The final destruction of the Library of Alexandria, Egypt, in 638 CE erased numerous epic poems from the historical record but the Argonautika by Apollonius Rhodius survived. Apollonius flourished circa 250 BCE, which was when he composed the four-volume epic, Argonautika, chronicling the Quest for the Golden Fleece by Jason and the Argonauts.
A Greek born in Alexandria, Egypt, Apollonius gained recognition by the Museum and Library of Alexandria for his literary work. Quoted and praised by his contemporaries, Apollonius succeeded Eratosthenes to the prestigious post of director of the Library of Alexandria.
There were two ancient accounts of the life of Apollonius but they did not agree on many purported facts. It seems certain that after the completion of the Argonautika, Apollonius and a senior scholar named Kallimachus entered into a long and bitter dispute, presumably over literary style. Apollonius left Alexandria and moved to the island of Rhodes, where he became known as Apollonius Rhodius, i.e. Apollonius of Rhodes.
The Argonautika is usually considered to be an epic adventure poem but it might be more properly called an epic love poem because the Quest for the Golden Fleece revolves around the divinely inspired love between Jason and Princess Medeia. Apollonius began Book Three with an invitation to the Muse of love poems, "Come now, Erato, stand by my side, and say next how Jason brought back the fleece to Iolkos aided by the love of Medeia."
A generation before Jason and the Argonauts, a flying ram with a golden fleece was created to help a brother and sister, Phrixus and Helle, escape the machinations of their stepmother, Ino. The ram owed its existence to Hermes, herald of the Immortals, and Nephele, the immortal mother of Phrixus and Helle. Fleeing Orchomenos, Greece, Phrixus and Helle mounted the magical ram and flew towards the distant land of Kolchis at the eastern edge of the Black Sea. Phrixus survived the journey but Helle fell from the ram and died before reaching Kolchis.
Simultaneously, in Iolkos, Greece, two stepbrothers, Pelias and Aeson, were vying for kingship. Pelias finally seized the throne under questionable circumstances and warned Aeson that interference would not be tolerated. Taking the threat seriously, Aeson secretly gave his infant son Jason to the Centaur Cheiron for protection and an education. Pelias, Aeson, nor Jason realized that the flight of the golden ram would have such a tremendous effect on their lives.
Surviving the arduous flight from Orchomenos to Kolchis, the flying ram asked to be sacrificially killed ... Phrixus complied. He sacrificed the ram to Zeus, god of fugitives, and placed the ram's golden fleece in the Grove of Ares, where it was thereafter guarded by an ever-vigilant dragon.
King Aietes of Kolchis did not miss the significance of the flying ram and the good fortune it might bring to his kingdom. He welcomed Phrixus into his household and arranged for the intrepid young man to marry his daughter Chalkiope without payment of the customary dowry.
The Argonautika begins with Jason, now a young man, returning to Iolkos to claim his right to be king. For various reasons, the goddess Hera loved Jason and despised Pelias. Having been warned by an oracle, Pelias recognized Jason and plotted to have him killed by sending him on an impossible quest ... thus the foundation for the Quest for the Golden Fleece was established.
Jason was not foolhardy enough to attempt such a feat alone ... he gathered the bravest and most adventuresome men in Greece to aid him in his quest. The members of Jason's crew were collectively known as the Argonauts. They took their name from the ship Argo, which was built expressly for their voyage. The ship was designed by a man named Argos, and the construction of the ship was overseen by the goddess of wisdom and craft, Athene.
The most famous Argonaut was Herakles, son of Zeus, but the sons of other Immortals also joined the Argonauts ... sons of Poseidon, lord of the Sea, Boreas [North Wind], Hermes, herald of the Immortals, and Helios [Sun] were vital members of the crew.
