Jason and the Argonauts: The Myth of the Golden Fleece

Greek mythology is replete with grand adventures and heroic journeys. From the Odyssey to the Labors of Heracles, heroes (usually of divine bloodlines) overcome one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after another to reach their fated goal.

But even among these tales, a few stand out. And there is one that is particularly enduring – that of Jason and the Argonauts, and the quest for the fabled Golden Fleece.

Who was Jason?

In the Magnesia region of Thessaly, just north of the Pagasitic Gulf, stood the polis, or city-state, of Iolcus. It’s little mentioned in ancient writings, with Homer making only passing reference to it, but this was both the birthplace of Jason and the launching point of his voyage with the Argonauts

The Surviving Heir

Jason’s father, Aeson, the rightful king of Iolcus, was deposed by his half-brother (and son of the Poseidon) Pelias. Eager to hold on to power, Pelias then set about slaying all the descendants of Aeson he could find.

Jason escaped only because his mother Alcimede had the nursemaids gather around his crib and sob as though the child were stillborn. She then snuck her son to Mount Pelion, where he was raised by the centaur Chiron (tutor of a number of important figures, including Achilles).

The Man with One Sandal

Pelias, meanwhile, remained insecure about his stolen throne. Fearful of future challenges, he consulted the Oracle, which warned him to beware a man wearing only one sandal.

When the then-grown Jason returned to Iolcus years later, he chanced upon an old woman attempting to cross the river Anauros. While helping her to cross, he lost one of his sandals – thus arriving in Iolcus exactly as prophesied.

Divine Assistance

The old woman at the river was actually the goddess Hera in disguise. Pelias had angered the goddess years earlier by murdering his stepmother at her altar, and – with a very typical Hera-style grudge – had chosen Jason to be the instrument of her revenge.

Pelias confronted Jason, asking what the hero would do if someone prophesied to kill him suddenly appeared. Having been coached by the disguised Hera, Jason had an answer ready.

“I’d send him to retrieve the Golden Fleece,” he said.

The Golden Fleece

The goddess Nephele and her husband King Athamas of Boeotia had two children – a boy, Phrixus, and a girl, Helle. But when Athamas later abandoned Nephele for a Thebian princess, Nephele feared for her children’s safety, and sent a golden, winged ram to carry them away. Helle fell off along the way and drowned, but Phrixus made it safely to Colchis where he sacrificed the ram to Poseidon and gifted the Golden Fleece to King Aeëtes.

Retrieving it from the King  would be no easy task, and Pelias now challenged Jason to do just that. Jason knew he would need remarkable comrades to have any chance of success. So, he prepared a ship, the Argo, and recruited a company of heroes to crew it – the Argonauts.

Who were the Argonauts?

With multiple accounts across centuries, it shouldn’t be surprising the list of Argonauts is inconsistent. There are a number of sources which provide rosters of the Argo’s fifty-man crew, to include Appolonius’ Argonautica and Hyginus’ Fabulae. Aside from Jason himself, only a handful of names are consistent over all of these.

Among those that always appear are Orpheus (son of the muse Calliope), Peleus (father of Achilles), and the Dioscuri – the twins Castor (son of king Tyndareus) and Polydeuces (son of Zeus). Also notable across the rosters is the hero Heracles, though he only accompanied Jason for part of the journey.

Most Argonauts appear in a few of the sources but not others. Among these names are Laertes (father of Odysseus), Ascalaphus (son of Ares), Idmon (son of Apollo), and Heracles’ nephew Iolaus.

The Journey to Colchis

The shipwright Argos, with the guidance  of Athena, crafted a ship like no other. Built to navigate equally well in the shallows or the open sea, the Argo (named for its maker) also had a magical enhancement – a speaking timber from the Dodona, a grove of sacred oaks which was an oracle of Zeus. The Dodona was affixed to the ship’s bow, to act as guide and advisor.

When all was ready, the Argonauts held a final celebration and made sacrifices to Apollo. Then – called aboard by the Dodona – the heroes manned the oars and set off.

Lemnos

The first port of call for the Argo was the island of Lemnos in the Aegean Sea, a place once sacred to Hephaestus and said to be the site of his forge. Now it was home to an all-female society of women who’d been cursed by Aphrodite for failing to pay her proper homage.

