Who are Jason and the Argonauts?

We turn now to the stories of the Achaean heroes, the descendants of Hellen. These tales are obviously of later date. They deal not with gods and giants, but with men. They have a flavor of real history. Most noteworthy of the earlier tales is the "Voyage of the Argonauts." This gathers the names of almost all the former heroes and represents them as taking part in a sea expedition under an Achaean leader. Perhaps it is an echo of real conditions, of an event which must have profoundly impressed the real Achaeans. Coming from their inland home, they learned from the Aegean the navigation of the waters, and undertook, with their new subjects, allies rather than servants, their first naval adventure. What wonder that the event impressed them and became a legend, into which were gradually introduced all the heroes of both races? The story is of Jason, a descendant of Hellen, and a prince in the Greek kingdom of Thessaly. The king, Jason's uncle, desired to be rid of him--Jason being, as usual in such tales, the rightful heir to the throne. So the king commanded the youth to bring him the "golden fleece." This was the skin of a golden ram, which was kept as a talisman by the king of Colchis, the very farthest land of which the Greeks knew, way off at the eastern end of the Black Sea.

Realizing the magnitude of his task, Jason sent through all the cities of Greece to ask for help; and all the noted heroes of the race gathered to his call. There were fifty of them in all, including Hercules and Orpheus, the Athenian hero Theseus, and the wise Nestor, who survived to take part as an aged counsellor of a later generation in the war with Troy. Jason built a great boat, the Argo, capable of holding all his friends, the biggest ship the Greeks had ever known. From it the voyagers were called the Argonauts.

They had many dangerous adventures, as, for instance, when they sailed through the narrow strait, the Bosphorus, which opens into the Black Sea. Here there was a floating island, and so narrow was the passage that often the two rocky shores were swept together with a crash by wind and tide. Jason sent a dove through to test the passage, and the cliffs clashing just behind her, let her through with the loss of her tail feathers. So the Argonauts accepted the augury; and as the cliffs separated on the rebound, they rowed with all their might and just got through, as the bird had done, the closing shores breaking off their rudder.

They reached Colchis at last; but the conditions which its king demanded of them before giving them the golden fleece were so impossible that despite all their efforts they must have failed but for the king's daughter, Medea. She fell in love with Jason, and lent the Argonauts her aid. She was a sorceress, and by her magic art she guided Jason to the fleece and drugged the dragon which guarded it. Then she and the Argonauts fled with their prize, but so closely pursued by the Colchians that they could not turn back home, and so perforce continued their voyage eastward, into unknown waters.

The Greeks thought of the world as being flat, a sort of circular continent surrounded by water, the vast enclosing stream or river of the ocean. The Mediterranean and Black Seas they supposed cut through the middle of this island earth, communicating with the ocean on the west by the Strait of Gibraltar, and on the east through the Black Sea. About this last point we now know that they were wrong; evidently they had not thoroughly explored the Black Sea, though they knew of some of its ports, like Colchis. Hence the Argonauts were represented as sailing out into the ocean stream to the eastward and then northward around Europe, always pursued by the Colchians. So at length, after many adventures, pursuers and pursued got back into the Mediterranean Sea from the west, and the Colchians, despairing of ever finding their way home again, settled down as colonists.

The Argonauts came on past the isle of the Sirens, who, by their wondrous singing, lured all sailors to death. Here Orpheus saved the heroes by playing on his harp and singing so loudly that he drowned the Sirens' voices. And thus in the end the adventurers got back to Greece, having been the first and only men thus to sail around the outer border of the earth.

The remainder of the story of Jason is not pleasant. Medea, to enable the Argonauts to escape, had carried off her little brother; and, as her father's ships pursued them, she cut the child in pieces and threw his limbs one by one into the water, so that the father stopped to gather them. Jason began to fear rather than love her. When the pair of them got back to Thessaly, she slew Jason's aged father, and by her magic arts restored him not only to life, but to youth and vigor. She then offered to do the same for the king, Jason's usurping uncle. But when the king was dead, she refused to bring him back to life again, and so Jason was made king. His dread of Medea constantly increased, and at length he deserted her. She in revenge slew their two children, his and hers, and fled back to Colchis.

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Read about Who are Jason and the Argonauts? in the The Story of the Greatest Nations and the Worlds Famous Events Vol 1

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