Classical Mythology: In Search of Adventure

In Search of Adventure

Jason's crew named themselves the Argonauts after their magnificent ship, the Argo. Perhaps the first ship ever built, the Argo was assembled under the watchful eye of Athena, who taught humans the art of sailing the seas. The ship's beams came from Mount Pelion in Thessaly and included a talking beam from the oracular oaks of Dodona. This allowed the Argonauts to receive advice from their own ship during their long journey.

The launching of the Argo was such a marvelous sight that even the Nereids, sea goddesses, rose from the ocean's depths to wonder at this odd contrivance. It was here that Peleus met his future bride: the sea goddess Thetis (see All's Not Fair in Love and War: The Fall of Troy and Achilles: The Angry Young Hero).

After offering a traditional sacrifice to Apollo, the Argonauts set sail for Colchis.

The Island of Women

Midway across the northern Aegean Sea, the Argonauts arrived at the island of Lemnos. Years earlier, the women of Lemnos had failed to honor Aphrodite properly. To punish them, the goddess had given the women a noxious odor that drove their husbands away. The men of Lemnos had raided Thrace, brought home female captives, and begun having children with them.

What a Life!

The Lemnian women, after discovering how Hypsipyle had saved her father, banished their queen to Nemea. There she became a slave to the Nemean king. Her sons by Jason remained on Lemnos, where one of them, Euneus, would later become the island's king.

The Lemnian wives, mad with jealousy, had killed the Thracian women and all Lemnian men except one. Loyal Hypsipyle, later Queen of Lemnos, could not kill her father, King Thoas. Instead, she hid him away and put him on a boat or chest that drifted safely to the island of Oenoe.

By the time the Argonauts landed, the women of Lemnos had realized that they needed men, if only as breeders. So they welcomed the male visitors to their island—and into their bedchambers. Jason lay with Hypsipyle, and though he vowed fidelity, he soon abandoned her to continue on his quest.

The Argonauts might have stayed on Lemnos forever. But Heracles, who had remained aboard the Argo, sent a message questioning whether this was really the way they wanted to win glory for themselves. The Argonauts, shamed into returning to the ship, left behind an island of pregnant women. (Hypsipyle would give birth to twin sons.)

Surprise Attacks

The Argonauts next traveled to Samothrace, an island in the northern Aegean, at Orpheus's suggestion. There they became initiates in the Samothracian Mysteries, religious rites that they hoped would offer them further protection on their journey.

After passing through the Hellespont and entering the Sea of Marmara, the Argo stopped on an island where Cyzicus, king of the Dolione tribe, welcomed them. Most of the crew joined Cyzicus in ascending to the top of Mount Dindymus. But while they admired the view, a band of six-armed giants attacked the nearly defenseless ship. Fortunately, one of the guards left behind was Heracles. The son of Zeus alone shot several giants with his bow and arrows before the crew hurried back and killed the rest.

The next morning, the Argo again set sail. But the ship ran into a strong headwind and poor visibility. That night, not knowing what little progress they had made, they stopped on the shores of the very same island. Under the dim light of the moon, the Doliones—fearing that pirates had landed—engaged the Argonauts in a bloody battle that lasted throughout the night.

At dawn, the Argonauts sadly realized what they had done. Dozens of Doliones, including Cyzicus himself, lay dead on the beach. The Argonauts remained on the island to honor their fallen friends with proper funeral rites.

What a Life!

Heracles, who tended to hold a grudge, met up with Zetes and Calais again shortly after the Argo returned to Iolcus. There he killed the sons of Boreas for their disloyalty.

Once the crew set sail again, they were forced to stop in Mysia (northwestern Asia Minor) when Heracles broke his oar. Here Heracles parted ways with the Argonauts. While he and a fellow crew member, Polyphemus, searched for Heracles' young lover Hylas (see The Labors of Heracles), the Argo left without them. When the crew noticed their absence, the brothers Zetes and Calais convinced them not to turn back—a decision seconded by the sea god Glaucus, who rose from the water to tell them that Zeus intended Heracles to complete his labors.

Winged Avengers and Clashing Rocks

Before reaching the Bosporus, the Argo stopped to rest once more. But Amycus, the brutal king of the Bebryces, challenged the Argonauts to choose a champion for a boxing match. (These matches usually ended with the death of Amycus's opponent.) Polydeuces, an expert boxer, nimbly avoided the powerful blows of Amycus and killed him with a shot to the ear.

The Argonauts then quickly repelled a retaliatory attack by Amycus's subjects. They appropriated many Bebrycian sheep for a feast before setting sail again.

At the southern end of the Bosporus, they stopped in Salmydessus, a land ruled by Phineus, whose wife was a sister of Zetes and Calais. They found the king starving, filthy, blind, and so weak he could hardly move. Zeus had sent the Harpies to punish Phineus, a prophet, for revealing too much about the future of the human race. The Harpies, noxious bird-women who doled out divine vengeance, would steal his food and pollute whatever they left behind with a horrible stench.

The Argonauts prepared some food for Phineas to set a trap for the Harpies, who immediately appeared, stole the food, and flew off. The winged sons of Boreas took off in hot pursuit. Zetes and Calais finally caught up to the Harpies and seized them. Just then, Iris—Zeus's messenger—descended from Olympus. If the twins spared the Harpies, Zeus promised that they would leave Phineus alone. Zetes and Calais reluctantly released the Harpies and returned to Salmydessus.

Phineus, who feasted for the first time in ages, was so grateful that he foretold some of what the future held for the Argonauts (though, mindful of Zeus's punishment, he did not tell everything). Most importantly, he offered invaluable advice on how to navigate the treacherous Clashing Rocks at the eastern end of the Bosporus: the entrance to the Black Sea. These two enormous floating islands, driven by the wind, crushed everything in their path as they smashed together without warning.

As the Argo neared the end of the Bosporus, the swift Euphemus released a dove that flew directly between the Clashing Rocks. Phineus had told them that if the dove could make it through the strait, the Argo could, too. The islands crashed together, but the dove lost only a few tail feathers. When the islands separated again, the 50 oarsmen rowed with all their might. Like the dove, the ship made it almost all the way through, losing only an ornament from the stern. The Clashing Rocks parted once more and, with the spell broken, forever after remained apart.

Mythed by a Mile

The Argo may have needed divine assistance to pass between the Clashing Rocks. Some insist that Athena held the islands apart with one hand and pushed the Argo through with the other.

Sailing along the southern coast of the Black Sea, the crew put in near the Acheron River. There, the seer Idmon was slain by a wild boar and the helmsman Tiphys died of illness. These were the first Argonauts to die. But Lycus, king of the Mariandyni, grateful to the Argonauts for having rid him of his enemies—Amycus and the Bebryces—offered to replace one of them with his own son, Dascylus.

Near an island sacred to Ares, a flock of birds—perhaps the same ones driven from Lake Stymphalus by Heracles—attacked the Argo, showering it with arrowlike feathers. Half the crew held their shields above their heads to form a protective roof while the other half continued rowing. Then, recalling the strategy of Heracles (see The Labors of Heracles), the Argonauts landed on the island and began shouting and banging their swords on their shields. Alarmed and confused by the clatter, the birds rose as one and deserted the island.

As the Argonauts refreshed themselves on the island, four castaways approached them. The four identified themselves as the sons of Phrixus and Chalciope, the daughter of Ae'tes. While sailing to Orchomenus to claim the treasures Phrixus had inherited, they had become shipwrecked. Hoping the four might help persuade their grandfather to give up the Golden Fleece, Jason invited the sons of Phrixus to join his crew.

book cover

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.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at and Barnes & Noble.