A company of wolves: Jason and the Argo crew

The life of heroes of the classical world, like Achilles and Odysseus, was a lot different to that we imagine. The Mycenean clans in archaic Greece were not warlike, despite what Homer has to say: they were raiders, in values and lifestyle very similar to the Vikings. They fought most ferociously against unarmed victims, many of them terrified women and children. They looted, and burnt what they could not carry away. If they meet armed opposition they engaged in ritual attacks and retreats designed to preserve honour, and cast insults more readily than arrows. It took a major leader on either side, one from a great house and descended from the gods, and whom the soldiers had a superstitious fear of offending, before they would engage in open warfare. Their tales of these battles grew in the telling.

Here’s how Homer presented the battle between Greeks and Trojans (the Iliad, in the translation by Ian Johnston, Book IV, ll.519-548).

When the two armies came to one common ground, 
they smashed into each other—shields, spears, fierce angry men 520
encased in bronze. Studded shields bashed one another. 
A huge din arose—human cries of grief and triumph,  
those killing and those killed. Earth flowed with blood. 
Just as streams swollen with melting snows pour out, 
flow downhill into a pool, and meet some torrent
from a great spring in a hollow gully there,
and the shepherd in the distant hills hears the roar—
so the shouts and turmoil resounded then from warriors,
as they collided. 

 Antilochus was the first to kill a man—
a well-armed Trojan warrior, Echepolus, 530
son of Thalysius, a courageous man, 
who fought in the front ranks. He hit his helmet crest, 
topped with horsehair plumes, spearing his forehead.  
The bronze point smashed straight through the frontal bone.
Darkness hid his eyes and he collapsed, like a tower, 
falling down into that frenzied battle. As he fell, 
powerful Elephenor, son of Chalcodon, 
courageous leader of the Abantes, seized his feet, 
and started pulling him beyond the range of weapons,
eager to strip him of his armour quickly. 540
But Elephenor’s attempt did not go on for long. 
Great-hearted Agenor saw him drag the dead man. 
He stabbed Elephenor with his bronze spear, 
right in his exposed side, where his shield left him 
vulnerable as he bent down. His limbs gave way, 
as his spirit left him. Over his dead body,  
Trojans and Achaeans kept fighting grimly on, 
attacking like wolves, man whirling against man.

This ‘heroic’ account (actually a squabble about plunder) is from a description of what was in reality just a raid by a flotilla of pirates on a wealthy town in Turkey which may have been already weakened by earthquake and famine. The Myceneans were after spoil, and raided Troy as they raided the depleted empire of the Minoans on Crete, and made forays against the Egyptians. But the heroic tradition had made demi-gods of the clans’ ancestors, and they are presented by Homer as giants of valour, protected on the field of battle by divinities from Olympos. The descendants of these heroes were paying to hear praise about their ancestors, and that’s what they got.

The story of Jason, his search for the Golden Fleece and his attempt to carve out a kingdom for himself in Thessaly before he fell foul of the witch Medea, comes from the same period as the tale of Troy, and seems to have been known to Homer. No trace of a comparable epic of Homer’s time, however, has survived. Had it done so, Jason’s voyage would be treated the same way as Homer treats the raids of Agamemnon. Agamemnon made several raids across the north coast of the Aegean Sea on the town of Troy. Jason made a series of raids on settlements around the south coast of the Black Sea. Both men’s exploits would have been similarly ennobled for the honour of their descendants.

We do have a poetic treatment of the story of Jason, by Apollonius, an Egyptian who lived for a time at Rhodes, who is thought to have been Librarian at Alexandria in the second century BC, over 500 years later than the time of Homer. Apollonius’ epic is sentimental, learned, and a bit stodgy, especially when compared to Homer, who seems much more authentic in depicting battle scenes. Apollonius seems to know Homer’s poems quite well, and strives to imitate him. Here is an excerpt from Book II of the Argonautica, the Voyage of the Argo, in the translation by R C Seaton of 1912.

