Summary of The Argonauts and The Golden Fleece
Of all the adventures found in Greek mythology, Jason’s Quest of the Golden Fleece stands out in modern readers. The Argonauts (Ἀργοναὓται) were a company of 50 heroes, who sailed on the ship, called Argo (Ἀργο), in their journey toward the fabled Colchis.
Below, I will tell the standard version of the legend, told by Apollonius of Rhodes. You will also find a couple of different versions at the end of Apollonius’ Argonautica that was written before and after Apollonius’ time in the 3rd century BC.
Most authors after Apollonius wrote similar account to him, like the Roman writer, Gaius Valerius Flaccus, but other divulge from his version considerably, like Diodorus Siculus, see Other Versions of the Quest.
|Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica|
|Other Versions of the Quest|
|Death of King Pelias|
There’s a list of the Crew of the Argo, can be found in Facts and Figures.
Genealogy: Houses of Aeolid Thessaly and Messenia
Of all the accounts about Jason and the Argonauts, the most authoritative version came from Apollonius of Rhodes. His work titled the Argonautica, which was an epic poem written during the mid-3rd century BC. People usually referred to this epic by other English titles, such as the Argonauts or the Quest of the Golden Fleece.
As far as style and content goes, the Argonautica is a fairly good yarn about fabulous voyage, but it is clearly below the standard of such masterpiece as Homer’s Odyssey, the adventure of Odysseus after the Trojan War. That’s because the Odyssey showed a great deal of influence upon Apollonius’ smaller epic.
|Origin of the Quest|
|Voyage To Colchis|
|Return to Iolcus|
|Death of King Pelias|
Before we begin the greatest quest in Greek myth, we need to see how the quest began, and what situations caused the quest to be undertaken.
|Pelias & Jason|
|When Athamas (Ἀθάμας), king of Orchomenus (Boeotia), was about to sacrifice his son Phrixus (Φρίξος) by Nephele (Νεφέλη), at his second wife’s (Ino, Ἰνώ) instigation, a flying Golden Fleece appeared. On the ram’s back, Phrixus and his sister Helle (Ἕλλη) escaped as the ram flew across the sea. Helle, however, fell and drowned at Hellespont, which was named after her. (See King Athamas for more details about his wives and children.)
(Diodorus Siculus gives us a less interesting account about the escape of Phrixus and Helle. They had escaped by ship. Helle was suffering from seasickness, so when she leaned over one side of the ship, she fell overboard and drowned.)
Phrixus arrived safely in Aea, a city in Colchis. Colchis was ruled by Aeëtes (Aeetes, Αἰήτης). Aeëtes was the son of the sun god Helius, and the brother of the great sorceress Circe. Aeëtes welcomed Phrixus and had one of his daughters, Chalciope or Iophossa, married to the young stranger. Phrixus had several sons whom the Argonauts would later meet in the quest, and their names were Argus, Cytissorus, Melas, and Phrontis.
Phrixus gave the ram to Aeëtes in return for his father-in-law hospitality.
After some time, Aeëtes heard that his reign would not last if a stranger comes to claim the Golden Fleece. A prophecy mentioned that he would be betrayed by a member of his own family. Aeëtes thought it was either his new son-in-law or his grandsons by Phrixus. Aeëtes had Phrixus murdered, and his grandsons banished from Colchis.
According to the historian Diodorus Siculus, the prophecy says that Aeëtes would die on the day, when a foreigner steals the Golden Fleece. Diodorus explained this was the reason for Aeëtes’ cruelty to foreigners, and why all foreigners captured on their soil, are sacrificed to prevent his fate from coming to pass.
The Golden Fleece was placed upon and nailed to the branch of tree in a grove. The grove was guarded by a dragon that never sleeps, sent by the war-god Ares.
|In Iolcus, Pelias (Πελιάς), son of Poseidon and Tyro, had anger the goddess Hera, by murdering his stepmother, Sidero, at the goddess’ altar. To further anger Hera, when Pelias became king of Iolcus, he banned people from worshipping her.
Aeson was the son of Cretheus and Tyro, and the brother of Amythaon and Pheres. Aeson was therefore Pelias’ half-brother.
When his father Cretheus died, Aeson should have become the next king, but Pelias seized the throne and imprisoned Aeson. Pelias drove Aeson’s two brothers away. Pelias even drove away his twin brother Neleus from Iolcus, because he refused to share the kingdom with anyone. (See King Pelias in the Aeolids, for more description about these events.)
Aeson’s wife had just bore a son (Jason), but died in grief over her Aeson imprisonment. Pelias thought the infant (Jason) had died with the mother, so Pelias thought his throne was secured. However, the infant was spirited away, and was brought up by the wise Centaur, named Cheiron.
Pelias learned from Delphi that a man (Aeolid) with one sandal would cause his death.
Years later, a young man with one sandal did arrive in Iolcus. Jason claimed he had the right to the throne than his uncle, Pelias, since he was the son of Aeson and grandson of Cretheus. Jason had not died at childbirth as it was claimed; rather that he was spirited away from Iolcus and was brought up by the wise and immortal Centaur, Cheiron.
Pelias agreed in stepping down from the throne if Jason would fetch the Golden Fleece from Colchis. As Pelias had hoped, Jason agreed. Pelias thought that Jason would not survive the voyage.
|Building of Argo & the Gathering of the Heroes|
|In the Black Sea|
|The idea of a great adventure, especially a quest to an unknown land, appeal to every heroes in Greece. Many of them, noble and brave, wanted to participate in the greatest adventure of them all. Among them were the musician Orpheus, Meleager, Peleus and Telamon, the Dioscuri (Castor and Polydeuces), and many others, including the greatest hero of them all, Heracles. Theseus and Atalanta were missing in the roll, as told by the writer Apollonius.
