One day shortly after Heracles had finished carrying out his many labors, and was being feted throughout the land as the greatest hero Greece had ever known, an elderly and regal but devious-looking man came to Delphi. And indeed, the shady reputation of this man, whose name was Pelias, preceded him. He was the acknowledged king of a burgeoning port called Iolcus, in the northern region of Greece known as Thessaly. Yet rumors about his path to power followed him everywhere. People whispered about how his uncle Aeson, the previous king of Iolcus, had disappeared under mysterious circumstances some twenty years before, as had Aeson’s son Promachus, the next rightful successor to the throne. Meanwhile the king’s other son Jason had died in infancy of some unspecified malady. By these ominous happenstances alone had the kingship fallen to Pelias.
Although Pelias’s manner did no more than his reputation to convince the people of Delphi that he was a just man, he was duly granted an audience with the oracle when he requested one. Like many men of importance who made it a policy to visit Apollo’s oracle from time to time, he had come not so much for an answer to a specific question as for general advice about how he should manage his city.
But on this occasion he got more than he bargained for. The oracle relayed the message that his doom would come at the hands of a man who would be wearing just one sandal at the time of their first meeting. The god would say nothing more, no matter how much Pelias begged the oracle to question him further. And so Pelias went home again, much discomfited.
Not many months thereafter, a striking young man came to Iolcus, with long golden locks rippling down over his cloak, which was made from the skin of an enormous leopard he claimed to have shot himself. He was so splendid to gaze upon that the people of the city wondered among themselves whether he might be a god. He certainly looked the part, and his fine speech seemed equally worthy of divinity.
The commotion the visitor caused eventually led Pelias to the town square. And when he looked upon the youth standing there at the center of the crowd, his blood was chilled. For, incongruously, the newcomer wore but a single sandal. As he had already explained to the crowd around him, he had lost the other one in the mud of a nearby riverbank whilst helping an old woman to cross.
Still, Pelias was nothing if not a master dissembler. Swallowing his shock and fear, he spoke to the newcomer in the gruff tone by which he was accustomed to demonstrate his supreme status. “What land, stranger, do you claim to be your country?” he asked with open suspicion. “Who are your parents? Tell me of your origin and shame yourself not by hateful lies.”
Unfazed by Pelias’s aggressive tone, the stranger began to speak in a strong, clear voice which carried easily through the crowd. “I am none other than Jason, son of the dear departed King Aeson” — a thrill rushed through the crowd at these words — “and I have come to Iolcus to reclaim my birthright. You, Pelias, doubtless believed my death within days of my birth to be a happy accident, one which perhaps saved you the trouble of killing me yourself. But in fact a few elders of the town, seeing what you were about, knowing not how to stop you otherwise, faked my death. They sent me to be raised in a tiny village far, far away. And now, as I say, I have returned for what is mine. I warn you additionally that, if I should learn that the rumors about you being responsible for the deaths of my father and brother are true, I will have my revenge!”
Such a speech, delivered by such a figure, carrying with it the weight of Apollo’s prophecy, would have intimidated many a less guilty man. But Pelias, however unjust he was, wasn’t without his own form of shifty bravery. He quailed only momentarily before the force of Jason’s words. He thought fast, knowing that everything depended on what he said next. “If you are who you say you are,” he said carefully, “I am sure that you don’t wish to inflict the horrors of civil war upon this city which you claim to be your birthright. Therefore I will make a deal with you. Our dead ancestor Phrixus has recently spoken to me through an oracle. His spirit cannot know peace until the Golden Fleece of the ram that once bore him away from Greece has been returned here. I am an old man, ill-equipped for such a quest. But you are in the flower of your youth. Go and fulfill this quest. By putting the soul of your ancestor at rest, you will prove to everyone that you are who you claim to be. But if you dare not to accept this quest, or fail in the carrying out” — here his voice hardened and grew louder — “all who live here will know you to be the would-be usurper I already believe you to be!”
Now, the legend of Phrixus and the golden ram was well-known to everyone in Iolcus. The royal family of the city had been founded by Athamas, the husband of Ino, who was herself the daughter of the storied King Cadmus of Thebes. After Hera had tricked the ill-starred couple into killing both of their own children, Ino had cast herself into the sea, but Athamas had wandered northward in his delirium of grief. Eventually he had recovered his wits and remarried, settling in the village that would become the city of Iolcus.
Phrixus had been a son of Athamas. When several terrible harvests threatened the hardscrabble village with starvation, a false oracle, jealous of the status Athamas and his family enjoyed, had said that Phrixus must be sacrificed in order to appease the gods. Athamas had resisted the demand as long as he could, but at last the desperate villagers had ripped the boy from his father’s arms and taken him to the sacrificial altar. But just as they were about to cut his throat, a golden ram had appeared out of the ether and snatched Phrixus away. Hermes had then materialized to condemn the false oracle, saying she should receive the same sentence of execution she had been so eager to mete out to an innocent boy. Phrixus, the god had explained, would be carried far away by the ram, where he would live and die apart from the people who had been willing to murder him so wantonly.
Needless to say, the message Pelias claimed to have received from some unnamed oracle of his own had never actually come to him at all. Indeed, he had no particular reason to believe this Golden Fleece still existed. It was simply a pretext to send Jason away on a hopeless quest that would in all likelihood get him killed. Jason himself more than half suspected this. And yet, called out like this before everyone, he could hardly fail to agree to undertake the quest, just as the devious Pelias had known he must. He would heed the call of honor, and trust in the gods to see him through.
In fact, Jason was soon so taken by his dreams of glory that he all but forgot the purpose behind it all. He sent word southward, throughout all the rest of Greece, calling for heroes who wished to join him on a grand adventure. His recruiting efforts were aided by the fact that most of the gods wished him well on his quest. Thus Apollo made it clear to several heroes who came to inquire of his oracle at Delphi that he would look favorably on any who saw fit to join the quest. Even Hera saw the justice of Jason’s cause, and planted an impulse in the heart of many a hero which made him look toward Iolcus. And so the heroes came — well over half a hundred of them in all. Between them, they constituted all of the very bravest and strongest and cleverest in the land; many of them were the sons or grandsons of gods. No one wanted to be left out. Even Heracles, that greatest hero of all, left off celebrating the restoration of his father to his rightful place in Tiryns and made the long journey north to Iolcus.
