The Argonautica, Book IV

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The Golden Fleece & The Journey Home

Aeetes had once received a prophecy to beware of treachery within his family; wrongly, he thought this would come from the sons of Phrixus, not from one of his daughters. Medea feared that her father would soon realise she had helped Jason; therefore, leaving a lock of hair for her mother and wishing Jason had never come to Colchis, she left the palace to join Jason. She was watched by the moon, Selene, whom Medea had often dismissed from the sky with her spells and who now gloated that Medea was burning with love, just as she had for Endymion.

Jason with the Golden Fleece, sculpture by Bertel Thorvaldsen.

She pleaded for Jason to save her from her father and, once he had again promised to take her to Greece and marry her there, they rowed towards the sacred grove where the Golden Fleece was. They landed near the altar of Phrixus where he had sacrificed the Golden Ram. The serpent hissed loudly at their approach but Medea uttered charms to send it to sleep and Jason took the Golden Fleece. Certain that Aeetes would pursue them, Jason ordered half of the Argonauts to row away quickly while the rest fortified the ship and armed themselves.

When Aeetes learned about Medea’s treachery, he threatened with own people with beheadings if they did not return his daughter to him to be punished and organised warships to pursue them. Hera provided favourable winds for the Argonauts. Three days later they landed on the coast of Paphlagonia so that Medea could sacrifice to Hecate. They then sailed home on a different route to the one they had taken when arriving, as previously advised by Phineus, and described by Argus, and a comet appeared as a good omen.

The Douris cup, depicting Jason being regurgitated by the dragon protecting the fleece.

The Colchian fleet split up to try to cut off their escape, part sailing in the direction of the Symplegades and the other part, led by Absyrtus, Medea’s brother, to the gulf of the Ionian Sea, the route taken by the Argonauts, where they arrived before them. The Colchians blockaded the gulf and, with many of the inhabitants on nearby islands loyal to the Colchians and willing to fight beside them, Jason knew he could not win a battle. Therefore a treaty was made: Jason could keep the Golden Fleece as he had been promised since he had succeeded in the challenge set him but he should hand over Medea and kings would decide whether she should be returned to Aeetes or be allowed to leave with Jason.

Medea pleaded with Jason to remember all she had done for him and his promises to her and threatened him if he abandoned her. She tricked her brother to come alone to meet her on the island of Artemis, promising him splendid gifts including the robe Hypsipyle had given Jason, and saying she would retrieve the Golden Fleece and return it to Aeetes. Jason lay in ambush and killed Absyrtus with his sword. The people living in that place where he was buried were forthwith known as Absyrtians. The Argonauts after killing the rest of the Colchians in Absyrtus’ ship, sailed away. Hera prevented the other Colchians pursuing them by sending flashes of lightning but afraid to return home to face Aeetes’ anger, they settled elsewhere.

The Golden Fleece, painting by Herbert James Draper, 1904.

Initially the Argonauts sailed back in the direction they had come from Colchis to avoid detection but, once they felt safe, they turned around and headed home. They successfully navigated the strait of Hyllus with the help of the locals, to whom they gave one of two sacred tripods from Apollo, and sailed past various other islands until they heard the speaking plank tell them Zeus had decreed they would not survive the journey home until Jason and Medea were purified by Circe to absolve them of Absyrtes’ murder; Castor and Polydeuces must beg the gods to grant them safe passage into the Ausonian Sea. They passed the place on the Eridanus River where Phaethon had fallen from Helius’ chariot, from where subsequently foul vapours rise, and where the Heliades weep drops of amber for him.

On the Rhone they were saved by Hera who advised them to take another route and she protected them further from numerous potentially hostile tribes by covering them with a mist. They eventually reached Circe’s island, Aeaea, where they found her, surrounded by mythical creatures, washing her hair in the sea after a troubling dream. Circe, Aeetes’ sister, purified Jason and Medea but then, having realised what their crime was, although her niece did not tell her, she drove them from the island. Hera helped the Argonauts again on their journey, sending Iris to tell Hephaestus to quieten his forges until they had passed, to tell Aeolus to quieten all his winds except the West Wind until they reached Phaeacia and to ask Thetis to join her.

