Gateway to the Classics: Greek Gods, Heroes, and Men by Caroline H. and Samuel B. Harding
Greek Gods, Heroes, and Men by  Caroline H. and Samuel B. Harding

Jason and the Quest of the Golden Fleece

W HILE Heracles and Theseus were doing the wonderful deeds of which you have read, a band of heroes under the leadership of a prince named Jason went on a voyage which brought them adventures that were just as remarkable. This was the quest of the Golden Fleece. You must first know what this Golden Fleece was, and how Jason came to go in search of it.

There was once a boy and a girl whose stepmother was very cruel to them, and wished to put them to death. But the god Hermes sent them a winged ram, whose fleece was of pure gold; and seating themselves on this they flew far away from their cruel stepmother. Over mountains and plains and valleys the ram bore them safely; but when they were passing over an arm of the sea, the girl, Helle, became so frightened that she lost her hold, and was drowned. The water into which she fell was ever after called the Hellespont, or the sea of Helle.

The boy clung fast to the ram, and at last was brought safely to a far-off country, where his stepmother could not find him. There he sacrificed the ram on the altar of Zeus, and its beautiful golden fleece was hung up in a grove that was sacred to the god Ares. To keep it quite safe from any one who might try to steal it, a terrible dragon was set to watch it night and day.

By right, Jason was king of one of the lands of Greece; but his uncle had taken the throne from him, and said he would not give it up unless Jason should bring him the Golden Fleece. Jason was a brave, adventurous young man, and he agreed to do this. So he had a great ship built, with fifty long oars to it; and this ship was called the Argo, from the name of its builder. Then Jason sent word of his plan throughout Greece, and soon he had forty-nine of the bravest men in Greece to go with him. And because the ship was named the Argo, people called the band of men who went in it upon this long journey the Argonauts, or the men who sailed in the Argo.


A Greek War-Ship

Getting aboard of their long ship, they set out; and for many days with sail and oar they journeyed on, going ever to the east and north. Passing through the Hellespont, they came to another narrow strait. There the way was blocked by two great moving rocks which clashed together and ground to pieces the ships that sought to pass through the strait. Here the Argonauts waited many days before they could find a way to get their ship through.

At last a wise man of the neighborhood told them to watch the flight of a dove as it went between the rocks. They did this; and when they saw that the dove had only her tail feathers caught and pulled out, they determined to venture on the passage. They chose the time when the wind was strongest to fill the sails, and all the heroes pulled their hardest at the oars. The Argo slipped through the crashing rocks just in time, and only a few ornaments at the stern of the vessel were broken off

When they had passed this danger the Argonauts soon reached the country of the Golden Fleece. There Jason went to the king, and told him of his journey with his band of heroes, and asked him for the fleece. The king was a cunning man; and although he had no idea of giving this stranger the beautiful fleece, he said that Jason could have what he wanted if he would do two tasks for him. This Jason promised to do; but when he heard what these tasks were, his heart sank within him, for they were very difficult. But Medea, the king's daughter, came to his aid, and with the help of her enchantments he was able to perform them both.

The first task was to harness two mighty bulls, whose hoofs were of solid brass, and whose breath was scorching fire, and with this team to plow a field that had never been cultivated. Medea gave him a magic salve to rub over his body, which protected him from the fiery breath of the bulls, and gave him strength to yoke and drive them. So this task was accomplished in safety.

The second task seemed still more difficult. This was to sow in the furrows he had made the teeth of a dragon, and to kill the armed men who would then spring out of the ground Jason could never have conquered such an army of warriors, so he was forced to find some trick to help him. Here, again, Medea aided him.

"When the armed men spring up," she said, "throw a large stone among them, and they will fall to fighting one another." Jason did this; and the warriors, instead of attacking him, turned upon one another, and fought until they were all killed.

When the king learned how Jason had accomplished his tasks, he was very angry both at him and at Medea; and he refused to give up the Golden Fleece. So Jason would have failed, after all, if it had not been for Medea's help once more. That very night they went together to the grove of Ares, where the fleece was kept There Medea put the dragon to sleep with her enchantments; and then Jason took the fleece and hastened away to the Argo. The ship was all ready to go to sea; and Jason set sail immediately, taking Medea with him.

The journey towards home was not so dangerous as the outward trip had been, and at last Jason came happily into his own country again. When he gave the Golden Fleece to his uncle, however, he did not get his kingdom again in return, as his uncle had promised him. The king had never supposed that he would see Jason again; and now when he came back, and brought the Golden Fleece with him, he was not ready to keep to his bargain. But Jason and Medea were determined to have the kingdom; and, as usual, it was the enchantress Medea who found the way. By a trick she got the kingdom for Jason, and then they became king and queen.

Jason and Medea did not rule long nor happily. Perhaps they had been too cunning and too tricky to be happy in the end. It was not long before a son of Jason's uncle came, and drove Jason from the throne, so that he was forced to flee from the country. And at last, after much sorrow, he was killed by the falling of a rotten beam upon him in the old ship Argo.

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