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Jason and the Argonauts: The Quest for the Golden Fleece

Updated on May 16, 2019
SarahLMaguire profile image

Sarah has a PhD in Classical Civilisation from Swansea University. She continues to write on the Ancient World and other topics.

The story of Jason's quest to find the Golden Fleece is one of the most popular and vivid story cycles of Greek mythology, including: magic ships, witches, dragons, harpies, bronze robots and homicidal nymphs…

Ancient Sources for the Argonaut Myth: Apollonius of Rhodes and Apollodorus of Alexandria

Our most complete source for the myth is the Argonautica, a short epic poem by Apollonius of Rhodes writing in the Egyptian city of Alexandria in the 3rd century BCE.

Apollodorus of Alexandria was another Hellenistic writer whose Library of Greek Mythology offers a summary of the whole sweep of Greek mythology. His outline of the Argonaut myth preserves alternative traditions from ancient sources now lost to us.

The Story of Phrixus and Helle: The Origins of the Golden Fleece

The story of the Golden Fleece begins a generation or so before the birth of Jason.

Athamas, King of the Greek land of Boeotia, married Nephele. They had two children; Phrixus and Helle. Later, Athamas took a second wife, Ino and they had children together.

Ino resented Athamas’ children by Nephele and schemed to destroy them. She tricked the people of Boeotia into believing that the Gods demanded King Athamas sacrifice his son, Phrixus to end the famine gripping the land.

At the last minute, Nephele intervened, sending a magical giant ram with a golden fleece to her children. Phrixus and Helle climbed on the ram's back and he soared into the air, taking the childen far from Boeotia.

Sadly, as they were crossing the sea, Helle, the girl, lost her grip and fell to her death in the waters below. The sea is still called the Hellespont in her honour.

Eventually, the ram brought Phrixus to the land of Colchis in what is now modern Georgia, the edges of the known world for the ancient Greeks. The boy was welcomed by King Aeetes.

Phrixus sacrificed the magic ram to Zeus and gave the precious golden fleece to Aeetes, who nailed it to a tree in a grove sacred to Ares, God of War, where it was guarded by a dragon who never slept.

A fresco from ancient Pompeii shows Helle's tragic fall from the golden ram.
A fresco from ancient Pompeii shows Helle's tragic fall from the golden ram.

Jason of Iolkos: the Man with One Sandal

Jason was the son of Aision and Polymede. Aision was the half-brother of Pelias, king of the small northern Greek city of Iolkos.

One day, Pelias consulted an oracle about the fate of his kingdom. The Oracle, in traditional riddling fashion, told Pelias that his rule over his kingdom was secure until he met a man with one sandal. At the time, Pelias made no sense of this.

Some time later, Pelias decided to offer a sacrifice to the Sea God Poseidon on the sea shore. He summoned many of his followers to be present, including his nephew Jason, now a young man.

Jason was outside the city, tending to his farm. When he received the summons, he hurried to attend the sacrifice. Wading through the River Anauros, he chanced to lose one of his sandals. Continuing without it, Jason arrived, one-sandalled before King Pelias at the place of sacrifice.

When King Pelias saw his nephew, he recalled the warning words of the Oracle. Approaching Jason, he asked him what he would do if he were king and he knew someone was going to kill him.

Fatefully, Jason replied, "I would send him to fetch me the Golden Fleece of Colchis." Pelias immediately ordered him to carry out this task, believing he was effectively sending his nephew to his destruction.

Preparations for the Voyage: The Argos and its Crew

Jason had no choice but to obey the king's command and prepare to set sail on his seemingly impossible quest. Fortunately, the Gods were on his side.

Athene, the Goddess of Wisdom and Crafts, helped the craftsman Argos to built a great ship with fifty oars. Athene added to the prow a piece of wood from the sacred prophetic oak at Dodona. This gave the ship a mind of her own and the power of speech. The ship was named the Argos after its builder.

Nautae, by the way, is the Greek word for sailors so Argonauts = Sailors of the Argos.