While the heroes were gathering around him, Jason was supervising the building of a proud ship with fifty oars, which he named the Argo after its shipwright, a grizzled veteran of the sea named Argus. Argus carved a magnificent oaken statue of Athena for the ship’s figurehead, as a way of seeking favor with a goddess who had been known to come to the aid of travelers in need. The group of heroes who were to sail on the Argo named themselves the Argonauts.
When the day for sailing arrived, Jason stood on the deck of the ship before the most impressive crew ever assembled while the populace of Iolcus looked on from the shore. “All is ready for departure, and the breeze blows fair,” he said. “Therefore I will make no long delay with speechifying. But let us now elect the bravest and greatest of us all as our leader.” And he, along with everyone else, turned his gaze toward Heracles.
But that hero was having none of it. “Let no one of you offer this honor to me. For I will refuse it. Further, I forbid any of the rest of you to stand up. The hero who brought us all together should be the leader of our host.”
Thus was Jason chosen to be the leader of the Argonauts, for no one even among these bravest of all men dared to defy Heracles. He accepted the honor simply. “If you entrust your glory to my care, then I say, let us be about our task!” With that, the crew all took to their seats and broke out the oars, and the Argo danced away upon the waves under a freshening breeze and a clear blue sky. Unbeknownst to the heroes, all of the gods looked down upon them from above, even as the people of Iolcus cheered their departure and prayed for their safe return with the Golden Fleece — all of the people, that is, except one, who sat brooding as usual in his palace.
With no clue where the golden ram might have flown all those years ago, the heroes elected to sail where the winds and currents sent them, trusting to divine providence to put them on the right path in the end. Although the Argo had departed with good omens under auspicious skies, their voyage was not to be an easy one, nor would their behavior be unblemished over the course of it.
In fact, they very nearly deserted their quest after making their very first landfall, upon the island of Lemnos. It was inhabited only by women, who after years of mistreatment at the hands of their menfolk had risen up to kill or drive away all of them. Now, though, they missed men sorely, while the Argonauts, having spent weeks at sea to get here, were equally eager for the relief the women offered. They lingered on Lemnos for days, then weeks on end; even Jason showed no inclination to sail on. Like many of his company, he impregnated his chosen consort, the leader of the women.
Finally Heracles, who almost alone among the crew had remained faithful to his beloved wife Megara, gathered them together and scolded them for their behavior. “Wretched men, is it for want of marriage that we have come thither? Are our own countrywomen not good enough for us? Do we wish to remain here forever, plowing this rich soil of Lemnos instead? No fair renown will we win thereby; the Golden Fleece will not come to us here of its own accord.”
The Argonauts could only listen in shame-faced silence, for they knew he was correct. They made their reluctant farewells to the women of Lemnos, and the Argo put to sea once more. But the many children they had fathered, born in the months after their departure, would grow up to form the nucleus of a new population on the island, who live there still to this day.
The Argo sailed through the strait known as the Hellespont and into the sea known as Propontis, coming ashore on its southern side in the region known as Mysia near a city known as Cyzicus, whose king had the same name. The people there treated the Argonauts with great hospitality. Their king was almost as young as Jason, and newly married at that, but he did everything in his power to entertain the heroes and make their stay a comfortable one.
But there lived on an isthmus just north of Cyzicus a tribe of monsters known as the Earthborn, fierce fighters with six arms each, who harried the city constantly. When they espied the Argo lying in the harbor with the rich foreigners all around it, they rushed to attack. Fortunately, Heracles happened to be out wandering that day just where the strip of land separating the isthmus from the mainland is at its narrowest. He loosed his mighty bow, holding the monsters at bay there at the bottleneck while his favorite companion among the heroes, a youth named Hylas, rushed back to gather the others. Together the Argonauts pressed a counterattack against the Earthborn, eliminating the scourge once and for all. When they were through, they stacked the monsters like wood along the beach at low tide, to become food for fish and birds when the tide came in. The people of Cyzicus were grateful as could be, and stuffed the Argo‘s hold with their gifts and provisions before sending the heroes on their way.
But there followed a tragic accident. The Argo put to sea amidst contrary winds and currents, and her crew soon lost all sense of direction. Late that night, the winds and currents took her ashore again. The Argonauts thought they had sailed a considerable distance northward, but they were in fact just a few leagues from where they had made landfall last time. When they saw the lights of Cyzicus, they believed it to be a city new to them, and marched cautiously upon it.
Meanwhile the people of Cyzicus, seeing the Argonauts’ torches advancing toward them, assumed them to belong to some other tribe of the Earthborn who had escaped the carnage, and were now come to wreak their revenge on the city following the departure of the Argo. And so the people marched out to meet them in battle behind their king. So certain were they that they fired their arrows into the Argonauts’ ranks without stopping to inquire further — whereupon the Argonauts responded in kind, giving better than they got. Jason himself impaled the king on his spear.
It wasn’t until morning that both sides realized what had transpired. Many tears followed; the queen of Cyzicus was so grieved by this senseless loss of her husband that she hanged herself. The Argonauts spent three more days in the city, lamenting and honoring the dead alongside the populace.
On the evening before the Argonauts’ planned departure, Hylas, the favored young companion of Heracles, went into the woods to fetch water, not realizing he was doing so from a spring which was sacred to the nymphs of Mysia. Outraged at his failure to perform the proper ceremonies, several of the capricious beings leaped upon him, threw him into the spring, and held him underwater until he drowned.
One of the townspeople heard the sounds of a struggle coming from the direction where Hylas had just wandered, and rushed over to tell Heracles. “Hylas has gone to the sacred spring, but robbers have attacked him and are carrying him off, or beasts are tearing him to pieces,” he wailed. “I heard his cry!”
