JASON AND PELIAS
JASON was the child of Aeson, son of Cretheus. Now Cretheus had founded the city and the kingdom of Iolcus on a bay in the land of Thessaly, and he left it to his son Aeson. But his younger son Pelias usurped the throne, Aeson died, and Jason, his child, was hurried away to Chiron, the centaur, who had reared many boys to greatness. Chiron gave Jason a training befitting a hero. When Pelias was quite old, he was disturbed by a strange oracle which warned him of one who wore but a single shoe. Pelias had been vainly trying to unravel the meaning of these words, when Jason, who had been in Chiron’s care for twenty years, secretly set out for his native land of Iolcus to assert his family right to the throne against Pelias.
In the manner of the heroes of old, he carried two spears, one for throwing, the other for thrusting. The hide of a panther he had strangled covered his travelling garb, and his uncut hair hung loose over his shoulders. On his journey he came to a broad river and there he saw an old woman who begged him to help her across. It was Hera, the queen of the gods, and the foe of King Pelias. Jason did not recognize her in this disguise, but full of pity lifted her and waded the river with her in his arms. Midway one of his shoes stuck in the mud. Notwithstanding he went on and arrived in the market place of Iolcus just as his uncle Pelias, surrounded by the populace, was making a solemn offering to the sea-god Poseidon. The people marvelled at Jason’s tall beauty and thought that Apollo or Ares had suddenly appeared among them. Then the king, who was offering the sacrifice, also noticed the stranger and saw with horror that only one of his feet was shod. When the holy rites had been performed, he went up to the youth and, hiding his deep concern, asked him his name and his country.
Jason answered with dauntless bearing but in a gentle voice that he was the son of King Aeson, that he had been reared in Chiron’s cave, and had now come to visit his father’s house. Crafty Pelias listened affably and concealed his alarm. He had his nephew guided through the palace, and with yearning eyes Jason looked on the halls and chambers which had housed him in early childhood. For five days he celebrated his return in joyful feasting with friends and kinsmen. On the sixth, they left the tents which had been put up for the guests and came before King Pelias. Modestly and with due decorum Jason said to his uncle: “You know, O king, that I am the son of the rightful king, and that everything you possess is mine. Yet I shall leave you all the herds of cattle and sheep and all the fields you took from my parents. I shall ask nothing of you but the scepter and the throne which was once my father’s.”
Pelias bethought himself swiftly. His answer was cordial. “I am willing to fulfill your demands,” he said, “but in return, you must grant me a request and perform a deed in my stead, which well becomes your youth, but which I am too old to accomplish. For a long time, the shade of Phrixus has been haunting my dreams, and what he asks is that I bring peace to his soul by journeying to Colchis, to King Aeetes, and fetching back the fleece of the golden ram. The glory of this quest shall be yours, and when you return with your magnificent prize, you shall have the kingdom and the scepter.”
THE CAUSE AND THE OUTSET OF THE VOYAGE OF THE ARGONAUTS
Now the story of the golden fleece was this: Phrixus, the son of Athamas, king of Boeotia, was ill-treated by his stepmother Ino, his father’s concubine. To save him from her plots, his own mother, Nephele, abducted him with the help of Helle, his sister. She set both her children on the back of a winged ram, whose fleece was of pure gold, a gift she had received from the god Hermes. On this magical creature brother and sister rode the air over lands and seas. But the girl became giddy and plunged to her death in the sea, which ever after was called the Sea of Helle, or Hellespont. Phrixus arrived safely in the land of Colchis, on the coast of the Black Sea. Here King Aeetes received him hospitably and married him to one of his daughters. Phrixus sacrificed the ram to Zeus, who had furthered his flight, and presented the fleece to the king. Aeetes, in turn, consecrated it to Ares, nailed it to a tree in a grove sacred to this god, and put it in the care of a monstrous dragon, for an oracle had told him that his very life depended on the possession of the ram’s golden pelt.
All over the world the fleece was regarded as a priceless treasure, and rumor had long since brought word of it to Greece. Many a hero and prince longed to own it, and so Pelias had not erred when he thought to stir his nephew Jason with the dream of this wonderful prize. And Jason was, indeed, very willing to go. He did not see through his uncle’s plan to let him perish on this venture, but gave his solemn word to accomplish the quest.
The most famous heroes of Greece were asked to share in this bold undertaking. At the foot of Mount Pelion, under Athene’s direction, the best shipbuilder in Greece constructed a splendid ship of a kind of wood that does not rot in seawater. It had space for fifty oars and was named Argo after its builder Argus, the son of Arestor. It was the first long ship in which the Greeks dared steer out into the open sea. Built into the prow was a piece of wood from the prophetic oak tree of Dodona, a gift from the goddess Athene. The sides of the vessel were adorned with rich carving, yet the ship was so light that the heroes could carry it upon their shoulders for twelve days in succession.
When the whole was completed and the Argonauts gathered around the ship, they cast lots for the places they were to occupy in it. Jason was to command the entire expedition. Tiphys was the helmsman, Lynceus, the keen-eyed, pilot. In the bow of the ship sat glorious Heracles, in the stern Peleus, the father of Achilles, and Telamon, the father of Ajax the Great. Among the rest of the crew were Castor and Polydeuces, the sons of Zeus, Neleus, the father of Nestor, Admetus, the husband of devout Alcestis, Meleager, who had slain the Calydonian Boar, Orpheus, the sweet singer, Menoetius, the father of Patroclus, Theseus, who later became king of Athens, and his friend Pirithous, Hylas, the younger friend of Heracles, Poseidon’s son Euphemus, and Oileus, the father of Ajax the Less. Jason had consecrated his ship to Poseidon, and before leaving all the heroes made solemn offering and prayer to him and the other gods of the sea.
When all had taken their places they weighed anchor. The fifty rowers began to ply their oars, which dipped in and out of the sea with a regular rhythm. A favorable wind swelled the sails, and soon the harbor of Iolcus was left behind. Orpheus stirred the courage of the Argonauts with the notes he struck on his lyre and by the compelling sweetness of his voice. Blithely they sped by promontories and islands. But on the second day a storm arose and drove them into the harbor of the island of Lemnos.
THE ARGONAUTS AT LEMNOS
On this island, the women, only a year ago, had killed their husbands and, indeed, all the men in the land, because they had brought concubines from Thrace and Aphrodite had roused their wives to jealousy and rage. Hypsipyle had saved only her father, King Thoas, and hidden him in a chest which she entrusted to the sea. Ever since, the women of Lemnos had been in constant fear of an attack from the Thracians, the kinsmen of their rivals, and often turned their frightened eyes toward the open sea. So now when they saw the Argo nearing the coast, they armed themselves from head to foot and rushed out of the gates and down to the shore like a host of Amazons. The heroes were greatly surprised when they saw the strand swarming with armed women and not a single man. In a small boat they dispatched a herald to this curious gathering, and when the women had taken him to their unwedded queen, Hypsipyle, he conveyed in courteous words the Argonauts’ request for hospitable shelter. The queen assembled her women about her in the market place of the city and seated herself on her father’s marble throne. Next to her, leaning on a cane, was her aged nurse, and on each side sat four golden-haired girls of delicate loveliness. After she had informed the gathering of the peaceful intent of the Argonauts, she rose and said: “Dear sisters, we have committed a great crime, and in our madness deprived ourselves of our men. We ought not reject those who would be our friends. On the other hand, we must see to it that they learn nothing of what we have done. Therefore my counsel is that we send food and wine and all else the strangers may need down to their ship, and with this courtesy keep them from our walls.”
The queen seated herself again, and now the old nurse with much effort raised her nodding head and said: “Send the strangers gifts, by all means. That is well done. But do not forget what awaits you when the Thracians come. And even should a merciful god hold them off, does this mean that you are safe from all ills? Old women like myself have no cause for concern. We shall die before need becomes pressing, before our supplies are exhausted. But how do you younger ones propose to live? Will the oxen place themselves under the yoke unbidden and draw the plough through the fields? Will they harvest the ripened grain in your stead, when summer is over? For you yourselves will not wish to perform these and other galling labors! I advise you not to spurn the protection that offers itself, and which you need. Trust your lands and possessions to these noble-born strangers and let them govern your beautiful city.”
This counsel found favor with all the women of Lemnos. The queen sent one of the girls seated near her to accompany the herald to the ship and inform the Argonauts of the decision reached by the assembly, and the heroes were pleased with this message. They had no doubt at all that Hypsipyle, after her father’s death, had peacefully succeeded to his throne. Jason slung his crimson mantle, a gift from Athene, over his shoulder and strode toward the city, radiant as a star. When he entered the gates, the women streamed out to meet him in clamorous greeting and were glad of their guest. He, however, kept his eyes upon the ground both from modesty and good breeding and hastened toward the palace. Handmaids flung wide the tall portals for him, and the young woman who had gone to the ship conducted him to her mistress’s chamber. Here he seated himself opposite her in a sumptuous chair. Hypsipyle lowered her smooth white lids, and her virgin cheeks were rose-red with blushes. Shyly she addressed him with flattering words: “Stranger, why did you hesitate to enter our gates? In this city there are no men for you to fear. Our husbands broke faith with us. With Thracian women, whom they captured in wars, they moved into the country of their concubines and took with them their sons and serving-men, while we remained behind—helpless! And so, if it please you, come and be one of our people, and, if you will, rule over your men and over us in my father Thoas’ stead. This country will find favor in your eyes; it is by far the most fruitful island in these seas. You, who have come on ahead, go tell your companions of my offer.”
These were her words, but what she did not say was that the men had been murdered. Jason replied: “O queen, with thankful hearts we accept the help you are willing to give us, who are in need. As soon as I have told my companions of your offer I shall return to your city, but do you yourself retain your scepter and your island! It is not that I spurn them, but danger and conflicts await me in a far country.”
He gave the queen his hand in parting and hurried back to the shore. The women soon followed him there in swift chariots laden with many gifts. It was easy for them to persuade the heroes, who had already heard Jason’s report, to enter the city and lodge in their houses. Jason lived in the palace itself, the others here and there. Only Heracles, who despised life among women, remained behind in the ship with a few chosen companions. And now the gaiety of feast and dance surged through the city. The fragrant smoke of offerings floated to the sky, as both the dwellers in the city and their guests paid honor to Hephaestus, the patron god of the island, and to his wife Aphrodite. Departure was put off from day to day, and the heroes would have loitered on indefinitely with their lovely hostesses, had not Heracles come from the ship and gathered them about him without the women’s knowledge.
“You are a wretched lot!” he told them. “Were there not enough women for you in your own country? Did you have to come here for want of wives? Do you wish to plough the fields of Lemnos like peasants? Why, of course! A god will fetch the fleece for us and lay it at our feet! It would be better if each of us returned to his own country. Let Jason marry Hypsipyle, populate the island of Lemnos with his sons, and ever after listen to the tale of heroic feats performed by others.”
No one dared raise his eyes to the hero or contradict him. They left the gathering and made ready to depart. But the women of Lemnos, who guessed their intention, beset them like buzzing bees with pleading and lament. At last, however, they submitted to the men’s decision. Hypsipyle, her eyes full of tears, went apart from the rest, took Jason by the hand and said: “Go, and may the gods grant you and your companions the golden fleece you desire! Should you ever wish to return to us, this island and my father’s scepter await you. But I know very well that you do not plan to come back. Think of me, at least, when you are far away.”
Jason left the queen filled with admiration for her goodness and poise. He was the first to board the ship, and the others came after him. They loosed the ropes which moored the vessel to the shore, the rowers pulled at their oars, and in a short time the Hellespont was left behind.
THE ARGONAUTS IN THE LAND OF THE DOLIONES
Winds from Thrace swept the ship toward the coast of Phrygia, where earthborn giants, untamed savages, lived side by side with the peaceful Doliones on the island of Cyzicus. These giants had six arms, one springing from each massive shoulder, and two on each side. The Doliones were descended from the sea-god, who protected them even against their monstrous neighbors. Their king was devout Cyzicus. When news of the ship and its company of men reached the island, he and his entire people went to meet the Argonauts, received them hospitably, and urged them to anchor their ship in the harbor of their city. For an oracle given long ago bade the king greet the band of divine heroes with kindly words and above all to refrain from fighting them. And so he supplied them with an abundance of wine and slaughtered beasts. He was still a youth, and his beard was just beginning to grow. His young wife, whom he had taken from her father’s house not long before, was awaiting him in the palace, but obedient to the oracle, he stayed to share the strangers’ meal. Then they told him of the aim and the purpose of their quest, and he instructed them what path to take.
