My mother gave birth to me in the darkness under the earth and died in doing so. I loved the velvety blanket of night before my dazzled eyes ever encountered light. And when I did, they say I wept, and the people said, ‘Here is a true daughter of Hekate!’
I am standing in the dark again, in the central room of my own place—no, of Hekate’s temple, which was once mine, before I went with Jason. Jason the thief, the pirate, the betrayer. Jason the stranger. I have left my own gods, my own tongue, my own beliefs, for too long.
Now I will rejoin the Dark Mother, Scylla the Black Bitch. Hekate, Lady of Battles, Blood-drinker, she of the leather wings and coiled snakes, Mistress of Phantoms, come. Medea, once Princess of Colchis, calls. Your unfaithful daughter, fallen far from lordship and wisdom. She Who Is Met On The Way, Lady of Ghosts, I invoke you. Queen of the Dead, I invoke you. Mistress of the Triple Road, I invoke you.
The knife blade gleams, and I try the blade. I feel the sting as it slides along my thumb. It is very sharp.
I can hear the children laughing as they play. How did I come to this?
# # #
The first thing I remember was the darkness in the cavern and grove dedicated to our Lady, Hekate. I must have been three, perhaps, when they took me from the arms of the king my father and brought me naked into the lightless cave.
The priestess Trioda carried me in her arms. I was comfort- able in her embrace. She was a tall, plump woman and used to children. I was my mother’s murderer and my nurse was nervous of me, afraid of me, but Trioda knew what I was and held me firmly, so that I was not worried that she would drop me. She smelt of sweet scents like honey—some flower essence, perhaps—and the slightly sour smell of much-washed black garments dyed with the soot suspension the priestesses made. Her hair was already white and tickled my face.
It was interesting. The grove was composed of cypresses and pines, growing so thickly together that the sun never struck the forest floor, which was carpeted with generations of pine needles; our footsteps made no noise. The dark branches crisscrossed like a loom, precise and exclusive.
The deeper we went, the less I could hear. No birds lived or nested in the grove, and no small animals squeaked or scurried through the drift of needles. We passed into deeper and deeper shade, until we came to the mouth of the cavern. It was only visible as a blacker ellipse in the gloom.
‘Are you afraid, little Princess?’ asked Trioda.
‘No,’ I said. I could see nothing of which to be afraid, so far. I noticed, however, that Trioda was breathing faster. Was she afraid?
Into the black dark, blacker than any night on earth, I was carried. I could see nothing at all. For a moment, the weight of unlight pressed on my open eyes and I felt fear rise in me, but still nothing had happened to make me afraid, so I closed my eyes and immediately felt better.
Sound returned. I heard Trioda’s feet on rock. Then we were climbing. I heard a spring trickling and Trioda’s feet splashed through a small stream. I smelt cold water and rock and a flat, sour scent like the clay we used for making pots.
We came into a great space. There was a feeling of height, although I could see nothing except the strange red flowers that were blooming in front of my tight-shut or wide-open eyes. Trioda’s footsteps resounded.
‘You will come here, soon, on your own, little Princess,’ she said, and echoes ran down stone walls from her voice, wounding the silence. I wriggled to be put down and she set me on the ground.
‘This is the cavern of the lady Hekate,’ she instructed me, holding my hand. ‘No light comes here unless we bring it at great need. Touch the wall.’
I felt as she instructed and found gouges and marks carved into the stone.
‘By these you will be able to find your way,’ she said. ‘Feel. Here are two fishes. Walk along one pace and you will feel three fishes.’
It was three paces for me, but she was right; though the marks were almost as high as I could stretch.
‘Then four fishes, then five. Now, if you are lost, stand still, calm your mind, and trace the picture. The cavern is fifteen paces across. The night is the goddess’ gift, Medea. The world of light is busy, confusing and loud. Here in the womb of the goddess it is always silent, always dark, so that you may hear your thoughts and strengthen your mind. In the night lies peace and wisdom, remember that.’
I nodded, realised that she could not see me, and said, ‘Yes, Lady.’
‘You are not afraid?’
‘No, Lady,’ I said truthfully. I thought that she gave a small laugh, though there was nothing to laugh at.
‘Step away from me,’ she said. ‘This is what I brought you here to know, Medea. The goddess is here.’
I let go of her hand and took several steps into the middle of the cavern.