At this, Heracles rushed off into the forest on the trail of his friend. Yet when he arrived at the spring he could find no trace of Hylas. Assuming that his friend had indeed been carried off by robbers, he set off to find him, neglecting even to tell the other heroes where he was going. He would wander for months over the land, fruitlessly, before finally making his way back to Greece alone. The loss of Hylas became the first taste of true sorrow to encroach upon the heretofore charmed life of Greece’s greatest hero. It would not, alas, be the last. For, just as Zeus had once promised him at Delphi, his life would be marked by as much tragedy as triumph.
The rest of the Argonauts waited on Heracles for twelve more days before reluctantly sailing on without him. They next made landfall near the city of Salmydessus, on the easternmost coast of Thrace at the mouth of the strait known as the Bosphorus. Not even the Argonauts dared to enter the Bosphorus proper because of the Clashing Rocks at its narrowest point: these being a pair of huge cliffs that came together to crush any ship which attempted to pass between them.
In a tiny cottage near Salmydessus lived an aged prophet named Phineus who had angered Zeus by speaking too plainly of the things he knew, even when it cast the gods in a bad light. Therefore Zeus had blinded him, then added to his woes a more cruelly ingenious punishment. At every mealtime, a band of harpies — foul-smelling carrion birds with the heads and torsos of human hags — would swoop down upon him and steal all of his food. They would leave behind in its stead just a few decaying scraps of gristle. These Phineus choked down to keep himself just barely alive, perpetually on the ragged edge of starvation.
When the Argonauts stumbled across the gaunt old man in his rude dwelling, Phineus recognized them immediately as the heroes they were. “Listen, you bravest of all the Greeks, whom by an illegitimate king’s ruthless command Jason is leading on the ship Argo in quest of the Golden Fleece,” he said. He smiled, a little proudly, at their consternation. “Yes, I know who you are. I can still divine, even in my bitter affliction.” Then he explained his plight to the heroes and begged for their help.
So, the heroes prepared a fine feast there in the clearing outside Phineus’s cottage, roasting copious quantities of meat. Just as Phineus moved to raise his first bite of the succulent stuff to his trembling mouth, the harpies arrived as usual. This time, however, the Argonauts were there with swords and bows. They shot down several of the monsters and drove off the rest while the old man ate his fill for the first time in many a year. Soon after, Zeus, impressed despite himself by the heroes’ compassion and bravery, sent Phineus a message. The harpies would not bother him again, the god promised — and he was true to his word.
Through the mouth of Phineus, Zeus also shared some advice with the Argonauts, providing their aimless wandering with a much-needed sense of direction. They must, he said, pass between the Clashing Rocks to achieve their goal. “Let fly a dove just before you reach the rocks. If she flies between them unscathed, grip the oars and press on with all the speed you have in you. But if the dove is crushed between them, turn around, devote yourselves to prayers and sacrifices ashore, and try again some other day. For you could not escape an evil doom on this day even if the Argo was made of solid bronze.” Then Zeus, still speaking through Phineus, gave them much more advice about where and how they should sail after they passed through the Bosphorus — for at that point they would find themselves upon waters which no other Greek vessel had ever sailed, beyond the boundaries of maps which had heretofore been bounded by the deadly Clashing Rocks. When they had heard all of this and made sacrifices to the god in gratitude, the Argonauts said farewell to Phineus and returned to their ship.
The Clashing Rocks were terrible to behold when the Argo came within view of them. Every minute or so — far more frequently than the swiftest ship could possibly sail between them — they came barreling together, sending forth a towering wave of water which threatened to swamp the Argo even from a distance of several leagues. Undaunted, Jason released the dove as instructed. As the heroes looked on, it flew confidently northward between the rocks, and cleared them just as they clashed together yet again.
With that omen to inspire them, the ship’s crew began to row for all they were worth, directly into the teeth of the maelstrom. Every minute the Argo climbed a mountain of water that seemed as high as Olympus, then plunged down into a trough that seemed as deep as Hades. Responding to the shouted encouragements of Jason at the helm, the heroes — the strongest band of rowers ever assembled — attacked the water with such force that their oars bent like arrow strings, yet the ship barely crept forward in the face of the torrent that was constantly roiling toward them. It seemed impossible that they could even reach the rocks, much less pass safely between them. But their effort was such that at last they did reach them, whereupon Athena, acting under the instructions of Zeus, came down from Olympus to halt the rocks’ motion entirely. The Argo sailed through unimpeded, to be vomited out by the current on the other side like a disagreeable meal. From that moment on, the Clashing Rocks clashed no more, leaving the Bosphorus free for the passage of other vessels.
And so the Argo sailed into the strange seas beyond, guided still by the words of Zeus, who had told its crew to seek out a port far to the east known as Colchis; there, he had said, they would find the thing they sought in the hands of the king of the city. After yet more adventures among the peoples who dwelt along these unknown shores, they finally reached their goal.
As the heroes beached the Argo at the mouth of a river just outside of Colchis, Hera and Athena watched from above. The two headstrong goddesses, who were usually feuding with one another about something or other, were today enjoying a rare moment of harmony as they considered how Jason might succeed in stealing the Golden Fleece from its possessor, King Aeëtes of Colchis.
“What are you thinking?” asked Hera. “Have you some plan to help them to seize the Golden Fleece by force, or will you perhaps help them to deceive the king here with soft words?”
“I confess that I haven’t yet settled upon a scheme,” replied Athena, “although I have thought of many possibilities.”
“I have an idea,” said Hera. “Let us ask Aphrodite to bid her son Eros to speed his shaft at Medea, the enchantress daughter of Aeëtes, on Jason’s behalf. With the aid of Medea’s wiles, Jason can hardly fail.”
Athena was slightly taken aback at this; neither she nor Hera was on particularly friendly terms with the mercurial goddess of love. But she acquiesced reluctantly: “I will come with you, but you must speak when we meet her.” And so they flew back toward Mount Olympus.
