Apollonius of Rhodes: Jason and the Golden Fleece
(Argonautica)

Summary by Michael McGoodwin, prepared 2002

Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using the 1993 Oxford World Classics edition translated by Richard Hunter. Quotations are taken from that work, as are paraphrases of its commentary.   

Overall impression: This is a pretty good and fairly short epic that does not compare to Homer but which contains interesting mythological elements.  It is one of the few extent Greek epic poems available.

Notes derived from the introduction

This tale describes a voyage by heroes and demigods in the generation preceding those of the Trojan War. Apollonius was "Royal Librarian under Ptolemy II Philadelphus during the central years of his reign (perhaps c. 270-245 BC) and was perhaps also tutor to the future Ptolemy III Euergetes. He was thus at the very centre of the Ptolemaic institutionalization of culture and leaning to which we owe so much of what we still possess of Greek literature." This is his only extant work. The Ptolemies wished to attract Greek intellectuals and poets to Alexandria, and thus founded the Museum (place of the muses) and Library.

Sources include Homer, Pindar "Fourth Pythian Ode" c. 462 BCE, "Medea" by Eurypides, and the lost "Colchian Women" of Sophocles.

Several Homeric conventions occur: the catalog of heroes (like the Catalogue of Ships), the embroidered cloak (like Achilles' shield), the advice of Phineus (like Kirke's and Tiresias'), Aia scenes (like the Phaeacian scenes in Odyssey), etc.

Jason is less the traditional masculine hero and more of a manager, more democratic, more uncertain.

There has been a total loss of Greek epic poetry between Homer and Apollonius. It served as a model for Aeneid--e.g., the scenes in Carthage with Dido like Medea.

Prehistory (occuring before the plot): 

Athamas, king of Boiotia and son of Aiolos (hero of the Aeolians), had son Phrixos and daughter Helle with wife Nephele. After he married his 2nd wife Ino, she plotted against the 2 stepchildren Phrixos and Helle, who were saved by a magical golden-fleeced ram who flew away with them. Helle fell into the Hellespont and died, but Phrixos landed in Aia in the extreme east of the Black Sea--there he sacrificed the ram and hung the fleece in a grove sacred to Ares. Aietes is king of Aia, and is a son of Helios. Aietes gives Chalkiope his daughter in marriage to Phrixos. Phrixos eventually had children Phrontis, Kytissoros, Melas, and Argos. Phrixos' wife is Chalkiope (she is granddaughter of Helios, daughter of Aietes, niece of Kirke, sister to Media and Apsyrtos). 

Jason is the son of Aison of Iolos in Thessaly (Aison is son of King Kretheus son of Ailos) and thus Jason is a great grandson of Aiolos. Aison is married to Alkimede, whose mother was Klymene daughter of Minyas. The kingship passed after Kretheus's death not to Aison but to Pelias, the son Kretheus' wife Tyro bore to Poseidon. Pelias wants Jason out of the way as he is a potential threat to the throne, but he offers to give up the throne if Jason successfully completes the quest for the Golden Fleece, a mission intended to assuage Zeus's anger at Pelias.

In this version, Medea's brother Apsyrtos is older than she is (in others, he is a baby). Not included in this version: (1) On their return to Iolkos, she persuades Pelias's daughters to kill Pelias, and (2) Later she will kill her own children.

Michael McGoodwin Plot Summary

Book I: Voyage from Iolkos to Lemnos and the Hellespont

Pelias has received an oracle about a man with one sandal... He resolves to send Jason on a voyage full of suffering. The ship Argos is built by Argos son of Arestor (this is not the same as Phrixos' son Argos) with the advice of Athena.

The catalog of c. 50 heroes (called Minyans or Argonauts) includes: Orpheus (son of Kalliope and Oiagros), Asterion, Polyphemos (son of Eilatos), Iphiklos (brother of Alkimede), Admetos, Erytos and Echion (sons of Hermes) and their half-brother Aithalides, Koronos, Mopsos, Eurydamas, Menoitios, Eurytion, Erybotes, Oileus, Kanthos from Euboia, Klytios and Iphitos, Telemon and Peleus (sons of Aiakos), Boutes and Phaleros (from Kekrops=Attica), Tiphys, Phleias, Taloas and Areios and Leodokos (from Argos), Herakles with his squire Hylas, Nauplios, Idmon, Polydeukes and Kastor (the Diaskouroi), Lynkeus and Idas, Periklymenos, Amphidamas and Kepheus (from Arcadia), Ankaios (son of Lykourgos), Augeias (son of Helios), Asterios and Amphion, Euphemos (son of Poseidon), Erginos and Ankaios (sons of Poseidon, from Miletos and Parthenia=Samos, resp.), Meleagar (son of Onineus) and his half-brother Laokoon, Iphiklos, Palaimonios, Iphitos from Phocia, Zetes and Kalais (sons of Boreas and the daughter of Erechtheus, Oreithyia), and Pelias's own son Akastos, along with the ship builder Argos.

