Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Story of Jason and the Argonauts

Module: 9 The Story of Jason and the Argonauts
Posted by: Jibky Catherine M.

The story of Jason and his fellow Argonauts has enthralled the world. Jason’s quest to get the fabled Golden Fleece and bring it back to his homeland is a fabulous story of grit, compassion and revenge. Jason has been prophesied to take the throne of Thessaly. When he saves Pelias from drowning, but does not recognize him as the man who had earlier killed his father, Pelias tells Jason to travel to Colchis to find the Golden Fleece. Jason follows his advice and assembles a sailing crew of the finest men in Greece, including Hercules. They are under the protection of Hera, queen of the gods. Their voyage is replete with battles against harpies, a giant bronze Talos, a hydra, and an animated skeleton army.
The story of the Golden Fleece 
Well before the time of Jason, there lived two children, the boy Phrixos and his sister Helle, who were born of the union of King Athamas of Orchomenus and the cloud goddess Nephele. However, the King was seduced by the Queen of Thebes, Ino, and took her for his second wife. Ino, being jealous of his children, tricked Athamas into sacrificing them to the gods, as a sign of appeasement to end the long famine that was ruining their land. All of a sudden, during the sacrifice, a winged creature with a golden fleece appeared and took the two children away on its back to the far away land of Colchis. While flying over the sea, tragically Helle fell off the creature’s back and drowned. The sea where Helle fell was named Hellespont after her. The creature carried Phrixos safely to Colchis, where he later married the daughter of King Aeetes, sacrificed the creature to the gods and offered the king the Golden Fleece to give thanks for his hospitality. Sometime later, King Aeetes happened to hear a prophecy that not only foretold the loss of his kingdom to a stranger wishing to steal the Golden Fleece but also a betrayal by some member of his family. Aeetes killed Phrixos because he believed that he was the stranger man of the prophecy and nailed the Golden Fleece to a tree. He then had the tree and the Golden Fleece guarded by two fire breathing, bronze-hoofed bulls, known as the Khalkouri, and a dragon, to prevent anyone from stealing the fleece.


The Early Years
Jason was the son of the lawful king of Iolcus, but his uncle Pelias had usurped the throne. Pelias lived in constant fear of losing what he had taken so unjustly. He kept Jason's father a prisoner and would certainly have murdered Jason at birth. But Jason's mother deceived Pelias by mourning as if Jason had died. Meanwhile the infant was bundled off to the wilderness cave of Chiron the Centaur. Chiron tutored Jason in the lore of plants, the hunt and the civilized arts. When he had come of age, Jason set out like a proper hero to claim his rightful throne.
The First Test
Unknowingly, Jason was to play his part in a plan hatched on lofty Mount Olympus. Hera, wife of almighty Zeus himself, nursed a rage against King Pelias. For Jason's uncle, the usurper king, had honored all the gods but Hera. Rashly had he begrudged the Queen of Heaven her due. Hera's plan was fraught with danger; it would require a true hero. To test Jason's mettle, she contrived it that he came to a raging torrent on his way to Iolcus. And on the bank was a withered old woman. Would Jason go about his business impatiently, or would he give way to her request to be ferried across the stream?
The Oracle's Warning
Jason did not think twice. Taking the crone on his back, he set off into the current. And halfway across he began to stagger under her unexpected weight. For the old woman was none other than Hera in disguise. Some say that she revealed herself to Jason on the far shore; others claim that he never learned of the divine service he'd performed. Jason had lost a sandal in the swift-moving stream, and this would prove significant. For an oracle had warned King Pelias, "Beware a stranger who wears but a single sandal." When Jason arrived in Iolcus, he asserted his claim to the throne. But his uncle Pelias had no intention of giving it up, particularly to a one-shoed stranger.
The Challenge
Under the guise of hospitality, he invited Jason to a banquet. And during the course of the meal, he engaged him in conversation. "You say you've got what it takes to rule a kingdom," said Pelias. "May I take it that you're fit to deal with any thorny problems that arise? For example, how would you go about getting rid of someone who was giving you difficulties?" Jason considered for a moment, eager to show a kingly knack for problem solving. "Send him after the Golden Fleece?" he suggested. "Not a bad idea," responded Pelias. "It's just the sort of quest that any hero worth his salt would leap at. Why, if he succeeded he'd be remembered down through the ages. Tell you what, why don't you go?" 
The Argonauts
And so it came to pass that word went out the length and breadth of Greece that Jason was looking for shipmates to embark upon a perilous but glamorous adventure. And in spite of the miniscule chances of anyone surviving to lay eyes upon the Fleece let alone get past the guarding dragon and return with the prize, large numbers of heroes were ready to run the risk. These were known as the Argonauts, after their ship, the Argo. Among them were Hercules (or Heracles, to give him his proper Greek name) and the heroine Atalanta. Jason had the vessel constructed by the worthy shipwright Argus, who in a fit of vanity named her more or less after himself.
The Adventure Begins
Argus had divine sponsorship in his task, Hera having enlisted the aid of her fellow goddess Athena. This patroness of crafts secured a prow for the vessel from timber hewn at the sacred grove of Zeus at Dodona. This prow had the magical property of speaking - and prophesying - in a human voice. And so one bright autumn morning the Argo set out to sea, her benches crewed by lusty ranks of heroic rowers. And true to Pelias's fondest aspirations, it wasn't long before big troubles assailed the company. After stopping for better than a fortnight on an island populated exclusively by women, they put in at Salmydessus.

