The hero Jason was asked by his uncle, Pelias, to bring him the Golden Fleece. [For more on the hero’s life and how Pelias came to give him this command, see Jason]. The Golden Fleece was a ram’s fleece of pure gold; it was the prized possession of Aeëtes, the King of Colchis, which was located on the far-away shores of the Black Sea [map]. Jason organized an expedition of heroes from all over Greece to sail with him on this adventure. The roster of heroes varies from source to source, but there are a few who appear on almost every list: Heracles; Orpheus; Castor and Polydeuces (also known as Pollux), the Dioscuri (meaning sons of Zeus); Telamon, father of the Greater Ajax; Peleus, father of Achilles; and Argus, the builder and eponym of the Argo, the ship on which the Argonauts sailed. Argus had built the ship (with the help of Athena) with one beam from the sacred oak of Dodona. This beam could speak, and at some points it gave advice to the crew.
The Lemnian Women
The expedition first came to Lemnos, an island inhabited only by women, because all the men had been killed. Sometime before this, the women on the island had neglected the cult of the goddess Aphrodite. Aphrodite, becoming angry, of course, had caused the women to give off a terrible odor. The women’s husbands naturally began to avoid their wives, and eventually they sailed to Thrace and brought back concubines to sleep with instead of their wives. The women were so angry that they killed all the men and the Thracian women as well. (Only one man survived; the princess, Hypsipyle, hid her aged father in a chest and put him out to sea; he drifted ashore on the island of Oenoë.) Because of this terrible deed, the Lemnian women lived in constant fear that the Thracians would come and attack them in retaliation. When the Argonauts landed on Lemnos, the Lemnian women believed that the Thracians had come to kill them and got ready for battle. Jason sent one of his crew, a son of Hermes, as a messenger to ask the women if the Argonauts could camp out on their shore. His words convinced the women they were not in immediate danger, so they convened a council in which they decided that having a group of strong and handsome heroes around would not be a bad idea. The women sent a messenger to bring the heroes into the city.
Most of the Argonauts were thrilled to spend the night in the city (apparently the women no longer smelled bad), but Heracles and a few others stayed with the ship. Queen Hypsipyle became quite enamored with Jason and offered to allow the Argonauts to come and stay. If Jason had any skill, it was charming women. He thanked Hypsipyle graciously but told her that he and his men had to continue on with their journey. Most authors say that the Argonauts spent only a few days on Lemnos, but this was long enough for a new generation of Lemnians to result.
After leaving Lemnos, the Argonauts sailed for the Hellespont [see Hellespontus on map]. They landed on an island in the Sea of Marmara inhabited by a people called the Doliones. Their king offered to give them shelter and to restock their supplies because an oracle had told him to offer aid to such travelers. Only a few men were left to guard the ship, so when a group of giants came upon the guards, the ship would have been easily destroyed had the mighty Heracles not been one of the guards. Heracles singlehandedly shot several of the giants and chased the others away. The King of the Doliones showed Jason the route for the next leg of their journey and the Argo soon headed off, but contrary winds pushed the ship back into the harbor.
By now it was dark, however, and no one could see very well. When the Argonauts disembarked, they did not realize where they were; the Doliones believed a group of raiders had come to attack them, and so a battle ensued. Eventually the Doliones retreated, having lost a large number of their men. The next morning, the Argonauts realized their mistake when they found the body of the king. The Argonauts and the Doliones together celebrated a magnificent funeral for all the deceased. A few days later, the Argonauts moved on.
Heracles and Hylas
The next day they came to the coast of Mysia [map]. Here, Heracles broke his oar, so the group put ashore to make a new one. Heracles went into the woods to cut down the wood for a new oar while his lover, Hylas, went to a stream to get some water. At the stream, Hylas’ striking beauty caused the nymph of the stream to abduct him by grabbing him and taking him down to her palace under the water. Heracles was understandably upset by Hylas’ disappearance and spent the entire night searching for him. He was still out searching the next day when the rest of the crew were getting ready to leave, and in their hurry they left Heracles behind. Heracles managed to find his way home, where he continued his labors.
