Hamilton tells this famous story using material from Apollonius of Rhodes, Pindar, and Euripides. The first great hero to take a quest was Jason – like Odysseus later, the Quest of the Golden Fleece involved traveling by water and battling many monsters and hardships.
This story is the first real epic tale of the book, and the first “hero’s quest.” It contains many elements that will be repeated in the stories of Odysseus, Aeneas, and Hercules, although each are unique in the way they portray their culture’s idea of heroism.
The story begins with a Greek king named Athamas who grew tired of his wife, Nephele, and so married a second woman, Ino. Ino wants to kill Nephele’s son, Phrixus, so her own son can inherit the throne. She manages to cause a drought in the country, and then persuades the oracle to tell King Athamas that he must sacrifice Phrixus to make the corn grow.
There is usually a complicated backstory of betrayal and murder, and a wicked king usurping the throne. This sets the stage for the hero, who must reclaim the throne after going on his quest. Human sacrifice returns again in this early myth.
Hamilton says that the later Greeks found this idea of human sacrifice repulsive, so they would often change that part of the story. In the original tale, Hermes sends a flying golden ram to save Phrixus (and Helle, his sister) just as he is about to be sacrificed. The ram flies them over the ocean, where Helle slips off and drowns. The ram then lands in Colchis and Phrixus sacrifices the ram to Zeus in thanks. He then gives its Golden Fleece to Æetes, the king of Colchis.
The object of the hero’s quest appears with the golden ram. This is an example of Hamilton’s theory that as the Greeks grew more civilized, they rejected older ideas of human sacrifice, and even changed the myths themselves to avoid mentioning them in connection with the “blessed gods.”
Meanwhile, a man named Pelias usurps the throne of Phrixus’s uncle, but the deposed king’s son, Jason, is sent away in secret to be kept safe. When Jason grows up, he returns to reclaim his rightful kingdom. Pelias had been told by the oracle that he would be killed by a stranger with only one sandal, and on his journey Jason loses one of his sandals.
The oracle at Delphi enters again to offer foreshadowing to the tale. Again a mortal tries to avoid his prophesied fate through his own actions – as Pelias will try to have Jason killed because he entered the city with only one sandal.
Jason arrives in the town and Pelias is frightened of his godlike appearance and single sandal. Jason demands that Pelias give up his throne and leave in peace. Pelias pretends to agree, but first he lies and says that the oracle has told him that someone must bring back the Golden Fleece so that Phrixus’s spirit can return home, and he asks Jason to go. In reality Pelias hopes Jason will die on such a dangerous quest.
Many characters try to maneuver their way around sacred rules – like the laws of hospitality, in which a host cannot kill a guest – by sending their enemies on quests they are sure will be deadly. These usually end up as “hero’s quests,” however, and go badly for the attempted murderers.
Jason is delighted by the prospect of the adventure, and he assembles an extraordinary group of Greek heroes to accompany him on his quest – among them Hercules, Theseus, Castor and Pollux, Peleus (Achilles’ father), and Orpheus. They set out in a ship called the Argo, so the heroes are called the Argonauts.
Hamilton describes some of the many challenges the Argonauts face on their journey. They put in at Lemnos, which is ruled by fierce women, but the inhabitants there are surprisingly kind to them. Soon afterward Hercules leaves the crew, as he is blinded by grief when his friend and armor-bearer Hylas is lured into drowning by a nymph.
There are always many dangers and obstacles in the hero’s quest, though the interesting part about Jason’s tale is that he rarely does any heroic fighting himself. Most of the stories involve other Argonauts, or else Jason being helped by someone.
Next the group encounters the Harpies, who are horrible flying beasts, and an old oracle (prophet) named Phineus. Zeus had punished Phineus for always telling the direct truth instead of wrapping his prophecies in mystery. Whenever Phineus was about to eat, the Harpies would swoop down and defile his food with their odor. Because of this he was starving.
This is an almost self-referential side story that shows that the Greek poets recognized their own motifs. Prophecies had to be couched in mysterious language, or else they would not make good material for stories. Phineus is punished for being too straightforward and prosaic.
Among the Argonauts are the sons of Boreas, the North Wind, and they drive away the Harpies, who never trouble Phineus again. He then feasts with the heroes and warns them about their next obstacle – the Symplegades, the Clashing Rocks that smash constantly against each other so that nothing can pass through.
This is an example of the monsters that must be fought on a hero’s quest, but also shows how Jason rarely does anything we would consider “heroic.” The sons of Boreas defeat the Harpies, and Phineus helps Jason through the Clashing Rocks.
The Argonauts follow Phineus’s advice – they first send a dove through the Clashing Rocks – and then they are able to pass through, though the very back end of their ship is shorn off by the rocks. After that they manage to avoid the island of the Amazons, who are violent women warriors, and they pass by Prometheus chained high overhead, and then come at last to Colchis.
Many mythological characters show up in these quests. The Amazons usually appear only briefly, but they have become familiar figures. The Greek bias against foreign cultures usually becomes evident in these quests as well, as the many other countries they pass through are usually enemies.
