The Argosy

As the Argonauts are persistently called Minyai, and only a very lame explanation for this was given in antiquity, we might surmise that originally the argonautic legend belonged to the inhabitants of Orchomenos, or perhaps to some other settlement of the mysterious Minyan people. But as we have it, the ‘Argo which is all men’s concern,’ as Homer calls her, has sailed far away from her original owners; the geography of the story, centering as it does about the Black Sea, leads us to suppose that the outline at least of the saga grew up at Miletos, which had relations with that part of the world early in the history of Greek colonization, and whose great family, the Neleidai, claimed Minyan descent. On the other hand, Thessaly has had no small share in it, for the great voyage was begun at Pagasai, and Thessalian heroes, notably Jason (Iason or Ieson) himself, figure largely in it.

Something of the matrimonial adventures of Athamas, son of Aiolos the son of Hellen, are recounted in connection with Ino (=Leukothea). His first wife was Nephele, i.e., Cloud; a cloud-fairy, in other words (liasons of mortals with sprites of any kind are in oral narrative traditions notoriously impermanent). She bore him two children, Phrixos and Helle. Ino, Athamas’ second wife in the ordinary form of the story, hated and plotted against her stepchildren. She therefore, pretending, one may suppose, that it was a helpful charm, persuaded the women to roast the seed-corn for the next year; as there was then naturally no harvest, Delphoi was consulted concerning the famine, and the messengers bribed by Ino to bring back a false answer, that Phrixos, or Phrixos and Helle, should be sacrificed. They were, however, rescued by their mother, who brought them a golden-fleeced ram which carried them away. Riding the ram, they went across the sea towards Kolchis; Helle fell off at the point afterwards called in memory of her the Hellespont (Dardanelles), but Phrixos arrived safely. Here the king of Kolchis, Aietes, Kirke’s brother and son of Helios and Perse or Perseis, received Phrixos kindly, and gave him his daughter Chalkiope in marriage. The ram Phrixos sacrificed to Zeus Phyxios (God of Flight), and hung its fleece up in a safe place, generally a grove where a dragon guarded it. Chalkiope bore him sons, Argos, Melas, Phrontis and Kytisoros. At length he died and was buried in Kolchis.

It is clear that this is a fairly complete story, and does not necessarily lead up to what follows. The original goal of the Argo is called Aia in Homer and many other authors, i.e., simply ‘the Land’, and Aietes’ name means only ‘the man of the Land’. It is a sort of fairy place, ‘east of the sun and west of the moon’ as it were, suitable for the hiding-place of a magical treasure, a virtual pot of rainbow-gold. (Observe that the name of Aietes’ sister Kirke’s island home, Aiaie, was a cognate of her brother’s personal name.)

All manner of variants exist. Phrixos was saved by the intervention of a servant who revealed Ino’s treachery; Athamas handed Ino and her son Melikertes to him for punishment, but Dionysos rescued them, and drove Phrixos and Helle mad; in their crazed wanderings they met their mother, who gave them the ram, which was the offspring of Poseidon and Theophane. Aietes killed Phrixos, and meant to kill all his children as well, because an oracle had warned him, or soothsayers had told him, that the son of the stranger would slay him. These are merely samples, and do not include various silly attempts to rationalize the ram into a man called Krios, or a ship with a ram for figure-head.

The adventure of Phrixos, whatever the details, provided the future adventurers with a wonderful something to look for. The occasion of the voyage was as follows. Kretheus, Athamas’ brother, king of Iolkos in Thessaly (a Minyan settlement), died, leaving a son Aison and a stepson Pelias, child of Poseidon and of Kretheus’ wife and niece Tyro, and brother of Neleus the founder of the Pylian dynasty. Aison was of course the lawful heir, but Pelias somehow got possession of the throne, either deposing Aison, or simply being left, on Aison dying a natural death, as guardian of the kingdom and of his young nephew Jason. But the latter’s mother did not trust Pelias, and her son was got safely out of the way, in charge of Cheiron the centaur, who, in contrast to the general wildness of his race, was just and wise, skilled especially in music and medicine. In his cave and under the care of him and his mother Philyra Jason lived for many years, enjoying the companionship of many other princes, who were sent from all parts to be educated by Cheiron.

