Shakespeare's Myths

John Lydgate.  The Fall of Princes (1438/39, printed 1494) [expands on Laurent de Premierfait’s French version (1400/1409) of Boccaccio’s De Casibus Virorum Illustrium (1360)] I, 2211-33:

Out of Colchos  when they gan remue,

King Oetes after hem gan sue.   [Aeetes]

Upon Jason avenged for to be,

Without tarrying, he followed hem proudly;

The which thing, when Jason dide see,

This Medea gan shape a remedy:

She took her brother and slew him cruelly,

And him dismembered, as bookes make minde,

And piecemeal in a field behinde

She gan him cast, all bespreint with blood;

Whereof his father, when he had a sight,

Full pale of cheer, still in the field he stood

While she and Jason took hem into flight—

I trowe that time the most woeful wight

That was alive, when he dide knowe

His child dismembered and abroad isowe! [isowe: sown about, scattered]

Which cause was,—alas and wellaway!—

That he so stinte, as man disconsolate,

While that Jason from Colchos went away.

And Medea, most unfortunate,

Was ground and root of this mortal debate, [totally immersed in]

For who saw ever or read of such another,

To save a stranger, list to slay her brother?

[Lydgate expand’s Laurent de Premierfait’s Des Cas des Nobles Hommes et Femmes, “Et afin que Oetha (Aeetes) qui les poursuivoit ne les detenist, Medea trancha par menues pieces un sien petit enfant appelle Egialus et sema les membres par le chemin ou devoit passer Oetha afin que elle s’enfouyst tandis que il recueildroit et enseveliroit les membres du dit enfant” (quoted from BNF Ms Fr 226). Boccaccio’s De Casibus Virorum Illustrium only briefly alluded to the lamentable murder as a result of Medea’s inordinate love: “Aegialeus filius nece flebili oppressus ]


Guillaume Fillastre.  Histoire de la Toison d’or (1473), BNF Ms Fr 138:

[Reproaching Medea’s crime]

Et qui pis est et trop plus execrable, tu as murtry et tue cruellement ton frere propre et as desfixe par pieces ces tendres membres de enfance semez par le chemin affin d’occuper ton pere qui te suyvoit et que le temps qu’il mettroit a recueillir les membres de son filz te fust espace et opportunite pour ton fait [What is worse and more hateful, you cruelly killed and murdered your own brother and have disjointed those tender limbs of infancy piece by piece and scattered them on the way so as to occupy your father who was pursuing you, and use to your own advantage and opportunity the time he would take to gather his son’s limbs]

[An elaborate Christian moralization of Jason and Medea’s story follows, which does not take the Absyrtus episode into account]


William Caxton.  The Historie of Jason (1477) (STC 15383) [Translates Raoul Le Fèvre’s L’Histoire de Jason (c. 1460)]

[Absyrtus’ birth]

… the said king Oethes [Aeetes] had a daughter by his wife Ortis. This daughter grew and was named Medea, and became passing beauteous and fair. Yet he had another daughter by his wife, and a son. The daughter was named Caliope [Chalciope] and the son was named Abserthius [Absyrtus].  At the birth of this Abserthius, the queen Ortis was so sick that she laid her down in her mortal bed.


[Medea runs away with Jason]

… she took with her all the richesses [treasures], and also her young brother Absirthius [Absyrtus], of the age of xvi months, whom she took secretly in a chambre [room] from the nourrice [nurse], and made her maitresse [governess] to cut his throat privily for certain causes which shall hereafter be declared.

… then the evil old woman opened her lap and unwound the body of the child, whom she had smitten into pieces. Medea took the head and lift it on high, whereof Hercules, Jason and other[s] seeing this, had great horror of this cruelty and were sore abashed.

[Medea claims to have cut up her brother so as to save her father’s life by preventing him to fight with Jason]

With these words, the old woman and Medea cast in the sea the membres [limbs] of the young child Absirthius [Absyrtus].


Edmund Spenser.  The Faery Queene (1590), II, xii, 45:

[The story of the Golden Fleece is sculpted on the ivory gate of the Bower of Bliss]

Ye might have seen the frothy billows fry

Under the ship, as thorough them she went,  [the Argo]

That seemed the waves were into ivory

Or ivory into the waves were sent;

And other where the snowy substance sprent

With vermeil, like the boy’s blood therein shed, [Absyrtus]

A piteous spectacle did represent.


2 Henry VI (c. 1590, 1590), V.iii.57-59


Edmund Spenser.  The Faery Queene (1596), V, viii, 47:

[Her husband killed, Adicia rages like Ino, the Maenads, and Medea]

fell Medea, when on Colchic strand

Her brother’s bones she scattered all about.


Thomas Heywood.  Troia Britanica (1609), VII, 79 and VII, endnotes. LINK


Thomas Heywood.  The Brazen Age (1610-1611, 1611) (STC 13310):

[Act III (sigs. F2r-G4v) presents the story of Jason, Medea and the golden fleece. Homer concludes:]

the Argonauts are fled,

Whom the enraged Oetes doth pursue,         [Aeetes]

And being in sight, Medea takes the head

Of young Absyrtus, whom, unkind, she slew,

And all his other limbs straws in the way

Of the old father, his pursuit to stay.

[Here, the 1613 edition indicates  “The show”, without any other indication (sig. G4v)]

In memory of this inhuman deed,

These islands where his slaughtered limbs lie spread

Were called Absyrtides.


Sir Walter Raleigh.  The History of the World (1614) (STC 20637), Part I, Book 2, Chapter 13, § 6, “Of the expedition of the Argonauts ”, p. 430-31:

Aetes [Aeetes] understanding the practices of Medea, provided to pursue the ship, whom when Medea perceived to be at hand, she slew her brother, and cutting him in pieces, she scattered his limbs in divers places, of which Aetes finding some, was fain to seek out the rest and suffer his daughter to pass; the parts of his son he buried in a place which thereupon he called “Tomi” [Tomis]: the Greek word signifieth “division”. … Jupiter, offended with the slaughter of Absyrtus, vexed them with a great tempest and carried them they knew not whither; when they came to the islands Absyrtides, there, the ship Argo—that there might want no incredible thing in this fable—spake to them, and said that the anger of Jupiter should not cease till they came to Ausonia and were cleansed by Circe from the murder of Absyrtus. … [they] came unto the isle of Aeaea, wherein Circe dwelt, who cleansed them.  


Peter Heylin.  Microcosmos, A Little Description of the Great World, “The Adriatic Isles”:

… the Absyrtides, so called from Absyrtus, here torn in pieces by his sister Medea [1621 ed. (STC 13276), p. 231. As from the 1625 ed. (STC 13277), p. 440, expanded to:]

… the Absyrtides, so called by the men of Colchis whom king Aeëtes had sent to pursue the Argonauts, in memory of Absyrtus, their king’s son, whom Medea, his sister, had torn in pieces before she took ship to fly away with Jason.


Samuel Purchas.  Purchas his Pilgrims (1625) (STC 20509), p. 70:

Aeta [Aeetes] hearing that Jason and his daughter Medea were gone, sent his son Absyrtus in a ship with soldiers after him, who pursued him to Istria in the Adriatic sea, where Alcinous compounded their quarrel so little to Absyrtus his liking that following him to Minerva’s isle, Jason slew him and his followers builded there a city called of his name Abseris [Absyrtis]. 


How to cite

Yves Peyré. “Absyrtus.”  2014.  In A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Classical Mythology (2009-), ed. Yves Peyré.

<< back to top >>