Classical Mythology: Witch Way to the Golden Fleece

Witch Way to the Golden Fleece

The Argo soon entered the mouth of the River Phasis, where Aea, the capital of Colchis, lay. Now Aetes, the son of the sun (Helius), was so powerful that even the goddesses Hera and her ally Athena would need help to ensure that the Greeks escaped with the fleece—and their lives. Jason and his crew sought out Athena, who agreed to bribe Eros with a golden ball to wound the heart of Aetes' daughter, Medea. For if Medea, a powerful witch, would assist them, even to the point of betraying her father, Jason and the Argonauts might have a chance to win the Golden Fleece.

A priestess of the Underworld goddess Hecate, Medea was the first in Colchis to see the Argonauts. Smitten by Eros, she instantly became infatuated with Jason.

With this ace in the hole, Jason opted to try a diplomatic approach first. So he set out with Telamon, Augeas, and the sons of Phrixus for the magnificent palace that Hephaestus had built for Aetes.

Arriving at the palace, the sons of Phrixus introduced the three Argonauts and attempted to impress Aetes by telling him that Augeas, too, was a son of Helius and that Telamon descended from Zeus. Aetes would have none of it. He called them liars and accused them of plotting a coup against him. Jason insisted they did not want his throne, but only the fleece—and offered to do battle with the Sauromatians, Aetes' enemies, in exchange.

Aetes had been warned by an oracle of treachery from his own family. Since he had unshaking faith in his daughters' loyalty, Aetes suspected the betrayal would come from his grandchildren, now Jason's allies. So he refused Jason's offer, instead challenging him to pass a test of strength in order to win the fleece.

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The tale of Jason's challenges—as well as the entire story of the voyage of Argo—can be found in Argonautica, an epic poem written by Apollonius of Rhodes during the third century B.C.E.

Like the test Pelias had set for Jason, this one too seemed impossible: He would have to harness a pair of fire-breathing bulls to a plow, sow a field with dragon's teeth, and then kill all the men who sprang from this seed. The ruthless king of Colchis doubted that Jason would survive even the first part of the test. He ordered his subjects to wait for Jason's death, then force the Argonauts—including his own grandsons—back to their ship and set it aflame.

The sons of Phrixus went to Chalciope, asking their mother to appeal to her much-younger sister Medea to help Jason achieve this dangerous task. Medea, already smitten with Jason, needed little convincing to help him survive her father's deadly test.

Jason and Medea met for the first time at dawn in the shrine of Hecate at Colchis. Jason, drunk with gratitude, promised to take Medea back to Iolcus, where he said her name would be honored forever.

Before undertaking the test, Jason anointed himself and his weapons with a magic drug that Medea had given him. With the drug protecting him from their flames, Jason forced the bulls to their knees and quickly harnessed them. Within a few hours he had sown the entire field with the teeth of the same dragon that Cadmus had slain in founding Thebes (see Even the Wisest Cannot See: Oedipus the King). Following Cadmus's example, Jason hurled an enormous stone in the middle of the sown men, which started them fighting amongst themselves. In the resulting confusion, Jason rushed in with his sword gleaming and started swinging. By nightfall, he had slain them all.

Aetes did not turn over the fleece as promised, but instead sulked back to his palace and plotted against the Greeks. Medea stole away to join the celebrations of Jason and the Argonauts. After hearing Jason vow to Hera that he would marry Medea when they returned to Greece, Medea led them to the grove of Ares. When the beautiful sorceress used her magic to cause the sleepless dragon to nap, Jason made off with the fleece. The fleeing lovers quickly set sail as soon as they reached the Argo.

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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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