Medeia may just be the most controversial member of the Bacchic Orphic pantheon – and that’s saying something since Dirke is on the list!
Most people are likely only familiar with Medeia from the masterful play that Euripides wrote about her and so may be a little curious as to what she has to do with Bacchic Orphism.
Well, as it turns out, quite a lot.
For instance, it was she who taught Orpheus the use of drugs (which is significant since entheogens have a prominent role in certain streams of Bacchic Orphism) and initiated him into the mysteries of the Hekate of Zerynthos:
After I came to the enclosures and the sacred place, I dug a three–sided pit in some flat ground. I quickly brought some trunks of juniper, dry cedar, prickly boxthorn and weeping black poplars, and in the pit I made a pyre of them. Skilled Medea brought to me many drugs, taking them from the innermost part of a chest smelling of incense. At once, I fashioned certain images from barley–meal [the text is corrupt here]. I threw them onto the pyre, and as a sacrifice to honor the dead, I killed three black puppies. I mixed with their blood copper sulfate, soapwort, a sprig of safflower, and in addition odorless fleawort, red alkanet, and bronze–plant. After this, I filled the bellies of the puppies with this mixture and placed them on the wood. Then I mixed the bowels with water and poured the mixture around the pit. Dressed in a black mantle, I sounded bronze cymbals and made my prayer to the Furies. They heard me quickly, and breaking forth from the caverns of the gloomy abyss, Tisiphone, Allecto, and divine Megaira arrived, brandishing the light of death in their dry pine torches. Suddenly the pit blazed up, and the deadly fire crackled, and the unclean flame sent high its smoke. At once, on the far side of the fire, the terrible, fearful, savage goddesses arose. One had a body of iron. The dead call her Pandora. With her came one who takes on various shapes, having three heads, a deadly monster you do not wish to know: Hecate of Tartarus. (Orphic Argonautika 122 ff)
However, what really cements her place in the pantheon is the eternal bond of friendship that exists between her and Dionysos:
After Jason led Medea to Greece, he had sex with her as he had promised her marriage. Having seen her clever skills in many things before, eventually he asked her to transform his father Aeson into young manhood. She had not yet put aside the love she had for him. Boiling in a bronze cauldron plants whose power she knew, obtained from diverse regions, she cooked the slain Aeson with warm herbs and restored him to his original vigor. When Father Liber noticed that Aeson’s old age had been expelled by Medea’s medicines, he entreated Medea to change his nurses back to the vigor of youth. Agreeing to his request, she established a pledge of eternal benefit with him by restoring his nurses to the vigor of youth by giving them same medicines that rejuvenated Aeson. But when Jason, spurning her, took in Glauce, the daughter of Creon, Medea gave his mistress a tunic laced with poison and garlic: When she put it on, she began to burn alive by fire. Then Medea, not putting up with the soul of Jason raging against her, did away with her and Jason’s sons and fled on a winged serpent. (The Second Vatican Mythographer 137–38)
Of course, this is not the only time that the arch-witch did him a solid. She also took out the serial rapist Theseus who in addition to violently assaulting Dionysos’ wife Ariadne:
And Theseus, having attempted to ravish Helene, after that carried off Ariadne. Accordingly Ister, in the fourteenth book of his History of the Affairs of Athens, giving a catalogue of those women who became the wives of Theseus, says that some of them became so out of love, and that some were carried off by force, and some were married in legal marriage. Now by force were ravished Helene, Ariadne, Hippolyte, and the daughters of Cercyon and Sinis; and he legally married Meliboea, the mother of Ajax. And Hesiod says that he also married Hippe and Aegle; on account of whom he broke the oaths which he had sworn to Ariadne, as Cercops tells us. And Pherecydes adds Phereboea. And before ravishing Helene, he had also carried off Anaxo from Troezen; and after Hippolyte he also had Phaidra. (Athenaios, Deipnosophistai 557a–b)
Also tried to abduct his mother Persephone:
Theseus and Peirithoos agreed with each other to marry daughters of Zeus, so Theseus with the other’s help kidnapped twelve-year-old Helene from Sparta, and went down to Haides’ realm to court Persephone for Peirithoos . . . Theseus, arriving in Haides’ realm with Peirithoos, was thoroughly deceived, for Haides on the pretense of hospitality had them sit first upon the throne of Lethe. Their bodies grew onto it, and were held down by the serpent’s coils. Now Peirithoos remained fast there for all time, but Herakles led Theseus back up. (Apollodoros, Bibliotheca E1. 23 – 24)
The poison Medeia used to do the deed is rather interesting:
For Theseus’ death Medea mixed her poisoned aconite brought with her long ago from Scythia’s shores. There is a cavern yawning dark and deep, and there a falling track where the hero Hercules of Tiryns dragged struggling, blinking, screwing up his eyes against the sunlight and the blinding day, the hell-hound Cerberus, fast on a chain of adamant. His three throats filled the air with triple barking, barks of frenzied rage, and spattered the green meadows with white spume. This, so men think, congealed and, nourished by the rich rank soil, gained poisonous properties. And since they grow and thrive on hard bare rocks the farm folk call them ‘flintworts’ –aconites. (Ovid, Metamorphoses 7.412)
Since aconite is the herb used by Minerva to transform Arachne into a spider. Why that’s interesting is that Medeia is counted among the alétides:
Aletis: Some say that she is Erigone, the daughter of Ikarios, since she wandered everywhere seeking her father. Others say she is the daughter of Aigisthos and Klytemnestra. Still others say she is the daughter of Maleotos the Tyrrhenian; others that she is Medea, since, having wandered after the murder of her children, she escaped to Aigeus. Others say that she is Persephone, wherefore those grinding the wheat offer some cakes to her. (Etymologicum Magnum 62.9)
Most of whom hung themselves like Arachne. It’s also interesting because in a tradition recounted by Diodoros Sikeliotes, it was Hekate who instructed Medeia in the use of aconite – Medeia being in this instance her daughter:
And Perses had a daughter Hecatê, who surpassed her father in boldness and lawlessness; she was also fond of hunting, and when she had no luck she would turn her arrows upon human beings instead of the beasts. Being likewise ingenious in the mixing of deadly poisons she discovered the drug called aconite and tired out the strength of each poison by mixing it in the food given to the strangers. And since she possessed great experience in such matters she first of all poisoned her father and so succeeded to the throne, and then, founding a temple of Artemis and commanding that strangers who landed there should be sacrificed to the goddess, she became known far and wide for her cruelty. After this she married Aeëtes and bore two daughters, Circe and Medea, and a son Aegialeus. […] From her mother and sister she learned all the powers which drugs possess, but her purpose in using them was exactly the opposite. For she made a practice of rescuing from their perils the strangers who came to their shores, sometimes demanding from her father by entreaty and coaxing that the lives be spared of those who were to die, and sometimes herself releasing them from prison and then devising plans for the safety of the unfortunate men. For Aeëtes, parlty because of his own natural cruelty and partly because he was under the influence of his wife Hecatê, had given his approval to the custom of slaying strangers. (Library of History 4.45.2)
Interestingly, the epiklesis Περσεις (meaning “Destroyer”) is one shared by Arachne in Nonnos, though the Panopolitan gives it a different (though no less relevant, as we shall momentarily see) interpretation:
Staphylos the grapelover attended upon Lyaios, offering him the guest’s gifts as he was hasting for his journey: a two-handled jar of gold with silver cups, from which hitherto he used always to quaff the milk of milch-goats; and he brought embroidered robes, which Persian Arachne beside the waters of Tigris had cleverly made with her fine thread. Then the generous king spoke to Bromios of the earlier war between Zeus and Kronos. (Dionysiaka 18.217)
So Medeia is firmly ensconced in the realm of Dionysos Lusios even before she uses her cauldron to give renewed life to his followers through baptism, just as she had for Aison.
