Greek and Roman Mythology > The Golden Fleece

The Golden Fleece

In very ancient times there lived in Thessaly a king and queen
named Athamas and Nephele. They had two children, a boy and a
girl. After a time Athamas grew indifferent to his wife, put her
away, and took another. Nephele suspected danger to her children
from the influence of the step-mother, and took measures to send
them out of her reach. Mercury assisted her, and gave her a ram,
with a GOLDEN FLEECE, on which she set the two children, trusting
that the ram would convey them to a place of safety. The ram
sprung into the air with the children on his back, taking his
course to the east, till when crossing the strait that divides
Europe and Asia, the girl, whose name was Helle, fell from his
back into the sea, which from her was called the Hellespont,
now the Dardanelles. The ram continued his career till he
reached the kingdom of Colchis, on the eastern shore of the Black
Sea, where he safely landed the boy Phyrxus, who was hospitably
received by AEetes, the king of the country. Phryxus sacrificed
the ram to Jupiter, and gave the golden fleece to AEetes, who
placed it in a consecrated grove, under the care of a sleepless
dragon.

There was another kingdom in Thessaly near to that of Athamas,
and ruled over by a relative of his. The king AEson, being tired
of the cares of government, surrendered his crown to his brother
Pelias, on condition that he should hold it only during the
minority of Jason, the son of AEson. When Jason was grown up and
came to demand the crown from his uncle, Pelias pretended to be
willing to yield it, but at the same time suggested to the young
man the glorious adventure of going in quest of the golden
fleece, which it was well known was in the kingdom of Colchis,
and was, as Pelias pretended, the rightful property of their
family. Jason was pleased with the thought, and forthwith made
preparations for the expedition. At that time the only species
of navigation known to the Greeks consisted of small boats or
canoes hollowed out from trunks of trees, so that when Jason
employed Argus to build him a vessel capable of containing fifty
men, it was considered a gigantic undertaking. It was
accomplished, however, and the vessel was named the Argo, from
the name of the builder. Jason sent his invitation to all the
adventurous young men of Greece, and soon found himself at the
head of a band of bold youths, many of whom afterwards were
renowned among the heroes and demigods of Greece. Hercules,
Theseus, Orpheus, and Nestor were among them. They are called
the Argonauts, from the name of their vessel.

The Argo with her crew of heroes left the shores of Thessaly and
having touched at the Island of Lemnos, thence crossed to Mysia
and thence to Thrace. Here they found the sage Phineus, and from
him received instruction as to their future course. It seems the
entrance of the Euxine Sea was impeded by two small rocky
islands, which floated on the surface, and in their tossings and
heavings occasionally came together, crushing and grinding to
atoms any object that might be caught between them. They were
called the Symplegades, or Clashing Islands. Phineus instructed
the Argonauts how to pass this dangerous strait. When they
reached the islands they let go a dove, which took her way
between the rocks, and passed in safety, only losing some
feathers of her tail. Jason and his men seized the favorable
moment of the rebound, plied their oars with vigor, and passed
safe through, though the islands closed behind them, and actually
grazed their stern. They now rowed along the shore till they
arrived at the eastern end of the sea, and landed at the kingdom
of Colchis.

Jason made known his message to the Colchian king, AEetes, who
consented to give up the golden fleece if Jason would yoke to the
plough two fire-breathing bulls with brazen feet, and sow the
teeth of the dragon, which Cadmus had slain, and from which it
was well known that a crop of armed men would spring up, who
would turn their weapons against their producer. Jason accepted
the conditions, and a time was set for making the experiment.
Previously, however, he found means to plead his cause to Medea,
daughter of the king. He promised her marriage, and as they
stood before the altar of Hecate, called the goddess to witness
his oath. Medea yielded and by her aid, for she was a potent
sorceress, he was furnished with a charm, by which he could
encounter safely the breath of the fire-breathing bulls and the
weapons of the armed men.

At the time appointed, the people assembled at the grove of Mars,
and the king assumed his royal seat, while the multitude covered
the hill-sides. The brazen-footed bulls rushed in, breathing
fire from their nostrils, that burned up the herbage as they
passed. The sound was like the roar of a furnace, and the smoke
like that of water upon quick-lime. Jason advanced boldly to
meet them. His friends, the chosen heroes of Greece, trembled to
behold him. Regardless of the burning breath, he soothed their
rage with his voice, patted their necks with fearless hands, and
adroitly slipped over them the yoke, and compelled them to drag
the plough. The Colchians were amazed; the Greeks shouted for
joy. Jason next proceeded to sow the dragon's teeth and plough
them in. And soon the crop of armed men sprang up, and wonderful
to relate! no sooner had they reached the surface than they began
to brandish their weapons and rush upon Jason. The Greeks
trembled for their hero, and even she who had provided him a way
of safety and taught him how to use it, Medea herself, grew pale
with fear. Jason for a time kept his assailants at bay with his
sword and shield, till finding their numbers overwhelming, he
resorted to the charm which Medea had taught him, seized a stone
and threw it in the midst of his foes. They immediately turned
their arms against one another, and soon there was not one of the
dragon's brood left alive. The Greeks embraced their hero, and
Medea, if she dared, would have embraced him too.