With the blessing of the god Apollon, Jason and the Argonauts launched the Argo amid celebrations and solemn rites. Apollon was an active protector of the Argonauts ... he gave Jason three tripods from the temple at Delphi to help guarantee a safe homecoming. A son of Apollon named Idmon was one of the Argonauts ... before the Argo sailed Idmon made two important prophecies: 1) Jason would be successful in retrieving the golden fleece and, 2) he [Idmon] would die before the quest was completed.
The Argonauts made their first landfall on the island of Lemnos, populated only by women. The Argonauts soon learned that, acting under a curse enacted by the goddess Aphrodite, the women of Lemnos had murdered all the men. The Argonauts were delighted that the women were eager to have male companions again.
The Argonauts arrived one year after the women staged their murderous revolt. Queen Hypsipyle fell in love with Jason and offered him the throne of Lemnos ... he refused the throne but stayed long enough to father twin sons by Hypsipyle. Hypsipyle gave Jason a crimson robe made by the Graces that had been passed down from the god of wine, Dionysos, to Hypsipyle's father King Thoas and then to Hypsipyle.
The land of Kolchis, where the golden fleeces was kept, was on the eastern edge of the Pontos [Black Sea] ... the Argonauts sailed north through the Aegean Sea to the Hellespont and onwards to the Propontis [Sea of Marmara] and survived attacks by several tribes of hostile natives. They encountered the pitiful blind seer Phineus, who was being punished by Zeus and Helios [Sun] by having his food eaten and defiled by the two flying women known as the Harpies. The winged sons of Boreas, Kalais and Zetes, took pity on Phineus and chased away the Harpies, freeing Phineus from his curse. Phineus rewarded the Argonauts by giving them instructions as to how to get to Kolchis and then safely return to their homeland.
Two floating islands colloquially known as the Clashing Rocks guarded the narrow passage separating the Propontis from the Pontos. Called "the twin Kyanean Rocks where the two seas meet," the gigantic rocks would clash together whenever any living thing tried to pass between them. Phineus advised the Argonauts to send a dove through the Clashing Rocks before they attempted the passage with the Argo. He said that if the dove survived, it would be safe for them to proceed.
Approaching the Clashing Rocks, the Argonauts released a dove as Phineus suggested. True to their nature, the gigantic rocks slammed together when the dove flew between them. The dove survived with only the loss of its tail feathers. Encouraged by the bird's safe passage, the Argo sailed boldly into the breach ... the goddess Athene held back one of the rocks with one hand and pushed the Argo through with the other. The Clashing Rocks became stationary islands and never menaced sailors again.
Sailing east into the Black Sea, the Argonauts came to the desert island Thynias at twilight. The Argonauts watched in amazement as the god Apollon drove his chariot over their heads as he made his way from Lykia, north to the land of the Hyperboreans. The Argonauts clearly saw Apollon's golden hair as well as his bow and quiver. As he passed, the island quaked and the waves surged. The Argonaut Orpheus suggested that they call the island the Sacred Isle of Apollon of the Dawn ... all agreed. An alter was built and Apollon, pleased with the adoration, provided suitable animals for the sacrifice and feast. The Argonauts danced and sang in honor of Apollon, Lord of Dawn.
Their high spirits were dampened when the Argonauts reached the land of the Mysians. Hylas, Herakles's squire, went ashore to search for water and was abducted by a Water Nymph as he knelt by her spring. Herakles and Polyphemos refused to leave the island without Hylas so the Argo sailed without them. The fortunes of the Argonauts got worse when they suffered their first casualties. Idmon, the seer son of Apollon, was the first to die ... he died from wounds inflicted by a monstrous, white-tusked boar. Next, the helmsman Tiphys died of a fast-acting illness. When the Argo approached the Island of Ares, Oileus was wounded in the shoulder when he was struck by an arrow-like feather from one of the war birds guarding the island. The Argonauts landed on the Island of Ares and were surprised to find four young men who had been stranded on the island after a storm had torn their ship to pieces.