Aphrodite lived in a grand palace among the clouds which Hephaestus, the lame and ugly god of building and craftsmanship, who was hopelessly smitten with her, had built for her. She greeted the two other goddesses in her sumptuous hall with a note of raillery. “Good friends, what occasion brings you here after so long? Why have such important goddesses as you chosen to visit humble little me now?”
“We have no time to bandy words,” Hera said. “Jason is near his goal now — a goal which most of us gods have agreed we would like to see him achieve. But the thing still hangs in the balance; while the Fates have ordained that Jason shall be the death of Pelias in the end, they haven’t said under what circumstances. We would all prefer it to be a just execution by a returning hero, to properly punish the bitter old man for his many crimes. But we need your help to ensure that this is so.”
Flighty Aphrodite, unused to being taken so seriously, was flattered that the pair had chosen to ask her of all the gods for help. She puffed up immediately. “Whatever my weak arms can effect, I will do,” she simpered.
“Never fear, we do not have need of might or strength,” said Hera. “We ask only that you have your boy Eros charm Medea, Aeëtes’s daughter, with love for Jason. With her wily cleverness on his side, he cannot fail to come away with the Golden Fleece.”
Aphrodite betrayed some disappointment at this, and the customary note of cloying petulance crept back into her voice. “I suspect that he would obey you better than he would me. He still shows some shame before others, but constantly disobeys his mother. Last time I was with him, I had to threaten that I would break his precious bow and arrows just to get him to behave!” Hera and Athena smiled wryly at one another upon hearing this; Aphrodite did love to play the long-suffering mother. Their smiles were not lost on the goddess of love. “I see that my problems are a matter for jest with you,” she flounced. “But never mind. I shall attempt to coax my wayward boy to do as you ask.”
Now, Eros was indeed the son of Aphrodite, the product of a dalliance with the grim and violent Ares. He appeared in the form of a beautiful teenage boy, and matched his physical appearance with an adolescent’s mental attitude toward life in general. He loved equally sex and war, and was even more impulsive than either of his parents; Aphrodite’s complaints about him may have been affected, but they weren’t without any basis. His favorite sport was to shoot mortals with a bow and arrow which caused the victim to fall instantly in love with another being of Eros’s choosing. It was this ability which Hera and Athena now hoped to get him to bend to some more practical purpose than his own ribald amusement.
Aphrodite found Eros playing a game of jacks with a mortal teenage boy, almost as beautiful as himself, whom he had taken up from the earth below to toy with. As usual, he was cheating at the game. “Why do you smile so, my little rogue? Because you have overcome an innocent child by cheating?” said Aphrodite with more affection than venom. “I will give you a gift to smile about: this perfect golden ball, made for me by Hephaestus. When you throw it, it leaves a trail behind it like a meteor, until it comes back to your hand. See?” And she demonstrated. “I will give this to you if you shoot the daughter of Aeëtes in far-off Colchis and charm her with love for the hero Jason right away.”
Eros begged to be given the golden ball first, saying he would faithfully carry out her charge thereafter, but Aphrodite knew her son too well to be taken in by him. So, he shouldered his bow and arrow, dismissed his playmate, and set off for Colchis.
Meanwhile Jason and the rest of his company were finishing a discussion beside the Argo. “Often words can accomplish what force of arms cannot,” concluded Jason. “I will go into Colchis with just a few of you, while the rest of you remain here. Hopefully I can convince the king to part with the Golden Fleece peacefully.” He chose those few who should accompany him, and the party departed.
The little delegation from the Argo had no inkling of the splendor which awaited them. Unusually for a barbarian, King Aeëtes enjoyed divine favor; he was in fact a great favorite of the tireless builder Hephaestus, whose work provided his only respite from his all-consuming love for Aphrodite. The stately gates and columns of the palace of Colchis were made of purest bronze, and in the courtyard were four fountains which flowed ceaselessly: one gushing milk, one wine, one fragrant oil, and one cool clear water. The king greeted the wanderers as such distinguished guests deserved to be welcomed, with great ceremony there in the courtyard before his assembled ministers and courtiers.
While the company mingled and filled their cups with wine direct from the fountain, Eros crept along the balcony above them. Spotting Medea amidst the crowd, he notched an arrow to his bow and let fly. His aim was true.
But Eros’s arrows were not like the deadly ones of Heracles. Medea felt nothing at all when this one struck her — until, the next time her glance fell upon Jason, she was filled with a longing that was like nothing she had ever experienced. Giggling to himself, knowing he had succeeded once more in sowing chaos in the lives of mortals, Eros flew back to Mount Olympus to collect his bauble.
King Aeëtes had at first been happy to welcome his guests from far away, but when, after they had bathed and eaten, Jason broached the real purpose of their visit, he went immediately into a rage. “What right have you, bandits from afar, to my greatest treasure?” he demanded. “Do you also dream of taking my scepter and my kingdom away from me? If so, your end will be swift, violent, and painful!”
“We have no such desires,” replied Jason levelly. “I am guided not by greed, but by fate, as embodied in the ruthless command of a pretender to the throne that is rightfully mine. Believe me, I have no desire for any other throne. Grant us the favor we ask of you and all of my homeland of Greece will honor you for it. But” — and here menace entered his voice — “we must leave here with the Golden Fleece, whether we have acquired it by peaceful means or otherwise. The gods themselves support me in my quest.”
“You claim to be a great hero who enjoys even more divine favor than the one who occupies this palace,” answered the shrewd Aeëtes. “So be it. I will make a deal with you. I will test your mettle. If you pass the test, you may take my Golden Fleece and return to your homeland with it. But if you fail, you will die, and the rest of your companions here will be sworn to leave this city empty-handed, never to return. What say you?”
Jason sighed at this second test within his first test, both of them engineered by devious minds who intended for him to fail. Yet he had no choice but to bow his head in tired acquiescence. “Fair enough.”
“Your trial, then, is this. I have two bulls in my pasture with feet of bronze, who breathe fire from their jaws,” Aeëtes said. “You must yoke the beasts to a plow and drive them across the field. Then you must plant a special seed which I will provide. Actually, it is not a seed at all, but rather the teeth of a dragon. The teeth will rise up again from the ground as armed men who call themselves Spartoi, who will instantly attack you. You must kill all of them. If you do these things — do them alone, mind you — you will have proved yourself to be worthy of my greatest single treasure.”