The next morning they climbed a high mountain, so that they might see for themselves where the island lay in the ocean. In the meantime the giants had rushed forth from the other side and closed off the harbor with tremendous blocks of stone. But in the harbor lay the Argo, guarded by Heracles, who had again refused to leave the ship. When he saw the huge fellows begin working their mischief, he shot many of them to death with his arrows. And now the other heroes returned and wrought such havoc among the giants with their spears and arrows that they were utterly beaten and lay in the narrow harbor like a forest of hewn trees, some with head and breast in the sea and their feet on the sandy shore, others with their limbs in the water and head and breast on the strand, but all of them destined to be the prey of fishes and the food of birds.
When the heroes had thus successfully emerged from the battle, they weighed anchor and sailed out to sea. But in the night the wind changed, and a storm drove in upon them from the opposite side, so that they were forced to cast anchor near land. This land was again the island of the hospitable Doliones, but the Argonauts thought they were on the coast of Phrygia. Nor did their erstwhile hosts, whom the noise of the landing had roused from sleep, recognize the friends with whom they had caroused so merrily only the day before; they reached for their arms, and an ill-starred battle ensued. Jason himself thrust his spear into the heart of the king, and neither did the slayer know his victim nor the victim the slayer. Finally the Doliones were put to flight and shut themselves up in their city. The next morning both sides saw their mistake.
Jason, the leader of the Argonauts, and all his men were filled with bitter grief when they beheld good king Cyzicus lying in his own blood. For three days, the heroes and the Doliones together mourned their dead. They tore their hair and arranged bouts and funeral feasts in honor of the slain. Then the Argonauts set out on their way. But Clite, the wife of the fallen king, strangled herself with a rope, for she could not bear to go on living now that her husband was no more.
HERACLES LEFT BEHIND
After a stormy voyage, the heroes landed in the bay of Bithynia where the city of Cius lies. The Mysians, who lived here, received them kindly, heaped dry faggots for a fire to warm them, piled green leaves to make soft beds, and, even though night had fallen, served them with an abundance of wine and food.
Heracles, who scorned all comforts, left his companions seated at their feast and went off into the woods to carve himself a better oar for the work of the coming morning. He soon found a pine which seemed just what he wanted, not too thick with boughs, and in length and breadth somewhat like a slender poplar. He laid his bow and quiver aside, threw off his lion’s skin, put his club down next to it, gripped the trunk with both hands, and pulled the tree out by the roots—the earth still clinging to them—so that it looked as if a tempest had torn it from the ground.
Now his young friend Hylas had also left the banquet board. He had risen and taken a bronze pitcher to draw water for his master and friend, in order to prepare for his return. On an expedition against the Dryopes, Heracles had killed the boy’s father in a dispute, but had taken Hylas himself with him and reared him as his servant and friend. When the beautiful boy reached the well, the moon was full and radiant. As he leaned over the water, pitcher in hand, the nymph of the well saw him, and was so charmed by his beauty that she twined her left arm around him, while with her right hand she clutched his elbow and drew him down into the depths. One of the heroes, Polyphemus by name, who was awaiting Heracles not far from the well, heard the boy cry out for help. But he could not find him. Just then he saw Heracles coming from the woods. “Must I be the first to tell you the sad news?” Polyphemus called to him. “Your Hylas went to the well and did not return. Robbers must have seized him, or perhaps wild animals. I myself heard him cry out in distress.” When Heracles heard this, the sweat broke out on his forehead, and the blood beat painfully in his veins. Angrily he threw down the pine and, as a bull stung by the gadfly leaves the herd and the herdsman, he ran through the thickets to the well, uttering cries of grief.
The morning star stood over the mountain peak, and a favorable wind arose. The helmsman urged the heroes to make the most of it and come aboard. They were gliding along gaily in the faint flush of dawn, when too late they remembered that two of their number, Polyphemus and Heracles, had been left behind. A stormy quarrel broke out over whether or not they should sail on without their valiant friends. Jason said nothing. He sat in silence, and sorrow gnawed at his heart. But Telamon was overcome with wrath. “How can you sit there so quietly?” he called to their leader. “I suppose you are afraid that Heracles might put your own prowess to shame! But why do I waste words! Even if all our companions agree with you, I alone should turn back to the man we have deserted.”
And with this he gripped Tiphys, the helmsman, by the breast, and would have compelled him to put about for the land of the Mysians, had not Zetes and Calais, the two sons of Boreas, seized his arm and held him back with angry words. But while they were still contending with one another, Glaucus, a god of the sea, rose out of the foamy tide, grasped the stern of the ship with his strong hand, and called to the voyagers: “Do not quarrel, O heroes! You shall not take fearless Heracles with you to the land of Aeetes, against the will of Zeus! Destiny has decreed other labors for him. A love-struck nymph stole Hylas, and Heracles has remained behind because of his yearning for him.”
After he had revealed these things, Glaucus sank back into the sea, and the dark waters swirled over him. Telamon was ashamed. He went up to Jason, laid his hand in his, and said: “Do not bear me a grudge, Jason. Sorrow led me astray and I spoke rash words. Let my fault be gone with the winds, and may we wish each other well as before.”
Jason was glad to make peace, and they journeyed over the waves with a fresh and fair breeze. Polyphemus made his home with the Mysians and built them a city. But Heracles went on where the will of Zeus called him.
POLYDEUCES AND THE KING OF THE BEBRYCIANS
The next morning, at sunrise, they cast anchor near a peninsula stretching far into the sea. Here Amycus, king of the wild Bebrycians, had his stables and country house. This sovereign had imposed an irksome rule upon all strangers: that no one was to leave his territory without first having boxed with him. In this way he had already done away with a great number of his neighbors. On this occasion also he approached the ship which had just arrived and challenged the oarsmen with mocking words. “Listen, you rovers of the sea,” he called to them, “there is one thing you must know: that is that no stranger may quit my country without having boxed with me. So choose the best man among you and send him to me, or your doom will be sealed.”
Now it happened that one of the Argonauts was the best boxer in Greece, Polydeuces, the son of Leda. Stung by the challenge, he said to the king: “Do not wrangle with us. We are ready to obey your rules, and I am your man.”
The king of the Bebrycians looked at the bold hero, and his eyes rolled in their sockets like those of a wounded mountain lion glaring at its assailant. But young Polydeuces was serene as a star in the heavens and swung his hands about in the air to see if, what with the long hours of rowing, they had lost their suppleness.
When the heroes left the ship, the two boxers took up their positions opposite each other. One of the king’s slaves threw two pairs of boxing thongs on the ground between them. “Choose whichever pair you like,” said Amycus. “I do not want to go to the trouble of selecting them by lot. You will soon be able to tell from your own experience that I am an excellent tanner and can darken cheeks with blood.”
Polydeuces smiled quietly, took the thongs which lay nearest him, and had his friends strap them to his hands. The king of the Bebrycians did the same, and now the boxing began. Like a breaker which rushes upon a ship and whose force the skillful helmsman counters only with great difficulty, the king hurled himself against the Greek and allowed him no breathing-spell. Yet lithe Polydeuces always succeeded in dodging the onslaught and suffered no wounds. Soon he found out his adversary’s weak side and dealt him many an unparried thrust. But the king too took his advantage where he saw it, and so jaws rang with the sound of blows, and teeth rattled with thwack after thwack, nor did they stop until they both were panting, and had to step to one side to rest and dry the sweat streaming from every pore. Hardly had they resumed the bout when Amycus missed his opponent’s head and struck only his shoulder, while Polydeuces hit him near the ear, so that the bones in his head cracked and he dropped to his knees in great pain.
The Argonauts shouted with joy, but the Bebrycians came to the aid of their king and attacked Polydeuces with their clubs and hunting spears. His companions whipped out their swords and threw themselves into the struggle. In the end the Bebrycians were put to flight and sought refuge in the interior of their country. The heroes then entered their stables and seized the herds, so that they had rich spoils. They spent the night ashore, bound up their wounds, and made offerings to the gods, nor did sleep weigh upon their lids as they passed the brimming cup. From the laurel to which the ship was bound with ropes they broke sprays to wreathe their brows, and sang a hymn of praise while Orpheus plucked the strings of his lyre. The very shore seemed to listen in silent delight while they sang of Polydeuces, victorious son of Zeus.
PHINEUS AND THE HARPIES
Dawn put an end to their feasting, and they continued on their way. After more adventures they cast anchor opposite the land of Bithynia, in which Phineus, son of the hero Agenor, now dwelt. This Phineus had been afflicted with great misfortune. Because he had abused the gift of prophecy Apollo had granted him, he had, in his old age, become blind, and those evil witch-like birds, the harpies, would not allow him to eat his food in peace. They snatched whatever they could, and whatever food remained they polluted so intolerably that no one could touch it. Phineus had only one consolation, an oracle of Zeus to the effect that he would eat unmolested when the sons of Boreas came with the Greek oarsmen. And so, when the old man heard of the arrival of the Argo, he left his chamber, starved to a very skeleton, a mere shadow. His limbs trembled with weakness, he supported his tottering steps with a staff, and when he reached the Argonauts, he sank to the ground in exhaustion. They surrounded the unhappy old man, appalled at his appearance. When he heard them about him and had collected his strength, he spoke to them pleadingly. “O noble heroes, if you are really those foretold by the oracle, help me! For the goddesses of vengeance have not only taken my eyesight but have also sent upon me these horrid birds to deprive me of my food. You will not be giving your aid to a stranger, for I am a Greek—Phineus, the son of Agenor. Once I was king of Thrace, and the sons of Boreas, who must be partners in your quest and are destined to save me, are the younger brothers of Cleopatra, who was my wife in that land.”
At these words, Zetes, the son of Boreas, threw himself into the arms of the king and promised that, with the help of his brother, he would free him from those preying birds. Then they prepared a meal for him, but scarcely had the king touched the food when the harpies headed down from the clouds like a gale and greedily perched on the platters. The heroes shouted and cried out, but the birds were undisturbed and stayed until they had devoured the last crumb. Then they flew into the air, leaving a horrible stench behind. Zetes and Calais, the sons of Boreas, pursued them with drawn swords, and Zeus lent them wings and untiring strength, which they had need of, indeed, for the harpies sped faster than the swift western wind. But the sons of Boreas were close on their trail and at times could almost lay hands on the monsters. At last they were so near that they would certainly have slain them, had not Iris, the messenger of Zeus, suddenly appeared and addressed the two heroes. “Sons of Boreas,” she said, “the harpies sent by Zeus must not be slain by the sword. But I swear to you by the Styx, on which the gods take their oath, that these birds shall no longer trouble the son of Agenor.” At that Zetes and Calais gave up the pursuit and returned to the ship.
In the meantime the Greek heroes busied themselves about the aged Phineus and prepared a sacrificial feast, to which they invited the starving old man. Avidly he ate of the clean and abundant food, though he seemed to be satisfying his hunger as if in a dream. Night came, and while they were awaiting the return of the sons of Boreas, King Phineus made them a prophecy in gratitude for what they had done for him.
“First,” he said, “you will come to the Symplegades in the narrows of the Euxine Sea. These are two steep, rocky islands, which have no roots in the bottom of the ocean but are afloat in the water. Often the current drives them toward each other, and then the tide between them swells with turbulent force. If you do not want to be ground to splinters, along with all you possess, row through them as swiftly as a dove flies. After that you will come to the land of the Mariandyni, which boasts the entrance to the underworld. You will pass many other promontories, rivers, and coasts, the women’s state of the Amazons, and the land of the Chalybes, who dig iron out of the earth by the sweat of their brows. Finally you will come to the coast of Colchis, where the river Phasis pours its broad stream into the sea. You will see the towered stronghold of King Aeetes, and there the sleepless dragon guards the golden fleece, which is spread over the topmost boughs of an oak-tree.”
As the heroes listened to the old man, they could not suppress a shudder, and were just about to question him further when the sons of Boreas flew down into their midst and gladdened the king with the message of lovely Iris.
