THE MYTH MAN'S
MYTH OF THE MONTH
THE QUEST FOR
THE GOLDEN FLEECE
(Jason and the Argonauts)
by Nick Pontikis
(with apologies to grandpa Hessiod and uncle Homer)
In Thessaly there lived a king and queen named Athamas and Nephele who had two beautiful children, a boy called Phrixus and a girl named Helle. But over time King Athamas tired of his wife and decided to take on a new one. Bummer. Hate when that happens.
Needless to say, Nephele was crushed, but foremost in her mind was the welfare of her children. Their evil stepmother harbored ill intent towards them and wished to see them out of the way, so that her own son could inherit the kingdom. Something had to be done. Quickly.
Enter cousin Hermes, who was the messenger god and all around good guy. My resourceful third cousin instructed Queen Nephele on a plan of action. Presenting her with a magical ram that sported a fleece of gold, he told her to place Phrixus and Helle on its back and they would be carried to safety. Nephele hugged and kissed her children one last time and sobbing placed them on the twenty-four carat ram.
"Now, you're sure that a sheep made of gold can fly, right Herm?" she asked anxiously. "You're certain it won't be too heavy? Little Phrixus is rather plump as it is, I'd hate to see the poor ram tire over the sea."
Hermes calmed her maternal fears. Leaping into the air, the golden ram headed east, flying at a great speed as the kids hung on for dear life. Presently their fear left them and like all children they were filled with exhilaration and wonderment at this magical golden carpet ride. But as they crossed the strait that divides Europe and Asia, Helle got cocky and careless and she let go of her brother's waist.
"Look, ma, no hands!" she laughed, raising her arms into the air as they flew through the clouds. Phrixus freaked and pleaded with her to hang on tight, but Helle no, she was having too much fun. Suddenly the ram made a slight turn and Helle lost her balance and plunged screaming into the waters, as her petrified brother clung on in terror, unable to help his sister. The waters were named the Hellespont, in honor of Helle. Small consolation, methinks.
But wait, this gets real interesting. The golden ram continued on its flight until it reached the kingdom of Colchis, on the eastern shore of the Black Sea, where King Aetes hospitably received them. Phrixus proceeded to sacrifice the ram to his Savior Zeus, who had safely delivered him from harm, and he presented its golden fleece to King Aetes. The king dedicated the fleece to Ares and placed it in a consecrated grove, under the care of a dragon that never slept.
I'm here to tell you that there's nothing worse than an insomniac dragon. This one was very moody. Its lair was littered with the bones of those unfortunate fools who tried to steal the priceless Fleece.
And that's where our story begins. I'll pause a moment while you pour yourself a cool libation and ease into a comfortable chair. Ready? Ok, let's hitch a ride aboard the good ship Argo and join the greatest collection of heroes ever - Fifty fearless men and one brave woman on an impossible Quest for the Golden Fleece.
Questions, questions, questions...Will Jason succeed in finding the Fleece? Who will perish? What perils await our heroes? Will beautiful Atalanta remain a maiden, alone on a ship with fifty young studs?
By Jove, let's go find out!
THE ONE-SANDALED MAN
Far away in the land of Iolcus, Pelias, son of Poseidon, taking advantage of his half-brother Aeson's advanced age, seized the Iolcan kingdom from Aeson, the rightful heir. It wasn't long before an oracle warned Pelias that he would be killed by a descendant of Aeolus. What's a paranoid king to do? Without hesitation Pelias put to death just about every prominent Aeolian he could get his hands on, with the exception of Aeson himself, whose life was spared for their mother Tyro's sake. However, Aeson was made to renounce his inheritance and was kept prisoner in the palace.
Presently Aeson's wife Polymele bore him a son. Shrewd Polymele, knowing full well that her brother-in-law Pelias would destroy the baby without mercy, devised a clever ploy. Gathering her kinswomen to weep and wail over the child, as if it had been still-born, she then arranged to have the baby smuggled out of the city to Mount Pelion.
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 Pelias.
