My mother was a teacher. She taught languages and literature and accordingly my sister and I grew up surrounded by stories – and with a grammar police. The grammar thing turned out useful if not overly exciting. Yes, both my sister and I know how to decline verbs in various languages, know the difference between conditional, subjunctive, imperative and indicative. Wake me up in the middle of the night and I’ll be able to tell you exactly when one should use subjunctive in Spanish or when to use imperfect versus perfect tense.
But while grammar is useful, it is the weaving of stories that is magical, and our mother took the time to ensure we were both very well-grounded in the ancient myths that form the base of the European literary tradition. We grew up discussing Oedipus and Theseus, Virgil’s Aeneas and Odysseus. And then, of course, there was Medea, the woman who supposedly killed her own children.
Most people have heard of Medea. Some tend to confuse her with the Medusa, but I can assure you that while Medea was definitely dangerous in her own right, she did not have vipers for hair.
“Absolutely not,” Jason agrees. Right: allow me to introduce Jason – this is my Jason, protagonist of A Torch in His Heart, Smoke in Her Eyes and (soon) A Flame for Eternity, not the Jason of mythical fame.
“Thank the Lord for that,” Jason mutters. He tightens his hold on Helle, leaning against him in the large, rather ugly purple sofa Jason holds on to for nostalgic reasons.
“You don’t like him much?” Helle asks.
”So why did she name you Jason? Your first mother?” Helle settles herself closer to him and extends her legs towards the crackling fire in the hearth.
“Ah.” He slides her a sidelong glance, his mouth twitching slightly. “It no longer scares you sideways to accept that I have had many, many mothers?
”Oh, it does.” More to the point, it scares the daylights out of her to realise that she too has also had a long, long line of mothers prior to the one she has in this life—none of whom she remembers, thank God.
“It’s a bit like asking why your long-dead first father named you Helle, isn’t it?”
“Nope.” Helle has but the vaguest memories of this ancient man, a blurry image of a large man with a head of fair curls and a beard to match. “It made sense for him to name me Helle.” She grins. “I am, after all, a descendant of Helios himself.”
Jason snorts. “So you believe all that stuff about Aries, the Golden Ram, and the two children he saved?”
She smiles. “I’m not sure I believe it, but at least it explains why I was named Helle—after the little girl who rode with her brother Phrixus on the Golden Ram but fell off when she heard the mermaids singing—hence the Hellespont.”
“Hmm, yes. And so Phrixus arrived in Kolchis without a sister but with a golden ram who quickly became a golden fleece, the most prized possession of the king of Kolchis.” Jason leans forward to add some more wood to the fire. “It’s dangerous to have prized possessions. Makes all sorts come looking for them.”
“Yeah. And in this particular case, the one who came looking was Jason—and the Argonauts.” She runs her hand through Jason’s thick, mahogany coloured hair. “I wonder if he looked like you.”
“I hope not,” Jason says. “That namesake of mine was not only a thief, but also a breaker of vows.”
“Ah, yes.” She snuggles into his arms. “Tell me. I love it when you tell me stories.”
He sits silent for a while. “This was all very long ago, in the times when Troy still stood and heroes like Heracles walked the earth. In fact, Heracles was one of the Argonauts, having joined Jason and several other famous Greek heroes aboard the mythical ship Argo. As to Jason, let’s just say he had a tough childhood, but at least he had Hera, the goddess, on his side.”
“He was raised by a centaur, wasn’t he?” Helle says.
“He was. Poor little baby, hidden away so that his uncle wouldn’t murder him. Once Jason grew up, he set off on a quest to find his destiny. Ironically, it was Jason’s uncle, Pelias, who lumbered Jason with the task of stealing the Golden Fleece and bringing it back to Greece. Pelias probably hoped Jason would die on the way, sparing him the effort to murder him. After all, the throne Pelias occupied rightfully belonged to Jason’s father. But where Pelias never saw Jason’s weak father as a threat, he quickly realised Jason was far more dangerous.
Jason didn’t die. Instead, after numerous adventures, he and his companions arrived in Kolchis where they were met with polite distrust by King Aeetes. The man was no fool, and all these handsome Greek heroes probably made him very nervous, but the kings of Kolchis were not only kings, they were also powerful wizards, so the Golden Fleece was protected by a dangerous dragon and thereby impossible to steal. Unless, of course, one had help from someone as magically skilled as the king of Kolchis.”
Helle sits up. “This would be like Sam’s ancestor, wouldn’t it?” She grimaces. Samion, wizard prince of Kolchis is no favourite of hers, neither in his first reincarnation nor in this his latest, as powerful financial mogul Sam Woolf.
“Yes. And yours.”
“Eeuuuw!!!” She shakes herself. Just the thought that she shares some DNA—however diluted—with Sam has her breaking out in hives.
“Going back to our story,” Jason says, “King Aeetes decided to have some fun with his somewhat unwelcome guests. He promised Jason the fleece if he would perform three tasks for him: he was to yoke the fire-breathing Khalkotauri oxen to the plough and plough a field, he was to sow the field with the teeth of a dragon and take care of the resulting crop and then, as a final test, he was to bypass the guardian dragon. If he survived all these three tests, Aeetes would happily give him the Golden Fleece. Thing was, no mortal man could approach those oxen without being burned to a crisp, and as to those dragon teeth, who knew what crop would spring from them?