Meanwhile Pelias was not comfortable, for an oracle had warned him to beware of the one-sandalled man. Also, whether he knew it or not, Hera, to whom he had neglected to sacrifice, hated him. One day a handsome young man with but one foot shod walked into Iolkos. It was Jason, who had one foot bare either because it was the Magnesian custom to dress so—a bare foot gives a better grip on muddy ground—or for a reason savouring more of a folktale. There had been heavy rain, and as he came down from Cheiron’s cave he noticed on the banks of a swollen river a poor old woman who was evidently afraid to cross. He carried her over on his shoulders, but not without difficulty, for the torrent was strong, and in so doing he lost one sandal in the mud. On the other side of the stream the woman revealed herself as Hera, who thenceforth favoured him in return for his courtesy. Pelias recognized the man of destiny, and was by no means reassured on finding that it was his nephew, for his doom was to die by the force or cunning of one of the Aiolidai, his own line on the mother’s side, and Jason’s on both. So he spoke the new-comer fair, and with a plausible story of being haunted by the ghost of Phrixos, who demanded the recovery of the fleece, he easily induced Jason to set out in search of it.

Straightway, by Jason’s own efforts, and those of Hera aided by Athena, who also favoured Jason, an expedition was got ready. Argos, son of Arestor, built them a ship, the first, or the first longship at least, that ever was made, and Athena helped him with advice and also fixed in the bows a piece of wood from the oak of Dodona, which had the power of speech. Some fifty of the noblest heroes in Greece came to join, from sheer love of adventure, or induced by Hera. As might be expected, no two lists agree as to their names, for an Argonautic ancestor was a desirable addition to even the proudest pedigrees. We may, however, name a few, who are regularly present and fall into three main classes. First there are the ‘specialized’ heroes, such as Tiphys the pilot and Lynkeus the super-lookout.

Next comes an important class, the fathers of the heroes of the Trojan War, as Peleus father of Achilles, Telamon father of the greater Aias, and so on. Another category consists of those who took part in the Kalydonian boar-hunt (see story about the Kalydonian prince Meleagros). These include Meleagros himself, Laokoön his father’s brother, Iphiklos his maternal uncle, and other members of the same family. To these must be added representatives of various Greek states, put there no doubt by the local patriotism of later days, while two of the most prominent of the whole list are the obvious intruders Orpheus and Herakles. The former, who is not heard of till much later than Homer, obviously has no place in a saga already well known in Homer’s own day; the latter was too important to be left out of an adventure supposed to have happened in his days, but is simply a nuisance to the tellers of the story, since a subordinate role is absurd for him, and Jason, Argos, Tiphys and a few more have all the leading parts; hence he is got rid of as early as possible.

Sailing up the coast from Pagasai, the port of Iolkos, the heroes made their first long halt at Lemnos. Here they found everything in the hands of the women, for there were no men left. Some time before, the Lemnian women had neglected the cult of Aphrodite, who in revenge caused them to have a foul odour which disgusted their husbands. The latter filled their places with Thracian women, captured in a raid on the mainland. The women of Lemnos plotted to avenge themselves, and in a single night killed every male in the island. Only Hypsipyle showed any natural feelings, getting her aged father Thoas, son of Dionysos and king of the island, safely down to the coast, where Dionysos helped him to get away. The women, after a feeble show of resistance, were glad to come to terms with the Argonauts, who lived with them for a year, during which time they begat many children, Jason in particular wedding Hypsipyle, who bore him two sons, Euneos and Thoas; Homer names Euneos as king in Lemnos at the time of the Trojan War. Finally Herakles urged them to continue their adventure.

The next halt was, in some accounts, Samothrace, where they all were initiated into the famous local mysteries, by advice of Orpheus. Next they came to Kyzikos, where they were hosptably received by the natives, the Doliones, and Kyzikos their king. They did good service in return for their welcome, for Herakles shot with his arrows the Gegeneis ("Earth-Born") who infested the uplands. Unfortunately, when they departed, a storm drove them back in the night; the Doliones mistook them for enemies, and in the ensuing scuffle Kyzikos was killed. Having mourned for him, the Argonauts went on to Kios, where they landed because Herakles had broken his oar. He went to get material for a new one, and the rest prepared supper meanwhile; Hylas, son of Theiodamas, Herakles’ favourite, who acted as his page, went for water, and soon found a good spring. But the water-nymphs, attracted by his beauty, pulled him in, and Polyphemos and Herakles, coming in answer to his cry for help, could not find him. They roved the woods all night, and at last the Argonauts, after a hot debate, went on without them. Later, Herakles met the two sons of Boreas, Zetes and Kalais, who had advised leaving him, and killed them both in the island of Tenos. He set up grave-stones over them, which always moved when the North Wind (Boreas) blew. Glaukos, after the Boreadai had given their advice to the Argonauts, appeared from the sea and told them that Herakles was destined to other exploits than this.

As to Hylas, Apollonios says that in his own day the people of Kios continued yearly to search and call for him, in obedience to orders given by Herakles.