Full of gratitude and moved in heart, Phineus took leave of his liberators, who sailed on to new adventures. For forty days a wind blew from the northwest and halted their voyage until offerings and prayers to all the twelve gods once more speeded them on their way. They were sailing along smoothly and swiftly when a thunderous crash struck upon their ears. This was the roar of the Symplegades striking together and recoiling, mixed with the vast echoes from the shore and the hiss of the frothing sea. Tiphys, the helmsman, stood watchfully at the tiller. Young Euphemus rose in his place, holding a dove in the palm of his right hand, for Phineus had said that if a dove flew fearlessly between the rocks, they too might venture the passage. Euphemus let fly the bird, and all heads were raised in tense expectancy. It sped through, but already the rocks were approaching each other, and the water foamed and churned in the narrow strait. Air and sea were loud with clamor, and now the cliffs met and clipped off the tail feathers of the dove. Yet it had come through unharmed, so Tiphys encouraged the oarsmen in a loud voice. The rocks fell apart, and the current streaming between drew the ship in its wake. Destruction beset them on all sides. A tall breaker surged forward, and the sight was so menacing that they shrank back in terror. Then Tiphys bade them stop rowing. The foaming wave rushed under the keel and lifted the ship high above the rocks closing in on each other. The men strained at the oars until the blades almost seemed to bend. Now the whirl bore them down between the rocks again, and they would surely have been crushed had not Athene, the patron goddess of the Argonauts, thrust the ship forward—though she was invisible to them—until it escaped, with only the tip of the stern shattered.
When the heroes saw the sun and the open sea again, they shed their fears and drew their breath freely, feeling as though they had come up from the underworld. “This did not come about through our own strength,” cried Tiphys. “Behind me I felt the divine hand of Athene, pushing the ship strongly through the cleft. Now we have nothing more to fear, for Phineus said that after this danger was passed, all our other labors would seem light.”
But Jason shook his head sadly and said: “My good Tiphys, I have tried the gods by allowing Pelias to impose this task upon me. Rather should I have let him destroy me. Now I must spend my days and nights in sighs and distress, not for myself, but for your lives and welfare, and in pondering how I may save you from peril and return you unharmed to your native land.” And Jason said all this only to test his comrades, but they acclaimed him lustily and wanted nothing better than to follow their beloved leader forever.
The heroes continued on their quest. Tiphys, their faithful helmsman, fell ill and died, and they had to bury him on an alien shore. In his stead they chose one of their number versed in the art of steering, Ancaeus, but for a long time he refused to take over this difficult office. Finally Hera inspired him with courage and confidence, and he took his place at the tiller and guided the ship as well as Tiphys had done. Under his direction, on the twelfth day, they made for the open sea and soon, with all sails spread, came to the mouth of the river Callichorus.
There, on a mound near the shore of the sea, they saw the tomb of the hero Sthenelus, who had gone forth against the Amazons with Heracles, and, struck by an arrow, had died in this place. They were about to continue their voyage, when the sorrowful shade of Sthenelus, whom Persephone had given leave to ascend from the underworld, appeared to them and gazed at his kinsmen with longing eyes. He stood on the very top of the mound, looking just as he did when he went forth to battle, with a crest of four scarlet feathers streaming from, his helmet. But he was visible for only a few brief moments, and then sank back into the cheerless depths of the earth. The heroes rested on their oars, appalled at the apparition, and no one but Mopsus, the seer, understood what it was the departed spirit wanted. He counselled his companions to offer a libation for the peace of the slain man’s soul. Quickly they lowered the sails, made fast the ship, and ranged themselves around the grave. They sprinkled it with libations and slaughtered sheep and burned them.
Then they proceeded on their journey and, after a time, came to the mouth of the river Thermodon, which was like no other in all the world. For it rose from a spring far up in the mountains, but soon after leaving its source separated into a great number of branches and rushed toward the ocean in so many streams that, indeed, it lacked only four to make up a hundred. They swarmed into the open sea like writhing snakes.
At the widest of the outlets dwelt the Amazons. This nation of women was descended from the god Ares and loved the trade of war. Had the Argonauts landed here, they would doubtless have become embroiled in bloody battle with these women, whose courage equalled that of the bravest men. They did not all live in one city but were scattered over the countryside in separate tribes. A propitious wind from the west drove the Argonauts far from these strange beings.
After a day and a night, just as Phineus had foretold, they came to the land of the Chalybes. Its people did not plough the earth. They planted no fruit trees, nor did they pasture herds on dewy meadows. Their sole occupation was to dig in the hard earth for ore and iron and exchange these for food. No dawn ever saw them making merry. Every day they labored in pits as black as night and in the heavy murk of smoke.
The Argonauts passed many other peoples. Once, when they were near an island called Aretia, or the island of Ares, a bird, native to that country, flew toward them moving his wings with powerful strokes. When he was immediately above the ship, he shook his pinions and dropped a pointed plume. It pierced the shoulder of Oileus, and the pain was so great that he let the oars slip from his fingers. His companions looked at the winged missile in astonishment, and the one nearest him drew out the feather and bound up the wound. Soon a second bird appeared. Clytius, who had been holding his bow in readiness, shot him in flight, and he fell into the ship.
“The island is nearby,” said Amphidamas who was an experienced voyager. “Beware of those birds. There are probably so many of them that, if we landed, we should not have enough arrows to destroy them. So let us think of some way to drive these creatures away. Let us all put on our helmets with their tall, flowing crests and take turns at rowing, while the rest deck out the ship with shining lances and shields. Then we will raise our voices in terrifying cries, and when the birds hear us and see the waving plumes, the sharp lances and the glittering shields, they will take fright and fly away.”
This plan pleased the heroes, and they carried it out in every detail. Not a living creature did they see as they approached the island. But when they had come close and rattled their spears, countless birds flew up from the shore and stormed over the ship. But just as one closes the shutters of a house to keep out the hail, so the heroes covered themselves with their shields, and the sharp quills fell without harming them. The birds themselves, the terrible Stymphalides, fled far across the sea to the opposite coast, while the Argonauts followed the advice of King Phineus, the seer, and landed on the island.
Here they found unexpected friends and companions. For scarcely had they taken a few steps along the shore, when they met four youths in tattered clothing and appearing to be in sad need of everything. One of them came toward them. “Whoever you may be,” he cried, “help the poor shipwrecked! Give us clothing! Give us food to quench our hunger!”
Jason promised them aid and asked them their names and descent. “You must have heard of Phrixus, the son of Athamas,” the youth replied. “He, who brought the golden fleece to Colchis! King Aeetes gave him his eldest daughter in marriage. We are his sons, and my name is Argus. Our father Phrixus died a short time ago, and in obedience to his dying wish we embarked to fetch the treasures he left in the city of Orchomenus.”
The heroes were overjoyed, and Jason greeted the youths as his kinsmen, for his grandfather Cretheus had been the brother of Athamas. The boys went on to tell how their ship had been wrecked in a storm and how a plank had carried them to this inhospitable island. But when the heroes told them of their plan and asked them to share their venture, they did not conceal their horror. “Our grandfather Aeetes,” they explained, “is a cruel man. He is said to be a son of Apollo, and this accounts for his superhuman strength. Countless tribes in Colchis are under his sway, and a dreadful dragon guards the fleece.”
Some of the heroes paled at this report. But Peleus rose and said: “Do not think that we must necessarily be defeated by the king of Colchis, for we too are the sons of gods! If he refuses to give us the golden fleece of his own accord, we shall wrest it from him in defiance of his power and his men.”
During the banquet which followed, they spoke further with one another of this matter. The next morning the sons of Phrixus, clothed and revived, went aboard the ship, and the Argo continued on her voyage. After they had rowed a day and a night, they saw the peaks of the Caucasus mountains looming above the surface of the sea. When twilight fell, they heard a rushing sound over their heads. It was the eagle flying to Prometheus, to feed on his liver. He soared high above the ship, but the beat of his wings was so strong that the sails bellied out as in a high wind. Soon after, they heard Prometheus groan as the giant bird hacked at his entrails. Then the sound died away, and they saw the eagle returning through the lofty regions of the sky.
That very same night they reached their destination, the mouth of the river Phasis. Nimbly they climbed the masts and took down the rigging. Then they rowed up the broad river, whose waters seemed to retreat before the massive hull of their ship. To their left was the lofty Caucasus and Cyta, the capital of Colchis, to the right a far-flung meadow and the sacred grove of Ares, where a dragon with keen, unblinking eyes guarded the golden fleece where it hung in the leafy boughs of a tall oak. And now Jason stepped to the edge of the ship, lifted high in his hand a golden cup brimming with wine, and offered a libation to the river, to Mother Earth, to the gods of that country, and to the heroes who had died on the journey. He begged them all to give him loving help, and to watch over the cables of the ship, which they were about to make fast.
“So now we have reached Colchis safely,” said the helmsman. “And the time has come to decide whether we are going to approach King Aeetes in a friendly manner or carry out our intentions in some other way.”
“Tomorrow!” cried the tired heroes. Jason bade them cast anchor in a shady bay of the river. They lay down and sank into a sweet sleep, but their rest was brief, for the dawn soon woke them.
JASON IN THE PALACE OF AEETES
In the early morning, the heroes took counsel with one another, and Jason rose and said: “If you, my noble companions, will take my advice, you will remain quietly aboard, but with weapons in your hands, while I, the sons of Phrixus, and two of your number, make our way to the palace of King Aeetes. First I shall try the expedient of courtesy and ask him in seemly words to give us the golden fleece. But I do not doubt that, confident of his strength, he will reject my request. In this way, however, we shall learn from his own lips what it is we must do. And who can be entirely certain but that our words may, after all, strike him favorably? For, on another occasion, did not words induce him to give hospitality and protection to innocent Phrixus, who was fleeing from his stepmother?”
The young heroes approved Jason’s scheme, and so he took in his hand the staff of peace and left the ship with the sons of Phrixus and his comrades Telamon and Augeas. They entered a field overgrown with willows, known as the Circean Field. Here, to their horror, they saw many dead bodies hanging in chains. But these were neither criminals nor murdered strangers. The custom in Colchis was to wrap dead men in rawhide, hang them on trees at a distance from the city, and let the air dry the flesh on their bones. To burn or bury them was considered blasphemous, but so that earth might yet have her due, they buried their women.
Colchis had many inhabitants, and in order to protect Jason and his companions from them and from the suspicions of King Aeetes, Hera, the patroness of the Argonauts, shrouded the city in a thick blanket of mist while they were on their way and did not disperse it until they had reached the palace. They stopped in the court and marvelled at the massive walls of the king’s house, at the high gates, and the great pillars. The entire building was circled by a jutting rampart of stone, slit with a series of triangular openings. Silently they crossed the threshold of the forecourt and found spacious arbors covered with grapevines and four ever-flowing fountains. The first bubbled with jets of milk, the second streamed wine, the third fragrant oil, and the fourth water, which was warm in winter and in summer cold as ice. These Hephaestus had artfully contrived, and he had also made for the king bulls of bronze from whose throats blew a fiery breath, and a plough of solid iron. All this he had done out of gratitude to the father of Aeetes, to the sun-god, who had once rescued Hephaestus in the battle with the giants by snatching him away in his chariot.
From this outer court they came to the colonnade of the middle court, which stretched to the left and to the right and opened up vistas of entrance-ways and chambers. Directly opposite were the two main wings of the palace, one the dwelling of King Aeetes himself, the other of his son Absyrtus. The remaining rooms were occupied by the servants and the daughters of the king, Chalciope and Medea. Medea was the younger daughter and rarely seen about, for almost all her time was spent in the temple of Hecate, whose priestess she was. But on this morning Hera, the patron goddess of the Greeks, had put in her heart a desire to stay in the palace. She had just left her chamber to go to her sister, when she suddenly beheld the Greek heroes. At sight of them she uttered a loud cry, whereupon Chalciope hastened forth with all her tirewomen. She too broke into joyful cries and lifted her hands to heaven in thanks, for in the four young heroes she recognized her own sons, the children of Phrixus. They clasped their mother close, and for a long time these five wept and rejoiced at finding one another again.
MEDEA AND AEETES
Finally Aeetes too appeared with Idyia, his wife, for the sounds of jubilation and tears had aroused their curiosity. In a moment the entire forecourt was swarming with excitement. Here slaves were slaughtering a splendid bullock for the new guests; there others were splitting wood for the fire, while still others heated water in great cauldrons. There was not one who was not occupied with something in the service of the king. But unseen by them all, Eros floated high in the air. He drew a pain-bringing arrow from his quiver, dropped down to earth, and, crouching behind Jason, made taut his bow and launched the dart at Medea. No one saw it fly, not even she herself, but it burned under her breast like flame. From time to time she took a deep panting breath, like one in the grip of some malady, and then again she cast sidelong glances at Jason in the radiance of his heroic youth. Her mind was empty of everything else. Sweet sorrow filled her spirit, and she paled and reddened in turn.
In all that joyful confusion, no one had observed what was going on within her. Servants came bearing platters of food, and the Argonauts, who had bathed themselves after the toil of their rowing, sat down at the board to refresh themselves with rich and dainty fare and drink. In the course of the feast the grandsons of King Aeetes told him of the fate that had over-taken them, and then, in a low voice, he inquired about the strangers.