…they donned their armour and raised their hands against them. And with clashing of ashen spears and shields they fell on each other, like the swift rush of fire which falls on dry brushwood and rears its crest; and the din of battle, terrible and furious, fell upon the people of the Doliones. Nor was the king to escape his fate and return home from battle to his bridal chamber and bed. But Aeson’s son leapt upon him as he turned to face him, and smote him in the middle of the breast, and the bone was shattered round the spear; he rolled forward in the sand and filled up the measure of his fate. For that no mortal may escape; but on every side a wide snare encompasses us. And so, when he thought that he had escaped bitter death from the chiefs, fate entangled him that very night in her toils while battling with them; and many champions withal were slain; Heracles killed Telecles and Megabrontes, and Acastus slew Sphodris; and Peleus slew Zelus and Gephyrus swift in war. Telamon of the strong spear slew Basileus. And Idas slew Promeus, and Clytius Hyacinthus, and the two sons of Tyndareus slew Megalossaces and Phlogius. And after them the son of Oeneus slew bold Itomeneus, and Artaceus, leader of men; all of whom the inhabitants still honour with the worship due to heroes. And the rest gave way and fled in terror just as doves fly in terror before swift-winged hawks.

These poetic versions would have born as much relation to the reality they allegedly described as a parade on Remembrance Day does to going into combat under enemy fire. Here is my version of what might have happened on a seafaring raid, as Jason and his men coasted down the Black Sea shores looking for booty and provisions (and bearing in mind I’m not a writer, in any tradition, nor have I experience of seafaring or armed warfare – which puts me in the same category probably as Apollonius). My version has the brutality, sex, violence and wastefulness that war authorises but doesn’t talk about.

The grey dawn muffled the oarstrokes, the mist drawn up from the ocean by the reddening sunrise approaching hid the flash of the water from the oar blades. The heavy slash of waves on shoreside rocks obscured the low slung galley from any viewer on the shore. The boatswain, Acastus, held the drum with his hand behind the head so that the sound was a muted thump only the oarsmen could hear. At the tiller stood Tiphys, eyes squinting at the low setting stars, and Cepheus stood at his side letting out measures on the weighted line, muttering the depth as he recast. The galley slid past the first few hovels which could be seen on shore, where sheep herders slept near their flocks, and soon came in sight of the bay where houses made from gathered rocks from the shoreline were thatched by branches and huddled around the meeting hut and the square before it. One or two ketches stood drawn up on shore. There was a fitful baying as some homeless curs sensed the arrival of strangers. Jason grinned at his sailors, his lips curled back on his teeth. He signed to the oarsmen, and the last dozen strokes were made to a wolflike baying as they crushed the shoreline pebbles and leapt on to land. A dozen men saw to the mooring, unshipped the sail in a few practised movements, and unbound the lances and battle axes tied fast to the sides beneath the oar posts. The rest, no more than 20 men, ran lithely up the beach to the open square around which the houses were huddled, howling their battle cry. A young girl of 12, carrying a broad bowl with grain for the hens balanced on her hip stepped out of a laneway unawares, still yawning. Idmon, howling, swept his sword at her neck, and her head went spinning behind her while her body, spurting blood from every artery, collapsed at his feet. Bashing down the nearest cottage door, Hippalcimus and Leodocus discovered an old woman trying to light a fire in the hearth and as she began to scream Leodocus thrust his sword through her open mouth and silenced her for ever. Throughout the village the raiders ran, slashing at the women who were preparing the houses for the daily routine, breaking into the backroom where most people were still sleeping, cutting down as many as they could, dragging the young people aside from the slaughter. Phalerus had cut away a young girl’s dress, his penis free and erect before him, and plunged it into her, taking pleasure at her screams. Seeing this, and sensing that there was little more to do in killing, Melas ripped a boy’s tunic away, pushed him upon a tabletop, and raped him. Holding him by the shoulders, he thrust again and again, and cried in a great roar as he attained his pleasure. The main body of the raiders had pursued the few able bodied men to offer any resistance, and harried them till they were half a mile away from the shore before returning to the village. By this stage the ones left behind had gone through every hut, cut down the elderly and the babies, herded the young into the great meeting hall, and gathered the little grain and fruit they could find, as well as half a dozen goats. Hylas, being a little more tenacious than anyone else, found a store of wine, a sour draught in a big krater which he rolled along the ground to the others. There were few provisions, for the village was poor, and the harvest had not begun. Jason signalled for the men to drink the wine, as they could not take it with them. As they got drunker the men staggered off to rape the women and boys they had set aside. Most of the men took their pleasure there in the open square before the meeting hall. The sun was still low in the sky when Jason gave the signal to move. At another nod, the men moved among the captive young men and women, cutting throats and piercing breasts, until none were left alive. Reeling from the wine, the men loaded what little provisions they had gathered. Reluctantly they left the goats behind as the next village ahead might well provide more plentiful, and portable, booty. They pushed off, unshipped oars, and to the unmuffled drum, began rowing against the wind, keeping parallel to the shore while Cepheus called the soundings. Jason, eyes shadowed by his hand, was searching for a landmark, a mountain with a distinctive cleft, which overlooked the port of Samsun. 

