In Greek mythology, Jason was the leader of a band of adventurers who set out on a long journey to find the Golden Fleece*. Although he succeeded in this quest, he never achieved his true goal—to become king of the land of Iolcus. Jason's story is one of violence and tragedy as well as adventure, partly because of his relationship with the enchantress and witch Medea.
Background to the Quest. Like many Greek heroes, Jason was of royal blood. His father was King Aeson of Iolcus in northwestern Greece. The king's half brother Pelias wanted the throne himself and overthrew Aeson while Jason was still a boy Jason's mother feared for his safety. She sent him away to be guarded by Chiron, a wise centaur who took charge of the boy's education. Chiron taught Jason hunting and warfare, music and medicine. Some accounts say that the centaur also gave Jason his name, which means "healer," in recognition of the boy's skill in the medical arts.
At about the age of 20, Jason headed back to Iolcus, determined to gain the throne that rightfully belonged to him. On the way, he helped an old woman across a flooded stream and lost one of his sandals. Unknown to him, the old woman was the goddess Hera* in disguise. She vowed to destroy Pelias, who had failed to worship her properly, and to help Jason.
An oracle had warned Pelias to beware of a man wearing one sandal. When Jason arrived in Iolcus, the king confronted him. Jason identified himself and declared that he had come for his throne. Prevented by the laws of hospitality from attacking Jason openly, Pelias resorted to trickery. He said that if Jason could bring him the fabled Golden Fleece, he would make him his heir. Pelias believed that obtaining the heavily guarded fleece from the distant land of Colchis was a nearly impossible task.
centaur half-human, half-animal creature with the body of a horse and the head, chest, and arms of a human
oracle priest or priestess or other creature through whom a god is believed to speak; also the location (such as a shrine) where such words are spoken
The Quest. Jason assembled a band of brave adventurers—including the sons of kings and gods and some other former students of Chiron—to accompany him in his quest. They sailed in a magic ship called the Argo and were known as the Argonauts. Among them were the famous musician Orpheus* and the demigod hero Hercules*.
The Argonauts' eventful journey to Colchis, their seizure of the Golden Fleece, and their long voyage home became the subject of many tales and works of art. They might never have succeeded without the help of Medea, the daughter of King Aeëtes of Colchis, who fell in love with Jason. Some versions of the story say that Hera persuaded Aphrodite, the goddess of love, to inspire Medea's passion. Both a clever woman and a witch with knowledge of magic, Medea would be a useful helpmate to Jason.
demigod one who is part human and part god
When Jason arrived in Colchis, Aeëtes set harsh conditions for handing over the Golden Fleece, including the accomplishment of several seemingly impossible tasks. Jason had to yoke two fire-breathing bulls to a plow, sow a field with dragons' teeth, and then fight the armed warriors that grew from those teeth. In all these trials, Medea used her magic powers to protect and guide
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
Jason. Then after Jason promised to marry her, she helped him steal the fleece from the serpent that guarded it.
With the fleece on board, the Argo sailed away from Colchis, pursued by Medea's brother Apsyrtus. Apsyrtus caught up with the ship and spoke with Jason, promising to let him keep the Golden Fleece if he would give up Medea. However, Medea objected to this plan. When she and Jason next met Apsyrtus, Jason killed him.
Return to Iolcus. After a long journey home with many adventures along the way, Jason and the Argonauts finally arrived back in Iolcus. Jason delivered the Golden Fleece to Pelias. Meanwhile, Medea decided to get rid of Pelias (accounts differ on whether Jason knew of her plan). She persuaded the king's daughters that she could make their father young again, but first they would have to cut him up and put him in a pot. This procedure led only to a messy death, and the horrified people of Iolcus drove Jason and Medea away. The couple settled in Corinth, where they lived for ten years and had several children.
Their peaceful interlude ended when Creon, the king of Corinth, offered Jason his daughter in marriage. Jason accepted and divorced Medea. Enraged at this shabby treatment, Medea sent the new bride a poisoned wedding gown, which killed her when she put it on and killed Creon as he tried to save her. Some versions of this myth say that, to punish Jason still further, Medea went on to kill the children she had borne him, while other accounts say that the angry Corinthians killed them. Either way, the children perished and Medea fled to Athens.
According to some accounts, Medea killed Jason at Corinth as part of her bloodbath. Much more common, though, is the story that Jason lived out his last days at Corinth, alone and broken by tragedy. One day as he sat near the Argo , which was rotting away, a piece of wood broke off from the ship and fell on him, killing the one-time hero of the Golden Fleece.