(Diomedes had stopped by Thanasi's Olympus Greek Restaurant for a farewell dinner with Cheiron, and I mentioned to him that the name Diomedes just wasn't going to cut it in the real world. Not sexy enough. "Why don't you try 'Jason', it's got a real nice ring to it," I suggested. "The girls will love it, and besides, it's a neat variation of your father's name, Aeson."
Diomedes turned to look at his mentor Cheiron, who nodded approvingly. "Jason it is, then!" he exclaimed. Thank the gods, I thought, Diomedes and the Argonauts just doesn't sound right...)
A second oracle warned Pelias to beware a one-sandaled man. I swear those blasted oracles had far too much time on their hands. Sure enough, however, one day Pelias and his princely allies had gathered to offer sacrifice to Poseidon (must have been Father's Day) when what does Pelias espy but a tall, handsome youth with long curly hair, wearing a close-fitting leather tunic and a leopard skin.
That was the good news. The bad news for Pelias was that the young man was armed with an assortment of weapons and wore only one sandal. Oh my. King Pelias felt his knees go weak and he saw his life flash before his eyes. Damn oracles! Who was this ominous stranger?
It was none other than our Jason, a.k.a. Diomedes. But what's up with the foot attire, or lack thereof? It seems that as he was preparing to cross the river Anaurus an old woman begged him to carry her across the swift waters. Thus far her pleas had fallen on deaf ears, as every traveler ignored the ugly crone. Taking pity on her, Jason courteously offered her his broad back.
What a deceptively heavy woman, Jason thought, as he struggled under the weight, nearly losing his balance during the crossing, and even managing to lose one of his sandals in the muddy flowing waters. Bummer, it was his favorite pair. Actually, his only pair.
Wouldn't you know it? The crone was Hera, who was making sure that King Pelias was punished for withholding the customary sacrifice to her. So there stood Jason facing pale Pelias, sans sandal as per the oracle's prediction, thanks to Hera.
"Who are you," barked roughly Pelias at the youth. "And what is your father's name?"
"My foster father Cheiron called me Jason, even though I was born Diomedes, son of Aeson," replied the stranger.
Pelias knew his days were numbered. He wanted to kill Jason then and there but was restrained by Jason's uncle Pheres, king of Pherae, and Amathaon, king of Pylus, who had come to take part in the sacrifice. When Jason boldly claimed the throne usurped by Pelias, the king declared that he would gladly resign the kingship, but insisted that first Jason must free their beloved country from a curse.
You see, Pelias was haunted by the ghost of Phrixus (remember him?), who upon his death in Colchis had been denied proper burial. According to the Delphic Oracle, the land of Iolcus, where most of Jason's Minyan relatives were settled, would never prosper unless the ghost were brought home in a ship.
That was the good news. The bad news was, the Golden Fleece had to come home also. But there was a foul-tempered, insomniac dragon that begged to differ. Oh my.
Wasn't King Pelias nasty? He knew that getting the Fleece was an impossible task, and was certain that Jason would never return alive. Pelias was sending the uppity one-sandalled man to his death.
Or so he thought...
GATHERING OF THE ARGONAUTS
Argus the Thespian was a master ship-builder, the best in the land. Jason visited Pegasae and prevailed upon Argus to build him a fifty-oared ship, but Argus hesitated because most ships of that day were much smaller. That's when my great aunt Athena, eternal patron of heroes, showed up to take matters into her able hands.
Helping Argus and Jason choose seasoned timber from Mount Pelion, she personally oversaw the construction of the ship. Once completed, the great goddess Athena herself fitted an oracular timber into the prow of the ship, cut from her father Zeus's oak at Dodona.
It was the coolest thing! The darn thing spoke! And it could foretell the future. What a splendid gift, Athena!
(PS: Since Zeus was my "godfather" (see Zeus Part I), and it was cut from his sacred oak, I was in charge of watering the talking branch throughout the voyage and we became close friends...well, as close as a piece of timber and a man can get, I guess...one time as a practical joke I watered it with cousin Danny's wine instead of water, and you should have heard the comic routine coming from my drunken pal Woody, as it lampooned Zeus's upcoming love foibles...