“I shall not conceal it from you, grandfather,” whispered Argus. “These men have come to ask you for the golden fleece of Phrixus, our father. A king who is anxious to cheat them of their possessions and drive them from their country sent them on this dangerous quest, in the hope that they would not escape the anger of Zeus and the revenge of Phrixus. Pallas Athene herself helped them build their ship, which is not of the sort used in Colchis. We, your own grandchildren, let me tell you, had a very poor one, for at the very first blast of wind it fell to pieces. But these strangers have a ship so firmly joined, so stout, that it defies the wildest storms, and they themselves ply the oars unceasingly. The bravest heroes of all Greece have gathered on this vessel.” And he told Aeetes the names of the noblest of them, and also the line from which Jason was descended.
When the king heard this, he was afraid and grew very angry at his grandsons, for he thought that it was through them the strangers had come to his court. His eyes burned under their bushy brows, and he said aloud: “Out of my sight, blasphemers and plotters that you are! You have not come to fetch the fleece, but to snatch from me my scepter and my throne. Were you not guests at my board, I should have your tongues torn out and your hands hacked off, and leave you only your feet to go away with.”
When Telamon, the son of Aeacus, who sat nearest the king, heard this talk, his spirit seethed with rage and drove him to leap from his place and retort to Aeetes in words more violent than his own. But Jason held him back and himself gave answer in a gentle voice: “Contain yourself, Aeetes. We have not come to your city and into your palace to rob you. Who would undertake so long a journey over a perilous sea for the purpose of acquiring another’s possessions? My resolve was prompted by Destiny and the command of an evil king. Grant our request! Give us the golden fleece, and all Greece will acclaim you! We are ready, moreover, to pay our debt of thanks at once. If there is a war anywhere about, or if you desire to subdue a neighboring people, take us for your allies, and we shall fight for you.”
Thus Jason spoke to propitiate Aeetes, but the king was undecided whether to have them slain immediately or first to prove their strength. After some reflection the latter course seemed the wiser to him, and he answered with more composure: “Why these timid overtures, stranger? If you are, indeed, the sons of gods or, at any rate, no less wellborn than I, and desire another’s possessions, then take the golden fleece away with you. I begrudge nothing to brave men. But first you must perform a labor I usually do myself, since it involves great danger. I have two bulls which graze in the field of Ares. They have brazen feet and from their nostrils leap tongues of flame. With them I plough the rough field, and when I have turned over the clods, I do not sow Demeter’s yellow kernels in the furrows, but the teeth of a horrid dragon. From these spring a crop of men who press in upon me from all sides, but I slay them with my lance. At early dawn I yoke the bulls, and in the late evening I rest from the harvest. When you have done the same, on that very day, O leader, you may take the golden fleece away with you to your king. But not before, since it is only just that the less valiant man should give way to the better.”
Jason sat in his place, silent and undecided, for he did not venture to promise offhand to perform so fearful a labor. But he marshalled his wits and replied: “The task is heavy, O king, but I shall do it, though I perish in the doing. After all, a man cannot meet with worse than death. I shall obey the destiny which sent me here.”
“Very well,” said the king. “Go to your men now. But consider! Unless you intend to carry out the feats I have described, leave the work to me and shun my country.”
THE COUNSEL OF ARGUS
Jason and the two heroes he had brought with him rose from their seats. Only one of the sons of Phrixus followed him, Argus, who had signed to his brothers to remain behind. But those others left the palace. About Jason hung a glow of beauty and grace. Medea’s glances strayed toward him through her veil and dreamily followed his every move.
When she was alone in her chamber again, the tears welled from under her lashes. “Why do I allow sorrow to beset my heart?” she asked herself. “How does this hero concern me? Whether he be the foremost or the least of all the demigods—let him die, if such be his lot. And yet—if only he could escape destruction! O Hecate, revered goddess, let him return home! But if it is decreed that the bulls overpower him, let him know before he goes to meet them that I, at least, do not rejoice in his awful fate.”
While Medea was thus tormenting herself, the heroes were on their way to the ship, and Argus said to Jason: “Perhaps you will spurn my advice, but still I must give it. I know a girl who understands the brewing of magic potions, an art which Hecate, the goddess of the underworld, has taught her. If we could win her over to our side, I am certain you would be victorious in this task. If you agree, I shall go and try to enlist her favor in our behalf.”
“Go if you like,” said Jason. “I shall not prevent you. But we are in a sad way if our homeward voyage depends on women!”
While they were talking, they had reached the Argo and their companions. Jason told them of the task which had been set him and of his promise to the king. For a little his friends sat, exchanging mute glances. Finally Peleus rose and said: “If you believe that you are able to do what you have pledged, prepare yourself. But if you are not wholly confident of the outcome, stay away, nor look to any of these men to help you, for what could be in store for them but death?”
At these words Telamon and four other youths sprang up full of eager joy at the thought of a perilous venture. But Argus quieted them and said: “I know one who is versed in magic. She is my mother’s sister. Let me go to my mother and persuade her to win the girl over to our plans. Not until then is there any use in discussing the task Jason has promised to perform.”
He had scarcely finished speaking when Heaven granted them a sign. A dove, who was being pursued by a hawk, took refuge in Jason’s lap, while the bird of prey, darting close behind, fell to the deck in the stern of the ship. Now one of the heroes remembered that old Phineus had prophesied, among other things, that Aphrodite would aid them in returning home. So all agreed with Argus except Idas, the son of Aphareus, who rose testily from his seat and said: “By the gods, have we come here as women’s minions? Shall we invoke Aphrodite instead of turning to Ares? Is the sight of hawks and doves to keep us from battle? Very well then, forget about war and win glory by deceiving weak maidens.” Thus he spoke in anger, and many of the heroes agreed with him and murmured their disapproval of Jason’s plan. But he decided in favor of Argus. The ship was moored to the shore, and the heroes awaited the return of their messenger.
Meantime Aeetes had called a gathering of the Colchians outside the palace. He told his people of the arrival of the strangers, their demand, and the end he had in mind for them. As soon as the leader was killed by the bulls, he would have a whole forest of trees hewn and burn the ship with all her crew. And he would devise a terrible punishment for his grandsons, who had guided these adventurers to his country. While this was going on, Argus had sought out his mother and pleaded with her to enlist the aid of her sister Medea. Chalciope herself was filled with pity for the strangers, but had not dared face her father’s rankling displeasure. And so her son’s request was welcome to her, and she promised to assist him.
Medea lay on her couch in restless slumber, haunted by anxious dreams. She seemed to see Jason make ready to fight the bulls, only that he had not assumed this labor for the sake of the golden fleece, but to take her home to his own country as his wife. In her dream it was she herself who got the better of the bulls, but her parents refused to keep their word and give Jason the promised prize, because not she, but he, should have yoked the beasts. Her father and the strangers began to quarrel bitterly on this point, and both sides chose her as arbiter. And in her dream she gave judgment in favor of the stranger! Her parents cried out in resentment and grief—and Medea awoke.
The mood begot by her dream drove her to her sister’s apartment, but for a long time she dallied in the forecourt, ashamed and undecided. Three times she went forward, three times she turned back, and at last she threw herself weeping on her own couch again. One of her trusted young handmaidens found her there, distraught and tearful, and, filled with sympathy for her mistress, reported what she had seen to Chalciope. When the message reached her, she was sitting among her sons and discussing how they might win over Medea. She hastened to her sister and found her with her palms pressed to her cheeks and her breast shaken with sobs. “What has happened to you, dear sister?” she asked in deep concern. “What sorrow is torturing your soul? Has a god afflicted you with some malady? Has our father slandered me and my sons to you? Oh, that I were far from the house of my parents, in a country where the name of Colchis is never uttered!”
MEDEA PROMISES TO HELP THE ARGONAUTS
Medea reddened at her sister’s questions, and shyness kept her silent. Now the words were on the tip of her tongue, now they retreated to the very core of her being. But love, at last, emboldened her, and craftily she said: “Chalciope, my heart grieves for your sons. I fear that our father may kill them together with the strangers. An anxious dream has given me these forebodings, but I pray that a god may prevent them from coming true.”
These words filled Chalciope with great alarm. “I have come to you about this very matter,” she said. “And I implore you to support me against our father. Should you refuse, my murdered sons and I will pursue you even from the underworld and haunt you like Furies.” She clasped Medea’s knees with both hands and buried her head in her lap. And the sisters mingled their tears.
Then Medea said: “Why speak of Furies, sister? I swear to you by heaven and earth that whatever I can do to save your sons, that I will gladly do.”
“Well then,” Chalciope countered, “for the sake of my sons, consent to furnish the stranger with some device whereby he can survive the terrible ordeal with the bulls. For he has sent my son Argus to beg your help.”
Medea’s heart danced with joy, her lovely face flushed, and for a moment giddiness clouded her shining eyes. Then she said impetuously: “Chalciope, may the dawn never again gladden my sight if I do not hold your life and that of your sons more dear than my own! For did not you—so my mother often told me—suckle me together with them when I was a tiny child? Therefore I love you not only with a sister’s but a daughter’s love. Early tomorrow morning, I shall go to the temple of Hecate and there fetch for the stranger the magic which shall tame the bulls.” Chalciope left her sister’s chamber and told her sons the welcome news.
All night Medea struggled with herself. “Have I not pledged too much?” she said. “May I do all this for a stranger? See him and touch him with no one near—for this is necessary if the ruse is to succeed? Yes, I shall save his life! Let him go where he will. But on the day of his victory, I shall die. A rope or poison will serve to free me from an existence I loathe. But will not vicious rumors pursue me over all the land of Colchis? Will they not whisper that I have disgraced my house by dying for love of a stranger?” With these tangled thoughts in her head, she went to fetch a small box which contained those herbs that cure and those that kill. She set it on her knees and had already opened it to taste of deadly poison, when she remembered all the vexing sweetness of life, all its delights, all her playmates. The sun seemed fairer to her than before, and she shivered with unconquerable fear of death and put the casket down on the floor. Hera, Jason’s patron goddess, had changed her heart. She could hardly wait for the dawn to brew the promised magic and bring it to the hero whom she had come to love.
JASON AND MEDEA
Argus hurried to the ship with his joyful message, and when Dawn had only just streaked the sky with light, Medea leaped from her couch, combed and bound her blond locks, which in her grief had hung matted about her cheeks, washed the traces of tears from her face, and anointed herself with precious oils. She put on a splendid robe, fastened with curved golden clasps, and threw a white veil over her radiant head. All sadness was forgotten. She ran through the halls on nimble feet and bade her handmaids, twelve in number, yoke the mules to the chariot which was to take her to the temple of Hecate. While this was being done, Medea took from her box an ointment called Prometheus’ oil. Whoever salved his body with it, after offering a prayer to the goddess of the underworld, could not on that day be either wounded by a blade or scorched by fire, but would, indeed, be able to defeat any opponent. The ointment was prepared from the black sap of a root nourished by the blood oozing down to the grassy slopes of the Caucasus from the gashed liver of Prometheus. Medea herself had caught the sap of that plant in a shell and hoarded it as a rare and potent remedy.
The chariot was ready. Two of her handmaids mounted it with their mistress, who herself held the reins and the goad and drove through the city, while the others accompanied her on foot. And all along their course, the people reverently stepped aside to let the king’s daughter pass. When she had crossed the open field and reached the temple, Medea sprang lightly from the chariot and spoke to her maidens with wily deceit.
“I think I have done a great wrong in not keeping away from the strangers who came to our country. And now, on top of this, my sister and her son Argus have requested me to accept gifts from their leader and make him invulnerable by magic charms. I pretended to assent and asked him to come to this temple, where I can see him alone. When he arrives, I shall take the gifts, which we shall later divide among ourselves, but offer him a potion which will hasten his destruction. Now go, lest he suspect a plot, for I told him that I would receive him alone.”
The girls were well pleased with her plan. While they dispersed within the temple, Argus and his friend Jason set out on their way, and Mopsus, the soothsayer, went with them. No mortal, not even a child of the gods, had ever been as beautiful as Hera on this day made Jason! She endowed him with all the gifts of the Graces. Whenever his two companions glanced sidewise they wondered at his radiance—as if a star had taken on human form! Medea, meanwhile, waited in the temple with her maidens, and although they tried to shorten the time with singing, their mistress was intent upon such very different matters that no song pleased her for long. Her eyes did not dwell upon her handmaids but roved longingly through the temple gate and across the road. At every passing step, at every rustle of wind, she eagerly raised her head.
