The Argonauts were a band of heroes united in the common cause of taking the Golden Fleece from Colchis. This was a group of some of the most legendary heroes of all of Greek mythology, one of the few times in the myths where a group of heroes team up to accomplish a goal. The team was led by a man named Jason, who sought out the Fleece and establish his own legacy.
Pelias and Aeson
The story of the Argonauts actually starts years before Jason’s birth. Crethus was the king of Iolcus, and he had two sons – Pelias and Aeson. Aeson was the chosen son to ascend the throne, but the throne was taken from him by Pelias.
To make matters worse, Pelias was told that one day, a descendant of Aeolus would seek revenge upon him for his actions against his brother. While Pelias was quite vigorous in making sure that every possible descendant of Aeolus was killed before he or she could cause a problem, Pelias did not do the same to his half-brother Aeson. Instead, Aeson was locked away – but not before Aeson was able to marry a woman named Alcimede, who gave birth to a son named Jason. Alcimede tricked Pelias into thinking that Jason was dead, and spirited the boy away to Mount Pelion where he would be raised by the wise centaur Chiron.
Jason grew up to be a strong, pious, and relatively wise young man. When he was around twenty years old, he was told by an oracle to head back to Iolcus. As he travelled, he encountered an old woman attempting to cross a muddy river. Thinking nothing of himself, Jason helped the woman to cross and lost one of his own sandals in the process. Upon reaching the other side, the woman revealed herself to be the goddess Hera.
Hera was staunchly against the reign of Pelias. When Pelias had usurped the throne, he also killed his stepmother, a woman named Sidero. While killing a relative was bad enough in Greek culture, he killed her while she took refuge in the temple of Hera. This slight was unforgivable to the goddess, and she decided to aid Jason in overthrowing his uncle.
Complicating matters was, of course, another oracle. Pelias was told to be on the lookout for a man with one shoe, a description that fit his nephew quite well. Upon seeing the one-shoed man, he realized who he was – but he couldn’t do anything. Pelias was presenting a sacrifice to the god Poseidon and a number of other important kings were in attendance. Instead, he asked Jason what he’d do if he found out if another family member was going to kill him. Jason was compelled by Hera to announce that he’d bring back the Golden Fleece – and Pelias ordered him to do so.
Seeking the Fleece
The Golden Fleece was a mythical object was quite hard to get. The item was in the far-off land of Colchis, hanging under a tree that was guarded by a dragon that never slept. Attempting to get the Fleece was tantamount to suicide, so Pelias felt quite confident that he’d defeated the prophecy yet again. He was so confident, in fact, that he swore to give up his throne to Jason if the young man was able to get back with the Fleece.
Before he set out, Jason would need a way to get to Colchis. He commissioned a boat, called the Argos. This boat was created specifically for the treacherous journey, and had room to hold eighty men. All he would need was a crew that could survive one of the most treacherous journeys depicted in all of Greek history.
Jason assembled the Argonauts, a group of the greatest adventurers that Greece had ever seen. There isn’t a definitive list of who was on the boat, but most myths agree that some of the biggest names in mythology were on the boat. They joined for a number of reasons, and not all of them survived the journey, but the group became known as one of the greatest assemblages of heroes in ancient Greek History.
Myths disagree on who the Argonauts were, but a few names show up in most of the retellings. Heracles and his nephew, Iolaus, are almost always included in the story. Other important Argonauts include the shipwright Argos, the huntress Atalanta, the musician Orpheus, the Dioscuri and dozens of other demigods, kings, and heroes.
Depending on the version of the story, almost any hero from Greek history is attached to the tale.
The Argonauts did not, however, go directly after the Golden Fleece. Their first stop was on the island of Lemnos, where they women of the island had been cursed by Aphrodite into killing their husbands. They would next fight the giants of Bear Mountain, where Heracles would slay many giants and the crew would hold a funeral for their monstrous enemies. From there, they would undertake a number of adventures, fighting some of the most famous monsters in Greek history.
The crew would fight the Harpies in Thrace, learning of the location of Colchis and how to pass the Clashing Rocks. This secret allowed the crew to find the location of the Fleece, but they were surprised by what they would find. Instead of being attacked, they were greeted by the king of Colchis as friends. There, they learned that the king was happy to part with the Fleece – if Jason could make it through three trials.
Jason could not complete the trials on his own. He was given help, though, by Hera, Aphrodite, and Eros. They caused Medea, the king’s daughter, to fall in love with him and give him aid in all of his tasks.
After finishing the tasks, Jason was able to collect the Golden Fleece and leave. Medea came with the Argonauts, but secured their escape by cutting her brother into pieces and throwing him into the sea. This upset the gods, lengthening the journey of the Argonauts and causing them to deal with multiple storms. They’d meet the Circe, the Sirens, and Talos along the way home, eventually arriving back at their original starting point.
Jason’s return home was not entirely happy. He was reunited with Aeson, who was an old man. Medea killed Pelias by trickery, though, and Jason and Medea were exiled from their home by Pelias’ son. Jason and Medea’s life would not be a happy one, with broken vows, murder, and a distinct lack of glory following them into the future. While Jason would attempt to make something of his life, his relationship with Medea caused little more than heartbreak.
Jason would eventually become the king of Iolcus, but at a steep price. He would lose Hera’s favor, and end up as a lonely man who had the company of neither a family nor of his crew of heroes. Jason’s story ended sadly, with the rotted remains of the Argos falling upon him as he slept. Other heroes from the Argos would go on to greater glory than Jason, but they would all be remembered by history as part of his crew.
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