Shakespeare's Myths

Pseudo-0rpheus.  Orphic Argonautica (between 4th and 6th centuries), 1026-32 [follows Apollonius’ version]


Ovide Moralisé (early 14th century), VII, 659-76:

[When the Greek fugitives see the dust raised by Oeta’s (Aeetes’) army in their pursuit, they start fearing for their lives]

Mais Medea les confortoit.

Son frere Assirtim emportoit. [Absyrtus] 

De grant cruauté li membra.

Piece à piece le desmembra,

Si l’espandi parmi la voie

En leu que li peres le voie.

Quant Oeta, qui les sivoit, [Aeetes] 

Par les champs esparpillié voit

Le cors de son petit enfant,

Par poi que li cuers ne li fant

D’ire, d’angoisse, de doleur.

Plains de tristesse et plains de plour

Cheï pasmez dessus l’araine.

Relevé l’ont à quelque paine

Li plus privé de sa maison.

Quant fu levez de pasmoison,

Si fist les membres amasser,

Ains qu’il vousist outrepasser.

[But Medea comforted them. / She had taken with her her brother Assirtim (Absyrtus) / She very cruelly dismembered him, / Tore him up limb by limb, / And dispersed him on the way / In such places where his father would see him. / When Oeta (Aeetes), who was following them, / Sees, scattered in the fields, / The body of his little child, / His heart nearly broke / With anger, anguish and grief. / Steeped in sorrow and steeped in tears, / He fell in a swoon on the ground. / The closest in his retinue / Painfully picked him up. / When he came out of his swoon, / He had the limbs gathered, / Before he accepted to pass by]

[The allegorical interpretation sees the dismemberment of Absyrtus, which saves the Greeks, as representing Christ’s sacrifice saving humankind (VII, 807-12)]


Giovanni Boccaccio.  De Mulieribus Claris (Famous Women) (1362), XVII, “De Medea Regina Colcorum” [“On Medea, Queen of Colchos”]. [Provides substantially the same elements on Absyrtus as in Genealogia, except that his mother is called Perse here and Ipsea there. Also, while Medea dismembers Absyrtus herself in Genealogia, she orders the murder to be done in De Mulieribus Claris (“obtruncari et eius membra passim per arva dispergi jussit”).  See Morley, below]


Giovanni Boccaccio.  Genealogia (1350-1374), IV, xii, “De Medea” [“On Medea”]:

[“Absyrtius” or “Egyaleus” is the son of “Oeta” and “Ipsea”, and Medea’s brother. To slow down her father’s pursuit, Medea murdered Absyrtus and dispersed his limbs throughout the fields (“Absyrthium obtruncavit , articulatimque divisum passim per agros disjecit”)  in an island called “Thomithania” (Tomis), where Ovid would later be exiled, an allusion to Tristia, III, ix.]


Ovide Methamorphose (c. 1470), BNF Ms Fr 137, VII:

Quant les Gregois veirent le roy sy prez d’eulx, ilz en eurent grant doubte et Medee les confortoit, qui emportoit son frere Athiris [Absyrtus] avec elle. D’une moult grande et inhumaine cruaulte lui souvint quant piece a piece le desmembra; si le getta en la voye par ou le pere devoit passer et affin que le peust veoir, comme il fist.

Quant le roy vei les pieces de son filz flottant dessus l’eaue, il chey pasmé; a grande peine le peurent les plus prochains de lui relever et quant il fut relevez de pamoison, ains que oultre voulsist passer, il commanda arrester illec tant que les membres de son filz fussent rassamblez et tandis eschapperent les Gregois.

[Based on Ovide Moralisé (see above). Translated by Caxton, Metamorphoseos (1476)]  


Henry Parker, Lord Morley.  Of the right renomyd ladies (between 1534 and 1547) [translates part of Boccaccio’s Famous Women], XVI, “Of Medea, Queen of Colchos”:

Medea, the verey [true] teacher of the ancient cruelty, was the daughter of the noble Oetes [Aeetes] by Perse his wife. … The ungracious pageant played, when thereby she had obtained to lie in Jason’s arms, taking with her all her father’s substance, privily with him she went away. And besides this, not so contented, she minded more mischief. Casting in her fantasy that Oetes would follow them that fled, to stay him, in an isle called Tomitania [Tomis], by which needs Oetes should pass in following them, having with her her young brother called Absoetes [Absyrtus], she caused him to be cut in pieces and the parts thereof to be thrown here and there by the fields, to that intent that when her sorrowful father should go about to gather them together, Jason and she might the better escape away.


Barthélemy Aneau.  Imagination Poétique (1552), “Charite empeschant vengeance” [“Piety preventing revenge”], p. 89:

Medee ainsi, son pere Oetes fuyant,  [Aeetes]

Et son amy le Grec Jason suyvant,

De telle ruse envers son pere usa,

Qui la suyvoit, et ainsi l’amusa:

Son frere Absyrt par quartiers despeça,

Par les chemins ses membres dispersa

A celle fin qu’elle, fille mauvaise,

Se peut sauver, et fuyr plus à l’ayse

Ce temps pendant que le bon pere affix

Recueilleroit les membres de son filz.