The young men on the island were the four sons of Phrixus and Princess Chalkiope ... Phrixus had originally ridden the ram with the golden fleece to Kolchis and sacrificed it in the Grove of Ares ... Phrixus's sons had been on their way Orchomenos to seek retribution for their grandfather's ill treatment of their father. Jason persuaded them to join the Argonauts.
Arriving at Kolchis, Jason was unsure as to how he should approach King Aietes but the goddesses Hera and Athene were determined to protect Jason and assure his success. The goddesses asked Aphrodite, goddess of love, to persuade Eros, the primal god of love, to shoot Aietes's daughter, Princess Medeia, with an arrow that would induce irresistible love for Jason. Aphrodite willingly agreed and Eros invisibly went to Kolchis. With Medeia's compliance assured, Hera put a mist around Jason so he could enter Aietes's palace without being seen.
Jason walked invisibly from the Argo to the palace. He was standing directly in front of Aietes's throne when Hera lifted the mist that concealed Jason ... he seemed to appear out of nowhere. Aietes was surprised but retained his composure. As a son of the god Helios, Aietes correctly surmised that there was some sort of divine influence involved and that the golden fleece was in jeopardy. Jason unashamedly announced that he wanted the golden fleece. The king decided that it would not be wise to blatantly refuse Jason's request so he cunningly challenged Jason to demonstrate his strength and prove his worthiness. Only then would the king surrender the golden fleece.
Aietes proposed that Jason harness two bronze-footed bulls, plow a field and plant dragon's teeth. The king would supply the dragon's teeth if Jason survived the encounter with the bulls. From the plowed and seeded ground an army of Earth-Born warriors would sprout and try to kill Jason. Aietes had no doubt that Jason would die at some stage of the contest.
King Aietes's well-crafted plan did not include his daughter's love-charmed attraction to Jason. As a priestess of the Roaring Goddess Hekate and the niece of the Dread Goddess Kirke [Circe], Princess Medeia had an intimate knowledge of drugs and spells. She met with Jason without her father's knowledge and gave him a potion made from the flowers that grew from the blood of the Rebel God Prometheus. Following Medeia's instructions, Jason made a sacrifice to Hekate and bathed himself and his weapons in the magic potion.
The following day, Jason went into the field to face the bronze-footed bulls and plant the dragon's teeth. To plow the field, Jason had to harness the bulls with bronze yokes and then use a one-piece plow made of "unbending adamant." The fire-breathing bulls charged at Jason as soon as he entered the field but his potion-coated shield protected him from the flames. He knocked the bulls to their knees and, with the help of two other Argonauts, placed the yokes around the bull's necks and attached the plow. Jason placed the dragon's teeth in the newly plowed farrows and watched as the Earth-Born warriors emerged from the ground. Instead of fighting, Jason tossed a stone in front of the Earth-Born warriors ... the mindless brutes began to fight amongst themselves for possession of the worthless stone. Their numbers depleted, Jason quickly disposed of the remaining warriors. Aietes was furious.
Medeia, still in the thralls of love, led the Argonauts to the Grove of Ares where the golden fleece was kept. The fleece was protected by an ever-vigilant dragon but Medeia cast a spell on the dragon with a hypnotic song and undiluted potions. As the dragon swooned, Jason took the fleece ... he, Medeia and the Argonauts fled Kolchis with the king's troops at their heels.
Aietes insisted that he would have honored his promise to Jason and given him the golden fleece but now that Jason had stolen the fleece and his daughter, the king felt fully justified in sending his navy to forcefully bring them back.
Hoping to elude their pursuers, the Argonauts took the long and difficult route up the Ister River [the Danube] and across southern Europe. Aietes's son, Apsyrtos, led the Kolchian fleet. When the Argonauts were finally cornered, and fearful of a direct confrontation with Apsyrtos and his overwhelming number of ships, Jason and Medeia devised a treacherous plan whereby they would meet with Apsyrtos and kill him. Medeia pretended to surrender herself to Apsyrtos while Jason waited in ambush. As Medeia was talking to Apsyrtos, Jason attacked and killed him. Without a leader, the Kolchian pursuers lost their momentum and the Argonauts escaped.