Many great writers have recorded what it takes to drive men into battle where they could be the ones to die. It is not heroism, but hysteria, fear that drives everything else out of mind. Emerging alive from a terrifying experience like a battle is such a relief that soldiers tend to exult in their survival, and exaggerate their prowess. The bronze weapons Jason and his crew were armed with were heavy. The armour and shields, the small round ones, were made of leather toughened with sea water, and could only deflect a glancing blow. A direct hit cut through them. The weapons most often cut or maimed limbs, pierced throats, or disembowelled the enemy. The wounded fell screaming, and took hours to die. The best course of action was to attack unexpectedly, and that is what I have imagined Jason doing. The next best course was to run away, and for many soldiers discretion was the best form of valour. As Archilochos says, you lose a spear, but you’re alive to fight another day.

In western Europe the near analog of the Viking pirates of Scandinavia is a convenient way to appreciate the nature of the Mycenean clans of ‘heroic’ Greece. At times when population exceeded food supply, the seaborn warriors of Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland raided the neighbouring countries. They came suddenly and attacked unarmed hamlets for plunder. Eventually they carved out kingdoms in England, France and Sicily. Their battles, conquests and feuds are recorded in the Sagas, some of which, though not historical, are as heroic as Homer ever was.

The Greek hero Jason has two seemingly separate careers. The first is as an heroic explorer who ventured further than any other Greek sailor before him. The second concerns his entanglement with the magician Medea, a bloody tragedy that left all concerned as dead as the characters in the last act of Hamlet.

The stories of Jason come from Mycenean Greece and the tribal groups that called themselves Achaeans and Danaans, who migrated from the area of the Russian Steppes between the 14th and 12th centuries BC and dominated a Balkans and Aegean Sea area left in a power vacuum by the decline of the Minoan civilisation based in Crete. Jason was a king in Thessaly in northern Greece, a contemporary of Theseus of Athens, Nestor of Pylos, Odysseus of Ithaka, whom he knew as a boy, and Perseus of Mycenae, who was the age of his grandfather. The stories themselves may have been derived from earlier peoples in mainland Greece whom the Myceneans displaced, whom they called Minyans. There are striking similarities between the tales concerning Perseus, Theseus and Jason, and this may reflect a common folk origin, or may be the result of similar cultic ceremonies enacted for the honour of all three heroes. Myths are usually the accompaniment to a cultic act, as is the story of the crucifixion of Jesus to the Mass, and only become mere tales when the cult has been superceded. There are three stages in all these stories: firstly, they are part of a ritual worship, which if  James Frazer in the Golden Bough is correct may have involved the killing of a yearly king; then these stories are absorbed into ancestor worship, part of which involved recitation of ‘lays’ or epic poems for the honour of a clan’s ancestors; and lastly, just visible in Homer, and part of the story of Jason also, there is a trace of something like an anti epic, a kind of debunking of the heroes, similar to the treatment of myth and gods in the plays of Aristophanes, which may have even been a part of ancient worship (a part of which we know nothing, and only a surmise). This progression is a result of the changing ethnic composition, customs and values, over a period of thousands of years, of the groups of peoples we tend to lump together and call “ancient Greeks”.

Jason was son of Aeson, whose kingdom was usurped by his half brother Pelias. Jason was hidden away from Pelias, who wished to murder him, and was bought up in the care of the centaur Chiron. When Jason attempted to reclaim his kingdom Pelias agreed on the condition he first find and bring back the Golden Fleece.

Gathering a crew of famous heroes for the expedition, Jason got as far as Thrace, where he rescued a prophet named Phineas, who was persecuted by supernatural birds called Harpies. Jason drove these away, and in return Phineas told him how to navigate through the Clashing Rocks that marked the entrance to the Black Sea, gigantic cliffs that came together and crushed ships which attempted to pass through. Sailing past Troy, he entered the Black Sea and arrived in Colchis in Georgia. Jason met the king, Aeetes, and his daughter Medea. Medea helped Jason pass the three tests Aeetes required before giving up the Fleece, then fled with Jason, pursued by Aeetes.