Even Acastus, Pelias’ son joined the Argonauts in their quest. (See Crew of the Argo for full listing of heroes who sailed the Argo).
Argus built the ship, which was to be manned by fifty oars. The goddess Athena fitted the ship with a talking beam from Dodona onto the prow of the ship. They named the ship after its builder, as Argo, and the heroes who sailed the Argo, were known as the Argonauts.
Before they left, most of the heroes gathered, wanted Heracles to lead them as their captain. But Heracles declined the honour in favour of Jason. Tiphys, son of Hagnias, piloted the ship. According to Diodorus Siculus, Heracles was indeed the leader and hero of the quest, not Jason (see Diodorus’ version).
According to Valerius Flaccus, Pelias had forced Aeson to drink poison, after Jason and the Argonauts on the quest. Aeson cursed Pelias before he died that his cousin would be killed by his own daughters (see Death of Pelias). Other writers say that Aeson was murdered later, or that he survived upon his son’s return.
|The Argonauts landed on the island of Lemnos. The women in Lemnos had earlier offended the goddess Aphrodite who had refused to honour her. She caused the women to give off unpleasant odour, so that their husband slept with foreign (Thracian) women instead of them. The Lemnian wives had jealously murdered their husbands and all other male members on the island, to avoid retribution.
At first the Lemnian women were fearful of the Argonauts arrival until they found out the heroes were not there to punish them. The Lemnian women led by by their queen, Hypsipyle, not only welcome them, but slept with the heroes in order to repopulate the island. The Argonauts stayed on Lemnos for several days and would have stayed longer, had Heracles not grown restless. Hypsipyle bore Jason two sons, after he left.
One of the Argonauts would also leave a son behind. This Argonaut was named Euphemus, though his son is unnamed, his descendants would one day settle on the island of Thera. You will find detail about Euphemus and the island of Thera, later when you read Stranded in Libya and the Last Adventure.
Sailing pass the Hellespont, they land on an island near Bear Mountain. There, Cyzicus king of the Doliones greeted them. Cyzicus told them about the land beyond Bear Mountain, but forgot to mention about the tribe of six-armed, earth-born monsters, living on the other side of the mountain. These giants were called Gegenees.
When most of the crew went into forest in search for supplies, the Gegenees attacked the ship, seeing that only a few men guarded the ship. But Heracles was among those who guarded the Argo. Heracles killed many and held them at bay, until Jason returned with the other Argonauts. After killing the rest of the Gegenees, they set sail again.
Due to poor visibility during the night, the Argonauts headed the wrong direction. When the Argonauts landed in the harbour, Cyzicus thought they were raiders and attacked the Argonauts and was killed. When they realised their mistake, they gave a huge funeral to Cyzicus. Cleite, Cyzicus’ wife, in her grief, hanged herself.
When Heracles broke his oar as they sailed along Mysian coast, Heracles went into the forest to cut a new oar. Heracles’ squire and lover, Hylas, went to fetch some water in a spring. A water nymph, who fell in love with Hylas, pulled the young squire into the water.
Heracles went in search for Hylas but could not find him. The Lapith chieftain, Polyphemus assisted Heracles in search for Hylas. The twins, Zetes and Calais, persuaded Jason to leave Heracles behind. But many of the heroes, like Telamon, were unwilling to leave without Heracles. Fighting would have erupted had not a minor sea god, Glaucus, appeared to the Argonauts. Glaucus told the angry Argonauts that Heracles has another destiny, where he was meant to fulfil his other labours that will make Heracles immortal. Glaucus reassured the Argonauts that they can succeed without Heracles or Polyphemus.
Heracles had no choice but to return to Greece and finish the rest of the Twelve Labours. Heracles would later killed Zetes and Calais, in revenge, at the funeral game of Pelias.
(According to The Marriage of Ceyx, a fragmented poem ascribed to Hesiod, the Argonauts abandoned Heracles near Aphetae in Magnesia, not in Mysia.)
The Argonauts soon encountered the Bebryces whose king Amycus challenged one of them in boxing match, a fight to the death. Polydeuces, one of the Dioscuri, was the best boxer among the Argonauts. The contest seemed evenly matched until Polydeuces killed Amycus through a blow to the king’s ear. The Bebryces set about to attack Polydeuces, but they were routed by the Argonauts.
|As the Argonauts sailed pass the Bosporus and landed in Thrace, the Argonauts encounter a blind seer named Phineus, son of Agenor.
According to Apollonius, Phineus disclosed too many secrets of the Zeus to men, so Zeus took away his sight and made him older than he really was. Zeus further punished the blind seer, by sending birds, known as the Harpies (“Hounds of Zeus”), to steal the seer’s food.
But according to the Great Eoiae, Phineus lost his sight because he told Phrixus the way to Colchis; Poseidon who was possibly his father, was the one who blinded him as punishment. And Apollodorus gave yet more different reasons why Phineus became blind, two of them already mentioned; the third reason is that Phineus or his second wife blinded his two sons from his first marriage. Phineus was first married to Cleopatra, daughter of Boreas, thus sister of Zetes and Calaïs. Phineus and Cleopatra had two sons, Phexippos and Pandion, and when they reached adult age, he married again, this time to Idaea, daughter of the Scythian leader, Dardanus. Idaea falsely told Phineus that her stepsons had tried to seduce or rape her, and Phineus. So either Phineus, in a fit of rage, blinded his sons, or according to Sophocles in Antigone, Idaea did the deeds, using her shuttle or weaving needle, like a dagger. It was said in this version that Boreas sailed with the Argonauts and that it was Boreas himself, who avenge his grandsons’ unjust punishment, by taking away Phineus’ son.
