Gateway to the Classics: Gods and Heroes by R. E. Francillon
Gods and Heroes by  R. E. Francillon

The Golden Fleece

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.

"Some one has been betraying me," thought the king angrily. But he hid his anger, and said: "You have done very well so far. I am sorry to say, however, that the Golden Fleece has other guards. Do you see these serpents' teeth? You must sow these in the furrow you have made with your plough—and then the gods help you if they can."

So Jason, having finished his ploughing, sowed the serpents' teeth as if they were seeds of corn. And then from that seed sprang up, in less than an hour, a strange harvest—an army of giants, as many as the stalks of wheat in a wide field, who rushed upon Jason and the Greeks, and trampled them to the ground.

And every one of them would have been slain had not Jason bethought him of Medea's sling and stone. Aiming at the chief of the giants, he let fly, and straightway the army vanished like the phantoms of a dream.

The king began to be afraid, for he was coming to an end of his spells. He felt sure he had been betrayed, but could not guess the traitor. But again he pretended friendship, and said: "That, too, was very well done. I see there is something in you Greeks, after all. But it grieves me to the heart to tell you that the most terrible guards of the Golden Fleece still remain—a mighty dragon that never sleeps, but watches the Fleece night and day. If you can kill him—why then—"

"I can but try," said Jason. So he and his comrades were guided by winding paths to the foot of a tree on which hung the Golden Fleece, splendid in the sun. But at the foot of the tree was a dragon that could have devoured ten times as many, armor and all, with one crunch of his jaws. And he breathed forth such fiery pestilence that none could come near.

Truly it seemed at last as if the adventure was to be in vain.

But, at midnight, Medea came to Jason as before, and gave him another herb, and said, "Take this—and remember your vow."

Jason was not thinking of the vow, but only of the dragon. The next morning he set forth alone, and having found his way to the tree, waved the herb before the monster. No sooner had the smell of it reached its nostrils than its eyes began to droop and close, and presently the ever-watchful dragon was sleeping soundly. Instantly Jason darted past him, snatched the Golden Fleece from the tree, and hastening back to the palace, displayed it before the king's astonished eyes.

"Seize the robber!" cried King Æetes, to his guards. But he had come to an end of his enchantments: Jason's comrades rallied round their captain with drawn swords, and made for the shore.

The king raved and stormed. "Fetch Medea to me," he cried; "she shall raise such a tempest as will sink the foreign pirates to the bottom of the sea." But even as he spoke, in ran one of the slaves with the news—

"The Princess Medea—the Greeks are carrying her away!"

"Medea—against her will? No!" cried the king, who now knew who had betrayed him. "There is no power on earth that could make her  captive, or carry her away unless she chose to go. Absyrtus," he said, turning to his son, "hasten after those brigands, and bid your sister return, and I will follow with my whole army to cut them off from their ship and destroy them all."

The news was true: Medea was so passionately in love with Jason that she had forgotten her father and her country, and was even now guiding the Greeks back to where the Argo  lay. But, great enchantress though she was, she was not all-powerful, and she knew that her spells would be in vain against her own people. And her father and her brother knew this too.

Her ears were quick, however; and while the Greeks were still far from the shore, she heard the footsteps of Absyrtus swiftly tracking them; and what was worse, she heard, further off, a tramp and clash, which told her that the whole Colchian army was in pursuit at full speed.

"Hasten on," she said to Jason. "I will wait here."

So, while he and the Greeks pressed forward, she faced round and stood in the middle of the path until Absyrtus came up with her. Before he could utter a word, she plunged a dagger into her brother's heart, cut off his head and limbs, and then slowly followed Jason, dropping a bleeding limb in the path every few yards.

Things happened just as she intended. When King Æetes, riding fast at the head of his horsemen, saw his son's head lying in the path before him, he threw himself from his horse with a cry of grief; and seeing what lay further along the ground, forgot everything else, even the Golden Fleece, in his sorrow. The cruel witch, Medea, had foreseen that her father would never leave the remains of his dead son ungathered and unburied by the wayside, for the advancing horses to trample and for the vultures to devour. King Æetes was so long in seeking for the last limb that, by the time it was found, Jason and the Greeks had reached their ship and had set sail, and Medea with them.

