Jason and the Argonauts

The Golden Fleece

His Birth: King Aeson, who was Jason's father, was the rightful heir to a kingdom in Greece called Iolcus. His step-brother Pelias took advantage of Aeson's advancing age and stole the kingdom away from him, locking up Aeson as a prisoner in the palace.

Polymele, Aeson's wife, became pregnant but she knew that the coming child would be killed by his uncle Pelias, who had been warned by an oracle to beware any descendents of Aeson. When the baby arrived, she gathered her kinswomen and maids around her and had them wail and weep as if the baby had been still-born. Evil king Pelias thought the baby had died at birth, but Polymele had baby Diomedes (later called Jason) smuggled out of the city and delivered to Mount Pelion and to the care of Cheiron.

Cheiron the Centaur, famous teacher of many a hero, was entrusted with his upbringing, and a fine job he did! Young Diomedes, the son of Aeson and Polymele, grew up to be a peerless warrior, skilled in all the martial arts. Under the expert tutelage of Cheiron, Diomedes learned archery, sword play and horsemanship. But most of all, Diomedes mastered the art of leadership.

When the time was right, Cheiron revealed to Diomedes his true identity and instructed him that it was his birthright to claim back the Iolcan throne from his uncle Pelias. Jason, as Diomedes was now called, set out for Iolcus.

The Golden Fleece: Needless to say Pelias wasn't too happy when Jason showed up and boldly claimed his father's throne. He wanted to kill young Jason then and there but he was restrained by the presence of Jason's other uncles, who were thrilled to discover that Aeson had a son. So Pelias devised a plan so dangerous that he was certain Jason would never return alive - He told Jason that he would gladly surrender the kingdom to Jason but not until the Golden Fleece had been brought back to Greece from the land of Colchis.

What was this Golden Fleece? Well, many years earlier a king named Athamas had tired of his wife and taken a new one. Afraid that the new Queen meant harm for her two children, ex-Queen Nephele prayed for help. Hermes, the messenger god and all-around good deity, promptly delivered a magical flying ram, which had a fleece of gold. Hermes instructed Nephele to place her children, a boy named Phrixus and a girl called Helle, on the ram so that they could be carried to safety.

Sadly, Helle got careless while crossing the straits which separate Europe and Asia and fell into the waters below, drowning. The waters henceforth were called the Hellespont in her honor. Phrixus was devastated by the loss of his sister but he arrived safely to Colchis, where he was hospitably received by King Aetes.

Phrixus proceeded to sacrifice the ram to the King of the Olympians, Zeus, who had safely delivered him from harm, and he presented its golden fleece to King Aetes. The king dedicated the fleece to the god of war Ares and placed it in a consecrated grove, under the care of a dragon that never slept.

The Argonauts: Jason sent heralds all across Greece, seeking brave volunteers who would join him in this great adventure. Every royal house in Greece wanted to send a representative on the Quest for the Golden Fleece and Jason had no problem amassing a Who's Who of warriors. The master ship-builder Argo constructed a fifty-oared ship, the largest ever built at the time, and the great goddess Athena herself helped Argo choose the finest lumber from the trees of Mount Pelion.

When the ship was ready Athena named it the Argo, in honor of its builder, and named its crew the Argonauts, without argument the greatest collection of heroes ever assembled. They included the amazing Heracles (Hercules), the incomparable poet Orpheus and the virgin huntress Atalanta, who had also taken part in the famous Calydonian Boar hunt.

Various sources cite different participants on the Quest, but this is the generally accepted list:

Acastus, son of King Pelias
Actor, son of Deion the Phocian
Admetus, prince of Pherae
Amphiaraus, the Argive seer
Great Ancaeus of Tegea, son of Poseidon
Little Ancaeus, the Lelegian of Samos
Argus the Thespian, builder of the Argo
Ascalaphus the Orchomenan, son of Ares
Asterius, son of Cometes, a Pelopian
Atalanta of Calydon, the virgin huntress
Augeias, son of King Phorbas of Ellis
Butes of Athens, the bee-master
Caeneus the Lapith, who had once been a woman
Calais, the winged son of Boreas
Canthus the Euboean
Castor, the Spartan wrestler, one of the Dioscuri
Cepheus, son of Aleus the Arcadian
Coronus the Lapith, of Gyrton in Thessaly
Echion, son of Hermes
Erginus of Miletus
Euphemus of Taenarum, the swimmer
Euryalus, son of Mecisteus, one of the Epigoni
Eurydamas the Dolopian, from Lake Xynias
Heracles of Tiryns, son of Zeus
Hylas the Dryopian, squire to Heracles
Idas, son of Aphareus of Messene
Idmon the Argive, Apollo's son
Iphicles, son of Thestius the Aetolian
Iphitus, brother of King Eurystheus
Jason, captain
Laertes, son of Acrisius the Argive
Lynceus, the look-out man, brother to Idas
Melampus of Pylus, son of Poseidon
Meleager of Calydon
Mopsus the Lapith
Nauplius the Argive, navigator, son of Poseidon
Oileus the Locrian, father of Ajax
Orpheus, the Thracian poet and musician
Palaemon, son of Hephaestus
Peleus the Myrmidon
Peneleos, son of Hippalcimus
Periclymenus of Pylus, the shape-shifting son of Poseidon
Phalerus, the Athenian archer
Phanus, the Cretan son of Dionysus
Poeas, son of Thaumacus
Polydeuces, the Spartan boxer, one of the Dioscuri
Polyphemus, son of Elatus, the Arcadian
Staphylus, brother of Phanus
Tiphys, the helmsman
Zetes, brother of Calais

Before they departed Athena affixed an oracular branch on the prow of the Argo, cut from Zeus' sacred oak at Dodona. The branch spoke with a human voice and it foretold the future. It was too cool. Nice gift, Athena!

