Profile of the Greek Hero Jason

Greek Hero Jason
Pelias sending forth Jason, 1880. Print Collector / Getty Images

Jason is the Greek legendary hero best known for his leadership of the Argonauts in the quest for the Golden Fleece and for his wife Medea (of Colchis). Along with the Theban Wars, and the hunting of the Calendonian boar, the story of Jason is one of the three great pre-Trojan war adventures in Greek history. Each has a main story with variations: this is Jason's quest.

Jason's Royal Roots

Jason was the son of Polymede, a possible daughter of Autlycus, and his father was Aison (Aeson), the oldest son of Aeolidae ruler Aeolus' son Cretheus, founder of Iolchus. That circumstance have made Aison king of Iolchus, but Pelias, Cretheus' stepson (and the real son of Poseidon), usurped the crown and tried to kill the infant Jason

Fearing for their son after Pelias usurped the throne, Jason's parents pretended their baby had died at birth. They sent him to the wise centaur Chiron to be raised. Chiron may have named the boy Jason (Iason). King Pelias consulted an oracle, who told him that he should be wary of a one-sandaled man.

Once grown, Jason made his way back to claim his throne and on the way he met an old woman and carried her across the Anauros or Enipeus River. She was no ordinary mortal, but the goddess Hera in disguise. In the crossing, Jason lost a sandal, and so when he arrived in Pelias' court he was wearing one sandal (monosandalos). In some versions, Hera suggested that Jason should seek the Golden Fleece.

The Task of Fetching the Golden Fleece

As Jason entered the market-place at Iolchus, Pelias saw him, and, recognizing him as the one-sandaled man who had been foretold to him, asked him his name. Jason declared his name and demanded the kingdom. Pelias agreed to surrender it to him, but asked Jason first to remove the curse on the family of Aeolidae by fetching the Golden Fleece and soothing the spirit of Phrixis. The golden fleece has its own tale, but it was the fleece of the ram that became the constellation Aries.

The Golden Fleece was suspended in an oak grove in the possession of king Aeëtes in Colchis (or hung in Aeëtes's temple), and guarded day and night by a dragon. Jason collected a set of 50–60 heroes, known as the Argonauts, and sailed off on his ship the Argo—the greatest ship ever built—in search of adventure.

Jason Marries Medea

The trip to Colchis was adventurous, full of battles, nymphs and Harpies, adverse winds and six-armed giants; but eventually Jason arrived at Colchis. Aeëtes promised to give up the fleece if Jason would yoke two fire-breathing oxen and sow the teeth of the dragon. Jason succeeded, aided in this endeavor by a magic ointment provided by Aeëtes's daughter Medea, on condition that he marry her.

On the return voyage of the Argonauts, they stopped at the island of the Phaeacians, ruled by King Alcinoos and his wife Arete (featured in "The Odyssey"). Their pursuers from Colchis arrived at about the same time and demanded the return of Medea. Alcinoos agreed to the Colchians' demand, but only if Medea weren't already married. Arete secretly arranged the marriage between Jason and Medea, with Hera's blessings.

Jason Returns Home and Leaves Again

There are various tales of what happened when Jason returned to Iolchus, but the one that is best known is that Pelias was still alive, and he brought the fleece to him, and set out for one more sail to Corinth. On his return, he and Medea conspired to kill Pelias. tricked his daughters into killing Pelias, cutting him into pieces and boiling him him, by promising that she would restore Pelias not just to life, but to youthful vigor—something Medea could do if she wanted to.

After killing Pelias, Medea and Jason were ejected from Iolcus and they went to Corinth, a place where Medea had a claim to the throne, as the granddaughter of the sun god Helios.

Jason Deserts Medea

Hera also favored Medea, as well as Jason, and offered their children immortality.

[2.3.11] Through her Jason was king in Corinth, and Medea, as her children were born, carried each to the sanctuary of Hera and concealed them, doing so in the belief that so they would be immortal. At last she learned that her hopes were vain, and at the same time she was detected by Jason. When she begged for pardon he refused it, and sailed away to Iolcus. For these reasons Medea too departed, and handed over the kingdom to Sisyphus.—Pausanias

In the Pausanias version, Medea engages in the sort of helpful but misunderstood behavior that scared Achilles' father and Metaneira of Eleusis, who witnessed Demeter's attempt to immortalize her baby. Jason could only believe the worst of his wife when he saw her engaging in such a dangerous activity, so he deserted her.

Of course, the version of Jason's desertion of Medea told by Euripides is much more sinister. Jason decides to repudiate Medea and marry the Corinthian king Creon's daughter, Glauce. Medea doesn't accept this change in status gracefully but arranges the death of the king's daughter by poison gown, and then kills the two children she has borne Jason.

Death of Jason

The death of Jason isn't as popular a topic of classical literature as his adventures. Jason may have killed himself in despair after the loss of his children, or killed in a fire at the palace in Corinth.

Sources

  • Hard, Robin. "The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology." London: Routledge, 2003. 
  • Leeming, David. "The Oxford Companion to World Mythology." Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 2005. 
  • Smith, William, and G.E. Marindon, eds. "A Classical Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography, Mythology, and Geography." London: John Murray, 1904.