The Harpies
The king welcomed them but was in no mood for festive entertainment. Because he'd offended the gods, he'd been set upon by woman-headed, bird-bodied, razor-clawed scourges known as Harpies. These Harpies were possessed of reprehensible table manners. Every evening at dinnertime, they dropped by to defecate upon the king's repast and hung around making such a racket that he wouldn't have been able to eat had he the stomach for it. As a result, King Phineus grew thinner by the hour. Fortunately two of Jason's crew were direct descendants of the North Wind, which gave them the power to fly. And they kindly chased the Harpies so far away that the king was never bothered again.

The Clashing Rocks
In thanks, Phineus informed the Argonauts of a danger just ahead on the route to the Golden Fleece - two rocks called the Symplegades, which crashed together upon any ship passing between them. The king even suggested a mechanism by which one might avoid the effects of these Clashing Rocks. If a bird could be induced to pass between the crags first, causing them to clash together, the Argo could follow quickly behind, passing through safely before they were ready to snap shut again. By means of this device, Jason caused the rocks to spring together prematurely, nipping only the tail feathers of the bird. The Argo was able to pass between them relatively unscathed. Only her very stern was splintered.
The Flying Ram
Once arrived in Colchis, Jason had to face a series of challenges meted out by King Aeetes, ruler of this barbarian kingdom on the far edge of the heroic world. He and his people were not kindly disposed toward strangers, although on an earlier occasion he had extended hospitality to a visitor from Jason's home town. This may have been due to the newcomer's unorthodox mode of transportation. For he arrived on the back of a golden-fleeced flying ram. The stranger's name was Phrixus, and he had been on the point of being sacrificed when the ram carried him off. Having arrived safely in Colchis, he sacrificed the ram to the gods and hung its fleece in a grove. Aeetes gave him the hand of one of his daughters in marriage.

King Aeetes had taken a disliking to Jason on sight. He had no particular fondness for handsome young strangers who came traipsing into his kingdom on glorious quests featuring the trampling of his sacred grove and the carrying off of his personal property. For King Aeetes considered the Golden Fleece to be his own, and he was in the midst of telling Jason just what he could do with his precious quest when he was reminded of the obligations of hospitality by another of his daughters named Medea. Medea was motivated by more than good manners. For Hera had been looking out for Jason's interests, and she had succeeded in persuading her fellow goddess Aphrodite to intervene on Jason's behalf.
A Farmyard Chore
It was no problem at all for the Goddess of Love to arrange that Medea be stricken with passion for Jason the moment she first saw him. And it was a good thing for Jason that this was so. For not only was he spared a kingly tongue-lashing and a quick trip to the frontier, but Medea quietly offered to help him in his latest predicament. For once her father had calmed down, he had waxed suspiciously reasonable. Of course Jason could have the Fleece and anything else he required in furtherance of his quest - Aeetes couldn't imagine what had possessed him to be so uncooperative. All he required of Jason as a simple token of good faith was the merest of farmyard chores.
The Fire-Breathing Bulls