Voyage to Colchis: On the voyage to Colchis, in addition to numerous other adventures, Jason and his crew of Argonauts freed blind King Phineus from the curse of the Harpies. These Harpies were frightful flying creatures with hooked beaks and claws, also known as the Hounds of Zeus, who daily tormented Phineus. 

Whenever he was about to dine the Harpies would swoop down from the sky and help themselves to the blind man's dinner, defiling the leftovers with their foul smell. One couldn't stand to be near the food after they were finished, let alone eat it! Poor Phineus was starving to death.

King Phineus was a seer and he promised to help the Argonauts if they rid him of the Harpies. The king's servants set a feast for Phineus and the Argonauts. Immediately the Harpies darted down from the sky and in a moment had devoured just about everything, leaving behind their stench. Yuck!

Swords in hand, Calais and Zetes arose and gave chase to Ocypete and Aellopus, which were the proper names of the Harpies. These Argonauts were the swift-flying sons of the North Wind, Boreas. In not time they caught up with the monsters and would have killed them had not Iris, Hera's messenger, intervened.

Promising that the Harpies would never again trouble Phineus, the goddess of the rainbow Iris beseeched the sons of Boreas to spare their lives.

"Forbear to kill the Hounds of Zeus," she said, "and by the waters of the river Styx I swear an unbreakable oath that Phineus will no longer be troubled by the Harpies."

Cool. It's hard to say "no" to a rainbow...Calais and Zetes returned with the good news and the grateful Phineus instructed Jason on navigating the perilous waters, particularly the Symplegades, these terrifying rocks which had an annoying habit of clashing together whenever anything passed between them.

Whenever a vessel attempted to pass between the Symplegades the mist-shrouded rocks drove together, crushing her. But Phineus instructed Jason to first release a dove - if the bird made it through the Symplegades, then so would the Argo. If not, turn around and go home, it was hopeless.

Approaching the rocks Jason released the dove and the Argonauts were ecstatic to see it fly through and come out safely, with only its tail feathers harmlessly torn away near the end. Waiting for the rocks to say "ah", the Argonauts blasted through, with only the extreme end of the Argo's stern ornament shorn off as they snapped shut behind them.

The best part was, the Symplegades had gotten lockjaw. Evermore they remained open and never again imperiled sailors.

Getting the Fleece: When they arrived at Colchis, King Aeetes wasn't about to hand over the Golden Fleece without a fight. He demanded that Jason accomplish a series of tasks to earn the Golden Fleece: he must yoke a team of fierce, fire-breathing bull oxen and plow a field with them; then he must sow the teeth of a dragon in the field, and deal with the warlike armored men who sprouted from these "seeds".

As if that wasn't enough, he must brave the sleepless dragon who guarded the Fleece. Jason accomplished all these tasks with the help of Medea, Aeetes' daughter, who had fallen in love with him.

You see, Athena and the goddess Hera, who had helped Jason and the Argonauts throughout the voyage, had asked the goddess of love Aphrodite to intervene. Aphrodite instructed her son, Eros, to let fly an arrow at the heart of beautiful Medea the moment she laid eyes on Jason. Sure enough, the mischievous Eros did what he does best and Medea fell madly in love with our hero Jason.

It's a good thing, too! Medea was a powerful witch and she gave Jason a charm which, when sprinkled on himself and his weapons, would make them invincible for a day. Jason subdued the bulls as they rushed him from their lair, breathing flames of fire from their nostrils. He harnessed them to the yoke and drove them over the field, casting the dragon's teeth into the furrows.

In no time a wild-looking and ferocious army of creeps had sprouted forth and as one they attacked Jason. He dispatched a bunch of them with his sword and then, remembering Medea's words, he flung a stone in their midst. Just like she had told Jason, his attackers turned on each other and within moments they all lay dead, as the Argonauts cheered and King Aetes gritted his teeth.

The King returned to his palace, determined that Jason would never have the Golden Fleece, but Hera was looking out for the Argonauts. She made Medea, her heart all aflutter for Jason, determined to leave with him. As the unsuspecting Argonauts celebrated Jason's victory and King Aetes conspired on ways to kill them, she raced to the ship and warned them of her father's deadly plans. Medea said that her father planned on burning the Argo and slaying its crew and she vowed to help Jason get the Golden Fleece, if only he would take her along with him, away from Colchis.

