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Jason and the Argonauts

The Quest for the Golden Fleece

drawing of the Argo from a medieval manuscript

The story of Jason's quest for the Golden Fleece comes down to us chiefly through the epic poem the Argonautica by Apollonios of Rhodes.

In the myth, the Golden Fleece originally belonged to a ram which had saved two children, Phrixos and Helle. They were the offspring of Athamas, and their wicked stepmother Ino had commanded that they should be sacrificed to Zeus. According to the legend, the ram collected the children from their home in Orchomenos and flew east with them clinging to its back. As they crossed the narrow channel between Europe and Asia, Helle fell from the ramís back into the sea below, which from that time on became known as the Hellespont. But Phrixos continued to fly east over the Black Sea until the ram set him down in Colchis, at the court of King Aeëtes. Aeëtes received Phrixos kindly, and when the boy had sacrificed the ram to Zeus, he gave its miraculous fleece to the king. Aeëtes dedicated the fleece to Ares and hung it in a grove sacred to the war-god, where it was guarded by a fearsome serpent.

Jason was the son of Aison, the rightful king of Iolkos; Aison had a half-brother called Pelias, and in some versions of this tale he was supposed to rule Colchis until Jason was old enough to take over. When Jason grew up and demanded his rightful inheritance, Pelias set him what was thought to be an impossible deed - to bring the Golden Fleece back to Iolkos.

The ship used for the quest was the Argo, whose name means "swift", and she was the fastest ever built. She was constructed by a man named Argos in the port of Pagasai in Thessaly and was made entirely of timber from Mount Pelion, except for the prow, a piece of a sacred oak tree brought by the goddess Athena from the sanctuary of Zeus at Dodona.

About fifty Argonauts, including Jason, set out bound for Colchis aboard the Argo. Among these were Argos (the shipbuilder); Tiphis (the helmsman); the musician Orpheus; Zetes and Kalais, sons of the North Wind; Helen's brothers, Kastor and Polydeukes; Peleus, father of Achilles; Meleager of Calydonion boar-hunt fame; Laertes and Autolykos, father and grandfather of Odysseus; Admetus, who was later to let his wife die in his place; the prophet Amphiaraos and, for the first part of the journey, Herakles.

The Argo set sail with favourable omens and travelled north towards the Black Sea. On the journey to Colchis her crew met with numerous adventures. In Mysia they lost Herakles, when another member of the crew, a beautiful youth named Hylas, went off in search of fresh water for a feast and failed to return to the ship. The nymphs of the spring that he found, falling in love with his beauty, had abducted and drowned him; but Herakles refused to give up searching, and so the Argo had to sail without him.

On the Greek shore of the Bosphoros the Argonauts found Phineus, a blind seer and son of Poseidon, on whom the gods had inflicted a terrible curse. Whenever he sat down to eat, he was visited by a plague of Harpies, terrible creatures part-woman and part-bird, who seized some of the food in their beaks and talons and defiled the rest with their excrement. The Argonauts set a trap for these monsters. They invited Phineus to share their table, and when the Harpies appeared, the winged sons of the North Wind drew their swords and pursued them until, exhausted, they promised to desist. Phineus then revealed to them as much as he was able concerning their journey: the main hazards they would face were the clashing rocks which crushed passing vessels between them. When they reached these the Argonauts were to send a dove through first. If the dove found the passage between the rocks, so too would the Argo. However, if the dove failed, they should turn the ship around, for their mission was doomed to failure.

A dove was duly sent out and did pass safely through the clashing rocks, leaving only its longest tail feather in their grip; the Argo too sped through the narrow channel, suffering only slight damage to her stern timbers, and without any more significant adventures the Argonauts arrived safely at Colchis.

When Jason appeared before King Aeëtes and explained his quest, the king set out a series of seemingly impossible tasks for Jason to accomplish before he could be allowed to remove the Golden Fleece. In the first, he was to yoke two bronze-footed, fire-breathing bulls, a gift of the god Hephaistos, to a plough; in the second he had to sow some of the teeth of the dragon slain by Kadmos in Thebes (Athena had given these teeth to Aeëtes), and defeat the armed men that sprang up from the ground where the teeth were sown. Jason rather rashly agreed to all these conditions, but was fortunate enough to receive the help of the king's daughter Medea, a sorceress. Medea made Jason promise that he would take her back to Iolkos as his wife before giving him a magic fire-resistant ointment to rub over his body and his shield to help him accomplish the first task. For the second task, she instructed him to throw stones into the midst of the group of armed men, so that they would attack each other rather than Jason himself. In this way, Jason easily succeeded in all his tasks.

artist's impression of Jason stealing the fleece with the help of MedeaAeëtes was somewhat surprised at his visitor's prowess and was still reluctant to hand over the Fleece. He even attempted to set fire to the Argo and kill her crew. So a plan was hatched. Medea drugged the guardian serpent with a magic potion and Jason quickly removed the Golden Fleece from the sacred grove, and then they slipped quietly away to the sea with the rest of the Argonauts. When Aeëtes found both the fleece and his daughter missing, he gave chase in another ship, but Medea had foreseen this. She had brought along her young brother Apsyrtos, and she now proceeded to murder him and cut him up into small pieces, which she threw over the side of the ship. As she had anticipated, Aeëtes stopped to pick up the pieces, and so the Argo and her crew made good their escape.

The route of the homeward journey of the Argo has baffled many scholars. Instead of returning through the Hellespont, Jason left the Black Sea via the Danube, which miraculously allowed him to emerge into the Adriatic; the Argo then went on to sail up both the Po and the Rhine before somehow finding her way back into the more familiar waters of the Mediterranean. Everywhere they went the Argonauts met with fantastic adventures. On Crete, for example, they encountered the bronze giant Talos, a creature designed by Hephaistos to operate as a sort of mechanical coastal defence system for Minos, the king of Crete. Talos would walk around Crete three times each day, keeping ships away by breaking off portions of the cliffs and hurling them at any vessel that tried to come too close. He was completely invulnerable except for a vein in his foot; if this were damaged, his life-force would leak away. Medea was able to drug him so that he became insane and threw himself about on the rocks, eventually damaging his vein and so bringing about his death.

When Jason finally arrived back in Iolkos, he married Medea and gave the Golden Fleece to Pelias. There are various accounts of what happened next. One version of the story is that Medea tricked the daughters of Pelias into murdering their father. She first demonstrated her powers of rejuvenation by mixing various potions in a cauldron of boiling water, then slaughtering and chopping up an aged ram and dropping in the pieces: immediately a fresh young lamb emerged. Fired with enthusiasm and with the best of intentions, Pelias's daughters hurried to cut up their old father and boil his pieces in the cauldron; unfortunately they succeeded only in hastening his end.

In the ensuing scandal Jason and Medea fled to Corinth, where they lived happily for at least ten years and had two children of their own. However, eventually Jason grew tired of his wife and tried to leave her for Glauke, the young daughter of the king of Corinth. Medea was furious with jealousy and sent Glauke a gift of a robe which, when she put it on, stuck to her and burned off her skin. As her father tried to help his tortured daughter he too became entangled and they both perished miserably. To punish Jason further, Medea went on to murder their children, before escaping into the sky in a fiery chariot. Jason eventually returned to rule in Iolkos.