There were two bulls standing in the adjacent pasture. If Jason would be so kind as to harness them, plow the field, sow it and reap the harvest in a single day, King Aeetes would be much obliged - and only too happy to turn over the Golden Fleece. Oh, and there was one trifling detail of which Jason should be aware. These bulls were a bit unusual in that their feet were made of brass sharp enough to rip open a man from gullet to gizzard. And then of course there was the matter of their bad breath. In point of fact, they breathed flames. Along about this juncture Jason thought he heard his mommy, Queen Polymede, calling. But then, as noted, Medea took him gently aside and suggested that she might be of aid.
Plowing and Sowing
Quite conveniently for Jason, Medea was a famous sorceress, magic potions being her stock in trade. She slipped Jason a salve which, when smeared on his body, made him proof against fire and brazen hooves. And so it was that Jason boldly approached the bulls and brooked no bullish insolence. Disregarding the flames that played merrily about his shoulders and steering clear of the hooves, he forced the creatures into harness and set about plowing the field. Nor was the subsequent sowing any great chore for the now-heartened hero. Gaily strewing seed about like a nymph flinging flowers in springtime, he did not stop to note the unusual nature of the seed.

The Dragon's Teeth
Aeetes, it turns out, had got his hands on some dragon's teeth with unique agricultural properties. As soon as these hit the soil they began to sprout, which was good from the point of view of Jason accomplishing his task by nightfall, but bad in terms of the harvest. For each seed germinated into a fully-armed warrior, who popped up from the ground and joined the throng now menacing poor Jason. Aeetes, meanwhile, was standing off to the side of the field chuckling quietly to himself. It irked the king somewhat to see his daughter slink across the furrows to Jason's side, but he didn't think too much of it at the time. Having proven herself polite to a fault, maybe Medea was just saying a brief and proper farewell.
Conquest of the Seed Men
In actuality, she was once more engaged in saving the young hero's posterior. This time there was no traffic in magic embrocations. Medea merely gave Jason a tip in basic psychology. Jason, who it was quite clear by now lacked the heroic wherewithal to make the grade on his own, at least had the sense to recognize good advice. Employing the simple device suggested by Medea, he brought the harvest in on deadline with a minimum of personal effort. He simply threw a stone at one of the men. The man, in turn, thought his neighbor had done it. And in short order all the seed men had turned on one another with their swords until not one was left standing.
The Golden Fleece
Aeetes had no choice but to make as though he'd give the Fleece to Jason, but he still had no intention of doing so. He now committed the tactical error of divulging this fact to his daughter. And Medea, still entranced by the Goddess of Love, confided in turn in Jason. Furthermore, she offered to lead him under cover of darkness to the temple grove where the Fleece was displayed, nailed to a tree and guarded by a dragon. And so at midnight they crept into the sacred precinct of Ares, god of war. Jason, ever the hothead, whipped out his sword, but Medea wisely restrained his impetuosity.
The Aftermath
Instead, she used a sleeping potion to subvert the monster's vigilance. Together they made off with the Fleece and escaped to the Argo. Setting sail at once, they eluded pursuit. Thus Jason succeeded in his heroic challenge. And once returned to Greece, he abandoned Medea for another princess. For though Jason had sworn to love and honor Medea for the service she had done him, he proved as fickle in this regard as he'd been unfit for single-handed questing.
The crew included:
  • Admetus – cousin to Jason
  • Acastus – a son of Pelias and Jason’s cousin (he sailed with Jason against his fathers wishes)
  • Augeas – King of Elis
  • Castor – a horse expert
  • Echion – a son of Hermes
  • Erytus – a son of Hermes
  • Euphemus – son of Poseidon and was so fast he could race across water
  • Hercules – a son of Zeus
  • Idas – a son of Poseidon
  • Idmon – s prophet and a son of Apollo (Idmon joined crew even though he knew he would not return alive from the journey)
  • Periclymenus – a descendent of Poseidon and was able to change forms
  • Polydeuces – a son of Zeus and expert boxer
  • Neuplius – a descendent of Poseidon and expert seamenMeleager – Prince of Calydon
  • Orpheus – a son of Apollo and a great musician
  • Tiphys – the pilot of the Argo

