The Archetypal Adventure
This classic myth is one of the most ancient stories that exist. It chronicles Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece and the restoration of his family’s throne. This archetypal adventure sets the example for the plot of almost all modern stories, and it may even model what it means to be human: to live, to be challenged, to endure, and to make the world a better place.
Perhaps, it is easiest for modern readers to think of the ancient Greek myths as epic soap operas or superhero sagas, always leaving more opportunities for a sequel to satisfy the audience’s thirst for bold adventures and fantastic places. Indeed the story of Jason and the Argonauts has been retold and elaborated upon many times.
Personally, I find it fascinating how this myth has embedded itself in our culture. I recommend you start by reading What is an argonaut? to learn how this myth plays a role in your life.
Cast of the Main Characters
Jason: the hero of our story, and leader of the Argonauts
Medea: Jason’s wife, and arguably the hero of the story
King Pelias: usurper of Jason’s throne
King Aeetes: possessor of the Golden Fleece
Orpheus: the greatest musician of the ancient world
Hercules: the son of Zeus, famous for his Twelve Labors
Peleus and Telamon: brothers and, respectively, the fathers of Achilles and Ajax.
Argus: builder of the Argo
Castor and Pollux: the Gemini Twins and brothers to Helen of Troy
Meleager: slayer of the Calydonian boar
Atalanta: the only female crewmember, and the fastest human alive.
Zetes and Calais: the winged Boreads
Theseus: known as the slayer of the Minotaur, but a minor Argonaut.
King Laertes: father of Odysseus, but a minor Argonaut.
Autolycus: son of Hermes and a master thief
Idmon and Mopsus: the seers
Lynceus: Messenian prince with X-ray vision
Tiphys: the helmsman
Euphemus: a Calydonian hunter with the ability to walk on water.
And many more characters, including 50 argonauts
Jason and the Argonauts retold in modern English
The Fates Weave Their Web
As with most heroic epics, the destiny of the hero seems to have been spun by the fates before he was even born. This epic tale begins with Aeson, the rightful heir to the throne of Iolcus, and Pelias, his jealous stepbrother. When their father, the King of Iolcus, passed away Pelias imprisoned Aeson and took the crown for himself. However, unknown to Pelias, Aeson’s wife bore a son named Jason. Averting Jason’s certain death at the hand of Pelias, his mother secreted him to the cave of Chiron, a wise and noble centaur. For twenty years Chiron schooled Jason in the arts of the ancient world until the time came for him to claim his birthright.
Meanwhile, Pelias, son of Poseidon, jealously guarded his crown. He paid homage to all the gods but Hera, Queen of the Gods, and he consulted the Delphic oracle who prophesized, “A hateful doom awaits you to be slain by the hand of the man with but one sandal.”
Jason’s First Test
During Jason’s return to Iolcus, he encountered a feeble old woman requesting to be carried across the river Anaurus. Fortunately, Jason didn’t hesitate to transport the old woman because she was actually Queen Hera in disguise. Hera was testing Jason because she needed a hero to avenge herself against Pelias’ scorn. Staggering under her godly weight, Jason lost a sandal in the river but gained the goddess’ favor.
An Impossible Task
Jason arrived in Iolcus to claim his throne during a banquet that his King Pelias held in honor of his father Poseidon. However, King Pelias, Jason’s Uncle, had no intention of relinquishing his rule. Upon seeing Jason wearing a single sandal, Pelias plotted a devious plan to send him on an impossible quest, in a faraway land, to fetch the magical Golden Fleece, hoping that he would be lost at sea or among strangers. Jason agreed to his uncle’s task, eager to prove he was worthy to rule a kingdom.
The Gathering of Heroes
To aid in his quest, Jason summoned Argos the shipbuilder who, with the help of Athena, constructed the largest and swiftest ship to set sail — the Argo. And, in her prow was placed a timber from the sacred grove of Zeus at Dodona that had the power of prophecy. Jason then assembled four dozen of Greece’s greatest heroes, including Heracles, the legendary son of Zeus; Theseus, slayer of the Minotaur; Orpheus, the great poet and musician; Castor and Polydeuces, also known as the Gemini Twins; Atalanta, a great huntress and the faster human alive; the seers, Idmon and Mopsus; the winged brothers, Zetes and Calais; Euphemus, a Calydonian hunter with the ability to walk on water; Lynceus, Messenian prince with X-ray vision; the fathers of many future heroes, like Peleus, the fathers of Achilles, and Telamon, father of Ajax; and many others fated to never return home. Henceforth, named after their ship, this band of heroes was known as the Argonauts.
The Adventures Begin
The Argonauts’ ship, the Argo, is a character herself in the story. The Argo was constructed by the shipwright Argus, and its crew was specially protected by the goddess Hera. The best source for the myth is the Argonautica by Apollonius Rhodius. According to a variety of sources of the legend, Argo was said to have been planned or constructed with the help of Athena. According to other legends she contained in her prow a magical piece of timber from the sacred forest of Dodona, which could speak and render prophecies. After the successful journey, Argo was consecrated to Poseidon in the Isthmus of Corinth. She was then translated into the sky and turned into the constellation of Argo Navis. Several authors of antiquity (Apollonius Rhodius, Pliny, Philostephanus) discussed the hypothetical shape of the ship. Generally, she was imagined as a Greek warship, a galley, and authors hypothesized that she was the first ship of this type that had gone out on a high-sea voyage.
