By Adrienne Mayor (Wonders & Marvels contributor)
The Persian sorceress of Greek myth, Medea, understood arcane pharmaka (drugs and poisons) and knew how to concoct unquenchable “living fire” (volatile naphtha from natural petroleum wells of Baku, Azerbaijan). Medea, whose name means “to devise,” also knew the secrets of rejuvenation and resurrection. She used magical formulas and quasi-scientific procedures to achieve power over life and death.
According to myth, Medea first demonstrated her uncanny ability to recapture youth when she appeared as an old woman and suddenly transformed herself into a beautiful young princess. Jason, of the Argonauts, became her lover and asked Medea to restore the youthful vigor of his aged father, Aeson. Medea’s treatment recalls twentieth-century celebrity rumors about miracle youth cures in secret Swiss labs. In the first example of fabled “whole-body blood replacement,” Medea drew out all the blood from the old man’s veins and replaced it with the restorative juices of certain plants. Old Aeson’s energy and glowing health amazed everyone who saw him.
The daughters of Pelias, hoping to rejuvenate their father, too, begged Medea to reveal her procedure. But Pelias was an old enemy of Medea’s. The sorceress set her special bronze cauldron boiling over a fire, reciting incantations and sprinkling powerful pharmaka. Amid great clouds of smoke, Medea dramatically cut the throat of an old ram and placed it in the big kettle. Abracadabra! A frisky young lamb magically appeared in the pot. Pelias’s gullible daughters attempted the same technique with their elderly father, with horrible results.
The earliest image of Medea in Greek art is on a vase painting of about 630 BC. As she stirs her “cauldron of rejuvenation,” a sheep emerges from the pot; a similar scene appears in many other ancient paintings of Medea. Looking at these archaic images today inevitably brings to mind the world’s first genetically engineered sheep, Dolly, who emerged from the first successful cloning experiment in 1997. Medea’s mythic method for renewing life—creating a younger version of an older creature—anticipates by more than 3,000 years modern advances in cloning, stem cells, high-volume blood and non-sanguineous transfusions, and other scientific techniques for renewing organs and achieving artificial life.
About the author: Adrienne Mayor is a Research Scholar in Classics and History of Science, Stanford University. She is the author of “Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World” (2009) and “The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy,” a nonfiction finalist for the 2009 National Book Award.