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Alternate Names


Appears In

Apollonius Rhodius's Argonautica



Character Overview

In Greek mythology , the Argonauts (pronounced AHR-guh-nawts) were a band of heroes who sailed with Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece. Their journey took them on numerous adventures and required the assistance of many different gods. Among the Argonauts were the sons of kings and of gods. According to some sources, one of the Argonauts was a woman, the huntress Atalanta (pronounced at-uh-LAN-tuh).

The Quest for the Fleece Jason was the son of Aeson, the king of Iolcus (pronounced ee-AHL-kuhs). When Aeson was overthrown by his brother Pelias, he sent Jason to be raised by the wise centaur (half-man, half-horse) called Chiron (pronounced KYE-ron). Later Jason returned to Iolcus to claim the throne. Pelias agreed to give it to him if he first found and brought back the Golden Fleece from the Kingdom of Colchis, which Pelias knew to be an almost impossible task.

The Golden Fleece was the hide of a golden ram sent by the gods to save Phrixus (pronounced FRIK-suhs) and Helle (pronounced HEL-ee), two royal children of the land of Iolcus. The children's lives were endangered by their stepmother. As the ram carried them to safety, Helle fell into the sea and drowned. The area where she fell became known as Hellespont. Her brother Phrixus reached Colchis safely. There he sacrificed the ram to Zeus (pronounced ZOOS). The fleece was hung on a tree in a grove sacred to Ares , guarded by a serpent that never slept.

Jason ordered a ship, the Argo, to be built and sent messengers throughout Greece to ask others to join him in his quest for the Golden Fleece. After assembling a group of fifty heroes, Jason set off. The Argonauts' first adventure happened on Lemnos, an island populated only by women. As a result of a dispute between husbands and wives, the women had killed all the men. The women received the Argonauts with great hospitality, and the heroes began to forget their quest; however, one of the Argonauts stood firm. This was Heracles (known as Hercules by the Romans), a hero known for his physical strength. Heracles persuaded the other Argonauts to return to the ship and their journey continued.

In another adventure, Heracles defended the Argo against six-armed giants who attacked the ship while the others were on land. Later, in a rowing contest, Heracles broke his oar. While cutting wood for a new oar, his squire, or male attendant, was kidnapped by a water nymph, or female nature deity. Heracles went in search of the boy and was eventually left behind by the Argonauts.

When the heroes stopped at the land of the Bebryces (pronounced be-BRYE-seez), the king, Amycus (pronounced AM-i-kuhs), challenged them, as he did all visitors, to a fight to the death. Pollux (pronounced PAHL-uhks), the son of Zeus, took up the challenge and killed Amycus.

The Argonauts then stopped to see Phineus (pronounced FIN-ee-us), the blind king of Thynia (pronounced thih-NEE-uh). Phineus was a prophet (a person able to see the plans of the gods), and the travelers needed advice on how to proceed. Phineus agreed to help them if they would rid him of the Harpies , fierce, part-woman, part-bird creatures who stole and spoiled his food. Jason ordered a feast to be prepared. When the Harpies arrived to ruin the feast, two of the Argonauts, Calais (pronounced kuh-LAY-us) and Zetes (pronounced ZEE-teez; they were winged sons of Boreas, the North Wind) pursued them. Eventually, Zeus sent a message that the Harpies should be spared but that they should also leave Phineus in peace.

After reaching the entrance to the Black Sea, the Argonauts had to go through the Symplegades (pronounced sim-PLE-gah-deez). These were huge rocks that crashed together at random intervals, destroying any ship that tried to sail through them. Following Phineus's advice, the Argonauts released a dove and watched its course as it flew between the rocks. The dove made the passage, losing only a single tail feather when the rocks crashed together. As soon as the rocks began to part, the Argonauts pulled hard on their oars, following the path of the dove. When they had almost passed through, a great wave held them back. At that point, the goddesses Athena and Hera gave them a push and the ship made it to safety. Forever after, the Symplegades remained separated.

After more adventures, the Argonauts finally reached Colchis. Jason and several companions went to the court of King Aeëtes (pronounced aye-EE-teez) to request the Golden Fleece. The first to see Jason was Medea (pronounced me-DEE-uh), the king's daughter. Hera, who sponsored Jason's quest, asked fellow Olympian Aphrodite (pronounced af-ro-DYE-tee), the goddess of love, for her help. Aphrodite agreed and made Medea fall in love with Jason. Medea was a witch; therefore she was able to help Jason with the difficulties ahead.

Aeëtes had no intention of handing over the Golden Fleece, but he pretended to agree if Jason could pass several trials. Jason was to yoke two fire-breathing bulls to a plow, then plant a field full of dragon's teeth. As each dragon's tooth was planted, a fully armored warrior would spring up, which Jason would then have to kill. Medea gave Jason a magic ointment that he rubbed on himself to protect him from the fiery bulls. Next she told Jason to throw a boulder in the midst of the soldiers to confuse them and make them fight one another. Then he would have to fight only the survivors. Following her directions, Jason succeeded in completing the trials.