"And then Zeusy, in frustration, turns himself into a quail! I kid you not, 'Nauts, here's the mighty king of the Olympians, and he's flapping around the sky chasing poor Leto, who herself had changed into a quail to escape from his lust! What a hoot! Or how about the time Zeus is going to..."
There's nothing like a funny branch that can predict the future to break up the monotony of a long sea journey...Woody would have entertained us all night, but a nearby sudden flash of lightning and thunder sobered up Woody in an instant.
Whew, that was too close for comfort! Odd, not a cloud in the sky...
Stick around, more on Woody's dry wit later.)
But what to call this greatest of ships? All eyes turned to wise Athena.
"Simple. Who built the ship?" she asked.
"Argus," replied Jason.
"Ergo, Argo is her name," spoke Athena, pleased as punch she got to use that line. "And the ship's crew will be called the Argonauts."
Jason next sent heralds to every court of Greece, seeking volunteers who would sail with him. Well, you don't have to be in Who's Who to know what's what...Every royal house wanted to send at least one representative on the Quest. It got downright ugly as kings vied to get their offspring in on the action. Everyone knew that, return alive or not, all participants in this epic nautical Quest would forever live in legend.
So you can imagine the great choice of Chiefs that Jason was presented with. Such a huge number of potential Argonauts showed up for the try-outs that they had to change venues to the larger Olympic Stadium. Jason turned to me at one point and exclaimed, "This is great, Man! Can I bring them all? Just look at these warriors!"
At the end of the day, just before the chisel was applied to the final list and the participants milled impatiently outside, waiting to see if they had made the cut, I heard that my nephew Hercules was just entering the city walls, carrying a huge live Boar on his back.
I shouted to Jason to leave open two spots on the list under the letter "H" and rushed off to intercept Herc at the city market. Sure enough, as soon as I told him about the Quest, my nephew dropped the Boar in mid-Labor and rushed off to fetch his best pal and squire, Hylas. Herc was going with the boys! The Labors could well wait! See ya later, Eury, you royal punk!
I ran back and added Heracles and Hylas to the final list and posted it on the outer pillar, then raced for my life as the gang of participants swarmed to see if their names were on the A-Team. There were cries of joy and groans of anguish as they shouted out the chosen names:
Acastus, son of King Pelias
Talk about an all-star team! Still, I was convinced that a free-for-all was about to ensue, with the myriad disappointed Chiefs in jealousy attacking the select few. Thankfully my nephew Hercules just then showed up with Hylas and the rowdy non-chosen promptly scattered for their lives. Nobody wanted to mess with Herc.
There was an uproar as the Argonauts clamored for Heracles to be their captain and leader on the Quest, but Herc had far too much class to usurp Jason's command. He pointed out that Jason had done all the preparatory work and that he would be honored to serve under him.
"I'm simply one of the boys, crew, and Jay's our leader. Let's go get us some Fleece!" he said.
THE VOYAGE BEGINS
Lots were drawn to determine seating arrangements, two oarsmen to each bench, but the middle two benches were saved for Hercules and Jason, the latter because he was the leader of the expedition, and the former because he was stronger than a hundred men. I drew my second-cousin Atalanta as a rowing mate, which pleased me greatly. No special allowance was made for Atalanta because she was a woman, which suited her just fine. Don't let the gorgeous exterior fool you: The girl could take very good care of herself, thank you very much. Just ask the Calydonian Boar, or any of her failed suitors.
On second thought, don't bother asking - they're all dead.
Before sailing Jason sacrificed a yoke of oxen to Apollo and then the Argonauts sat down to a farewell banquet. The testosterone was running high, and the wine flowing freely, so in no time a couple of fist fights broke out. Woody, the oracular branch, suggested that Orpheus play a tune or two. Sure enough, the talented poet picked up his lyre and with his sweet music calmed the drunken brawlers.
To honor Zeus and beseech him to protect us on our voyage, Jason poured overboard some mighty fine wine in a golden goblet. At the first light of dawn we set off on the epic journey, throbbing heads and all...
