The Legend of the Golden Fleece
The story of Jason and the Argonauts on their quest for the Golden Fleece is one of the greatest epics of Greek mythology, so why is it less often retold than some other Greek stories?
The 8th century BC is often referred to as part of Greece’s Dark Ages, but it was also a time when amazing and enduring stories were composed. Homer and Hesiod wrote epic poems that told the stories of heroes and gods.
Another story that was told at the time, however, was not preserved from the Dark Ages. The legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece was well-known then, but a written version of the story is not known until the 2nd century BC.
The quest for the Golden Fleece features well-known heroes, exotic locations, and adventures on the sea. Yet it was not as popular among writers and artists as the stories of Odysseus, Heracles, and other heroes.
One of the reasons for this was because of the legend’s unlikeable heroine. Because of Medea’s myths, many Greeks had little interest in retelling the story of the Golden Fleece.
Jason and the Quest for the Golden Fleece
According to legend, Jason was the rightful heir to the throne of Iolcus. The city in Thessaly had been ruled by his father, King Aeson.
Aeson’s half-brother Pelias was a cruel and greedy man who desired power above all else. He overthrew Aeson and killed all his children so no one would be left to reclaim the throne.
Aeson’s wife Alcimede was able to save her newborn son, however, by pretending that he had been stillborn. She hid Jason with the centaur Chiron, and he grew up fully aware of his heritage.
When Jason was grown, he returned to Iolcus. His uncle said that Jason could have his father’s kingdom back, but only if he successfully took the Golden Fleece from Colchis.
The Golden Fleece had been in the possession of Aeetes since the ram Chrysomallos had rescued the children of Nephthali from their murderous stepmother. Jason would have to undertake a long and perilous voyage to secure the precious artifact from the Black Sea kingdom.
Argus was given inspiration by Athena to build a great ship for the journey. It was called the Argo after him and its crew came to be known as the Argonauts.
Many accounts were given of the Argonauts through the years, but they included some of the most lauded heroes of Greek mythology.
The Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux, joined the quest. Another set of twins, sons of the wind god Boreas, were also among the crew.
The famed musician Orpheus was brought along on Chiron’s advice. King Peleus, the husband of Thetis, King Admetus of Pherae, and King Augeus of Elis were royal crewmen.
Atalanta was the only woman on board, and several of the men who had hunted the Calydonian Boar with her signed up as well.
The most famous member of the crew was none other than Heracles. Already renowned for his twelve labors, the hero’s time on the Argo was one of dozens of adventures he took part in.
The first stop on the quest for the Golden Fleece was on the island of Lemnos in Turkey. The women there had scorned Aphrodite and been cursed with hideousness.
Neither this nor the fact that the women had killed their unfaithful husbands stopped the men of the Argo from taking the Lemnian women as mistresses, however. Many Argonauts wanted to abandon their quest and remain on Lemnos, but were spurred on by a disgusted Heracles.
On the island ruled by King Cyzicus, they were attacked by a race of six-armed giants. They sailed away but lost their bearings in the night.
When they landed on the island in the dark, they mistook the friendly men there for the enemies they had just fled from. Cyzicus was killed in the confusion and the Argonauts hosted his funeral games in remorse.
Landing in Thrace, the crew killed the Harpies that had been sent to torment Phineus. In return for their kindness, the seer told them how to reach Colchis by safely passing through the infamous Smashing Rocks.
When Jason finally reached Colchis, he was disheartened to learn that Aeetes would require him to complete three further tasks to claim his prize. Hera, however, was on his side and convinced Aphrodite and Eros to help him.
Eros made the king’s daughter, the witch Medea, fall in love with Jason. She used her magic to help him complete the tasks needed to earn the Golden Fleece.
He first had to yoke a set of fire-breathing oxen and used them to plow a field. Medea used her magic to protect him from the flames.
Then, Jason had to sew the field with the teeth of a dragon. A race of warriors called the spartoi sprang up, ready to attack.
Medea had foreseen this, however, and knew how to confuse them. Jason threw a rock into their midst and, believing it was an attack, the spartoi killed one another.
Finally, Jason had to get past the watchful dragon that guarded the grove where the Golden Fleece was kept. The great serpent never slept.
Medea made an herbal poison that put the dragon to sleep. Jason was able to seize the Golden Fleece and quickly fled Colchis before Aeetes could stop him.
Medea went with him, but she knew that her father would give chase. She killed her own brother and threw his body off the ship in pieces, causing her father to give up the chase to collect his son’s remains.
