The early story
The myth says that in the land of Iolcus, the modern city of Volos, there lived Pelius and his half-brother Aeson, born of the same mother Tyro, but of different fathers, Pelias of god Poseidon and Aeson of Cretheus, who was the King of Iolcus. After Cretheus’ death, Pelias usurped the throne from Aeson, the rightful heir and had him imprisoned. Pelias’ conceit further compelled him to murder all of Aeson’s relatives and even banish his twin brother Neleus, lest he lose his kingdom to either of them. In despair over Aeson’s situation, his wife Alcimede died, but before she had already secretly given birth to the son of Aeson, named Jason. Fearing Pelias would also kill the boy, Jason was sent away to Mount Pelion, to live with the Centaur Cheiron, a strange creature half-man half-horse. Centaur Cheiron became his tutor and Jason grew up to be a fine young man.
Meanwhile, in Iolcus, Pelias, still fearing he would lose his kingdom, approached the oracle at Delphi and was told to beware of a man with one sandal. Unknown to Pelias, this was going to be Goddess Hera’s revenge. Many years ago he had angered Hera by committing the despicable act of killing his stepmother Sidero at the goddess’s altar and by prohibiting the people from worshipping the Goddess. Hera had vowed to avenge herself such ignominy and she chose to do this through Jason.
When ha became twenty years old, Jason set out to reclaim the throne and kingdom of Iolcus from his uncle. While he was walking to Iolcus, across the river Anauros, Jason came across an old woman trying to cross over to the other side. Being a good-natured young man, Jason helped the woman across but the water drew away one of his sandals. The old woman thanked him and Jason continued on his journey unaware that he had helped Hera, Queen of the Gods, who had disguised herself into an old woman as part of her plan to punish Pelias, this arrogant mortal. Hera knew of his quest, but little did Jason know of the Gods participation in it.
At Iolcus, a celebration was being held to honor the sea god Poseidon, Pelias’ father. Jason’s arrival and his claim to the throne shocked Pelias who started seeing the old prophecy come true: here was the man with one sandal. To get rid of this dangerous stranger, Pelias agreed to abdicate the throne only if Jason brought him the Golden Fleece from the faraway land of Colchis, thought to be an impossible task. He was sure that Jason would never return and that he would remain king of Iolcus forever.
The story of the Golden Fleece
Well before the time of Jason, there lived two children, the boy Phrixos and his sister Helle, who were born of the union of King Athamas of Orchomenus and the cloud goddess Nephele. However, the King was seduced by the Queen of Thebes, Ino, and took her for his second wife. Ino, being jealous of his children, tricked Athamas into sacrificing them to the gods, as a sign of appeasement to end the long famine that was ruining their land. All of a sudden, during the sacrifice, a winged creature with a golden fleece appeared and took the two children away on its back to the far away land of Colchis. While flying over the sea, tragically Helle fell off the creature’s back and drowned. The sea where Helle fell was named Hellespont after her. The creature carried Phrixos safely to Colchis, where he later married the daughter of King Aeetes, sacrificed the creature to the gods and offered the king the Golden Fleece to give thanks for his hospitality. Sometime later, King Aeetes happened to hear a prophecy that not only foretold the loss of his kingdom to a stranger wishing to steal the Golden Fleece but also a betrayal by some member of his family. Aeetes killed Phrixos because he believed that he was the stranger man of the prophecy and nailed the Golden Fleece to a tree. He then had the tree and the Golden Fleece guarded by two fire breathing, bronze-hoofed bulls, known as the Khalkouri, and a dragon, to prevent anyone from stealing the fleece.
Preparation for the journey
Jason understood that the journey to Colchis would be long and arduous. He knew that he would need a strong and swift vessel to make such a long trip. Only one man in the land could build him such a craft, Argos, who was famous for his skill as a shipwright. Argos readily complied with his request and, with the help of Goddess Athena, they built the largest and sturdiest ship the ancient Greeks had ever seen, a ship that could withstand the ravages of the open sea. Built of oak and pine and over 22 meters in length, the ship had fifty oars and a low draught that allowed her to approach shallow waters without floundering. The construction was such that the mast, the rudder, the anchor and the oars could be removed and the ship then hauled ashore on cylindrical logs. This was significant, since it would prevent the ship from being destroyed or stolen. As a gift from Zeus, Jason received the Dodona, a piece of speaking timber from the God’s enchanted forest which was affixed to the prow. The Dodona had important roles to play, as an oracle offering the seafarers guidance on the best course of action and as a compass. The Dodona was oriented north and the ship’s rudder, south, to help in navigation. The imaginary line that extended from the Dodona to the rudder had coordinates aligned with the stars above, helping Jason plot the ship’s course with precision. The ship was named Argo after its builder and the crew was the Argonauts.
