The heroes and demigods who, according to the traditions of the Greeks, undertook the first bold maritime expedition to Colchis, a far distant country on the coast of the Euxine, for the purpose of fetching the golden fleece. They derived their name from the ship Argo in which the voyage was made, and which was constructed by Argus at the command of Jason, the leader of the Argonauts.
The time which the Greek traditions assign to this enterprise is about one generation before the Trojan war. The story of the expedition seems to have been known to the author of the Odyssey,1 who states, that the ship Argo was the only one that ever passed between the whirling rocks (πέτραι πλαγκταί, petrai planktai). Jason is mentioned several times in the Iliad,2 but not as the leader of the Argonauts. Hesiod3 relates the story of Jason saying that he fetched Medea at the command of his uncle Pelias, and that she bore him a son, Medeius, who was educated by Chiron.
The first trace of the common tradition that Jason was sent to fetch the golden fleece from Aea, the city of Aeëtes, in the eastern boundaries of the earth, occurs in Mimnermus,4 a contemporary of Solon; but the most ancient detailed account of the expedition of the Argonauts which is extant, is that of Pindar.5 Pelias, who had usurped the throne of Iolcus, and expelled Aeson, the father of Jason, had received an oracle that he was to be on his guard against the man who should come to him with only one sandal. When Jason had grown up, he came to Iolcus to demand the succession to the throne of his father. On his way thither, he had lost one of his sandals in crossing the river Anaurus. Pelias recognized the man indicated by the oracle, but concealed his fear, hoping to destroy him in some way; and when Jason claimed the throne of his ancestors, Pelias declared himself ready to yield; but as Jason was blooming in youthful vigor, Pelias entreated him to propitiate the Manes of Phrixus by going to Colchis and fetching the golden fleece.
Jason accepted the proposal, and heralds were sent to all parts of Greece to invite the heroes to join him in the expedition. When all were assembled at Iolcus, they set out on their voyage, and a south wind carried them to the mouth of the Axeinus Pontus (subsequently Euxinus Pontus), where they built a temple to Poseidon, and implored his protection against the danger of the whirling rocks. The ship then sailed to the eastern coast of the Euxine and ran up the river Phasis, in the country of Aeëtes, and the Argonauts had to fight against the dark-eyed Colchians. Aphrodite inspired Medea, the daughter of Aeëtes, with love for Jason, and made her forget the esteem and affection she owed to her parent. She was in possession of magic powers, and taught Jason how to avert the dangers which her father might prepare for him, and gave him remedies with which he was to heal his wounds.
Aeëtes promised to give up the fleece to Jason on condition of his plowing a piece of land with his adamantine plow drawn by fire-breathing oxen. Jason undertook the task, and, following the advice of Medea, he remained unhurt by the fire of the oxen, and accomplished what had been demanded of him. The golden fleece, which Jason himself had to fetch, was hung up in a thicket, and guarded by a fearful dragon, thicker and longer than the ship of the Argonauts. Jason succeeded by a stratagem in slaying the dragon, and on his return he secretly carried away Medea with him. They sailed home by the Erythraean sea, and arrived in Lemnos.
In this account of Pindar, all the Argonauts are thrown into the background, and Jason alone appears as the acting hero. The brief description of their return through the Erythraean sea is difficult to understand. Pindar, as the Scholiast on Apollonius Rhodius6 remarks, like some other poets, makes the Argonauts return through the eastern current of Oceanus, which it must be supposed that they entered through the river Phasis; so that they sailed from the Euxine through the river Phasis into the eastern ocean, and then round Asia to the southern coast of Libya. Here the Argonauts landed, and carried their ship through Libya on their shoulders until they came to the lake of Triton, through which they sailed northward into the Mediterranean, and steered towards Lemnos and Iolcus. The Erythraean sea in this account is the eastern ocean.
There is scarcely any other adventure in the ancient stories of Greece the detail of which has been so differently related by poets of all kinds. The most striking differences are those relative to the countries or seas through which the Argonauts returned home. As it was in most cases the object of the poets to make them return through some unknown country, it was necessary, in later times, to shift their road, accordingly as geographical knowledge became more and more extended. While thus Pindar makes them return through the eastern ocean, others, such as Apollonius Rhodius and Apollodorus, make them sail from the Euxine into the rivers Ister and Eridanus into the western ocean, or the Adriatic; and others, again, such as the Pseudo-Orpheus, Timaeus, and Scymnus of Chios, represent them as sailing through the river Tanais into the northern ocean, and round the northern countries of Europe. A fourth set of traditions, which was adopted by Herodotus, Callimachus, and Diodorus Siculus, made them return by the same way as they had sailed to Colchis.
