Femme fatale? Woman scorned? Righteously vengeful? Scary spellcaster? Heroine?
And HERCULES' female hero
Always a WomanIf you can just understand Woman, you can understand them all. Weak-willed and physically lacking, temptresses, dangerous when scorned, yet somehow, every time you think you've pinned them down, they exhibit some unpredictable behaviour, almost as if each woman were a distinct person. At least, that's the common attitude toward women in the ancient-world costume movie epics, where women can usually be counted on to detroy a kingdom without smearing their eyeliner. Both Jason and the Argonauts and "Once a Hero" temper the myth of dangerous female power: Jason by showing the difficulty of Medea's decision; Hercules by providing a spirited female heroine as counterpoint.
"Once a Hero's" gamine character fights hard to earn a place among the Argonauts on the quest to recover the fleece, and does it without trading on physical beauty and drifting about in wispy garments and elaborate hair-dos. In contrast, the scheming Medea is determined to increase Jason's suffering to the end of his days.
The earliest written forms of the legend attest to her motivation being her love for Jason, and give her a prominent role in the legend. The "cunning one" is the daughter of Aeëtes, king of Colchis, and of his wife Eidyia ("the knowing"), and is niece of Circe the notorious sorceress. When Jason arrives in Colchis, King Aeëtes sets him an impossible task in order to earn the fleece -- which Aeëtes has no intention of turning over. Medea provides the magical means to complete the task. When her brother Apsyrtus leads the pursuit, Medea contrives his murder and scatters his limbs behind the escaping Argonauts, forcing Aeëtes to delay to recover the body. Next, she helps Jason dispatch King Pelias and assume the throne of Iolcus: she uses a bath of magical herbs to restore the youth of Jason's father Aeson, but gives different herbs to Pelias' daughters, who boil their father to death.
But, as in the story of Theseus, Ariadne, and the Minotaur, the woman ultimately loses everything for making a bold and difficult decision.
All is well until Medea and her new family travel to Corinth, where Jason agrees to marry the daughter of King Creon (whose name, incidentally, means "ruler"). Although Medea herself is a princess by birth, she is not as useful to Jason as a familial alliance with a powerful local king. Medea sends the princess a poisoned wedding garment, then kills her own children to further augment Jason's suffering. In the play by Seneca, Roman author of much later times (advisor in the court of Nero in the1st century A.D.), Medea casts her children's bodies dramatically from a rooftop to Jason's feet, accompanied by lightning and thunder, and makes her escape in a flaming chariot drawn by flying serpents. Seneca enjoyed a good grand guignol.
Medea was ancient theatre's larger-than-life tragic figure, madwoman, witch, exotic horror queen, who wins against Jason at the end -- at the cost of all her own happiness. Is it Medea's victory, or simply an aspect of Jason's tragic flaw, his hero's hubris? Is it Medea's tragic flaw, that her destroyed pride leads her to slaughter her own children?
Medea is wise, crafty, adept at magic. She possess not simply some mysterious female magic, but skills she has learned from or been granted by her goddess, the formidable Hekate, whose power is beyond the Olympians. Medea is a force to be respected, but she becomes a tool Jason uses in his recovery of the fleece. Jason's actions are somewhat questionable. He arrives in Colchis, he publicly declares, "in peace." If he cannot get the fleece by stealth, he will use force of arms. His gods command him to recover the fleece; it will bring prosperity to the kingdom that is rightfully his, though the departure of the fleece from Colchis will bring troubles to that land. Of course, the gods are simply amusing themselves. This is one of several games Hera and Zeus play during their leisure hours together. When the quest is finished, they turn away from the mortals and turn their loving attention to each other.
Medea makes a difficult decision primarily for a womanish reason -- her heart tells her to do so -- but, to a surprising degree in a film of this period, it is also a considered intellectual choice. Medea believes it is the will of her goddess that she support Jason's cause against that of her own country. Colchis will survive; it has its rightful ruler. Jason has yet to recover his throne and needs magical help. Medea is not the king's daughter in this film, sister to the prince who must combat Jason, so the stakes for her are slightly lower. She is brave though not tough. She hangs back and looks on worriedly as Jason battles the hydra; she is nearly killed and must be healed by the fleece.
Jason ends with the couple in each other's arms. They have yet to have their children together, Jason has yet to abandon her. It's a happy ending all around.
This queenly woman is named only as "Priestess" and is never, as the episode was broadcast, addressed by any name. There's the possibility she is simply yet another agent of Hera dispatched against Hercules, an avatar of the goddess. In this universe, Hera has taken on all the negative qualities ever ascribed to her in myth and all the bad reputation ascribed to Hekate as well, and her followers are fanatics. The "Priestess" is the motivator behind the scenes on the goddess' behalf; she delivers the magical teeth into enemy hands, setting off another battle of the bones. She is a woman badly treated, unforgiving, and villainous. She uses others to do her dirty work.
Bibliography: The memory of many years of classics studies, but all facts checked with ancient sources (including Hesiod, Pindar, Euripides, and Seneca) and the Oxford Classical Dictionary.