The Argonauts

These Greek heroes set out on a voyage to find the Golden Fleece

Pelias Sending Forth Jason, 1880
Getty Images

The Argonauts, in Greek mythology, are the 50 heroes, led by Jason, who sailed on a ship called the Argo on a quest to bring back the Golden Fleece around 1300 B.C., 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 third 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," which starts with this sentence:

"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, 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 prize was very well-guarded. 

Band of Argonauts

Jason gathered 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 their deaths with a siren 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 provided the most complete version of the Argonauts, but the Argonauts are mentioned throughout ancient classical literature. The list of heroes varies somewhat depending on the author. Apollonius's list 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 12-book poem, it would have been the longest poem about Jason and the Argonauts. He drew on Apollonius's epic poem and many other ancient sources for his own work, of which he completed barely half before he died. Flaccus's list includes some names that aren't on Apollonius's list and excludes others.

Apollodorus

Apollodorus wrote a different list, which includes the heroine Atalanta, whom Jason denied in Apollonius's version, but who is included by Diodorus Siculus. Siculus was the first-century Greek historian who wrote the monumental universal history, "Bibliotheca Historica." Apollodorus's list also includes Theseus, who was previously engaged in Apollonius's version.

Pindar

According to Jimmy Joe, in his article, "An Explanation Of The Crew Of The Argo, published on the website, Timeless Myths, the earliest version of the list of Argonauts comes from Pindar's "Pythian Ode IV." Pindar was a poet who lived in the fifth and sixth centuries 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. They found that the myth of Jason and the Argonauts was based on an actual voyage that took place between 3,300 and 3,500 years ago. The Argonauts sought to obtain the secrets of an ancient gold-extraction technique used in Colchis, which employed sheepskin.

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

Additional References

View Article Sources
  1. Golden Fleece.” Greek Mythology, www.greekmythology.com.

  2. Apollonius, Rhodius. The Argonautica. Good Press, 2019.

  3. Amycus.” Jason and the Argonauts, www.argonauts-book.com.

  4. Sirens.” Greek Mythology, www.greekmythology.com.