All traditions, however, agree in stating, that the object of the Argonauts was to fetch the golden fleece which was kept in the country of Aeëtes. This fleece was regarded as golden as early as the time of Hesiod and Pherecydes,7 but in the extant works of Hesiod there is no trace of this tradition, and Mimnermus only calls it "a large fleece in the town of Aeëtes, where the rays of Helios rest in a golden chamber." Simonides and Acusilaus described it as of purple color.8 If, therefore, the tradition in this form had any historical foundation at all, it would seem to suggest, that a trade in furs with the countries north and east of the Euxine was carried on by the Minyans in and about Iolcus at a very early time, and that some bold mercantile enterprise to those countries gave rise to the story about the Argonauts. In later traditions, the fleece is universally called the golden fleece; and the wondrous ram who wore it is designated by the name of Chrysomallus, and called a son of Poseidon and Theophane, the daughter of Bisaltes in the island of Crumissa.9 Strabo10 endeavors to explain the story about the golden fleece from the Colchians' collecting by means of skins the gold sand which was carried down in their rivers from the mountains.
The ship Argo is described as a pentecontoros, that is, a ship with fifty oars, and is said to have conveyed the same number of heroes. The Scholiast on Lycophron11 is the only writer who states the number of the heroes to have been one hundred. But the names of the fifty heroes are not the same in all the lists of the Argonauts, and it is a useless task to attempt to reconcile them.12
An account of the writers who had made the expedition of the Argonauts the subject of poems or critical investigations, and whose works were used by Apollonius Rhodius, is given by the Scholiast on this poet. Besides the Argonautics of the Pseudo-Orpheus, we now possess only those of Apollonius Rhodius, and his Roman imitator, Valerius Flaccus. The account which is preserved in Apollodorus' Bibliotheca13 is derived from the best sources that were extant in his time, and chiefly from Pherecydes. We shall give his account here, partly because it is the plainest, and partly because it may fill up those parts which Pindar in his description has touched upon but slightly.
When Jason was commissioned by his uncle Pelias of Iolcus to fetch the golden fleece, which was suspended on an oak-tree in the grove of Ares in Colchis, and was guarded day and night by a dragon, he commanded Argus, the son of Phrixus, to build a ship with fifty oars, in the prow of which Athena inserted a piece of wood from the speaking oaks in the grove at Dodona, and he invited all the heroes of his time to take part in the expedition.
Their first landing-place after leaving Iolcus was the island of Lemnos, where all the women had just before murdered their fathers and husbands, in consequence of the anger of Aphrodite. Thoas alone had been saved by his daughters and his wife Hypsipyle. The Argonauts united themselves with the women of Lemnos, and Hypsipyle bore to Jason two sons, Euneus and Nebrophonus. From Lemnos the Argonauts sailed to the country of the Doliones, where king Cizycus received them hospitably. They left the country during the night, and being thrown back on the coast by a contrary wind, they were taken for Pelasgians, the enemies of the Doliones, and a struggle ensued, in which Cizycus was slain; but being recognized by the Argonauts, they buried him and mourned over his fate. They next landed in Mysia, where they left behind Heracles and Polyphemus, who had gone into the country in search of Hylas, whom a nymph had carried off while he was fetching water for his companions.
In the country of the Bebryces, king Amycus challenged the Argonauts to fight with him; and when Polydeuces was killed by him, the Argonauts in revenge slew many of the Bebryces (according to the common account however, Polydeuces was victorious in the fight), and sailed to Salmydessus in Thrace, where the seer Phineus was tormented by the Harpies. When the Argonauts consulted him about their voyage, he promised his advice on condition of their delivering him from the Harpies. This was done by Zetes and Calais, two sons of Boreas; and Phineus now advised them, before sailing through the Symplegades, to mark the flight of a dove, and to judge from its fate of what they themselves would have to do. When they approached the Symplegades, they sent out a dove, which in its rapid flight between the rocks lost only the end of its tail. The Argonauts now, with the assistance of Hera, followed the example of the dove, sailed quickly between the rocks, and succeeded in passing through without injuring their ship, with the exception of some ornaments at the stern, henceforth the Symplegades stood immoveable in the sea.
