Let’s Talk Mythology #10: Jason and The Golden Fleece

Hello, everyone! We’re back with another (loving) roast of Greek mythology, and this one’s a doozy, so strap in. For our 10th installment we’ll be discussing the myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece, or as I like to call it, “Jason and the Wool of Pain and Suffering.” As per usual, this version of the story comes from d’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, which is my golden standard for Greek mythology. Let’s begin!

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Our story begins with Jason, a man as “strong and well bred as he was handsome,” who was sent to the centaur Chiron for protection after his uncle Pelias usurped the throne of Iolcus. Lest you think it’s strange that the precious heir of Iolcus was sent to learn “manly sports” from a centaur in a cave, rest assured that Chiron was on the speed-dial of all the fanciest Greek kings, as he had earned a name for himself by tutoring A-listers like Achilles, Perseus, and Theseus.

After years of learning how to throw a discus, Jason had decided that it was time to leave his centaur-dad and try to reclaim his throne from Pelias. Naturally, his strength, breeding, and hotness were recognized immediately by Hera, who had a Greek god Google Alert for any mortals with superior ab definition.

Hera, who was paying a visit to earth, saw the handsome youth as he walked down from the mountain […] Hera was taken by his fine looks. She quickly changed into an old crone and stood helplessly at the brink of a swollen stream as she did not dare to cross. Jason offered politely to carry her […] He started to wade and at first she was very light. But with each step she grew heavier […] He lost one of his sandals, but struggled bravely on, and when he reached the other side, the old crone revealed herself as the goddess Hera.

d’Aulaire, p.163

The Gods are so relatable. They don’t even pretend to pick favorites based off moral character; they simply throw themselves at hot young men who demonstrate an inkling of politeness. After reaching the other end of the stream, Hera was so impressed by Jason’s human decency (a quality that is apparently sorely lacking in Ancient Greece) that she pledged to help him win back his throne from Pelias, who she coincidentally hated because he forgot to “include her when he sacrificed to the gods.”

Petty.

When Jason reached Iolcus, he was so smoking hot that “people crowded around him, wondering who the handsome stranger might be.” However, his glorious physique failed to charm his uncle Pelias, as an oracle had predicted “that a youth with only one sandal would be his undoing.” Knowing that a man as hot, young, and naive as Jason could never resist a chance for glory, clever Pelias decided that the best way to get rid of Jason would be to send him off on an impossible quest.

“In the kingdom of Colchis, at the shores of the Black Sea,” said Pelias, “on a branch in a dark grove, there hangs a golden fleece shining as brightly as the sun. Bring the fleece to me and the throne shall be yours.”

d’Aulaire, p. 163

The Golden Fleece was Colchis’ greatest treasure. Zeus had bestowed the fleece to Prince Phrixis as a gift after his father had tried to sacrifice him to the gods (like all great fathers do). Pelias, who had far more knowledge of geo-politics than Jason (politics were not taught in the manly sports curriculum), knew that the Golden Fleece was guarded by a “warlike king” and a “never-sleeping dragon,” and that his quest was a certain death sentence for the handsome hero. But Jason had Hera on his side, so he asked for shipbuilding materials, and quickly built the Argo, which according to this book, was “the most seaworthy ship ever seen.” Anyone else getting some Titanic vibes here?

The Argo even had futuristic technology in the form of a sacred piece of oak from Athena, which would “speak in times of danger and advise Jason what to do.” Such technology makes it seem like neither Hera nor Athena had a lot of faith in Jason’s reasoning abilities, but Jason wouldn’t be the first Greek hero to win renown for feats that he accomplished mostly with the help of others.

As word of the Best Ship Ever spread across Greece, heroes flocked to Iolcus, and soon Jason had a crew of 50 men, including Heracles, his friend Hylas, and that son-of-a-bitch Orpheus.

