By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
In the world of classical Greek epic poetry, two poems are universally renowned: The Iliad and The Odyssey. Both, of course, are attributed to Homer. But there is another classical epic poem, written a few centuries later, which has been largely forgotten – although the story it tells is one of the most celebrated tales from Greek mythology.
This poem is The Argonautica, an epic poem about Jason and the Argonauts’ search for the Golden Fleece (available in a very readable translation, Jason and the Golden Fleece (The Argonautica) (Oxford World’s Classics)). Its author was a rather intriguing poet named Apollonius of Rhodes. This is the most substantial narrative version of the story of Jason and the Argonauts.
But where did the story of Jason and the search for the coveted Golden Fleece come from? Did the myth have its origins in some real-life practice which was mythologised through the voyage of the Argo? Let’s take a closer look at the myth. Before the analysis, though, here’s a brief recap of the plot of the story.
Jason and the Golden Fleece: plot summary
Jason was the son of Aeson, the king of Iolcos, but Jason was educated by the celebrated wise centaur, Chiron. Like many good heroes, Jason was educated in the art of war, hunting, and music, among other things: everything a prince needs to grow up and become the stuff of legend.
Aeson was deposed by Pelias, his half-brother, who was in fear of Jason in turn usurping him, because he’d been warned by the oracle that he would be deposed by a man wearing one sandal. And when Jason showed up as a grown man to pay respects to the king, he was, sure enough, lacking a sandal on one foot – because he had lost it crossing a river.
Pelias decided to give Jason a mission which he was confident would prove impossible for the young man to complete: to go and recover the fabled Golden Fleece from Colchis. The fleece was guarded by a dragon.
Jason rose to the challenge, building his ship, the Argo, and assembling a crew: the Argonauts. (A note on the name of the ship: it’s wrongly called the Argos, but was actually the Argo, without an ‘s’. However, the ship was named after the man who built it, and his name, confusingly, was Argos.)
Jason and the Argonauts set off from Pagasae, stopping at Lemnos and visiting Samothrace, where they were initiated into the Orphic mysteries by one of their crew, Orpheus (himself the subject of a famous doomed love story which we have discussed here). The Argonauts then sailed on to the Hellespont, and thence to Mysia.
When they reached the country of the Bebryces, Jason and his crew fell to fighting with the native peoples, many of whom they killed before the remaining Bebryces fled for their lives. The Argonauts left for Thrace, where they freed the seer, Phineus, from the Harpies, in return for a favour: they asked Phineus to prophesy whether their quest for the Golden Fleece would be successful.
Phineus warned them of the danger of the Cyanean Rocks or Symplegades: perilous reefs of moving rock which clashed with each other, making it difficult for ships to navigate between them (compare here Odysseus’ struggle travelling between Scylla and Charybdis). Phineus told them to send a dove out in front of the ship to see whether it was safe to sail between the rocks.
The Argonauts did as Phineas suggested: the dove flew between the Cyanean Rocks but its tail was slightly brushed by the rocks as it flew off. They sailed on after it, and the stern was slightly crushed by the rocks, but the ship and all its crew managed to escape. The Symplegades have been motionless ever since, because once a ship safely passed by them it was decreed that they would cease to move.
Eventually, they made it to Colchis, where King Aeetes told him he would give them the Golden Fleece – but only if Jason could perform a series of seemingly impossible tasks. He had to yoke together two fire-breathing bulls, then plough a field and sow the teeth of a dragon. He managed to achieve all of these, thanks to the help of the king’s daughter, Medea, who fell in love with him and used her sorcery to assist him.
She gave him a magic (indeed, fireproof) balsam to cover his body and shield with before he yoked together the fire-breathing bulls, and told him to throw a stone at the dragon’s teeth, because this would cause all the men lurking among them to panic and start attacking each other, rather than him.
When Aeetes went back on his word and refused to give Jason the Golden Fleece, instead attempting to burn the Argo and its crew, Medea used sorcery to restrain the dragon guarding the fleece, allowing Jason to steal it and escape, with Medea joining him and the Argonauts on board the ship.
The Argonauts then had an eventful journey home, involving an encounter with the witch Circe and a brush with Scylla and Charybdis, the sharp rocks and deadly whirlpool off the coast of Sicily. They also encountered the Sirens (the legend of whom we have discussed here), but Orpheus sang so beautifully that they were able to sail past them without being lured onto the rocks.
Jason and Medea were married, and the crew encountered a giant named Talos (whom Medea defeated with her magic); they then sail into a dark fog, and Jason prayed to Phoebus Apollo to light the way forward. Apollo agreed, and sent them a shaft of fire to guide their way. They eventually made it back to Iolcos, with the Golden Fleece in their possession.
Jason and the Golden Fleece: analysis
The adventures of Jason and the Argonauts contain a number of details common to many classical myths: the intrepid hero who must perform a number of apparently impossible (or near-impossible) feats, the female helper who uses cunning and sorcery to assist him (compare the help Odysseus gets in Homer’s poem, or the assistance Perseus gets to enable him to kill the Gorgon Medusa, or Ariadne’s helping Theseus in the Labyrinth), and the consulting of a seer to prophesy what will happen on the journey (compare Odysseus’ journey into the Underworld to speak with Tiresias before he journeys home after the Trojan War).
Why, then, is The Argonautica not spoken of in the same breath as Homer’s Odyssey or Virgil’s Aeneid? It was influential on later writers, including Virgil, and Apollonius has been credited with pioneering a number of new literary techniques in his epic poem, especially through his portrayal of the love between Jason and Medea.
The voyage of Jason and the Argonauts is essentially one long catalogue of threats, tasks, and problems for the hero to overcome, complete, and solve, but the deeper human element stems from the addition of Medea and the subsequent help she provides Jason.
But The Argonautica may also have drawn on what was, for the time, cutting-edge science and technology. E. V. Rieu, in his Introduction to the Penguin edition, speculated that Apollonius is referring to the newly built Pharos at Alexandria, that lighthouse that was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, when he refers to Phoebus (i.e., Apollo, god of the sun among other things) speeding down from heaven to light the way for Jason and the Argonauts when they find themselves sailing into a heavy fog.
‘If so,’ Rieu writes, ‘no poet has ever put the science of mechanics to more delightful use.’ This is one of a number of wonderful details in Apollonius’ poem – although readers will look in vain for that iconic scene from the 1963 Don Chaffey film when Jason and his crew fight an army of animated skeletons.
Indeed, even the story of the Golden Fleece itself may have some basis in scientific fact. Tim Severin followed the journey of Jason and the Argonauts in 1984, sailing on a replica of Jason’s Bronze Age ship on a journey of some 1,500 miles, from northern Greece, through the Dardanelles, and finally through the Straits of Bosphorus to the Black Sea and the likely location of Colchis, Jason’s destination in The Argonautica.
Severin concluded, in his 1985 book The Jason Voyage: The Quest for the Golden Fleece, that the Golden Fleece may have been a mythic exaggeration of an actual Bronze Age practice, whereby sheep’s wool was used to filter out gold ore – a more effective method of finding gold than the more famous ‘panning’. Whether or not this is the true origin of the Golden Fleece myth, it’s a nice link between actual science and the famous myth.
About Greek mythology
The Greek myths are over two thousand years old – and perhaps, in their earliest forms, much older – and yet many stories from Greek mythology, and phrases derived from those stories, are part of our everyday speech. So we describe somebody’s weakness as their Achilles heel, or we talk about the dangers of opening up Pandora’s box. We describe a challenging undertaking as a Herculean task, and speak of somebody who enjoys great success as having the Midas touch.