The return voyage has been embroidered with tales that see Jason sailing all over the then known world, journeys that would have been outside the capabilities of any real ship, and are probably drawn from a number of tales of other epic voyages in the same way as were the voyages of Sinbad. Jason also paid a visit to Circe, as Odysseus had, and was threatened by the Sirens, also like Odysseus. It is likely these were independent voyage tales which have become attached to the story of both these heroes. Epic poems are thought to have been strung together at recitations from shorter, independent poems.

Having fulfilled the terms set out by Pelias Jason claimed his kingdom but was refused. Medea murdered Pelias, but the couple were expelled from Thessaly by Pelias’ son Acastus and were forced to flee to Corinth. Here Jason abandoned Medea and married Creusa, daughter of Creon king of Corinth. Medea killed Creusa and then Creon and fled for refuge to Athens. Finally Jason succeeded in claiming his kingdom of Iolcus in Thessaly, but died soon afterwards.

Jason is a dispossessed king who must kill the previous king to claim his kingdom. He actually does this three times, each time through the agency of Medea. She first kills Apsyrtus, Aeetes’ son and Medea’s brother, the heir to the kingdom in Colchis. Medea then kills Pelias, king of Iolcus. And finally she kills Creusa and her father Creon, king of Corinth. In all cases the rites are magical, involving homage to Hecate the queen of the underworld, and the gods are not pleased with Jason, who repeatedly fails in his endeavour to obtain a kingdom for himself. This may be a reference to older gods, too weak to stand against the gods of the Myceneans. In this sense Jason is a failed hero, a contrast in every way to Odysseus, who reclaimed his kingdom of Ithika. The story may represent a disestablishment of the original rite whereby a king claimed his kingdom by killing the previous king. Worthy of note is the weak position that Iolcus, and most of Thessaly, subsequently held relative to Tiryns, Argos, Athens and Mycenae in the south. This may be why Jason, despite his exploits, is downvalued in the later traditions.

There are some interesting parallels with other heroes of this culture and time. Of Perseus, son of Danae and Zeus, it was foretold he would kill his father, and to avoid this he was set adrift in the ocean in a wooden chest like Moses and Osiris before him. Perseus survived, rescued Andromeda from the dragon from the sea (Jason also did battle with a dragon in Colchis), and slew the gorgon Medusa, who glance turned men to stone. From Medusa’s blood sprang the winged steed Pegasus. Perseus finally claimed his kingdom, and was the founder of a line of kings both at Tiryns and Mycenae. Perseus’ grandson was Herakles, who sailed with Jason.

Bellerophon came to Argos and accidentally killed the king, and was under a curse. To expiate it, Bellerophon tamed the winged horse Pegasus, and fought and killed the Chimera, a part dragon, part goat, part lion, who breathed fire and terrorised the region.

Theseus was the son of the king of Athens, whose death he caused before inheriting the kingdom. He had to pass a trial to show himself worthy. Firstly he had to remove the sword beneath the stone (generations before King Arthur), then fight and kill bandits who terrorised the region and whose lairs were thought to be entrances to the underworld. Finally he fought and killed the Minotaur in the Labyrinth. Theseus was a participant in the rite that called for the killing of the year’s king by his successor, but supplanted it by a more permanent kingship. This was the theory of the novelist Mary Renault, whose first book on Theseus was called The King Must Die.

The crew of the Argo included many famous warriors. The prospects of plunder must have been inviting to have attracted so many. Tales of prospectors for alluvial gold harvested by sifting gold ore bearing streams through sheep’s fleece may have grown into a tale of El Dorado.

Most notable of the Argo’s crew was Orpheus, the Thracian seer and musician who was thought to have founded the mystery religion of ancient Greece concerned with chthonic, underworld, deities such as Hecate and Demeter, and which promised initiates eternal life, as the grain goddess Demeter bought life each Spring to the earth. Orpheus’ wife Eurydice was taken to Hades, and Orpheus rescued her, but lost her at the last minute by looking back at her before they were both free of the underworld. He is thus a god who has experienced the human fate of mortality, as did Inanna in Sumeria and other near eastern gods, and the Greek Adonis, husband of Aphrodite. Orpheus died by being dismembered by initiates of Dionysios, a fate that recalls the various victims of Medea, whom she sliced in pieces in a rite designed to give immortality. Is it fanciful to see traces of the origin of the Christian Last Supper in these stories, which may have once been religious rites?

