The journey of the Argonauts may well be one of the oldest of Greek adventure myths. Homer alludes to it, and it is placed in the generation preceding the Trojan War; the roster of heroes includes Telamon, the father of Ajax, and Peleus, the father of Achilles. Despite the age of this myth, the earliest extensive literary account is found in Pindar’s Pythian Ode 4 (in Epinikia, 498-446 b.c.e.; Odes, 1656), and it was not until the third century b.c.e. that the myth received formal expanded treatment by Apollonius Rhodius, who revived the epic genre on a small scale in line with the aesthetic codes of Hellenistic poetry. His romantic effort, the Argonautica, was the model for other versions of the quest, and it greatly influenced Roman epic poets, notably Vergil and Valerius Flaccus. Most knowledge of the myth derives from Apollonius’s version. Jason’s adventure, nevertheless, is included in Bibliotecha, the invaluable second century Greek collection of myths often attributed to Apollodorus.
Like most myths, the search for the fleece was subject to the rationalizing minds of classical writers; the geographer Strabo theorized, for example, that the Argonauts were on an expedition in search of alluvial gold. That Jason travels to Colchis on the Black Sea coast, after passing through the dangerous waters of the Bosporus, suggests that the story was in some way connected with Greek trading expeditions outside the Mediterranean and perhaps with the colonization of far-flung lands by Greek voyagers. In literary terms, its folktale theme of a sea journey to inhospitable lands in quest of a valuable prize was the model for the adventures of Odysseus, Hercules, Theseus, and others. Typical of such tales is the accomplishment of an impossible task and the confrontation with death and various incarnations of the Other—especially the female, the foreign, and the fantastic—all to prove nobility of birth and the right to reign. The retrieval of the fleece is therefore not the primary subject of this myth but the occasion; it is a device by which the hero becomes involved in a quest to prove his heroic qualities. The story of the Argonauts depicts the maturation of the youth into a hero.
Thus, for example, when Jason lands on the island of Lemnos in the Aegean Sea and discovers that it is inhabited only by women, he is initially tempted to stay and enjoy the delights on offer from queen Hypsipyle and her sisters. The revelation, however, that the women had murdered their husbands because they had married Thracian brides serves to alert Jason to the dangers of staying on the island and to remind him of his heroic duty to continue the quest.
The harpies, “snatchers of souls” who are half woman and half bird, are other examples of the threat to heroic virtue posed by hybrid creatures, female powers, and the realm of the dead. Driving the harpies from Phineus represents a triumph over these dangers. It is shortly after this that the Argo must pass through the clashing rocks, signifying the passage from the realm of the living into the world of the dead. The trip to Colchis is the equivalent of the hero’s traditional descent into the underworld and the confrontation with death. According to one version, Jason is swallowed by the dragon guarding the fleece and then disgorged, signifying his conquest of death.
The conjoining of Jason’s expedition with the story of Medea is one of the most intriguing elements of the story. Book 3 of Apollonius’s poem contains the arrival at Colchis and Medea’s falling in love with Jason,...
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which is exploited for its romantic possibilities. Unlike Homer’sIliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611), in which Hera and Athena are at odds with Aphrodite, the Argonautica portrays them as allies who instigate the mischievous Eros, or Cupid, to fire a dart into the heart of Princess Medea. Torn between filial loyalty and her uncontrollable passion, she soon yields to love. Her escape with Jason, and their eventual arrival at Iolcus in book 4, includes the murder of Medea’s brother, Absyrtus, and the necessary expiation on Circe’s island, Aeaea. Apollonius has Jason kill Absyrtus through Medea’s treachery; in the earlier version, Medea herself murders her brother and scatters the butchered remains over the sea to delay the pursuing Colchians, who must gather the pieces for burial.
In earlier versions, the liaison of Jason and Medea may have been presented as a charged encounter between the Greek and the non-Greek, or barbarian, with all the thrills and dangers that accompanied such a violation of boundaries. The brutality of Medea’s treatment of her brother points to the potential dangers for Jason in being associated with such an entity. This aspect is examined by Euripides in his play Medea, in which Medea’s capacity for murderous violence and heartless revenge reaches a climax when she kills Jason’s sons and his new bride.
The exact return route supposedly taken by the Argonauts had been disputed in ancient times. Doubtless the various versions are based on the trade routes begun in the Mycenaean age. Apollonius takes the Argonauts from the mouth of the River Phasis on the Black Sea to the Ister (Danube), overland to the Adriatic, where they are confronted by Absyrtus; then to the Eridanus (possibly the Po) and the Rhone, to the Tyrrhenian Sea and Circe’s island. Other accounts include a return using the same route by which they came; sailing east up the Phasis to the world-encircling River Ocean, then southwest to Africa and overland to the Mediterranean (Pindar’s version); and sailing up the Phasis, through Russia, and over northern sea routes past Britain and through the Pillars of Hercules. There were very likely several versions of the return, or nostos, narrative available to poets, who could tailor their renditions to the taste of their particular audiences. This part of the story also affords further opportunities to depict exotic realms and peoples. As is the case with the returns from Troy, however, the journey home is difficult and does not always end in happiness.
The role of the object of the quest, the golden fleece, is open to varying interpretations. Some believe that the quest alludes to the search for precious minerals, such as gold, by Greek traders who were eager to bring foreign goods and materials back to their growing communities. Others suggest that mysterious, healing qualities were attributed to the object, which would tie in with the meaning of Jason’s name in Greek, which means “healer.” The centaur, Chiron, who raises him, is himself highly skilled in the medicinal arts, with knowledge of healing herbs and plants. This theme is also connected with Medea, who possesses knowledge of magic plants and potions and uses them on several occasions to further Jason’s interests.
It is ironic that Jason, the healer, should prove unable to heal the breach that opens up between himself and Medea. As Euripides recounts, when Jason cruelly rejects the woman who sacrificed all she had—and even murdered—for him, she devises the perfect vengeance: to deprive Jason of the things he loves most by killing not only the girl he intends to marry but also Jason and Medea’s sons. Thus, like the Argo’s voyage, the story of Jason eventually comes full circle. Overcome with grief, loneliness, and shame after the death of his sons and fiancé, he returns to the rotting hulk of the Argo, which he had beached at Corinth. There he dies after being struck by one of its falling beams. Such unexpected deaths are not unusual for heroes, but Jason’s death is especially ignominious. The tale thus forms a striking contrast to the Odyssey, which concludes with the happy reunion between Odysseus and Penelope and the restoration of order in the royal household.
Jason-like heroes are seen not only in the many local legends of ancient Greece but also in history, as in Alexander’s Asian conquests, which are subsequently romanticized. Comparisons may be drawn between Jason and Celtic heroes, and between the fleece and the grail. In 1867, William Morris revived the original myth with a seven thousand-line Victorian epic, The Life and Death of Jason, and in 1944, Robert Graves wrote a novel about the search for the fleece, The Golden Fleece (1944; also known as Hercules, My Shipmate, 1945).