When the ship was ready, Jason asked the strongest Greek men to accompany him in his journey and in fact the prospect of a great adventure brought many to sail with him. Numbering fifty, the list of heroes was astounding. There were the most famous and brave men of all over Greece, all mighty fighters and some of them had also other skills. Among the Argonauts, we discern Hercules, who was renowned for his strenght and agility; Castor and Polydeuces, brothers, boxers and horse tamers; Orpheus, skilled in playing excellent music with his lyre; Argos, the shipwright and lots of others legendary men. Without much further ado the heroes cast off and set sail for the inevitable, their death or glory.
Adventures on the way
The Argonauts started their trip with feelings of joy and enthusiasm. They were only seeking for some excitement and wanted to experience new ways, to see the world around them. They thought it was just a usual journey and didn’t know that this journey would change the life of most of them. They had no idea about the adventures and horrible things to come, nor did they know that some would never return back.
Landing on Lemnos
For a long time, the island of Lemnos had been inhabited only by women and it was there that the Argo first weighed anchor. These women had provoked the wrath of Goddess Aphrodite for not worshipping her and as a sign of vengeance she had cursed them with horrible body odor. Unable to bear the awful stench, their husbands had deserted them to this isolate island. Humiliated and furious for their deplorable condition, the women had murdered every male on the island. There they lived with their queen Hypsipyle until the day Jason and his Argonauts arrived. The Argonauts were welcomed with open arms and made babies with these women. Jason himself fathered twin sons born of Queen Hypsipyle.
On the land of the Doliones
A few years went by and the Argonauts realized that they had to go on with their trip. The Argo sailed from Lemnos and crossed Hellespont landing at Propontis to replenish their supplies. This was the home of the Doliones and ruled over by King Cyzicus, a kind and noble man who greeted the Argonauts warmly. While the Argonauts were gathering supplies they were attacked by Gegenees, earth-born monsters with six arms. King Cyzicus had forgotten to warn Jason about these monsters who now attempted to destroy the Argo and kill the handful guarding it. However, the fearless and mighty warrior Hercules was one of the men guarding the ship, repelling the monsters until Jason and the other Argonauts returned. Together they killed the monsters and took to the sea again but in the dark of the night, a twist of fate brought them back to the land of the Doliones. King Cyzicus, unable to recognize his friends, the Argonauts, thought them to be marauders and attacked them with his men. In the confusion that ensued King Cyzicus was killed. In the dawn, both sides realized their mistake and with heavy hearts held a grand funeral for the King.
Giving Hercules a goodbye
The Doliones gave the Argonauts a warm send-off and soon the heroes were sailing along the coast of Mysia. Hercules, realizing he had broken his oar, went ashore with his squire Hylas to make an oar from the woods. While Hercules was at work, Hylas went to fetch water but was bewitched by a water nymph and followed her into the water. Hercules, heart-broken for not being able to find Hylas, refused to accompany the rest of the men on their quest. Some wanted to leave him behind but most wished to wait for him since Hercules was an invaluable asset to the team. The situation aboard the Argo soon became mutinous but Glaucus, a minor sea-god, appeared and calmed them all. He told the Argonauts that it was the will of the gods that Hercules stays there and goes on to complete other tasks. The Argo put out to sea again leaving behind Polyphemus to assist the mighty Hercules in his mission.
The fight with Amycus
A few days later, the Argonauts approached the land of King Amycus, ruler of the tribe Bebryces. He had a strange quirk to challenge every stranger he met to a fistfight. Catching sight of the Argonauts, he challenged them and Polydeuces, the skilled boxer, took it up and, after a difficult fight, managed to kill Amycus. All hell broke loose as the Bebryces attacked the Argonauts to avenge their King but that was not to be. They were comprehensively driven back and Jason and his friends once again sailed for their destination.