They plan to sail from Iolkos, the Magnesian Pagasai, on the east coast of Thessaly, the land of the Pelasgians. Alkimede laments, and Jason reassures her. Jason modestly calls for an election of the leader, and he is recommended by Herakles. They make a sacrifice. Idmon foretells his death in a distant land. Idas scorns Jason for his pensiveness. Orpheus takes up his lyre and sings. They embark, Jason weeps to depart his homeland. The gods watch over the departure of these demi-gods. Cheiron bids them farewell, and with him his wife holding the infant Achilles, son of Thetis and Peleus. They pass Thracian Athos... 

They arrive at Sintian Lemnos, where the women have killed all their men under the leadership of their queen Hypsipyle. She wants the Minyans to breed with the island women to repopulate island with males. She gives Jason an elaborate embroidered purple cloak depicting many tales. Her tale to the Minyans omits their murder of the men. Herakles has nothing to do with the women. 

They depart, leaving many impregnated women behind (including Hypsipyle, who will bear Euneos and Thoas). Elektra (Samothrace). They enter the Hellespont/Dardanelles; Dardania, Abydos. The land of the Doliones, inside the Propontis. King Kyzikos receives them hospitably. Fight with the "earth-born". Accidental fight with the Doliones during the dark of night, killing king Kyzikos. Funeral games. King's wife Kleite kills herself. Jason climbs mountain Dindymon in Phrygia to make sacrifice and appeasement to the gods. 

They depart, reach Kios and land of Mysians who are friendly. Herakles makes a new oar. Nymph of a stream abducts Herakles' squire Hylas--Herakles loses control, runs around wildly. The Minyans depart without him and Polyphemos, making Telamon angry. The Minyans decide not to go back to look for him. Glaukos rises from the sea and advises them that they should not to go back for Herakles against Zeus's will, that Polyphemos will found a Mysian city (Kios), and that Hylas has married a nymph. Jason forgives Telamon's rebuke like a good manager.

Book II: Voyage through Bosporos, south shore of Pontos, arrival in Colchis.

They arrive at Bebrykians. King Amykos challenges them to a boxing match, Polydeukes accepts and kills the king. They plunder. Arrive at Bosporos. They go ashore on the west (north) side, meet Phineus--former king of Thrace and son of Agenor. Harpies have been punishing him for misusing his powers of prophecy granted him by Apollo (son of Leto). The Boreads Zetes and Kalais drive off the Harpies to Crete. Phineus dines with the Argonauts, tells them how to get through the Dark Rocks [Symplegades, also referred to as the Planktai later] which clash together at N end of Bosporos and have stopped all previous ships--he advises using a dove. They will reach the Pontos (Black Sea, Euxine sea)--he describes in detail where they should go etc., arriving at the Phasis river at east end of Pontos, where Aietes is king at Aia and the fleece can be found in the sacred grove. He foretells that they will return by a different route... They make a sacrifice. Story of Kyrene in Haimonia (Thessaly) who is transported to Libya (Cyrene).

They embark heading for the Pontos (the "Inhospitable sea", though Euxeinos="hospitable"). They pass through the Clashing (Dark) rocks with the assistance of Athena. Follow Bithynian coast (north coast of Turkey). Apollo appears to them. Acheron river. Received by Mariandynoi. Idmon slain by a boar. Tiphys dies... Shade (ghost) of Aktor. Stream of Parthenios... They bypass the amazons and their queen, Hippolyte. Land of Mossynoikoi, who make love in public. Island of Ares--attacked by birds of Ares. The sons of Phrixos are on a voyage in a Colchian ship heading to the west, seeking wealth after the death of their father. They encounter a storm and their ship sinks--they ask the Minyans for help. Argos tells of their origins, of the ram's fleece. Jason says they are related, that he wishes to bring the fleece back to Hellas to atone and appease Zeus's anger on the descendants of Aiolos for the attempted sacrifice of Phrixos. The sons know the Minyans will not be well received by the savage and cruel Aietes, and that the fleece is guarded by a serpent... They agree to help the Minyans. Cheiron ancestry. Prometheus is in nearby Caucasus. 

They arrive at Phasis stream and the land of Colchis. They row up the river, with Aia to the left and the plain of Ares and the sacred grove on the right. They hide the ship in a marsh. Jason debates how to approach Aietes. 