Leave it to Woody to get the boys pumped by starting a military chant. Soon Orpheus picked up the beat on his lyre, and then the rest of us followed suit, singing in cadence and rowing to the rhythm as the Argo flew over the waves:
the Argonauts from Greece,
are led by Jay and Herc,
Nice going, Woody. Next! We went up and down the benches, all fifty-one of us taking turns making up words to the second stanza. It was hilarious! Some eloquent Argonauts amazed and amused us with their wit. Others were so tongue-tied we nearly split our sides in laughter. Alas, you can pretend to be serious - you can't pretend to be clever.
Polydeuces, the Spartan boxer and one of the Dioscuri, evidently had taken one punch too many, but still retained his humor. Here's his contribution:
First port of call was the island of Lemnos, which at the moment was ruled by women, poor widows...You see, the previous year the pirating Lemnian men had captured a whole bunch of nubile Thracian girls on raids and had brought them back home to Lemnos. Oh my. Can you picture it? "Dear, look what followed me home!"
Complaining that their wives stank, the men quarreled with them and made concubines of the Thracian girls. I'm sure it's happened to you.
The scorned and humiliated Lemnian women didn't even bother to consult their attorneys. Instead in cold blood they murdered every man on the island, young and old.
"We asked you to bring us some cheap perfume from your travels abroad, not some cheap perfumed Thracian broad!" they hissed, as they stabbed to death their sleeping males.
Ouch! Hate when that happens. Only one man, King Thoas, was secretly spared his life by his daughter, Hypsipyle, but that's another story. When the Argo came into view the Lemnian women mistook her for a Thracian ship that was coming to claim the kidnapped maidens, and they went into war mode. Donning their dead husbands' armour, the Lemnians boldly bolted to the seashore, ready to repel the imagined invasion.
Jason sent the eloquent Echion as his herald and in no time the smooth talking son of Hermes set the women's minds at rest. Hypsipyle called together a council and suggested that they send gifts of food, drink and clothing to the Argonauts, but to keep them out of her city of Myrine, lest they discover the massacre and charge the women with murder.
It took Polyxo, Hypsipyle's aged nurse, to point out that without men, the Lemnian race soon would become extinct.
"Yo! Did you ladies happen to check out the Greek hunks on that ship?" she asked. "It's not every day Poseidon delivers so many fine fish in one barrel. Girlfriends, if I was fifty years younger I'd be swimming naked to the Argo as we speak! We're talking about the finest collection of heroic semen...er...seamen ever assembled, and you're considering telling them that, sorry, not tonight, you have to wash your hair? What's wrong with you icebergs? No wonder your men dumped you for that Thracian trash! If you let the Argonauts get away, you truly stink!"
Good point, Polyxo. Of course, the Lemnian women didn't need much convincing - A full year without their men had kindled their amorous flames, and the sight of the handsome Argonauts, sweat trickling down their sculptured chests, further convinced them to do the right thing.
Welcome home, sailors. Polyxo's advice was enthusiastically acclaimed and the Argonauts were invited into the city. But Hypsipyle was smooth. Blushing and stammering, she informed Jason and the crew that the Lemnian women had forced their men to emigrate after years of repeated abuse at their hands. The throne of Lemnos was now Jason's for the asking, she said.
Hey, what would you do if a gorgeous princess offered you her Greek island, love-starved, all-female populace included? Jason gratefully accepted Hypsipyle's offer, but stated that before settling in fertile Lemnos he must first fetch the Fleece. Bummer, Hypsi, got to run.
Not to worry. It didn't take long for Hypsipyle to convince the tired Argonauts to at least postpone our departure. You see, each one of us had been surrounded by a hundred semi-nude young women, all itching to get personal, and making no secret of it. What's a ship's crew to do? The gang dropped anchor.
Princess Hypsipyle claimed Jason for herself and gave him the royal treatment, so to speak. They begot Nebrophonus and his twin Euneus, who eventually became king of Lemnos and was famous for supplying the Greeks with wine during the Trojan War. The rest of the Argonauts also did our Lemnian civic duty, and another generation of Lemnians was assured.