Phineus and the Harpies
Next, the Argonauts headed for the Bosphorus [map] and landed in Salmydessus, the capital of Thynia. Here they met the king, a man named Phineus, who was blind and was being hounded by the Harpies. The Harpies were women with the wings, beaks, and talons of birds. Their name comes from the Greek verb harpazein (ἁρπάζειν) meaning “to snatch,” and that’s what they did. Whenever Phineus tried to eat anything the Harpies would swoop down and steal some of the food; they left droppings on the rest, so as to make it inedible. So, Phineus was slowly starving to death. Phineus was very weak by the time the Argonauts found him. He asked them for their help, and they of course obliged. Two of the Argonauts, Zetes and Calaïs, were the sons of Boreas, the North Wind, and because of this, they had wings on their backs. A wonderful feast was prepared, and when the Harpies came to snatch it, Zetes and Calaïs took flight and chased the Harpies away. The brothers would have killed the Harpies with their bows and arrows, but Iris (who was the rainbow and also the messenger of Zeus) told them that Zeus wanted them to spare the Harpies’ lives as long as the Harpies promised never to bother Phineus again. When Zetes and Calaïs returned to Salmydessus, everyone enjoyed the feast. In return for their help, Phineus gave them the information they needed to get past the Symplegades (otherwise known as the Clashing Rocks).
The Clashing Rocks
The expedition now headed for the Clashing Rocks, located at the entrance to the Bosphorus [map]. These were floating islands that would crash together with tremendous speed at unpredictable intervals. When they got there, the Argonauts did as Phineus had instructed and sent a dove to fly between the rocks. They watched to see what would happen to the bird, since Phineus had told them that if the bird survived, they had a chance of making it through. If the bird did not, it was useless and they would most definitely perish if they tried. The dove successfully made it through the rocks, though it lost its tail feathers. As the rocks separated, the sailors prepared to row as hard as they possibly could because their lives depended on it. The boat rushed forward at top speed, but the waves created by the moving rocks nearly capsized the Argo. The crew would have perished had Athena not stepped in and held the rocks apart while pushing the Argo through. But after the Argo escaped, the rocks stayed in place; the gods had decided long ago that once a ship had passed through them, they would never crash together again.
The Sons of Phrixus
The rest of the journey to Colchis was relatively easy for the Argonauts. Zeus steered the group away from the island of the Amazons, Themiscyra, where the Amazons were already prepared for a fight. After a little more sailing, the ship came to a desert island sacred to Ares which Phineus had advised them to visit because they would find something vital to their mission while there. The island was filled with birds with feathers so sharp they could cut through flesh. To get onto the island, the Argonauts held their shields over their heads to make cover. They then clashed their weapons together to scare the birds away. Now able to move around, the crew found the sons of Phrixus stranded on the island. (Phrixus was the youth who had been carried to Colchis by the golden ram. He had stayed in Colchis and had married King Aeëtes’ daughter.) The boys were able to show the group the rest of the way to Colchis.
When the crew finally arrived in Colchis, they had no idea how they were going to get the golden fleece, but Hera and Athena asked Aphrodite for her help. Aphrodite sent her son, Eros (also known as Cupid), to shoot Medea, the daughter of King Aeëtes, with his arrows so she would fall in love with Jason (Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica). The moment Medea saw Jason she instantly fell in love with him. She brought them into the house and her father, on account of xenia [see Xenia], had to allow the strangers to join them for dinner.