Then AEetes promised the next day to give them the fleece, and
the Greeks went joyfully down to the Argo with the hero Jason in
their midst. But that night Medea came down to Jason, and bade
him make haste and follow her, for that her father proposed the
next morning to attack the Argonauts and to destroy their ship.
They went together to the grove of Mars, where the golden fleece
hung guarded by the dreadful dragon, who glared at the hero and
his conductor with his great round eyes that never slept. But
Medea was prepared, and began her magic songs and spells, and
sprinkled over him a sleeping potion which she had prepared by
her art. At the smell he relaxed his rage, stood for a moment
motionless, then shut those great round eyes, that had never been
known to shut before, and turned over on his side, fast asleep.
Jason seized the fleece, and with his friends and Medea
accompanying, hastened to their vessel, before AEETES, the king,
could arrest their departure, and made the best of their way back
to Thessaly, where they arrived safe, and Jason delivered the
fleece to Pelias, and dedicated the Argo to Neptune. What became
of the fleece afterwards we do not know, but perhaps it was
found, after all, like many other golden prizes, not worth the
trouble it had cost to procure it.

This is one of those mythological tales, says a modern writer, in
which there is reason to believe that a substratum of truth
exists, though overlaid by a mass of fiction. It probably was
the first important maritime expedition, and like the first
attempts of the kind of all nations, as we know from history, was
probably of a half-piratical character. If rich spoils were the
result, it was enough to give rise to the idea of the golden
fleece.

Another suggestion of a learned mythologist, Bryant, is that it
is a corrupt tradition of the story of Noah and the ark. The
name Argo seems to countenance this, and the incident of the dove
is another confirmation.

Pope, in his Ode on St. Cecelia's Day, thus celebrates the
launching of the ship Argo, and the power of the music of
Orpheus, whom he calls the Thracian:

"So when the first bold vessel dared the seas,
High on the stern the Thracian raised his strain,
While Argo saw her kindred trees
Descend from Pelion to the main.
Transported demigods stood round,
And men grew heroes at the sound."

In Dyer's poem of The Fleece there is an account of the ship Argo
and her crew, which gives a good picture of this primitive
maritime adventure:

"From every region of Aegea's shore
The brave assembled; those illustrious twins,
Castor and Pollux; Orpheus, tuneful bard;
Zetes and Calais, as the wind in speed;
Strong Hercules and many a chief renowned.
On deep Iolcos' sandy shore they thronged,
Gleaming in armor, ardent of exploits;
And soon, the laurel cord and the huge stone
Uplifting to the deck, unmoored the bark;
Whose keel of wondrous length the skilful hand
Of Argus fashioned for the proud attempt;
And in the extended keel a lofty mast
Upraised, and sails full swelling; to the chiefs
Unwonted objects. Now first, now they learned
Their bolder steerage over ocean wave,
Led by the golden stars, as Chiron's art
Had marked the sphere celestial."

Hercules left the expedition at Mysia, for Hylas, a youth beloved
by him, having gone for water, was laid hold of and kept by the
nymphs of the spring, who were fascinated by his beauty.
Hercules went in quest of the lad, and while he was absent the
Argo put to sea and left him. Moore, in one of his songs, makes
a beautiful allusion to this incident:

"When Hylas was sent with his urn to the fount,
Through fields full of light and with heart full of play,
Light rambled the boy over meadow and mount,
And neglected his task for the flowers in the way.

"Thus many like me, who in youth should have tasted
The fountain that runs by Philosophy's shrine,
Their time with the flowers on the margin have wasted,
And left their light urns all as empty as mine."

But Hercules, as some say, went onward to Colchis by land, and
there performed many mighty deeds, and wiped away the stain of
cowardice which might have clung to him.




Myth Collection


Achelous and HerculesAcis and GalateaAdmetus and Alcestis
Agamemnon, Orestes, and ElectraAmphionAmphitrite
AntigoneApollo and DaphneApollo and Hyacinthus
AriadneArionAristaeus
Aurora and TithonusBacchusBaucis and Philemon
CadmusCastor and PolluxCephalus and Procris
Ceyx and HalcyoneClytieCupid and Psyche
DaedalusDiana and ActaeonDryope
Echo and NarcissusEndymionErisichthon
Glaucus and ScyllaHebe and GanymedeHercules
IbycusIo and CallistoLeucothea dnd Palaemon
LinusMarsyasMedea and Aeson
MelampusMenelaus and HelenMidas
Minerva and ArachneMonstersMusaeus
NeptuneNereus and DorisNiobe
Nisus and ScyllaOrionOrpheus and Eurydice
Pegasus and the ChimaeraPenelopePerseus and Medusa
PhaetonPluto and ProsperinePrometheus and Pandora
PygmalionPyramus and ThisbePython
RhoecusSapphoSimonides
ThamyrisThe Calydonian HuntThe Camenae
The CentaursThe Golden FleeceThe Graeae and Gorgons
The Griffin, or GryphonThe IliadThe Myrmidons
The PygmiesThe Rural DeitiesThe Sphinx
The Trojan WarThe Water DeitiesThe Winds
TheseusThetisVenus and Adonis
Vertumnus and Pomona

 
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