When this book begins, the Argo, the first ship ever built, has reached its destination: the kingdom of Aeëtes, by the River Phasis. There, the Argo's captain, Jason, demands that Aeëtes surrender the Golden Fleece. (If you have no idea what any of this means, check out this website for background info on Jason's search for the Golden Fleece.)
Aeëtes tells Jason, "OK, I'll give you the Golden Fleece, but first you have to perform three tasks for me…" (Insert ominous music here.)
Ovid doesn't tell us what these tasks are, however, not right away, at least. Instead, he lets us know that Medea, King Aeëtes's daughter, has developed a major crush on Jason.
At this point, Medea delivers a long dramatic monologue, in which she reveals her feelings for him. She is particularly worried about the dangers Jason is about to face – the three tasks set by King Aeëtes, which we now learn are: (1) to put a yoke on a pair of fire-breathing oxen; (2) to sow (i.e., plant in a furrow) the teeth of the snake slain by Cadmus; and (3) to overcome the dragon that guards the Golden Fleece.
Medea's thoughts wander to and fro, as she considers helping Jason and running off with him. Eventually, however, she decides against it.
Then, however, she sets out for the shrine of the goddess Hecate. On the way, she encounters Jason, and instantly is overpowered by love. When she approaches him, he begs for her help in the coming tasks. She promises to give it, provided that he will marry her. He promises he will.
The next day, King Aeëtes and his people go out to the field to see Jason confront his challenges. First, Jason yokes the fire-breathing bulls – piece of cake. Then, he ploughs the field and throws the snake's teeth in the furrows. In no time, the snake's teeth germinate into a race of warriors, who spring up out of the earth fully armed – and ready to attack Jason.
Watching all this, Medea is afraid for Jason, and she casts a spell to help him. We aren't told what the spell is, but if might have something to do with what happens next: Jason throws a stone into the middle of the undead warriors. This distracts them, and they start fighting each other. They fight until they are all dead – again.
Last in the list of challenges is the dragon. Jason walks up to it and sprinkles some herb juices on it. We don't know what kind of, uh, herb, this was, but it sure makes the dragon fall asleep – thus giving Jason a window of opportunity to snag the Golden Fleece. He then sails away with his new treasure – plus Medea, his new girlfriend (but she thinks they're more serious than that).
When Jason and his crew get back home, everyone celebrates – except for Aeson, Jason's elderly father, who is at death's door. Saddened by this, Jason asks Medea if she can just, you know, take some of his years and give them to his father. Medea says no way is she going to take years from Jason – but she might just try to whip up some magic to make Aeson live longer.
That night, Medea goes out into the woods and prays to the various divinities of the earth and sky. She asks them for some juice that will prolong old Aeson's life.
When she is done praying, a chariot swoops down from the sky to pick her up. Medea's got connections, you see: her granddad is the Sun.
She gets into the chariot, which is pulled by two dragons. In it, she travels the world for nine days and nine nights. At the end of this period, she finds the herb she's looking for. Then she heads back to the palace of Aeson.
There, she performs some wacky purification rituals on Aeson. Then, she brews up a potion using the herb she had plucked. She knows its ready when the olive stick she stirs it with turns green and sprouts new leaves; then when she carries it over to Aeson, wherever droplets fall on the ground, grass springs up.
What does she do then? Why, she pulls out a sword and cuts Aeson's throat.
But that's just to drain his old blood out. Then she fills him up with the potion, and he revives – forty years younger!
After this, Medea heads to the palace of King Pelias – Aeson's brother and Jason's uncle. In case you don't already know the story of Jason (not that you should) – or you didn't click on the link we posted earlier (OK, maybe that's your fault) – we'd better fill you in on the back-story.
Here's the scoop: In fact, the rightful king of Iolcus – Jason's ancestral home – wasn't Pelias at all, but his brother Aeson. The thing is, Pelias kicked his brother out of town, and took the throne for himself. As a result, Jason grew up in exile. (In fact, he was raised by a centaur, but let's not get into that.)
Years later, Jason went to Iolcus to claim his birthright. As the Jamaican reggae singer Jimmy Cliff would put it, "As sure as the sun with shine, I'm gonna get my share, what's mine." The problem is (and there's always a problem), Pelias recognized him. You see, Pelias had received a prophecy to beware of anyone who came wearing only one sandal – and Jason, for some reason, only had one.