Phineus appealed to the Argonauts to help him. Zetes and Calaïs (Calais), who could fly, were sons of Boreas, god of the north wind. They killed some of the Harpies and drove the rest of them away. Zetes and Calais would have killed them all, had Zeus not sent Iris, to give assurances to the heroes that the birds would no longer bother Phineus. Phineus gave them useful advice to Jason about what lay ahead of them.
The Argonauts then encounter the Clashing Rocks, rocks that float on water and were pulled together at regular interval after they separated. To get past the rock without getting crush, they followed the seer advice, by releasing a dove and see if it could fly past the rocks without getting crush in between the two. The dove survived, and the Argonauts set about to sail through the Clashing Rocks as they parted. However, the ship would have been crushed had Athena not intervene. By holding one rock in one hand and pushed the Argo with her other hand. The Argo safely sailed into the Black Sea.
The seer Idmon was killed by a wild boar. Idmon was the first Argonaut to die. Another Argonaut, Tiphys, Argo’s pilot drowned when he fell asleep at the helm. They chose a new pilot from Samos, named Ancaeüs (Ancaeus), son of Poseidon and Astypalaea. This Ancaeüs should not be confused with the other Argonaut of the same name, the young Arcadian son of Lycurgus and Cleophyle or Eurynome, who would be one of the heroes, who would be killed in the Calydonian Boar Hunt. Although they left behind Heracles and another Argonaut back in Mysia, and the last two Argonauts were killed here, they recruited three Thessalian sons of Deimachus from the port of Sinope: Deileon, Autolycus and Phlogius.
The Argonauts avoided the Amazons at Themiscyra, because Zeus had sent a favourable north-west wind, so the Argo could continue on in their journey. Had they stayed on the Thermodon River, the Amazons would have surely attack the Argonauts.
But they were attack by Stymphalian Birds that infested the deserted island Ares’ Isle, sacred to the war god. During one of his labours, Heracles drove these birds from the swamp near Stymphalus, in Arcadia. These birds had feathers made of pointed bronzes, which could serious injury or kill anyone if the feathers fall on them. Oileus was wounded by one of these feathers, when it landed on his shoulder. Amphidamas, son of King Aleus of Arcadia, had recalled how Heracles drove away these birds from Stymphalus Lake. The birds were driven away by loud din, as the Argonauts shouted and beat their swords against their shields.
The Argonauts then came across four sons of Phrixus, who were shipwrecked on an island. They were attempting sail to Orchomenus to reclaim the throne, rightfully belonging to them. The Argonauts asked Argus and his brothers to join them; they agreed and gave them some advice about their grandfather, Aeëtes (Aeetes) and his kingdom.
|Test of Strength|
|Before the Argonauts arrived in Aea, capital of Colchis, the goddess Hera knew they would need the help of Medea (Μήδεια), daughter of Aeëtes (Aeetes, Αἰήτης) and Eidyia, daughter of Oceanus and Tethys. Like her aunt, Circe, Medea was powerful sorceress and high priestess of Hecate, goddess of magic and witchcraft. Hera knew that the Argonauts would fail in their quest without Medea’s magic. She also knew that Medea had to return to Iolcus with Jason to destroy Jason’s uncle, Pelias.
To achieve this, Hera wanted Medea to fall madly in love with Jason, that she would even betray her father. Hera asked Aphrodite to let her son Eros to make Medea instantly fall in love with Jason, with one of his arrow. Aphrodite agreed and instructed Eros, making Medea falling under Jason’s charm.
When Jason arrived with his men in Aea, Hera made sure that the first person to meet Jason would be Medea, who instantly fell in love with the hero when Eros pierced her with his arrow.
As a guest of Aeëtes, Jason was entertained, until Jason demanded his host for the Golden Fleece. Realising he can’t kill his guest, Aeëtes agreed to give the ram to Jason if he could perform several tasks. Jason, himself must face a fire-breathing bulls, make the bulls plough the field, before planting dragon’s teeth in the earth. Jason must then defeat armed men that would spring out of the earth he had just sowed. Without Heracles this tasks seemed impossible for an ordinary hero. Jason reluctantly agreed.
Medea, learning what her father had intended Jason to do; she could not help but feel longing and concern for the young hero. She decided to betray her father by helping Jason perform the tasks. She went to meet Jason at his ship, gave the hero ointment that would protect him from the flame of the fire-breathing bull. She also told Jason how to face the dragon-teeth men.
|The next day, protected from fire for a single day, Jason successfully had the pair of fire-breathing bulls tied and collared to a yoke. Jason set about ploughing the field and planting dragon teeth in the soil. When dozens of armed men sprang out of the earth, like the first Theban king Cadmus, Jason threw rocks at the dragon-teeth men so they face and kill one another, instead of him. Jason despatched the few surviving dragon men with his sword.
Aeëtes was enraged when Jason had succeeded his all the difficult tasks, he knew that someone in his family had betrayed him. He thought it was his grandsons by his other daughter and Phrixus. Aeëtes secretly urged his people to attack the Argonauts.
Learning that her father would not keep his promise of giving the ram to the Argonauts, Medea went to the Argo explained what her father was plotting. She told Jason he must secretly take ram and escape. She asked Jason to take her with him. Jason promised her, that he would marry her when he returned to Greece.
Together with Orpheus, who played the lyre, Medea administered sleeping herb to the dragon. As the dragon slept, Jason took the Golden Fleece from the tree. According to Pindar’s ode, Jason had killed the dragon, while the historian Diodorus Siculus says that Medea had used poison to kill the dragon.