But the murder of Absyrtus seemed to cling like a curse to the Argo, and to keep her from coming home. Driven out of her course by storms and contrary winds, she wandered into unknown oceans, drifting even so far as the wild and desolate islands of Britain, in the mysterious Northern Sea. The Argonauts narrowly escaped being devoured, ship and all, by the horrible sea-fiend Scylla, with twelve feet, six hideous heads, each with three rows of teeth, and a body made of barking dogs, who sits upon a rock and watches for sailors. And, just avoiding her jaws, they nearly fell into the whirlpool of Charybdis, another sea-fiend, so close to Scylla that it was hardly possible to escape one without being destroyed by the other. They passed the island of the Sirens, of whom you read in the story of Neptune, and would have fallen victims to their singing had not Orpheus made such music on his lyre that the Sirens ceased their own song to listen, and let the ship pass by.

I do not know what Medea was doing all this while. Perhaps she was powerful only on land; perhaps she could do nothing without her magic herbs; perhaps her passion for Jason had made her weak; perhaps she felt some touch of remorse; perhaps her wicked witch-craft was of no effect in the presence of Æsculapius, who, knowing more magic even than she, used his knowledge for helping and healing. But I do know that Jason was beginning to suffer sorely because of the vow he had made of his faith and life to Medea, and to feel that murder and black magic, and a wife whom he dreaded and did not love, were too high a price to pay even for glory. He was not like Perseus, who had warred against evil with the weapons of the gods: Jason had sought only his own glory, and had gained it by means hateful to gods and men.

But his comrades knew nothing of all this—to them he was a hero of heroes, and they made the wanderings of the Argo  famous for something better than narrow escapes from peril. They cleared the sea of pirates—a work in which Castor and Pollux especially distinguished themselves; and they righted many wrongs, and carried the knowledge of the gods among far away barbarian tribes. And at last they saw once more the coast of Greece; at last they touched the land of Călydon, where the father of Meleager, one of the Argonauts whom I have already named, was king.

Now this Meleager had a charmed life. The three Fates had been present at his birth—the first had given him courage; the second, strength; but the third had decreed that he should live only so long as a log of wood, then burning upon the hearth, should remain unconsumed. So his mother, Althæa, had forthwith snatched the brand from the burning, and had kept it with care, because upon it depended the life of her son. Meleager welcomed Jason and his companions to Calydon; but they no sooner landed than they heard evil news. The whole country was being laid waste by a huge boar, which not even armies could kill.

Here was another adventure for the Argonauts. They proclaimed a great hunt, and tracked the boar, through mountains and forests, to his very den. In front of the hunters were Meleager; but next to him came Atalanta—that famous huntress, swift-footed as Diana, who had sailed with the Argonauts in the disguise of a man, and had betrothed herself to Meleager while they were homeward bound. They followed the rest, vying with each other which should be foremost; and besides the Argonauts were the princes and nobles of Calydon, led by the two brothers of Althæa, who still kept the fatal fire-brand secure.

They drove the boar to bay at last, and, after a desperate struggle, Meleager gave it its death-blow. All his companions rejoiced at his good fortune; but when he gave the boar's head, as a trophy, to Atalanta, the two brothers of Althæa stood forth and said:—

"It is not right to give such honor to a woman—a woman who has no more right to it than we. Such trophies are for men!"

So saying, they tried to seize it from her. But Meleager, enraged at the insult to Atalanta, defended her with his sword, and so unfortunately well that both his uncles were slain.

Althæa, watching from her window for the return of the hunters, at last saw them pass mournfully, bearing the bodies of her dead brothers. "Who has done this?" she cried; and being told it was Meleager, she cursed him, and, in her grief and passion, threw the fatal brand upon the hearth, where it was caught by a flame. Meleager, though still far off, was forthwith seized with scorching pains in all his limbs. As the brand burned, so he burned also, and when it was consumed, a flame seemed to clutch his heart, and he fell dead in Atalanta's arms.

Althæa, overwhelmed, when it was too late, with horror at the result of her rage, slew herself with her own hand. And such was the miserable ending of the Hunt of Calydon.

