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...
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