Jason then escaped with Medea to the ship with the Fleece, where they sailed down the river towards the open sea.
|Escape From Colchis|
|Stranded in Libya|
|There are several versions of what happen next. Meleager killed Aeëtes (Aeetes) in the fighting on the beach, according to Diodorus Siculus. The other two versions involved with Apsyrtus, Medea’s brother. In one, Apsyrtus was one of the pursuers, who managed to block of the Argonauts’ escape somewhere in Danube River. Apsyrtus agreed to meet with Jason, only to be treacherously murdered by either Jason or his own sister.
In the other version, Apsyrtus was only a child and was in the Argo with his sister. As Aeëtes and the pursuing Colchians gained closer to the Argo, Medea murdered her brother. In both versions, Medea cut up her brother’s body, and threw them in the river. Aeëtes had no choice but to stop the pursuit to gather Apsyrtus’ body for burial.
Valerius Flaccus ended his version with the marriage of Jason and Medea and with the pursuit and death of Apsyrtus, largely because his epic was unfinished. Hyginus, on the other hand, went from the murder of Apsyrtus, straight to the murder of Pelias in Iolcus.
Somehow they reach the Adriatic Sea. Argo was driven off-course by a storm, sent by Zeus, because of the murder of Apsyrtus. The ship informed Jason that the only way to appease Zeus was to be purified by Circe. They arrived in the island of Aeaea, home of the sorceress Circe (Κίρκη), sister of Aeëtes; therefore Circe was Medea’s aunt. There they were purified for murder of Apsyrtus. When Circe learned that Medea had betrayed her father, she asked them to leave.
They then came across the home of Sirens, who song would lure sailors to their destruction. Orpheus (Ὀρφεύς), whose music protected them from the Sirens’ song, saved them. Only Butes (Β&ούτης) could not resist the Sirens’ songs. Butes threw himself into the sea, and swam towards the rocks where the Sirens sang. Butes would have died had Aphrodite not taken pity on the hero and spirited him away. Aphrodite had a son by Butes, named Eryx.
From there, the sea-goddess Thetis (Θέτις) helped the Argonauts safely passed through Scylla (Σκύλλη) and the Charybdis (Χάρυβδις). Scylla was former a maiden that Circe had transformed into a six-headed monster. It resided one side of the Strait of Messina. On the other side was Charybdis, a destructive whirlpool.
The Argonauts then landed on the island of Drepane, land of the Phaeacians, ruled by Alcinoüs (Alcinous) and his wife Arete. The Colchians who were still pursuing the Argonauts, the fugitives appealed to the Phaeacians. Arete agreed to help them if Medea was lawfully married to Jason. At night, the Argonauts quickly married Medea to Jason. In the morning, Alcinoüs told the Colchians, he could separate the wife from her husband, thereby ending the Colchian pursuit of the Argonauts.
Apollodorus does record these events and what happened to the Argonauts in Circe’s island and then on the Phaeacian island of Alcinous, and that of Crete, but nothing was mention of the next article when the Argo was stranded in Libya.
|After leaving Drepane, the Argo was driven by strong wind, until they were stranded in the middle of the Libyan Desert. They were forced to portage the ship to Lake Tritonis.
There they come across the nymphs from the garden of Hesperides, who helped them find water. The water at Lake Tritonis was unsuitable for drinking, because it was too salty. The Hesperides told them a man who had killed the dragon that guarded golden apples, and stole them. They told them also that this same man kicked a rock where a spring of water gushed from the ground. Not only did the Argonauts go to find the water, but also they also went looking for the man whom they believed to be none other than Heracles. They found out that Heracles was too far away to help them.
One of the Argonauts named Canthus who went to search for Heracles was killed by Libyan shepherd, for trying to steal his sheep. The Argonauts killed the shepherd and took his herd back to the ship. Another seer named Mopsus died from poisoned snakebite.
The Argonauts had no idea of how to move their ship from the lake to the sea. They decided to offer a sacred bronze tripod to whatever god of Libya. A god disguised as a mortal offered them a clod of earth. The swiftest runner of the Argonauts named Euphemus gratefully accepted them and asked the god how to reach the sea. The god gave them instruction and left.
Leaving the tripod behind they set about following the instruction. When the Argonauts looked behind them they saw the god took the tripod and disappeared into the lake. Realising that they witnessed the god, who happened to be Triton, they sacrificed to sea god, who reappeared and pushed their ship safely back to the sea.
No other authors wrote anything about the Argonauts’ adventure in Libya. Apollodorus, Valerius Flaccus and Hyginus make no mention of Libya, so it would seem that this is purely Apollonius’ invention.
|The Argonauts sailed until they reached Crete. They tried to land on the island but a bronze giant called Talus, blocked them hurling large boulder at their ship. Talus was the last of man of the ancient bronze race. Medea cast a powerful spell, which caused the giant to drop a boulder on his only weakness, a vein at the back of his ankle. His blood or ichor gushed out from his vein until Talus died.
When they left Crete, and went to another island called Anaphe, or Revelation. When they left this island in the morning, Euphemus recalled a dream or vision, where he was holding the clod of earth to his breast, which the god Triton had given to him in Libya (see Stranded in Libya). The clod of earth suckled milk from his breast, which caused the clod of earth to transform into a woman. Euphemus made love to this woman. When Euphemus felt remorse, the nymph comforted him, telling him that she was the daughter of Triton and Libya. She was only known as Nurse of his children. She instructed him what to do with clod of earth. He was to give her a new home, near Anaphe. She would then be become mother of his children, where his descendants would live on this island.
When Euphemus told Jason about his vision, the captain of Argo interpreted the dream. Jason replied that his friend must throw the clod of earth into the sea, where a new island would form.