The Argonauts were beyond a strange sight after passing theBosporus and reaching Thrace. An old blind man who had sat down to his meal was attacked by two wingedcreatures that appeared from nowhere and started tormenting him and desecrating his food. Unable to bear this vagary of fate, Jason and his friends ran to help the man and chased away the creatures. To thank Jason, the old man told him that his name was Phineus and that he had once been a seer. However, he had divulged too many of Zeus’ secrets and the God had cursed him, taking his vision. To further torment him, Zeus had sent the Harpies, the two winged creatures that the Argonauts had earlier seen, to despoil his food every time he tried to eat. Hearing of Jason’s quest, Phineus agreed to tell the Argonauts what lie ahead but on one condition: Jason and his friends should help him to get rid of the Harpies. Zetes and Calais, who were amongst the Argonauts, were children of Boreas, the god of the north wind and they could fly. It fell upon them to rid Phineus of the Harpies. They lay in wait to kill the Harpies but Iris, sister to the two creatures, intervened, vowing that the creatures would never bother the old man again. Phineus thanked the Argonauts for their help and told them that the next task of their voyage would be very dangerous. In order to cross the Symplegades which lay ahead, they must release a dove to see if she has safe passage between these two gigantic rocks.
The Argonauts were unable to comprehend the gravity of Phineus’ warning. Approaching the Symplegades, they were appalled at what laid in their path. Separated by a narrow strait, the Symplegades were two gigantic rocks which constantly clashed against each other, seldom letting anything pass between them. Heeding Phineus’ words, Jason let loose a white dove. With bated breath, the Argonauts waited to see if she would have a safe passage through the rocks. Luck favored them as the dove flew through without mishap. The Argonauts, ecstatic that they too could be allowed to pass through safely, set forth towards the clashing rocks. However, the Argo just about managed to scrape through. As the ship pulled clear, the rock started closing in on it but Goddess Athena appeared and held the cliffs apart. The Argo was now safe in the calm waters of the Axeinus Pontus.
The Stymphalian Birds
Another misfortune came to the Argonauts since Tiphys died. The navigator, asleep at the helm, had fallen into the sea. Thereafter, the Argonauts would almost have a fight with the Amazons, but Zeus sent favorable winds which took them away from the land of the warrior women. While nearing the deserted island of Ares, the Argonauts were suddenly attacked by the Stymphalian Birds which had lethal, bronze-tipped feathers. Being the sacred birds of the God of War, the Birds could only be driven away, not killed. Fortunately, one amongst the Argonauts recalled how Hercules had once encountered these birds and driven them away by making loud noises. At his advice, the Argonauts unsheathed their swords and beat upon their shields with them. The Birds, scared by the commotion, flew away and left the adventurers alone. Only Oileus was struck and wounded by a stray feather.
Finally in Colchis
Seeing that Jason was about to approach Colchis, Goddess Hera realized he would need help. For this, she chose Medea, the daughter of King Aeetes, a skilled sorceress and high–priestess of the temple of Hecate, Goddess of magic and witchcraft. Hera knew that Jason would need Medea to weave her magic not only here, but in Iolcus as well. She told Aphrodite to send her son Eros to make Jason and Medea fall in love. It was a simple task for Eros to ensure that the first person Jason would meet in Colchis would be Medea. Landing safely on the banks of the river Phasis, the Argonauts went ashore and decided to make their way to the city of Aia, to the court of King Aeetes of Colchis. Strangely, on the way they noticed bodies wrapped in hides hanging from the trees.
Trying to get the Golden Fleece
There was much gaiety in the palace of King Aeetes for the arrival of the strangers, but the King became furious when Jason announced he had come to Colchis only to take the Golden Fleece. Aeetes wanted to kill Jason right that moment but he knew that such a dastardly act would only make matters worse. He consented, only if Jason beat the fire-breathing bronze-hoofed bulls guarding the Golden Fleece and make them plough a field in which he was to sow the dragon’s teeth. These seeds would turn into warriors that he would have to defeat afterwards. Jason agreed, though not too readily, for he knew that only Hercules could overcome such obstacles and rued that they had left him behind.
Medea prepared an ointment for Jason which would make him impervious to fire, so he could face the bulls. She also told him how to defeat the warriors of the earth. Armed with sorcery and courage, Jason set out to accomplish his tasks. Medea’s ointment allowed Jason to approach the bulls without being burnt alive. He defeated them and sowed the fields with dragon’s teeth. Lo and behold! From the earth rose great warriors. Following Medea’s advice, Jason threw a stone amongst the warriors, distracting them. Not knowing who had thrown the stone, the earth-born warriors attacked each other, destroying themselves. King Aeetes was enraged at Jason’s success and realized he must have had help from someone on the inside. He suspected various family members but couldn’t pinpoint anyone. Instead he planned to kill the Argonauts.