After the Argo was supplied with everything needed to sail the sea, and Jason had spoken encouraging words to the throngs of people, without further ado, the Argonauts, their mighty strength combined, dragged the Argo from its moorings, down to the sea. The Argonauts raised their sails and sang songs to Artemis, savior of ships. A stiff wind arose and pushed the Argo through the dashing seas. Fish, both great and small, surfaced off the bow to escort our heroes forth. Soon, their homeland disappeared beyond the horizon. It would be a perilous voyage to Colchis. The gods challenge the Argonauts with many trials and several perish in the dangers that lay ahead.
The Island Kingdom of Women
The Argo’s sails strained for six days until the winds died with the setting sun and the crew was left to row to the island of Lemnos, an island inhabited only by jealous women who had ruthlessly slain not only their adulterous husbands but all the men on the island. Only the queen, Hypsipyle, had spared her father and set him adrift on the ocean in a casket. It was with great fear that the women of Lemnos watched the Argo, for they thought it had come in retribution for their crimes. As the ship docked, the women met in council and devised a plan to invite the Argonauts into their homes with gifts of food and wine and love, so they would, once again, have strong men to plow the fields in times of peace and take up arms in times of war. Thus, our heroes stayed on Lemnos for a year and sired many children. When the Argonauts again took to their oars, Hypsipyle bid Jason, her lover, a tearful farewell and vowed that, should he return, her kingdom awaited his rule.
Six-Armed Monsters and a Terrible Mistake
From Lemnos, the Argonauts sailed to the island of the Mount of Bears where the hospitable King Cyzicus of the Doliones filled their ship’s stores with wine and sheep. The next morning, while King Cyzicus showed Jason a safe passage through the seas, they were attacked by six-armed monsters. Fortunately, Heracles met them with bow in hand and felled them, one by one, like trees. Undeterred, the Argonauts boarded the Argo, loosened the moorings and set sail on the rising tide. However, when night fell the fickle winds pushed the unsuspecting crew backwards and they again cast ashore on the Mount of Bears. The Doliones, mistaking the Argonauts for enemies, attacked. That night many of Doliones’ champions were slain, including King Cyzicus whose breast bones were shattered by Jason’s spear. At dawn, when both sides realized their error they arranged an elaborate funeral and mourned their fallen comrades for three days and three nights.
Heracles and the Twelve Labors
The Argonaut’s next stop was Mysia. While the Son of Zeus went in search of a tall and strong pine to replace the oar he had snapped during his lusty rowing, his companion, Hylas, was kidnapped as he was fetching water. For such was his beauty that a water-nymph fell in love with him and spirited him away. When Heracles returned and discovered that Hylas was missing, he hurled his tree aside, bellowed in anger, and, like a mad bull, charged after his lover. At the same time, a favorable breeze stirred and Tiphys, skillful in foretelling the weather, urged the Argonauts to set sail. At dawn, it was with heavy hearts that Jason and the Argonauts realized that they had unwittingly left behind their bravest and strongest warrior. And, so it was fated that Heracles was to leave the Argo and perform the twelve labors set forth by Hera and to eventually become immortalized and join the ranks of gods on lofty Mount Olympus.
The Boxing King
For a day and a night, the wind bore the ship onward to the land of the Bebrycians where King Amycus, who had slain many men, ruled that no man should leave without first meeting him in the boxing ring. So with great scorn and arrogance, King Amycus confronted the Argonauts and challenged the bravest among them to raise his hands in battle. Enraged, Polydeuces, one of the Gemini Twins, stepped forward to champion his brethren. They marked off a square in the sand and donned ox-hide boxing gloves. In contrast to each other, Amycus appeared as a monstrous son of the Earth while Polydeuces appeared as a bright star in heaven. The formidable foes let loose a fury of blows. Amycus taunted Polydeuces and rushed at him like a wave upon a ship, eager to dash the life out of him. However, Polydeuces said not a word, returning blow for blow, while searching for his opponent’s weaknesses. A heavy din of thumping heads and clattering teeth arose, drowning out the crowd. Then Amycus rose to his full height and dealt a crushing blow. But Polydeuces side-stepped and with a quick movement boxed Amycus in the ear, breaking the bones within, and Amycus fell to the ground with the life poured out of him. At the death of their King, the Bebrycians rushed at Polydeuces. But in their path stood the Argonauts and a great battle ensued. Soon the Bebrycians were trampling over themselves as they fled home. However, the Bebrycians had many enemies and upon hearing of King Amycus’ death, they were already laying waste to the Bebrycians’ kingdom.
The Argo’s next landfall was at the home of once-renowned King Phineus the prophet who was cursed by Zeus with blindness, lingering old age and tormented by Harpies, raucous birds with the heads of old women and razor-sharp claws. As soon as Phineus would begin to eat, the Harpies would swoop down upon him with the speed of the West Wind and snatch the food from Phineus’ hands. And, when they had their fill they would defecate on the leftovers. Such was the loathsome odor that no mortal could have gone near, but Phineus was also cursed with an insatiable appetite and the Harpies left enough putrid morsels for him to survive his torment.
As the Argonauts approached, Phineus hobbled to the door to greet them for he had prophesized their coming and partaking of his food. So old and weak was he that his bones were held together by only skin and gristle and when the Argonauts saw his shriveled form slumped in the threshold of his courtyard they took pity on him as the most wretched being they had ever seen, Zetes and Calais being moved to tears. Straightaway, the Argonauts prepared a feast to bait the Harpies. As soon as Phineus laid his hands upon the food, cackling Harpies appeared like bolts of lightning. They devoured everything in a flash, leaving behind a putrid mess. Zetes and Calais, descendants of the North Wind, pursued instantly and chased the Harpies to a faraway land where they would never bother Phineus again. Afterwards, everyone celebrated in a grand feast and, as a reward, Phineus used his gift of prophecy to counsel the Argonauts in their future journey.
Next: The Perilous quest continues, and several Argonauts will perish in the dangers that lie ahead.