So once the Argo was out to sea, away from the island of Anaphe, Euphemus threw the clod of earth into the sea, where it sank to the bottom, on the seabed. Then an island immediately grew from the depth of the sea. It was called Calliste, which Euphemus’ descendants would live.
Apollonius then wrote that the Tyrrhenians would drive Euphemus’ descendants out of the island of Lemnos. They would find a new home in Sparta, but would later migrate to the island of Calliste. Their leader was Theras, son of Autesion. Theras would rename the island after his own name, so the island was called Thera.
Apollodorus give a different account of how they reached the island of Anaphe. Another violent storm at sea was threatening to destroy the ship Argo. Apollo on his own initiative shot his arrow from the top of Melantian Rocks. The silver arrow flashes like lightning. From this unexpected light, they sighted the island, which the Argonauts found save harbor until the storm passed. The Argonauts named the island, Anaphe. In Apollo’s honor, they erected an altar to the archer-god, calling him Radiant Apollo, and sacrificed some animals to him. Medea had twelve handmaidens to serve her, a gift from Arete. These 12 maidens started a new custom, where women can tell jokes during the sacrifices; the maidens told jokes at the expenses of the heroes.
Apollonius ended the Argonautica at this point, once the Argonauts reached the island of Aegina, and then a quick uneventful journey to Iolcus. Here, we have to rely on other classical sources to continue.
To read about what happened to Jason and Medea when they reached Pelias’ palace in Iolcus, then it would be best to read the last article, which is titled the Death of King Pelias.
Our most authoritative work about the Jason and the Quest of the Golden Fleece come from Apollonius of Rhodes, in the epic Argonautica (3rd century BC), which I have already retold.
There are many scattered references about the Argonauts, but very few authors tell the complete tale about Jason’s quest. Homer had only made passing reference to Jason, whose ship was to the first to pass safely through the Scylla and Charybdis. Circe told Odysseus:
|“…One ship alone, one deep-sea craft sailed clear,
the Argo, sung by the world, when heading home
from Aeetes’ shores. And she would have crashed
against those giants rocks and sunk at once if Hera,
for the love of Jason, had not sped her through.”
|Homer, The Odyssey,
Book XII 75-80
translated by Robert Fagles
In Pindar’s Pythian IV, we have our first very brief extant account of the Quest. Some of the events can be recognised, while other events showed different variations to those told by Apollonius.
In the Library, Apollodorus followed more or less along the line of Apollonius’ epic, but in his usual compact and concise manner. Apollodorus give us other accounts of Athamas and Pelias before the Quest and the death of Pelias after the completion of the Quest, as well what happened to Jason and Medea.
Hyginus’ Fabulae also followed the similar line to that of Apollonius and Apollodorus, though it was written in rather confusing fashion. So far, I have not found
Diodorus Siculus’ account was quite a different in many aspects to that told by all the other writers.
Below, Pindar and Diodorus write two very different but brief accounts about the Quest.
|The Orphic Argonautica|
|Death of King Pelias|
Note that there are two other versions about the Argonauts, but so far I have not found a copy of these two works.
One was written by the Roman author, Valerius Flaccus. The other was the Orphic Argonautica (Argonautica Orphica), written by a Neoplatonist writer.
|The great lyric poet, Pindar, had written the oldest extant account about Jason and the Argonauts in his ode, Pythian IV. Pindar lived in the second half of the 5th century BC. Apollonius had obviously used much of Pindar’s poem as his source for the Argonautica, but there is not much description about their journey, anyway.
The ode begins with Euryplus of Thera, son of Poseidon, a descendant of the hero and Argonaut, Euphemus. Euphemus had received a clod of earth from a Libyan sea god, as indication that he would rule Africa, within four generations, when Euphemus planted the holy soil in the cave of Tainaros. Instead the clod of earth got washed overboard the Argo from the waves and sank to the bottom of the sea, so the prophecy was delayed from fulfilment, until that of Battus.
The account about the Quest doesn’t begin until the poet talk about the prophecy, where Pelias must die at the hand of the descendant of Aeolus, a young man with one sandal.
This young hero did arrive with one sandal, and Pindar gives us an interesting description of what he look like. The hero was young, muscular and long-limbed, and with bright coloured locks of long hair. The stranger wore a cloak made of leopard hide, and armed with two deadly spears.
The hero announced to the people of Iolcus that he was Jason, son of Aeson. He had been living for 20 years, under his mentor, the wise Centaur Cheiron. Jason had come to claim his rightful place as the king of Iolcus. Aeson recognised his son. Aeson’s brothers and nephews came to support Jason when the hero confronted King Pelias.
Pelias answered Jason’s claim that he would willingly step down, if his nephew would fetch the Golden Fleece from Colchis for him, because Phrixus haunts his dreams. Only by returning the Golden Fleece to Greece, would the soul of Phrixus be laid to rest. Jason readily agreed to such perilous quest. Pelias does not believe that Jason would return, but the treacherous king didn’t realise that the hero was under protection of the powerful goddess, Hera.
Jason announced the Quest to the whole of Greek kingdoms, asking for the bravest men to join him. Many heroes arrived at his calling; they were also eager to test their prowess in the grand voyage. Not many of the heroes are listed in this ode; a mere dozen names (including Jason). There were Heracles, Castor and Polydeuces, Euphemus, Periclymenus, Orpheus, Echion and Erytus, Calais and Zetes, and Mopsus. (See Facts and Figures for the list of crew of the Argo.)
Since it is a lyric poem that was performed before an audience, Pindar skipped detail about individual adventures in the voyage to Colchis, where he only briefly mentioned the Clashing Rocks, before the Argonauts were suddenly in Aea, the capital of Colchis, at the mouth of the river Phasis.