On the way home
Suspecting her father would do something evil, Medea informed Jason and agreed to help him steal the Golden Fleece, only if he took her away with him. Jason consented to take her away from her father and also to marry her. The Golden Fleece was nailed to a tree in a small garden and guarded by the Sleepless Dragon. Orpheus, the great music player who was one of the Argonauts, and Medea, in a concerted effort of music and sorcery, put the beast to sleep while Jason quietly took the Golden Fleece. They rushed back to the Argo and immediately set sail, for they knew King Aeetes would chase them once ha found out their treachery.
Sure enough, King Aeetes and his son, Medea’s brother Apsyrtus, chased them across the seas. Medea to distract her father, through magical things, killed her brother, cut him into pieces and threw the pieces of his body in the sea. Aeetes, in his despair, gave up the chase. However, Aeetes asked Zeus to punish Medea and Jason in order to get revenge for his son’s unfair death. Zeus asked his pray and drove the ship off course, to the island of Aeaea, where lived Circe, Medea’s aunt. Distraught upon learning of her nephew’s death, she immediately asked the Argonauts to leave.
Meeting the Sirens
An uneasy feeling shrouded the Argonauts, as strange mellifluous music wafted over the waters, tugged at their hearts and they found themselves rushing towards the source. To their dismay, they found themselves amongst the Sirens. The Sirens were beautiful women who sat on rocks, seducing sailors with their irresistible songs. Unable to avoid the beauty of their sight and their song, the sailors would run their ships aground on the rocks and be killed. The presence of Orpheus once more saved the Argonauts such a fate. He played his lyre far more powerful and captivating than that of the Sirens, breaking their enchanting spell. Finding that they were no longer affected by the Sirens’ charm, Jason and his friends rowed with all their might and well away from the rocks but unfortunately, Butes fell over. Lured by the Sirens, he swam towards the rocks and imminent death but miraculously, Aphrodite appeared out of nowhere and saved him.
Thetis, the sea goddess, aided the Argonauts thenceforth and carried them safely past Scylla, a six-headed monster who had once been a maiden, and Charybdis, the deadly whirlpool, since a contact with either would have meant certain death for Jason and his men. The Argo was guided to the island of Drepane, territory of the Phaeacians and ruled by Alcinous and Arete. It was there where Jason and Medea got married.
Talos, the bronze giant
Nearing Crete, the Argonauts were exhausted from the long journey and wanted to land on the island but were fended off by a giant bronze man called Talos. He was the last of a race of giant bronze people and could only be killed in a certain manner, by rupturing the only vein in his body at the back of his ankle. Using her skills at sorcery, Medea cast a spell and a huge rock crashed against Talos’ ankle, smashing his vein and causing him to bleed to death.
Leaving Crete, they neared the island called Anaphe. There Euphemus dreamt that he made love to a woman who was the daughter of sea god Triton and that she had nowhere to go. She advised him to throw the clod of earth that he carried with him into the sea and it would grow into an island where she would mother his children and his descendents would live there forever. Jason heard Euphemus’ dream and told him to throw the clod of earth into the sea once they were clear of the island of Anaphe. Well out to sea, Euphemus threw the clod of earth onto the sea and it grew into an island which he called Calliste. Many generations afterwards, Euphemus’ descendant, Theras, returned to the island and renamed it Thera, after himself. It is the present island of Santorini.
The return to Iolcus
Without much further adventure, Jason and the Argonauts arrived back in Iolcus. He handed the Golden Fleece to Pelias, unaware that his uncle had already killed his father Aeson. Furious for this unfairness, he swore he would exact a terrible revenge against Pelias and asked Medea to help him. Pelias’ death was a result of Medea’s trickery. She had convinced Pelias’ daughters that she had the power to restore their father’s youth. Being a sorceress, she had demonstrated the procedure by killing a ram, cutting it into pieces, throwing it into a cauldron of boiling water and then bringing it back to life as a young sheep again. Believing it to be true, the daughters murdered him. Jason seized the throne thereafter but soon had to leave Iolcus, because the residents didn’t want Medea the sorceress for their queen. So, Jason, after so many vain adventures to get the Golden Fleece and become a king, relinquished the kingdom to Pelias’ son, Acastus.