It was not long before Jason entered the temple, tall and fair as Sirius rising from the sea. It seemed to Medea that her heart fluttered out of her breast. The world turned black before her eyes, and the hot blood surged into her cheeks. Her handmaids had left her. For a long time the hero and the king’s daughter faced each other in silence. They were like two slender oaks which stand close to each other, deep-rooted in the hills, with the air windless around them. But suddenly a storm comes, and all the leaves tremble and move and toss on their stems. So these two, touched by love, exchanged words quick with emotion.
Jason was the first to break the silence. “Why do you fear me, now that I am alone with you?” he asked. “I am not boastful like other men, and never was, even at home! Do not hesitate to ask and to say whatever your heart bids you. But remember that we are in a holy place, where a lie would be blasphemy. Therefore, do not deceive me with vain words. I come as a suppliant to beg you for the charm you promised your sister to give me. Harsh necessity compels me to seek your help. Ask what you like in return, and know that the aid you give will dispel the dark cares of my companions’ mothers and wives, who are perhaps already mourning us on the shores of our country, and that undying glory will be yours in all of Greece.”
The girl allowed him to finish. She lowered her lids, and a faint smile touched her mouth. Her heart rejoiced in his praise. She looked up at him, and words crowded to her lips. She would have liked to say everything at once, but love numbed her tongue. So she only drew the small box from its perfumed wrappings. He took it from her hands in glad haste, but she would willingly have given him her very soul had he asked it, for Eros was kindling flames of sweet desire from Jason’s golden locks, and she caught their light and fragrance. Her spirit warmed as the dew on roses begins to glow in the beams of the morning sun. Both looked down and then at each other again, and yearning glances sped from under their lashes. It was only after a long time and with great effort that Medea spoke.
“Listen, and I shall tell you what you must do. After my father has given you the terrible dragon’s teeth for sowing, bathe alone in the waters of the river, put on black garments, and dig a circular pit. Within this heap a pyre, slaughter a ewe lamb, and burn it to ash. Then offer a libation of honey to Hecate, dripping it from your cup, and leave the pyre. Do not turn around for any step you may hear, or for the bark of a dog, otherwise the sacrifice will be in vain. The following morning salve yourself with this magic ointment. It bestows great power and incredible strength. You will feel equal not only to men, but even to immortals. You must also anoint your lance, your sword, and your shield, and then no metal directed by human hands and no flame launched by the magic bulls will be able to harm you or withstand you. This will last only for that one day, but I shall give you still other aid. When you have yoked those enormous bulls and ploughed the field, when the dragon’s seed has borne harvest, throw a great stone among the earthborn men. They will fight for it as dogs for a crust of bread, and while they are so engaged, you can rush upon them and kill them. Then you may take the golden fleece away from Colchis unhindered, and go—yes, go wherever you please.”
She spoke, and furtive tears trickled down her cheeks as she thought of this noble hero sailing far over the sea. She continued mournfully and took him by the hand, for her pain made her forget what she was doing. “When you reach home, do not forget the name of Medea. I too will think of you when you are gone. And now tell me the name of that land to which you will return on your beautiful ship.”
While the girl was talking, Jason was overcome with irresistible love for her, and broke out impetuously: “Noble princess, should I escape death, not a day will pass, not an hour, in which I fail to remember you. My home is Iolcus in Haemonia, where Deucalion, the son of Prometheus, founded many cities and built many temples. In that place not even the name of your country is known.”
“So you live in Greece,” said the girl. “Perhaps men are more hospitable there than here. Do not tell them how you were received in Colchis, and remember me when you are alone. As for me—I shall think of you when everyone else here has forgotten. But if you should forget—Oh, that a wind would carry to me a bird from Iolcus, through which I could remind you that you escaped by my help. Oh, that I myself were in your house then and could remind you in person!” And she burst into tears.
“Let winds blow and birds fly,” answered Jason. “This is idle talk. But if you yourself came to Greece and to my home, how both women and men would honor you, even worship you as a goddess, because through you their sons and brothers and husbands escaped death and returned to their native land safe and sound! And you—you would belong to me, and to me only, and nothing but death could end our love.”
Her soul melted at his words, but at the same time she was dimly aware of how terrible it is to leave one’s country. Yet she was drawn toward Greece with compelling force, for Hera had set this yearning in her heart. The goddess wanted Medea to leave Colchis and go to Iolcus, to bring destruction to Pelias.
In the meantime the maidens waited for their mistress and were silent and sad, since the time for her return was long past. She herself would have forgotten to go home for very delight in their exchange of heartfelt words, had not Jason, who was more cautious, reminded her: but even he did not think of it until late. “The time for parting has come,” he said at last, “lest the sun set, and we be still here, and the others suspect some plot. Let us meet again in this place.”
JASON DOES THE BIDDING OF AEETES
In this manner they parted. Jason returned to the ship and his comrades, his spirit filled with joy. The girl went to join her handmaids, who hurried toward her. But she did not notice their solicitude, for her soul was soaring in the clouds. With light feet she mounted the wagon, urged on the mules, who ran homeward of themselves, and re-entered the palace. Chalciope had been waiting for her long since, full of anxiety for her sons. She was sitting on a stool, with her head bowed. Her eyes were moist beneath her lowered lids, for she was thinking of the evil web in which she was entangled.
Jason meanwhile told his friends how the girl had given him a wonderful magic ointment, and as he spoke he held it out to them. All rejoiced with him except Idas, who sat apart and ground his teeth in rage. The next morning they dispatched two men to King Aeetes to fetch the dragon’s teeth. They came from the very same dragon Cadmus had slain at Thebes, and Aeetes gave them quite confidently, for he believed Jason could not possibly survive the battle, even if he succeeded in yoking the bulls. In the night which followed upon this day, Jason bathed and made an offering to Hecate, as Medea had bidden. The goddess herself heard his prayer and emerged from the depths of her cave, her awful head twined with writhing vipers and fiery sprays of oak. At her heels ran the hounds of the underworld and barked around her. The field trembled beneath her steps, and the nymphs of the river Phasis moaned in fear. Horror smote even Jason as he prepared to return to the ship, but he obeyed his beloved and did not look back. And the shimmering Dawn stained the snow-covered peaks of the Caucasus with rosy light.
Then Aeetes put on his cuirass, the one Ares had taken from the giant Mimas on the field of Phlegra. On his head he placed his four-crested helmet of gold, and in his hand he took the shield covered with four layers of oxhide, which none besides him could have lifted, save Heracles alone. His son held the swift horses harnessed to the chariot. He mounted it, took the reins, and flew through the city followed by throngs of people. Even though he was to be a mere spectator, he wished to appear fully armed, as if he himself were going to do battle.
Jason, obedient to Medea’s directions, had salved his lance, his shield, and his sword with the magic ointment. His companions formed a ring around him, and each tried his weapon on the lance, but it did not give and would not even bend ever so slightly. It was like stone in his steady hand. This vexed Idas, the son of Aphareus, and he aimed his blow at the shaft under the point. But his sword sprang back like the hammer from the anvil, and the youths exulted in the happy prospect of victory. Not until then did Jason anoint his body. Miraculous strength flowed through his limbs; the veins in his hands swelled with power, and he craved battle. As a war-horse neighs and paws the earth before the fray and then lifts high its head and points its ears, so the son of Aeson stretched in readiness to fight, tapped the ground with restless feet, and swung shield and lance in his hands.
The heroes rowed their leader to the field of Ares, where they found Aeetes and the Colchians waiting for them. The king sat on the bank, and his people were scattered about the jutting ledges of the Caucasus. When the ship was made fast, Jason leaped ashore with his lance and shield and immediately received a shining helmet full of pointed teeth. He strapped his sword to his shoulder and came forward, radiant as Ares or Apollo. Looking about the field, he soon discovered the yokes lying on the ground, and near them plough and ploughshare, all of hammered iron. When he had studied these implements carefully, he fastened the iron point to the sturdy shaft of his lance and laid down the helmet. Then, covered by his shield, he went forward, searching for the tracks of the bulls. But these animals suddenly rushed at him from another side, coming from a subterranean cave, where they were stabled. Both of them breathed flame, and thick clouds of smoke rolled about them. Jason’s friends shook with fear at sight of these monsters, but he himself stood with his legs well apart, holding his shield before him, and awaited their onslaught like a rock pounded by the sea. And when they came at him, tossing their horns, their impact could not budge him from his position. As in a smithy, when the bellows roar and the fires now leap in a shower of sparks, now hold their mighty breath, so the bulls roared and redoubled their thrusts, spewing flame all the while, and the fitful glow played about the hero like lightning. But the magic kept him unharmed, and finally he took the bull at his right by the outer horn and tugged at him with all his might until he had dragged him over to the iron yoke. Here he kicked the brazen feet and forced the beast to the earth with bent knees. In the same way he subdued the second, who was charging toward him. He flung aside his broad shield and, though the flames licked about him, held down the kneeling bulls with both his hands. Aeetes himself was forced to admire the stupendous strength of the man. Then, as they had agreed upon before, Castor and Polydeuces handed him the yokes, and he fastened them to the necks of the animals with sure and deft hands. Last he picked up the iron shaft and fitted it into the ring of the yoke. And now the twin brothers lost no time in leaving that place, for they were not immune to fire like Jason. He took his shield again and threw it across his shoulder, so that it dangled over his back by the strap. Then he reached for the helmet with the dragon’s teeth, gripped his lance, and using it as a goad, forced the angry bulls to draw the plough. Their strength and that of the mighty ploughman tore deep gashes in the earth, and the huge clods crashed in the furrows. Jason walked with a firm step and sowed the turned earth with the teeth, cautiously looking back to see if the harvest of dragon men was already up and having at him. And the bulls plodded on with their brazen hooves.
When only two thirds of the day had passed, in the bright afternoon, the whole field was ploughed, though it measured more than four acres. And now he unharnessed the bulls and threatened them with his weapons, so that they fled in fear. The hero himself returned to the ship, for the furrows still showed no sign of life.
His comrades surrounded him with loud acclaim, but he said nothing, only filled his helmet with water from the river and quenched his burning thirst. Then he felt the joints of his legs and his heart filled with fresh joy of combat, even as a raging boar grinds his teeth in readiness for the huntsmen. For all along the field the harvest was up. The entire grove of Ares bristled with shields and sharp lances and glittered so brightly with helmets that the gleam flashed up to the sky. Then Jason remembered the words of wily Medea. He picked up a great round stone. Four strong men could not have lifted it from the ground, but he took it effortlessly in his hand and tossed it far among the warriors who had sprung up from the earth. Bold yet cautious, he crouched down on one knee and covered himself with his shield. The Colchians shouted aloud as the waves roar when they break on jagged rock, and Aeetes stared at that astonishing throw in undisguised wonder. But the earthborn men fell upon one another like snarling dogs, and each killed the other with dull cries of rage. Stricken down by their spears, they fell to Mother Earth like pines or oaks uprooted by a whirlwind. When the fight was hottest, Jason rushed among them like a shooting star which falls through the dark air of night and seems an omen sent by the gods. He unsheathed his sword, pierced now this one, now that, struck down some who were already up, mowed down like grass others who had grown out only to their shoulders, and cleft the heads of still others running to join in the battle. The furrows streamed with blood. Dead and wounded fell on all sides, and many sank into the earth almost as deep as they had been sown.
Anger gnawed at the soul of King Aeetes. Without a word he left the shore and returned to the city, brooding only on how he could rid himself of Jason and inflict some grim hurt upon him to boot. These events had taken up the day. It was dusk. Jason rested from his labors, and around him his friends rejoiced.
MEDEA TAKES THE GOLDEN FLEECE
All night long with the ciders among his people King Aeetes held council in the palace, how the Argonauts might be outwitted, for he was well aware that all that had happened the past day could not have taken place without the help of his daughters. Hera, queen of the gods, saw the danger threatening Jason and filled Medea’s heart with misgivings, until she trembled as a deer in the depths of the forest at the bay of the hounds. She at once divined that her father had guessed the truth, and she also feared that her handmaids might well know of the matter. Tears burned under her lids, and there was a rushing in her ears. She let her hair hang dishevelled, as though in mourning, and if Fate had not willed otherwise, she would have taken poison and so put an end to her misery that very hour. Her hand already held the brimming cup, when Hera revived her courage and turned her purpose, so that she poured the poison back into the flask. She regained command of herself and resolved to flee, covered her couch and the doorposts with kisses, touched the walls of her room one last time, sheared a lock from her head, and put it on her bed for her mother to remember her by.