At the dinner banquet, Argus (one of Phrixus’ sons) explained who they were and that they had come for the Golden Fleece. Unexpectedly, Aeëtes told the Argonauts that he would certainly give them the Fleece; he said he would only ask Jason to perform a few tasks first. All Jason had to do was yoke a pair of fire-breathing bulls to a plow, sow a field with dragon’s teeth, and then, when fully-armed warriors sprang up from the teeth, he would have to kill all of the warriors. Jason had no idea how he was going to perform these tasks, but he reluctantly agreed. Later that night, Medea, who was a priestess of Hecate and a very skilled witch, paid a visit to Jason. Medea made Jason promise that he would take her back to Iolcus with him if she helped him complete these impossible tasks. Jason eagerly agreed, and Medea gave him a potion and told him what to do.
The night before he had to complete his tasks, Jason sacrificed to Hecate in the manner Medea had instructed him. Then early the next morning he rubbed the potion into his skin and went to find the fire-breathing bulls. Jason was able to yoke the bulls to the plow because the potion protected him from their fire. He plowed the field with the bulls and sowed the dragon’s teeth. From the soil came hundreds of fierce warriors, but Jason had been told by Medea what he needed to do. Jason threw a rock into the middle of the warriors, and they, thinking their fellows were attacking them, began to attack one another. Jason waited while they fought one another until only one was left, and then he killed the remaining warrior.
Stealing the Golden Fleece
Aeëtes, angry that Jason had been able to complete these impossible tasks, refused to hand over the Fleece, and the Greeks retreated to their camp. That night, Medea snuck out to the Greek camp and met with Jason. She told him that if he agreed to marry her, she would help him steal the Fleece. Jason agreed and they went to the grove which housed the Golden Fleece. A dragon stood guard over the grove, but Medea put it to sleep with drugs. Jason killed the dragon and stole the Fleece, and then he and Medea rushed back to the Greek camp, jumped into the ship, and sailed toward Greece, taking Medea’s younger brother, Apsyrtus, with them. Aeëtes soon learned what had happened and sailed after them with his entire fleet.
The Murder of Apsyrtus
As Aeëtes and his fleet began to gain on the Argo, Medea had run out of ideas. But she was desperately in love with Jason, so she did the only thing she could think of. Medea killed her younger brother, Apsyrtus, and chopped him into pieces. Then she threw the pieces over the side of the ship, one by one. Aeëtes, when he saw the pieces of his son floating by, stopped to pick up each of the limbs and eventually the head. He forgot all about pursuing the Argo, but he returned to Colchis to give his dead child a decent burial. This allowed the Argonauts to escape the clutches of Aeëtes, but it meant that Medea began her life with Jason by murdering her own brother.
Zeus was angry at the crew for the murder of Apsyrtus, so Hera blew them off their course, sending them to the waters around Italy to protect them from Zeus’ wrath. The beam of the ship with the ability to speak told the crew that they could not return home until they had been purified of Apsyrtus’ murder by Aeëtes’ sister, the witch Circe, who lived on the island called Aeaea. They found Circe and she performed the proper sacrifices and purification rituals. After this was done she asked who they were. Medea explained the story (minus the death of Apsyrtus) to her, and Circe was appalled to learn that her niece had stolen the Golden Fleece. She ordered the Argonauts to leave her island.
Now that they had been purified of the murder, Hera helped the crew of the Argo make their journey to Iolcus. They passed the Sirens, who are described as birds with the heads of women and the ability to sing so wonderfully that any sailor who heard their song would jump out of the boat and swim toward their island where they would die of starvation. The Argonauts had Orpheus amongst their crew, and he played a song that rivaled the song of the Sirens and allowed the Argo to pass unharmed. The Argo also passed by Scylla (a monster with six dogs for legs) and Charybdis (a whirlpool that would suck up water and then regurgitate it) and would have surely perished had Thetis (a sea nymph) and her sisters not guided the Argo through the waters. Thetis would later become the bride of one of the Argonauts, Peleus.
Return to Iolcus
After much wandering, the Argo finally made it back to Iolcus, where Jason and Medea were married. For the rest of the story about Jason and Medea, see Jason.