The tragic end
Hera had finally avenged herself through Jason. The quest for the Golden Fleece had been a trick to bring Medea to Iolcus to kill Pelias. Hera no longer had use of Jason who went into exile with Medea in Corinth, where he led a very uneventful life. But even the most righteous of men are swayed. Jason wanted to marry the princess of Corinth even though he already had Medea. Inconsolable at Jason’s deceit, Medea killed the princess and even did something horrible: she killed her own three young children, the children she had with Jason, to punish his husband!! After that, she escaped to Athens. Jason’s once glorious life had ended in tragedy.
One day, as an old man, Jason was sitting lost in reverie next to the dilapidated hull of his beloved Argo. The ship that had once seen fabulous adventures now creaked and groaned ominously as if bemoaning its existence. Jason, this glorious and tragic figure, had been so tired of living that he asked Zeus to show mercy on him. A lashing snapped and a beam fell on Jason, ending his life and making him a legend.
Myth or Reality?
The story of Jason and the Argonauts has been told and retold over centuries. The earliest account was written in 700 BC by Eumelos. However, the mention of the bronze giant Talos and the bronze-hoofed bulls and the subsequent discovery of the Bronze Age Civilization in 1870 may well date the Argonautic voyage to the 4th millennia BC. At the time of the story, Colchis was the farthest known land. Whether it was situated to the East or the West, this is another interesting debate. To ascertain whether the story is myth or reality, one can do nothing else but rely on the facts available.
1. To mention some geographical facts, nowadays we know for sure that Iolcus is the modern day city of Volos and we guess that Colchis was an area in modern Georgia.
2. Traveling from the banks of the river Phasis to the city of Aia in Colchis, the Argonauts see bodies wrapped in hides hanging from the trees. Travelers have reported this to be true in Georgia in the 17th century. It may have been some kind of ancient tradition or cruel custom that was in practice until some centuries ago.
3. The land of Aia has not been discovered yet. In 1947, however, some excavations revealed that the town of Vani was an important part of Colchis (Georgia). An earlier excavation of 1860 had unearthed gold treasure at an ancient site near Vani. This may have been the city of Aia that Jason had visited, triggering off the tale of the Golden Fleece.
4. The clashing rocks (Symplegades) were nothing else but the Strait of Gibraltar, or the Pillars of Hercules as they were known in the ancient times. The currents near the rocks may have been strong enough to generate enough fear amongst the ancient explorers to have created the story of the clashing rocks. Another version says that the Symplegades could have been the strait in the entance of the Propontida Sea, to the north of the Aegean, and this strait is probably the most definite.
5. Uptil the time of Jason’s voyage, the ancient Greeks called the sea beyond the Symplegades, Axeinos Pontus meaning hostile sea. Jason’s passage through the clashing rocks and into the sea beyond was seen as an opening up to a new dimension in navigation, hereby renaming it Euxeinos Pontus, that is the welcoming sea.
6. Two amongst the Argonauts, Castor and Polydeuces, were known as the Discouri. Some versions mention the Argonauts passing close to the North Pole. The Celts have been known to worship the Discouri as gods since ancient times. According to tradition, the Discouri had appeared on their land from the ocean. This may be attributed to the Argonauts and the presence of Castor and Polydeuces amongst them.
7. Some Indo-European tablets dating from the 14th century BC have been revealed which show that the Hittite civilization had a myth similar to the love story of Jason and Medea. These tablets were uncovered during excavations in the 1920s-30s in central Turkey.
8. Interestingly, a parallel theory states that the Argonauts’ voyage took them to South America. The presence of gold and precious metals in the South America may well have given rise to the story of the Golden Fleece. Jason’s adventures there could explain the ancient Hellenic inscriptions found in the inland of South America, the presence of Hellenic words in the Incan and Mayan language and the Aegean appearance of Mayan architecture.
9. Whether Colchis (Georgia) or South America, in either case both were unknown to the ancients rendering Jason the first man to have undertaken such a long voyage.
It is doubtful if this wonderful story is true or not. It is mostly possible that the story of Jason and the Argonauts is a very nice and exciting fable. However, one can infer a lot of this fable. Apart from the creative imagination of the Greeks who invented such a long story, we also understand that the Greek people had developed such an advanced navigation system and had thus explored the world in such an extent that they could create fables about legendary creatures and exciting adventures. Therefore, this story is mostly a combination of active imagination and historical facts, as most of the myths actually.