The tale of Jason and the Argonauts is one of the popular legends that perhaps has been thought of as myth. There is evidence of Troy and of a legendary Minoan king of Crete. The story of Jason himself was difficult to accept and his exploits delved into fantasy. It is common in ancient tales and scriptures for the stories to grow in the telling, but is there a basis for truth?

The primary source for the tale is from the Argonautica written in the 3rd century BC by Apollonius Rhodius. It is one of the few epic era works that is extant. Apollonius was a scholar of Homer and was head of the Library at Alexandria, Egypt. He criticised his predecessor Zenodotus for his editions of the Iliad and Odyssey. Interestingly the time of Apollonius coincides with the engraving of the Parian Chronicle. The main source of the Argonautica is from Pindar, a contemporary of Socrates.

The Golden Fleece

Heracles rescued Hesione the daughter of king Laomedon and was known to join Jason on his quest for the Golden Fleece. According to what we have already surmised, this would place the legend of Jason and the Argonauts to around 1260 BC. The idea of Jason travelling to a far off land to get a Golden Fleece is a typical example of how misinterpretations occur. On the face of it, and the fantastic story attributed to it, the Golden Fleece legend is fanciful indeed. However, things are not always as they seem.

Getting rid of the embellished accounts linking the fleece to Poseidon and other deities, there is a good case for such a fleece. In the region of Colchis on the eastern shore of the Black Sea, mountain streams contain small particles of gold which have eroded from the rocks in their descent. The traditional way for 'mining' such gold was to immerse sheepskins in the streams to trap the metal. The build up of these gold flecks would result in creating a fleece rich with gold. Perhaps one of the fleeces used had more success than others and was considered good fortune. This technique has endured for thousands of years and is no doubt the basis of the myth.

The question whether King Pelias sent Jason to steal the fleece, or simply to learn the technique is moot. Although the Greek mountains would also have gold deposits, it doesn't necessarily follow that a similar technique would work in different terrain. The real reason for the quest was to prevent Jason's ascendancy to the throne by sending him on this fool's errand. All that is of concern is whether such a voyage was commissioned. What is more interesting is piecing in certain genealogy by taking into account who else is involved in the tale. There are indications that some of Jason's crew members were included for sensationalism, but kings and other historically traceable figures should be more reliable.

The man who sent Jason on this quest was Pelias, whose mother was married to Cretheus king of Iolcus in Thessaly. In turn Cretheus was son of Aeolus, son of Hellen ........allegedly. Whilst there is the possibility of maybe two people named Heracles, a couple named Zeus and a whole host named Atlas, there are at least three figures named Aeolus. Looking at Pelias we get a good example of 'blame it on the Gods' in action.

The story goes that Tyro, the mother of Pelias and wife of king Cretheus, loved the river God Enipeus but was shunned. Tyro had three sons by Cretheus, the eldest and rightful heir being Aeson. However Poseidon appeared to her disguised as Enipeus and the union produced twins, Pelias and Neleus. Okay you can see holes in the story and no doubt so did Cretheus. The illegitimate twins were exposed in the traditional manner but a kindly goat-herder took them in.

As an adult Pelias usurped the throne and wanted rule over all Thessaly. To this end he kept the rightful heir Aeson, in dungeons in Iolcus. Whilst imprisoned, Aeson married and had children. Jason was one of these and was sent away as an infant, lest Pelias kill him as the next heir after Aeson. The story is well documented but in essence Pelias sent Jason on the quest for the Golden Fleece, thinking he would never return.

There were no definitive number of Argonauts but tracing various sources will find at least 80, about the maximum one ship of the time could carry. The likes of Heracles and Theseus were cited as being among the offspring of various Gods. Theseus is of course credited with slaying the Minotaur but the dates aren't early enough. Many 'historians' place Minos and the Minotaur around the time of the earthquake and tsunami damage on Crete from the Thera / Santorini cone collapse (1450 BC) when Crete fell under Mycenaean rule. The King Minos of Minotaur fame is therefore the grandson of the first King Minos and then once again the dates make sense.

