Classical Mythology: Assembling the Argonauts

Assembling the Argonauts

Jason was the grandson of Tyro and her uncle Cretheus, whom she had married after killing her children by another uncle, Sisyphus (see What the Hell? Adventures in the Underworld). The eldest son of Tyro and Cretheus, Jason's father, Aeson, should have inherited the kingdom of Iolcus, a seaport in Thessaly (northeastern Greece), which Cretheus had founded. But Tyro had also had twin sons by the god Poseidon, and one of these twins, Pelias, had seized the throne.

Although Pelias had not harmed his half-brother, Aeson feared for his own life and that of his unborn son. So when his wife (either Polymede or Alcimede) gave birth to Jason, Aeson claimed the baby had died. He entrusted the boy to the care of Cheiron, the wisest of the Centaurs, who had also tutored Heracles.

The Other Shoe Drops: The Return of Jason

When he reached manhood, Jason traveled to Iolcus to retake the throne. Before he reached the city he came to the river Anaurus, where he met an old woman. The young hero gallantly carried the woman across the river on his shoulders. The extra weight caused him to lose one of his sandals, which got stuck in the mud of the river bed. Safely on the other side, he set the old woman down and sped off to Iolcus, where Pelias was hosting a festival in honor of his father, Poseidon.

What Jason didn't know was that the old woman was actually Hera in disguise. Hera hated Pelias, who never offered her sacrifices or showed her proper respect. What's more, he had committed the outrage of killing Tyro's cruel stepmother, Sidero, while the woman clung to the altar of Hera for sanctuary. The goddess was planning her revenge for these insults—and her plot would involve both Jason and the sorceress Medea.

Pelias soon heard of the one-sandaled man who had arrived in the city. This news frightened him, for an oracle had once warned Pelias that a man with one sandal, a descendant of Aeolus (the great-grandfather of both Aeson and Pelias), would cause his death. Without identifying himself, Pelias confronted Jason and demanded to know who he was. Jason answered truthfully, boldly announcing his intention to reclaim the throne either for himself or his father.

Pelias surely wanted to murder his nephew, but knew that such a crime against the laws of hospitality would incur the wrath of the gods. Looking for a way to dispose of Jason, Pelias decided to assign this young man an impossible task: obtaining the Golden Fleece from Colchis, a barbaric land on the eastern shore of the Black Sea.

Pelias no doubt thought that he would rid himself of Jason forever. So he identified himself and blithely promised to turn over the throne without a struggle if Jason succeeded in performing this task. Jason, bold and ambitious, saw this quest as his path to glory and so agreed to Pelias's request.

Golden Fleece? What Golden Fleece?

The More Things Change ...

Tales of Greek parents sacrificing their children—for example, Phrixus, Pelops, and Iphigenia (see All's Not Fair in Love and War: The Fall of Troy for her story)—contrast sharply with tales of sacrifice from the Bible. The God of the Hebrews tested Abraham's faith, but spared Isaac when Abraham showed his willingness to sacrifice his own son. The sacrifices to Greek gods were never tests of faith, but instruments of vengeance: payback for some insult to a god's honor.

Some years earlier, Athamas (another brother of Cretheus and Sisyphus), the king of Orchomenus, had left his wife Nephele to marry Ino, a daughter of Cadmus. Hoping to improve the lot of her own children, Ino plotted the destruction of Nephele's son, Phrixus, and daughter, Helle (see Even the Wisest Cannot See: Oedipus the King). Ino damaged all of the seed grain in the kingdom. When the crops failed, messengers were sent to the Delphic oracle for guidance. Ino bribed the returning messengers to deliver a lie: Phrixus must be sacrificed!

Athamas reluctantly agreed to heed the false oracle. But just as Athamas raised the knife over his son on the sacrificial altar, a golden, winged ram appeared. The ram carried away Phrixus and Helle on its back. En route to Aea, the capital of Colchis—a mythic kingdom on the eastern coast of the Black Sea—Helle fell off and drowned in the strait that connects the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara. (The site, Hellespont, was named after her.) Phrixus safely reached Aea, where King Ae'tes—who distrusted and despised strangers—had been ordered by Zeus to welcome him.

Phrixus, who later married Aetes' daughter Chalciope, sacrificed the ram to Zeus, his rescuer. The Golden Fleece of this glorious ram he hung upon a tree in a sacred grove in Colchis. In this grove, a sleepless dragon had guarded the fleece ever since.

Help Wanted

After consulting the oracle at Delphi, Jason invited the most daring noblemen from all the cities of Greece to join him. The roster of those who heeded this call to adventure and potential glory included some of the greatest heroes in all of Greece. Many of the volunteers chosen to join Jason were children or later descendants of the gods themselves. Those who signed up included:

  • Heracles, the son of Zeus, the mightiest of all heroes (see The Labors of Heracles)
  • Polydeuces (called Pollux by the Romans), the son of Zeus by Leda and an expert boxer
  • Castor, the twin of Polydeuces (though his father was not Zeus, but Tyndareus, king of Sparta), who excelled at taming, training, and riding horses
  • Euphemus, son of Poseidon, so swift that he could race across water without getting his feet wet
  • Periclymenus, son (or grandson) of Poseidon, who could change his form at will during battle
  • Nauplius, son (or later descendant) of Poseidon, an expert seaman
  • Idas, son of Poseidon (though some deny this parentage), a boastful but strong ally
  • Lynceus, the half-brother of Idas (son of Aphareus, king of Messenia), who possessed vision so keen he could see things under the surface of the earth
  • Orpheus, son of Apollo, the most gifted of all musicians (see What the Hell? Adventures in the Underworld)
  • Idmon, a son of Apollo and a famed prophet, who foresaw a successful quest and joined the crew though he knew he would die
  • Augeas, son of Helius and king of Elis (see The Labors of Heracles)
  • Echion and Erytus, sons of Hermes
  • Zetes and Calais, twin sons of Boreas (god of the North Wind), who flew on wings

Not all the Argonauts were of divine birth. Tiphys would serve as pilot of the Argo. The brothers Telamon and Peleus (the latter would marry the sea goddess Thetis and beget Achilles [see Achilles: The Angry Young Hero]) joined the crew. Meleager, the young prince of Calydon, eagerly came onboard. So did Jason's pious cousin Admetus. The promise of fame and glory even enticed another cousin—Acastus, the son of Jason's treacherous uncle Pelias—who defied his father's orders by sailing with the Argonauts.

Atalanta, the famed huntress, also volunteered for the quest. Jason, however, fearing the turmoil that might arise with a woman onboard, reluctantly refused her.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology © 2004 by Kevin Osborn and Dana L. Burgess, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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