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

King Phineus

dropcap image AID Tiphys, the steersman: "If we could enter the Sea of Pontus, we could make our way across that sea to Colchis in a short time. But the passage into the Sea of Pontus is most perilous, and few mortals dare even to make approach to it."

Said Jason, the chieftain of the host: "The dangers of the passage, Tiphys, we have spoken of, and it may be that we shall have to carry Argo  overland to the Sea of Pontus. But you, Tiphys, have spoken of a wise king who is hereabouts, and who might help us to make the dangerous passage. Speak again to us, and tell us what the dangers of the passage are, and who the king is who may be able to help us to make these dangers less."

Then said Tiphys, the steersman of the Argo:  "No ship sailed by mortals has as yet gone through the passage that brings this sea into the Sea of Pontus. In the way are the rocks that mariners call The Clashers. These rocks are not fixed as rocks should be, but they rush one against the other, dashing up the sea, and crushing whatever may be between. Yea, if Argo  were of iron, and if she were between these rocks when they met, she would be crushed to bits. I have sailed as far as that passage, but seeing The Clashers strike together I turned back my ship, and journeyed as far as the Sea of Pontus overland.

"But I have been told of one who knows how a ship may be taken through the passage that The Clashers make so perilous. He who knows is a king hereabouts, Phineus, who has made himself as wise as the gods. To no one has Phineus told how the passage may be made, but knowing what high favor has been shown to us, the Argonauts, it may be that he will tell us."

So Tiphys said, and Jason commanded him to steer the Argo  toward the city where ruled Phineus, the wise king.

To Salmydessus, then, where Phineus ruled, Tiphys steered the Argo.  They left Heracles with Tiphys aboard to guard the ship, and, with the rest of the heroes, Jason went through the streets of the city. They met many men, but when they asked any of them how they might come to the palace of King Phineus the men turned fearfully away.

They found their way to the king's palace. Jason spoke to the servants and bade them tell the king of their coming. The servants, too, seemed fearful, and as Jason and his comrades were wondering what there was about him that made men fearful at his name, Phineus, the king, came amongst them.

Were it not that he had a purple border to his robe no one would have known him for the king, so miserable did this man seem. He crept along, touching the walls, for the eyes in his head were blind and withered. His body was shrunken, and when he stood before them leaning on his staff he was like to a lifeless thing. He turned his blinded eyes upon them, looking from one to the other as if he were searching for a face.

Then his sightless eyes rested upon Zetes and Calais, the sons of Boreas, the North Wind. A change came into his face as it turned upon them. One would think that he saw the wonder that these two were endowed with—the wings that grew upon their ankles. It was a while before he turned his face from them; then he spoke to Jason and said:

"You have come to have counsel with one who has the wisdom of the gods. Others before you have come for such counsel, but seeing the misery that is visible upon me they went without asking for counsel. I would strive to hold you here for a while. Stay, and have sight of the misery the gods visit upon those who would be as wise as they. And when you have seen the thing that is wont to befall me, it may be that help will come from you for me."

Then Phineus, the blind king, left them, and after a while the heroes were brought into a great hall, and they were invited to rest themselves there while a banquet was being prepared for them.

The hall was richly adorned, but it looked to the heroes as if it had known strange happenings; rich hangings were strewn upon the ground, an ivory chair was overturned, and the dais where the king sat had stains upon it. The servants who went through the hall making ready the banquet were white-faced and fearful.

The feast was laid on a great table, and the heroes were invited to sit down to it. The king did not come into the hall before they sat down, but a table with food was set before the dais. When the heroes had feasted, the king came into the hall. He sat at the table, blind, white-faced, and shrunken, and the Argonauts all turned their faces to him.

Said Phineus, the blind king: "You see, O heroes, how much my wisdom avails me. You see me blind and shrunken, who tried to make myself in wisdom equal to the gods. And yet you have not seen all. Watch now and see what feasts Phineus, the wise king, has to delight him."