Or devinez que denote la fable?

C’est que Pieté et Amour ineffable

Ne seuffre point, mais retarde et empesche

Punir celluy ou celle là qui peche.

[So Medea, running away from her father Oetes (Aeetes) / and following her lover Jason, / used such trickery with her father, / who was pursuing her, and she delayed him thus: / She quartered her brother Absyrtus, / Scattered his limbs on the way / So that she, as an evil daughter, / Could flee and escape more easily / While the good father, fixed on the spot, / Gathered his son’s limbs. / What does this fable signify? / That Piety and ineffable Love / Do not allow, but delay and prevent / The punishment of he or she that sins]  


Charles Estienne.  Dictionarium Historicum, Geographicum, Poeticum (1553) [Here quoted from Jacob Stoer’s Geneva 1590 edition]:

Absyrtus, Aethae Regis Colchorum, et Ipseae filius, alio nomine Aegialeus dictus, quem soror eius Medea cum Jasone discedens membratim discerptum circumquaque disjecit, ut frequentem se patrem in colligendis ossibus occupatum remoraretur, ne jam à fuga retraheret; unde locus ille dictus est Tomos, id est incisio, et fluvius juxta quem id fecit, Absyrtus vocatus. Sunt tamen qui Absyrtum non ex eadem matre cum Medea, sed ex Idea Oceani filia natum tradunt. Alii nec à sorore discerptum volunt, sed per Istrum fluvium  cum figientibus in Illyriam ad insulas Prygeidas venisse. Absyrtum Diodorus Aegialum vocat. Huius meminit Cicero lib. 3 De Natura Deorum, Pacuvium poetam citans. Absyrti fabulam describit Ovid 3 Tristium, Eleg. 9. De hoc Orph. Argon. 2, Apollonius, Lucas et Theo. Interpretes, libro quarto Argonaut.


John Studley.  Medea (1566, reed. 1581) [translates Seneca] (STC 22224), fol 6v:

Medea: My tender brother eke, that with my sire did me pursue,

Whom, with his secret parts cut off, I, wicked virgin, slew,

Whose shredded and dismembered corpse with sword in gobbets hewed,

A woeful corpse to th’ father’s heart, on Pontus’ ground I strewed.

[With Seneca’s text, Studley seems to conflate another version, according to which Absyrtus pursued Medea with Aeetes. That Medea cut her brother’s “secret parts” off is Studley’s own addition. See Analysis, below.]


Natale Conti.  Mythologia (1567), VI, vii, “De Medea” [“On Medea”]:

[According to some authors, Absyrtus was older than Medea and his mother was Asterodia, daughter of Ocean and Tethys. He was so handsome that the Colchians called him “Phaethon”. He is also called Aegialeus. Conti gives the two most usual versions of Absyrtus’ story, together with other variants: that Absyrtus was killed by Medea in Aeetes’ house and left there (of this version he does not give any source), or that he was captured and killed by the Argonauts]


George Turberville.  The Heroical Epistles (1567) (STC 18939.5), fol. 72r:

But thee, O brother, I ne left behind

At time of flight; my letter in this one

Place ‘gins to faint: the thing my vent’rous hand

Did dare to do, it dares not to record.

So I—but even with thee—should have been rent.

Yet drad I not, for what should me appal,

As then a woman and a guilty wight,

My cursèd corpse to surging seas to gage?


Thomas Churchyard. Ovid’s De Tristibus (1572, reprinted 1580) (STC 18977a), “Why Tomos [Tomis] was so called”, fol. 23v-24r:

And of Absyrtus’ cruel death, a proper name is grown:

The sailing ship, through curious care of martial Pallas wrought,

At first these struggling streams assayed, before none never sought.

The wicked wight Medea here, from father flying fast,

Her rowing oars upon this coast, men say, the first time cast.

When hasting ships with speedy pace to draw more near she spied,

“By craft we must my father flee, we are betrayed”, she cried.

While she for counsel pausèd then and lookèd round about,

In sight at last her brother saw, amidst her deepest doubt;

Whom, when she spied, forthwith she said: “I dare us well assure,

My brother’s death the cause shall be our safety to procure”.

He all unwares and dreading nought her cankered, cruel spite,

Into his side her bloody sword she thrust with raging might.

Her blade plucked back from gorèd side she rent with ruthful wound,

And members minced in pieces small she cast about the ground.

And that her father might this know, on rock whereby she passed

His woeful hands and bloody head with sleight she fixèd fast.

With wailing new, her aged sire for this did make delay

And sobbing sore, the flesh took up. She safely ’scaped away.

Hereof this town is Tomos hight, for that upon this soil

The sister did her brother’s corpse in sundry parts despoil.


Abraham Fraunce.  The Third Part of the Countess of Pembroke’s Yvychurch (1592) (STC 11341), sig. H4r:

[On the destructive power of Love]

Love made Absyrtus with sister’s hands to be murdered

And in pieces torn, and here and there to be scattered.


How to cite

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

<< back to top >>