Many epic stories of Greek mythology are tales of sea travel. As a coastal society, the Greeks saw the sea as both a means of transportation and a place of mystery.
The routes between Greece, its colonies, and their trading partners were well-established. Outside of those routes, however, the sea was dotted with unexplored islands, dangerous coastlines, and natural hazards.
The first seafaring epic that was written was the Odyssey. It was an ancient and well-known story with monsters and mysterious lands that became iconic.
The Odyssey was so influential that it established the standard for later Greek and Roman travel epics. Stories written after Homer’s time not only followed the pattern of the Odyssey, but also incorporated many of its locations and enemies.
One of these was the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece. The voyage of the Argo and its crew was likely an older story, but it was fully written by Apollodorus of Rhodes in the 3rd century BC.
The Argonautica begins with familiar places and recognizable geography of the Aegean Sea, but soon expands beyond these well-known locations. By the end of the quest for the Golden Fleece, Jason and his crew had traveled the whole of the known world and encountered many of the same places as Odysseus.
The story of Jason and the Golden Fleece contains unique and varied geography. From the barbarian lands of the Black Sea to the deserts of Libya, the voyage of the Argo included lands both real and imagined.
The story of Jason and the Golden Fleece began in the hero’s homeland. His father Aeson was the king of Thessaly.
Located in the north of Greece, Thessaly was a large region that had been culturally important since before the Dark Ages. Its ancient capital, Larissa, continues to be one of the most prominent and populous cities in Greece.
According to legend, Aeson’s throne was seized by his half-brother Pelias. Although Aeson himself was allowed to live, all of his possible heirs were murdered to keep them from continuing his line.
Aeson’s wife Alcimede was in labor when Pelias moved on the throne. She acted quickly, telling him that the baby had been stillborn to save her son’s life.
The baby, Jason, was sent to be reared in secret by the central Chiron. Most legends said that the wise centaur lived somewhere in the mountains of Thessaly, likely Mount Pelion in the southeast.
Years later, Pelias traveled to the coastal city of Iolcus, present day Volos, to hold games in honor of his own father, Poseidon. It was there that Jason returned to retake his father’s throne.
Pelias gave his nephew the impossible task of fetching the Golden Fleece, a relic of the winged ram Chrysomallos that was kept in the far-off city of Colchis. A great ship was commissioned, the Argo, to take Jason and his crew of heroes on their epic quest.
Setting out from Iolcus, the Argo made its way east. As the ship approached Asia Minor, Jason stopped on an island called Lemnos.
The Argonauts met the women of the island, who told them the story of how they came to live on an island without men.
The Lemnian women had been cursed by Aphrodite for neglecting their worship of her. She inflicted a horrible stench on them.
Their husbands were so disgusted that they refused to go near their wives. Instead, they traveled to nearby Thrace and took concubines from among the women there.
The Lemnians were so angry at this treatment that they conspired together to kill their husbands. Their king was spared by his daughter, Hypsipyle, who ruled as queen of the all-female society.
Despite this terrible history, the Argonauts found themselves attracted to the women of Lemnos. The crew made the women of the island their mistresses and Jason fathered two sons with Queen Hypsipyle.
They were only convinced to leave by Heracles. Unusually, the amorous hero was disgusted at his crewmates’ behavior and condemned their affairs.
Sailing on, the Argo next stopped on the coast of the Propontis, known today as the Sea of Marmara. They were welcomed by Cyzicus, the king of the Doliones.
Cyzicus warned the Argonauts that the land beyond nearby Bear Mountain was dangerous, but did not tell them what lived there. Unfortunately for them, they would soon learn first-hand.
While the men were resupplying their ship, they were attacked by the Gegeines, the violent monsters that lived beyond the mountain. The six-armed giants were fearsome foes, but Heracles and the other heroes managed to dispatch most of them.
The crew quickly set sail from the dangerous shores. When night fell, however, they lost their bearings in a squall.
They landed in the same place, but did not realize it in the dark. Mistaking one another for enemies, the Argonauts and the Doliones began to fight.
