When Medea discovered that Jason had deserted her and married Glauce, the daughter of Creon, she vowed a terrible vengeance. Her nurse, although she loved Medea, recognized that a frightful threat now hung over Corinth, for she knew that Medea would not let the insult pass without some dreadful revenge. She feared especially for Medea’s two sons, since the sorceress included her children in the hatred which she now felt for their father.
Her resentment increased still further when Creon, hearing of her vow, ordered her and her children to be banished from Corinth. Slyly, with a plan already in mind, Medea persuaded him to allow her just one day longer to prepare herself and her children for the journey. She had already decided the nature of her revenge; the one problem that remained was a place of refuge afterward.
Then Aegeus, the king of Athens and a longtime friend of Medea, appeared in Corinth on his way home from a journey. Sympathetic with her because of Jason’s brutal desertion, he offered her a place of refuge from her enemies in his own kingdom. In this manner Medea assured herself of a refuge, even after Aegeus should learn of the deeds she intended to commit in Corinth.
When the Corinthian women came to visit her, Medea told them of her plan, but only after swearing them to absolute secrecy. At first she had considered killing Jason, his princess, and Creon, and then fleeing with her children. After she had thought about it, however, she felt that revenge would be sweeter should Jason live to suffer long afterward. Nothing could be more painful than to grow old without a lover, without children, and without friends, and so Medea planned to kill the king, his daughter, and her own children.
She called Jason to her and pretended that she forgave him for what he had done, recognizing at last the justice and foresight he had shown in marrying Glauce. She begged his forgiveness for her earlier rage, and asked that she be allowed to send her children with gifts for the new bride, as a sign of her repentance. Jason was completely deceived by her supposed change of heart, and expressed his pleasure at the belated wisdom she was showing.
Medea drew out a magnificent robe and a fillet of gold, presents of her grandfather, Helios, the sun god, but before she entrusted them to her children she smeared them with a deadly drug. Shortly afterward, a messenger came to Medea and told her to flee. One part of her plan had succeeded. After Jason and the children had left, Glauce had dressed herself in her wonderful robe and walked through the palace.
As the warmth and moisture of her body came in contact with the drug, the fillet and gown clung to her body and seared her flesh. She tried frantically to tear them from her, but the garments only wrapped more tightly around her, and she died in a screaming agony of flames. When Creon rushed in and saw his daughter writhing on the floor, he attempted to lift her, but was himself contaminated by the poison. His death was as agonizing as hers had been.
Meanwhile the children had returned to Medea. As she looked at them and felt their arms around her, she was torn between her love for them and her hatred of Jason, between her desire for revenge and the commands of her maternal instinct. The barbarous part of her nature—Medea being not a Greek, but a barbarian from Colchis—triumphed. After reveling in the messenger’s account of the deaths of Creon and his daughter, she entered her house with the children and barred the door. While the Corinthian women stood helplessly outside, they listened to the shrieks of the children as Medea killed them with a sword. Jason appeared, frantically eager to take his children away lest they be killed by Creon’s followers for having brought the dreadful gifts. When he learned Medea had killed his children, he was almost insane with grief. As he hammered furiously on the barred doors of the house, Medea suddenly appeared above, holding the bodies of herdead children, and drawn in a chariot which Helios, the sun god, had sent her. Jason alternately cursed her and pleaded with her for one last sight of his children as Medea taunted him with the loneliness and grief to which he was doomed. She told him that her own sorrow would be great, but it was mitigated by the sweetness of her revenge.
The chariot, drawn by winged dragons, carried her first to the mountain of the goddess Hera. There she buried her children. Then she journeyed to Athens, where she would spend the remainder of her days feeding on the gall and wormwood of her terrible grief and revenge.