Then I felt what she meant. The darkness pressed on me, negating the sense I relied on—sight. I could see nothing at all. Fear flooded through me and I whimpered, feeling for her hand. There was no one there and I almost screamed with terror. The darkness might be thronged with ghosts, the beloved dead strangely transformed by death into fanged shadows, their clawed hands reaching for me, hungry for my blood, as my nurses’ stories told. I listened for them and realised that I could not hear them if they were there—they were ghosts and ghosts move without sound. My skin crawled with anticipation of their contaminated touch. I put up both hands to cover my neck, where my blood beat close to the skin, and waited for the penetration of a tooth, the slimy grave-mired clutch as the phantoms seized their prey. I cried to Trioda and she did not answer. I was alone in the pit. As she had told me I must, I called on Hekate, mistress of phantoms.
Lady of the Crossroads,
One who is met on the road, Evoe, Lady of Three Faces, aid me.
Queen of the Lost,
Queen of Dark Knowledge,
She Who Turns, guide thy supplicant.
Lady of Changes,
Mistress of the Underworld, Help one who fears.
The invocation echoed and boomed in the high cave and I heard a rush of wings, though I saw nothing at all.
Then, suddenly, I was calm. I was shaking and sobbing, but I was calm. I wiped my face with the hem of my tunic and took a deep breath. Then I took a step, then another, sweeping the air with my hands until I touched the wall and stretched up to find the carvings.
Two fish. I walked three paces along the wall and found three fish.
Even if Trioda had gone—even if Trioda had never existed, I could find my way out. I chuckled. The sound ran down the walls as if hundreds of ancestral Colchian princesses were pleased at my progress.
Then, my other senses sharpened, I heard Trioda breathing, smelt the black dye and flower scent, and took her hand. She lifted me into a close embrace. Her heart was beating hard under my cheek.
We walked along, tracing the fishes, until we came out of the cave into the grove. The light was strong and my eyes streamed tears.
Trioda did not speak until we were out of the trees and into the beech forest which lined the king’s road to the palace, then she sat me down on a rock and said solemnly, ‘Princess, you have done well. The goddess has accepted you. You will never in your life be so frightened again.’
I did not believe her, but I was glad that she was pleased.
# # #
We came out of the Black Land, or that is what they said— Colchis was, they told me, an island of civilisation amongst the warring clans of the barbarian Scyths. I only saw the Scythians when we held the four great markets of the year. They came in wagons or riding on their shaggy horses. I found them magnificent and exotic, the women riding knee-to-knee with the men, all dressed alike in trousers and tight, brightly embroidered jackets over linen shirts. I remember my sister Chalkiope, veiled against the sun to protect her white skin, watching from behind a potter’s stall as they rode in. I had never seen such people. They were shaggy, jingling with gold ornaments, and they stank of horses and curdled milk. The men favoured massive moustaches and beards. They were strange to our eyes, as all our men are clean shaven and our priests entirely hairless, even to the eyebrows.
‘Medea, stay here!’ She grabbed unavailingly at the back of my tunic, but I evaded her easily. I had never seen such interesting people and I was used to Chalkiope’s reflexes. Mine were faster.
I jumped out into the cobbled street almost under the hoofs of a mare and the rider, controlling the beast’s start with easy grace, reached down and grabbed me. Her brown skin was glossy with oil. Her three long braids were decorated with little bronze bells and her face split into a grin, showing teeth like seeds in her red mouth.
‘Well, little Colchian, didn’t anyone tell you not to dive in front of a horse?’
She tilted my chin with her other hand, directing the horse with her knees.
‘Yes, Lady, but I wasn’t listening.’
She laughed louder, calling to the rider in front, ‘Sister, here is a Scythian maid in Colchian clothing!’
‘Who’s your mother, little Scyth?’ asked the other rider. She was broader in the beam than my captor, and her breasts were melons, ripe and heavy. She must have been nine months pregnant and her presence in public was remarkable. No Colchian woman would so expose her swollen belly to view. She would be called ugly, and jeered at. If she was poor and had to go out, she was closely swathed in a mantle which the women of Colchis called a belly-drape.
This Scythian’s belly was dropped, a sign of imminent birth, and she had unlaced her leather corselet over her girth. But she did not seem ugly to me, just different, and she sat the horse as easily as if she was sitting on a chair, though she was so close to her time that milk had leaked from her breasts to stain her shirt.
‘I am Medea, Aerope’s child, but my mother is dead.’
‘And who is the woman calling after you from the market?’ asked the pregnant woman.
‘My sister, Chalkiope,’ I said dismissively. ‘Where are you going? Take me with you.’