Though, Pindar does go into more detail about the meeting between Jason and Medea, daughter of Aeëtes, then about the voyage. Aphrodite, goddess of love, had used wryneck to cause Medea to fall in love with Jason. Such was Medea love and passion for the stranger that she forgot all loyal to her father and kingdom. Medea knew of her father’s plan against the Argonauts, so she secretly aided Jason in return for his love and marriage. So she anointed Jason’s body with special magic oil.
Aeëtes was not so welcoming to foreigners, and was angry at the demand made by the Argonauts. Aeëtes agreed to hand over the Golden Fleece, when Jason faced a perilous task: ploughing the field using bronze-shod hoof, fire-breathing bulls, straight and at a certain distance.
When Jason faced the bulls, the blast of fire from bulls’ breath did no harm to Jason’s oiled body. Jason took up the plough, and drove the bulls to pull the plough at the required distance. (There was no sowing of dragon-teeth men.) Aeëtes was enraged that Jason had succeeded what should have been an impossible task.
Aeëtes told Jason that Golden Fleece was nailed to a tree, within a sacred grove of the Ares, but the never-sleeping dragon or serpent guarded the Golden Fleece. The adventure ended with Jason killing the dragon and taking the Golden Fleece.
From there, Pindar briefly says that Medea had fled from her father’s kingdom with Jason, and she had caused the death of Pelias, upon Jason’s return to Iolcus.
|In Sicily, first century BC, Diodorus Siculus wrote his so-called history, called the Library of History, where most of Book I-VIII contained mythical and legendary accounts. A major part of the Library is either lost or fragmented, after Book V. From Book IX to XX, Diodorus begins his history on the Greek world.
Diodorus’ version of the adventures of the Argonauts can be found in Book 4, in 40-49, while he related to Pelias’ death after the Argonauts returned to Iolcus and Medea’s later life, from 50-56 of Book 4.
Unlike the previous tales of the Argonauts, and he was actually the brother, not half-brother, of Aeson and Pheres. Pelias was not a usurper, but the rightful king of Iolcus, being the eldest, but he had no male child of his own (which is a contradiction to what Diodorus write later, when Pelias died), so he feared that his brothers and nephews might depose him.
It was Jason, Pelias’ nephew, who brought up the idea of a quest to Colchis, to fetch the Golden Fleece, because he wanted to win glory and be remembered for his heroic deeds, like the hero Perseus. Pelias encouraged his nephew, in the hope that Jason would die in the perilous voyage.
So there was no Jason being brought up by the wise Centaur Cheiron in Diodorus’ account. There was no goddess Hera favouring the hero, nor were there any prophecies where Pelias would die, by the stranger with one sandal, which we find in the early sources.
Jason had the ship built by Argus, at Mount Pelion. The ship was named Argo, after its ship-builder. Once the ship was completed, Jason made announcement throughout Greece, for the bravest heroes to enlist in this adventure. Diodorus listed Heracles, Castor and Polydeuces, Telamon, Orpheus, and the sons of Thespius. Diodorus had also included the huntress Atalanta, daughter of Schoeneus. Though, Jason was the leader, Heracles was chosen as their general, because he was the mightiest of all heroes. (See Facts and Figures for the list of crew of the Argo.)
Diodorus had ignored or modified much of Argonauts’ adventures in their voyage to Colchis that appeared in Greek myths and in Apollonius’ epic.
When the Argo landed on Sigeium, in Troad, where they discovered the maiden Hesione, daughter of Laomedon, king of Troy. The Trojan princess was chained to a rock, as a sacrifice to the sea-monster, sent by Poseidon. Laomedon had offended the gods, Apollo and Poseidon, because the king broke his promise to pay the two gods for building the walls around Troy. Apollo brought the pestilence to the city.
Heracles freed the girl, and then went to the king, proposing to slay the sea-monster in return for the Laomedon’s immortal horses, which Laomedon readily agreed. Heracles slew the sea monster. Laomedon agreed to keep the horses for Heracles, until they returned from Colchis. His daughter Hesione, who feared that she might be chosen as sacrifice again, preferred to go to Greece with the Argonauts, when they returned to Greece.
(Usually, this adventure of Heracles at Troy had happened on his return journey from the land of the Amazons, when Heracles was required to fetch the girdle of the Amazon Queen, Hippolyte, in his ninth labour. The adventure in Troy doesn’t appear in Apollonius’ account. See the 9th Labour of Heracles.)
A storm hit their ship, when they left the Troad, and only when the musician Orpheus prayed to the deities from the island of Samothrace, did the winds die down. Orpheus was the only one aboard, who was initiated in the mysteries of the deities of the Samothrace. Two stars fell over the heads of Castor and Polydeuces, the Dioscuri. These stars were part of the Gemini constellation.
The Argonauts then landed at Thrace, where Phineus was king. They discovered that the two sons of Phineus and Cleopatra, daughter of the wind god Boreas and the Athenian princess Oreithyïa, daughter of Erechtheus. Phineus’ sons were confined in a burial vault and were whipped as punishment because the lies of their stepmother, Idaea, daughter of Dardanus, king of the Scythians.
They appealed to the Argonauts to rescue them. Phineus angrily told the Argonauts that this had nothing to do with them, but Calais and Zetes, who were known as the Boreadae, and they were the brothers of Cleopatra. The Boreadae took pity on them because they were their nephews. The Boreadae were part of the crew of the Argo, chose to help them, so fighting erupted between the Thracians and the Argonauts. The fighting quickly ended, when Heracles killed Phineus. The Boreades’ nephews were freed, as well as their sister Cleopatra. The sons of Phineus wanted to kill their stepmother (Idaea), but refrained from doing so, when Heracles asked them to. They send Idaea back to her father in Scythia. When the Scythians heard of Idaea’s wicked lies, they condemned her to death.