Jason was taken aback at the magnitude of the challenge, but determined not to show it. “I will either succeed in these deeds or die in their attempting,” he replied in a steady voice. There was nothing else to be said.
“I suggest you return to your ship and sleep, then. Your trial will take place in the morning.”
Medea had witnessed all of this, sitting there with the others members of the king’s court at her place behind the banquet table. When she went to bed that night, she couldn’t banish Jason from her thoughts. Every detail echoed in her mind: what he looked like, what clothing he wore, what he said, how he sat, how he walked. She wept bitter tears without end, for she was certain that he would die on the morrow. She could not understand her grief for a man she had never even spoken to, but neither could she deny it. She could only weep and wail through the night, even as Jason tossed and turned in his own rude bower back beside the Argo.
At dawn, Medea made a fateful decision. Although she loved her father dearly, she would betray him for this man to whom she had never yet spoken a single word. She was, after all, an enchantress, one whose powers were known throughout the land, who was accustomed to dispense herbal remedies to the sick from the casket that now lay at her bedside. She had one treasure therein which no one other than her knew about: an ointment, made from the blood of Prometheus which dripped to the ground every time the eagle ate his liver, as collected by some brave adventurer in the years before Heracles had freed the Titan from his torment. The old peddler who had sold it to her had told her that, if rubbed on the body of any mortal man, it would give that person godlike invincibility in battle for twelve hours. She could only hope that he had told her the truth.
Medea knew that Jason would go down alone to the sacred stream that ran through Colchis to make his final prayers and ablutions to the gods before his trial of courage began. With trembling heart, she made her own way there with her precious ointment to await him.
When he came upon her in this sacred spot where no one else ought to have been, Jason’s outrage at the affront quickly fell away, so piteously did she shrink before him. Mistaking the cause of her nervousness, he spoke kindly to her. “Why do you fear me? I am not like some other men, who take women against their will.”
This kindness made Medea love him all the more. The people of Colchis knew her as a proud, even haughty maiden, but that persona was nowhere in evidence now. With much blushing, she poured out her tale; it arrived in such an artless tangle that it took her interlocutor some time to decipher its meaning and import.
But when he did understand, he shocked her by kneeling down before her. “Without your aid I have no chance. I came down to this stream resigned that I would die today. And now you offer me hope. Therefore I ask you for your help as a suppliant, wise enchantress. If you carry through on your offer, I will make sure that my people remember and honor your name forever.”
Consumed with love as she was, Medea could not have resisted him even had he spoken less finely. She handed over the jar of ointment along with her instructions on its use. “You must strip” — the blush that followed this command would have charmed a colder heart than Jason’s — “and wash yourself here in the stream as usual. But before you dress again, rub this ointment over your body. There should be enough for your whole body, plus your spear and shield and sword. It will give you strength enough to tame my father’s bulls. As for the Spartoi: if they threaten to overwhelm you with their sheer numbers, throw a stone behind them to distract them. In their battle rage, they will kill one another over it as if it was the Golden Fleece itself.”
Then she took his hand. “But before I leave you here to your ablutions, talk with me just a little more. Tell me something of yourself and of this place called Greece where you come from.”
And so he told her of his homeland — of its soaring mountains and rich forests, of its history of divine favor and its many proud cities. When he trailed off, she spoke forlornly. “I wish I could someday see this place. But instead I must remain here, and listen for any scrap of news I can glean from sailors or wayward messenger birds from the far-off lands of the West. Every one will remind me of you…”
Jason had not been pierced by one of Eros’s arrows, but he might just as well have been. He found himself utterly smitten with this girl. And so he made a rash offer, one destined to have momentous consequences. “Come back to my city of Iolcus with me!” he begged. “Be my bride! You will be honored by all the people — and by me most of all.” Her joy was such at these words that she couldn’t speak. Never mind — her answer was obvious. “But for now, you must go,” Jason said, “and I must make the preparations you described.” And she went, with her heart vacillating between joy and fear (would the ointment work?), excitement and shame (what would her father say?).
When Jason smeared the ointment on himself, he was amazed at the change which came over him. His entire body hummed with strength. Feeling like a warhorse about to charge into battle, he pranced and jumped and beat his chest and shouted with the pure animal joy of athletic and martial prowess. He thrilled so that he almost forgot to anoint his shield and weapons with the last of the ointment.
Now, the fire-breathing bulls were actually creatures of the underworld who had found a cave which gave unto the surface just outside of Colchis. When they had begun rampaging through his land several years before, King Aeëtes had begged his patron Hephaestus for a solution. This the god had duly supplied in the form of a fence of impenetrable bronze ringing the area around the cave.
It was to this place that Jason now came, chomping for battle. Most of the city had already gathered around the fence, including Aeëtes and his court — among them a desperately anxious Medea — in a pavilion of honor. All watched as the gate was opened just long enough for Jason to slip inside. A plow made of bronze had already been set in place. The bulls were not present, but everyone expected them to make an appearance before the day was through, for such was their custom.
Jason casually drove his spear into the ground and stood leaning upon it inside the corral. For several hours he stood there patiently while the crowd murmured with tense impatience. At last, whiffs of smoke began to issue from the opening — always the first sign that the bulls were on their way to the surface. Then they burst forth from the cave, wreathed in their choking cloud of smoke. Spotting Jason, they charged toward him as one. A shudder passed through the crowd; no man could possibly withstand such a charge head-on. Why didn’t he even try to avoid it? But no — Jason just stood there calmly with his shield held before him as the bulls’ brazen hooves trampled the earth and their bellows filled the air.
To the crowd’s astonishment, both pairs of horns struck Jason’s shield and glanced off it, sending the bulls rather than the hero stumbling away to the side. Confused and enraged, standing one on either side of him, they opened their jaws and breathed their fire full upon him. It was as if Jason stood directly between the two most enormous forge bellows ever constructed. The heat of the flames reached even the crowd surrounding the corral; they closed their eyes and ducked as it pricked their skin like lightning, singeing their hair and clothing. When they looked up again, they dreaded the sight of what must have become of the brave young hero. But to their shock, he still stood there proudly upright, not only alive but not burned in the least.