They had been made repugnant to their husbands, causing them to be abandoned on Lemnos, and in their humiliation and fury had risen up in a single night and killed every man on the island in their sleep. 

Their seer, Polyxo, foresaw the arrival of the Argonauts and urged Queen Hypsipyle that they should not only allow the visitors, but use them for breeding as well. When Jason and his crew arrived, they found themselves very well received.

The women of Lemnos conceived numerous children with the Argonauts – Jason himself fathered twin sons with the queen – and they were said to linger on the island for a few years. They would not resume their journey until Heracles admonished them for their wanton delay – somewhat ironic, given the hero’s own established proclivity for producing offspring.

Arctonessus

After Lemnos, the Argonauts left the Aegean Sea and sailed into the Propontis (now the Sea of Marmara), which connected the Aegean and Black Seas. Their first stop here was Arctonessus, or the Isle of Bears, populated both by the friendly Doliones and the six-armed giants called the Gegenees.

When they arrived the Doliones and their king, Cyzicus, welcomed the Argonauts warmly with a celebratory feast. But the next morning, when  most of the crew of the Argo ventured out to resupply and to scout out the next day’s sailing, the savage Gegenees attacked the handful of Argonauts left guarding the Argo.

Fortunately, one of those guards was Heracles. The hero slew many of the creatures and kept the rest at bay long enough for the rest of the crew to return and finish them off. Restocked and victorious, the Argo set sail again.

Tragically, Arctonessus Again

But their time at Arctonessus wouldn’t end happily. Becoming lost in a storm, they unknowingly returned to the island in the night. The Doliones mistook them for Pelasgian invaders, and – unaware of who their attackers were – the Argonauts slew a number of their erstwhile hosts (including the king himself).

It wasn’t until daybreak that the mistake was realized. Stricken with grief, the Argonauts were inconsolable for days and put on grand funeral rites for the dead before continuing their journey.

Mysia

Continuing on, Jason and his crew next came to Mysia, on the southern coast of the Propontis. While fetching water here, a companion of Heracles named Hylas was lured away by the nymphs.

Rather than abandon him, Heracles declared his intention to stay behind and search for his friend. While there was some initial debate among the crew (Heracles was clearly an asset to the Argonauts), it was ultimately decided that they would continue on without the hero.

Bithynia

Continuing east, the Argo came to Bithynia (north of modern-day Ankara), home of the Bebryces, ruled by a king named Amycus.

Amycus challenged anyone passing through Bithynia to a boxing match, and slew those he bested, not unlike the wrestler Kerkyon encountered by Theseus. And like Kerkyon, he died by being beaten at his own game.

When he demanded a match from one of the Argonauts, Polydeuces took up the challenge and killed the king with a single punch. Enraged, the Bebryces attacked the Argonauts and had to be beaten back before the Argo could depart again.

Phineas and the Symplegades

Reaching the Strait of Bosporus, the Argonauts came upon a blind man being harassed by Harpies who introduced himself as Phineas, a former seer. He explained that he had revealed too many of Zeus’ secrets, and as punishment the god had struck him blind and set Harpies to harass him every time he tried to eat. However, he said, if the heroes could rid him of the creatures, he would advise them on what lay ahead on their route.

Initially Zetes and Calais, sons of the god of the north wind, Boreas, had planned to ambush the creatures (for they had the power of flight). But Iris, the messenger of the gods and sister to the Harpies, begged them to spare her siblings on the condition they would vow to never trouble Phineas again.

Finally able to eat in peace, Phineas warned that ahead of them lay the Symplegades – great, clashing rocks that lay in the strait and crushed anything that had the misfortune to get caught between them at the wrong moment. When they arrived, he said, they should release a dove, and if the dove flew through the boulders safely, their ship would be able to follow.

The Argonauts did as Phineas advised, releasing a dove when they came to the Symplegades. The bird flew between the clashing stones, and the Argo followed. When the rocks threatened to close again, the goddess Athena held them apart so Jason and his crew could safely pass into Axeinus Pontus, or the Black Sea.

