of because they cast the wicked witch in a more positive role. Even I have left some of these side-notes out of my narrative above because they are often just that, side notes to the primary tale. Medea heals several of the Argonauts while on board ship, most notably the highly controversial and only female Argonaut, Atalanta. She heals and makes younger Jason’s father, Aeson. And she also cures Hercules when she visits him later in Thebes. Ironically, Hercules would eventually succumb to the same kind of “poisoned-outfit death” Medea had previously sentenced Glauce to just before she visited Hercules.
The biggest magickal feat she performs, however, is arguably the youth ritual at Iolcus. And it is this which I would like to leave you with as the pinnacle of Medea’s magick. [Please note, do not try this ritual at home ~ even if you can find a dragon to take you round to collect all the ingredients: don’t even think about repeating it!] Ovid’s rendition of this magickal feat is, in my opinion, the best of the bunch, albeit the one that takes the most mythological license.
“Three nights remained before the moon’s bright horns
Would meet and form her orb; when she shone
In fullest radiance and with form complete
Gazed down upon the sleeping lands below.
Medea, barefoot, her long robe unfastened,
Her hair upon her shoulders falling loose,
Went forth alone upon her roaming way,
In the deep stillness of the midnight hour.
Now men and birds and beasts in peace profound
Are lapped; no sound comes from the hedge; the leaves
Hang mute and still and all the dewy air
Is silent; nothing stirs; only the stars
Shimmer. Then to the stars she stretched her arms,
And thrice she turned about and thrice bedewed
Her locks with water, thrice a wailing cry
She gave, then kneeling on the stony ground,
‘O night’ , she prayed, ‘Mother of mysteries,
And all ye golden stars who with the moon
Succeed the fires of day, and thou, divine
Three-formed Hecate, who knowest all
My enterprises and dost fortify
The arts of magic, and thou, kindly earth,
Who dost for magick herbs provide;
Ye winds and airs, ye mountains, lakes, and streams,
And all ye forest gods and gods of night,
Be with me now! By your enabling power,
At my behest, broad rivers to their source
Flow back, their banks aghast; my magick song
Rouses the quiet, calms the angry seas;
I bring the clouds and make the clouds withdraw,
I call the winds and quell them; by my art
I sunder the serpents’ throats; the living rocks
And mighty oaks from out their soil I tear;
I move the forests, bid the mountains quake,
The deep earth groan and ghosts rise from their tombs.
Thee too, bright Moon, I banish, though thy throes
The clanging bronze assuage; under my spells
Even my grandsire’s chariot grows pale
And the dawn pales before my poisons’ power.
You at my prayer tempered the flaming breath
Of the dread bulls, you placed their necks,
Necks never yoked before, the curving plough;
You turned the warriors, serpent-born, to war
Against themselves; you lulled at last to sleep
The guardian that knew not sleep, and sent
Safe to the homes of Greece the golden prize.
Now I have need of essences whose power
Will make age new, bring back the bloom of youth,
The prime years win again. These you will give.
For not in vain the shimmering stars have shown,
Nor stands in vain, by winged dragons drawn,
My chariot here.’ And there the chariot stood,
Send down from heaven her purpose to fulfill.
She mounted, stroked and harnessed dragon’s necks,
Shook the light reins and soared into the sky,
And gazing down beheld, far far below,
Thessalian Tempe; then the serpent’s course
She set of regions that she knew of old.
The herbs that Pelion and Ossa bore,
Othyrs and Pindus and that loftiest peak,
Olympus, she surveyed those that pleased
Some by the roots she culled, some with the curve
Of her bronze blade she cut; many she chose
Beside Apidanus’ green banks and many
Beside Amphrysus; now was swift Enipeus
Exempt; Peneus too and the bright stream
Of broad Spercheus and the reedy shores
Of boeb gave their share, and from Anthedon
She plucked the grass of life, not yet renowned
For that sea-change the Euboean merman found.
And now nine days had seen her and nine nights
Roaming the world, driving her dragon team.
Then she returned; the dragons, though untouched
Save by the wafting odor of the those herbs,
Yet sloughed their aged skins of many years.
Before the doors she stopped nor crossed the threshold;
Only the heavens covered her; she shunned
Jason’s embrace; then two turf altars built,
The right to Hecate, the left to youth,
Wreathed with the forest’s mystic foliage,
And dug two trenches in the ground beside
And then performed her rites. Plunging a knife
Into a black sheep’s throat she drenched the wide
Ditches with blood; next from the chalice poured
A stream of wine and from a second chalice
Warm frothing milk, chanting magick words,
Summoned the deities of the earth and prayed
The sad shades’ monarch and his stolen bride
That, of their mercy, from old Aeson’s frame
They will not haste to steal the breath of life.
And when in long low-murmured supplications
The deities were appeased, she bade bring out
The old exhausted king, and with a spell
Charmed him to deepest sleep and laid his body,
Lifeless it seemed, stretched on a bed of herbs.
Away! She ordered Jason and Away!
The ministrants and warned that eyes profane
See not her secrets; then with streaming hair,
Ecstatic round the flaming altars moved,
And in the troughs of blood dipped cloven stakes
And lit them dripping at the flames, and thrice
With water, thrice with sulfur, thrice with fire
Purged the pale sleeping body of the king.
Meanwhile with the deep bronze cauldron, white
With bubbling froth, the rich elixir boils.
Roots from the vales of Thessaly and seeds
And flowers from the farthest Orient
And sand that Ocean’s ebbing waters wash,
And hoar-frost gathered when the moon shines full,
And wings and flesh of owls and the warm guts
Or wolves that change at will to human form.
To them she adds the slender scaly skins
Of Libyan water-snakes and then the livers
Of long-living gazelles and eggs and heads
Of ancient crows, nine generations old.
With these and a thousand other nameless things
Her more than mortal purpose she prepared.
Then with a seasoned stick of olive wood
She mixed the whole and stirred it. And behold!
The old dry stick that stirred the bubbling brew
Grew green and suddenly burst into leaf,
And all at once was laden with fat olives;
And where the froth flowed from the pot
And the hot drops spattered the ground beneath,
Fair springtime bloomed again, and everywhere
Flowers of the meadow sprang and pasture sweet.
And seeing this Medea drew her blade
And slit the old king’s throat and let the blood
Run out and filled his veins and arteries
With her elixir; and when Aeson drank,
Through wound and lips, at once his lips and beard,
White for long years, regained their raven hue;
His wizened pallor, vanquished, fled away
And firm new flesh his sunken wrinkles filled,
And all his limbs were sleek and proud and strong.
Then Aeson woke and marveled as he saw
His prime restored forty years before.”
Bibliography of Secondary Sources
Cleasby, H.L., 1907. The Medea of Seneca. Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 18, pp. 39-71.
Clauss, J.J., and Johnston, S.I. (eds.), 1997. Medea: Essays on Medea in Myth, Literature, and Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Cockburn, G. 2005. Lecture series on Medea: Analysis & Interpretation. Durham University
Medea and Witchcraft in Classical Greek Art
The Medea Tradition presented by Wesleyan College
(For classical, primary sources, please see links embedded in the text)