The bulls were as confused as anyone — and a confused beast, as a seasoned hunter like Jason well knew, is easily cowed. He marched over to one of them, grabbed it by one of its horns, dragged it over to the plow, forced it to its knees, and harnessed it into the traces like the meekest farmyard nag. Meanwhile the other bull regathered itself and charged once again — but, deftly taking up his shield again, Jason met its charge with such implacability that it lost its footing. He then dragged it too bodily into the traces and took his own place behind the plow.
And so Jason began to till the field. Occasionally the bulls would buck or balk in the traces, but a swift poke from his spear brought them back into line quickly enough whenever that happened. When he was done, he released the bulls. Knowing that they had met their master, they ran back to the safety of the underworld, never to bother the men who dwelt above them again.
Jason took a long draught of water from one of the spectators, accepted the box of “seed” from one of the king’s attendants, and commenced sowing. When that work too was complete, he stood there stretching for the battle he knew was coming. One by one his enemies rose out of the newly turned earth. Then they charged in a wild mass of flesh and steel.
Like the Spartoi grown by Cadmus so many years before, these beings owed their savagery to their origin inside the mouth of a dragon sacred to Ares. These particular Spartoi, however, directed their initial battle rage against the one who had caused them to be born rather than each other. Their numbers and ferocity were such that there seemed no way for even the magically augmented Jason to fight them off — certainly not here in the open, where they could so easily swarm him. Remembering the words of Medea, he picked up a boulder that was lying in a corner of the field — a boulder so large that four ordinary men could not have lifted it, much less thrown it, as he now proceeded to do.
It landed right in the middle of the charging mass of Spartoi, crushing several of them beneath its weight. Most of the others turned away from Jason to rush upon this new enemy like hounds on the hunt. When it proved impervious to their swords and spears, they set upon one another in their confusion. They mowed one another down in a frenzy of carnage, leaving Jason with the comparatively simple task of picking off the singletons and pairs who broke away from the main tumult to rush upon him. When the day ended, the fresh furrows of the field ran with the blood of the Spartoi as if after a torrential downpour, while the hero stood, alone and unscathed, amidst it all. The test devised by King Aeëtes was over; Jason had passed.
But Aeëtes, far from being convinced by this proof of Jason’s legitimacy, was less prepared than ever to give up his greatest treasure. Standing before the stunned crowd, he told the hero shortly that they would discuss matters further in the morning. Then he departed for his palace, where he called a council of war to discuss the attack he wished to launch on Jason and the other Argonauts as soon as possible.
Hearing of her father’s intentions, Medea determined to act once again. She had learned that the attack would fall at first light on the morrow, long after Jason’s godlike strength had expired. The Argo had to be away — with the Golden Fleece — before that time came; for all their prowess in battle, even the Argonauts would stand no chance against the thousands of soldiers Aeëtes could muster against them, bristling with the arms and armor of Hephaestus.
As soon as darkness fell completely, Medea gathered up a bare few mementos of the life she was to leave behind, including the ceremonial dress and golden crown she wore on special occasions, the accoutrements in which she would have been married to whatever man her father chose for her. She also, of course, gathered her most useful charms and potions. Then she crept out of the palace via a back door. Thanks to the many long hikes she had made in search of herbs and berries for her concoctions, she knew well the countryside around the city. Thus she was able to sneak past the cordon of guards Aeëtes had posted and reach the Argo unnoticed there where the ship lay at the mouth of the river.
The Argonauts, blissfully unaware of the attack the king was plotting, were feasting and sacrificing before a huge bonfire they had built on the shore. They believed their quest was all but complete, that they would be on their way home with its object by this time the next day. Bursting into their midst, Medea sought out Jason. “My father plots your doom!” she cried. “We must be away before morning comes. I can show you to the clearing where the Golden Fleece is kept, several leagues up the river. Does the ointment still work its magic on you?”
Jason shook his head. He was back to his old self — a daunting opponent by any warrior’s standard, but not an invincible one.
“Very well.” Medea thought quickly. “Once we arrive at the clearing, I have another charm I can work for you; I can lull to sleep the serpent which guards the fleece.” She fell down and grasped him around the knees. “But I beg you, do not forget your promise to take me with you. Don’t leave me behind to be an object of contempt and hatred for my father. For he must eventually come to understand what it is I have done for you.”
Jason raised her gently and embraced her. “I swear here to this assemblage of noble heroes, as well as to Hera the god of marriage and Zeus the greatest god of all, that I hereby take you as my wife. You shall return with me to Iolcus in that station.” And the Argonauts doused their premature flames of celebration and hastily boarded their ship to sail upriver to the culmination of their quest.
The clearing to which Medea guided them was known as the Ram’s Couch, for it was here that the golden ram which had carried Phrixus away from Iolcus so long ago had finally set him down. And here too Phrixus had sacrificed the ram to give thanks to the gods for his miraculous deliverance. He had then hung the ram’s fleece — the legendary Golden Fleece — on a tall oak tree at the edge of the clearing, and there it had remained ever since. None dared approach it, for it was guarded, just as Medea had said, by a fearsome serpent.
On this night, the serpent sensed the presence of an intruder on its domain as it lay coiled at the foot of the oak tree. Stretching out its long neck, it gave a single hiss. The sound chilled the hearts of all the small creatures slumbering in the woods around the clearing, causing them to burrow further into their nests and pull their young tighter to their breasts. But the soft footsteps the serpent had sensed hesitated only momentarily, then continued. Slinking back down into its coils, the snake prepared to leap for the kill.
There appeared a maiden at the opposite edge of the clearing, looking pale and nervous and utterly vulnerable. But just as the serpent was about to strike the juicy target, she started softly to sing — quaveringly at first, but then with increasing strength and confidence. Her voice soothed the snake. Its body swayed to the melody as she tiptoed up to it and sprinkled a charm over its unblinking eyes. Its head nestled once more into its coils; the creature slept.