Book III: Jason wins the contest in Aia

Hera plans to intervene to help the Minyans. She goes with Athena to Kypris (Aphrodite, "lady of Kythera"). Hera complains of Pelias's insolence and her fondness for Jason. Hera asks Aphrodite to enlist her son Eros to bewitch the maiden daughter of king Aietes, Medea, with Jason. She finds Eros with Ganymede, an object of Zeus's desire. She asks Eros to bewitch Medea. 

Jason goes to the Aietes's palace with Phrixos' sons. The barbarian burial practices of the Colchians. Chalkiope is delighted to see her sons. Eros shoots an arrow into Medea and she is smitten over Jason. Aietes is suspicious and wonders why Phrixos' sons have returned so soon. They describe a storm that has destroyed their ship, and that they were saved by the Minyans, and that the Minyans are on a quest for the fleece to assuage the wrath of Zeus (for which they are willing to pay). Aietes is furious at this story, angry at the sons, suspects the Minyans of having been enlisted to help in a conspiracy to take his throne. Jason calms the king. The wily Aietes offers to give Jason the fleece if he can pass a test of courage and strength on the Plain of Ares, one which the king ostensibly has passed. There he will be required to harness the bulls with bronze hooves, plow the field, plant the teeth of a serpent (the Aonian dragon killed by Kadmos) which will give rise to a crop of armed warriors (just as Kadmos had done with his share). Jason ponders and accepts. 

Medea is consumed with love. She prays to Hekate, "daughter of Perses" to save Jason. Meanwhile, Argos (Phrixos' son) tells Jason about Medea, her powers with magic and drugs, that he should win her over. Argos describes this plan to the Minyans. Mopsos sees a favorable omen. But Idas scorns the plan for its dependence on a woman. 

Aietes convenes a council to plan treachery against the Minyans...

Medea has a dream, envisions the stranger taking her for his wife. She plans to test her sister Chalkiope. Chalkiope pleads for Medea's help to prevent the slaying of her sons. Medea promises to help her. Later she is torn by doubts, knowing that she will be scorned by her parents. She gathers her potions in a casket and leaves the palace with her 2 maidservants, in whom she confides. She is heading for the sacred shrine of Hekate. A crow inspired by Hera speaks, and Mopsos tells Jason to meet Medea at the shrine alone. 

Jason and Medea meet at Hekate's shrine. He realizes she has a divine affliction of love. He asks for drugs to boost his strength, flatters her. She tells how to win the contest, gives him drugs. Jason falls in love with her, wants her to marry him and to go to Hellas with him. Hera was planning on her reaching Iolkos to bring disaster on Pelias. She has been won over, but is torn with guilt over the evil deed she has committed.

At dawn, the Minyans request the dragon seed from Aietes. Jason is bathed and dressed in the purple robe for the contest. He sacrifices to Hekate. (Aietes also dresses as if for battle.) Jason sprinkles the drug on his skin, clothing, spear, and sword. He is naked but for his shield. He takes the yoke and withstands the charge of the bulls, protected by the drug. He harnesses them, plows the field, and plants the dragon teeth. The earth-born warriors rise from the ground, and he places a great round rock among them as instructed. They go to fighting over it and kill each other, and Jason assists in the killing. Jason has succeeded at his task, and the king Aietes returns to Aia still plotting to thwart the Argonauts.

Book IV: Voyage home

Aietes plans treachery against the Minyans. Medea is sure her assistance to them has been apparent to Aietes. She decides to flee with Phrixos' sons, leaving a lock of her hair as a memorial to her virginity. She laments ever meeting Jason. She encounters Phrontis, who takes her to Jason. She pleads for them to save her--she will help them to get the golden fleece by putting the dragon standing guard to sleep. Jason again assures her he will marry her. They proceed to the sacred grove. She puts the dragon to sleep and Jason steals the golden fleece. He says again he will marry her. They depart in the ship.

Aietes knows about her betrayal, is armed and in his chariot, with Apsyrtos at the reins. The Colchians put to sea to chase the Minyans. The Minyans reach the river Halys (south shore of Pontos), where Medea propitiates Hekate. Jason recalls that they should return by a different route. Argos tells of the river Istros [the Danube], a remote branch of Ocean, whose western branch reaches the Trinakrian sea [sea east of Sicily!], and advises them to seek that route. They sail across the Pontos. Meanwhile some Colchians travel out the Dark Rocks and search in vain for the Minyans outside the mouth of the Pontos. But Apsyrtos leads his ships to the Istros, and enters it via the Lovely Mouth, whereas the Argonauts are behind him on the river having taken the "Narex" mouth more to the north. Apsyrtos plans to head them off. 