Aison’s brother, by the way, is Amythaon – the father of the Dionysian prophet Melampos who used drugs, incantations, music, erotic dancing and flagellation to cure the daughters of Proitos of their mainadic state. In some traditions he also immersed them in a river:
When the seers bade them propitiate Apollon and Artemis, they sent seven boys and seven maidens as suppliants to the river Sythas. They say that the deities, persuaded by these, came to what was then the citadel, and the place that they reached first is the sanctuary of Persuasion. Conformable with this story is the ceremony they perform at the present day; the children go to the Sythas at the feast of Apollon, and having brought, as they pretend, the deities to the sanctuary of Persuasion, they say that they take them back again to the temple of Apollon. The temple stands in the modern market–place, and was originally, it is said, made by Proitos, because in this place his daughters recovered from their madness. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 2.7.8)
Some Greeks say that Chiron, others that Pylenor, another Centaur, when shot by Heracles fled wounded to this river and washed his hurt in it, and that it was the hydra’s poison which gave the Anigros its nasty smell. Others again attribute the quality of the river to Melampos the son of Amythaon, who threw into it the means he used to purify the daughters of Proitos. (Pausanias, Description Greece 5.5.10)
Above Nonacris are the Aroanian Mountains, in which is a cave. To this cave, legend says, the daughters of Proitos fled when struck with madness; Melampos by secret sacrifices and purifications brought them down to a place called Lusi. Most of the Aroanian mountain belongs to Phenios, but Lusi is on the borders of Kleitor. They say that Lusi was once a city, and Agesilas was proclaimed as a man of Lusi when victor in the horse-race at the eleventh Pythian festival held by the Amphictyons; but when I was there not even ruins of Lusi remained. Well, the daughters of Proitos were brought down by Melampos to Lusi, and healed of their madness in a sanctuary of Artemis. Wherefore this Artemis is called Hemerasia (She who soothes) by the Kleitorians. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 8.18.8–7)
Note the sacrifice in the first passage of seven male and seven female children, just like the sacrifice offered to the Minotaur which was abolished by Theseus …
… at the instigations of Medeia, who was sleeping with his father Aigeus, and wanted her stepson out of the picture:
Now as for Medea, they say, on finding upon her arrival in Thebes that Heracles was possessed of a frenzy of madness and had slain his sons, she restored him to health by means of drugs. But since Eurystheus was pressing Heracles with his commands, she despaired of receiving any aid from him at the moment and sought refuge in Athens with Aegeus, the son of Pandion. Here, as some say, she married Aegeus and gave birth to Medus, who was later king of Media. (Diodoros Sikeliotes, Library of History 4.55.4–4.55.5)
She did that in order to protect the interests of her son Medus, Theseus’ half-brother.
Total random aside here, but did you know that Dionysos transformed himself into a tiger to seduce a maiden and that’s why the river beside which Arachne wove is called Tigris?
But Hermesianax the Cyprian tells the story thus: Dionysos fell in love with the nymph Alphesiboea and unable to persuade her with presents or entreaties turned himself into a tiger. She climbed on his back and rode him across the river and when she was on the other side she discovered that she was with child, a son who was named Medus and when he grew up he named the river Tigris in remembrance of the strange accident of his birth. (Pseudo–Plutarch, De fluviis 24)
Did you catch his name? Yeah, Medus which is related to the Proto-Indo-European *médʰu, the Greek μέθυ (“intoxicating beverage”), the Old Irish mid (“mead”), Old High German metu (“sweet drink; honey”).
Just like the meilia that are poured out for the dead in rites of appeasement and necromancy.
Bringing us back full circle.
I’ve been doing this dance for thousands of years. This is the old dance. This is the old story. You see, those old stories aren’t through with us. No matter how many different names or masks we might wear … they’re just not finished with us yet. I’m talking about recurrences. What you might call eternal recurrences. Running through the generations … like blood. We think our science means we’re different or better than we used to be. We think we’re actually making progress. Every new Darfur reveals just how little we really change. Medea and Agamemnon are still playing at the temple of Dionysus. It’s standing room only. (Peter Milligan, Greek Street Volume I)