Gateway to the Classics: The Golden Fleece and the Heroes by Padraic Colum
The Golden Fleece and the Heroes by  Padraic Colum

In the Land of the Phæacians

dropcap image EARIED were the heroes now. They would have fain gone upon the island of Circe to rest there away from the oars and the sound of the sea. But the wisest of them, looking upon the beasts that were men transformed, held the Argo  far off the shore. Then Jason and Medea came aboard, and with heavy hearts and wearied arms they turned to the open sea again.

No longer had they such high hearts as when they drove the Argo  between the Clashers and into the Sea of Pontus. Now their heads drooped as they went on, and they sang such songs as slaves sing in their hopeless labor. Orpheus grew fearful for them now.

For Orpheus knew that they were drawing toward a danger. There was no other way for them, he knew, but past the Island Anthemoessa in the Tyrrhenian Sea where the Sirens were. Once they had been nymphs and had tended Persephone before she was carried off by Aidoneus to be his queen in the Underworld. Kind they had been, but now they were changed, and they cared only for the destruction of men.

All set around with rocks was the island where they were. As the Argo  came near, the Sirens, ever on the watch to draw mariners to their destruction, saw them and came to the rocks and sang to them, holding each other's hands.

They sang all together their lulling song. That song made the wearied voyagers long to let their oars go with the waves, and drift, drift to where the Sirens were. Bending down to them the Sirens, with soft hands and white arms, would lift them to soft resting places. Then each of the Sirens sang a clear, piercing song that called to each of the voyagers. Each man thought that his own name was in that song. "O how well it is that you have come near," each one sang, "how well it is that you have come near where I have awaited you, having all delight prepared for you!"

Orpheus took up his lyre as the Sirens began to sing. He sang to the heroes of their own toils. He sang of them, how, gaunt and weary as they were, they were yet men, men who were the strength of Greece, men who had been fostered by the love and hope of their country. They were the winners of the Golden Fleece and their story would be told forever. And for the fame that they had won men would forego all rest and all delight. Why should they not toil, they who were born for great labors and to face dangers that other men might not face? Soon hands would be stretched out to them—the welcoming hands of the men and women of their own land.

So Orpheus sang, and his voice and the music of his lyre prevailed above the Sirens' voices. Men dropped their oars, but other men remained at their benches, and pulled steadily, if wearily, on. Only one of the Argonauts, Butes, a youth of Iolcus, threw himself into the water and swam toward the rocks from which the Sirens sang.

But an anguish that nearly parted their spirits from their bodies was upon them as they went wearily on. Toward the end of the day they beheld another island—an island that seemed very fair; they longed to land and rest themselves there and eat the fruits of the island. But Orpheus would not have them land. The island, he said, was Thrinacia. Upon that island the Cattle of the Sun pastured, and if one of the cattle perished through them their return home might not be won. They heard the lowing of the cattle through the mist, and a deep longing for the sight of their own fields, with a white house near, and flocks and herds at pasture, came over the heroes. They came near the Island of Thrinacia, and they saw the Cattle of the Sun feeding by the meadow streams; not one of them was black; all were white as milk, and the horns upon their heads were golden. They saw the two nymphs who herded the kine—Phæthusa and Lampetia, one with a staff of silver and the other with a staff of gold.

Driven by the breeze that came over the Thrinacian Sea the Argonauts came to the land of the Phæacians. It was a good land as they saw when they drew near; a land of orchards and fresh pastures, with a white and sun-lit city upon the height. Their spirits came back to them as they drew into the harbor; they made fast the hawsers, and they went upon the ways of the city.

And then they saw everywhere around them the dark faces of Colchian soldiers. These were the men of King Æetes, and they had come overland to the Phæacian city, hoping to cut off the Argonauts. Jason, when he saw the soldiers, shouted to those who had been left on the Argo,  and they drew out of the harbor, fearful lest the Colchians should grapple with the ship and wrest from them the Fleece of Gold. Then Jason made an encampment upon the shore, and the captain of the Colchians went here and there, gathering together his men.

Medea left Jason's side and hastened through the city. To the palace of Alcinous, king of the Phæacians, she went. Within the palace she found Arete, the queen. And Arete was sitting by her hearth, spinning golden and silver threads.

Arete was young at that time, as young as Medea, and as yet no child had been born to her. But she had the clear eyes of one who understands, and who knows how to order things well. Stately, too, was Arete, for she had been reared in the house of a great king. Medea came to her, and fell upon her knees before her, and told her how she had fled from the house of her father, King Æetes.

She told Arete, too, how she had helped Jason to win the Golden Fleece, and she told her how through her her brother had been led to his death. As she told this part of her story she wept and prayed at the knees of the queen.

Arete was greatly moved by Medea's tears and prayers. She went to Alcinous in his garden, and she begged of him to save the Argonauts from the great force of the Colchians that had come to cut them off. "The Golden Fleece," said Arete, "has been won by the tasks that Jason performed. If the Colchians should take Medea, it would be to bring her back to Aea and to a bitter doom. And the maiden," said the queen, "has broken my heart by her prayers and tears."

King Alcinous said: "Æetes is strong, and although his kingdom is far from ours, he can bring war upon us." But still Arete pleaded with him to protect Medea from the Colchians. Alcinous went within; he raised up Medea from where she crouched on the floor of the palace, and he promised her that the Argonauts would be protected in his city.

Then the king mounted his chariot; Medea went with him, and they came down to the seashore where the heroes had made their encampment. The Argonauts and the Colchians were drawn up against each other, and the Colchians far outnumbered the wearied heroes.

Alcinous drove his chariot between the two armies. The Colchians prayed him to have the strangers make surrender to them. But the king drove his chariot to where the heroes stood, and he took the hand of each, and received them as his guests. Then the Colchians knew that they might not make war upon the heroes. They drew off. The next day they marched away.

It was a rich land that they had come to. Once Aristaeus dwelt there, the king who discovered how to make bees store up their honey for men and how to make the good olive grow. Macris, his daughter, tended Dionysus, the son of Zeus, when Hermes brought him of the flame, and moistened his lips with honey. She tended him in a cave in the Phæacian land, and ever afterward the Phæacians were blessed with all good things.

Now as the heroes marched to the palace of King Alcinous the people came to meet them, bringing them sheep and calves and jars of wine and honey. The women brought them fresh garments; to Medea they gave fine linen and golden ornaments.

Amongst the Phæacians who loved music and games and the telling of stories the heroes stayed for long. There were dances, and to the Phæacians who honored him as a god, Orpheus played upon his lyre. And every day, for the seven days that they stayed amongst them, the Phæacians brought rich presents to the heroes.

And Medea, looking into the clear eyes of Queen Arete, knew that she was the woman of whom Circe had prophesied, the woman who knew nothing of enchantments, but who had much human wisdom. She was to ask of her what she was to do in her life and what she was to leave undone. And what this woman told her Medea was to regard. Arete told her that she was to forget all the witcheries and enchantments that she knew, and that she was never to practice against the life of any one. This she told Medea upon the shore, before Jason lifted her aboard the Argo.

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