The Argo ( c. 1500-1530) by Lorenzo Costa

Before they set sail, the heroes who called themselves the Argonauts sacrificed richly to the gods and made sure to forget no one. Poseidon was in a good mood. He called for the West Wind and under full sail the Argo sped toward the east. When the wind grew tired and died down, the Argonauts put out their oars and rowed with all their might. […] One after the other the heroes grew tired and pulled in their oars. Only Heracles and Jason were left rowing, each trying to outlast the other. Jason finally fainted, but as he slumped forward, Heracles’ huge oar broke in two, so equal glory was won by them both.

d’Aulaire, p.164

Just in case you were wondering what type of brain-power we were dealing with here, we have a ship of 50 rowers who all exhausted themselves in a rowing competition. And we’re only on Day One! Great strategy guys!

Now in need of a new oar, the Argonauts made a pit-stop at a wooded coast so that Heracles could rip down a tree. While Heracles was looking for wood, sweet little Hylas went to a pool in search of water, and was immediately kidnapped by a besotted nymph. Mad with grief, Heracles rampaged around the island in search for Hylas, and rather than wait even one day to see what the fuck happened to their friend, the rest of the Argonauts skrrted back to sea. If there’s one thing lacking in this group of strong, well-bred, and handsome men, it’s an ounce of empathy. Chiron didn’t have time to teach them that!

Since there were no maps in all of Greece, or maybe because handsome Jason had forgotten to bring one on his epic nautical journey, the crew sailed to a country renowned for its wise king, hoping that they could ask him where to find Colchis. Once there, however, they find a problem fit for the Avengers.

The king was so weak that he could barely answer their questions. He was so thin that only his skin held his bones together. Whenever food was set before him, three disgusting Harpies, fat birds with women’s heads, swooped down and devoured it. What they did not eat they left so foul and filthy that it was not fit to be eaten. No one in this kingdom could keep the Harpies away.

d’Aulaires, p. 165

Did anyone ask why the Harpies kept stealing the king’s food? Maybe they were protesting the lack of a social safety net in this island kingdom, or making a statement about the wealth disparity between the king and his starving subjects. Or maybe they were just hungry, because being a Harpy is not a well-paid job! Either way, the brilliant Argonauts knew that talking was out of the question. There was only one way to solve this problem: violence. Zetes and Calaïs, the sons of the North Wind, flew after the Harpies and whipped them “so that they barely escaped with their lives.” After a solid round of high-fives, the Argonauts asked the king to direct them to Colchis, and the famished king obliged.

A medieval depiction of a harpy

He informed them that the passage to the Black Sea was blocked by “two moving rocks…[which] rolled apart and clashed together, crushing whatever came between them.” He gave them a dove, telling them that if the dove could fly through the rocks unharmed, they too, would have a chance.

Now I’m not an expert, but the speed of a dove’s flight does not seem like a comparable marker to that of a long, heavy ship. The Argonauts, however, were all experts in the matter, and after seeing the dove pass through unharmed, they, too, were able to row fast enough to pass through the rocks.

The spell was broken, and from then on ships could safely sail in and out of the Black Sea. The Black Sea was a dangerous sea to sail upon, and Hera had her hands full, guiding the Argonauts through perils. But with her help Jason brought his ship safely through raging storms, past pirate shores, and cannibal island, and the Argonauts finally arrived in Colchis.

d’Aulaire, p.166

Another perfect example of a Greek hero getting credit for a god doing all of the work. Remind me again why Jason is heroic when all he does is steer a ship while Hera uses her powers to control the weather, distract pirates, and keep them safe from cannibals?

Colchis was ruled by famous asshole Aeëtes, who came from a family of color characters, including his father, the sun god Helios, his sister, the sorceress Circe, and his other sister, Pasiphaë, the queen of Crete and mother of the Minotaur. Like many Greek kings, Aeëtes was cruel, anti-social, and paranoid, and so he prevented political destabilization by murdering any foreigner who dared land in Colchis. When Jason and his crew of brawny bois arrived in Colchis in hopes of earning the Golden Fleece, Aeëtes feigned interest in their proposal, while inwardly he seethed at the failure of his anti-immigration policy.

“Very well,” he said to Jason. “Tomorrow, between sunrise and sunset, you must harness my fire-breathing bulls, plow up a field, and sow it with dragon’s teeth as Cadmus did at Thebes. If you succeed, the Golden Fleece is yours. But if you fail, I shall cut out the tongues and lop off the hands of you and all your great heroes.”

