Pelias – Greek Mythology

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Pelias was the king of the city of Iolcus in ancient Greece. He’s famous for his appearance in the tale of Jason and the Argonauts, one of the most well known myths of Greek mythology. Pelias was Jason’s adversary and instigated the quest for the Golden Fleece.

Pelias’ Origins

Pelias was born to Poseidon, the god of the seas, and Tyro, a princess of Thessaly. In some accounts, his father was Cretheus, King of Iolcus, and his mother was Tyro, a princess of Elis. According to the myth, Poseidon saw Tyro when she was at the Enipeus river and was infatuated by her beauty.

Poseidon slept with Tyro and she got pregnant, giving birth to twin sons, Neleus and Pelias. However, the boys didn’t get the chance to live with Tyro and her other children in Iolcus because she was ashamed of what she’d done and wanted to hide them.

Pelias Takes Revenge

According to some sources, the two brothers, Pelias and Neleus, were abandoned on a mountain and left to die but they were rescued and looked after by a herdsman. Other sources mention that the boys were given to Tyro’s wicked stepmother, Sidero. In either case, they were well cared for until they finally reached adulthood.

As adults, the brothers found out who their birth mother was, and were shocked and angry with Sidero for the way she had treated Tyro. They decided to avenge their mother by killing Sidero. While she was at the temple of Hera, Pelias went through and delivered a killing blow to Sidero’s head. She died instantly. At that moment, Pelias didn’t realize that what he had done was an act of sacrilege but he had angered Hera, the wife of Zeus and the goddess of family and marriage, by killing a follower in her temple.

When Pelias returned to Iolcus, he discovered that the king, Cretheus had passed away and his stepbrother Aeson was in line for the throne. Although Aeson was the rightful heir, Pelias decided he would take the throne by force and made Aeson a prisoner in the palace dungeons. He then took the throne for himself, becoming the new king of Iolcus.

Pelias As the King of Iolcus

As the ruler of Iolcus, Pelias married the daughter of Bias, the king of Argos. Her name was Anaxibia and the couple had several children together including Alcestis, Antinoe, Amphinome, Evadne, Asteropaea, Hippothoe, Pisidice, Pelopia and Acastus. Their daughters were known as Peliades but the most famous of all Pelias’ children was his son Acastus, the youngest in the family.

In the meantime, Pelias’ stepbrother Aeson, imprisoned in the dungeons had married a woman called Polymede, who gave him two sons, Promachus and Jason. In some accounts he had several children. Pelias saw Promachus as a threat, so he had him killed, but he didn’t know about Jason who had been secretly handed over into the care of the centaur, Chiron.

Pelias and the Prophecy

After killing Promachus, Pelias believed that he hadn’t any more threats to worry about but he was still insecure about his position as king. He consulted an Oracle who warned him that his death would come at the hands of a man wearing a single sandal on his foot. However, the prophecy didn’t make much sense to Pelias and he was confused.

Some years later, Pelias wanted to make a sacrifice to Poseidon, the god of the sea. People came from all corners of the land to take part in this sacrifice. Among them was a man wearing only one sandal, as he had lost the other while crossing the river. This man was Jason.

The Quest for the Golden Fleece

When Pelias found out that there was a stranger wearing one sandal and that he was the son of Aeson, he realized that Jason was a threat to his position as the king of Iolcus. He hatched a plan to get rid of him and confronted Jason, asking him what he would do if he had to face the man who would bring about his downfall. Jason replied that he would send the man on a quest for the Golden Fleece which was hidden away in Colchis.

Pelias, taking Jason’s advice, sent Jason to find and bring back the Golden Fleece to Iolcus. Heagreed to abdicate the throne if Jason was successful.

Jason, with the guidance of the goddess Hera, had a ship built for the journey. He called it the Argo, and he gathered a group of heroes as his crew. Amongst them was Acastus, Pelias’ son, who had proved himself worthy and earned his place in the crew. After going through several adventures and facing many obstacles, Jason and his men retrieved the Golden Fleece and returned to Iolcus with it. They also brought with them the sorceress, Medea, who was the daughter of Aeetes, the king of Colchis.

While Jason was away, his parents pined for him and the longer he took to return, the more they believed him to be dead. Finally, when they couldn’t take it any more, they both committed suicide. Jason’s father poisoned himself by drinking bull’s blood and his mother hanged herself.

Pelias’ Death

When Jason returned to Iolcus, he was devastated to find out about his parents’ deaths. Things worsened when Pelias, with the Golden Fleece in his possession, wasn’t willing to abdicate the throne like he had originally said he would. This angered Jason and he plotted his revenge against Pelias. According to some sources, it’s said that it was Medea, who knew great magic, who decided to take revenge on the king of Iolcus.

Medea told the Peliades (Pelias’ daughters) that she would show them how to transform an old ram into a new, young lamb. She cut up the ram and boiled it in a pot with some herbs, and when she was done, a live lamb came out of the pot. The Peliades were amazed at what they saw and Medea knew that she had gained their trust. She told them that if she were to do the same thing for Pelias, he could be turned into a younger version of himself.

Unfortunately for Pelias, his daughters believed her. They wanted to grant him the gift of youth, and so dismembered him, putting the pieces into a huge pot. They boiled them and added the herbs, like they’d seen Medea do. However, there was no sign of a younger Pelias and the daughters had to flee Iolcus for committing regicide and patricide.

Pelias was no longer on the throne, but Jason still couldn’t be king. Although he and Medea hadn’t actually committed regicide, it was Medea who had instigated the plan, which made Jason an accessory to the crime. Instead Pelias’ son, Acastus became the new king of Iolcus. As king, his first act was to banish Jason and Medea from his kingdom.

Pelias’ lineage ended when Acastus was overthrown by Jason and the Greek hero Peleus. Jason’s son, Thessalus, was crowned the new king instead.

In another version of the story, Medea slit the throat of Aeson, Jason’s father, and turned him into a younger man. She promised Pelias’ daughters that she would do the same thing for their father so they slit his throat but she broke her word and he remained dead. 

In Brief

Some say that it was Pelius’ act of sacrilege in Hera’s temple that had brought misfortune upon him and it’s likely that this was the case. The gods rarely left an insult or sacrilege go  unpunished. Pelias’ actions caused his eventual downfall. As a man, Pelias displayed little honor, and his story is full of betrayal, murder, dishonesty, deceit and conflict. His actions eventually resulted in his death and the destruction of many around him.