He made a sign, and the white-faced and trembling servants brought food and set it upon the table that was before him. The king bent forward as if to eat, and they saw that his face was covered with the damp of fear. He took food from the dish and raised it to his mouth. As he did, the doors of the hall were flung open as if by a storm. Strange shapes flew into the hall and set themselves beside the king. And when the Argonauts looked upon them they saw that these were terrible and unsightly shapes.

They were things that had the wings and claws of birds and the heads of women. Black hair and gray feathers were mixed upon them; they had red eyes, and streaks of blood were upon their breasts and wings. And as the king raised the food to his mouth they flew at him and buffeted his head with their wings, and snatched the food from his hands. Then they devoured or scattered what was upon the table, and all the time they screamed and laughed and mocked.


"Ah, now ye see," Phineus panted, "what it is to have wisdom equal to the wisdom of the gods. Now ye all see my misery. Never do I strive to put food to my lips but these foul things, the Harpies, the Snatchers, swoop down and scatter or devour what I would eat. Crumbs they leave me that my life may not altogether go from me, but these crumbs they make foul to my taste and my smell."

And one of the Harpies perched herself on the back of the king's throne and looked upon the heroes with red eyes. "Hah," she screamed, "you bring armed men into your feasting hall, thinking to scare us away. Never, Phineus, can you scare us from you! Always you will have us, the Snatchers, beside you when you would still your ache of hunger. What can these men do against us who are winged and who can travel through the ways of the air?"

So said the unsightly Harpy, and the heroes drew together, made fearful by these awful shapes. All drew back except Zetes and Calais, the sons of the North Wind. They laid their hands upon their swords. The wings on their shoulders spread out and the wings at their heels trembled. Phineus, the king, leaned forward and panted: "By the wisdom I have I know that there are two amongst you who can save me. Oh, make haste to help me, ye who can help me, and I will give the counsel that you Argonauts have come to me for, and besides I will load down your ship with treasure and costly stuffs. Oh, make haste, ye who can help me!"

Hearing the king speak like this, the Harpies gathered together and gnashed with their teeth, and chattered to one another. Then, seeing Zetes and Calais with their hands upon their swords, they rose up on their wings and flew through the wide doors of the hall. The king cried out to Zetes and Calais. But the sons of the North Wind had already risen with their wings, and they were after the Harpies, their bright swords in their hands.

On flew the Harpies, screeching and gnashing their teeth in anger and dismay, for now they felt that they might be driven from Salmydessus, where they had had such royal feasts. They rose high in the air and flew out toward the sea. But high as the Harpies rose, the sons of the North Wind rose higher. The Harpies cried pitiful cries as they flew on, but Zetes and Calais felt no pity for them, for they knew that these dread Snatchers, with the stains of blood upon their breasts and wings, had shown pity neither to Phineus nor to any other.

On they flew until they came to the island that is called the Floating Island. There the Harpies sank down with wearied wings. Zetes and Calais were upon them now, and they would have cut them to pieces with their bright swords, if the messenger of Zeus, Iris, with the golden wings, had not come between.

"Forbear to slay the Harpies, sons of Boreas," cried Iris warningly, "forbear to slay the Harpies that are the hounds of Zeus. Let them cower here and hide themselves, and I, who come from Zeus, will swear the oath that the gods most dread, that they will never again come to Salmydessus to trouble Phineus, the king."

The heroes yielded to the words of Iris. She took the oath that the gods most dread—the oath by the Water of Styx—that never again would the Harpies show themselves to Phineus. Then Zetes and Calais turned back toward the city of Salmydessus. The island that they drove the Harpies to had been called the Floating Island, but thereafter it was called the Island of Turning. It was evening when they turned back, and all night long the Argonauts and King Phineus sat in the hall of the palace and awaited the return of Zetes and Calais, the sons of the North Wind.

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