The Stymphalian Birds

The crew of the Argo suffered a complication here with the loss of their navigator Typhus, who either succumbed to illness or fell overboard while sleeping, depending on the account. In either case, Jason and his comrades wandered a bit in the Black Sea, chancing upon both a few old allies of Heracles’ campaign against the Amazons and some shipwrecked grandsons of King Aeëtes of Colchis, which Jason took as a boon from the gods.

They also stumbled across one of the god of war’s legacies. On the Isle of Ares (or Aretias) had settled the Stymphalian Birds which Heracles had earlier driven from the Peloponnese. Luckily, the crew knew from Heracles’ encounter that they could be driven away with loud noises and managed to raise sufficient ruckus to repel the birds.

The Arrival and Theft of the Golden Fleece

The journey to Colchis had been hard, but actually obtaining the Golden Fleece once he got there promised to be more challenging still. Fortunately, Jason still had the support of the goddess Hera.

Before the Argo arrived in Colchis, Hera bade Aphrodite to send her son, Eros, to make Aeëtes’ daughter Medea to fall in love with the hero. As the high priestess of the goddess of magic, Hecate, and a potent sorceress in her own right, Medea was exactly the ally Jason would need.

The grandsons of Aeëtes whom Jason had rescued tried to persuade their grandfather to give up the Fleece, but Aeëtes refused, instead offering to surrender it only if Jason could complete a challenge.

The Fleece was guarded by two fire-breathing oxen called the Khalkotauroi. Jason was to yoke the oxen and plow a field in which Aeëtes could plant dragon’s teeth. Jason initially despaired at the seemingly impossible task, but Medea offered him a solution in return for a promise of marriage.

The sorceress gave Jason an ointment that would make him safe both from fire and the oxen’s bronze hooves. Thus protected, Jason was able to wrestle the oxen into the yoke and plow the field as Aeëtes requested.

The Dragon Warriors

But there was more to the challenge. When the dragon’s teeth were planted, they sprang from the ground as stone warriors whom Jason would have to defeat. Fortunately, Medea had warned him of the warriors and told him how to overcome them. Jason threw a stone into their midst, and the warriors – not knowing who to blame for it – attacked and destroyed each other.

Obtaining the Fleece

Though Jason had completed the challenge, Aeëtes had no intention of surrendering the Fleece. Seeing that Jason had overcome his trial, he began plotting to destroy the Argo and kill Jason and his crew.

Knowing this, Medea offered to help Jason steal the Fleece if he would take her away with him. The hero readily agreed, and they set out to steal the Golden Fleece and flee that very night.

The Sleepless Dragon

Aside from the oxen, the Golden Fleece was also guarded by a sleepless dragon. Medea advised that the best way to get past the beast was for Orpheus to lull it to sleep with a song. When the dragon dozed off, Jason snuck carefully past it to retrieve the Fleece from the sacred oak on which it was hung. With the Golden Fleece at last in hand, the Argonauts quietly put back out to sea.

A Meandering Return

The route from Iolcus to Colchis had been straightforward. But, anticipating pursuit by the furious King Aeëtes, the journey home would take a far more circuitous path. And while there is broad agreement in different accounts as to the course from Iolcus to Colchis, descriptions of the return route are highly varied.

The Classic Route

Per Apollonius’ Argonautica, the Argo sailed back across the Black Sea but – rather than return through the Straits of Bosporus, entered the mouth of the Ister River (today called the Danube) and followed it all the way to the Adriatic Sea, coming out somewhere in the area of Trieste, Italy or Rijeka, Croatia.

Here, to slow down the king’s pursuit, Jason and Medea killed Medea’s brother, Apsyrtus, and scattered his dismembered remains in the sea. The Argo sailed on, leaving Aeëtes to gather up the remains of his son.

Then, crossing to modern-day Italy, the Argo entered the Po River and followed it to the Rhône, then out to the Mediterranean on the southern coast of what is today France. From here they journeyed to the island home of the nymph and enchantress Circe, Aeaea (commonly identified  as Mount Circeo, about halfway between Rome and Naples), to undergo ritual purification for the murder of Medea’s brother before continuing on.

The Argo would then pass by the same Sirens that tempted Odysseus earlier. But, unlike Odysseus, Jason had Orpheus – who had learned the lyre from Apollo himself. As the Argo passed the island of the Sirens, Orpheus played an even sweeter song on his lyre that drowned out their luring call.