When dawn arose, Jason and his crew realized that they had killed many of those who had welcomed them, including King Cyzicus. In penance they held a funeral for the king and his wife, who had killed herself when she learned of her husband’s fate.
After brief stops, during which Heracles left the crew and Pollux killed a local king in a boxing match, the crew found themselves in an isolated region of Thrace. There they came across Phineas, the former king of the Thynians.
Phineas was a skilled prophet whose abilities had given him trouble. For giving away divine secrets, Zeus had him exiled to an island, struck blind, and each day had his food stolen by the Harpies.
The Boreads, two sons of the wind god Boreas who were among the crew, chased the avenging Harpies away. In thanks for their help, Phineas told the Argonauts how to safely pass by the legendary Clashing Rocks.
The Symplegades, as these cliffs were also called, were located at the Bosphorus. The rocks clashed together to crush any ship that tried to sail past, but by sending a bird in first the Argo could sail through while the strait was reopening.
Sailing across the Black Sea, the Argonauts made several more stops.
Near the island of Thynias, they saw Apollo flying overhead toward the land of the Hyperboreans. Near an entrance to Hades they were welcomed by the local king, but two of the crew were killed by a wild boar.
They picked up more crew members, however, as they entered lands that were controlled by Ares. Three survivors from Heracles’s fight against the Amazons were found, as well as four shipwrecked sons of the hero Phrixus, who had taken the Golden Fleece to the east.
These four men were also grandsons of the king of Colchis, Aeetes. As the Argo reached its destination, Jason welcomed the men aboard as allies in his quest for the Golden Fleece.
Colchis, the destination of Jason and the Argonauts, was on the eastern shore of the Black Sea. In the modern country of Georgia, it was known to be rich in honey, timber, and gold.
As non-Greek speakers, the people of Cochis were thought of as barbarians by the Greeks. Their language and customs were foreign and, to Greek-speakers, inferior.
The Greeks also associated these barbarians with the god of war, Ares. The Amazons, Thracians, and other people devoted to him all lived in the region.
The Golden Fleece was kept in a grove of Ares, where it was guarded by a monstrous serpent. To win the fleece from Aeetes, Jason had to not only defeat this dragon but also yoke a set of fire-breathing oxen and kill the spartoi warriors who grew from the soil.
He received help in this quest from Medea, the king’s daughter. A powerful witch, she agreed to help Jason win the Golden Fleece if he would marry her.
With Medea’s help, Jason was able to seize the fleece and quickly board his ship to sail away. To keep her father from chasing after them, Medea killed her own brother and threw his remains into the sea.
For this crime, Zeus punished the Argo and its crew. A series of violent storms blew the ship off course.
While the journey to Colchis followed a geographically plausible route, Jason’s voyage home with the Golden Fleece was almost inexplicably long and winding. From the shores of the Black Sea, the story somehow had the ship meander throughout the Mediterannean.
The Argo traveled along river systems until it reached the main branch of the Eridanus, likely the Po. It finally made its way back out to sea off the coast of Italy.
While the Argonautica was written later, the events of the story take place before those of Homer’s Odyssey. Apollonius of Rhodes was obviously influenced by the famous epic, so Jason’s return voyage largely follows the route of Odysseus.
They first stopped on Aeaea, the island that belonged to the goddess Circe. The enchantress was, according to Apollodorus, the aunt of Medea.
Despite her reluctance to interfere in Zeus’s will, Circe performed the rites to absolve Medea and Jason of their crimes. They left her island absolved of murder, but with a grueling voyage ahead of them.
Like Odysseus, Jason’s ship sailed near the Sirens after leaving Aeaea. They were able to pass safely by, however, because Orpheus played his lyre loudly enough to drown out the tempting Sirens’ song.
After surviving the wandering rocks, the Argo was once again driven off course. This time, it became stranded on a sandbank off the coast of Libya.