Circe, painting by Wright Barker, 1889.

Hera asked Thetis, with the help of the other Nereids, to protect the Argonauts from Scylla and Charybdis, which she did: she visited her husband, Peleus, and gave him sailing instructions past the Ever Floating Islands. This was the first time she had visited him since he had discovered her burning off Achilles’ mortality each night. Continuing on their journey, the majority of the Argonauts safely passed the Sirens who lured sailors to their death with their singing; Orpheus played his lyre loudly to drown out their voices. Boutes alone heard and swam towards them but Aphrodite rescued him and took him to Lilybaeum in Sicily. The Nereids saw them safely past Scylla and Charybdis and the Floating Islands by standing in two rows, hoisting their gowns to their waists and passing the Argo to one another above the rocks and rough waves. Having passed the island where Helius’ cattle grazed, they landed in Phaeacia, the island of the Scythe, where they were welcomed by King Alcinoos.

Soon afterwards the Colchians arrived, demanding Medea, or threatening to attack. Medea pleaded with the Argonauts and Queen Arete to save her. Arete in turn begged her husband who did not want war but decided that, if Medea was still a virgin, she should be returned to Aeetes, but, if she was not, she should stay with Jason. Having been warned, that night Medea consummated her relationship with Jason in the sacred cave of Macris lying on the Golden Fleece. Nymphs laid out the marriage bed and the Argonauts sang the marriage hymn outside. When the Colchians heard Alcinoos’ verdict the next day and realised Medea had lain with Jason, fearing Aeetes’ anger if they returned home, they settled initially in Phaeacia and later moved elsewhere.

The Sirens and Ulysses, painting by William Etty, 1837.

Seven days later Medea and the Argonauts left with many generous gifts from the Phaeacians. Just when southern Greece was in sight they were blown off course for nine days towards Libya and as they reached the notorious shallows of the Syrtes, a tide carried them inland into the desert. They despaired of ever reaching home and were convinced that they would die there when three local nymphs gave Jason hope with a cryptic message, followed by an omen of a stallion jumping from sea to land. Peleus interpreted this as meaning they should carry the Argo in the direction of the stallion. They carried the ship for twelve days until they reached the Triton Lake. Nearby they found the garden of the Hesperides where Heracles had recently taken the golden apples after killing the snake, Ladon, who was guarding them. The Hesperides were mourning its death and, after Orpheus begged for their help in finding water, they showed him where Heracles had created a spring of water.

After the Argonauts slaked their thirst, Boreas’ sons with their wings, Euphemus on his swift feet and far-seeing Lynceus all searched for Heracles, but to no avail. Then two more Argonauts were killed: Canthus by a shepherd, Caphaurus, whilst trying to steal his sheep to feed his comrades and Mopsus, bitten by a poisonous asp snake after he trod on its tail. After burying them both, they set sail on Lake Triton looking for an outlet into the sea and, on Orpheus’ suggestion, they placed the second of Apollo’s tripods on the shore as a gift for any local deity who might guide them. Triton appeared, disguised as Eurypylus, offered them a clod of muddy earth as a guest gift and gave them directions.

The death of Talos. Red-figure krater, 5th c. BC. Jatta National Archaeological Museum in Ruvo di Puglia. (c) Forzaruvo94

After Jason had sacrificed a sheep to Triton in thanks, Triton appeared from below the water and pushed the Argo towards the sea. As they were approaching Crete, Talus, a bronze giant, whose only weak spot was his ankle, threatened to throw rocks at them if they landed. Medea hypnotised him with her spells and then he scraped his vulnerable ankle on a jagged rock. The ichor, that flows in the veins of immortals, flowed out and he died. As they left Crete darkness covered them, making it impossible to steer the ship. Jason therefore called on Apollo for help and he shot bright light from his bow, after which Jason built a shrine in his honour. After being told to do so in a dream by the daughter of Triton and Libya, Euphemus threw the clod of earth given him by Triton into the sea and from it emerged the island of Callista which was later colonised by Euphemus’ descendants. Having landed on Aegina, the Argonauts finally safely reached the end of their journey in Iolchus.

Book III Overview