Who were the Argonauts?
The tale of Jason and the Argonauts is amongst the most famous all of stories from Ancient Greece; with the tale telling of a band of heroes sailing to Colchis to obtain possession of the Golden Fleece.
The gathering of heroes was a regular theme in Greek mythology with the story of the Calydonian Hunt and the Trojan War being other famous examples, but the quest of the Argonauts took place a generation before the Trojan War.
Why are the Argonauts called the Argonauts?
News of the task allotted to Jason spread across Ancient Greece, and soon the bravest and most heroic men of the generation were making their way to Pagasae Harbour in Iolcus.
On the beach at Iolcus a ship was being constructed by the master craftsman Argus, with guidance from the goddess Athena. The ship would be named Argo, in honour of the man who built it, and those who sailed upon the Argo were Argonauts (Argo Sailors).
Who were the Argonauts?
As to who were the Argonauts? Most lists of those who sailed aboard the Argo are normally compiled from the Argonautica by Apollonius Rhodius.
The Argonautica is a complete epic poem from the 3rd Century BC, although it has to be said that the story of the Argonauts was already old when Apollonius Rhodius wrote his version, for the story is alluded to in Euripdes’ Medea from a century before.
Different, or additional names, can be read in other ancient sources though including the Argonautica by Gaius Valerius Flaccus, the Bibliotheca (Pseudo-Apollodorus) and Fabulae (Hyginus).
Taking the Argonautica by Apollonius Rhodius as the primary source, and assuming that as the Argo shipped 50 oars, the number of crew would not be much larger than that, a fairly detailed list can be assembled.
Of course, some of those listed as being Argonauts are more famous than others -
Jason - Jason was the son of Aeson and Alcimede, and arguably the rightful heir to the throne of Iolcus. It was Jason who was tasked with the retrieval of the Golden Fleece, with Pelias agreeing to give up the throne if Jason was successful in the task. Jason was elected captain of the Argo when Heracles turned down the chance to lead the expedition.
Heracles – Heracles was the most famous hero of the age, and arguably the most famous Greek hero of all time. Heracles turned down the chance to lead the Argo to Colchis, a wise decision as he was destined not to complete the journey. Initially, Heracles did much to aid Jason, making sure that the ship departed from Lemnos, and also besting the giants that threatened progress, but Heracles was left behind on Mysia. Subsequently, Heracles would commence his Twelve Labours.
Orpheus – Orpheus was the son of Oeager and Calliope, and whilst in Greek mythology, Orpheus would become famous for his descent into the realm of Hades, aboard the Argo, he was an important figure. A heroic figure in his own right, during the quest for the Golden Fleece, his music would steel the resolve of his comrades, as well as allowing the Argo to pass by the Sirens virtually unscathed.
Zetes and Calais – The Boreads – Zetes and Calais were the two sons of the Greek god of the north wind, Boreas. From their father, the Boreads would gain the ability to fly, a trait that would prove vital when the Argonauts rescued Phineas from the tormenting of the Harpies.
Castor and Pollox – The Discouri –Castor and Pollox were the twin sons of Leda, although by different fathers, including Zeus, as a result Pollox was immortal and castor mortal. The twin brothers were highly regarded for their fighting ability, both with weapons and their hands, abilities were put to good use when the Argonauts battled the Doliones.
Meleager – Meleager was the son of Oeneus, and heir to the throne of Calydon. Meleager was another figure who, like Orpheus, would gain greater fame after the quest for the Golden Fleece, as the hero was the central figure in the Calydonian Hunt.
Peleus – Peleus was a son of Aeacus, and famously husband to Thetis and father to Achilles. Peleus was a noted hero in his own right though, although during the adventures of the Argonauts he was prominent because he acted as a messenger for Hera.
Telamon – Telamon was a brother to Peleus, father of Ajax, and occasional companion of Heracles. During the voyage to Colchis though, Telamon’s role was primarily as a critic of Jason.
In the Argonautica there were other prominent figures, but whose names are all but forgot including the likes of Argus, the master shipwright, Tiphys, the navigator, and Acastus, a cousin of Jason.
Jason and the Argonauts
Argonauts from Other Sources
As previously mentioned there are several different versions of the story of Jason and the Argonauts, and other authors would change the make up of the Argo’s crew. Some author’s would do it to enhance the reputation of a family line, or by adding additional heroes, the tale would seem even more heroic.
In other versions of the story, names like Asclepius, the healer, Bellerophon, slayer of the Chimera, Laertes, father of Odysseus, Perseus, grandfather of Heracles, and Theseus, slayer of the Minotaur, can be found. In most cases though, the timeline of Greek mythology makes such additions nonsensical, especially in the case of Theseus, where Medea features prominently in the story of the Athenian hero.
Medea Onboard the Argo
The Changing Makeup of the Argonauts
Even in the case of the Argonautica by Apollonius Rhodius the complement of the Argo changed as the voyage progressed.
The quest for the Golden Fleece was meant to be an impossible one, and so a number of Argonauts did not even make it to Colchis. Heracles, Polyphemus and Hylas were left behind in Mysia after Hylas was kidnapped by a water nymph; Heracles and Polyphemus searching in vain for their missing friend subsequently.
Butes was also left behind as the Argo passed by the Sirens, the Argonaut entranced by the Siren’s song. Butes though was rescued by Aphrodite, and would become a lover of the goddess.
Some Argonauts also succumbed to the deadly peril of the quest, with Mopsus killed by the bite of a serpent in Libya, Tiphys was taken by a mysterious illness, and Idmon was killed by a wild boar.
The number of Argonauts remained relatively constant though, for additional crew members were also taken on, including the four sons of Phrixus and Chalciope, Argus, Melas, Cytissorus and Phrontis. Of course, Medea, the daughter of Aeetes, also travelled onboard the Argo on the return journey to Iolcus.