W HEN Æson, who was King of Iolcos, began to grow old, he left his kingdom to his infant son, Jason. But the throne was usurped by his uncle Pēlĭas, who forthwith consulted an oracle as to what he should do to make himself secure. The answer of the oracle was strange. It was—"Fear nobody who cometh not with and without a shoe."
"There is nothing very alarming about that," thought Pelias; so, instead of having Jason killed, as he had first thought of doing, he sent away the child into Thessaly, a long way off, among the people called Centaurs, hoping that he would never hear of him again.
The Centaurs were a very singular race. They were half man and half horse, as if a man's body down to the waist were set upon a horse's shoulders. Thus they had a horse's four legs for running, and a man's head and arms for thinking and fighting: they were famous archers, very learned, and very brave. Their most famous chief was Chiron, who, besides being their best archer, was also a great philosopher and physician. Chiron, struck by Jason's quickness, became his teacher, so that the young prince grew up skilled both in all manly exercises and in every branch of human knowledge.
When he had become a man, the Centaur thought it only right that he should know his birth and parentage, and should have a chance of regaining his father's throne, since he was so fit to be a king. But first he consulted the oracle, which gave to Chiron as strange an answer as it had given to Pelias—"Who seeks a crown shall wear the leopard's hide."
So Jason, by Chiron's counsel, went out hunting, and, having killed a leopard, dressed himself in its skin. Then he set out, on foot and alone, for Iolcos; and proceeded without anything happening to him, until he reached a mountain-torrent, so deep, so broad, and so strong, that the best of swimmers could not hope to reach the other side.
He was gazing at the torrent, wondering what he should do, when a very old woman, bent and lame, came hobbling by, and asked him why he stared so sadly at the stream.
"Reason enough," said he, "when the water is keeping me from a kingdom."
"Is that all?" asked the old woman; "I can soon put that right for you. I am going across myself; and I'll take you on my back with the greatest pleasure in the world."
Jason thought she was laughing at him. But something about her—he could not tell what—made him feel that she was no common old woman; and even as he looked her back seemed to straighten itself and her figure to enlarge. No; she was certainly not joking: her smile was only friendly and kind. It might not be very dignified for a rightful king to enter his kingdom dressed up in a leopard's skin and riding on the back of an old woman, and it did not seem very safe, either. However, as there was certainly nothing else to be done, he got upon the back of the old woman, who at once stepped out into the raging stream.
How strong the flood was he could tell from the forest-trees which it had torn up by the roots and was carrying away headlong. But while Jason's brain reeled with the whirl, the old woman remained as steady as a rock, and strode through the deepest and roughest places with ease. In a wonderfully short time Jason reached the other side, with no worse mishap than the loss of his left shoe.
"Never mind that," said the old woman. "The river is bound to have something. You have only given it a shoe; most people have to give it their lives."
"But what do you give it then?" asked Jason.
"Oh, the gods go toll-free," said the old woman. "I am Juno." And before Jason had recovered from his surprise, she was gone.
Jason continued his journey till he reached Iolcos, where the oddity of a man dressed in nothing but a leopard's skin soon gathered a crowd around him. The news of the sight spread about till it reached the ears of King Pelias himself, who came out of his palace to discover what was going on. But as soon as he caught sight of the stranger in the leopard-skin he started with dismay. There stood a man with a shoe and without a shoe—just what the oracle had warned him to fear!
Seeing that it was the king, Jason at once went up to him, and said—
"I am Jason, son of Æson. Give up to me this kingdom, which is rightfully mine!"
His boldness and his royal bearing had a great effect upon the people, who hated Pelias, and were glad to welcome back the rightful heir. They set up a great shout for Jason, which alarmed Pelias still more; and many of them pressed forward with drawn swords.