Having no idea how long her spell would last, Medea called urgently to Jason, who burst into the clearing with considerably more noise and less grace than she had a few minutes later. He was immediately awed by the sight of the Golden Fleece; catching the light of the moon, the magnificent pelt reflected it back into his eyes as a flame-like flush of red. But there was no time for awe, much less for savoring this moment of triumph. He pulled the fleece down from its perch and bundled it over his shoulder like a beggar’s blanket, and the two of them rushed out of the clearing to the riverbank where the Argo lay awaiting them.
When they reached the ship, the Argonauts surrounded Jason, eager to gaze upon and touch the treasure he bore. But he ordered them to their oars instead. “The task for which we have toiled so long has been lightly fulfilled, thanks to this maiden’s counsels. But we have ventured well inland into what we must now consider to be enemy territory, and it is already well past dawn. We must away to the safety of the open sea! The fate of our quest lies in the strength of your arms.” And so the Argonauts bent to their oars, filling the dawn with their lusty rowing song.
The Argo reached the mouth of the river just as the army of Aeëtes burst onto the place where it had expected to catch the heroes still sleeping off their celebration of the night before. When the soldiers realized that their quarry was sailing away from them, they loosed volley after volley of arrows. But half of the Argonauts took up their shields and held them over the other half, who continued to row. In this way, they escaped the deadly rain. As the last of the arrows from the shore fell uselessly in the wake of their ship, the heroes raised a mighty cheer, certain that all danger was past.
Alas, their confidence was misplaced — for King Aeëtes had many ships of his own at his disposal. Believing Jason to have abducted his daughter in addition to stealing his greatest treasure, he charged one of his sons, a fine sailor named Apsyrtus, to track the Argonauts down and recapture both. Apsyrtus’s flotilla, dozens of ships strong, had little trouble catching up with the Argo, which dawdled along with no premonition of further danger from behind. He shadowed the Argonauts for several days without their realizing it, until they went ashore to hunt food and collect water. That night, he landed his army, many hundreds of soldiers strong, ordering it to form a ring around the heroes’ encampment. He himself remained in direct command of his flotilla, which now formed a blockade at sea. When the Argonauts arose the next morning, they found themselves to be completely surrounded by an overwhelming force, pressing in toward them from both land and sea. The situation looked hopeless.
But Medea, as usual, thought faster than any of the men around her. Using yet another of her magical charms, she sent a message on the wind to her brother on his flagship. She had indeed been abducted, she claimed, but she had managed to escape. Further, she had a plan to ensure the safe recovery of the Golden Fleece; once that all-important task was accomplished, Apsyrtus could dispose of the Argonauts at his leisure. For now, though, he should hold off the attack — it wasn’t as if his quarry was going anywhere — and meet her alone in a grove just outside the heroes’ camp that night.
Medea knew that her message had been received when the soldiers who were already threatening to overrun the little camp stopped pressing their attack, and even withdrew some little distance. The day passed in still tenseness. When the sun dipped below the horizon, Medea and Jason made their way to the appointed spot.
Wracked with guilt over what she was about to do, Medea waited for her brother in the open while Jason hid in the trees behind her. When Apsyrtus appeared, he rushed eagerly forward to embrace his sister — whereupon Jason burst out of hiding and ran the young man through with his sword without any preamble. Medea collapsed, wailing her grief and shame — for she knew that, whatever betrayals she had committed for her love before this one, this latest treachery was something for which there could be no absolution. Jason was forced to clap a hand over her mouth to stop her cries as he carried her back to where the Argo lay beached.
The heroes pushed the ship into the sea and leaped aboard her. They knew that their one chance to break the enemy’s blockade was now, when the Colchian forces were without a leader. And indeed, such was their strength upon the oars, and such was the enemy’s confusion at the absence of their leader, that they burst through the line of Colchian ships and were away almost before an arrow could be fired.
Once they fully understood what had happened, the Colchians, enraged at the treacherous killing of their prince, made pursuit. But the Argonauts had learned their lesson. They rowed with all the strength that was in them, day and night, until they reached once more the Bosphorus and passed back into seas which could be found on their maps. The Colchians, unable to match the Argo‘s speed, finally gave up and turned back to face the wrath of King Aeëtes. Once again the Argonauts celebrated, once again believing their quest was all but completed.
But once again they were mistaken. Despite his earlier support for Jason’s cause, Zeus was incensed by the act of betrayal and fratricide that had been the killing of Apsyrtus. He sent endless storms to blow the Argo hither and yon — everywhere but back to Iolcus — for months on end. Again the ship passed beyond the boundaries of maps — and this time the heroes didn’t even know which boundaries. In the end, they were saved from Zeus’s wrath only by the intervention of a nymph named Circe whom they met on an uncharted island, just the latest of many to which the Argo had been blown. Taking pity on the heroes — and on poor, guilt-wracked Medea most of all, whose love for Jason had so quickly turned into a nightmare — she got Zeus to agree to stop toying with them.
But even after this blessed reprieve, the Argonauts sailed long in search of home in the uncharted seas into which they had been blown, having yet many more adventures. All was nearly lost when they sailed close by the island of the Sirens, creatures who lured sailors to their doom with beguiling songs that seemed to promise them endless days and nights of sensuous pleasures. The Argonauts were saved only when Medea, who as a woman was immune to the Sirens’ music, started up a magical song of her own, drowning out that of the monsters.
At last, close to dying of dehydration after weeks at sea without a sight of land, the Argonauts spotted what they had been dreaming of for so long: not just land, but familiar land at that. It was the island of Crete, poking out of the mist before their ship. But their joy turned to fear as they sailed closer, and an enormous boulder struck the water just inches from the Argo‘s battered hull. They saw a giant man of bronze standing on the shore, casting his rocks in their direction. They beat a hasty retreat, only just avoiding several more boulders before they had sailed out of the giant’s throwing range.
