Apollonius of Rhodes

Jason and the Golden Fleece

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Jason and the Golden Fleece Summary

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Jason and the Golden Fleece is an Ancient Greek epic poem by Apollonius of Rhodes. The only surviving epic from the Hellenistic period in Greece, it is also referred to as the Argonautica. The book follows Jason, the son of Aeson and grandson of the god Hermes, as he goes on a quest for the mythical Golden Fleece in order to win back his father’s throne from his wicked uncle Pelias. Jason travels with a group of demigods and kings to various islands, battling monsters, storms, and other obstacles in order to obtain the Golden Fleece, which no one has been able to retrieve before.

Jason is a prince whose father, King Aeson of Iolcus, was dethroned by his brother Pelias. Aeson protects Jason by hiding him away on a mountain to be raised by the centaur Chiron; however, when Jason comes of age, he learns about his father’s stolen throne and decides to win it back from his evil uncle.

Jason goes to Pelias, who anticipates from a prophecy that Jason will cause him problems. He tells Jason he will happily return the throne to its rightful owner if Jason brings him the Golden Fleece from the island of Colchis. Nobody has ever been able to retrieve this fleece, and Pelias knows that he is sending Jason on a death trip. However, Jason agrees, confident in his abilities. He commissions a ship from the skilled shipwright Argus. The ship is christened The Argo; Jason asks his strongest and most skilled friends to accompany him. They include Hercules, his lover Hylas, Orpheus, Zetes and Calais, Theseus, Atalanta, and many other heroes of Greek lore. This crew is referred to as the Argonauts.

The Argonauts travel first to the island of Lemnos, an island populated only with women – the women living there rebelled with their queen and killed every man on the island. Taking a liking to the Argonauts, the women seduce the men, who stay the night on the island. Next, the crew travels to the island of Doilones where the kind King Cyzicus entertains them. The crew leaves but is held back by a group of giants who attack the next morning. After the attack, a storm blows the ship off course at night; the Argonauts don’t realize they have returned to the island of Doilones. The next morning, King Cyzicus attacks the ship, not recognizing his friends from the night before. The Argonauts kill the King before they recognize their mistake, and afterward feel horrible – they host an elaborate funeral with games to apologize to the queen and appease the gods.

Next, the crew lands on Cius, where Hercules’s lover, Hylas, is seduced by water nymphs and taken into the river. Devastated by the loss, Hercules refuses to leave the island. The crew is forced to go on without him, leaving their strongest warrior behind. They travel to various other islands, fighting harpies and gaining wisdom from prophetic kings to land, finally, on the island of Colchis, where King Aeetes is not pleased to see Jason. Believing Jason is trying to steal his throne, he is only slightly appeased when Jason promises he only wants the Golden Fleece. He had learned from Phrixus, the man who created the fleece and whom he had met at sea, that the prize was guarded by a dragon, but Aeetes makes it even more challenging for Jason to achieve his goal. He sets three tasks for Jason – he must plow a field with fire-breathing oxen, fight dragon tooth warriors, and vanquish the dragon before he can have the fleece.

Luckily for Jason, the goddess Hera sends Eros down to help him. Eros shoots an arrow through the sorceress Medea’s heart – Medea is the daughter of Aeetes – causing her to fall madly in love with Jason, which makes her willing to betray her family. Medea uses her sorcery and wisdom to help Jason perform each task, ultimately using a sleeping potion to put the dragon to sleep and steal the fleece before departing quickly on the ship.

The return journey has its own challenges, as Aeetes tails Jason in order to get Medea back, narrowly avoiding the song of the sirens, and much more. Ultimately, however, Jason and Medea are married by the goddess Circe, and the crew returns, mostly intact, to Greece, where Jason recovers the throne of Iolcus from Pelias.

Little is known about Apollonius of Rhodes; he was first thought of as an imitator of Homer, but ultimately became a prized Greek poet of the Hellenistic period. He was a scholar and keeper of the Library of Alexandria, and it is thought that many of his texts were used to provide valuable knowledge on Greek life and lore to the Ptolemies of Egypt. Jason and the Golden Fleece is his only surviving epic – the rest of his poems survive only in small fragments.