More challenges await, but the Olympians – notably Hera and Aphrodite – decide to help Jason. They send Cupid to make Medea, the daughter of the Colchian King Æetes and a powerful magician, fall in love with Jason.
Medea appears as an interesting, ambiguous character, and one of the most powerful mortals. Yet she will be seen as a villain because she is a woman and foreigner.
Meanwhile the Argonauts reach the city and are welcomed by the king. Medea sees Jason and Cupid shoots her, causing her to fall in love. After the Argonauts have feasted and bathed, King Æetes asks why they have come. He is enraged by Jason’s request for the Golden Fleece, but he knows it is forbidden to kill guests. Instead Æetes (like Pelias) assigns Jason an impossible task, hoping he will die – he must yoke two magical, fire-breathing bulls and plow a field with them, and then sow the field with dragon’s teeth, from which will spring armed men that Jason must defeat.
The importance of hospitality appears again. This might seem foreign to the modern reader, but it becomes an important plot point in many of the myths. The villains try to get around sacred rules by assigning impossible tasks or leaving their dangerous children to die, but they can never escape their fate no matter their precautions.
That night Jason’s men suggest that he plead to Medea, as she is the only one who could help with such an impossible task. Medea, meanwhile, almost kills herself because of her love for a stranger – a love that means she must betray her own father. But Medea decides to live, and she and Jason meet. She gives him an ointment that makes him invincible for a day, and tells him how to defeat the dragon-men: he must throw a rock among them, so they attack each other.
Jason does succeed in his hero’s trials, as heroes must, but it seems like the real hero is Medea. Jason does little on his own except never shrink from danger – the great deeds are done by Medea, or the sons of Boreas earlier. This motif of a woman choosing to betray her father for the sake of a strange lover will reappear in several myths.
Jason succeeds in his task, and then King Æetes plots another way to kill the Argonauts, but again Medea saves Jason, though she is tormented by her own treachery. She warns Jason to get the Fleece at once and flee or he will be killed. The Fleece is guarded by a huge serpent, but Medea lulls it to sleep. Then the Argonauts leave Colchis with Medea and the Fleece.
Medea turns against her father outright for Jason’s sake. This could be a justification for her villainy, as filial piety is a sacred rule, but the Greeks also elevated love above all else, and Medea does all her terrible deeds for the sake of love only.
As they are sailing away, King Æetes sends his son in pursuit, Medea’s brother Apsyrtus, along with a huge army. Medea saves Jason again by making the ultimate sacrifice for him, and killing her brother. This scatters the pursuers and lets Jason escape.
The actual retrieving of the Fleece and escape are again mostly performed by Medea, not Jason, yet Jason is the “hero” of the story.
On the journey home the Argonauts face more challenges, but they pass through them with success. A nymph leads them safely between the rock-monster of Scylla and the whirlpool of Charybdis, and when they pass Talus, the last of the ancient bronze race, Medea prays to Hades and has him destroyed.
The Argonauts face more challenges that characters other than Jason actually overcome. Scylla and Charybdis will reappear in several hero’s quests, and have become symbols of obstacles.
When they reach Greece the Argonauts disband. Jason takes Medea and the Fleece to Pelias, only to find that Pelias has killed Jason’s father, and Jason’s mother has died of grief. Medea helps Jason again by contriving a terrible death for Pelias. She convinces Pelias’s daughters that they will make their father young again if they chop him up and put his pieces into a magical pot. They do so, thinking they are helping their father.
This is another important part of the hero’s quest, when the hero returns and reclaims his rightful throne. But yet again it is actually Medea who kills Pelias, the usurper. Her many terrible deeds are all done out of love for Jason, which makes her an ambiguous, interesting character to the modern reader, though she was a villain to the Greeks.
There is another story that Medea returned Jason’s father to life, and that she gave Jason himself perpetual youth. She later bears him two sons, and they live for a while in Corinth. Jason then betrays Medea’s great loyalty by betrothing himself to the daughter of Corinth’s king – thinking only of his own ambition. Medea is distraught and then enraged by Jason, who acts cold and unsympathetic, and she lists the many great and terrible deeds she has done on Jason’s behalf.
At the end of the story Jason acts totally unheroic, so that Hamilton and the reader can’t help wondering what made him such a famous “hero.” It is clear that the Greeks of the time valued great deeds that made for epic tales over faithful love, and bravery over gratitude. They also show their bias against women and foreigners, as Medea is both.
Medea then leaves Jason angrily, and plots a terrible revenge for him. She sends her two sons with a beautiful robe for Jason’s new bride, but when the girl puts on the robe it bursts into flame and kills her. Medea then kills her own two sons, fearing they will live as slaves. Jason finds and curses her just as she flies away on a chariot pulled by dragons.
The tale ends tragically, but Medea is not punished. In the bizarre justice that is typical in the myths, sons are punished for the sins of their parents, as Medea kills her children to hurt Jason but also because Jason’s new wife would probably enslave or kill them.