So then Pelias decided to play a trick on Jason. He put it something like this: "Hey! Jason! My nephew! Great to see you after all these years! How's your dad? Exile treating him alright? Anyhow, about my kingdom. Here's what: you go bring me the Golden Fleece, and then the kingdom's yours!" (As you can imagine, Pelias didn't expect Jason would succeed.)
So that's the back-story. Now that Medea is heading for Pelias's palace, her plan is to help out her beloved Jason by settling his uncle's hash.
When she arrives at his palace, the first people she approaches are Pelias's daughters. She boasts to them of how she revived Aeson; this makes the girls excited that she can do the same for their own father.
At first, Medea plays hard to get, saying, "Hmm, I don't know. Let's make sure it still works first. Here: let me turn that old ram over there into a lamb." And that's exactly what she does, complete with the throat cutting, blood draining, and all.
The daughters of Pelias are so impressed by this that they insist Medea do the same for her father. She agrees, and three days later they start the ritual. This time, Medea gets the daughters to stab their father and drain his blood themselves.
Even though Pelias's daughters can't bear to watch what they're doing, they stab him anyway. Of course, this time Medea uses a placebo potion without any magic herbs. Guess what? Pelias dies.
Then Medea hops into her dragon chariot and says, "Let's blow this popstand." And she's off!
Medea flies all over the world, passing various landmarks where weird transformations occurred. Finally, she comes back to Corinth – where she discovers that Jason has married someone else!
What's a wronged woman to do? Well, if you're a wronged woman and your name happens to be Medea, you start by killing your lover's new wife by setting her on fire; then you kill your children with the creep (apparently Jason and Medea had children); then you fly away again in your dragon-pulled sun chariot. Are you getting this all down?
Medea takes refuge in Athens, where she marries the local king, Aegeus.
One day, Aegeus's long lost son, Theseus, shows up at the palace. For no apparent reason Medea decides to kill Theseus.
She conspires with Aegeus to spike Theseus's drink with some slobber taken from Cerberus, the three-headed dog of the underworld. Yikes. But then, just as Theseus is about to put the drink to his lips, Aegeus recognizes the symbol embossed on the young man's sword-hilt, and realizes that he is about to poison his son. He smacks the drink out of the Theseus's hand.
At this point, Medea decides it's time to make herself scarce – so she disappears into a mist of invisibility. How convenient.
Then the people of Athens hold a great festival honoring Theseus.
Soon, however, more trouble arrives. Minos, the king of Crete, is determined to wage war on Athens. This is because the Athenians killed his son, Androgeos. First, however, Minos sails around Greece, rounding up allies for the coming fight.
Eventually, he comes to Aegina, an island city-state allied with Athens. Minos tries to get the Aeginetans (the inhabitants of Aegina) to break their treaty with Athens and join up with him. But Aeacus, the ruler of Aegina, brushes them off. Minos makes some empty threats in response, and then hits the road.
Just at this moment, who should sail into Aegina's port but Cephalus, the husband of Procris, daughter of the Athenian King Erectheus (we were briefly introduced to him back in Book 6).
Cephalus goes up to Aeacus and tells him, "Hey, that Minos character is a real jerk. Don't join up with him: stick with the Athenians and we'll kick his butt."
Then Aeacus says, "We Aeginetans are tight with you Athenians. Don't worry about us."
To this, Cephalus says, "Cool. But hey, what's the deal? A lot of the people I met last time I was in Aegina don't seem to be around anymore."
Aeacus sighs, and says it's a sad story; even so, he starts to explain what happened.
Here's what Aeacus says: Not long ago, the goddess Juno sent a horrible plague against the people of the Aegina. This is because Jupiter, her husband, had been fooling around with the nymph Aegina, the city's namesake.
At first, the plague infected only animals. Then it spread to the inhabitants of the countryside around Aegina, and, finally, to the city itself.
The plague made people experience burning sensations all through their bodies; they were also overcome with powerful thirst. The plague was so contagious that the doctors attempting to treat the sick soon fell sick themselves.
As more and more people died, all sense of order broke down.
Finally, Aeacus prayed to Jupiter for help. Jupiter sends down a flash of lightning, meaning "OK, I'm listening."
Then Aeacus caught sight of a nearby tree, swarming with ants. He asked Jupiter to fill his city with as many people as there were ants on that tree.
That night, Aeacus dreamed that he saw the same tree. The tree shook the ants onto the ground; there, they transformed into humans. Then Aeacus woke up to the sound of commotion. The dream had come true!