Aeëtes told Jason he would hand over the Fleece the next day, but Jason and Medea did not believe him. Promising to marry her, Jason once again asked for Medea's help. That night, she led him to the sacred grove and put the serpent to sleep with her magic. Jason easily took the Fleece and, with Medea and the Argonauts, set sail back across the Black Sea.

The Return Home Accounts of the Argonauts' journey home vary. According to the writer Apollonius Rhodius (pronounced ah-poh-LOH-nee-us ROW-dee-us), Medea's brother Apsyrtus (pronounced ap-SUR-tuhs) blocked the mouth of the Black Sea so the Argonauts had to find a different route back to Iolcus. Several versions of the legend agree that the heroes crossed the Black Sea to the Danube River. After sailing up the Danube, they traveled along various rivers before reaching the Mediterranean Sea. Some sources say the Argonauts went north to the Baltic Sea. Others relate that they followed the Rhine River to the Atlantic Ocean, or that they reached the Adriatic Sea. At the entrance to the Adriatic, they met Apsyrtus, who tried to convince Jason to give up Medea. Jason refused and killed Apsyrtus.

A Magic Ship

Jason's ship, the Argo, was made from the wood of a sacred oak and had the ability to think, to speak, and even to predict the future. The ship had one oar for each of the Argonauts, who rowed themselves to their adventures. When it was first built, the Argo refused to go into the sea until the musician Orpheus sang to it and played his lyre. During the quest, the ship traveled under the protection of Hera, Athena, and Apollo. Afterward, the Argo was dedicated to Poseidon and placed near his temple in Corinth. Eventually, the gods turned the ship into a constellation in the sky.

The Argonauts sailed up the Po River and down the Rhone. Having almost reached Greece, the Argo was blown off course to Libya. There a great wave stranded the crew in the desert. On the advice of the gods, the Argonauts carried the ship across the desert until the sea god Triton (pronounced TRY-tun) helped them launch it back on the Mediterranean.

As they sailed past the island of Crete, Talos (pronounced TAY-lohs), the bronze man appointed by King Minos to protect the island, threw rocks at the Argonauts. Medea responded by killing Talos with her witchcraft. The Argonauts' adventures continued. Nearing Greece, the ship was enveloped in a darkness so great they lost their way. Apollo sent a blazing arrow that showed them the way to an island where they could wait until the light returned.

At last, the Argo arrived home in Iolcus. The Argonauts were honored throughout Greece, and many noble families later claimed to be descended from them. Even though Jason presented Pelias with the Golden Fleece, he never became king.

Argonauts in Context

Over the centuries, many scholars have attempted to trace the route of the Argonauts as described by Homer and other writers. According to the story, the Argonauts began in Greece and ended up on the eastern shore of the Black Sea, in a region now known as Georgia. Many of the other places mentioned along the way, however, are not as easily identified. Historians are divided as to whether or not the fantastical journey of the Argonauts is meant to have occurred entirely in real places, or whether some of the locations were made up by the storytellers. Most ancient Greeks never traveled more than a handful of miles from their place of birth; the tales of the Argonauts both satisfied their desire to hear of exotic foreign lands, and cautioned them against wandering too far from what the Greeks considered civilized areas. The ancient Greeks were a sea-going people, and Jason and his crew represented for them the courage and curiosity required of sailors and explorers.

Key Themes and Symbols

The Argonauts symbolize the willingness to embrace adventure. When Jason puts out a call for heroes to join him on his quest, he gathers a variety of people who all seek excitement or glory. Each Argonaut leaves behind a safe, stable life in exchange for great dangers, the lure of riches, and the promise of new experiences.

Argonauts in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

Many writers have been inspired by the subject of the Argonauts and Jason's quest for the Golden Fleece. Among the ancient Greek works are Pindar's Pythian Ode, Apollonius Rhodius's Argonautica, and Euripides' play Medea. The Roman poet Ovid mentioned the Argonauts in the Metamorphoses. In the Middle Ages, Chaucer retold the story in the Legend of Good Women, and in the 1800s, William Morris wrote the long narrative poem Life and Death of Jason. Robert Graves's novel The Golden Tleece was published in 1944, and John Gardner's Jason and Medeia was published in 1973.

The story of the Argonauts has also served as the basis for many films, most notably the 1963 movie Jason and the Argonauts, which featured groundbreaking visual effects by Ray Harryhausen.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

The journey of the Argonauts can be described as a quest: they are searching for the location of a certain magical item that will restore Jason to his proper place as king of Iolcus. Can you think of another book, movie, or video game that also has a “quest” story structure? How is it similar to the tale of Jason and the Argonauts? How is it different?

SEE ALSO Atalanta; Harpies; Hera; Heracles; Jason; Medea

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Argonauts In Greek legend, 50 heroes, including Heracles, Orpheus, and Castor and Pollux, who sailed the ship Argo to Colchis, a kingdom at the e end of the Black Sea, in search of the Golden Fleece. Their leader was Jason, husband of Medea.

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Argonauts: see Jason; Argo; Golden Fleece.

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argonaut, in zoology: see paper nautilus.

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