We were all having so much fun that we darn near forgot about the Golden Fleece! Finally my nephew Heracles, who with Atalanta had been left to guard the Argo, lost his patience and stormed angrily into Myrine, pounding upon the house doors with his Louisville Slugger and summoning his companions back to the Argo.
Forcefully shepherding us down to the shore, as the Lemnian women swooned deliriously at Herc's biceps and implored him to honor them with his child, Herc made the reluctant Argonauts board the ship, as Atalanta shook her head in disgust. Men! I'll never marry, she thought...
So we sailed on. Woody told us that King Laomedon of Troy guarded the entrance to the Hellespont and permitted no Greek ship to enter, so we hugged the Thracian coast and slipped in the Straits by night. Landing at Arcton, we were welcomed and hospitably received by King Cyzicus, an old friend of nephew Herc, who had just that day married a beauty named Cleite.
The good king and his bride warmly invited us to feast at their wedding banquet, but while the majority of Argonauts were enjoying some great Greek barbecue, these weird six-handed giants, Earth-born behemoths from the mainland, attacked the Argo. Needless to say, the Argo's guards repelled the attack and beat off the invaders, leaving quite a few dead. We didn't find out until later about the attack - The guards considered the assault minor and didn't want to disturb our partying.
Nice guys! Gotta love those 'Nauts!
Before departing Arcton we dedicated our anchor-stone to the great Athena and took on a heavier one, bidding our gracious hosts fond farewells. What happened next was a real shame, a mistake most tragic.
A north-easterly wind bore down upon us and we were buffeted so badly, and making such little headway, that our navigator, Tiphys, decided to head back to the safety of the peninsula. Driven off course, and beaching the Argo at random, we were immediately attacked by a large army of well-armed warriors.
A terrible battle ensued until many of our attackers lay dead, and the rest had fled. Only then did we discover that we had landed back at Arcton, and that it was noble King Cyzicus and his brave men who lay dead at our feet. You see, in the dark of the storm the King had mistaken us for pirates and had thus brought about his demise. Poor Cleite, his bride of one day, upon hearing the horrid news hung herself, and the nymphs of the grove wept so pitieously that their tears formed the fountain which now bears her name.
Oh my. Hate when that happens. To atone for our mistake we held funeral games in honor of Cyzicus and waited many days for favorable winds. Mopsus, who understood the language of birds, and had spoken with a halcyon, informed us that the goddess Rhea was angry at Cyzicus for killing her sacred lion and had caused his death. Now she was vexed at us for slaying her ugly six-handed giants.
We raised an image to the goddess carved by Argus and the lot of us danced in full armour on the mountain top. We met a real cool peasant there called Zorba, who was doing his own funky little dance. Rhea aknowledged our devotion and showed that all was forgiven by causing a spring to gush forth from the rocks, called the Spring of Jason. Shortly thereafter a fair breeze arose and the Argo was under way.
Sorry, Cyzicus. Sorry, Cleite. Won't happen again...
We rowed silently for a long time, appalled at what had transpired. To take our minds off the tragedy, my nephew Hercules suggested that we hold a rowing contest to see who could row the longest without hurling. Many strenous hours later, made tolerable only by Orpheus's lyre, just Jason, the Dioscuri and Herc alone held out. The rest of us had cried uncle.
Presently Castor had just about enough and stopped rowing. His bro Polydeuces couldn't induce him to continue so he too shipped his oar. We gazed in admiration as Jay and Herc kept propelling the Argo forward, seated on opposite sides of the ship, until finally Jason fainted. A split second later Heracles's oar snapped and he glared about him, disgusted and angry because he was just starting to work up a sweat. Weary and hungry, we thrust our oars through the oar-holes again and looked for a place to beach the Argo. That place was Mysia.
Hylas went to fetch fresh water while we prepared our evening meal. Little did we suspect that it was the last we would see of Hercules for the rest of the Quest, and the final time any of us would gaze upon the fair features of his pal Hylas - forever...
Woody, why didn't you say something?
THE QUEST FOR THE
GOLDEN FLEECE PART II
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