“Farewell, dear mother,” she said with a voice full of tears. “Farewell, Chalciope, and all the house! O stranger, it would have been better had you drowned in the sea before coming to Colchis!”
And she left her cherished home as a captive flees the harsh prison where he has been enslaved. The palace gates flew open at her murmured spells. On bare feet she ran along narrow paths, drawing the veil over her cheeks with her left hand, while her right raised the hem of her garment to keep it from the ground. The watchmen did not recognize her, and soon she had passed beyond the confines of the city and was hastening to the temple by a little-known road, for in gathering roots and herbs for her potions and poisonous brews she had come to know all the trails through field and wood. Selene, goddess of the moon, saw her and said smilingly to herself, as she shed her radiance upon the earth: “So others too are tormented by love, as I for my beautiful Endymion! Often have you driven me from the sky with your magic. Now you, yourself, are suffering agonies for Jason. Well, go if you must, but do not think that your craftiness will avail to escape the bitterest sorrow of all.”
So said Selene to herself, but Medea went her way on swift feet. And now she turned toward the shore, where the great fire, which the Argonauts had lit and tended all night in Jason’s honor, served to guide her. When she was opposite the ship, she called Phrontis, her sister’s youngest son, and he, along with Jason, recognized her voice and replied three times to her triple call. The heroes, who had heard and seen, were astonished at first, but then they rowed to meet her. Before the ship was moored, Jason leaped ashore, and Phrontis and Argus followed him.
“Save me,” cried the girl, clasping their knees. “Save yourselves and me from my father! All is betrayed, and there is no help. Let us flee on the ship before he can mount his swift horse. I will get you the golden fleece by putting the dragon to sleep. But you, O stranger, swear by your gods and in the presence of your friends, that you will not disgrace me when I am alone, an alien in your land.”
She said this sadly, but Jason rejoiced in his heart. Gently he raised her from her knees, embraced her and said: “Beloved, let Zeus and Hera, the patron goddess of marriage, be my witnesses that I shall take you into my house as my rightful wife as soon as we are back in Greece.” This he swore and laid his hand in hers. Then Medea bade the heroes row to the sacred grove to take the golden fleece that very night. The ship flew on with arrowy speed. Jason and the girl left it before dawn and took the path across the meadow. In the grove they found the tall oak on which the golden fleece hung, shining through the night like a morning cloud suffused with the first beams of the sun. But facing it was the sleepless dragon, whose sharp eyes pierced the distance. He stretched his long neck toward the comers and hissed so fiercely that the margin of the river and the whole forest echoed the sound. As flames roll through a burning wood, so the monster with his glittering scales wound his way, loop upon loop. But the girl went toward him boldly and made a sweet-voiced prayer to Sleep, the most powerful of the gods, to lull the dragon to rest. And she begged the great queen of the underworld to bless her doing. Jason followed her fearfully, but already the dragon was growing drowsy at the girl’s magical song. He lowered the arch of his back and stretched out the coils of his vast body. Only the horrid head was still upright and threatened to devour them both with its open jaws. But now, with a sprig of juniper, Medea sprinkled magic dew into his eyes while she conjured him with certain words. Drowsiness flowed over him at the fragrance of the liquid: he closed his jaws, spread his scaly length through the wood, and slept.
At her word, Jason pulled the fleece from the oak, while she kept sprinkling the dragon’s head with her magic tincture. Then they hurried from the dense grove, and from afar Jason held up the broad ram’s fleece, which shed a gleam over his forehead and his blond hair and lit up the dark path. He carried the shimmering treasure over his left shoulder, and it hung from his neck to his ankles. But then he rolled it up for fear that if man or god encountered him, he might rob him of his precious burden. At dawn they boarded the vessel, and the Argonauts surrounded their leader and marvelled at the fleece, which glittered like the lightning of Zeus. Each wanted to touch it with his hands, but Jason would not allow this and hid it under a cloak. He seated the girl in the stern of the ship and said to his friends: “Now let us travel quickly to our native land. This girl’s counsel has helped us accomplish what we undertook. In return I shall take her into my house as my lawful wife. And you must help me protect her, for she is the rescuer of all Greece. Besides, I have no doubt that soon Aeetes will come with his people and try to prevent us from leaving the river for the open sea. So let half of us row, while the other half hold our great shields of oxhide toward the foe and so cover our retreat. For our return to our own people and the honor or shame of Greece are in our hands.”
With these words he cut the ropes that held the ship, armed himself, and took his place near the girl beside Ancaeus, the helmsman. The swift oars smote the waves, and the ship glided down to the mouth of the river.
THE ARGONAUTS ABE PURSUED AND ESCAPE WITH MEDEA
In the meantime Aeetes and all the Colchians had learned of Medea’s infatuation, of her actions, and her flight. They met in the market place, fully armed, and soon after marched to the riverbank with a rattling of arms like the sound of thunder. Aeetes rode in a well-joined chariot drawn by the horses the sun-god had given him. In his left hand he carried a round shield, in his right a long pitch torch. At his side leaned his tall and heavy lance. His son Absyrtus held the reins. But when they reached the mouth of the river, the ship, driven on by its tireless rowers, had already gained the open sea. Torch and shield dropped from the king’s fingers. He raised his hands to heaven, called on Zeus and Apollo to witness the wrong done to him, and sullenly declared to his subjects that unless they seized his daughter on land or on sea and brought her to him so that he could revenge himself to his heart’s desire, they should all lose their heads. The terrified Colchians put out to sea that very day, hoisted sail, and sped in pursuit of Medea. Their fleet, under the command of Absyrtus, the son of Aeetes, looked like an endless flock of birds which darken the air as they trail over the waters.
A favorable wind bellied out the sails of the Argonauts, and on the morning of the third day they entered the river Halys and moored their ship to the shore of Paphlagonia. Here, at Medea’s request, they made offering to the goddess Hecate, who had saved them. Then their leader, and some of the others as well, remembered that Phineus, the aged prophet, had bidden them return by another route. None of them knew these regions, but Argus, son of Phrixus, came to the rescue, for from the writings of priests he had learned that they were to steer for the river Ister, which rises from springs in the Rhipaean Mountains and divides into many branches, so that the wealth of its waters pours into both the Ionian and the Sicilian Sea. When Argus had advised them thus, the sky was suddenly cleft by a broad rainbow in the quarter toward which they were supposed to sail. A fair wind blew and blew, and the sign in the heavens shone on and on, until they were safe in that mouth of the river Ister which empties into the Ionian Sea.
But the Colchians had not ceased in their pursuit and, since they had lighter ships and could sail more swiftly, they arrived at the mouth of the Ister before the Argonauts and scattered among the various bays and islands. There they lay in wait for the heroes and blocked their passage to the sea after they had cast anchor in the delta of the river. The Argonauts, who were alarmed at the great numbers of the enemy, went ashore and occupied one of the islands. The Colchians followed them, and it seemed that battle must ensue. Then the harried Greeks began to negotiate, and both sides finally agreed that the Argonauts were, at all events, to carry off the golden fleece which the king had promised Jason for his labors. But Medea, the king’s daughter, was to be left on another island, in the temple of Artemis, until a neighboring king, noted for his justice, should decide whether she was to return to her father or follow the heroes to Greece. When the girl heard this, she grew frantic with fear, took her beloved aside to a place where his companions could not hear her, and pleaded with him tearfully. “Jason, what are you going to do with me? Has your good fortune made you forgetful of everything you solemnly swore to me when you were in terrible need? How thoughtless I was to stake my hopes upon you, hold cheap my honor, and leave my fatherland, my house, my parents, and all I loved best! It is because of what I did for you that I am now borne far over the open sea. My foolhardiness got you the golden fleece. For you I yielded up my maidenhood and am following you to Greece as yours, as your wife. But now, because of all this, you must protect me. Do not leave me here alone! Nor let kings pronounce judgment upon me! If I am allotted to my father I am lost. And how could you, then, rejoice in your return? How could Hera, the wife of Zeus, whom you boast as your protectress, approve such a course? If you abandon me, the time will come when, deep in disaster, you will think of Medea, when the golden fleece will slip from you like a dream. Then vengeful spirits shall drive you from your native land, just as I, through your trickery, was driven from mine!”
So she spoke, maddened with passion, and would gladly have set fire to the ship, burned up everything, and cast herself into the flames. Jason looked at her and grew uncertain. His conscience smote him, and he said propitiatingly: “Compose yourself! I was not serious in closing this agreement. It is only for your sake that we are trying to delay the battle, because our foes are thick as locusts in summer. All who live here are friends of the Colchians and would help your brother Absyrtus capture you and take you back to your father. Besides, if we fought now, we should all perish miserably, and your lot would be still more hopeless, for with us dead, you would fall a prey to the foe. This agreement, I tell you, is only a ruse through which we hope to destroy Absyrtus. And once their leader is no more, the neighbors of the Colchians will not wish to give them aid.”
This he said to placate her, and now Medea gave him grim counsel. “I have strayed from my duties once,” she said. “Blinded by emotion I have done an evil thing. I cannot go back, and so I must go forward in crime. I will coax my brother until he gives himself into your hands. Have a lavish banquet prepared for him. I shall try to induce the heralds to leave him alone with me—and then you can kill him and vanquish the leaderless Colchians.”
So these two planned to trap Absyrtus. They sent him many gifts, including a sumptuous robe which the queen of Lemnos had once given to Jason. The Graces had woven it for Dionysus with their own hands, and in the fine mesh of the purple stuff clung the perfumes of heaven, for the god himself, drowsy with nectar, had slumbered in its folds. Medea slyly urged the heralds to bring Absyrtus to the other island, to the temple of Artemis, at dead of night, and pretended that she would devise a way for him to seize the golden fleece and take it back to King Aeetes. For she herself—so she lied—had been forcibly given over to the strangers by the sons of Phrixus. After she had thus deceived these messengers of peace, she sprinkled the wind with so much of her magic brew that the scent would have been enough to lure the wildest beast from the highest mountain. And what she hoped for took place. At midnight Absyrtus, deceived by solemn pledges, rowed to the holy island. Alone with his sister, he tried to probe her guileful mind and to discover whether she was, indeed, setting a snare for the strangers. But it was as if a boy were trying to wade a swollen mountain stream which a grown man cannot cross unimperilled, for when they were deep in talk, and his sister seemed ready to do all he asked, Jason suddenly rushed out of ambush, brandishing his naked sword. And the girl turned away and hid her eyes in her veil, so that she might not see her brother done to death. Like a victim at the altar, the king’s son fell under the blow of Jason’s blade, and Medea’s gown was splashed with her brother’s blood. But the goddess of vengeance, from whom nothing is hidden, looked forth from her secret dwelling with angry eyes and beheld the terrible deed committed here.
After Jason had cleansed himself of the blood and buried the body, Medea signalled to the Argonauts with a torch, for so it had been agreed. These drew up their ship beside the vessel in which Absyrtus had come to the island of Artemis and fell on his leaderless companions like hawks on flocks of doves, or lions on sheep. Not a single man escaped death. Jason, who came to aid his friends, was not needed. The battle was already decided.
THE ARGONAUTS ON THEIR HOMEWARD JOURNEY
On the advice of Peleus, the heroes left the mouth of the river and sped swiftly away before the remaining Colchians had realized what had happened. When they saw what had been done, they set out to pursue their foes, but Hera deterred them by kindling a flash of lightning in the sky. They feared her warning, and since they also feared the anger of their king if they returned without either his daughter or his son, they remained on the isles of Artemis in the mouth of the river and settled there.
But the Argonauts continued on their way and passed many coasts and islands, among them that on which Queen Calypso, the daughter of Atlas, had her dwelling place. Already they thought they discerned the tallest peaks of their homeland rising in the distance, when Hera, fearing the plots of Zeus, stirred up a mighty storm, which drove their ship to the inhospitable Amber Islands. And now the wood from the oak of Dodona, which Athene had set in the timbers of the prow, began to speak, and the listeners shook with dread. “You will not evade the wrath of Zeus, and you will wander over the sea,” said the oak, “until Circe, the sorceress, purifies you of the cruel murder of Absyrtus. Let Castor and Polydeuces pray to the gods to point you the paths which lead to Circe, the daughter of the sun-god and Perse.”
