Who Were the Argonauts?

Can You Name Every Sailor of the Argo?

Detail of scene with Argonauts
Detail of scene from the Story of the Argonauts by the Master of the Argonauts. Geoffrey Clements/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

The Greek Myth

The Argonauts, in Greek mythology, are the fifty heroes, led by Jason, who sailed on a ship called the Argo on a quest to bring back the Golden Fleece around 1300 BC, before the Trojan War.  The Argonauts got their name by combining the name of the ship, Argo, named after its builder, Argus, with the ancient Greek word, naut, meaning voyager.  The story of Jason and the Argonauts is one of the best-known tales of Greek mythology.

Apollonius of Rhodes

In the 3rd century B.C., at the multicultural center of learning at Alexandria, in Egypt, Apollonius of Rhodes, a well-known Greek author, wrote a famous epic poem about the Argonauts. Apollonius named his poem The Argonautica.

It begins:

(ll. 1-4) Beginning with thee, O Phoebus, I will recount the famous deeds of men of old, who, at the behest of King Pelias, down through the mouth of Pontus and between the Cyanean rocks, sped well-benched Argo in quest of the golden fleece.

According to the myth, King Pelias in Thessaly, who usurped the throne from his half-brother King Aeson, sent Jason, son of King Aeson and the rightful heir to the throne, on a dangerous quest to bring back the Golden Fleece, which was held by Aeetes, king of Colchis, in an area located at the eastern end of the Black Sea (known in Greek as the Euxine Sea). Pelias promised to give up the throne to Jason if he returned with the Golden Fleece, but didn't intend for Jason to return, since the journey was perilous and the Golden Fleece was very well-guarded.

 

Jason gathered together the noblest heroes and demigods of the time, packed them on board a special boat called the Argo, and the aptly-named Argonauts set sail. They engaged in many adventures on their way to Colchis, including storms; an adversarial king, Amycus, who challenged every passing traveler to a boxing match; Sirens, monstrous sea-nymphs who lured sailors to death with their song; and Symplegades, rocks that could crush the boat as it passed through them.

Several of the men were tested in different ways, prevailed, and enhanced their heroic status during the journey.  Some of the creatures they encountered appear in other stories of the Greek heroes, making the story of the Argonauts a central myth.

Apollonius of Rhodes gives us our most complete version of the Argonauts, but the Argonauts are mentioned throughout ancient classical literature. The list of the heroes varies somewhat depending on the author. 

The list of Argonauts by Apollonius of Rhodes includes such luminaries as Hercules (Heracles), Hylas, the Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux), Orpheus, and Laocoon

Gaius Valerius Flaccus

Gaius Valerius Flaccus was a first century Roman poet who wrote an Argonautica in Latin. Had he lived to complete his twelve-book poem, it would have been the longest poem about Jason and the Argonauts. He drew on Apollonius' epic poem and many other ancient sources for his own poem, of which he completed barely half before he died. Flaccus' list includes some names that aren't on Apollonius' list and excludes others.

Apollodorus

Apollodorus wrote a different list, which includes the heroine Atalanta, whom Jason denied in Apollonius' version, but who is included by Diodorus Siculus, the first century Greek historian who wrote the monumental universal history, Bibliotheca historica.

Apollodorus' list also includes Theseus, who was previously engaged in Apollonius' version.

Pindar

According to Timeless Myths,  the earliest version of the list of Argonauts comes from Pindar Pythian Ode IV. Pindar was a poet of the 5th-6th century BCE. His list of Argonauts consists of: JasonHeracles, Castor, Polydeuces, Euphemus, Periclymenus, Orpheus, Erytus, Echion, Calais, Zetes, Mopsus.

Verification of Myth

Recent discoveries by geologists from Georgia suggest that the myth of Jason and Argonauts was based on an actual event. The geologists researched geological data, archaeological artifacts, myths, and historical sources surrounding the ancient Georgian kingdom of Colchis and found that the myth of Jason and the Argonauts was based on an actual voyage that took place 3,300 to 3,500 years ago to obtain the secrets of the ancient gold extraction technique used in Colchis using sheepskin.

It seems that Colchis was rich with gold which the natives mined with special wooden vessels and sheepskins. A sheepskin embedded with golden gravel and dust would be the logical source of the mythical "Golden Fleece."  

Resources and Further Reading

Jason and the Argonauts Through the Ages, Jason Colavito, http://www.argonauts-book.com/

List of the Argo's Crew, Timeless Myths, https://www.timelessmyths.com/classical/argocrew.html

Evidence Suggests Jason and the Golden Fleece Was Based on True Events, http://www.sciencealert.com/new-evidence-suggests-jason-and-the-golden-fleece-was-based-on-true-eventshttp://www.sciencealert.com/new-evidence-suggests-jason-and-the-golden-fleece-was-based-on-true-events