The Argonauts, having now returned to Greece, parted, and went each to his own home. Jason drew the Argo  on shore near Corinth, consecrating it to Neptune, and leaving it there as a monument of so famous a voyage. Then he returned to Iolcos, bringing the Golden Fleece with him.

He was received with triumph and rejoicing, and a great feast was prepared to welcome him home. But, to his sorrow, he found his father Æson so enfeebled by old age as not to be able to be present at the festival.

"Do not trouble yourself about that," said Medea. "Let Æson only put himself in my hands, and he shall be as young as you."

Jason, knowing his wife's power, consented. So she drew all the blood out of Æson's veins, and filled them with the juice of certain herbs; and he came to the festival as young-looking and as vigorous as his own son.

But Pelias, the usurper, who hated Jason, was getting old, too; and his daughters, when they saw what had happened to Æson, besought Medea that she would make their father also young and strong again.

"You need not come to me for that," said she. "You can do it for yourselves when I have shown you how."

So she killed an old ram, cut him up, and boiled the pieces in a caldron into which she had secretly thrown some herbs. When the water was cold, out from the caldron skipped a young lamb, and frisked away.

The whole thing looked so easy that the daughters of Pelias, that very night, prepared a caldron; and, when the water boiled, killed their father, divided him limb from limb, and threw in the pieces, just as Medea had done with the ram. But nothing happened, though they waited till the flesh had boiled away from the bones.

They hastened to Medea to help them. But she received them with scorn.

"Murderesses!" she exclaimed, "and fools! It is you who butchered Pelias; it is you who must make him live again, if you can. His death is on your hands; not on mine."

Thus Jason was delivered from his enemy. But the manner of his deliverance got about among the people. They rose up against Medea, and drove her out of the city; and Jason had to follow her to whom he had sold his soul for glory.

He had never loved her; and now his fear of her was turning into hate, and the hate into loathing and horror. All the wickednesses and cruelties she had committed for his sake seemed to have become his own, and to be so many curses upon him. And even her magic had not prospered, seeing that it had cost him the kingdom he might have gained by fair means, and had driven him into exile. His only comfort was in their two children, whom he loved dearly; and at last he could bear life with the terrible Medea no longer. He determined to divorce her; to take the children away from such a mother; and to take another wife whom he could love, and who would not be a terror to him.

Such a wife he found in Creusa, a princess of Corinth. But he was terribly mistaken if he thought he could break the vow he had made to Medea at the altar of Hecate, the Witch-Queen.

Medea affected to be quite content with what had been arranged. She sent Creusa a wedding-dress, and had her children brought to her to bid them farewell. The feast was at its height, and Jason was rejoicing in his freedom, when a cold cloud seemed to come over the guests; and there stood Medea, dark and stern, leading her two children by the hand.

"Traitor and perjurer!" she said to Jason, so that all the guests could hear. "Is this your return for the love I have given you; for the country I left for you; for the sins I have done for you—sins that you took the fruits of, but were too cowardly to do? I have given you to the last moment to prove your faith; and now the last moment has gone. As you choose to be bound to me no longer, my own hands shall destroy the last links that bind you and me."

So saying, like the tigress she was, she took up the children and dashed them dead upon the floor. At the same moment Creusa shrieked with the agony of the poisoned robe that was clinging to her and destroying her. Jason rushed upon Medea with his sword. But before he could reach her, a chariot drawn by flying dragons, none knew whence, had borne her away, none knew whither, through the air.

Jason, from that time, seemed haunted by the Furies. He wandered aimlessly about the world, unable to rest, until one day his eyes fell upon the ship Argo, still reposing peacefully upon the shore. One may imagine all the things the sight brought to his mind—his old dreams of glory; the unholy vow which had seemed to fulfill them; the weakness and the unfaithfulness which had destroyed them, and him, and others through him. Doubtless, he then saw in Medea not so much the cruel witch as the evil of his own heart, which had taken shape and form and had become a curse from which he could not get free. "If I could only rest like you!" he cried out, falling on his knees before the ship with bowed head and clasped hands. And it seemed as if the Argo  heard her old captain's prayer. A yard dropped from the mainmast upon his bowed head: and ship and captain lay at rest together.

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