(Here, there was no Harpies, which the Boreades had rescued the blind seer, Phineus. Also Diodorus’ Phineus was not blind and had no gift of divination. Phineus did not try to help the Argonauts, but was against them. And Diodorus had totally ignored the Argonauts’ adventure at the Clashing Rocks, the entrance to the Black Sea. See Apollonius’ version under the title, In the Black Sea.)
The voyage of the Argonauts in the Black Sea was uneventful, and it is at this point, Diodorus speaks of the origin of the Golden Fleece and the family of Aeëtes. Again, Diodorus’ account is very different to that of Apollonius and other classical authors.
You would remember that in the usual myth, Phrixus and his sister was saved from being sacrificed by flying Golden Fleece, sent by the god. Upon the ram’s back, they flew away, towards the East. As they were flying over the Troad, Helle was exhausted, fell to sleep, and plunged to her death in the narrow strait of water, which was named after her – Hellespont. (See Origin of the Quest.)
In Diodorus’ version, however, it was not a flying ram of gold that had the children of Athamas, but Phrixus and Helle escaped on a ship, which the bow of the ship have an image of a ram’s head. As they were sailing past the Hellespont, Helle was overcome with seasickness. When she leaned too far on the side of the ship, she fell overboard and drowned. Phrixus continued on his journey to Colchis. Here, you can see that Diodorus has tampered with the well-known myths, trying to give realistic, but uninteresting account for the readers.
Aeëtes, its king, was the son of Helios. Aeëtes had a brother who was named Perses, the father of Hecate and king of the Tauric Chersonese. Both the Colchians and Taurians were known for their cruelty and hostility towards strangers. It was normal practice to sacrifice strangers to their goddess (Artemis?). Hecate was noticeably cruel and practitioner of dark sorcery, as well as being a high priestess of Artemis, goddess of magic. Hecate poisoned her father, and succeeded Perses to the throne, before she married her uncle, and became the mother of two powerful sorceresses, Circe and Medea.
Phrixus and his attendant, named Crius, whose name means, “ram”, were captured by the Colchians. Before they could sacrifice Phrixus and Crius, the king of the Scythians and son-in-law of Aeëtes, saw the exiled Minyan prince and fell in love with Phrixus. Aeëtes gave the boy to the Scythian king, but sacrificed Phrixus’ attendant. It was normal practice of the Colchians, to flay the victim, so they hanged the skin of Crius was nailed to the altar of the temple to Ares. But Aeëtes learned from the oracle that he would die, when strangers would sail into his land and steal the skin of Crius.
Hoping to prevent his doom from taking place, the king set a dragon to guard the temple and the skin. Aeëtes had also set the Taurians to guard both the city and his kingdom, with order to capture any stranger who set foot in his kingdom. Diodorus tried to dispel the myth about the fire-breathing bulls, by saying that the Taurians or the people of Tauric Chersonese were these so-called bulls. Aeëtes had the skin painted in a gold colour, because he wanted the Taurian soldiers to guard it more carefully, if they thought it was worth protecting. The skin of Crius was the so-called Golden Fleece.
Circe and Medea had learned drugs, magic and sorcery of all sorts from their mother. Though, Hecate and Circe used their sorcery for power that they could gain, Medea, on the other hand, tried to use her power to help people. She tried to save people, who were about to be sacrificed. When Aeëtes had learned of his daughter’s defiance of his strict order to capture, she was put on house arrest or on parole.
Medea escaped and went to the shore, where there was a precinct, sacred to Helius. It was on this very day of her arrival, when she met Jason and the Argonauts. Medea offered to help them, while Jason offered her marriage to him when they returned to Iolcus.
Medea had the gates opened to her at the city of Sybaris (though most people called Aeëtes’ capital Aea), the Argonauts rushed into city, killing some guards, while the other Taurians fled in confusion, because of the sudden attack. Medea quickly led to the precinct of Ares, where she poisoned the dragon that guarded the skin of Crius (Golden Fleece). Jason took the fleece, and with Medea and the Argonauts fled back to their ship.
Hearing of the attack and the theft of Golden Fleece, Aeëtes gathered his most trusted bodyguards and pursued the fleeing Argonauts. They encountered the Argonauts on the beach, where there was fierce fighting between the two sides. The Argonauts were vastly outnumbered, but with Heracles on their side, the mighty hero had killed many Taurians and Colchians. Aeëtes had killed Iphitus, brother of King Eurystheus of Mycenae, but the king fell to Meleager.
With Aeëtes’ death, the Colchians fled, the Argonauts returned to the ships. Medea healed the wounded; among them were Jason, Laertes, Atalanta and the sons of Thespius. The Argonauts left Colchis three days later.
The Argo ran into another violent storm in the sea, but the winds died down and the rough waves calmed when Orpheus prayed to the deities of Samothrace, again. This brought about the appearance of Glaucus, the minor sea god. Glaucus foretold that the Spartan twins, Castor and Polydeuces (Dioscuri), and Heracles, because of his Twelve Labours, would receive immortality from the gods. The sea god counselled them to erect a shrine to the gods for their deliverance, on the first dry land they would set foot on. This was at Byzantium, ruled by the king named Byzas.
The Argonauts then returned to Troy, where Heracles came to fetch Hesione and the immortal horses that Laomedon had promised to the hero. Heracles sent his brother Iphicles and his friend Telamon, to Laomedon’s court, but the treacherous king threw the ambassadors into the dungeon.