Jason assembled a crew of some of the greatest heroes ever known. They included: Castor and Pollux the twin demigods, sons of Zeus and Leda, Zetes and Calais, winged sons of Boreas the West Wind, Orpheus the great musician and Theseus and his friend Herakles, the mightiest hero of all.

Bidding an emotional farewell to his family and friends, Jason and his crew finally boarded the Argos and set sail.

The Argos by Constantine Volanakis (1837-1907)
The Argos by Constantine Volanakis (1837-1907)

The Argonauts Interrupted: The Women of Lemnos

After sailing for some time, the Argonauts decided to put in at the Island of Lemnos to take on fresh water and supplies.

Unbeknownst to them, Lemnos was in the grip of a highly unusual situation. The women of Lemnos had previously failed to pay proper respect to Aphrodite, Goddess of Love. To teach them a lesson, she afflicted all the women of the island with a terrible smell. Their husbands promptly rejected them, turning them out on the streets and bringing in slave women as replacements.

Furious at this, the women held a meeting and resolved to murder all the men of the island. When the Argonauts arrived, Lemnos was a women-only island, ruled by Queen Hypsipyle.

These women were very happy to welcome the Argonauts (and their bad smell had apparently worn off) and the crew spent weeks in amorous dalliance with the women, Jason entering into a relationship with Hypsipyle herself. A new generation of Lemnians was thus conceived.

Eventually, Herakles, who had preferred to stay aboard with his attendant Hylas, reminded the crew that they actually had work to do and reluctantly, the Argonauts bid the women of Lemnos farewell and set sail once more.

Herakles Waylaid: Hylas and the Nymphs

After emerging the victors from a deadly conflict with a people called the Doliones, which was all due to an unfortunate nocturnal misunderstanding, the Argonauts made a stop at Mysia, in Asia Minor.

Hylas, Herakles' beloved young attendant, went off to fetch water. Finding a stream known as the Pegae, he was just about to fill his pitcher when he was spotted by a a water nymph who was much taken by his beauty. Entwining her arms about the youth, she drew him down into the depths of the pool, never to be seen again.

When Herakles realised that Hylas was missing, he went rampaging through the region, threatening death to whoever was responsible. As he could not be persuaded to return to the ship, the Argonauts were forced to continue their quest leaving their greatest hero behind.

Hylas and the Nymphs by John William Waterhouse, 1896.
Hylas and the Nymphs by John William Waterhouse, 1896.

Phineas and the Harpies

Arriving at Salmydessos in Thrace, the Argonauts decided to consult the famous prophet Phineus about the future of their journey.

They found Phineus in sorrowful plight. Not only had he been blinded for some or other offence to the Gods, but he was being persecuted by Harpies, a pair of insanitary bird-women who swooped upon his food at every meal, leaving him just enough to stay alive and that left filthy with Harpy droppings.

Unsurprisingly, Phineas insisted the heroic Argonauts must save him from the Harpies as the price for information.

This was just the job for Zetes and Calais, the winged sons of the West Wind.

Setting a table as bait, the volatile youths waited, swords in hand. When the hungry Harpies descended, the brothers leapt out and pursued them through the skies . The Harpies were eventually saved by the intervention of their rather nicer sister Iris, rainbow messenger of the Gods. She got them to agree that they would leave Phineas alone and the flying brothers agreed to leave them unharmed.

Rubens, The Persecution of the Harpies, 1636
Rubens, The Persecution of the Harpies, 1636

Beware of the Clashing Rocks: The Symplegades

The grateful Phineus warned the Argonauts that a terrible danger lay just ahead: the Clashing Rocks. This pair of towering crags stood far enough apart to allow a ship to pass through, but periodically came crashing together, crushing anything caught between them. The best way to sail through safely, was to send a dove ahead and to sail through when the dove was able to safely make it through.

Taking the prophet's advice, the Argonauts, with the help of the Goddess Hera, narrowly made it through the Symplegades taking their cue from a dove moments before they clashed together for the last time and remained stationary ever after.