By now, all of these strong heroes who sailed the Argo had grown accustomed to looking to Medea, that mere slip of a girl, to solve their most intractable problems. And well should they, for Medea had grown greatly in power since leaving her homeland; many of the men whispered that she must have learned more than a little from Circe, with whom she had spent long days in private conversation back on the nymph’s island. Closing her eyes now, she went into a trance as she communed with the spirit of the giant.
She learned that its name was Talos, and that it had been set there by Zeus long ago to protect his mistress Europa from any and all threats to her safety. With Europa long dead and its purpose for existence thus gone, the giant — really a sort of automaton with only the most rudimentary intelligence — had taken to random acts of violence like this one, much to the distress of the Cretans. She gathered herself to put the poor misbegotten creature out of its misery. It had only one point of vulnerability, a single exposed vein running along its ankle. Mastering its simple mind easily by her force of will, she forced it to slash the vein against a sharp outcropping of rock. The blood gushed out, and, after standing there swaying for several minutes like a tree tottering under a woodcutter’s axe, the giant fell to the ground with a boom loud enough to reach even the sailors on the Argo. And so they sailed their ship to shore, where they drank and ate greedily, accepted the grateful thanks of the Cretans for this final heroic feat of their grand adventure, and prepared for the last stage of their voyage home.
When the Argo sailed back into Iolcus, more than two years after it had left, the people there were at first stunned, then delighted by the heroes’ return. No word of the ship had reached Greece since a slightly shame-faced Heracles had returned some eighteen months before. Most people — and most of all among them Pelias — had long since written the Argonauts off as lost.
The political dispute which had actually prompted the sailing of the ship was set aside for the moment while kings and dignitaries came to Iolcus from all over Greece to honor Jason and the rest of the heroes. The city feasted for weeks on end. Pelias played the proud master of ceremonies, happy to turn over his throne just as soon as the merrymaking came to an end.
But Pelias, devious as ever, still wasn’t really prepared to do any such thing. After the other Argonauts had all headed for their respective homes, leaving only Jason and Medea in Iolcus, he made a surprising pronouncement. He could not turn over his throne in good conscience, he said, until he had consulted several sages and oracles to confirm that this alleged “Golden Fleece” really was the genuine artifact Jason claimed it to be. Jason was angered, but, unaccustomed to courtly intrigue as he was, he could think of no way of refusing Pelias the time he claimed to need — this despite how self-evident it was even to a political neophyte like himself that the whole rigamarole was just a way of buying time in the service of further deceptions.
Medea, however, was livid — in fact, almost as angry at her husband for brooking this latest deception as she was at its perpetrator. Just as her powers had increased greatly since the murder of her brother, so too had her personality changed. There was little trace left of the shy, love-struck maiden Jason had met in Colchis. Her love for him, which her powers told her did not have a natural origin, she treated now as a curse — a form of enslavement — rather than a blessing. And she railed endlessly against the slight shrift she was given in the tales of the Argonauts; they seemed simply to have forgotten all of the times she had pulled them out of the fire. Obviously, she noted bitterly, their masculine pride could not tolerate any reminder of their dependence on a woman. As Medea’s power and bitterness grew in equal measure, Jason grew more and more regretful that he had married this strange, dangerous, magical woman. In fact, he grew rather afraid of her. And what she now did to his sworn enemy King Pelias confirmed him in his fear rather than allaying it.
Medea went to the daughters of Pelias and told them that she knew a way — albeit a grisly way — to make their elderly father young again. To demonstrate the technique, she killed an aged ram, cut up the body, and put the pieces into a vat of boiling water. Then she uttered an incantation over the stew, whereupon a fresh young lamb sprang out and ran friskily away. If the girls would kill their father and cut up his body in the same fashion, Medea promised, she would make him young again as well. She even gave them a sleeping draught — by now a trivial concoction for her to prepare — to make the job easier.
The girls, who were not terribly bright, agreed. They poured the draught over their father in his bed, then set to the gruesome task of hacking his body into pieces. After throwing the pieces into the vat of water they had brought into his bedroom with them, the gore-smeared maidens stood waiting beside the noisome stew for Medea to appear and do her part. But she never did. When the king’s servants came in to wake him next morning, the girls still stood there by the fireplace, surrounded by the evidence of their crime.
So, the prophesied downfall of Pelias at Jason’s hands proved more guilefully indirect than even the corrupt old schemer himself could ever have imagined. Medea had exacted her own style of vengeance for his crimes rather than the more orderly form of justice that Jason might have preferred. This act marked the beginning of an ominous new phase in her life; never before had she engaged in such wanton barbarism for its own sake. Even the killing of her brother had been a desperate measure prompted by desperate circumstances. But this… this was a premeditated act of cruelty as ingenious as any punishment ever meted out by Zeus.
And Medea’s horrible deed didn’t even achieve its intended practical purpose of placing Jason on the throne of Iolcus. Pelias’s daughters were too dumb to have made up the story they told; their claim that Medea had put them up to murder had the distinct ring of truth. Meanwhile Jason himself had no more taste for the kingship — not on these terms. The throne fell instead to Pelias’s son, thus legitimizing the very same illegitimate line of succession which Jason had suffered and braved so much in order to break. With rumors of their arrest and even execution swirling through the air of Iolcus under the new regime, Jason and Medea fled for Corinth, where the former was still known as the heroic leader of the Argonauts rather than a possible conspirator in murder.
Thus it was that each half of the couple learned some difficult lessons. Medea found out that a woman who aspires to power in a man’s world will attract at least as much resentment as approbation, while Jason learned, as had Heracles and many another hero before him, that epic quests are in some ways the easy part of life; the real challenges often lie at home. And both learned to their bitter regret just how quickly fresh young love can curdle. The couple now lived in a violent crosscurrent of love and loathing. For all her ever-growing power, Medea couldn’t yet break the unnatural bond that fettered her to the husband whose weakness she scorned, while Jason remained married to Medea only out of fear of her. Their marriage had become a toxic brew indeed, one which had to spill over soon.
(This series's cover art is by Dorte Lassen, who hereby releases it under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)