Who Killed Medea’s Children?

In my last post I began to talk about myth and ritual in ancient Greece, and I made a distinction between local myth and ritual on the one hand and Panhellenic myth and ritual on the other. My current project is an investigation of local myth and ritual. A good place to start this investigation is the ancient travel book written by Pausanias; this book is usually called A Guide to Greece or Description of Greece. Pausanias is probably not at the top of your reading list of ancient Greek texts. We don’t know much about Pausanias. We can tell that he was writing in the second half of the second century AD, partly because he refers directly or indirectly to the emperors Hadrian (117–138), Antoninus Pius (138–161), and Marcus Aurelius (161–180). To put this in some perspective, Pausanias was writing roughly eight hundred and fifty years after Homer, if we place Homer around 700 BC, or more than five hundred years after the death of Socrates.

Pausanias is primarily a witness to his own time. If he heard a story in the year 175 AD, we can’t necessarily assume that people five hundred or eight hundred years earlier were telling the same story. My personal hunch, however, is that these traditions were quite persistent. I think it’s likely that in general the Panhellenic stories developed later than the local stories, but it’s also possible that local traditions continued to develop alongside the process of Panhellenic diffusion. We also should recognize that Greek culture of the time of Pausanias is interesting for its own sake, not just as a reflection of the Archaic or Classical periods, but with some caution he can be used as a possible source for earlier periods.

So much for dates, what about location? Some of Pausanias’ comments suggest that he may have been born near Mount Sipylos, near Magnesia, in the western part of modern-day Turkey. That’s all that we know for sure about Pausanias, though there are speculations that he might have been a doctor. I think we can also speculate that he had some money, because his travels must have cost a lot; and we can say that he was curious and open-minded. He was remarkably observant; modern archeologists have learned that if Pausanias says there’s a temple at such and such a spot, if you dig at that spot there’s a good chance you’ll find it.

His book, his only book, is an extensive description of mainland Greece, based on his travels there over a period of many years. His account is extremely interesting to archaeologists and art historians, and it is also a valuable source for students of Greek myth. I don’t think he intended to be a mythographer, say in the way that Apollodorus around the same time compiled his Library of Greek Mythology, which amounts to an encyclopaedia of ancient Greek myth. The information Pausanias gathered about myth derives directly from his method—or perhaps it’s too grand to say that he had a method—perhaps we should just say his habit. By and large, Pausanias comes to a town, walks around, he sees various monuments, such as temples or statues or other kinds of landmarks. He asks the people in the town about these monuments, and sometimes they tell him a story, that is, a myth. This method, or this habit, tends to favor the reporting of local myths, that is, myths that are tied to a locality.

I should mention here that I am generally using the Loeb edition of Pausanias, in five volumes, with a translation by W. H. S. Jones. There is also a two-volume English translation by Peter Levi, published by Penguin; this is handy and less expensive than the Loeb, but the translation should be checked against the original, and his section references don’t always match with those in the Loeb. There is an old translation and commentary by Sir James G. Frazer, in six volumes; this is particularly valuable for archaeology and history, less so for myth. A new commentary under the direction of Gregory Nagy is now in process, but I don’t think it’s very far along as yet. Pausanias, in my opinion, is not a great writer, but there are certainly times when you need to see what he’s saying in Greek, as we will see.

So with this much background, I begin by looking at an example of a local version of a Panhellenic myth. The story of Jason and Medea is one of the more popular Panhellenic myths. Pelias, the King of Iolcos, sends Jason to Cholkis to get the Golden Fleece; in Cholkis Jason meets Medea, the daughter of King Aietes, and with her help he steals the Fleece. They flee and return to Iolcos where Medea, by a trick, kills King Pelias. She and Jason flee to Corinth, where the King, Creon, offers to marry his daughter Glauke to Jason. Medea is angry that Jason is throwing her over for another woman; she sends Glauke a poisoned robe, which kills her and her father. She then kills her children by Jason and flees to Athens. The later part of this story is familiar to us from the tragedy Medea, written by Euripides and first performed in Athens in 431 BC. A notable part of this play is the great argument Medea has with herself about killing the children.

But Pausanias has a different version of these events. Here is what he says, in Book 2.3.6–7. At this point he is travelling on the road from Corinth to Sicyon. He says, “As you go along another road from the marketplace, which leads to Sicyon, you can see on the right of the road a temple and bronze image of Apollo, and a little farther on a spring called the Spring of Glauke. Into this they say she threw herself in the belief that the water would be a cure for the drugs of Medea.”