Other heroes mentioned with the Argo were Bellerophon, of Chimera fame, and Theseus, yet to slay the Minotaur. Greater even than these two, at least in one tradition, was Herakles, grandson of Perseus and son of Zeus and Alcmene (genealogies of heroes were not meant to be realistic). Herakles was an overcomer of obstacles, as in the stories of his ‘labours’, a man of extraordinary strength, a great lover who fathered 100 children by 30 wives, one who travelled to the underworld and returned triumphant, a member of the council of gods on Olympos: and a buffoon who was mocked for his lack of intelligence.

Castor and Pollux, sons of Leda and brothers to Helen (of Troy) and Clytemnestra wife of Agamemnon, were also on the voyage, great horsemen and warriors who shared immortality as gods, as only Pollux was immortal, his brother mortal (Helen, in the same way, was a goddess, though her sister Clytemnestra was mortal).

A famous story was told of Admetus, King of Pherae in Thessaly, another Argonaut. He was granted life if someone would consent to die in his stead. Nobody would promise to be his ransom on the day of his death with the exception of Alcestis, his wife. The story is the subject of a penetrating study of selfishness in a play by Euripides. Also on board was Autolycus, son of the god Hermes who gave him the gift of being such a skilful thief that he could not be caught.

Other crew included Deucalion, son of Minos and Pasiphae, father of Idomeneus 1, king of Crete at the time of the Trojan War, later slain by Theseus; Laertes the father of Odysseus; and Nestor, king of Pylos, the oldest and wisest of the commanders at the siege of that town. Many of these men also participated in the hunt for the Caledonian Boar, a pestilence sent by Artemis on the district of Aetolia, as did Meleager and Atalanta, two other famous Argonauts. It is likely that the Hunt, like the voyage of Argo, was the subject of ancient song cycles which have not survived. Both cycles apparently were known to Homer.

Over 80 heroes are mentioned as crewmen, though it is thought the Argo’s crew could not have been more than 40. Either the crew list has grown in the retelling, or perhaps the numbers signify a small flotilla of ships alongside the Argo on the voyage for plunder.

The actual voyage of Jason is the part of the story which has received most attention from later generations. We know something of the extent of ancient voyages, undertaken in small ships powered by sail and oarsmen and reliant on dead reckoning and written accounts of tides, winds and coastal hazards. The southern Mediterranean was discovered by the Phoenicians, who traded with towns in Egypt, Crete, north Africa, Spain, and perhaps circumnavigated Africa if one of Herodotus’ tales is to be accepted. By the 7th century BC Greek settlers had founded Marseilles and developed a tin route to Britain, sent colonies to Italy and Sicily, the Black Sea’s southern coast and the entire coastline of Asia Minor. Although Jason’s voyage was a raid for plunder, he travelled the same route that later sailors did, and with much the same technology to help him. The conjectured route of Jason around the south coast of the Black Sea was later a network of poleis which supplied Aegean Greeks with grain. “Greece” in ancient times, despite the awareness we have of Athens, had most of its population in the Crimea and Black Sea shore, Sicily and Italy, and Turkey, and only a remnant in the Aegean.

Archaeologist and historian of exploration Tim Severin designed and built a replica of a bronze age Greek galley of 20 oars and in the summer of 1984 set out to sail from Volos in northern Greece to Poti in Georgia, retracing the generally accepted route of Jason according to most scholars, and in a vessel authentically modelled on those of Jason’s time. If Severin and his crew could make the trip, then so could have Jason. The results of his venture are recorded in The Jason Voyage (Hutchinson 1985), a follow up to his The Brendan Voyage and The Sindbad Voyage, and a precursor to his The Ulysses Voyage.

Severin, perhaps as a result of his close physical involvement with the voyage at all levels, has many insights on Jason’s voyage not noticed by others. First of all he notes that 1500 kilometres away from Colchis, separated by several intervening nations and speaking another language, the Greeks of Iolchis had heard of and were even familiar with the Golden Fleece. Their knowledge might not have been precise, but they knew there was gold, and people travel a long way to get gold. Then, as the voyage progressed, Severin discovered that a galley fully manned cannot row into a headwind, so it was likely that Jason’s progress was dictated by wind and tide to a far greater extent than modern sailors are used to. Jason would have needed to pull ashore whenever the wind was against him.