But Pelias, if he had not much courage, had plenty of craft. And so he answered, after a moment's thought:—
"Why, of course you shall have what is your own. Do you think I want to rob you—to keep what is not mine for a single day! I am only too glad to welcome you, my dear nephew, home again. I have been wondering what had become of you, and not till after long searching did I give you up for lost. I think you will find that I have taken good care of your kingdom while you have been away. I deserve some credit for having had all the hard work, while you, no doubt, have been going about and amusing yourself. I am very glad to see you—indeed I am."
Jason was rather surprised to find everything so easy, and his uncle so friendly. Indeed he hardly knew what to say.
"I am only eager to enter upon my duties," said he at last; "and I shall look to you to help me to govern well."
"That is the right spirit," said Pelias. "So I will tell you the first of your duties; one that I rejoice to give over to better and younger hands than mine. It is difficult and even dangerous—"
"All the better," said Jason. "It will bring all the more glory."
"You are an admirable young man! Well, you must know that many generations ago King Athămas of Thebes married a princess of Cloudland, named Nĕphĕle, and had two children, Phryxus and Helle. Nephele going mad, he divorced her, and married the princess Ino, and had two children more. Ino hated Nephele's children, because they stood in the way of her own. So, being a witch, she desolated Thebes by a plague, and got a false oracle to declare that the plague should never cease so long as Phryxus and Helle were alive. Do you understand?"
"Perfectly," said Jason. "Except that I don't see what all this old family history has to do with me."
"Patience, and you will see," said Pelias. "Just as Phryxus and his sister Helle were about to be sacrificed, a winged ram, with a fleece of pure gold, came out of the sea, took the brother and sister on his back, and flew away with them through the air. Unluckily, while they were flying, Helle turned giddy, tumbling off the ram's back, and was drowned. You have heard of the Hellespont, I suppose? Well, this is the part of the sea where Helle fell. Phryxus, however, arrived safely at the Court of Æētes, King of Colchis, beyond the great Black Sea, where he sacrificed the ram to Jupiter, out of gratitude for his escape; but kept the golden fleece and married the king's daughter. At last Æetes, wanting the fleece for himself, murdered Phryxus. There—do you see your royal duty now?"
"I cannot," said Jason, "honestly say that I do."
"What? Why, Phryxus was the son of Athamas, who was the son of Æolus, who was the father of Cretheus, who was the father of Æson, who is the father of you. It is as clear as day that Phryxus was your own first cousin once removed. And what duty can be clearer than avenging the murder of a first cousin once removed? Especially when the murderer has a fleece of pure gold waiting for some brave man to bring away. It is so clear a duty that, if you decline it, I will undertake the adventure myself, old as I am, rather than let the wrongs of our royal house go unavenged."
Now glory was Jason's ruling passion. He would have felt disgraced if he had declined any adventure, however difficult it might be: and the greater the danger, the greater the glory.
So he had it announced through Iolcos and all the neighboring countries that he had undertaken the Adventure of the Golden Fleece, and that all brave knights who desired to share in its perils and glories would be welcome. The effect of the proclamation was something wonderful. Iolcos was speedily thronged with princes and knights, the best and noblest of all Greece, eager to take part in the expedition; so that Jason found himself captain of a host the like of which for birth and valor had never been seen—fifty chiefs, and every one of them known to fame. It would be too long to name them all. But I must mention "the great twin brethren," Castor and Pollux, whom you know by more than name: and Orpheus the minstrel, and that other great minstrel, Amphīon, whose music had built the walls of Thebes: and Autŏlycus, the craftiest, and Nestor, the wisest, of all mankind: and Hercŭles, the son of Jupiter, of whose deeds you will read hereafter: and Mĕlĕăger, who had also a famous story of his own: and Theseus of Athens, with whom you will also meet again,—all these and all their comrades were, like their captain, in the very flower of their youth, strength, and valor. Atalanta, a princess of Scyros, a great huntress, joined the expedition disguised as a man: and Æsculapius was its surgeon and physician.
The next thing was to build a ship to carry so large a company across the great and terrible Black Sea, which the Greeks called the "Euxine," or "Friendly"—giving it a good name just because they were afraid to give it a bad one, lest it should be angry. The ship was at last built, and called the Argo.
