The story of Jason, the Argonauts and their quest for the Golden Fleece is one of the earlier Greek legends. It happened about a generation before the Trojan War.
Jason father’s, Aeson, was the rightful king of Iolcos, but Pelias, Aeson’s brother, had usurped him and taken the throne. He then had all Aeson’s descendants killed. Jason, however, survived. His mother ordered her servants to cry when he was born, to fool Pelias that he was still-born. She then smuggled Jason away to be reared by Chiron, “the wisest and justest of all the centaurs”, according to Homer. Chiron was the son of Cronos and counted among his acolytes such high achievers as Achilles, Odysseus, Hercules, Theseus and Perseus. And so Jason’s education began. An oracle, meanwhile, warned Pelias to fear the man with one sandal. No doubt feeling guilty about his ill-gotten kingship, he lived in dread of that prophecy.
When Jason was fully grown, he set off to Iolcos to claim his throne. On his way, he chanced upon an old lady trying to cross a river and helped her across. In doing so he lost his sandal. Little did he know that old lady was Hera; she would become his ally.
Jason arrived in Iolcos, and was announced as a man in one sandal. Coming before King Pelias, Jason revealed who he was and claimed the kingdom. Pelias agreed to cede it, but only on one condition: that Jason brought him the fleece of the golden ram. He had set Jason an impossible task, a task that would take him beyond the known world (which at this point was about as far as the Black Sea), to the barbarian kingdom of Colchis, but Jason agreed. The fleece was that of a magical ram that had once belonged to Zeus, so the story went. It hung from a tree in a sacred grove, guarded by bulls with hoofs of brass and breath of fire, and a dragon that never slept, whose teeth became soldiers when planted in the ground. The fleece belonged to Aietes, King of Colchis, son of the sun god Helios no less, and another oracle had foretold that Aietes would lose his kingdom if he lost his fleece. No wonder Aietes put up such a formidable guard.I love how legends and myths are born out of truths and here is a case in point. Sheepskins were used to pan gold from rivers, a practice thought to have begun to the east of the Black Sea in what today is Georgia. The fleeces were stretched over a wooden frame and then submerged in the river, where the tight curls of the sheep’s coat would catch nuggets and specks of gold carried down in the rushing water from placer deposits upstream. The fleeces were then hung in trees to dry, after which the gold was combed out. If you have a wet fleece full of alluvial gold hanging to dry in a tree, you are going to make sure it is well guarded – by bulls and dragons, if necessary. It’s quite easy to see how this myth of a golden fleece had spread east from Asia.
Jason had a ship – the Argo – built. He assembled a crew- the Argonauts – a band of heroes which included such luminaries as Hercules, the twins Castor and Pollux, Peleus (father of Achilles), Orpheus (the musician) and Atlanta (the virgin huntress who would never marry). They then set off on what is seen by some as the first long-distance voyage ever undertaken. Perhaps this was the first time a Greek had successfully navigated the hostile currents of the Bosphorus, but in doing so it probably marks the point at which the Black Sea opened up to the Greeks. The story is certainly an origin myth for many of the towns and cities there. Along the way, the Argonauts stopped on the Isle of Lemnos, inhabited by a band of women who had killed their husbands. The Argonauts stepped in where the dead husbands had left off and a new race, the Minyae, was born. Jason himself fathered twins with the queen, Hypsipyle. When they went off to search for supplies at their next stop, their ship was attacked by giants, with six arms, in leather loincloths. Hercules fought them off.
At their next stop in Thrace, they killed the harpies that, sent by Zeus, had emaciated the king, Phineus, by eating his food every day. In gratitude, Phineus explained how to navigate the clashing rocks of the Bosphorus, and thus did the Black Sea open up to the Greeks. So did Jason arrive in Colchis (modern-day Georgia). Like Pelias before, King Aietes set Jason an impossible task – actually three – if he wanted to claim the fleece as his own. He had to harness fire-breathing oxen and plough a field with them. He had to sow a field with dragon’s teeth and fight the army of phantom soldiers that resulted. And finally, he had to overcome the dragon.
Needless to say, Jason was discouraged, but Hera, Jason’s ally, leant on Aphrodite, goddess of love, to lend a hand. She sent her son, Eros, to shoot one of his arrows and it struck Aietes’ daughter, Medea, who fell in love with Jason. Medea would prove a useful ally. She gave him an ointment to protect him from the oxen’s fire. She showed him how to defeat the phantom soldiers with a rock that would confuse them into fighting each other. And she gave him a potion with which to send the dragon to sleep, so that he could take the fleece. As they fled Colchis, Medea then killed her brother and threw pieces of his body into the sea. Grief-stricken, Aietes stopped to collect them allowing Jason, Medea and the Argonauts to escape.
There were as many adventures on the way home. They passed the infamous Sirens, whose songs enticed sailors, only for their ships to wreck on the rocks. But Orpheus played his lyre and drowned their songs with music that was more beautiful. They could not pass Crete, due to the rocks that the bronze man Talos threw at them, but again they were saved by Medea, who cast a spell on Talos and then killed him.
Back at Iolcos, Jason’s father, Aeson, was too old to participate in the celebrations, but Medea used her witchcraft to rejuvenate him. Pelias’ daughters asked her to do the same for the aging Pelias. Medea told them to chop him up and put him in a cauldron to boil, which they did. It was a trick, of course, and Pelias was no more. But Jason and Medea were exiled for the murder and they fled to Corinth. There Jason betrayed Medea by marrying the king’s daughter. Medea confronted Jason, heartbroken, but Jason blamed Aphrodite for having made Medea fall in love with him. Medea would have her revenge, a revenge which has become the subject of many a drama since. Medea gave Jason’s betrothed a dress that stuck to her body and burned her to death. Her father died with her as he tried to save her. Then Medea killed her own two sons, born by Jason, and fled to Athens in a chariot of dragons sent by her grandfather, the sun-god Helios. Jason returned to Iolcus to claim his kingdom, but as a result of breaking his vow to love Medea forever, he lost the favour of Hera, and he died lonely and unhappy, asleep on the rotting Argo. It’s a buccaneering adventure story with a typically Greek tragic end. The formula of hero, dark power and female helper has become the backbone of numerous plots since, not least in Hollywood. The premise, a young man setting off in search of his fortune, made of gold, is the premise of every youngster setting off on his or her life’s adventure.
* Dominic Frisby, author of Daylight Robbery – How Tax Shaped The Past And Will Change The Future, out now in paperback at Amazon and all good bookstores with the audiobook, read by Dominic, on Audible and elsewhere.