Aeacus repopulated his city with these new people. He called the new citizens "Myrmidons," after the Greek word "myrmex," which means "ant." Aeacus says that his new-citizens are hard-working and painstaking – just like the ants they used to be.
That's the end of Aeacus's story.
The next morning, Cephalus and the other Athenians go down to the port to sail off. But the weather is bad, so they head back to the palace. Aeacus's isn't awake yet, but his son, Phocus, welcomes the visitors.
While they're chilling out, Phocus notices that Cephalus is carrying an unusual looking spear – he can't tell what wood it's made of. He asks Cephalus, "What's the deal with your spear?"
Before Cephalus can answer, one of the Athenians replies that the spear has some wacky properties. For example, when you throw it, it can't miss – it's like a homing spear. Homing in two senses, that is. That's because, once it hits its target, it flies back to the hand that threw it. Pretty nifty, huh?
Phocus is impressed, and asks Cephalus where he got the spear. At this, however, Cephalus bursts into tears. All the same, he begins to tell the story. Here's what he says:
It all began when he married Procris, the daughter of Erectheus. They were incredibly happy together. Unfortunately, only a short time after their honeymoon, while Cephalus was hunting in the forest, Aurora, the goddess of dawn, swooped down, picked him up, and carried him away.
Throughout the time that Aurora held him prisoner, however, Cephalus kept insisting that he had eyes only for his wife. Finally, Aurora decided to let him go – but not without a little passive aggressive send-off. Basically, she said, "Fine: go home to your wife. I just think you'll regret it."
On the way home, Cephalus pondered Aurora's words. As he turned them around in his mind, he started to worry that his wife had been unfaithful. He decided to test this out by appearing to her in disguise. Aurora helped him out by changing his face.
When he got home, everything in the household seemed in order. Procris appeared sad without her husband around.
As the days passed, the disguised Cephalus began to pester her to sleep with him. She refused every time. Then, he started offering her lavish gifts, but she still refused. He kept piling on more and more and more gifts, however, until, finally, it seemed she was about to give in.
At that point, Cephalus suddenly revealed himself and cursed her as an unfaithful wife. (Even though, technically, nothing happened.)
In disgust at her husband's behavior, Procris fled into the woods, where she took up the life of a huntress.
Eventually, however, Cephalus came to his senses. He realized that he, too, might have cracked under so much pressure. He got in touch with Procris and apologized to her. Then she came home.
Once again, Procris and Cephalus settled into a happy life together. As an added bonus, when she came back from the woods, she gave him two gifts: first, the world's fastest hound, and, second, the magical spear.
After some time past, Cephalus got word of a crazy fox that was tormenting the people of Thebes. He joined up with a bunch of other warriors and went to hunt the fox.
Because the fox kept outwitting them, the other hunters asked Cephalus to release his special hound, whose name was Laelaps. Cephalus let Laelaps run free, and he took off like a speeding arrow. But even he couldn't catch the fox; it was just too wily.
Finally, Cephalus decided that enough was enough: he lifted up the spear and prepared to throw it at the fox. But then, before it left his grasp, both the fox and Laelaps turned to stone.
At this point, Phocus interrupts the story. He asks the question we've all been thinking: "OK Cephalus, great story about the fox and dog and all. But you still haven't explained why you're pissed at your spear!"
Cephalus clears his throat and begins talking again.
He says that, in the first years of his marriage with Procris (after they got back together), they were very happy. He would go out hunting in the woods, and have a great time. What he loved best about the woods was the gentle, refreshing breeze blowing through it. He would often pray for this breeze to come.
The Latin word for breeze is "aura." One day, somebody overheard him praying for "aura" to come and thought he was calling on a lady named "Aura." This spy reported back to Procris that Cephalus had taken a mistress.
Procris didn't believe him. Or at least that's what she said…
The next day, Cephalus went out hunting again. As usual, he prayed for the breeze – "aura" – to come. Then, he heard a rustling in the bushes. He lifted his spear and threw it.
But what it struck wasn't a beast of the forest – it was his wife, Procris, who had come to see if he was still faithful to her.
He raced to her side and cradled her in his arms. But it was too late. With her dying breath, she tried to make him swear that he wouldn't get together with "Aura" when she was gone. Then Cephalus realized what had happened.
That's the end of Cephalus's story. When he's finished, King Aeacus shows up with a bunch of soldiers he had rounded up to join in the fight against King Minos of Crete.