Theseus and Heracles were both were given 'labours' although Heracles had twice as many as Theseus. The account given by Apollonius was particularly interesting for the geographical references rather than the chronology.

I see no point in running through all the adventures in great detail, so in brief this is a concise turn of events. The first port of call on Jason's voyage turned out to be Lemnos, not an unreasonable thing. According to the story the island was populated only by women, they had slain all the men-folk. After a prolonged stay in which they enjoyed the hospitality of the ladies, they once again set sail. It was said the population of Lemnos were the descendants of the Argonauts.

They sailed into Propontis (Sea of Marmara), staying with the Doliones (probably Ionian descendants) before fighting with them, after confusing them with barbarians in the region who had attacked the ship. Heracles was put ashore with Polyphemus in Mysia. The story goes he broke an oar and went ashore to make another from the forest. His squire Hylas was sent to fetch water but never returned - apparently bewitched by a water nymph - and Heracles refused to leave without him. Polyphemus stayed to help Heracles whose destiny was not with Jason.

A few days later, the Argonauts fell foul of king Amycus, ruler of the tribe Bebryces. He challenged every stranger he met to a fistfight. Seeing the Argonauts, he challenged them and Polydeuces, a skilled boxer, took up the offer and killed Amycus. A big fight ensued and the Argonauts were victorious. Once again they set sail. They next met Pineaus, an old blind man tormented by Harpies. In return for getting rid of the Harpies Pinaeus told Jason about the clashing rocks. The myth probably derived from the narrow Bosporus channel which 3,000 years ago, with lower sea-levels, would be even narrower. Any ship passing through when an earth quake hits would have been pelted with rocks. Troy had earthquake damage from 1250 BC (around 20 years earlier) could that earthquake be the origin of the Clashing Rocks legend.

There were a couple more minor problems but they managed to reach Colchis relatively unscathed. The myth states a conspiracy of deities to assist Jason by making Medea, daughter of king Aeetes of Colchis, fall in love with him. The king became furious when Jason announced he had come to take the Golden Fleece, or the secret behind it. The story becomes fanciful again as Jason is instructed to complete an almost impossible task, in which Medea assists him through devious means. Armed with sorcery and courage, Jason accomplished his tasks. King Aeetes was enraged realising Jason must have had inside help.

He planned to kill the Argonauts but Jason was told by Medea and she helped him steal the fleece and escape. They rushed back to the Argo and immediately set sail. King Aeetes and his son, Medea’s brother Apsyrtus, gave chase across the sea. Medea supposedly killed her brother with sorcery (he probably just had a heart attack) and Aeetes, in his despair, gave up the chase. The deities interfered again in a variety of ways, in addition to fending off perils from the Sirens, Talos, Scylla and Charybdis.

Leaving Crete, Euphemus dreamt that he made love to a woman who was the daughter of sea god Triton and that she had nowhere to go. She told him to throw a clod of earth into the sea and it would grow into an island where their children and descendants would live. Euphemus did as he was told and the clod grew into an island which he called Calliste.

Generations later a descendant of Euphemus, Theras, returned to the island and renamed it Thera, after himself. It is of course Santorini the site of the former city of Atlantis. This would have been two centuries after the demise of Atlantis. Was this mysterious island actually Therasia, the small island in the middle of the Thera caldera?

Jason and the Argonauts arrived back in Iolcus and handed the Golden Fleece to Pelias, unaware that his uncle had already killed his father Aeson. Jason swore he would take revenge against Pelias and asked Medea to help him. Pelias died as a result of alleged sorcery but it backfired as the residents didn't want a sorceress for a queen. Jason relinquished the kingdom to the son of Pelias, Acastus. The quest for the Golden Fleece had supposedly been a trick by the Goddess Hera to bring Medea to Iolcus to kill Pelias. Jason went into exile with Medea in Corinth and led an uneventful life.

However, a wandering eye for the princess of Corinth caused a jealous Medea to exact revenge, killing not only the princess but also her own three young children she had with Jason. She escaped to Athens and became the consort of Aegeus.

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