Zeus, as the god of law, punished the Argonauts for Medea’s crime. A series of brutal storms blew the ship far off course on its return journey.
The ship itself finally spoke to them, saying that the crew could be cleansed by Circe. They visited her island and, despite her hesitation, obtained purification.
They encountered one of the same hazards Odysseus later would after leaving Circe’s island. The Sirens lured men to their deaths by singing sweet songs, but Orpheus was able to play loudly enough to drown out their voices.
On the island of Crete, the ship was threatened by the bronze giant Talos. Medea was able to place a spell on him, however, that put him to sleep so they could remove the pin that kept his blood in.
The Argo finally arrived back in Thessaly with the Golden Fleece. Jason regained his throne and a massive celebration was planned.
Because Pelias had willingly given up the kingship, he was allowed to stay. Medea planned her own revenge, however.
She told the usurper’s daughters that she could use a magical herb to restore his body to the vigor he had enjoyed in his youth. All they had to do was cut him into pieces and put him in the cauldron she had prepared.
Pelias’s daughters did as they were told, but Medea had not added the promised herbs to her cauldron. She and Jason were charged with the murder and exiled from the kingdom he had just regained.
The story of the Golden Fleece did not end in a great victory for the hero, but in treachery. Jason and Medea were exiled from his kingdom and the rest of their lives were marred by revenge and hatred.
My Modern Interpretation
The story of Jason and his crew is best known from the Argonautica, a work from the 2nd century BC. This was retold from earlier sources, however.
The story was known in the time of Homer and was referenced often in early Greek literature. Despite this, it was not one of the most popular stories in its own time.
Much of what we know of Greek literature and belief comes to us from the writers of Athens. The great city was a cultural capital, so its versions of different legends are the most well-preserved and well-known today.
The story of Jason and the Golden Fleece was never a particularly popular one in Athens. They preferred stories that centered around their own city’s history and famous figures.
Some Athenian artists, for example, changed elements of the story when they illustrated the legend of the Golden Fleece. Instead of Jason being helped by Medea, they showed Athena as the hero’s patron.
The Athenians had another reason for leaving Medea out of the story. In their estimation, she was always a villain.
After falling out with Jason and killing their sons in vengeance, Medea had once again fled. She eventually landed in Athens where she married King Aegeus.
Aegeus had several wives who had all failed to give him a son. He eventually fathered Theseus in Troezen.
When Theseus arrived in Athens, Medea was furious. She had hoped that one of her sons would inherit their stepfather’s kingdom because he had no heirs.
The witch tried to poison Theseus before his identity was revealed, but Aegeus recognized him before the plan could be completed. Realizing that her plans were thwarted, Medea returned to Colchis.
The Athenians writers, therefore, had little reason to embrace Medea as a heroine in the story of the Golden Fleece. Nor did they have reason to celebrate a story that had little to do with their own city.
The most well-loved legends in Athens featured the kings of their own city and the heroes who were guided by their patroness, Athena. The story of Jason was centered on Thessaly instead of Athens and had Hera as the helpful goddess.
Few Athenian writers, therefore, paid attention to the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece. While the Argonautica is a well-known story, it is rarely referenced in the most well-preserved examples of Greek art and literature.
The quest for the Golden Fleece was a contemporary story with Homer’s Odyssey and other famous Greek epics. A written version of the legend is not known before the Argonautica in the 2nd century BC, however.
The story contains many elements that were popular in Greek legends. An exiled prince, Jason, assembled a crew of heroes to sail to the far-off land of Colchis in search of the Golden Fleece, which would allow him to retake his kingdom.
Along the way, the famous heroes aboard the Argo had many adventures. When they arrived at Colchis, Jason was given three additional quests to earn the Golden Fleece.
He was helped by Medea, a witch who Aphrodite caused to fall in love with him. While Jason earned the Golden Fleece, however, Medea’s murderous magic led to tragedy.
Jason and Medea were exiled from the kingdom he had worked so hard to regain and eventually turned against one another. Their story was a likely reason that the legend of the Golden Fleece was not retold as often as some others.
Medea’s later stories took her to Athens, where she tried to assassinate Theseus. This was the only link the story had with the city of Athens.
Because many writers and artists from the classical period were Athenians, the stories they valued were the ones that were passed on most often. Their dislike of Medea and the story’s lack of a connection to their own city made the legend of the Golden Fleece less attractive to them than many other epics of the time.