‘Nay, we go to the women’s mystery, which you cannot see until your first bleeding. My sister is in labour. By noon she will be delivered. Then you can find us, Little Scythian Medea, at our camp, at the side of the market away from the river, where the horse herds are penned. There you can come and visit and see the new child. For that is the Dark Mother’s symbol, Scythling,’ she touched the emblem around my neck. ‘She cares for the newborn. Give my sister your blessing, Medea,’ she urged. I leaned over and placed my hand on the pregnant belly, copying my teacher, and intoned, ‘Hekate guard you and guide you to a safe delivery.’
They smiled at me, and I jumped from the horse.
A moment later, my ears ringing from my Chalkiope’s slap, I declared to my frantic sister, ‘I will be a Scythian.’
At this pronouncement she marched me straight home and told my father, so that I was locked in the cellar for the night to teach me my place as a princess of Colchis.
I cried and struggled, largely as a matter of form. I quite liked the cellar. I was pleased with the dark now, and the strange visions I could induce by staring hard into it. I talked all night with the spirits, who agreed with me that life was exceptionally unfair. But the voices out of the whirling night purple flowers before my closed eyelids told me that I would not stay in Colchis forever, and that comforted me, so I slept.
When they came to release a penitent and tear-stained girl from durance, I walked past them with dry eyes and a straight back and went to the temple of Hekate. I saw one guard make a sign against the Dark behind my back, and was pleased.
They would not overbear Medea as easily as that.
Even Tiphys, the helmsman, can’t see any land. We’re rowing blind through sea fog. I’m colder than I’ve been since I was lost in a little boat off Skiathos for three days when that big fish broke my net and a wave carried away my oars. My hands are blistered and re-blistered so that each stroke makes the new sores break and bleed. I’m hungry and there’s nothing to eat but thrice-baked, ash-cooked cakes as hard as wood, and I’ve run out of prayers to Poseidon.
I can’t believe that we are going to find the Golden Fleece, though just now I would settle for any end to this journey apart from the salt water grave which is the final destination of all but the luckiest mariners. And as I swoop forward again to bring my oar back, to the rack of every muscle and the sobbing breath of each man on board Argo, I do not feel very lucky.
How did I come to this?
# # #
I was a child when he was a child—Jason, the great hero. Of course, he was a great hero even then, this son of Aison, King Pelias’ brother, and rightful heir to Iolkos; while I was just Nauplios, the son of Dictys the fisherman. He was never afraid to say exactly what he meant, Jason. Punishment didn’t deter him from truth.
Cheiron worried about him. ‘Men use words to cloak truth in an acceptable dress,’ he chided.
‘But it is the truth,’ insisted Jason. ‘King Pelias has no claim to my father’s throne.’
‘Arguable,’ said the centaur. ‘As you get older, son of Aison, you will find that there are few truths graven in stone.’
‘How, Master? Is not truth truth?’
‘What colour is the sky?’ asked the old man, settling back on his wooden bench and biting into an olive.
‘Blue, Master.’ ‘And that is true?’ ‘Yes, Master.’
Master Cheiron spat out the stone and grinned, his old face wrinkling like a winter-stored apple. ‘So if I said, “The sky is blue” that would be truth?’
‘Certainly, Master,’ said Jason. ‘True for always?’
Jason thought about it. His brow furrowed as it always did when he thought deeply. He was a slim boy, already giving promise of great strength, with golden hair and bright eyes. I had been grooming one of Master Cheiron’s small shaggy ponies, and put down the hoof I was cleaning to listen.
‘No, Master, after dark the sky is not blue, and sometimes it is grey, and at sunset and dawn it is red and gold.’
‘So it is true that the sky is blue, but it is also true that it is sometimes grey or golden or red or black.’
‘So there you are,’ replied the old man, reaching for another olive. ‘It is also true,’ he added, ‘that horses have little patience with those who fail to attend them properly.’
The pony made a sideways plunge and I heard his hoof whistle past my head. I blushed and was recalled to my duty. But Jason sat on the green grass outside the centaur’s cave, biting his lip, and pondering on the nature of truth.
They had brought me from the sea and my father’s house to be a companion for Jason, son of Aison, brother of Pelias, who had usurped the kingdom of Iolkos.
Cheiron the centaur had demanded me of my father because the son of Aison required a companion. And I had found it all very strange when I had first ascended Pelion.
