The Golden Fleece
In Thessaly, a king and a queen, named Athamas and Nephele had two children, a boy and a girl. Athamas took another wife, and Nephele suspected that her children’s lives were endangered. She took measures to send them out of reach. Mercury gave her a ram with a golden fleece, on which she sent the two children. He vaulted into the air with the children on his back, taking his course to the east. The girl fell into the sea, but the boy, Phryxus, landed safely and gave the golden fleece to the King, Aeetes. He paced it in a grove under the care of a sleepless dragon.
Jason, one of the Argonauts, sailed for the land of Colchis aboard a ship called the Argo to bring back the golden fleece. His father, Aeson was the king of Iolchus but after the death of his father, Cretheus, Aeson’s half brother, Pelias seized power. (The King gave the crown to Pelias on the condition that he holds it only as long as Jason is a minor.) Jason’s mother did not trust Pelias and takes her son out of the city; he is brought up by the centaur Chiron. The Oracle at Delphi warns Pelias to be careful of a descendent of Aeson who wore only one sandal. Jason returns to Iolchus and loses his sandal while transporting an old woman (the goddess Hera) across the river. Pelias is in a dilemma, knowing that Jason has good support but recognising his danger. He promises Jason the throne of the land if he would bring him the golden fleece. This is the skin of the flying ram; it was considered an impossible task.
The Argo and the expedition and Argo’s Hull
Jason had the Argo built and with 50 heroes sought to retrieve the golden fleece, which he captures with the help of Medea, who fell in love with him (owing to Ero’s arrow).
Compare with Euripides: “If only they had never gone! If the Argo’s hull never had winged out through the grey-blue jaws of rock And on towards Colchis!” (The Nurse in the Prologue/Medea by Euripides). Jason tells Medea, “You had already murdered your brother at his own hearth/When first you stepped on board my lovely Argo’s hull.” (Medea by Euripides)
Medea predicts that Jason will die “as you deserve, By a timber from the Argo’s hull”. (Euripides)
From The Argonautica as told by Valerius Flaccus
The expedition of the Argonauts took place a generation before the Trojan war. The men who sailed in the Argo were famous as heroes and demigods.
King Pelias, who ruled Thessaly, was fearful of his nephew Jason (son of his brother Aeson). The King charged Jason with the adventurous feat of sailing to Colchis in order to capture the golden fleece, and bring it back to a shrine in Greece. “And may you be worthy to meet and overcome all risks.”
Jason, knowing that the task was risk-laden, owing to the raging seas the guarded golden fleece, sought the help of Juno, the queen of gods, and Pallas Athena, who flew to Argus, the builder of ships, and instructed him to build a ship and to fell “great oaks with his ax”. Argus set about “cutting pines with the thin blade of a saw”.
To ensure his protection, Jason encouraged King Pelias’s son, Acastus, to join him.
Boreas, the fierce north wind states: “What a dreadful thing, Aeolus, I have seen from the heights of Macedonia! Greek heroes are sailing forth in a great new ship built with their axes and cross the sea rejoicing in their huge sales.”
Aeetes consented to give up the golden fleece if Jason would yoke to the plough two fire-breathing bulls with brazen feet and sow the teeth of the dragon, which Cadmus had slain. Jason also pleads his cause to Medea, daughter of King Aeetes. Jason promised to marry Medea, and called the goddess to witness his oath. He swears by Hecate and the sun god Helios.
The story as told in Greek verse by Apollonius Rhodius (From Argonautica II, III and IV)
Medea, love struck by Eros, comes to the rescue. When she first sees Jason, “holding her veil aside, watched him from the corner of her eye, and her heart burned with the first pangs of love”.
Aware of the great strength of the fire-breathing bulls, she plans to give Jason the magic drug, which he accepted from her, “gladly”. She tells him that he will grow “great courage and strength” from anointing his body with the magic drug. She advises him to throw a boulder into their midst when he sees the gians multiplying on all sides, as they emerged from the dragon.
Jason greets, fearlessly, the bulls and places the yoke over their necks. He also defeats the dragon’s brood of men with the help of Medea’s charm. “Presently, earthborn men were springing up all over the field, but Jason remembered the instructions of crafty Medea”. He hurled the boulder into their midst and crouched to watch the shouting and killing.
Medea becomes aware that she has earned her father’s, Aeetes’ wrath. He goddess Hera encourages her to take flight. “Hlding her cloak over her forehead, she slips passed the guards and reaches the river, promising to take the Argonauts to the sacred grove to seize the golden fleece.
Jason assures her, “My dear, let Zeus himself be my witness, and Hera his queen, that I shall take you to my own house as my wedded wife, when we have traveled safely back to the land of Hellas”.