On the north coast of Turkey the ancient peoples whom Jason encountered were known as Kaskas. These are thought to have been allied to the Hittite empire further south. If so, and if that empire was breaking down in the 12th century BC as scholars think, then the Myceneans were harrying the empire on its outskirts, a usual tactic of raiders, attacking from the west, at Troy, and from the north, along the Black Sea coast. Leaving the Marmara, Severin and his crew attempted to row against the current and the wind through the Bosphorus and into the Black Sea, which the Greeks knew as the Inhospitable Sea. Here they thought they had found a natural explanation of the Clashing Rocks which guarded access to the Sea. Severin found that powerful currents took his boat out of control, and threatened to dash it first on one shore, then on the other, each coastline seeming to move threateningly towards him. Only by exerting all his rowing power, and by skillful navigation, was his ship able to pass into the Black Sea. Encountering choppy weather Severin found that an ancient galley had lots of disadvantages compared to modern craft. It was low on the water, and so visibility was limited; constant care needed to be taken to avoid shoreline hazards, and at the same time the craft had to be handled so as to avoid shipping water from heavy seas which could have swamped her.

Finally, after successfully arriving at Poti, in the mountains of Georgia Severin saw gold prospectors at work, using a method in use according to tradition for thousands of years. Sheepskins were placed in swiftly running streams, and in the fleece were trapped alluvial gold washed from lodes in the mountains by winter rains. A sheepskin left for a time in a gold rich area would become literally golden. The sheepskins in ancient times were then, archaeologists think, kept for safekeeping in a temple. The Great Mother cult prevalent in the area has, in common with the cult practice in Syria and other parts of Asia, and ancient Crete of the time of King Minos, rituals involving the sacrifice of a sacred bull, and divination through the medium of serpents. These sacred animals would have lived in temple precincts, and also served to guard the golden fleece. The Mycenean raiding party under Jason’s leadership arrived in Colchis, attacked the temple, slaughtered the sacred animals, and stole the fleece and returned to Greece. That may well have actually happened, and formed the origin of a legend. At the least Severin had proved it was all possible. He also proved that the return journey told in the myths was not possible, except in fantasy. The journey to Poti all but exhausted Severin’s crew and ship; they did not attempt the return journey by their Argo. Had Jason gone to Colchis and back the same way he would have barely made it, with a depleted crew and an unseaworthy ship. True it was that many voyages were made by ancient ships blown of course or swept into foreign waters by currents and tides that they could not control, as the story of Odysseus shows, but the usual end of these journeys was on the sea bed.

The Mycenean tribes that came to Greece, and earlier to both Persia and India, were a nomadic people. They were horsemen, and later charioteers, wielders of bronze weapons, and they survived by looting settlements of more sedentary peoples. They were like the Huns and the Moguls of later times. Their gods were the gods of the air, of thunder like the king Zeus, of the arrow of pestilence like Apollo, of the hunt like Artemis. As they settled in the region of Greece they met another king of the gods, Poseidon, ruler of the sea. These gods represented space, sight, distance, mighty powers which could be seen, feared and adored: earthquake, tidal wave, lightning, the sun. Variants of the names of these gods have survived on Mycenean clay tablets.

The peoples they conquered in Greece, the small, dark so-called Minyans or Pelasgians, worshipped different kinds of gods. The grain god Cybele or Demeter or Persephone; the caster of spells Hecate, god of the full moon; the orgiastic god of frenzy and intoxication Dionysios and his mystical persona/priest Orpheus, who offered rites giving eternal life. These gods came from the north, from Thrace, from the east, Asia Minor and Syria, as did the voluptuous and terrifying god of love, Aphrodite. We know them only under the names they had in later Greek culture. These gods were gods of inner forces beyond men’s control; passion, anger, fear and other emotions which could be destructive. Many of them were worshipped in secret rites, and demanded human sacrifice. To Hecate the life of a baby was offered, its throat cut at a place where three roads met, under the light of a full moon. The person sacrificed at these rites was assured of eternal life with the gods. The Mycenean people were never comfortable with these hidden gods. In Jason’s story he is punished by the gods of Olympos for participating in what his contemporaries thought “barbarian” rites.