The "Argonauts," as Jason and his company are called—that is to say, the crew of the Argo—set sail in great state and honor from a port of Thessaly, crossed the Ægean Sea, passed through the Dardanelles into the Sea of Marmora (as those parts are now called), and then through the Hellespont, the strait where Helle had been drowned, into the Black Sea.
From end to end of these dark and dangerous waters the good ship Argo sailed without mishap, save the death of its pilot, Tīphys, soon after starting. Erginus took his place at the helm. But I cannot help thinking that there was another reason for the good luck of the Argo. For once, when a great storm arose and threatened shipwreck, suddenly two flames of light were seen to play round the heads of Castor and Pollux, and forthwith the wind fell and the waves became calm. You know that—
"Safe comes the ship to haven,
Through tempests and through gales,
If once the great Twin Brethren
Sit shining on the sails";
and if this was the virtue of their spirits after death, one may be certain that it was a good thing to have Castor and Pollux on board during their brave and blameless lives. Those two flames of light are still often seen hovering about a ship in stormy weather, and sailors still believe them to be of good omen.
After a long voyage, the Argo arrived safely at Æa, the capital of Colchis, where dwelt King Æetes, the same who had murdered Phryxus. Colchis proved to be a rich and fertile country, inhabited by a people curiously like the Gypsies, with very dark complexions and black hair, dressed in brightly colored linen which they alone knew how to weave and dye. They claimed to be descended from a tribe of Egyptians who had wandered thither ages ago; and they had many other secrets which none but they and the Egyptians knew.
Jason, at the head of his company, went before King Æetes, and demanded from him the Golden Fleece. Æetes received him in state, sitting upon his throne; and, after hearing Jason's demand, answered:—
"Far be it from me, a mere barbarian chieftain, to refuse what is asked of me by so noble an embassy of princes and heroes. I would even now deliver up to you the Golden Fleece, were it in my power. But how can I give it to you when it is guarded, even from myself, by two fierce bulls with brazen horns, which breathe forth flame, and are a match for armies? Before you can obtain the fleece, you must first tame these bulls."
Jason desired nothing better. So he and all his comrades went into the field where the bulls were, and endeavored to bind them. But neither he, with all his courage, nor the craft of Autolycus, nor the might of Hercules, nor the courage, skill, and strength of the whole company together, could prevail against the bulls, who breathed fire, and gored right and left with their brazen horns. There was work for Æsculapius that day.
King Æetes had known very well how it would be; but Jason, when night came, retired to the chamber which had been assigned to him in despair. Midnight found him still waking, when the door opened, and there stood before him, holding a lamp, a tall and beautiful woman, dark-skinned, black-eyed, and with long black hair—beautiful, as I have said, but terrible in her beauty.
"You have no cause for shame," said she, in a softer voice than he would have expected. "They were enchanted bulls: and not ten times your number would have fared better. This is a nation of enchanters, whose king knows how to laugh you Greeks and your boasted bravery to scorn. But I am the greatest of all enchanters; and I will teach you how to tame the bulls—if you will promise me one thing."
"Anything!" said Jason. "Only tell me who you are, and what you require of me."
"I am Medēa, the king's daughter," said she. "And what I require is that you shall marry me this night in the Temple of Hecate, the Queen of Witches, and that you will swear before her altar to be true and faithful to me forever."
"Gladly," exclaimed Jason, who, to succeed in his adventure, would have gladly sworn anything to any one.
So he followed her to the Temple of Hecate, the Witch-Queen, and there, with many strange and dreadful rites, he married her, and swore to be true and faithful to Medea forever. Then she gave him a magic herb, and said:—
"This will tame the bulls." And she also gave him a sling and a stone, adding, "Use this when there is need."
The next morning Jason went into the field alone. As soon as the scent of the herb reached the bulls' nostrils they crouched at his feet; and when Æetes and his Court, and the Greek princes with them, came forth, lo! there was Jason quietly driving a plough drawn by the bulls, who were now as tame as common oxen.