The myth of Jason and the Argonauts has inspired storytellers throughout the ages and continues to be a popular story to retell today. You might even think of the 1960s movie with the clay skeletons. It is a cinematic feat indeed, inspired by the legendary feats of Jason’s ancient myth. One of the oldest sources for the story of Jason and the Argonauts is the Argonautica, written by Apollonius of Rhodes. This was an epic poem, much like the Iliad and the Odyssey, however, instead of focusing on the Trojan War and the aftermath, the Argonautica follows the adventures of the young prince Jason.
Jason and the Argonauts: A Hero’s Beginnings
Storytellers often use familiar and popular tropes, and Apollonius of Rhodes did not deviate from them in the Argonautica. Apollonius gave his protagonist a true hero’s beginning, in the fashion of many myths preceding it. To start with, Jason had a royal birth — he was the son of King Aeson, who ruled Iolcus, a region in Northern Greece. However, a royal birth did not come with safety and stability. When Jason was a newborn, his half-brother called Pelias decided to make a play for the throne. As Jason was just a baby, he did not yet prove to be a threat but he did have the potential to be one as a male heir.
Aeson was able to escape with Jason. In a step to secure Jason’s livelihood and prospects, Aeson gave Jason over to Chiron the centaur’s care. In Greek mythology, Chiron was the rearer of heroes. Many young Greek princes were given to Chiron at a young age, much like an ancient boarding school.
In another version of the story, Aeson was locked up by Pelias before Jason was born. Jason’s mother, Alcimede, evaded the violent plots of Pelias by pretending that Jason was stillborn. Alcimede was able to smuggle Jason out of Iolcus and bring the baby to Chiron for protection.
Growing up with Chiron
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Jason was taught the key principles of being a prince. This included defensive and offensive skills such as sword-fighting, javelin throwing, and the art of warfare. Hunting and warfare in the mythical world were a matter of survival. With political turbulence in Jason’s hometown, Iolcus, it was important for Jason to learn these measures from Chiron.
As a devotee to the arts, Chiron would round off this practical education by also teaching his students to appreciate music. This often involved the lyre, an ancient musical instrument, made of strings pulled taut over a tortoise shell. In other words, a very ancient version of the modern guitar.
Finally, Chiron would also teach his students the vital basics of medicine. The ancient world was not a safe place, and it was wise to know how to handle injuries. In fact, the name “Jason” is sometimes interpreted as meaning “healer”, which points towards his skill with medicine. Some sources say that Chiron chose this name for Jason. Jason was one of the many students of Chiron, including Hercules, Asclepius, and Achilles.
Returning to Iolcus
Eventually, the time came for Jason to leave Chiron’s care. After coming of age, Jason had plans to recover the throne of Iolcus. Pelias, who had taken the throne from Jason’s father, was very much in control of the city. Jason did not know the hard time he would have getting the kingdom back. And so the time came when Jason had to leave Chiron’s home in the idyllic Grecian woodland.
“On that day all the gods looked down from heaven upon the ship and the might of the heroes, half- divine, the bravest of men then sailing the sea … And there came down from the mountain-top to the sea Chiron, son of Philyra, and where the white surf broke he dipped his feet, and, often waving with his broad hand, cried out to them at their departure, “Good speed and a sorrowless home- return!”
Argonautica, Apollonius of Rhodes
When Jason returned to Iolcus, he did not receive a warm welcome, instead, he was challenged for his rightful hold on the throne. Pelias gave him an impossible task.
As with most fantastical stories, Jason’s included a prophecy, much to Pelias’ detriment and to the hope of listeners to Jason’s myth.
“Such was the oracle that Pelias heard, that a hateful doom awaited him to be slain at the prompting of the man whom he should see coming forth from the people with but one sandal. And no long time after, in accordance with that true report, Jason crossed the stream of wintry Anaurus on foot, and saved one sandal from the mire, but the other he left in the depths held back by the flood.”
After a troublesome trip, which involved losing one shoe, Jason, now the one-sandaled threat, arrived back in Iolcus. At this time, Pelias was hosting a grand banquet. Pelias quickly identified Jason and his missing shoe as his mortal enemy. Immediately, the king devised a plot for Jason…
“The toil of a troublous voyage, in order that on the sea or among strangers he might lose his home-return.”
Pelias demanded that Jason traverse the Black Sea to seek the Golden Fleece, and bring it back to Iolcus.
The Argonauts Assemble
The greatest group of heroes assembled to take on this quest, which was proposed to be the greatest adventure of the age. Heroes from all over Greece wished to partake in this momentous voyage to the end of the known world. The heroes included Hercules, Orpheus, Atalanta, Meleager, Philoctetes and many more. Even Acastus, the son of mighty Pelias himself, did not want to stay behind but joined the crew.
For a mighty crew, there was a need for a mighty ship. The ship was designed and manufactured by Argus, who was said to have been guided by the goddess Athena, who valued craftsmanship and wisdom. Once the ship was built, the crew needed a leader.
“All the equipment that a ship needs for all is in due order — lies ready for our departure. Therefore we will make no long delay in our sailing for these things’ sake, when the breezes but blow fair. But, friends, — for common to all is our return to Hellas hereafter, and common to all is our path to the land of Aeetes — now therefore with ungrudging heart choose the bravest to be our leader, who shall be careful for everything, to take upon him our quarrels and covenants with strangers.”
After a brief hesitation in which Hercules, famous even within his lifetime, benignly rejected the proposal to make him leader, Jason was ultimately chosen.