This is quite typical of what we find in Pausanias. He is walking along and he sees something worth talking about. Often there’s a story to tell, and often he has heard the story from the people in the area, as he indicates with the verb “they say”, or λέγουσι in Greek. Continuing, he sees the tomb of Medea’s children. “Their names were Mermerus and Pheres, and they are said to have been stoned to death by the Corinthians owing to the gifts which legend says they brought to Glauke.” So, according to this story reported by Pausanias, when Medea had prepared the poisoned robe, she gave it to her children to take to Glauke, and after Glauke died the Corinthians killed the children. This is quite a different story from what happens in Euripides’ play. Pausanias is not alone in telling this version. Apollodorus, in his encyclopedia The Library of Greek Mythology gives both versions: first he says that Medea killed the children, but then he says, “According to another account, when Medea was fleeing, she abandoned her children, who were still very young, by seating them as suppliants on the altar of Hera; but the Corinthians forced them away from the altar and inflicted fatal injuries upon them” (1.9.28). Most scholars, I think, believe that Euripides here is the innovator when he has Medea kill the children, but if so, it is his version which has become most well known today. It is easy to see why Euripides relished the dramatic situation of Medea’s internal debate.

The account in Pausanias, however, does not stop there. He goes on to say that the dead children, Mermerus and Pheres, in revenge caused the newborn babies in Corinth to die, until the Corinthians were ordered by an oracle to institute annual sacrifices for them and also to set up a monument to Terror, in the form of “the likeness of a woman frightful to look upon”. These sacrifices are no longer held, he explains, because the Romans destroyed Corinth back in 146 BC and later resettled it with an entirely new population, and he also says that children there no longer cut their hair or wear black clothing for the children—the implication being that that’s what they used to do—but he says that the monument to Terror still existed, and I think we can assume that he saw it. But even though the sacrifice has been discontinued, the new residents of the city still know the story, they still refer to Glauke’s Spring, and they still point out the tomb of the children.

There are two features of Pausanias’ story here that I want to emphasize. First, we note that part at least of the story is linked to a feature of the landscape: in this instance, the spring which is called Glauke’s Spring. We will often see that the local version of a myth is in some way linked to the landscape. A Panhellenic version of a story is less likely to be linked to the landscape, just because someone living in another region of Greece isn’t going to be walking by this spring and probably doesn’t even know about it. Second, the story is linked to a ritual practice: in this case, the Corinthians performed an annual sacrifice and the children cut their hair and wore black clothing—even though these ritual practices have been discontinued. So these are two points to keep in kind—linkage to the landscape, and linkage to some kind of ritual practice. These two features don’t always show up; sometimes we see one or the other, and sometimes neither, but they are common enough to be notable, and they will show up in my following essays on this topic.

3 thoughts on “Who Killed Medea’s Children?

  1. Wanted to let you know that I got a great deal out of this part of the project. In fact, as I read along and got a sense of just what you meant by local myths and ritual practices associated with them, the first thing that popped into my head was Plato’s ‘little story’ (the one that rhetoricians *love* to *hate*) called *Phaedrus*. In the opening scene, as Phaedrus and Socrates walk along the brook toward a plane tree where Phaedrus will read Lysias speech on love to Socrates, Phaedrus asks Socrates about a local myth concerning Boreas and Oreithyia. And, of course, he also asks whether Socrates ‘believes’ the tale.

    Apparently the story does make it to Apollodorus and Pausanias, respectively, at iii. 15. 2, and i. 19. 6. I have not pulled those threads yet but will: this is just the sort of thing for which I keep my online LCL subscription going.

    Thanks for the fun!


  2. OBTH, I just pulled the thread on the Apollodorus citation (LCL 122 pp 100-107) . . . it seems that there is a connection between this ‘local myth’ and the story of Jason. I’ll leave it for you to discover.


    1. Hi Randy—thanks so much for these great comments. I’m glad that you’re enjoying these posts. I’ll keep them going for a couple more weeks at least. It’s kind of an endless project, and I could keep it going forever, but I do want to get back to other topics.

      Your reference to the Phaedrus is spot-on. I discuss this incident in my book, “Exploring Greek Myth”; in chapter 12, which is titled “Plato and the Poets”, I discuss the “rationalization” of myths, and I illustrate this section with a lovely vase painting of Boreas abducting Oreithyia (and Peleus abducting Thetis). The vase, by the Niobid Painter, is dated to 460-450 BCE. I don’t know the date of the Phaedrus, but it could be seventy or seventy-five years later. There was a shrine to Boreas by the river Ilissus; Aeschylus wrote a satyr play on the theme, and the story was illustrated on the famous Chest of Kypselos, so clearly people knew the story. Probably it was of particular interest to Athenians, but as you note, the story is also connected to the Panhellenic story of Jason, since the two sons of Boreas and Oreithyia accompanied Jason on the voyage for the Golden Fleece. One of the most fascinating characteristics of Greek myth is the interweaving of stories, so if you pick one thread, you can continue with another and another and another.

      Thanks again for the comments. Keep ’em coming!!!

      Liked by 1 person

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