So said the prow of the Argo at the hour of dusk. The heroes shuddered when they heard such misfortune foretold and sat motionless at their oars. Only Castor and Polydeuces leaped from their bench and ventured to beg the immortal gods for their protection. But the ship dashed on to the inner reaches of the Eridanus where Phaethon, burned by the chariot of the sun, had once fallen into the water. And even now, from the bottom of the river, his searing wounds still poured forth fire and smoke. There is no ship which can sail lightly across these waters, for the flames suck it into their midst. Along the shores Phaethon’s sisters, the Heliades, who were changed into poplars, sigh in the wind and drip bright tears of amber on the earth, which the sun dries and the river draws into its tide. Thanks to their stout ship, the Argonauts overcame this peril, but they lost all desire for food or drink. By day they were harassed by the intolerable stench of scorching flesh; by night they heard the Heliades lament, their gold-colored tears oozing into the sea like drops of rich oil. They rowed along the shores of the Eridanus, came to the mouth of the Rhodanus, and would have entered there and met their death had not Hera suddenly appeared on a crag and warned them away with her clear-ringing divine voice. She shrouded the ship in black fogs, and so they journeyed for endless days and nights and passed many places where Celtic families had settled, until they saw the Tyrrhenian Sea and soon after rode safely into the harbor of Circe’s island.
They found the sorceress on the shore, leaning over the sea and washing her face in the waves. She had dreamed that her chamber, that her entire house was running with blood, that a flame had devoured all the magic herbs and brews with which she used to bewitch strangers, and that she was cupping the blood in the hollow of her hand and trying to quench the fire. This nightmare had startled her from sleep at dawn and driven her to the shore. Here she washed her garments and her locks, as though they were really stained with blood. Great beasts came after her in flocks, as cattle follow the shepherd from the stalls, and they were unlike any known animals, being formed of the limbs of one kind of creature and the head or body of another. The heroes stood aghast, for they had only to look at Circe to know that she was the sister of cruel Aeetes. When the goddess had cleansed herself of the terrors of the night, she turned homeward, called to the beasts, and stroked them as one fondles dogs.
Jason had his entire crew remain aboard. Only he and Medea went ashore, and, once on the beach, he drew the reluctant girl on to the palace of Circe. The sorceress did not know what the strangers had come for. She bade them be seated in sumptuous chairs, but quietly and mournfully they sat down by the hearth. Medea bowed her head in her hands, and Jason thrust the sword with which he had murdered Absyrtus into the ground, laid his palm upon it, and supported his chin on the hilt, without raising his eyes. Then Circe knew that those before her were suppliants, brought to her by the need for expiation and by the bitterness of exile. In honor of Zeus, the protector of suppliants, she made the necessary offering by slaughtering a young pig whose mother was still alive and calling upon Zeus who grants purification. Her servants, the Naiads, were told to collect all the means of atonement that were in the house. She herself went to the hearth and burned sacrificial cakes, praying all the while to pacify the Furies and beg the gods to forgive those who had stained their hands with murder. When all was done she first seated the strangers on splendid chairs and sat down opposite them. Then she asked them about their journey, from where they had come, why they had landed on her island, and how it was they had begged her protection; for she recalled her dream with its streams of blood. Now when Medea raised her head to reply and looked into her face, Circe was struck by the girl’s eyes, for Medea as well as she was descended from the sun-god, and all his descendants had eyes glinted with gold. When she noticed this, Circe asked the fugitives to speak in their native tongue, and—in the language used in Colchis—the girl began to tell her all that had happened between Aeetes and the heroes, quite truthfully, only that she suppressed the murder of her brother Absyrtus. But the sorceress knew even that which remained unspoken. She pitied her niece and said: “Poor girl, you have fled from home, leaving a dishonored name behind, and you have committed a grave wrong. Surely your father will come to Greece to take vengeance upon you for the murder of his son. I shall do you no harm, for you are a suppliant and my kinswoman to boot, but you must leave with this stranger, whoever he may be, for I cannot commend either your plans or your shameful flight.” At these words the girl was filled with aching grief. She covered her head with her veil and cried bitterly, until Jason took her by the hand. With faltering steps she followed him out of Circe’s palace.
But Hera took pity on those she had chosen to protect. Down the many-colored path of the rainbow she sent Iris, her messenger, to summon Thetis, the goddess of the sea, and when she had come, entrusted the ship and the heroes to her care. As soon as Jason and Medea went aboard, gentle winds began to blow. With lighter heart, the heroes weighed anchor and hoisted sail. The Argo sped on in a fresh breeze, and soon they saw a beautiful island, green and flower-laden, the habitation of the beguiling sirens, who lure passers-by with their singing, but only to destroy them. Half bird and half maiden, they always lay in wait for new quarry, and no one who came near could escape them. Now they sang their sweetest airs to the Argonauts, who were just about to cast their rope ashore and make fast the ship, when Orpheus, the singer from Thrace, rose in his seat and began to strike such rich and ringing chords on the strings of his divine lyre that he drowned out the voices decoying his friends to death. At the same time the gods sent a swift and sounding wind to the stern of the ship, so that the song of the sirens soon died away in its wake. Only one of the heroes, Butes, the son of Teleon, had been unable to resist the silvery strains. He sprang from his rowing bench, dived into the sea, and swam toward the enchanting sounds. And he would have perished, had it not been for Aphrodite, who ruled over Mount Eryx in Sicily. She snatched him from the whirlpool and cast him ashore on a promontory of the island, where he lived from that time on. The Argonauts mourned him as one dead, and went on to other adventures.
They came to a strait, flanked on the one side by Scylla, a steep rock which jutted out into the sea and seemed as if it would dash the Argo to pieces, on the other by Charybdis, the whirlpool, sucking the waters down and threatening to swallow the ship. The waters between these two were full of floating rocks, torn from the depths. There Hephaestus had once had his smithy, but now only smoke rose through the water and darkened the air. As the heroes approached, suddenly from all sides sea nymphs, the daughters of Nereus, came to meet them, and Thetis, their queen, put her own hand on the rudder. They all swam around the ship, and whenever it neared the floating rocks, one nymph flicked it to another, like girls playing ball. Now it flew up to the clouds on the crest of a wave, now it sank into deep troughs. From the top of a crag Hephaestus, his hammer slung over his shoulder, watched the game, and Hera, the wife of Zeus, saw it from the star-spangled sky. But she clutched Athene’s hand, for she could not look on without giddiness. At last they were safe from danger and sailed on over the open sea until they came to the island of the Phaeacians and their good king Alcinous.
THE COLCHIANS CONTINUE THEIR PURSUIT
He received them hospitably, and they were taking their ease when a great Colchian fleet, which had come by another route, suddenly appeared and landed a host of warriors. These demanded Medea, the daughter of their king, whom they wished to take back to her father. If she were withheld, they threatened the Greeks with battle that very instant, with worse to come when Aeetes arrived with a still greater army. They were, indeed, just about to begin fighting when wise King Alcinous succeeded in restraining them, saying that he wished to settle the quarrel without spilling blood.
Medea clasped the knees of Arete, his wife. “I beseech you,” she said, “do not let them return me to my father! You too belong to the race of mortals, that race which errs so easily and plunges into sudden disaster. I acted without thinking. It was not lightly, however, that I fled with this man, but only for fear of my father. Jason is taking me to his country. So have pity on me, and may the gods give you long life, and many children, and grace your city with everlasting splendor.”
She also threw herself at the feet of one hero after another, and each one bade her be of good courage, shook his lance, brandished his sword, and promised to help her if Alcinous attempted to give her up to her enemies.
In the night the king and his wife took counsel concerning the girl from Colchis. Arete pleaded for her and told him that Jason intended making her his lawful wife. Alcinous was a kindly man, and his heart softened still more when he heard this. “For the girl’s sake,” he answered his wife, “I should be glad to drive the Colchians away at the point of the sword, but I am reluctant to violate Zeus’ law of hospitality; besides, it is unwise to annoy Aeetes, who is a powerful king, for even though he lives far away, he is quite able to bring war upon all of Greece. So this is what I have resolved: if the girl is a virgin, she must be returned to her father. If she were Jason’s wife, I should not take her from her husband, for then she would belong to him more than to her father.”
Arete was alarmed when she heard the king’s decision. That very night she sent a messenger to Jason to tell him of it and advise him to marry Medea before daybreak. When Jason put this unexpected proposal before the heroes, they were well pleased, and in a sacred grotto, to the music of Orpheus, Medea became Jason’s wife.
In the morning, when the shores of the island and the dewy fields glittered in the early beams of the sun, the Phaeacians were astir in the streets of their city, and at the other end of the island stood the Colchians fully armed. According to his promise Alcinous came from his palace, holding his golden scepter, to pronounce judgment on the girl. The noblest among his subjects formed his retinue. The women too had come to marvel at the Greek heroes, and much country folk had assembled, for Zeus had spread the tidings far and wide. All was in readiness before the walls of the city, and smoke from the offerings rose toward heaven. The heroes had been waiting for a long time. When the king had seated himself on his throne, Jason came forward and declared, swearing to the truth of his words, that Medea, the daughter of King Aeetes, was his lawful wife. When Alcinous heard this and had questioned those who had witnessed the ceremony, he took a solemn oath that Medea should not be delivered up and that he would protect his guests. It was in vain that the Colchians objected. The king bade them either remain in his country as peaceful settlers or leave in their ships. Since they were afraid to return to their king without Medea, they chose the former alternative. On the seventh day, the Argonauts took leave of Alcinous, who parted with them regretfully and gave them lavish gifts. They boarded the ship and continued on their journey.
THE LAST ADVENTURES OF THE ARGONAUTS
Again they passed the shores of many lands and many islands, and in the distance had just caught sight of their native coast, the land of Pelops, when a cruel storm, blowing from the north, descended upon their ship and for nine whole days and nights drove it on uncharted ways through the Libyan Sea. At the end of that time, they drifted toward the wastes of Africa and ran into one of the bays of Syrtis, whose waters, covered with thick weed and sluggish foam, form a menacing marsh. Round about there was nothing but sand—no beast, no bird. The ship edged so close to the shore that the keel stuck in a sandbank. In great alarm the heroes disembarked and saw with horror that the broad land spread limitlessly in all directions, vast and empty as air. There was no spring, no path, no shelter. A dead silence hung over everything.
“Woe to us,” they lamented. “What is the name of this country? Whither has the tempest driven our ship? It would have been better had we crashed into the floating rocks! Had we only done something against the will of Zeus, and perished in one glorious attempt!”
“Yes,” said the helmsman. “The tide has left us high and dry and will not come for us again. All hopes of voyage and home-coming are cut off. Let anyone steer who can and will!” And with that, he took his hand from the rudder, sat down in the ship, and wept. As men in a pest-stricken city loiter in ghostly grief and wait for death, so the heroes sorrowed, and slunk along the barren shore. When evening came, each took the others’ hand in farewell, lay down on the sand without food or drink, wrapped himself in his cloak, and waited for death through the long sleepless night. A little apart from them the Phaeacian handmaids Alcinous had given Medea as a gift huddled around their mistress and sighed like dying swans which breathe their last song into the air. And surely all, men and women alike, would have perished, unmourned, had not the three demigoddesses who ruled over Libya taken pity upon them.
At burning noon they came, covered with goatskin from neck to ankles, gently took hold of the mantle which Jason had thrown over his head, and drew it from his temples. He leaped up in alarm and reverently turned his eyes from the goddesses. “Luckless man,” they said, “we know all your troubles. But grieve no longer. When the sea-goddess has unharnessed the horses from Poseidon’s chariot, give thanks to your mother, who bore you so long in her womb. After that you shall return to the happy and radiant land of Greece.”
The goddesses vanished, and Jason told his companions the comforting, if puzzling utterance. While they were still wondering about it, a second and equally strange miracle appeared to them. A mighty stallion, with golden mane streaming to both sides of his neck, rushed up from the sea, shook the foam from his flanks, and stormed away, as if shod with the wind. Then Peleus cried joyfully: “The first part of the mystery is solved. The sea-goddess has unharnessed her chariot, which was drawn by this steed. And the mother, who has carried us so long in her womb—that is our ship! We are to give her the thanks which are her due. Let us lift the Argo and bear her on our shoulders over the sand, in the tracks of the sea-stallion. For he will not disappear in the earth but show us the way to some launching-site.”
No sooner was it said than done. The heroes took the ship upon their shoulders and groaned under her weight for twelve days and nights. On and on they plodded over waterless wastes, and had not a god given them strength, all would have perished on the first day. But as it was, they reached the bay of Tritonis with vigor unimpaired. Here they let their load slide from their shoulders and, frantic with thirst, looked for a spring, running hither and thither like mad dogs. In this search, Orpheus, the singer, came upon the Hesperides, the sweet-throated nymphs who dwell in the holy field where the dragon Ladon guards the golden apples. Orpheus implored them to lead him to a well, and the nymphs were moved to compassion. Aegle, the stateliest among them, told him of a curious matter.