King Aeëtes knew well that no man could withstand the searing heat the blew from his bulls’ nostrils. What he did not know was that Hera was helping Jason.

d’Aulaire, p.168

Alright, gang, let’s see how Jason figures his way out of this one. How do you predict he will precede?

A) By relying on his own wit.

B) By pooling the resources and intelligence of his men.

C) By letting a besotted woman do all the work for him.

If you guessed C, then you know how this is gonna go down.

Knowing that Medea, Aeëtes’ daughter, was the only one smart enough to help Jason, Hera convinced Eros to shoot an arrow at Medea and make her fall in love with Jason. Putting aside how completely fucked up it is that Hera uses poor Medea as a pawn in her proxy war against Pelias, what’s even worse is that she forces Medea to fall in love with Jason, therefore making her betray her psychopathic father (which the gods claim to hate, by the way), and putting her in huge danger. Not that any of that matters to Hera, because all she cares about is getting her boy-toy his throne. And Jason is too bone-headed to realize that he’s a puppet in a game of gods, just like all the other Greek heroes before him.

Medea, who just happened to be an apprentice of the witch-goddess Hecate, concocted a magic salve for Jason that would protect him from the magic bulls, and gave it to Jason in the dead of night. Thankful for her help, Jason “swore by all the gods of Olympus to make her his queen and love her to his dying day.” Where have we heard that one before?

File:Jason and Medea - John William Waterhouse.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Jason and Medea (1907) by John William Waterhouse

With Medea’s magic salve, Jason was able to withstand the bulls’ searing heat and harness them to the plow. He plowed the field with dragon’s teeth and when a host of warriors popped up, he threw a rock among them just as Cadmus had done in Thebes until they had all killed each other. Standard stuff, really. So in sum, Jason’s heroic feat was plowing a field.

Angry that Jason was able to so easily complete his quest, Aeëtes commanded his men to attack the Argo during the night and kill the Argonauts. But love-struck Medea heard his plan, and took Jason to the grove where the Golden Fleece was kept, bewitched the dragon, and gave the Fleece to Jason. It’s really starting to seem like the Greeks defined heroism as “taking credit for your girlfriend’s work.”

Understandably, Aeëtes was furious to find his Golden Fleece and his property daughter missing the next morning, and he and his sons sailed off in pursuit. Soon they had reached the Argo. How do we think Jason will solve this problem, folks?

The Argonauts thought themselves lost, but again Medea saved them. She called to her brother, who stood at the helm of the ship, and pretended to be sorry for what she had done. She said she would go home with him if we would meet her alone on a nearby island. At the same time, she whispered to Jason to lie in wait and kill her brother when he came. She knew that her father would have to stop the pursuit to give his son a funeral.

d’Aulaire, p. 170

Once again, Medea saves their asses from destruction. Who do you think will get the blame for this act? Medea, who was enchanted to fall in love with Jason and do anything to help him, or Jason who consented to murder her brother, did the actual murdering, and is doing all of this shit in the first place to get a stupid piece of wool?

Hera and all the gods looked in horror at Medea, stained with her brother’s blood. No mortal could commit a worse crime than to cause the death of his own kin. Zeus in anger threw thunderbolts. Lightning flashed, thunder roared, and the sea foamed. Then, the sacred piece of oak spoke. “Woe to you all. Not a one among you will reach Greece unless the great sorceress Circe consents to purify Medea and Jason of their sin.”

d’Aulaire, p. 170

WHAT DID THEY THINK WOULD HAPPEN? Hera enchanted Medea so that she would help Jason steal something from an infamously violent and angry king, and then when Medea tries to defend herself and Jason from that king (who was definitely going to murder all of them, including his daughter if he caught them), they’re the ones who have committed a sin? The gods create an enormous mess, then blame the mortals (women) who try to untangle themselves. It’s the definition of a “fuck around and find out” situation, except the mortals are getting fucked and then also finding out, while the gods just frown and wag their fingers. Also, Medea didn’t murder anyone, Jason did, and yet it really feels like Medea is getting the brunt of the blame here.