Jason decides to leave Medea entrusted to the maiden daughter of Leto (Artemis). She chastises him for this, begs him not to leave her behind, seethes with anger, wants to set fire to the ships. But Jason assures her this is merely a trick to entrap her brother Apsyrtos to allow his destruction. She agrees and helps to plot the trap. They send him gifts of friendship including Hypsipyle's robe. Apsyrtos arrives and is ambushed by Jason, who kills him. The Argonauts attack the Colchian ship and crew. The Argonauts embark and row to the island of Elektris, near the Eridanos (envisioned as the river Po, on the Adriatic). The Colchians, deprived of a leader and unwilling to return to Aietes, scatter. 

The Argonauts land at the land of the Hylleans [Croatian coast]. Zeus wants the Argonauts cleansed of the blood of Apsyrtos by Aiaian Kirke. They sail down the Adriatic... but Hera blows them back north to Elektris. The magical plank on the ship made from the oak of Dodona speaks to them from Zeus, saying they must be cleansed by Kirke. They must reach the Ausonian sea (west of Italy) where they will find her. Polydeukes and Kastor pray as instructed. They reach the Eridanos [Po] and head inland, where they somehow join up with the Rhodanos [Rhone river in France] and reach the Sardinian sea [Mediterranean west of Sardinia]. They pass along lakes in the land of the Celts, protected by Hera... They disembark on the Stoichades islands. They travel along the Ausonian sea (west Italian coast) and reach Kirke at Tyrrhenia and the harbor of Aiaie... Jason and Medea appear to her. She understands they are supplicants who committed murder. She asks about their voyage. Medea tells the story in her Colchian tongue, but omits the murder of Apsyrtos (though Kirke is not deceived). Kirke says she will never approve and refuses to help.

Hera instructs Iris to fetch Thetis to help the Argonauts. She has Aiolos arrange a wind to blow them to the Phaeacian island of Alkinoos. She wants Thetis to help them pass through the narrow channel between Skylla and Charybdis [also referred to as the Planktai, see above regarding the Dark Rocks]. Thetis will provide this help with her sister Nereids. She appears to her husband Peleus, telling him to proceed. Peleus is bitter over how she abandoned him long ago. 

At dawn they embark, passing the island of Anthemoessa with its deadly Sirens. Orpheus out-plays the Sirens using his Bistonian lyre. They reach Skylla and Charybdis and the Planktai, and are brought safely through by Thetis and the Nereids. 

They reach Drepane [Corfu] where King Alkinoos rules over the Phaeacians. But they are confronted by Colchians that have arrived after passing through the mouth of the Pontos at the Dark Rocks. They demand the return of Medea, but Medea pleads to Jason and to Alkinoos's wife, Arete, claiming she is still a virgin. Later Arete pleads to her husband on behalf of the girl. Alkinoos decides that if she is a virgin she must return whereas if she has consummated the marriage then she may remain with Jason. Arete secretly sends word to Jason to arrange this. They make ready the marriage bed in a sacred cave, and spread it with the golden fleece. Orpheus plays a marriage hymn. The marriage is fulfilled. In the morning, Alkinoos affirms the marriage, and the Colchians desert their king and ask to live in the area.

The Argonauts depart Drepane, and arrive at Libya and the gulf Syrtis, from which ships cannot escape. They believe they will all die. But 3 local deities appear to Jason, saying he should "pay fair requital to your mother for all she has suffered in carrying you in her belly..." A giant horse rises from the sea. Peleus interprets the goddess's words: the mother is the ship, they must lift and carry it in the direction in which the horse went. They do so overland, reaching Lake Triton [a lake in Libya--but the name Triton is also used to refer to the Nile]. A serpent Ladon that guarded the golden apples has been killed by Herakles. Orpheus pleads for help from the Hesperides, and they send up springs of water. They complain of Herakles, who has carried off the golden apples of the goddesses. They search in vain for Herakles, who they believe has saved them. Kanthos and Mopsos die. Orpheus propitiates the gods. Triton appears, son of Poseidon. He shows them the way on the lake to the open sea, and tells them how to sail to Crete and beyond--he also gives them a clod of soil. 

At last they reach the [Mediterranean] sea and they sail for Crete. There they encounter Talos, the last survivor of the bronze age race of men, who throws boulders at them. They fear for their lives, but Medea offers to neutralize him. She invokes the spirits of death, the Keres, and casts an evil eye on Talos. He injures himself and oozes ichor (god's blood) from his ankle, and collapses strengthless.

They reach an island of the Sporades. Euphemos recalls a dream about the divine clod given to him by Triton. He casts it into the sea and it becomes the island of Kalliste=Thera. 

At last they reach Aegina, pass the Kekropian land, pass Aulis near Euboia, and finally reach the shores of Pagasai from where they began the voyage.