The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology

By Robin Hard | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ELEVEN

JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS

Apart from the Theban Wars, which have been considered in connection with the history of the Inachids, there were two other great adventures in the period before the Trojan War that drew leading heroes from different parts of Greece, namely the voyage of the Argonauts and the hunt for the Calydonian boar. The fathers of many Homeric warriors can be found among the heroes who took part in these two enterprises, which can be traced to a slightly earlier period than the Theban Wars and involved a much wider range of participants. If the Theban Wars broke out as the result of a conflict within the Inachid family, these other adventures were connected with the Deukalionids, the next great family that we will have to consider, for they were conducted under Deukalionid leadership in response to difficulties that had arisen in different branches of that family. Although the early epic accounts of the Argonautic expedition have been lost as in the case of the Theban Wars (and also the boar-hunt), we know far more about it than about the other episodes, largely because an epic from the Hellenistic era, the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes, has survived in full along with scholia (ancient explanatory notes) that provide invaluable information on the earlier tradition and Argonautic lore in general. Since the history of the Deukalionids is exceptionally complicated and the mythology of the Argonauts is so rich and of such wide interest, it will be best to single out the latter for separate treatment in the present chapter before we pass on to trace the full history of the Deukalionids in the next chapter.


The origin of the golden fleece

The myth of the Argonauts told how Jason, son of Aison, set off with a crew of fifty heroes to fetch a golden fleece from Colchis at the eastern end of the Black Sea at the order of his uncle, Pelias, king of Iolkos. Before passing on to the expedition itself, we must consider the origin and nature of the object of Jason’s quest, and the motives of Pelias in sending him off on this perilous enterprise.

The golden fleece had come from a wondrous ram that had carried a young Boeotian prince, PHRIXOS, to safety in Colchis after his stepmother had plotted to cause his death. His father ATHAMAS, whom we have already encountered as a foster-parent of the infant Dionysos (see p. 172), was famed for his tangled marital

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