Ancient Greek heroes - Jason and the Argonauts

The only coursing ship that ever passed this way was Argo, famed of all, when voyaging from Aeetes: and her the waves would soon have dashed on the great rocks, but Hera brought her through from love of Jason. - Homer, Odyssey 12.69-72

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The Greek tale of Jason and the Golden Fleece has been told for 3,000 years. It's a classic hero's quest tale - a sort of ancient Greek mission impossible - in which the hero embarks on a sea voyage into an unknown land, with a great task to achieve. He is in search of a magical ram's fleece, which he has to find in order to reclaim his father's kingdom of Iolkos from the usurper King Pelias.

The story is a set a generation before the time of the Trojan War, around 1300 BC, but the first known written mention of it comes six centuries later, in the age of Homer (800 BC). The tale came out of the region of Thessaly, in Greece, where early epic poetry developed. The Greeks have retold and reinterpreted it many times since, changing it as their knowledge of the physical world increased.

According to the legend, Jason was deprived of his expectation of the throne of Iolkos (a real kingdom situated in the locale of present day Volos) by his uncle, King Pelias, who usurped the throne. Jason was taken from his parents, and was brought up on Mount Pelion, in Thessaly, by a centaur named Cheiron. Meantime his uncle lived in dread of an oracle's prophecy, which said he should fear the "man with one shoe".

At the age of 20 Jason set off to return to Iolkos - on his journey losing a sandal in the river while helping Hera, Queen of the Gods, who was in disguise as an old woman. On arriving before King Pelias, Jason revealed who he was and made a claim to the kingdom. The king replied, "If I am to give you the kingdom, first you must bring me the Fleece of the Golden Ram".

And this was the hero's quest. His task would take him beyond the known world to acquire the fleece of a magical ram that once belonged to Zeus, the king of the gods. Jason's ancestor Phrixus had flown east from Greece to the land of Cochlis (modern day Georgia) on the back of this ram. King Aietes, son of Helios the sun god, had then sacrificed the ram and hung its fleece in a sacred grove guarded by a dragon. An oracle foretold that Aietes would lose his kingdom if he lost the fleece, and it was from Aietes that Jason had to retrieve it.

Why a fleece? Fleeces are connected with magic in many folk traditions. For the ancient Etruscans a gold coloured fleece was a prophecy of future prosperity for the clan. Recent discoveries about the Hittite Empire in Bronze Age Anatolia show celebrations where fleeces were hung to renew royal power. This can offer insight into Jason's search for the fleece and Aietes' reluctance to relinquish it. The fleece represented kinship and prosperity.

Jason's ship, the Argo, began its journey with a crew of 50 (which swelled to 100, including Hercules, in subsequent retellings of the myth) - known as the "Argonauts". The Greek claim that the Argo was the first ship ever built can not be true, but Jason's journey was seen by the ancient Greeks as the first long-distance voyage ever undertaken. Indeed, the voyage can be seen as a metaphor for the opening up of the Black Sea coast. Historically, once the Greeks learned to sail into the Black Sea they embarked on a period of colonisation lasting some 3,000 years - but the time they first arrived in the region is still controversial.

In the myth, once in Colchis Jason asks King Aietes to return the Golden Fleece. Aietes agrees to do so if Jason can perform a series of superhuman tasks. He has to yoke fire-breathing bulls, plough and sow a field with dragons' teeth, and overcome phantom warriors. In the meantime Aphrodite (the goddess of love) makes Medea, daughter of King Aietes, fall in love with Jason. Medea offers to help Jason with his tasks if he marries her in return. He agrees, and is enabled to complete the tasks. Thus the classic triangle of hero, dark power and female helper is formed, to be repeated in stories all the way down to Hollywood.

To continue the story. King Aietes organises a banquet, but confides to Medea that he will kill Jason and the Argonauts rather than surrender the Golden Fleece. Medea tells Jason, and helps him retrieve the Fleece. From here the Argonauts flee home, encountering further epic adventures. The ancient storytellers give several versions of the route Jason took back to Greece, reflecting changes in Greek ideas about the geography of the world.

On his return to Iolkos Jason discovers that King Pelias has killed his father, and his mother has died of grief. Medea tricks Pelias by offering to rejuvenate him, and then kills him. Jason and Medea go into exile in Corinth, where Jason betrays Medea by marrying the king's daughter. Medea takes revenge by killing her own children by Jason. In the end, Jason becomes a wanderer once more, and eventually returns to beached hull of the Argo. Here the beam of the ship (which was said to speak and was named Dodona) falls on him and kills him. His story has come full circle - as in all Greek myths, the hero's destiny is in the hands of the gods.

Excerpt taken from BBC History, written by Michael Wood