"The life of the Greeks is mirrored in their legends."
These old Greek stories, which were handed down from father to son, are a curious mixture of truth and romance, and no one knows which is which. Let us take their story of the Argonauts, when fifty of their heroes under the guidance of Jason, went off in search of the Golden Fleece. Here is the account of how they built their ship—an account which they must have taken from the Phœnicians:—
"Then they felled their pines and shaped them with an axe, and Argus, the famed shipbuilder, taught them to build a galley, the first long ship that ever sailed the seas. They pierced her for fifty oars, an oar for each hero of the crew, and pitched her with coal-black pitch, and painted her bows with vermilion, and they named her Argo, after Argus, and worked at her all day long.
"And at last the ship was finished, and they tried to launch her down the beach; but she was too heavy for them to move her, and her keel sank deep into the sand.
"Then all the heroes looked at each other blushing, but Jason spoke and said, 'Let us ask the magic bough, perhaps it can help us in our need.' Then a voice came from the bough and bade Orpheus play upon the harp, while the heroes waited round, holding the pine-trunks, to help her towards the sea.
They named her Argo, and worked at her all day long.
"Orpheus took his harp and began his magic song:—
" 'How sweet it is to ride upon the surges, and to leap from wave to wave, while the wind sings in the cheerful cordage and the oars flash fast among the foam! How sweet it is to roam across the ocean, and see new towns and wondrous lands, and to come home laden with treasure and to win undying fame!'
"And the good ship Argo heard him, and longed to be away and out at sea, till she stirred in every timber and heaved from stem to stern, and leapt up from the sand upon the rollers, and plunged onward like a gallant horse, and the heroes fed her path with pine-trunks till she rushed into the whispering sea.
"Then they stored her well with food and water, and pulled the ladder up on board, and settled themselves each man to his oar, and kept time to Orpheus's harp; and away across the bay they rowed southward, while the people lined the cliffs, and the women wept while the men shouted at the starting of that gallant crew.
"Jason was chosen captain, and each hero vowed to stand by their captain, faithfully, in the adventure of the Golden Fleece. And they rowed away over the long swell of the sea, past Olympus, and past the wooded bays of Athos, through the narrow straits, which led into the Sea of Marmora. Up the Bosphorus they went, to that land of bitter blasts, that land of cold and misery, and there was a battle of the winds, and the heroes trembled in silence as they heard the shrieking of the blasts. For the forest pines were hurled earthward, north and south, and east and west, and the Bosphorus boiled white with foam, and the clouds were dashed against the cliffs. And these dark storms and whirlwinds, haunt the Bosphorus until this day.
"Then the Argonauts went out into the open sea, which we now call the Black Sea. No Greek had ever crossed it, and all feared that dreadful sea, and its rocks, and shoals, and fogs, and bitter freezing storms. So the heroes trembled, for all their courage, as they came into that wild Black Sea and saw it stretching out before them without a shore, as far as the eye could see.
"But after a time they looked eastward, and midway between the sea and the sky they saw white snow-peaks hanging, glittering sharp and bright above the clouds. And they knew that they were come to Caucasus, at the end of all the earth; Caucasus, the highest of all mountains, the father of the rivers of the East. It was near here, amid the dark stems of the mighty beeches, that they saw the Golden Fleece.
"It would take too long to tell how Jason at last tore the fleece from off the tree-trunk, and how, holding it on high, he cried, 'Go now, good Argo, swift and steady, if ever you would see Olympus more.'
"And she went as the heroes drove her, grim and silent all, with muffled oars, till the pinewood bent like willow in their hands and stout Argo groaned beneath their strokes.
"On and on beneath the dewy darkness, till they heard the merry music of the surge upon the bar as it tumbled in the moonlight alone. Into the surge they rushed, and Argo leapt the breakers like a horse, for she knew the time was come to show her mettle, and win honour for the heroes and herself.
"Into the surge they rushed, and Argo leapt the breakers like a horse, till the heroes stopped, all panting, each man upon his oar, as she slid into the still broad sea. And the heroes' hearts rose high, and they rowed on stoutly and steadfastly, away into the darkness of the West.
"After many adventures in unknown seas they returned home again; but they were weary and spent with years of voyage; they had no strength to haul their boat on to the beach, so they sat and wept till they could weep no more. For the houses were all altered, the faces they saw were strange, and their joy was swallowed up in sorrow, while they thought of their youth and toil and the gallant comrades they had lost.
" 'Who are you that you sit weeping here?' asked the people at last.
" 'We are the sons of your princes, who sailed out many a year ago, to fetch the Golden Fleece, and we have brought it and grief therewith. Give us news of our fathers and mothers, if any of them be left alive.'
"Then there was shouting and laughing and weeping, and all the kings came to the shore, and they led the heroes to their homes. And Jason found his old father; but the old man would not believe it was his son, who had returned.
" 'Do not mock me, young hero,' he cried. 'My son Jason is dead at sea, long ago.'
" 'But I am your son Jason,' cried the hero. 'And I have brought home the Golden Fleece. Give me now the kingdom.'
"So all the heroes went their several ways, and that was the end of the story of the Argonauts."