Priam was the only son of Laomedon who had opposed the imprisonment of the pair of Argonauts, and pleaded for their release and the fulfilment of his father’s promise to Heracles, which Laomedon ignored. So Priam helped Telamon and Iphiclus to escape from prison. Killing some guards, they returned to the Argo with the news of Laomedon’s betrayal. The Argonauts quickly armed themselves, just as the Laomedon set out with an army to destroy the Argonauts.
The battle lasted until Heracles killed Laomedon and all his sons, except Priam, and captured Troy. Heracles set Priam as king of Troy. Again this account (by Diodorus) is different from the usual myth about the rescue of Hesione and Heracles’ war against Troy.
At this point, Jason and the Argonauts had reached home, when Jason had heard news of death of his parents at the hands of Pelias, who wished to remove all rivals for the throne. Since Diodorus’ account on Pelias’ death was similar to other accounts, then I suggested that you should read the Death of King Pelias.
The role of Jason is very small in Diodorus’ account. Heracles and other heroes, plus Medea had played more vital parts in the Quest than Jason had. Jason was the leader of the Argonauts and had the ship built for his journey and had promised to marry Medea, but it his companions, like Heracles, Meleager and Orpheus who saved the days, when they were in danger. Medea’s role was small in the Quest, but she played a more important role after the quest, causing Pelias’ death.
In Apollonius’ Argonautica, the Argonauts had abandoned Heracles, when his squire had vanished in Mysia. This episode does not appear in Diodorus’ work. Heracles was a more important hero than Jason and the other Argonauts in the Quest, who went all the way to Colchis and back. This is because Diodorus was writing about Quest as part of the adventures of Heracles.
|The Orphic Argonautica belonged to the Orphic mystery religion. This version of the Argonautica alluded to the Orphic creation myth.
There are many similarities between the Orphic Argonautica and Apollonius’ version.
The differences between Orphic Argonautica and other versions is the role played by Orpheus.
In this Argonautica, Orpheus played the narrator, recounting his adventure with his fellow Argonauts, which was to fetch the Golden Fleece in Colchis.
Orpheus was a mythical bard. A son of the Muse, Calliope. His father was either the god Apollo or the Thracian king Oeagrus. Orpheus also played a prominent role in the Orphic theology, who was said to have started this religion.
The epic began with Orpheus alluding to the some primeval deities, including Phanes, also known as Eros (Love). Chaos and Time were the parents of Aether, Night and Eros-Phanes. In this version, Persephone was the daughter of the mother goddess Cybele (instead of Demeter, unless Cybele and Demeter are one and the same) and Zeus. Even the Egyptian god Osiris and the bull god Apis were mentioned.
Then the real story begins. The first person that Jason recruited as part of the crew to join his voyage to fetch the Golden Fleece. According to the narrator (Orpheus), Jason wanted Orpheus more than anyone else, so he personally entreated Orpheus, because of some sort of special abilities, other than the bard. The other Argonauts listed in the catalogue of crews, were also happy to have Orpheus join them.
The goddess Hera had heard Jason’s prayer, and called upon the goddess Athena Tritogeneia, to build the very first ship, which they named Argo. Other versions never say that the Argo was the first ship.
After listing many of the same Argonauts that appeared in Apollonius’ list also appeared in the Orphic poem, with few names omitted and few that were added.
|Upon returning home, the Argonauts were disbanded, while Jason and Medea went to Iolcus with the Golden Fleece. Jason gave the Golden Fleece to his uncle Pelias.
But during Jason’s absence, Pelias had either murdered Jason’s father or forced Aeson to kill himself. Either way, Jason wanted to punish Pelias.
According to Diodorus Siculus, Pelias forced Aeson to poison by drinking the blood of a bull. Jason’s mother had had also ended her own life with a sword or dagger, but not until after she lay a horrible curse upon Pelias, while Pelias murdered Jason’s baby brother, Promachus.
Jason asked Medea to help him avenged his father.
The most common tale on how Pelias died was that Medea tricked Pelias’ daughters (except Alcestis), claiming that she had the power to restore Pelias’ youth. Medea demonstrated on a ram, where she killed the old sheep, cut up the body and put the pieces into a cauldron of boiling water. Weaving her spell, she not only restored the sheep back to life, but also made the sheep young again. Hoping to restore their father’s youth, the daughters killed Pelias in his sleep and cut up his body. But Medea already left the palace, leaving the daughters horrified that they had been tricked into murdering their own father. According to Diodorus, Jason took pity on the daughters, prevented them from committing suicide, promising them to find them husbands.
Some say that Jason seized the throne, but later gave the throne to Acastus, Pelias’ son. Others say that Acastus and the Iolcians drove Jason and Medea into exile.
Acastus held a great funeral games in honour of his father. Many heroes took part in the funeral games of Pelias, and among them was the heroine, Atalanta, who would win a wrestling match, by defeating the hero Peleus.
Hera’s revenge had been fulfilled. The whole purpose of fetching the Golden Fleece was only incidental to the goddess’ real plan. The whole purpose of the quest began, so that Jason would bring back Medea, who would use her magic to bring about the downfall of Pelias.
After Pelias’ death, Hera took no further interests in Jason’s life. Jason’s adventure was largely unspectacular after the quest. Jason and Medea found themselves living in Corinth, where their marriage ended in tragedy. I would suggest that you read article on Jason in the Heroes I page and Medea in Heroines page, about their lives after the Quest.
As to what had happened to the ship Argo?
Argo was left in the ship was left to rot on the beach. When the elderly Jason visited the old ship,
Well, according to Hyginus, it was placed among the stars by the gods. However the ship was a very large constellation in the southern hemisphere, so the astronomers had divided the ship into several constellations: Carina (the Keel), Puppis (the Stern), Vela (the Sails), and Pyxis (the Compass). These constellation were grouped together and called Argo Navis. See Astronomy.