When Jason set out to retrieve the Golden Fleece and win back his father’s kingdom, he knew that he would encounter many dangers along the way. To help him, he assembled a crew of some of Greece’s strongest and most famous heroes.
When they reached the grove where the Golden Fleece was kept, however, Jason was given a trial that none of the legendary heroes aboard the Argo would help him with. Instead, his greatest aid would come from a witch he had just met.
Medea would keep Jason safe from the bronze bulls and the spartoi warriors on the condition that he marry her and take her back to his kingdom. He agreed, overcoming the trial and beginning one of mythology’s most disastrous relationships.
The bronze bulls were more than just a way to bring Medea into the story and present a challenge to the hero. They also linked his story more closely to the older legends of Greek mythology.
The Greek hero Jason is known for sailing on his ship, the Argo, with a heroic crew. His quest was to regain his father’s kingdom by retrieving the legendary Golden Fleece from the far-off land of Colchis.
The crew of the Argo included such famous figures as Heracles, the Dioscuri, Atalanta, and Orpheus. They helped the exiled prince overcome many dangers on their voyage.
The danger did not end when the heroes reached Colchis, however. The king, Aeetes, told Jason that he had to overcome more trials to earn the Golden Fleece.
Jason had to yoke the Khalkotauroi, two massive bronze bulls, and plow a field with them. When the field was sown, Aeetes would grant Jason access to the Golden Fleece.
The task was not as simple as it seemed, however. The bronze bulls were fire-breathing beasts that had been forged by Hephaestus to be exceptionally strong and temperamental.
Nor was planting the field going to be an easy task. Jason was told not to plant normal seeds, but a handful of sharp dragon’s teeth that would immediately bring forth armed warriors.
The king claimed that he did this every day, and by doing so Jason could prove himself worthy of the Golden Fleece. If the prince could plow and sow four acres in this way, his quest would be complete.
According to some writers, Jason nearly gave up his quest. He had already endured such challenges that the bronze bulls seemed like too much to handle.
What Jason did not anticipate was that the king’s daughter had fallen in love with him. Medea was a skilled witch and offered to help him prevail.
Medea brewed a potion and instructed Jason to rub it on his body, shield, and helmet before he went to face the bronze bulls. It would make him completely impervious to both fire and iron for a full day.
When Jason went out to where the bronze bulls were kept, he did not flinch as their flames engulfed him. He was entirely protected by Medea’s magic.
Jason was able to safely yoke the bulls without being harmed. Everyone looking on, particularly Aeetes, was amazed at his strength and resilience.
As he finished the plowing, however, Jason faced an additional hurdle. As he sowed the dragon teeth into the fresh soil, fearsome warriors sprang up out of the dirt.
Medea had already told Jason how to defeat these armed men, however. Although they were strong warriors, they were not intelligent.
Following her advice, Jason threw a stone into the midst of the earth-born warriors. Believing that one had attacked the other, they fell on themselves and killed one another, forgetting all about Jason.
The hero had defeated both the bronze bulls and the warriors with the help of Medea. She also charmed the serpent that guarded the Golden Fleece to sleep, allowing Jason to escape with it despite the wishes of Aeetes.
The bronze bulls were only one part of Jason’s adventures and his dramatic theft of the Golden Fleece. They were important, however, in the link they provided to earlier stories.
The legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece was a relatively late addition to Greek mythology. While there were some older references to the events of the epic, the Argonautica was not written until the 3rd century BC.
The writer, Apollonius of Rhodes, did not entirely invent the story of Jason and the Argonauts. He drew heavily off stories that were already well-known to his audience.
The crew of the Argo, for example, were almost all recognizable heroes from much older stories. Many of the sites and hazards they encountered on their journey mirrored those of the Odyssey.
When Jason arrived in Colchis, he continued to encounter tie-ins to other famous legends. The Golden Fleece itself belonged to a known mythical animal, and the trial he was forced to undergo had many references to earlier myths.
The dragon teeth and the warriors they produced directly linked Jason’s story to that of Greek mythology’s first hero.
Cadmus was a legendary king who was so well-regarded by the Olympians that he eventually married a goddess, Harmonia. He also founded the city of Thebes.
An oracle told Cadmus to take his cow out and build his city where it laid down. When he went to a spring at the site to prepare to sacrifice the animal to Athena, however, his men were attacked by a serpent.
Once he had killed the dragon, Athena advised him to sow the teeth on the site where he intended to build his city. The serpent was sacred to Ares, so warriors sprang up where the teeth were buried.
Cadmus used the same trick as Jason, confusing the warriors so they would fight among themselves. Only five survived the fray, and they pledged themselves to Cadmus.
These five became the spartoi, the ancestors of the Theban nobility. The story of Cadmus sowing the dragon’s teeth was well-known throughout Greece, particularly around Thebes.
In Jason’s story, the teeth he had to sow were said to be remnants from Cadmus’s adventure. The king of Colchis had acquired the leftover teeth of Ares’ serpent and sown them in the war god’s sacred grove, where the Golden Fleece was kept.
The dragon teeth and the warriors that sprang from them created a direct link to the story of Cadmus, but the bronze bulls gave a more subtle tie-in to well-known myths.
Bulls in Greek mythology were almost always associated with the myths of Crete. The Cretan Bull and the Minotaur were the island’s two most famous monsters.
Automatons were also a feature of Cretan myths. Daedalus had once built a false cow for Midas’ wife and, later in the Argonautica, Jason and his crew would encounter a bronze giant patrolling the island as they sailed by.
The inclusion of the bronze bulls tied the story of Jason to the legends of Crete. Although they did not appear in the older myths, bulls were so central to the stories that took place there that the bronze bulls formed an indirect link to the stories of Minos and Theseus.
The bronze bulls were one of many details included in the Argonautica that tied it to more well-known myths of the ancient past. Their inclusion helped to give the impression that the story of Jason was as old and established as those of Cadmus, Theseus, or Heracles.
In the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece, one of the dangers he encountered was a pair of enormous bronze bulls. The beasts were exceptionally strong and breathed fire that was so hot it could incinerate a man in seconds.
To earn the right to take the fleece, Jason had to yoke the bronze bulls and control them enough to plow four acres of land. Then, he had to sow dragon’s teeth that would grow a troop of armed warriors to fight him.
Jason would not be able to accomplish this feat on his own. He was helped by the king’s daughter, Medea the witch, who concocted a potion to keep him safe in exchange for a promise of marriage.
The episode of the bronze bulls and the earth-grown warriors was one of many parts of Jason’s story that was designed to link it to the legends of other Greek heroes.
The Argonautica, the first narration of Jason’s tale, was written much later than the myths of other heroes. Including details from their stories, such as the bulls and the dragon’s teeth, helped to legitimize the tale by creating links to established myths.