Upon their arrival in the country of the Mariandyni, the Argonauts were kindly received by their king, Lycus. The seer Idmon and the helmsman Tiphys died here, and the place of the latter was supplied by Ancaeus. They now sailed along the Thermodon and the Caucasus, until they arrived at the mouth of the river Phasis. The Colchian king Aeëtes promised to give up the golden fleece, if Jason alone would yoke to a plow two firebreathing oxen with brazen feet, and sow the teeth of the dragon which had not been used by Cadmus at Thebes, and which he had received from Athena. The love of Medea furnished Jason with means to resist fire and steel, on condition of his taking her as his wife; and she taught him how he was to create feuds among and kill the warriors that were to spring up from the teeth of the dragon.
While Jason was engaged upon his task, Aeëtes formed plans for burning the ship Argo and for killing all the Greek heroes. But Medea's magic powers sent to sleep the dragon who guarded the golden fleece; and after Jason had taken possession of the treasure, he and his Argonauts, together with Medea and her young brother Absyrtus, embarked by night and sailed away. Aeëtes pursued them, but before he overtook them, Medea murdered her brother, cut him into pieces, and threw his limbs overboard, that her father might be detained in his pursuit by collecting the limbs of his child. Aeëtes at last returned home, but sent out a great number of Colchians, threatening them with the punishment intended for Medea, if they returned without her. While the Colchians were dispersed in all directions, the Argonauts had already reached the mouth of the river Eridanus. But Zeus, in his anger at the murder of Absyrtus, raised a storm which cast the ship from its road. When driven on the Absyrtian islands, the ship began to speak, and declared that the anger of Zeus would not cease, unless they sailed towards Ausonia, and got purified by Circe. They now sailed along the coasts of the Ligyans and Celts, and through the sea of Sardinia, and continuing their course along the coast of Tyrrhenia, they arrived in the island of Aeaea, where Circe purified them.
When they were passing by the Sirens, Orpheus sang to prevent the Argonauts being allured by them. Butes, however, swam to them, but Aphrodite carried him to Lilybaeum. Thetis and the Nereides conducted them through Scylla and Charybdis and between the whirling rocks; and sailing by the Trinacian island with its oxen of Helios, they came to the Phaeacian island of Corcyra, where they were received by Alcinous. In the meantime, some of the Colchians, not being able to discover the Argonauts, had settled at the foot of the Ceraunian mountains; others occupied the Absyrtian islands near the coast of Illyricum; and a third band overtook the Argonauts in the island of the Phaeacians. But as their hopes of recovering Medea were deceived by Arete, the queen of Alcinous, they settled in the island, and the Argonauts continued their voyage. During the night, they were overtaken by a storm; but Apollo sent brilliant flashes of lightning which enabled them to discover a neighboring island, which they called Anaphe. Here they erected an altar to Apollo, and solemn rites were instituted, which continued to be observed down to very late times. Their attempt to land in Crete was prevented by Talos, who guarded the island, but was killed by the artifices of Medea. From Crete they sailed to Aegina, and front thence between Euboea and Locris to Iolcus.
The story of the Argonauts probably arose out of accounts of commercial enterprises which the wealthy Minyans made to the coasts of the Euxine.
The voyage of the Argonauts is frequently used in art, but the most famous is perhaps the krater from Orvieto (ca. 460 BCE) which shows the Argonauts waiting for their departure. The image may be based on a painting by Polygnotus. A bronze toilet box from the fourth century shows an engraved illustration of the voyage. In the Renaissance the voyage of the Argonauts is frequently depicted on Italian cassoni. The subject was also used by Piero di Cosimo (ca. 1487).
- Homer. Odyssey xii, 69 ff.
- Homer. Iliad vii, 467 ff.; xxi, 40; xxiii, 743 ff.
- Theogony, 992 ff.
- ap. Strabo. Geography i, 46 ff.
- Pythian Odes iv.
- Argonautica iv, 259.
- Eratosthenes. Catasterismi, 19.
- Scholiast on Euripides' Media, 5; Scholiast on Apollonius Rhodius. Argonautica iv, 1147.
- Hyginus. Fabulae, 188.
- Geography xi, 499; comp. Appian. Mithridatic Wars, 103.
- Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library i, 9.16; Fabulae, 14, with the commentators; compare the catalogue of the Argonauts in Burmann's edition of Valerius Flaccus.
- i, 9.6-27.
- Aken, Dr. A.R.A. van. (1961). Elseviers Mythologische Encyclopedie. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
- Smith, William. (1870). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Taylor, Walton, and Maberly.
This article incorporates text from Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1870) by William Smith, which is in the public domain.