The despicable actions of Jason and Medeia were seen on Mount Olympos. Zeus was furious about the murder of Apsyrtos and intended to punish Jason for such cowardly behavior. To protect Jason and the Argonauts, Hera gave voice to the keel of the Argo and urged the Argonauts to go to the goddess Kirke and beg her for atonement.
The Argonauts had no choice but to go to Kirke's island. Kirke recognized Medeia as soon as she saw her because Kirke and Medeia were both descended from Helios and had the luminance of the sun in their eyes. Kirke performed purification rituals but said she could not shield Jason and Medeia from the wrath of Zeus ... the murder of Apsyrtos was a very serious crime and beyond the powers of Kirke to absolve.
Unable to depend on Kirke's assistance, the goddess Hera called upon other Immortals for help. Hera implored Thetis to gather her sisters, the Nereids, to swim beside the Argo when it sailed between the forbidding Planktae, also known as the Wandering Rocks or the Rovers ... she asked her son Hephaistos to quite his forge so the earth's fires would not erupt ... she asked Aeolus, lord of the winds, to give the Argo a favorable breeze. One by one—the Planktae, the six-headed Skylla, the whirlpool Charybdis, and the clear-voiced Sirens—all obstacles were successfully negotiated by the Argonauts.
Arriving on Scheria, the island of the Phaiakians, Jason and Medeia thought they had escaped King Aietes's pursuers ... they had not. Kolchian ships arrived and demanded that Medeia be surrendered to them. King Alkinoos and Queen Arete of the Phaiakians wanted to give sanctuary to the fugitives but moral law dictated that an unmarried woman had to obey her father. Queen Arete provided an equitable solution ... Jason married Medeia. The Kolchians were forced to withdraw ... King Aietes no longer had authority over his daughter.
Resuming the voyage, the Argo was caught in a tempest and blown to the shores of Libya in northern Africa. A storm surge pushed the Argo deep into a temporary inlet and then withdrew, leaving the ship and crew stranded in the desert. With great difficulty, the Argonauts carried the Argo across the desert in a failed attempt to find the sea. Two Argonauts, Mopsos and Kanthos, died in the desert. During a moment that might have been a divine hallucination, the Argonauts saw the goddesses known as the Hesperides. When the Argonauts reached Lake Trito, the god Triton arose from the waters to greet them. Jason presented Triton with one of the tripods Apollon had given him at the beginning of the quest. Pacified, Triton gave the Argonaut Euphemos a clod of dirt that he would later throw into the sea and create the island of Kalliste. Triton then escorted the Argonauts to the Mediterranean Sea.
The island of Crete became another obstacle for the Argonauts. Their ship was unable to make a safe landing because the gigantic bronze man, Talos, guarded the shore. Medeia used her knowledge of the occult to save the Argo from certain destruction. She invoked Death-Spirits to befuddle Talos and in a fit of confusion, the bronze giant stumbled on the rocky shore and tore the thin membrane at his heel, allowing the fluid of life to drain from his otherwise impervious body.
Sailing north from Crete the Argonauts encountered a very dense fog ... not an ordinary fog that sailors normally encounter, but one of supernatural density. When they felt that all was lost, the god Apollon emitted a light that penetrated the fog and guided the ship to an otherwise unseen island ... the Argonauts named the island Anaphe because it "loomed up" out of the darkness.
The Argonauts sailed from Anaphe to their homes in Thessaly thus ending the Quest for the Golden Fleece and the voyage of the Argo according to Apollonius Rhodius. The continuation of the story was told by poets such as Euripides, historians such as Diodorus Siculus and in various pieces of artwork dating back to the fifth century BCE.