Grateful Jason promised to marry Medea and make her his queen. After all, she had saved his life on more than one occasion. She urged him to get the Fleece quickly and leave, before they were killed. In the dark of the night they reached the sacred grove where the Golden Fleece hung. The skilled witch Medea soothed the loathsome and hissing dragon with incantations and then gave Jason drops of a magic potion to sprinkle on its eyelids. With the dragon fast asleep, Jason stealthily unfastened the Fleece from the oak tree and with Medea hurried down to the waiting Argo.

The Pursuit: King Aeetes started off in pursuit of the Argonauts but could not overtake them. Medea's brother, Apsyrtus, had also joined her aboard the Argo and during the flight from Colchis Medea killed or took part in the murder of her brother. It is sometimes said that Medea cut her brother limb from limb and threw the pieces into the sea and that, gathering Apsyrtus' limbs, Aeetes fell behind in the pursuit. But some say that it was Jason who cut Apsyrtus into pieces to slow down their pursuers, or even that he was, with Medea's help, treacherously killed by Jason on an island in the mouth of the river Ister (now known as the Danube). As is the case in most of mythology, various sources cite different versions.

According to some, King Styrus of Albania, who had come to Colchis to marry Medea at the time when the Argonauts arrived in the country, joined Aeetes, but he drowned during the pursuit.

Because of the death of his son King Aeetes gave up the chase and returned to Colchis, but he sent many others to search for the Argonauts, threatening that, if they did not bring the Golden Fleece and his daughter back to him, they should suffer the punishment due to her...and he planned on punishing her plenty!

In the meanwhile, because of the horrendous acts which they had committed, the Argonauts were driven off course by fierce storms that Zeus sent. The Argo's oracular branch then spoke and said that they should seek purification with Circe, a witch living on the island called Aeaea. The witch Circe, who purified the Argonauts for the murder of Apsyrtus, is sometimes said to be the daughter of the sun god Helios. But some say that she was the daughter of Aeetes by Hecate. Circe was the one who later would trap Odysseus and his men, turning them into swine. But that's another story...

When the Argonauts had been purified by Circe they sailed past the Sirens, who tried to attract the crew with their seductive song. Orpheus, by chanting a counter melody restrained all of them except for  Butes, who was unable to resist their enchanting song and swam off to the Sirens. However he was saved by Aphrodite, who carried him away and settled him in Lilybaeum (the island of Sicily).

During the escape the Argonauts received help from the the goddess Thetis and her Nereids, who were fifty sea-nymphs, in order to avoid the danger of Scylla and Charybdis, sea monsters guarding each side of the passage between Sicily and Italy.

Scylla is one of the sea-monsters which was on one side of the Strait of Messina, between Italy and Sicily, the other being Charybdis. Scylla had the face and upper body of a woman, but from the flanks she had six heads and twelve feet of dogs. Not a pretty sight.

Charybdis was a sea-monster, who three times a day drew up the water of the sea and then spouted it again, thus forming a whirlpool. She lay in wait on one side of the narrow Strait of Messina, and on the other side was Scylla. The two sides were so close to each other that one could even shoot an arrow across. So sailors, on trying to avoid Charybdis became the victims of Scylla.

(Myth Man's note: students, want to impress your teachers? Next time you're put in a difficult position, say that you're "between Scylla and Charybdis". That's like saying that you're "between a rock and hard place", only more clever. Your teacher will be amazed!)

Before they returned to Iolcus the Argonauts landed at Crete, where Medea killed the giant bronze creature called Talos, who guarded the island and threw huge rocks at any approaching ship.

Four months after the start of the voyage, the Argo returned home.

But when they reached Iolcus Jason found out that his parents and brother Promachus had been killed - Mean King Pelias had seen to that! Jason surrendered the Golden Fleece as per the agreement and dedicated the mighty Argo to Poseidon. He then conspired with Medea as to how to punish King Pelias for the murder of his kin.

To avenge her new husband's family Medea caused King Pelias' daughters to cut him into pieces and put them into a boiling pot, thinking that this "magic" would restore their father's youth. They were dead wrong! The daughters were hysterical once they realized that they had murdered their own father. Too late.

With Pelias dead, Acastus, the king's son and one of the Argonauts, became king, and having buried his father, or what was left of him, he expelled Jason and Medea from Iolcus. They settled in Corinth, had two sons and lived happily for ten years. But Jason eventually grew restless, dumped Medea, the "foreign witch" as everybody called her, and took on a younger wife called Glauce, who was the daughter of the King of Corinth.

Bad move. Medea, who had done so much out of her love for Jason, including betraying her father, murdering her brother and causing the death of King Pelias, grew most bitter and sought revenge. So with the help of poisonous drugs she made a golden crown and bade her sons give it as a gift to their stepmother Glauce. Once worn, the crown burned its wearer. When this was done the evil woman killed her own sons and fled to Athens.

Some say that the young princess Glauce accepted the gift, and was burned to death along with Jason and Creon, her father. But others say that Jason survived, yet, unable to endure the loss of both wife and children, killed himself. Still others say that Medea cursed him a foul death: that the wreckage of the Argo would fall upon Jason and kill him...and that's what happened.


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