This is why I feel the need to talk about Greek myths. The misogyny and double-standards are so appalling, and I’m so sick of characters like Jason being revered as heroes, while characters like Medea are villainized simply for trying to make the best of a terrible situation that they didn’t want to be in in the first place.

Medea | Art UK
Medea by Evelyn de Morgan

The Argonauts and Medea sailed to Circe’s island, where after some prodding, she made a sacrifice to Zeus so that he would forgive Medea and Jason for their sins. I guess these “unforgivable” sins weren’t so unforgivable after all; all they needed to do was burn some meat. After their purification pit stop, they sailed back through waters infested with sirens and various other monsters, and again, no heroism was had, because Hera swooped in to save them.

At last they landed back in Iolcus, where a fisherman warned Jason that Pelias still meant to kill him. While Jason pondered this strange new development, Medea took matters into her own hands by tricking King Pelias’ daughters into boiling the king to death in a magic “youth bringing” soup. She clearly learned some creative manners of murder from her father, but again, can you blame her? She’s enchanted! Once again, Medea does dirty work that benefits Jason, and he gets to keep his hands clean and reap the rewards. Where would he be without Medea and Hera’s constant aid? Dead in a ditch, that’s where.

Now the throne of Iolcus was Jason’s, but again Medea had committed a terrible crime. She had tricked innocent daughters into killing their own father. The gods turned from her and she changed from a young sorceress into an evil witch. The people of Iolcus refused to accept her for their queen and took another king in Jason’s stead. With the loss of his throne, Jason also lost his love for Medea.

d’Aulaire, p. 174

Jason’s the villain in this story, right? So it’s all Medea’s fault that her brother was murdered, even though Jason was the one who murdered him. And it’s all Medea’s fault that Pelias’ daughters boiled him to death, even though it was Pelias who got in the cauldron hoping to be made young, and his daughters who boiled the water? They get immunity from accountability because they were tricked, but Medea’s love enchantment doesn’t protect her from accountability? This story is bending over backwards to blame Medea for everything and to excuse Jason from the slightest ounce of responsibility. She wouldn’t have done any of this nonsense if Jason hadn’t shown up in Colchis in the first place to bag his stupid yellow sheep fur! And of course, it’s totally understandable that Jason reneged on his vow to Medea because she’s not pretty anymore and because he can’t mooch off of her any longer. SO HEROIC!

Jason asked her to leave so he could marry the Princess of Corinth and inherit her father’s kingdom. Medea, scorned and furious, turned more and more to evil sorcery. To revenge herself on Jason, she sent a magic robe to his new bride. It was a beautiful gown, but the moment she put it on, she went up in flames, and so did the whole palace. Then Medea disappeared into a dark cloud, riding in a carriage drawn by two dragons.

d’Aulaire, p. 174
Cant Believe It Series 2 GIF by BBC Three

Jason asking Medea to leave so that he can marry the Princess of Corinth is only slightly less petty than when Billy Bob Thornton got married to Angelina Jolie while he was engaged to Laura Dern. While I feel sorry for the poor Princess of Corinth, Jason got what was coming to him. Rarely do you see a Greek hero get the ending they truly deserve.

Jason found no more happiness, for when he broke his sacred oath to Medea, he lost Hera’s good will. His good looks left him and so did his luck and his friends. Lonseome and forgotten, he sat one day in shade of his once glorious ship, the Argo, now rotting on the beach of Corinth. Suddenly, the sacred piece of oak in the prow broke off, fell on him, and killed him.

The Golden Fleece was hung in Apollo’s temple in Delphi, a wonder for all Greeks to behold, and a reminder of the great deeds of Jason and the Argonauts.

d’Aulaire, p. 176

The Greeks love their dramatic irony! What great deeds were those again? The time when Hera saved him from certain doom? Or that time when Medea saved him from certain doom? At least heroes like Theseus and Perseus actually slayed monsters. Jason’s only accomplishments in this story were plowing a field and betraying a woman.

At least this story ends with a terrible man getting his comeuppance and a scorned sorceress riding away in style. Let’s consider it a happy ending.

Strong Woman Respect GIF by Britannia on EPIX

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