In the country of the Doliones, at Erdek, Jason fought a battle by mistake with his hosts, and the Argonauts killed many of them, another example of Jason’s propensity to make mistakes. In reparation Jason made sacrifice to the Great Goddess, the earth god whose worship was prevalent in his time through most of Asia Minor.

It seems likely from Jason’s story that Medea was a priestess of one of these chthonic cults, and that her powers impressed Jason. Medea has been romanticised by all Greek and subsequent traditions. She has become a monster who murdered her own children, a woman scorned and dangerous, a witch with supernatural powers. In Georgia where Medea was born the Great Mother was most likely the primary cult during the Bronze Age period, when Jason’s raiders came looking for plunder. There is another religious tradition in these areas though, that of the shaman. In a trance that can last for days, the shaman can visit the underworld, risking the existence of his or her soul. There he or she can command spirits to do their bidding, and can return bringing death and disease to enemies, and riches and good fortune to allies. It seems more likely that Medea was a shaman to whom Jason appealed for help, the more likely in that women in the Bronze Age had an important religious role which they lost in the subsequent period. A similar tale was told of Ariadne and Theseus. These stories probably represent the usurpation of religious power held by priestesses serving the Great Goddess and other underworld gods by kings who worshipped the Olympian deities of the invading Mycenean tribes.

Hecate is a mysterious deity associated with rites of the earth and the underworld, and Medea at one point during his stay in Colchis persuades Jason to sacrifice to her. Hecate is the god of boundaries, crossroads, and the entrance to Hades. Her beast is the dog, most notably Cerberus who guarded the gateway to Hades. Some think that Jason was a Minyan or Pelasgian, a pre-Greek, because of his involvement with these non Olympian deities. Yet Jason’s crew have direct links with the subsequent Trojan War, and much of the mythical stories of the Mycenean and later Greek culture. The fact is that the old gods of the earth lingered on, that despite the prevalence of the Olympians in the religious life of the poleis, Greeks of Jason’s time and much later were willing to sacrifice a dog to Hecate, to purchase an amulet, a love potion or procure a curse from a witch. Medea was the priestess who protected Jason against the anger of the gods, for he had committed sacrilege in the course of stealing the Golden Fleece. But the power of the Goddess and her priestesses was waning. Jason lost favour with both gods and men for relying on such protection.

There are three parts to Jason’s story: 1. His search for his kingdom, during which he supplants a king who must die; 2. His quest for treasure to prove him worthy of kingship, during which he must pass trials and tests, defeat enemies and monsters; 3. His fatal involvement with Medea and the old chthonic worship doomed to pass away in his lifetime, replaced with that of the Olympians.

The earliest versions of these themes must have been purely religious, stories accompanying the rites of his cult.

Tales would later have been told of his exploits, repeated by the nobles who claimed him as an ancestor, the subject of epic.

The earliest surviving document we have is the Medea of Euripides of 431 BC, produced almost a thousand years after the events it described. Euripides is interested in the conflict within a very human Medea between love and resentment. He invented the detail of her murder of her children.

The Argonautica of 246 BC is the only surviving extended treatment of Jason’s story, a kind of amalgamation of Homer and Euripides. The cultic aspects of Jason’s story have gone, and he is seen as part hero, part dominated by the sorceress Medea, not a very convincing mixture.

Most subsequent treatments have looked on Jason as a heroic voyager, a kind of classical Captain Cook. There has been much interest in the monsters he encountered, especially the humanoid ones.

I see him as a kind of buccaneer, like all his tribesmen. A cult was founded in his name, and stories told of his exploits, as they were of Theseus and Odysseus. But as Thessaly became a backwater in the politics of Greece Jason’s involvement with chthonic rites and with Medea robbed him of all his prestige. It was later, very different cultures, with very different values, that gave rise to his career as an argonaut.

©2011 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


2 thoughts on “A company of wolves: Jason and the Argo crew

  1. Hi, I am writing from the Arganthonios Mountains (NW Turkey). I know that, during the ‘Golden Fleece voyage’, 2 Greek mariners left the Argo ship on the East coast of the Marmara Sea. One man’s name was Solois. According to the story he had married a girl from near Kieon’s city (today near Gemlik) and lived there. After he had drowned in a creek, this creek is now named ‘Solois / Soloz). It is near the Nikea.

    1. Thanks very much for getting in touch Mustafa. I didn’t know this story. Fascinating to see modern traces surviving of such an ancient event. Jason must have made quite an impact on those early communities.

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