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The Argonauts

Jason's Angels

Dateline: 09/21/99

Is there someone you work with whom everyone else thinks is great? Someone like Jason (as in The Argonauts) who you know deep inside is a rat? Well, it's hard to be so sure when that everyone includes your all-time favorite, Hercules, the Olympian gods, the ancient Greeks, and last, but not least, Nick the restaurateur Pontikis.

Now Jason makes a good story -- replete with normal heroic trappings: a kindly centaur Cheiron to tutor him; loving parents who only pretend to kill him at birth as the king has ordered (like Oedipus and Moses); a long, colorful journey; a few pretty women; and a throne to fight for. However, he lacks desirable character traits. Leadership is about the only skill he's well versed in. (All right, there's also pious respect for the goddesses, but that doesn't do much for us twentieth century mortals.)

Not even Nick can vouch for Jason's common sense:

"Plan? I haven't a clue!" replied Jason, perhaps the last thing we wanted to hear. "But I say we march right in and demand the Fleece!"
Biker Gang
(aka The Argonauts )
Version #1
Who's Who
That's Jason's motto, his plan for life. Instead of getting up each morning and asking God's help, or for the serenity to know his limits, Jason repeatedly says "I'll march right in and demand it." Lucky for him, he has charisma. With it he charms men and women, divine and mortal. Not even his enemies can nay-say him directly and so, with his coterie of supporters -- including his Argonauts (think of them as a primitive biker gang) who accomplish all the marvelous feats at the pit stops along the voyage -- he can do almost anything.

Still, it's not too smart to say to the reigning king, "I demand the throne because it's rightfully mine1."

I have come to my home to recover the ancient honor of my father, now held improperly, which once Zeus granted to Aeolus, the leader of the people, and to his sons.
Pindar Fourth Pythian
Had he left off the bit about his legal right, Pelias might have laughed off the drenched, funny-looking, one-sandalled man.
... an awesome man armed with two spears. He wore two different types of clothing: [80] his native Magnesian dress fitted to his marvellous limbs, and a leopard-skin wrapped around him protected him from shivering showers. His splendid locks of hair had not been cut away, but flowed shining down his back.
Pindar Fourth Pythian
As it is, Pelias can't refuse Jason, but won't accede directly to his demand.
And Pelias answered softly: "I will be such a man as you ask. But....
Pindar Fourth Pythian
Instead, Pelias sends him off on a quest that would have killed a lesser man -- or one with fewer friends.
But already old age attends me, while the flower of your youth is now swelling. You have it in your power to remove the anger of the gods below. For Phrixus asks us to bring his soul home, [160] going to the halls of Aeetes, and to recover the deep-fleeced hide of the ram, on which he was once saved from the sea [str. 8] and from the impious weapons of his stepmother.
Pindar Fourth Pythian

Later Jason demands the golden fleece of Aeetes, Medea's father. Aeetes is loathe to part with the golden fleece because the luck of his kingdom is bound up in it. Instead of being rude or hurting his guest, Aeetes agrees to give Jason the fleece ... on condition that he perform certain tasks2.

"Let your king, [230] whoever commands the ship, complete this work for me; then let him carry off the immortal coverlet, the fleece gleaming with its golden fringe."
Pindar Fourth Pythian
Without hesitation, Jason agrees.
Biker Gang
(aka The Argonauts )
Version #2
Who's Who
Meanwhile, Athena and Hera conspire with the help of Aphrodite and company, to make Medea, the grand-daughter of the Sun god Helios, fall in love with Jason. Although the niece of Circe and a capable witch herself, Medea can not withstand the love arrow. Beside herself with passion, she provides ointment, potions and the information Jason needs to face the tasks.

From this point on the story becomes Medea's. Medea tells Jason to throw rocks at the sprouted dragon teeth combatants so they will turn against each other. Medea and Orpheus (an Argonaut and world-class musician) together lull the fleece-watching dragon to sleep, so Jason can steal its golden prize. Then Medea and the Argonauts flee, with father Aeetes in hot pursuit. Ahead of Aeetes, Medea's brother Apsyrtus rushes to try to stop his sister. His grizzly murder (by either Jason or Medea) creates the necessary diversion, since Aeetes must stop to pick up the body parts scattered over the sea.

Back at Iolcus, Peleus isn't anxious to hand over his throne, so Medea decides to kill him. She uses magic to persuade Peleus' daughters that their father can be rejuvenated by being boiled in a cauldron.

Medea and Jason then flee Iolcus3. They wind up in Corinth where Jason shows his true colors. Having successfully accomplished the tasks set before him only through Medea's help, and having sired her two children, Jason turns around and marries the Corinthian king's daughter without even a by your leave or a divorce settlement. Medea, who has sacrificed her homeland, perhaps even killed her brother, and inflicted unforgivable pain on her father, can't go home again. That she has done this for Jason's sake makes no difference to our hero.

Then why if he's so despicable is Jason a hero?

We'll look into how the Greeks judged heroism more next week, but for now, the answer is that the ancients didn't look for the same qualities in a hero that we have come to expect. The modern mythographer Joseph Campbell calls Jason a hero because of his safe return from encounters with the supernatural.

Jason sailed through the Clashing Rocks into a sea of marvels, cirvumvented the dragon that guarded the Golden Fleece, and returned with the fleece and the power to rest his rightful throne from a usurper.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces

G.S. Kirk, who wouldn't call Jason despicable, but only perhaps boring, says he is an "older" hero, from a time before the "younger" heroes, Oedipus, Agamemnon, Orestes, Odysseus, and Orpheus. [Note: Agamemnon bullied Achilles and killed his own daughter, Orestes killed his mother, and Orpheus didn't have what it takes to rescue his wife. Jason is in good company.]

It is enthralling but bland, even superficial; and that, in the end, may be a fault in varying degrees of most of the heroic myths as they survive in the literary sources.
The Greek Myths

Jason may well have been a rat, and an ingratiating one at that, but with the help of his friends, he'd still have come out ahead at the office. In antiquity he was a hero, well known, loved, and written about. From Homer to Pindar and Euripides, from Apollonius of Rhodes to Ovid, Jason and his adventures inspired ancient writers. Even in modern times, Nathaniel Hawthorne saw fit to remember the exploits in his Tanglewood Tales. In all, Jason is one of the most familiar (hence, alluded to) of the Ancient Greek heroes and his adventures are well worth re-reading.

Book References

Nature of Greek Myths, G.S. Kirk
Myths of the Greeks and Romans, Michael Grant
Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell
Tanglewood Tales, Nathaniel Hawthorne

Jason Basics

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