    Myth or Reality? 
    The story of Jason and the Argonauts has been told and retold over centuries. The earliest account was written in 700 BC by Eumelos. However, the mention of the bronze giant Talos and the bronze-hoofed bulls and the subsequent discovery of the Bronze Age Civilization in 1870 may well date the Argonautic voyage to the 4th millennia BC. At the time of the story, Colchis was the farthest known land. Whether it was situated to the East or the West, this is another interesting debate. To ascertain whether the story is myth or reality, one can do nothing else but rely on the facts available.
    1. To mention some geographical facts, nowadays we know for sure that Iolcus is the modern day city of Volos and we guess that Colchis was an area in modern Georgia.
    2. Traveling from the banks of the river Phasis to the city of Aia in Colchis, the Argonauts see bodies wrapped in hides hanging from the trees. Travelers have reported this to be true in Georgia in the 17th century. It may have been some kind of ancient tradition or cruel custom that was in practice until some centuries ago.
     3. The land of Aia has not been discovered yet. In 1947, however, some excavations revealed that the town of Vani was an important part of Colchis (Georgia). An earlier excavation of 1860 had unearthed gold treasure at an ancient site near Vani. This may have been the city of Aia that Jason had visited, triggering off the tale of the Golden Fleece.
    4. The clashing rocks (Symplegades) were nothing else but the Strait of Gibraltar, or the Pillars of Hercules as they were known in the ancient times. The currents near the rocks may have been strong enough to generate enough fear amongst the ancient explorers to have created the story of the clashing rocks. Another version says that the Symplegades could have been the strait in the entance of the Propontida Sea, to the north of the Aegean, and this strait is probably the most definite.
    5. Uptil the time of Jason’s voyage, the ancient Greeks called the sea beyond the Symplegades, Axeinos Pontus meaning hostile sea. Jason’s passage through the clashing rocks and into the sea beyond was seen as an opening up to a new dimension in navigation, hereby renaming it Euxeinos Pontus, that is the welcoming sea.
    6. Two amongst the Argonauts, Castor and Polydeuces, were known as the Discouri. Some versions mention the Argonauts passing close to the North Pole. The Celts have been known to worship the Discouri as gods since ancient times. According to tradition, the Discouri had appeared on their land from the ocean. This may be attributed to the Argonauts and the presence of Castor and Polydeuces amongst them.
    7. Some Indo-European tablets dating from the 14th century BC have been revealed which show that the Hittite civilization had a myth similar to the love story of Jason and Medea. These tablets were uncovered during excavations in the 1920s-30s in central Turkey.
    8. Interestingly, a parallel theory states that the Argonauts’ voyage took them to South America. The presence of gold and precious metals in the South America may well have given rise to the story of the Golden Fleece. Jason’s adventures there could explain the ancient Hellenic inscriptions found in the inland of South America, the presence of Hellenic words in the Incan and Mayan language and the Aegean appearance of Mayan architecture.
    9. Whether Colchis (Georgia) or South America, in either case both were unknown to the ancients rendering Jason the first man to have undertaken such a long voyage.

    It is doubtful if this wonderful story is true or not. It is mostly possible that the story of Jason and the Argonauts is a very nice and exciting fable. However, one can infer a lot of this fable. Apart from the creative imagination of the Greeks who invented such a long story, we also understand that the Greek people had developed such an advanced navigation system and had thus explored the world in such an extent that they could create fables about legendary creatures and exciting adventures. Therefore, this story is mostly a combination of active imagination and historical facts, as most of the myths actually.

    Confirmation Of Learning:

    Comprehension Questions:
    1. Who is Jason?
    2. They were known as the ___________ after their ship, the Argo.
    3. Who were born in the union of King Athamas of Orchomenus and the cloud goddess Nephele?
    4. Who was the King seduced by the Queen of Thebes?
    5. Who killed Phrixos for the belief  that he was the stranger man of the prophecy? 
    6.Who is Jason's father?
    7. Who was the Goddess who test Jason's mettle?
    8. What mythological creature  possessed reprehensible table manners?
    9. Phineus informed the Argonauts of a danger just ahead on the route to the Golden Fleece - two rocks called the________________.
    10. Who was the ruler of  the barbarian kingdom Colchis?
    11.What mythological creature did Jason use in reaching Colchis?
    12. Who was Medea in Jason's life?
    13. Who was Jason's mother?
    14. What did Jason do in the farmyard?
    15. Did Jason succeeded in his heroic act?

    Discussion Questions: 
    1. In chronological order, enumerate the places Jason and the Argonauts have been.
    2. Characterize Jason in the story.
    3. What is the main conflict in the story?
    4. Comment on the structure of the story.
    5. Explain the meaning of the Golden Fleece.


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