The final destination of the Argonauts, Colchis, was a great distance away. Jason and the Argonauts stopped off at many islands along the way. When the Argonauts arrived at Lemnos, they found the island deserted of men. Aphrodite had cursed the island so that the men found the women repulsive and this caused tensions that led to a massacre of the men. After the curse had lifted, the women lived on the island without men. When the Argonauts visited, there was a huge movement for repopulation. This generated the race called the “Minyae”.
The next stop was Cyzicus — and the Argonauts had a baffling time here. They encountered beings called “Gegeines” who were giants with six arms. These giants attempted to destroy the Argonaut’s ship but Heracles managed to defend it. In the dark, the Argonauts came across the people who inhabited the island, but they believed them to be hostile. In the morning, when the Argonauts realized they had killed potential friends, they held a great funeral.
The Clashing Rocks
Not many had ever travelled to such a far destination as Colchis, where the Golden Fleece was rumored to lie. But the blind King Phineus was one of the few who knew the location. When Jason and the Argonauts arrived at his dwelling in Thrace, they found the poor King close to starvation.
Phineus had been cursed with blindness by Zeus, king of the gods, and Helios the sun god sent great winged creatures called Harpies to steal Phineus’ food. Phineus had offended the gods by harming his own sons. Jason and the Argonauts chased away and slaughtered many of the Harpies. When Phineus was pleased by this, he told the Argonauts where Colchis was, and how to get there through the perilous seas.
Phineus told Jason and the Argonauts that the only way to reach Colchis was through a particular sea passage. Here there were two cliff-like rocks which would repeatedly come together and crush anything in between. Phineus told Jason to release a dove, and if the dove was able to get through safely, then the Argo ship should have enough time to get through as well. The wind and sea pattern would be important for the Argo to survive.
Trials in Colchis
Despite the impossibility, Jason was able to sail through the clashing rocks, with damage to the stern of the ship, and a few feathers lost from the bird’s tail. When Jason and the Argonauts disembarked in Colchis, King Aeetes who was in current possession of the Fleece, said that he would give the Fleece to Jason under conditions. Yet again, Jason was challenged to more trials. At first, Jason was disheartened, but the love goddess Aphrodite placed a spell on Medea, a powerful witch and the daughter of Aeetes, to be infatuated with Jason. Therefore, Medea used her skills to help Jason get the Fleece.
For the first trial, Jason had to yoke fire-breathing oxen and plow a field with special seeds from Aeetes. Medea gave Jason a fire-resistant ointment for his skin, and then warned Jason that these “special” seeds were actually jinxed to grow into skeletal warriors, and so he was prepared to fight. He tossed a rock into the mass of undead and they began battling each other in the commotion — unable to detect who had thrown the stone. They defeated each other and Jason escaped unscathed.
Jason’s next trial was to retrieve the Golden Fleece from the tree which was guarded by a sleepless dragon. Again, Medea stepped up. She gave Jason a sleeping potion for the dragon, and so Jason was able to slip past and steal the Golden Fleece.
Medea’s Curse and Orpheus’s Magic
As with most love-curses, things began to turn sour between Jason and Medea. The love-curse on Medea was so powerful, that she began to commit horrific crimes on his behalf. When the Argonauts were being pursued by King Aeetes, Medea killed her own brother and tossed his chopped-up remains into the sea. Some sources say that Jason and Medea planned this together. Either way, King Aeetes abandoned the chase to collect the pieces of his son. Zeus punished Medea and the Argonauts for their terrible acts by sending a strong wind to blow them off course.
When Jason and the Argonauts got back on track, they next came to the island of the Sirens. It was luck that Orpheus, a famed musician, was with the Argonauts at this time. Sirens were known for their magical singing voices which would compel sailors to their deaths by drowning. However, Orpheus’ charmed singing was strong enough to battle them. He sang and strummed his lyre so powerfully that the sailors were able to concentrate on Orpheus instead of the Sirens as they sailed past them.
“Suddenly to the heroes, too, [the Sirens] sent forth from their lips a lily-like voice. And they were already about to cast from the ship the hawsers to the shore, had not Thracian Orpheus, son of Oeagrus, stringing in his hands his Bistonian lyre, rung forth the hasty snatch of a rippling melody so that their ears might be filled with the sound of his twanging; and the lyre overcame the maidens’ voice.”
Argonautica, Book 4.
Jason and the Argonauts Return
After stopping at one more island, and defeating an automaton (a very ancient robot), with the help of Medea, Jason triumphantly returned home to Iolcus. The Golden Fleece had magical properties which would increase the livelihood of the city, providing greater crop growth, fewer sicknesses, and renewed vigor.
Jason and the Argonauts disbanded, and Jason was able to reclaim the throne of Iolcus. At this time, Jason’s father was waning in his old age, and so Medea brewed him a special cauldron that would revive his youth. The peace did not last upon Jason’s return … Medea offered this age-reducing magic to Pelias but then killed him instead. Charged as murderers, Jason and Medea were chased out of Iolcus. This later led to a terrible rift in Jason and Medea’s relationship.
Jason rejected Medea and chose another princess to marry. He later returned to Iolcus to yet again take back the throne, from Pelias’ son this time. However, the goddess of marriage, Hera, never forgot the slight Jason had given Medea by marrying another princess, and cursed him to become friendless and alone.
Jason’s end was a quiet and poignant one. He was sleeping under the stern of the Argo, a ship which represented years of adventure and friendship between the legendary crew, when the rotting stern broke away, and crushed Jason. A shocking end to a Greek tragedy.