The centaurs are a small people—I was almost as tall as Master Cheiron when I was eight—and their ways secretive and strange. At first I missed my mother and I missed the sea, but Jason was glad that I had come, and comforted me as I wept for the sound of the tide and the taste of my mother’s honey cakes.
‘We will go back when we are grown,’ he whispered into the close, horse-scented darkness. ‘One day, Nauplios, we will go back to your beloved ocean, and then your mother will be proud of you.’
The best thing about the centaurs was their stories. They were of short stature, clannish and uncleanly, compared to the wide-talking, frequently washed men of my childhood. Cheiron’s people oiled their skin rather than washed it, and the smell of a centaur settlement was noticeable at first—wood smoke, flesh, horses—but the nose quickly grew accustomed. The food was basic and not very pleasant—how I longed for my mother’s honey cakes! I have seen a centaur plunge both hands into a steaming carcass, drag out the liver, and eat it raw.
I did the cooking for myself and the son of Aison. I never learned to relish raw flesh, or raw fish, and I was not allowed to drink the fermented milk which made the old men drunk. In view of the way they all groaned in pain the next morning, this might have been a mercy.
We were sitting around the smoking dung fire one night when Cheiron took Jason’s hand in his own. This was uncommon. They were not touching people, the centaurs. He lifted a brand from the fire and quite deliberately burned the hand he held, so that Jason winced and cried out.
‘So that you will remember what I am about to tell you.’
I could never read those wrinkled faces. He was concentrating, intent, his shaggy brows shading the bright brown eyes.
‘Whenever you see this scar, you will recall the tale of Phrixos and the Golden Fleece.’
‘Master,’ said Jason. I watched a red weal rise on the smooth surface of his wrist and winced in sympathy.
‘It was a woman’s doing, of course,’ said the centaur, slowly, spitting into the fire. ‘A wicked woman—a woman’s lies. All women lie. Remember that.
‘Phrixos, grandson of Minyas—that is why your kin are called Minyans, boy—and his sister Helle lived happily until their father married again,’ Cheiron began.
A tall young man he was, this Phrixos, dark and beautiful, and the woman desired him. The woman wanted him for his curly hair and his hands—she watched him with the horses, saw how skilfully he touched them, imagined her own flesh so gentled and smoothed, and burned with lust.
Perhaps it was Ishtar, whom you call Aphrodite, who possessed her—I do not know. But she came to him in the stable, calling his name, offering him wine, then slipped close to him so that he could smell the scent of her femaleness, like a mare in season, and she said, ‘I love thee, Phrixos. Lie with me here in the straw and thy father shall never know.’
He was shocked, and pushed her away. Then she tore her garment—deceitful bitch!—and ran from the stable, crying that the king’s son had attempted violence on her honour.
The air was cold. I drew my goatskin cloak closer, and rubbed my hands over my face. The hatred in the old man’s voice stung my ears. I knew no harm of women—how could I? My mother was a woman. But Jason was drinking in the voice, mouth open. The stars were blazing, close as lanterns.
They bound him and carried him up the mountain to the high altar—Phrixos, the king’s son, betrayed by a cruel woman. His sister Helle followed him, keening for him as though he was already dead, tearing her hair. She was fair, they say, and she scattered strands of bright gold along the stone, and the priest took a bronze knife.
It was noon, hot and still. Even the birds were silent. It seemed that the world was holding its breath. The priest raised the knife over the defenceless throat, stretched like a beast’s for sacrifice. Then…
He stopped speaking to swig from a wineskin. Jason and I held our breath, like the world. I could almost feel the heat of the midday sun, scent the crushed grass under the feet of the witnesses to this sacrifice. The pause lengthened, so that I could hardly bear it, but it was not my place to speak.
‘Master?’ asked Jason in a strained whisper. Cheiron grinned and resumed the story.
There was a crunching in the scrub, something coming toward them along the mountain path. Something heavy and strong and determined. The knife poised in the air. Phrixos had not made a sound. Helle stilled her weeping, wild with sudden hope. The creature came to the brow of the hill.
It was a man. Not tall, but very strong; wearing a lion’s skin and carrying a club. A young man he was then; ah, I remember, Herakles the Hero, when the world was young as well. He can’t have been more than seventeen. His hair was tangled back from a broad brow, a wide nose, a generous mouth, now shut like a trap. There were burrs in his beard, and grass in his hair. But his shoulders later bore the weight of the whole earth, and even then he was scarred with many adventures.
‘You woke me,’ he complained. ‘I thought at least the top of the mountain would be secluded. What do you here, men of Minyas, at this altar, with this most unholy of victims?’