The Argonauts pushed on, and came to the land of the Bebrykes, whose king, Amykos, was the son of Poseidon by a Melia (ash-tree nymph) of Bithynia, in which region they had now arrived. He insisted on boxing with all strangers. The crew of the Argo included the Dioskuroi, Kastor and Polydeukes; the former was a mighty horseman, the latter a boxer. He promptly accepted Amykos’ challenge and knocked him out after a brisk set-to. The Bebrykians, who were bad sportsmen, broke into the ring with clubs and other barbarous weapons, but were soon routed by the Argonauts.

The next stop was Salmydessos, and here they met with the aged king Phineus, who was blind and in great misery. The reason for this is variously given, as is the genealogy of this interesting character. Hesiod (the name is of course applied to the composers of many poems, no doubt by sundry authors) gave two accounts—one, that he was blinded by Helios, because he preferred a long life to eyesight; another, that he was punished with blindness for having shown Phrixos the way to Aia—a fragment of a version of Phrixos’ story that has not survived.

Another story, originating so far as we know in Attic authors, is that he had had two children by his first wife, Kleopatra daughter of the North Wind; after her death he married another wife, who so wrought upon him that he either blinded his children himself, or let her do so. In one continuation of the story, Zeus gave him his choice between death and blindness; he chose the latter, which offended Helios mightily, and induced him to send the Harpies as a further punishment. Or, and here again we meet a persistent theme, he had the gift of prophecy and misused it to betray the secrets of the gods to all and sundry, wherefore the double penalty of blindness and the Harpies’ persecution of him. The Harpies carry him away in one version, but generally they off or befoul his food with their excrements, so that he nearly dies of hunger.

When the Argonauts came, they soon reached an agreement with him, to deliver him of the Harpies if he would show them how to reach their goal (for they did not know the way to Kolchis); or Zetes and Kalais took pity on him, as he was their brother-in-law. In either case, they awaited the coming of the Harpies, and then rose into the air with drawn swords (for, as befits the children of a wind-god, they were winged), and chased the monsters until, in the usual form of the story, they came to the Strophades (which with a little good will can be taken to mean ‘isles of turning or return’), where a divine messenger, Hermes or Iris, bade them go back and swore that Phineus should have no more trouble from the Harpies.

Phineus then gave them a prophetic outline of their further adventures, and in particular, told them how to deal with the greatest obstacle, the Symplegades—the Clashing Rocks. These stood at the entrance to the Pontos, and crashed together every now and again with irresistible force. He advised them, when they came near to this spot, to let loose a dove, which would fly between the rocks as they opened. If it was caught, they were to turn back; but if it got through safely, they were to wait till the rocks opened again, and then row their hardest between them. They took his advice, and the Symplegades just clipped the tail-feathers of the dove. They then rowed between them, and got through with only a little damage to the stern-works of the Argo.

After this they had no adventures of any importance in the Pontos; but landing in the country of the Mariandynoi, whose king, Lykos, received them hospitably, they lost Idmon, one of the two seers who were of their company (the other was Mopsos; it is noteworthy that there is rather an overplus of prophets in this story: Phineus, Mopsos, Idmon and Orpheus all taking part in one way or another). Idmon was killed by a boar while they were hunting; Tiphys the helmsman also died, of a disease; his place was taken by Ankaios, or Erginos. Under his guidance, they came to the Island of Ares, where the Stymphalian birds had taken refuge after Herakles had driven them from their native place; these they managed to frighten off by striking their shields. Here also they picked up the sons of Phrixos, who had set out from Kolchis to visit their father’s native land, but had been shipwrecked. With this not unwelcome addition to their numbers, they pressed on and reached Kolchis safely.

Now we pass into pure and simple Märchen. Aietes had no mind to let the Fleece go (it is likely enough, if we had the earliest forms of the story in full, that the luck of his kingdom was contained in it, or at any rate that it was a powerfully magical object). After much bluster, he announced his terms; they might take the Fleece, if one of them would plough a large field with a pair of bronze bulls, the gift of Hephaistos to him, which breathed out fire, and would then sow the field with some of the teeth of Kadmos’ dragon, which Aietes had in his possession, and finally, would deal with the armed men who sprang up from the seed. Now Aietes had a second daughter, Medeia; like her father’s sister Kirke, she was an enchantress, a priestess of Hekate. Hera persuaded Aphrodite to make her fall in love with Jason, which she did, through the agency of Eros; in the Latin version of the story from Valerius Flaccus, she herself appears in the form of Kirke to finish the work of overcoming Medeia’s scruples. Medeia therefore provided Jason with a wonderful ointment which made him and his armour proof against fire and all weapons for the space of a day. His own strength and skill enabled him to master and yoke the bulls and plough the field; the armed men he got rid of in the same way as Kadmos had, namely by throwing a stone among them to set them fighting. But Aietes suspected Medeia, and planned to set upon the heroes in the night and destroy them and their ship. Medeia therefore made her way secretly to them, and urged them to fly at once. On the way, she led them to the grove where the Fleece was, charmed the dragon that guarded it, and showed them the Fleece itself, which they took.

