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The Argonauts were a group of brave and valiant heroes in Greek mythology and received their name from their ship “Argo”, built by Argus. This vessel was used by the Argonauts for their many adventures and sea voyages. Of all their adventures, the greatest quest that the Argonauts were known for was the quest for the Golden Fleece. On this journey, the 80+ Argonauts were led by Jason on a dangerous journey across the seas to obtain the fleece of a golden ram.
Let’s take a closer look at the Argonauts and their quest for the golden fleece.
Before the Argonauts – The Story of Jason
Pelias usurps the throne
The story begins with Pelias, Jason’s uncle who usurped the throne of Iolcos from his brother Aeson. However, an oracle warned Pelias that a descendent of Aeson would challenge him in revenge his crimes. Not wanting to give up the throne, Pelias killed all the descendants of Aeson, but he spared Aeson himself for the sake of their mother.
While Aeson was imprisoned, he married Alcimede, who bore him a son. Pelias didn’t know that the boy had survived the birth. This boy would grow up to become Jason.
Beware the man with one shoe
Another oracle warned Pelias to beware of the man with one shoe. During a public event, Pelias saw Jason wearing a leopard skin and only one sandal. He knew this was Aeson’s son and therefore the one who would kill him.
However, Pelias couldn’t kill Jason as there were many people around him. Instead, he asked Jason: “What would you do if the oracle had warned you that one of your fellow-citizens would kill you?” To which Jason replied, “I would send him to fetch the Golden Fleece”. Unbeknownst to him, it was Hera who had made him reply in that way.
Thus, Pelias challenged Jason to the quest, declaring that he would step down from the throne, if Jason obtained the fleece of a golden ram.
Formation of the Argonauts
To reach the fleece, Jason had to voyage across several seas, and into the grove of Ares. The fleece was guarded by a fierce dragon that never slept. Despite the dangers, Jason agreed to the quest, and called upon the most valiant heroes to undertake the journey with him. The heroes of the expedition were called the Argonauts, and many of Jason’s kin were part of the valiant group. Over eighty men joined the expedition, with each contributing to the eventual success of the quest.
The Argonauts and Lemnos
The first stop for the Argonauts was the land of Lemnos. This part of their journey was the most comforting, and the heroes found women to court and fall in love with. The Queen of Lemnos, Hypsipyle, fell in love with Jason, and gave birth to his sons. Upon landing at Lemnos, the quest for the golden fleece was delayed by several months. The Argonauts resumed their journey only after a nudge from Heracles.
Argonauts and Cyzicus’ Island
After the departure from Lemnos, the Argonauts came upon the country of Doliones. The king of Doliones, Cyzicus, welcomed the Argonauts with much grace and hospitality. After feasting and resting, the Argonauts resumed their quest for the golden fleece. However, before they could venture far, the crew met with a fierce and raging storm. Completely lost and confused, the Argonauts unknowingly steered their ship back to Doliones.
The soldiers of Doliones couldn’t recognize the Argonauts, and in the middle of the night a battle ensued between the two groups. The Argonauts wounded many soldiers, and Jason slew their king. It was only during the break of day that the Argonauts realized their mistake. They mourned for the soldiers by cutting of their hair.
The Argonauts and the Land of Bebryces
The physical prowess of the Argonauts was tested in the next part of the journey. When the Argonauts reached the land of Bebryces, they were challenged by the king, Amycus. Amycus was a very strong wrestler and believed that none could defeat him. His plan was to kill all the Argonauts and prevent them from continuing their journey. Amycus’ plans didn’t succeed as Pollux, one of the Argonauts, accepted the wrestling challenge and slew the king.
The Argonauts and Phineus
After defeating Amycus, the Argonauts were able to travel safely without incident. They journeyed to the land of Salmydessus and met Phineus, an old and blind king. Knowing that Phineus was a seer, the Argonauts enquired about their future paths. However, Phineus said he would only help the Argonauts if they helped him first.
Phineus was constantly troubled by Harpies, who ate and polluted his food. Two of the Argonauts, the sons of Boreas, went after the Harpies and slew them. Phineus then advised the Argonauts on how to get past the clashing rocks, without being crushed. Following his advice, and with the help of Athena, the Argonauts were able to get through the rocks and continue their journey.
The Argonauts and the Golden Fleece
After several other trials, tribulations, and adventures, the Argonauts finally reached Colchis, the land of the golden fleece. King Aeetes agreed to give the fleece, but in return, Jason was required to complete some impossible sounding tasks. He was asked to plough the fields of Ares with bulls that snorted fire and sow the land with dragons’ teeth.
Jason could only complete these tasks with the help of Aeetes daughter, Medea. Although Jason and Medea completed the tasks, Aeetes still refused to give up the fleece. Medea then put the fierce dragon to sleep, and the Argonauts were able to flee with the fleece. The Argonauts, along with Medea, returned to their homes and Jason reclaimed the throne.
Cultural Representations of the Argonauts
The quest for the golden fleece has been mentioned in several classical works. Homer gives an account of the quest in his epic poem Odyssey. The events of the expedition were also recorded in Pindar’s poetry.
However, the most detailed version of the quest, was written by Apollonius of Rhodes, in his epic Argonautica. In all these classical works, the expedition was considered an important event, in the opening up of the Black Sea to Greek trade and colonization.
In contemporary culture, the quest for the golden fleece has been reimagined in movies, music, TV series and video games. A Medea’s Dance of Vengeance, a composition by Samuel Barber is about the quest seen from Medea’s perspective.
The movie Jason and the Argonauts represented all the major events of the Greek expedition. More recently, a video game, Rise of the Argonauts features Jason and his crew in a compelling and thrilling adventure.
The quest for the golden fleece is one of the greatest events in Greek mythology, featuring the Argonauts led by Jason. At the end of the quest, the Argonauts gained recognition as the greatest band of Greek heroes, with each member contributing to the success of the mission.