‘This is Phrixos, the king’s son, who is guilty of rape, and we will sacrifice him to Zeus,’ said the priest.
Herakles yawned, scratched his chest and then shook his head.
‘No,’ he said patiently. ‘No, you won’t do that. Zeus does not accept human sacrifices. You cannot elevate your own killing of this boy to a religious rite, Minyans. If you kill him, you kill him on your own, and on your own consciences must your deed lie.
‘You do see that I can’t allow you to do this, don’t you? Such blasphemy will bring a curse on innocent ones, women and children, not just on you alone.’
He never boasted, that hero. His voice was even and gentle. But he was tapping a club made of the best part of an olive tree against his broad calloused palm as he spoke. And he wiped his brow. Battle fury came on that hero with a wave of heat.
‘Remember that,’ Cheiron warned. ‘If you meet Herakles. Beware of him when he speaks gently and you see sweat break on his skin. Once his anger is loosed, no man or god can call it back—not even Herakles himself.’ The centaur returned to his story.
The Minyans quailed—for they had heard of Herakles, of his strength and his battle madness—but they had orders from their own king. They gathered, spears raised. Helle threw herself at her brother and untied his bonds, hoping for escape.
Then the gods, who are just and weigh all actions in the scale of Themis, sent a winged golden ram from heaven. Hera sent it, she who is the protector of Herakles and guardian of families. Hermes made it, who is the messenger of the gods. Phrixos and Helle climbed onto its back and flew away into the air, above the astonished faces of the wicked Minyans. Phrixos was saved.
I couldn’t stop myself from asking, ‘Master, Master, what about Herakles? Didn’t the Minyans attack him?’
‘He had great presence, even newly woken and dusty,’ said the centaur.
There were only twenty Minyans there, and they knew that he might overcome them. For Herakles could leap like a goat and run like the wind; his eye was keen as a lance and his hands were stronger than tree roots that can rip through stone. He stared at them, and they at him, after they had watched the golden ram bear the king’s son away. Then, they say, he gave a sigh, nodded to the heavens, hefted his club and walked away, quite slowly, down the mountain. They did not dare to follow or assail him. He was Herakles the hero.
‘Remember that, son of Aison. Authority is a great shield.’ Jason nodded impatiently. ‘And Phrixos?’ he prompted.
The old man’s voice was flat with displeasure—though he allowed Jason to interrupt him more than he did me—but he continued.
As to Phrixos, he flew on the golden ram across Thrace, even in the sky as no one but birds, gods and Daedalus, the architect, and his sons have flown before. When passing over the strait, his sister Helle lost her grip on his waist and fell. They call that water the Hellespont now.
Women are weak, and she was a tender maid, too young to leave her mother’s house. Phrixos cried after her as she fell, but the blue closed over her and she was gone.
The ram flew on to Colchis, the white city on the River Phasis, which flows into the Euxine Sea, and there landed, safely, the royal son of Minyas. He immediately showed his piety by sacrificing the ram to Zeus, his deliverer.
‘Hera sent it, not Zeus All-Father,’ I interrupted, ‘and why kill the ram? It would be wonderful to be able to fly.’
‘The actions of heroes are not to be questioned by boys,’ snarled Cheiron, and I closed my mouth.
‘That is the Golden Fleece, Jason, which rests in the sacred grove at Colchis, guarded by a serpent. It is a holy treasure beyond price, the rightful property of the rightful king of Iolkos. ‘Phrixos met a princess there: Chalkiope, daughter of the king Aetes. She saw him and loved him, the fair hero, and she lay with him and bore him four sons. But the king disliked these boys, having no son of his own, and when Phrixos died, he did not adopt them—or so they say.
‘That king holds the Golden Fleece without right. Zeus pun- ished him by taking his queen, though they say he took another woman. She only bore him another daughter, Medea, before she died too. The hand of the gods is heavy on blasphemers. That is the tale of Phrixos, cousin of Aison—your father, and Pelias— your uncle. Remember it when you come into your own.’
Jason was alight with the tale; he told it to me over and over again as we lay down in the goatskins, and as I drifted into sleep I heard him whispering in the darkness over the snores of the centaurs.
‘Rightful property—the Golden Fleece is the rightful property of the descendants of Phrixos, who rode on the golden ram from Mount Laphystios to Colchis.’
With my last conscious thought, I still considered that sacrificing it at all, and especially to the wrong god, was very unfair on the ram.