The crew resigned themselves to dying on the desolate shore, but the nymphs of Libya advised Jason on how he could survive. By carrying the ship on their shoulders across the desert sands, the crew reached Lake Tritonis and the Garden of the Hesperides.
The Hesperides told Jason that, to his surprise, Heracles had raided their garden only a day before. Triton, the god of the lake, revealed a hidden waterway that would lead back to the sea.
The god also gave one of the heroes aboard a magical clod of earth. This would be used to create the island of Thera, the first Greek colony in Libya.
Following Triton’s path, the Argo reentered familiar waters. The ship returned to the Mediterannean near the island of Crete.
The island was guarded by a bronze giant called Talos who hurled rocks at any ships that came close. Noticing that only one nail near his foot held in the ichor that fueled the automaton’s body, Medea cast a spell to lull Talos to sleep and kill him.
Stopping briefly on the Greek islands of Anaphe and Aegina, Jason finally got the Golden Fleece back to Thessaly.
Having brought back the Golden Fleece, Jason was welcomed back to Thessaly as a hero. His uncle had no choice but to keep his word and surrender the throne.
They would not be able to celebrate their success for long, however. After their long journey, Jason and Medea would soon find themselves traveling again.
Although Pelias had willingly given up the throne, Medea still thought that he was deserving of punishment. Instead of killing him outright, however, she tricked the former king’s daughters into doing the deed.
Medea claimed that she could use her magic to restore the king’s youth. To complete the spell, Pelias would have to be cut into pieces.
His daughters did as the witch instructed, hoping to return their father to the vigor of his youth. Medea did not work her magic, however, and Pelias’s dismembered body was never restored.
His son blamed Medea, and by extension Jason, for his father’s murder. Although he had only recently been acclaimed as a hero, Jason was quickly exiled from Thessaly.
The couple settled in Corinth where Jason, to make a political alliance, planned to marry the king’s daughter. When Medea accused him of forgetting all the help that she had given him in Colchis, he responded that the thanks should go to Aphrodite for making Medea love him enough to betray her father.
Furious, Medea gave the Corinthian princess a cursed dress to wear at the wedding. It not only killed her, but also her father who had tried to rescue his daughter from the burning gown.
Rather than have them be enslaved or killed because of her actions, Medea also killed the two sons she had born with Jason. By the time the former hero discovered her crimes, Medea had already fled again.
From Corinth, Medea made her way to Athens and married King Aegeus. When her schemes against his son Theseus were uncovered, she was forced to flee again.
Some accounts claimed that Medea eventually returned to Colchis, where she earned a pardon by restoring her father to power after a coup. Others said that she made her way to the Iranian plateau, where the people were called the Medes after her.
Jason, meanwhile, lost the favor of the gods and the right to return to his homeland. He was impoverished and alone when he was crushed by a rotting beam of the Argo as he slept beneath the ruins of the ship.
The story of Jason and the Golden Fleece is best known from the Argonautica, written by Apollodorus of Rhodes in the 3rd century BC. While the story was older, many details of the story were likely added by Apollodorus.
Like many famous Greek and Roman epics, the story of the Argonauts takes place mostly at sea. It follows Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece from his home in Thessaly to the far coast of the Black Sea and back.
Jason’s journey to Colchis followed an established route to the Black Sea. While the crew of the Argo encountered many unique and fantastic places, the route of the Argo can be followed to this day.
On the return voyage, however, the Argo was blown off course to an unbelievable degree. Winding through a mythical system of European rivers, Jason’s ship ended up off the coast of Italy.
Many of the places visited by the Argo mirrored those of the Odyssey. Jason saw both Circe and the Sirens before his meandering journey took him to Libya.
Unlike Odysseus, however, Jason would not be able to enjoy the rewards of his quest for the Golden Fleece. Using murder and magic to achieve their ends, both he and Medea found themselves at odds with both the gods and the people they crossed.
Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece would end with the exiled hero dying alone beneath the collapsed ruins of his ship. His voyage would be remembered, but Jason would stand as a cautionary tale as much as a heroic figure.