Jason quickly concluded that the only way to survive these tests was to convince the king’s daughter, Medea, to help him. Medea was beautiful and I don’t think our hero found it that much of a hardship to woo her. And she, well she had never met a man as handsome as Jason, a man whose mere presence had her heart racing—this very much with the help of Aphrodite and Eros, whom the goddess Hera roped in to help her protect her precious Jason.”
“So he never fell in love with her?” Helle asks, while in her mind a shadowy figure of a young woman with dark, dark hair – no vipers – and arresting eyes takes shape.
“I don’t think so.” Jason sounds sad. “A means to an end, that’s what she was. Anyway; the besotted Medea helped Jason overcome the three challenges on condition that he marry her and take her with him when he left. This Jason promised to do, and soon enough Jason had the Golden Fleece in one hand, Medea in the other, and was running for his life with an enraged Aeetes in pursuit. The king claimed trickery and treachery—his own daughter had helped this Greek upstart steal their most precious family heirloom.
Jason and Medea made it to the Argo. The Argonauts threw themselves on their oars to attempt to outrun the ships from Kolchis, but Aeetes was gaining on them—until Medea compounded her sins by killing her brother and throwing his dismembered corpse in the sea. Aeetes howled in grief and rage, ordering his ships to stop and salvage the bits and pieces of his son that were bobbing in the water.”
“Poor Medea. So in love with a man she not only betrayed her house but also committed fratricide,” Helle says. “I wonder what Jason thought of that.”
“He seems to have been a man with a Machiavellian approach to things,” Jason says drily. “You know, the ends justify the means. In this case, a dead boy ensured the Golden Fleece could be delivered to Greece, with Jason returning as a conquering hero—and with the enigmatic sorceress Medea by his side. Quite the power-duo, those two, and for several years they rubbed along quite happily, with various little incidents along the way.” Jason shakes his head. “Medea was one rather blood-thirsty woman, as demonstrated by the time she tricked King Pelias’ daughters to kill their own father, promising them that once the old man had been slaughtered and placed in the pot, a young, vital man would leap forth—just as it did when Medea gave them a demonstration with a ram. Except, of course, that when the poor girls tried to reanimate the various body parts of their dead papa, nothing happened.”
“Ugh!” Helle says.
“Ugh indeed. Medea would say she was merely exacting revenge on behalf of her husband, whose throne King Pelias has usurped.” He strokes her head. “She loved Jason to distraction, gave him a dozen children or so, and then, just like that, he falls in love with Glauce, the pretty daughter of the king of Corinth. Medea was devastated. And angry. So she sent Glauce a poisoned dress and coronet, thereby murdering Jason’s beloved. She then fled for her life, with an enraged Jason in pursuit.”
“Wait, wait. What about her kids? She killed them, didn’t she?”
Jason smiles. “Not in the versions I first heard.”
She rolls her eyes. Just because he remembers every single one of his fifty-odd lives…
“In Euripides’ play, Medea murders two of her sons,” Jason continues. “Prior to that version, there was no mention of any baby killing, just a woman harnessing sun-dragons to her chariot and fleeing due east, returning at last to Kolchis.”
“So what happened to all her kids?”
“No idea. I guess they stayed with their father. That’s the way it was until relatively recently: children belonged with their father, not with their mother.”
“Ah, Jason. Well, Hera was most displeased with him for having betrayed his vows to Medea. Without Hera’s protection, life unravelled for Jason and he was to spend his remaining years very much alone. One night, as he was sleeping under the shadow of the rotting Argo, he was crushed to death by a part of its keel. The ship that carried him on his greatest adventures thereby also became the cause of his death—a rather elegant element of poetic justice.”
Jason looks down his nose at her. “And the reason why my long-gone mother named me Jason was because she was sick and tired of hearing your father go on and on about how you were all descended from the sun god. My name was supposed to serve as a reminder that sometimes the most precious things we have can be stolen away from those we least expect to do so.”
Helle cups his cheek. “Like you stole my heart away.” In their first life, three thousand years ago, give or take…
“Wrong way round, Helle. You stole mine the first time I saw you.” He brushes a long digit down her cheek. “And then you stole my soul forever in a glade that shimmered in dappled sunlight, with the wind whispering love songs in the poplars overhead.”
“Huh,” Helle says, clearing her throat of a wad of emotion. “I guess there’s some sort of divine justice in the fact that Medea and Jason never made it to the happily ever after.” She presses herself closer, her ear to his chest. “Will we, do you think?”
“I don’t know, my lioness.” His arms tightens round her. “But I will do everything I can to make it happen. Seems to me we bloody deserve a happy ending after all these long, long fruitless years.”
Yes, Helle thinks. They sure do. But deserving doesn’t mean getting… She gulps down a wave of fear. Tonight, things are okay in her world. Tonight, she lies safe in her Jason’s arms. She’ll worry about that damned vindictive bastard Sam Woolf tomorrow. Yes, tomorrow.
Well, dear readers, I think we’ll leave Jason and Helle to their snuggles in front of the crackling fire. God knows they need every single quiet moment they can get to survive the travails facing them. After all, Greek myths – even when modernised – tend towards the tragic and dramatic rather than the rosy pink.
“Of course,” my mother would have said. “Any myth worth telling has streaks of black in it.” She’s right – and I am so grateful for all the time she spent imparting her love of stories and myths to me, with or without those black streaks!