Medea sings a chant and lulls the dragon, the “monstrous creature” which rolled “his boundless scale-covered coils along the ground”, to sleep allowing Jason to seize the golden fleece, which he delivered to Pelias.
Jason acknowledges that “this grievous voyage.. has been successfully accomplished through the wise counsel of this maiden. I intend to take her back home with me to become my wedded wife”.
Compare with Medea by Euripides: Jason tells her: “I am sane now; but I was mad before, when I Brought you from your palace in a land of savages Into a Greek home – you, a living curse…”
Medea answers: “but Zeus the father of all Knows well what service I once rendered you, and how You have repaid me. You were mistaken if you thought You could dishonour my bed and live a pleasant life And laugh at me.”
More of the Golden Fleece myth
Medea uses her arts to encourage King Pelias’s daughter to kill their father. Medea prepares the cauldron (with herbs and water, some say she cuts an old ram into pieces) and deceives the daughters into thinking that they are participating in an operation that will prolong and rejuvenate, rather than curtail, their father’s life. After striking the final blow, she makes a hasty departure in her serpent-drawn chariot with Jason back to Corinth. (One writer suggests that the incantations of Medea remind the reader of the witches in Macbeth: “Round about the caldron go; In the poisoned entrails throw; Fillet of a fenny snake IN the caldron boil and bake; Eye of newt and toe of frog, Wool of bag and tongue of dog. Adders’ fork and blind-worm’s sting, Lizard’s leg and howler’s wing.”
Jason returns home safely to Iolcus; Pelias is murdered by his own daughters with the help of Medea. Jason and Medea return to Corinth as guests of King Creon. When Creon offered Jason the hand of his daughter, Glauce, Jason renounced Medea, which in Corinth, was easy because marriage to a foreigner was deemed invalid.
Aegeus son of Pandion; King of Athens and father of the great hero, Theseus. After two marriages, Aegeus remains childless. He consulted the oracle at Delphi and received an ambiguous reply. (He has a son with Aethra, Theseus, who later appears in Athens with the sword and sandals Aegeus has left under a bolder.) Meanwhile, in Athens, Aegeus married Medea, who had sought refuge with him after her marriage to Jason. They had a son, Medus. Medeas seeks to poison the other son Theseus, but not before Aegeus realises her trick.) Just in time, he dashes the cup of poison from his son’s lips and banishes Medea.
Am I a tiger, Scylla (No Woman but a tiger, a Tuscan Scylla)
Scylla is known from Homer’s epic The Odyssey. She appears as a terrifying sea-monster which, together with the whirlpool, Charybdis, makes a narrow strait, the Strait of Messina, unnavigable. She is pursued by the sea-god Glaucus who asks the enchantress Circe for some magic herbs to win her over. Circe was jealous, and felt rejected by Glaucus. She prepared a poisonous spell that turned Scylla into a monster with 12 legs and 6 long necks with a hideous head on each. Scylla avenged herself on Circle by devouring members of the crew of the Odyssey. She was turned into a rock.
The chorus says: It was Ino, sent out of her mind by a god, When Hera, the wife of Zeus, Drover her from her home to wander over the world. In her misery she plunged into the sea, Being defiled by the murder of her children”
Ino was a daughter of the Theban king Cadmus and his wife Harmonia and sister of Semele (mother of Dionysus). After Zeus had rescued Dionysus from the body of Semele, Hermes handed the baby into Ino’s charge to be breastfed. Zeus’ jealous wife Hera, who organised demise of Semele, discovered that she had been deceived. Hera enlisted the help of the goddesses of revenge and had Ino and her husband struck with madness by the goddess Tisiphone. Athamas killed his eldest son and Ino leapt from the rocks into the sea with her youngest son, Melicertes, in her arms. Some say, Ino had already tried to murder the children of Athamas’s first marriage, Phrixus and Helle, but they escaped on the back of the flying ram with the golden fleece.
Chorus: there long ago, they say, was born golden-haired Harmony Created by the nine virgin Muses of Pieria.
Aphrodite dips her cup in the clear stream of the lovely Cephisus.
Harmonia is the daughter of Ares and the goddess of love, Aphrodite. She was descended from the gods and offered to Cadmus, son of Agenor, King of city of Tyre, in marriage. Their children were struck by misfortune.
See The Complete Encyclopedia of Greek Mythology, Guus Houtzager, 2003, Rebo International, Chartwell Books Inc: The Netherlands.
Myths of Greece and Rome, Thomas Bulfinch, Penguin Books: New York, 1979.
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