One of the best-known stories in Greek mythology concerns the hero Jason and his quest for the Golden Fleece. The fleece, which came from a magic ram, hung in a sacred grove of trees in the distant land of Colchis. Jason's adventure, however, was only one part of the story of the Golden Fleece, which began years earlier.
According to legend, King Athamas of Boeotia in Greece had two children by his wife Nephele: a son, Phrixus, and a daughter,
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
Helle. After a time, Athamas grew tired of Nephele and took a new wife, Ino, with whom he had two sons. Jealous of Phrixus and Helle, Ino plotted against them. First, she cunningly had seeds destroyed so that crops would not grow, resulting in a famine. She then arranged to have blame for the famine placed on her stepchildren and convinced Athamas that he must sacrifice Phrixus to Zeus* to restore the kingdom's prosperity.
Fearful for her children's lives, Nephele sought help from the god Hermes*, and he sent a winged ram with a fleece of gold to carry Phrixus and Helle to safety. While flying over the water on the ram, Helle fell off and drowned. But Phrixus reached the land of Colchis and was welcomed by its ruler, King Aeëtes. Phrixus sacrificed the ram to Zeus and gave the Golden Fleece to the king, who placed it in an oak tree in a sacred grove. It was guarded by a dragon that never slept.
The story of the Golden Fleece resumes some time later when Jason and the Argonauts, a band of Greek heroes, set out in search of the fleece aboard a ship called the Argo. Jason undertook this quest in order to gain his rightful place as king of Iolcus in Thessaly. The country had been ruled for a number of years by his uncle Pelias.
After many adventures, Jason and the Argonauts finally reached Colchis. However, King Aeëtes refused to give up the Golden Fleece unless Jason could harness two fire-breathing bulls to a plow, plant dragons' teeth in the ground, and defeat the warriors that sprang up from the teeth. Aeëtes had a daughter, Medea, who was a sorceress. She fell in love with Jason and helped him accomplish these tasks. Medea also helped Jason steal the Golden Fleece by charming the serpent that guarded it and putting the creature to sleep. Jason, Medea, and the Argonauts then set sail for Iolcus with the fleece.