“The bold robber who appeared here yesterday,” she said, “who slew the dragon and took our golden apples, must have come to bring help to you. He was a savage man, and his eyes flashed under brows beetling with anger. A lion’s skin hung over his shoulder; in his hands he carried a club of olive wood and the arrows with which he killed the monster. He too was thirsty after walking through these wastes. When he failed to find water, he kicked the rock with his heel and the stone gushed water, as though from a magic touch. The mighty man flung himself to the ground, cupped his hands against the rock, and drank to his heart’s content until, like a bull whose thirst is stilled, he lay down on the earth.”
So spoke Aegle and pointed out to them a spring spurting from the rock. The heroes crowded about it, and when they had quenched their thirst they grew merry again.
“Truly,” said one, cooling his hot lips with one last draught, “even though he was not with us, Heracles saved the life of his comrades. If we only could meet him somewhere on our further journey!” And at that they set out to look for him, some here and some there. When they assembled again, no one had seen him save sharp-eyed Lynceus, who claimed to have glimpsed him from afar, but only like a farmer, who thinks he has caught sight of the new moon behind driving clouds, and he assured the rest that it would be impossible to catch up with him.
Unfortunate accidents killed two of the Argonauts. After their comrades had given them fitting burial, they again boarded the ship. For a long time they tried to leave the bay for the open sea, but the wind was against them, and the Argo crossed and re-crossed the harbor like a serpent which vainly seeks to leave its hiding-place and darts its head hither and thither with glassy eyes and hissing tongue. At the advice of Orpheus, they went ashore and dedicated to the gods of that place the largest tripod they had in the ship. On the way back they met Triton, the sea-god, who had assumed the form of a youth. He lifted a clod from the ground and handed it to Euphemus in token of hospitality, and the hero hid it in his bosom.
“My father sent me to watch over the waters of these regions,” said the sea-god. “Look! Do you see that patch, where the bay is dark and deep and motionless? Row over there, and you will find a narrow passage from the bay to the open sea. I shall send you a fair wind and you will soon reach the Peloponnesus.” They boarded the Argo full of joy. Triton lifted the tripod to his shoulder and vanished in the waters.
After a few days, they came to the rocky coast of Carpathus, and from there they intended crossing to the lovely island of Crete. But it was guarded by the terrible giant Talos. He alone was left of the generation of the Men of Bronze who had once sprung from beeches, and Zeus had made him doorkeeper to Europe and bidden him make the rounds of the island on his brazen feet three times a day. His body was of bronze, and he was invulnerable. Only one little place on one ankle was of flesh, with sinews and a vein with coursing blood. Whoever knew of this spot and hit it could be sure of slaying him, for he was not immortal. When the heroes approached the island, he was keeping watch on a cliff at the edge of the sea. As soon as he saw them, he began breaking off blocks of stone and hurling them at the ship. In great alarm the Argonauts rowed backwards and would have given up their plan of landing on Crete, though they were again tormented with thirst, had not Medea risen and told them to take heart.
“Listen,” she said. “I know how to subdue this monster. All you need do is to keep the ship out of throwing distance.” Then she held high the folds of her crimson gown and walked along the ship, Jason guiding her. In a low voice she pronounced a weird spell, calling three times upon the Fates who cut the thread of life, and the swift hounds of the underworld that race through air and hunt the living. With her charms she caused the lids of Talos to close and sent black dreams to haunt his soul. Dazed with sleep, he bent to pick up a stone for the defence of the harbor, but he hit his vulnerable ankle against a pointed crag, and the blood welled from the wound, thick as molten lead. Like a pine, half-hewn by the woodcutter, which the first gust of wind tumbles crashing to the ground, so Talos swayed on his feet and then plunged into the sea with a roar like thunder.
Now the Argonauts could safely land, and they rested on that beautiful island until morning. Hardly had they left Crete, however, when a new and fearful adventure confronted them. Moonless night fell, and not a single star lit the sky. The air was black as though all the darkness in the world had gathered there, and they did not know whether they were sailing the sea or the tides of Tartarus. With lifted hands, Jason implored Phoebus Apollo to set them free from this spectral darkness. Tears of terror coursed down his cheeks, and he promised the god to dedicate priceless offerings to him. And the sun-god heard. He descended from Olympus, leaped upon a cliff, and taking his golden bow in his hand, shot silver arrows over that region. In the sudden light they saw a small island toward which they steered. There they cast anchor and waited for the dawn. When they were riding the high seas in the broad light of the sun, Euphemus remembered a dream he had had that night. The clod of earth which Triton had given him and which he carried against his breast, seemed to suck itself full of milk, stir with life, and grow into a lovely maiden who said: “I am the daughter of Triton and of Libya. Give me to the daughter of Nereus, so that I may live in the sea close to Anaphe. Thereafter I shall again come out into the sun, for I am destined to provide for your grandsons.”
Euphemus recalled all this because the name of the island where they had waited for morning had been Anaphe. Jason, to whom he told his dream, at once knew what it signified. He advised his friend to cast the clod he carried in his bosom into the waves. And when this was done, lo! before the eyes of the heroes a fertile island sweet with flowers and fruits rose up out of the sea. They called it Calliste, which means the fairest of all, and in after years Euphemus peopled it with his children.
This was the last adventure of the Argonauts. They soon reached the island of Aegina and from there steered toward their native land and ran into the harbor of Iolcus. In the strait of Corinth, Jason consecrated the ship to Poseidon. When it had crumbled to dust, the gods set it in the heavens, and it glittered in the southern firmament as a shining constellation.
Jason did not succeed to the throne of Iolcus, for whose sake he had gone on his dangerous quest, taken Medea from her father, and wickedly murdered her brother Absyrtus. He had to leave the realm to Acastus, the son of Pelias, and flee to Corinth with his young wife. Here he lived with her for ten years, during which time she bore him three sons. The two eldest were twins, and their names were Thessalus and Alcimenes; the third, Tisander, was much younger. During these years, Jason had loved and honored Medea, not only for her beauty but for her quick wits and resourceful mind as well. But later, when time lessened the charms of her person, he fell deeply in love with a beautiful young girl, Glauce, the daughter of Creon, king of Corinth. He wooed her without his wife’s knowledge, and only after her father had agreed to the union and appointed a day for the wedding did Jason tell Medea and urge her to consent to dissolve their marriage. Not that he had wearied of her, he protested, but it would be of advantage to their children if he were kin to the ruling house. Medea received his demand with bitter resentment and angrily called the gods to testify to the oaths he had sworn her. But Jason ignored her fury and insisted on wedding the king’s daughter.
In despair Medea wandered through her husband’s palace. “Woe is me,” she cried. “Would that a flash from heaven might strike me down! Why should I live any longer? If only Death would take pity upon me! O father! O country I left in disgrace! O my brother, whom I murdered, and whose blood is now coming upon me! But it was not Jason, my husband, who should have punished me! It was for him that I sinned! O goddess of justice, I call upon you to destroy him and his young concubine!”
Creon, Jason’s father-in-law, came upon her in the palace as she raged through room and court. “You with your scowling eyes,” he said, “you who are smoldering with fury at your husband, take your sons by the hand and leave my country this very instant. I shall not return home until I have driven you from my borders.”
Medea suppressed her anger and answered him composedly. “Why fear evil from me, Creon? You have done me no wrong; you owed me nothing. You gave your daughter to a man who met with your approval. How did I concern you? I hate only my husband, who owed me everything! But what is done is done. Let them live together as man and wife. Oh, let me continue to dwell in your country, for though I have been greatly wronged, I shall be silent and submit to those mightier than I.”
But Creon saw the rage in her eyes and did not trust her, even when she clasped his knees and implored him by the name of his own daughter Glauce, her hated rival. “Go,” he said, “and free me of care.” But when she begged him to put off her exile for one short day, so that she might find a refuge for her sons, he replied: “I am not harsh of spirit. Many times I have foolishly yielded, beguiled by misplaced pity. Now too I feel that I am not acting wisely. Nonetheless—have your way in this.”
As soon as Medea had gained the respite she desired, madness came over her, and she prepared to carry out a deed she had vaguely planned, yet never really considered doing. First, however, she made one last attempt to convince her husband of his disloyalty and injustice. “You have betrayed me,” she cried. “You took another wife, notwithstanding the fact that I have given you sons. If you were childless, I could forgive you; you would have an excuse. As it is, you have none at all. Do you think the gods who ruled the world when you swore faith to me are no more, or that men are living by new laws, that you dare break your word? Tell me—I shall ask you as though you were my friend—where do you advise me to go? Will you send me back to my father, whom I deceived, whose son I killed for love of you? Or what other refuge would you suggest for me? It will, indeed, add glory to the new-wed pair if your first wife and your own sons roam through the world as beggars!”
But Jason was deaf to her reproaches. He promised to supply her and the children with gold and send messages to friends who might offer her hospitality, but she rejected such help. “Go, marry,” she said. “You will celebrate a bridal which will end in sorrow.”
When Jason had left her, she regretted these last words, not because her purpose had changed, but because she feared he might keep watch on her and prevent her from putting her evil plan into execution. And so she sent for him again, put on a more gentle manner, and chose wistful words. “Jason, forgive me for what I said. I was blinded with rage. Now I see very well that all you have done is for the best. We came here as poor fugitives. By this new marriage of yours, you expect to provide for yourself, for your children, and even for me. When they have been away from you for a little, you will recall your sons and let them share in the fortune of their sisters and brothers. Come, my children, and cast out your bitterness against your father, just as I have cast out mine.”
Jason really believed that she had put from her the grudge she had borne him. He rejoiced at this and made many promises to her and the children. And Medea set out to make him still more certain of her good faith. She begged him to keep the children and let her go alone. To gain consent for this from Glauce and her father, she had precious robes of gold fetched from her stores and gave them to Jason for the king’s daughter. At first he hesitated, but finally she convinced him, and he had a servant take the gifts to the bride. But those beautiful robes were made of stuffs which had been drenched with poison. When Medea had bidden her husband a falsely sweet farewell, she waited from hour to hour for the messenger who was to report to her how her presents had been received. At last he came and called from afar: “Board your ship, Medea, and flee! Your foe and her father are both dead. When your sons entered the palace at their father’s side, we servants rejoiced that the feud was healed. The young princess received your husband with smiling lips, but when she saw the children, she veiled her eyes and turned away her face as if she loathed their presence. Jason tried to placate her, spoke kindly words in their behalf, and spread out the gifts before her. The sight of the magnificent robes gladdened her heart. She softened and promised the bridegroom to agree to everything he wished. When your husband and sons had left her, she reached eagerly for the marvellous raiment, cast the golden mantle about her shoulders, twined the gold wreath in her hair, and joyfully looked at the image shining out at her from the clear mirror. Then she trailed through her apartments, childishly proud of her new apparel. But soon her feelings changed. She paled, her limbs shook. Her feet faltered, and before she could reach a seat, she fell. The color ebbed from her face, she turned up her eyes so that only the whites showed, and foam gathered on her lips. The palace rang with cries. Some of the servants hurried to her father, others to her husband. In the meantime the magic wreath on her head had burst into flame. Poison and fire contended for her flesh, and when her father rushed in to her with loud lament, he found only the dead disfigured body of his daughter. In his despair, he threw himself upon her, and the poison in the murderous robe worked on him also, so that he too lost his life. I know nothing of Jason.”
Instead of cooling Medea’s rage, the recital of these horrors only served to fan it to hotter flame. Like an avenging Fury she ran out to deal the fatal blow to her husband and herself. Night had fallen, and she hurried to the room where her sons lay asleep. “Steel yourself, my heart,” she muttered on the way. “Why do you shudder from doing the awful, the needful deed? Forget that these are your children, that you have borne them. Forget it for this one hour only, and then mourn them all your days. You are doing them a welcome service. If you do not kill them, they will die at the hands of their foes.”
When Jason hastened toward his house to find the murderess of his young bride and take vengeance on her, he heard the screams of his children. Running through the open door of their chamber he found them bleeding from deadly wounds, slain like victims at the altar. Medea was nowhere to be seen. When he left his house, he heard a rushing sound overhead. Looking up, he beheld her in a dragon-drawn chariot, which her magic art had conjured, riding the wind away from the scene of her revenge. Jason had no hope of punishing her for her crime. Despair engulfed him. His soul remembered the murder of Absyrtus. He rushed upon his sword and died on the threshold of his house.