Illustration from The Heroes by Charles Kingsley or Greek Fairy Tales c1900
Illustration from The Heroes by Charles Kingsley or Greek Fairy Tales c1900

Arrival in Colchis: Aeetes and Medea

After more adventures than there is space to relate, the Argos finally reached the distant land of Colchis.

Meeting King Aeetes, Jason explained his predicament and asked what he must do to win the Golden Fleece.

The task was no small one. Aeetes happened to own a pair of bronze-hooved and fire-breathing bulls and he wanted Jason to yoke them together. When he had done that, he could sow some dragon's teeth in the earth and see what happened.

Well, Jason was an experienced farmer, but he had never yoked fire-breathing bulls before. He despaired of completing Aeetes' task and living to tell the tale.

Aeetes had a daughter, Medea. She, seeing Jason, loved him and resolved to offer him her not inconsiderable assistance as a witch. First, Jason had to promise to take Medea away with him and marry her. Jason readily agreed.

Medea then gave Jason a potion which would make him invulnerable to fire and metal, instructing him to daub it on himself and his shield before facing the fiery bulls. By means of this potion, Jason was able to yoke the fearsome creatures, passing the first part of his test.

He now had to sow the ground with dragon's teeth. Medea had warned him that these teeth would rapidly germinate into angry armed men who would attack. The solution was to throw a stone into their midst. They would then confusedly begin to fight one another. Jason did as Medea instructed and the armed men did not attack him.

Although Jason had passed his tests, Aeetes was reluctant to hand over the Fleece. Instead, he planned to murder Jason and burn the Argos to the ground.

Aware of this, Medea guided Jason that night to the tree where the Golden Fleece hung. With her drugs she put to sleep the dragon guard, then they seized the Fleece and hurried aboard the Argos setting sail, accompanied by Apsyrtos, Medea's younger brother.

Ancient Greek pot showing Jason stealing Golden Fleece from sleeping dragon.
Ancient Greek pot showing Jason stealing Golden Fleece from sleeping dragon.

The Return to Iolkos

King Aeetes soon learned of their flight and sent ships in pursuit of the Argos. As they came close, Medea resorted to desperate tactics. Murdering her little brother Apsyrtos, she chopped up his body, throwing the pieces overboard. The pursuing ships were held back while they retrieved each piece of the king's son for burial.

Previously, the Argonauts had been favoured by the Gods, but Medea's action angered Zeus and he sent a storm to assail the Argos. The talking ship explained that they must make a detour to the Island of Aiae in the West to be purified of their deed by Medea's aunt, the witch Circe.

After this, the Argonauts faced a series of challenges: Sirens, Wandering Rocks and various sea monsters. Having recovered the Gods' favour, they were assisted by the Sea Goddess Thetis and the Nereiads or Sea-Nymphs.

At Crete, they faced a more unusual challenge; a giant bronze robot called Talos, the creation of Hephaistos the Smith God. Talos guarded Crete, running around the Island, three times a day. Medea defeated this metallic monster by pulling out the plug in his ankle. (This caused Talos to bleed out ichor, or divine life-blood.)

Soon after leaving Crete, the Argonauts returned to Iolkos.

Medea and Talus from Stories of gods and heroes (1920) by Bulfinch Thomas Bulfinch illustrated by Sybil Tawse
Medea and Talus from Stories of gods and heroes (1920) by Bulfinch Thomas Bulfinch illustrated by Sybil Tawse

King Pelias Faces his Destiny

Jason arrived at Iolkos to find that, not expecting him to return, Pelias had driven his parents to suicide and murdered his little brother. He left it to Medea to prepare his revenge and his bride did not let him down.

By means of subtle arts, Medea persuaded Pelias' daughters that they could make their father young again by chopping him in pieces and boiling him in a pot. Accordingly they did this, but to their surprise and dismay, their father remained very dead.

Strangely, the people of Iolkos did not embrace Jason and Medea as their new king and queen, but asked them to leave.

The newly wed couple found refuge in the city of Corinth but whether they lived happily ever after is a story for another time.


A Reconstruction of the Argonauts' Voyage

© 2019 SarahLMaguire

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