Aietes discovered their flight, and either made after them or sent his son Apsyrtos in pursuit. Medeia, in the former version, had taken Apsyrtos with her (in this form of the story, he was a child); she now killed him, cut him up, and strewed his limbs in the way of her father, who stayed to pick them up and so lost the fugitives. In the latter version of the story, she beguiled Apsyrtos into an ambush, where he was set upon and killed by the Argonauts, thus discouraging his followers.

The object of the journey was now accomplished, and the return began. How this was achieved is a subject on which the ancient authorities differ widely, but their answers to the question fall into three main categories (ignoring the opinion of those who say they returned the way they came).

  1. The Argonauts went to the very verge of the earth, got into the stream of Ocean, and so sailed around until they somehow got into the Mediterranean again, and thus home to Thessaly.

  2. They went up the Istros (Danube), as far as it would take them; then carried their ship overland, got into the North Sea, presumably down the Rhine, and passed around the British Isles, down the coasts of France and Spain, and through the Straits of Gibraltar.

  3. After going up the Istros, they passed overland into the Eridanos, a mysterious river made up of hazy notions of several European streams including the Po in Italy, and so down to the Mediterranean.

All three versions have this in common, that the Argonauts, wherever and however they reached the Mediterranean, touched at several places traditionally connected with the Minyai. A few of their adventures in this connexion are important enough to be remembered.

After getting into the Tyrrhenian Sea, they landed at Aithalia (Elba), where they wiped off their sweat with pebbles from the beach; ever since then, the pebbles have looked like human skin.

Knowing that the wrath of Zeus pursued them for the murder of Apsyrtos (for the speaking prow of the Argo had informed them), they went to Aiaie, Kirke’s island, and appealed to her, as an expert in all magical matters, to purify them, which she did.

The Planktai, a doublet of the Symplegades, were encountered, but the unseen help of Thetis and her sister-Nereids steered them between these and the double danger of Skylla and Charybdis. Just before this, they had passed the Sirens, but Orpheus saved all but Butes from listening to their song, by plag on his lyre. Butes jnmped overboard, but was rescued by Aphrodite.

Wandering south, they were stranded in the Syrtis, and forced to carry the Argo overland till at last they came to Lake Tritonis. Here, as they made their way painfully out through the channels of the lake, befell the adventure with Triton (read the file about Triton. During their overland journey, they came to the Gardens of the Hesperides.

Getting nearer home at last, they touched at Crete. Here a bronze giant, Talos, prevented their landing. This monster was a survival of the Bronze race, or had been specially made by Hephaistos, and given by him, or by Zeus, to Europe, or Minos. He guarded the island by walking around it three times a day, and those whom he caught he burned to death, either by becoming exceedingly hot himself or by throwing them into a fire. But he had one weak spot. In one heel was the entrance to a vein, closed by a bronze pin, or a membrane; let that be opened, and he would bleed to death. Medeia, by her magic, sent him into something like a hypnotic trance, and he was soon dispatched by taking out the pin, or bursting the membrane.

Returned to Iolkos, Medeia proceeded to take vengeance against Pelias. He was old, and she persuaded his daughters that she had a charm to make him young; to demonstrate it she cooked, in a cauldron of water impregnated with certain magic herbs, Jason’s aged father Aison. He came forth a young man. She repeated the process with an old ram, who reappeared a tender he-lamb. Clearly, we have a doublet here, for either one of these experiments would have convinced the most sceptical, and in some accounts only the ram appears, Aison being by that time dead, whether by Pelias’ machinations or otherwise. In any case, Pelias’ daughters were convinced, and repeated the experiment with him; but this time Medeia was careful not to give them the right herbs, and Pelias regained neither youth nor life.

This was too much for the patience of Akastos, Pelias’ son, who drove Jason and Medeia out of the country; they settled at Corinth, and there, after some years, Jason cast Medeia off and married Glauke, daughter of the local king, Kreon. Medeia sent the bride a robe and tiara smeared with a drug which burnt her and her father, who tried to rescue her, to death, and then escaped in a winged chariot. Her two children, Mermeros and Pheres, were killed either by herself (a story invented perhaps by Euripides, who certainly is the first to tell it) or by the Corinthians; in the latter legend, which is the Corinthian version, their vengeful ghosts destroyed the Corinthian children until certain rites were instituted to appease them.

Jason himself had dedicated the Argo to Poseidon, at the Isthmos; one day, as he sat beneath it, a part of the woodwork fell upon him and killed him. Medeia escaped to Athens, where we meet her again in the story of Theseus.

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