Exhausted from this much longer journey, the Argonauts made one final stop in Crete, where they had to face down a giant bronze man named Talos. Invulnerable in most ways, he had only one weakness – a single vein that ran along his body. Medea cast a spell to rupture this vein, leaving the giant to bleed out. And with that, the crew of the Argo sailed on to Iolcus in victory, bearing the Golden Fleece.

Alternative Routes

Later sources would offer a number of fanciful alternate routes for the Argo’s return. Pindar, in Pythian 4, held that the Argo sailed eastward instead, following the River Phasis to the Caspian Sea, then following the mythical River Ocean all the way around to somewhere south of Libya, after which they carried it overland northward back to the Mediterranean.

The geographer Hecataeus offers a similar route, though having them instead sail northward up the Nile. Some later sources have even more outlandish routes, sending them northward up various rivers until they reached the Baltic Sea or even the Barents Sea, circumnavigating the whole of Europe to return to the Mediterranean through the Strait of Gibraltar.

Back In Iolcus

Their quest complete, the Argonauts celebrated upon their return to Iolcus. But Jason noticed that – with the long years that had passed during his quest – his father had become so decrepit he could barely participate in the festivities.

Jason asked his wife if she could drain some of his own years to give to his father. Medea instead cut Aeson’s neck, drained the blood from his body, and replaced it with an elixir which left him some 40 years younger.

The End of Pelias

Seeing this, Pelias’ daughters asked Medea to give their father the same gift. She claimed to the daughters that she could restore him even more fully than Aeson, but it would require chopping up his body and boiling it with special herbs.

She demonstrated the process with a ram, which – as she had promised – was restored to health and youth. Pelias’ daughters quickly did the same to him, though Medea secretly withheld the herbs in his water, leaving the daughters with only a stew of their dead father.

An Ignoble End

With Pelias dead, his son Acastus assumed the throne and banished Jason and Medea for their treachery. They fled to Corinth together, but no happy ending waited there.

Eager to raise his station in Corinth, Jason sought to marry Creusa, daughter of the king. When Medea protested, Jason dismissed her love as nothing more than the product of Eros’ influence.

Enraged at this betrayal, Medea gave Creusa a cursed dress as a wedding present. When Creusa put it on, it burst into flames, killing both her and her father, who had tried to save her. Medea then fled to Athens, where she would become the wicked stepmother in the story of another Greek hero, Theseus.

Jason, for his part, had now lost the favor of Hera for his betrayal of his wife. Though he ultimately reclaimed the throne in Iolcus with the help of his former crewmate Peleus, he was a broken man.

He ultimately died by being crushed under his own ship, the Argo. The beams of the old ship – like Jason’s legacy – had turned to rot, and as he slept beneath it the vessel collapsed and fell upon him.

The Historical Argonauts

But were Jason and the Argonauts real? The events of Homer’s Iliad were fantasy until Troy was unearthed in the late 1800’s. And the voyage of the Argonauts seems to have a similar basis in fact.

The ancient kingdom of Colchis is today associated with the Svaneti region of Georgia near the Black Sea. And, just as in the epic tale, the region was known for its gold – and had a unique way of harvesting this gold which plays into the myth of the Golden Fleece. 

Rather than digging mines, they would simply catch the small flecks of gold that flowed down the mountain streams by stringing sheepskins across like a net – a traditional technique that went back millennia (the “Golden Fleece,” indeed).

The real Jason was an ancient mariner who, in about 1300 B.C., followed a water route from Iolcus to Colchis to initiate a gold trade (and possibly, to learn and bring back the sheepskin-sieve technique). This would have been a journey of some 3000 miles, round-trip – a stunning feat for a small crew in an open boat during that early era.

An American Connection

Jason’s quest is the enduring tale of an arduous journey in pursuit of gold. As such, it’s no surprise that it should be associated with the California gold rush of 1849.

The discovery of gold in California set off a flurry of immigration to the area, with eager gold-seekers coming not only from back east in the US, but from Europe, Latin America, and Asia as well. And while we know these miners most popularly as “forty-niners,” they were also frequently referred to by the term “argonaut,” a reference to the epic quest of Jason and his crew to retrieve the Golden Fleece.  And like Jason, their ends in the blind pursuit of glory often ended unhappily.

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