1902 Encyclopedia > Argonauts


ARGONAUTS, in Greek Legend, a band of heroes who sailed in the ship "Argo'' from Iolcus, in Thessaly, to iEa, in Colchis, on the further shore of the Black Sea, to fetch the golden fleece, which was there guarded by a dragon in a grove sacred to Mars. This task had been imposed on Jason that he might prove himself by a peril-ous adventure worthy of the throne of Iolcus, which he claimed from the usurper Pelias, at whose hands he and his father iEson had suffered persecution. To accompany him, Jason, when the "Argo" was ready, called upon the principal heroes of his own race, the Minyae, whose distant voyages and colonisation in very early times seem to have suggested the legend of this expedition. Of these Acastus the son of Pelias, Admetus of Pherae, Euphemus (repre-sented as connected with the colonisation of Thera and Cyrene), Periclymenus, Erginus, and Tiphys the steers-man, joined him. So far the crew appears well fitted to conduct the "Argo " to Colchis, leaving Jason to reserve his strength for the culminating act, in which also they had mostly, apart from their friendship for Jason, a special interest, because of previous events connected with the golden fleece, the story of which was as follows. Jason's uncle Athamas had by his wife Nephele two children, Phrixus and Helle. The mother died, and her place was taken by Ino, a daughter of Cadmus, who from hatred of her step-children persuaded Athamas, by means of a false oracle, to offer his son Phrixus as a sacrifice, in consequence of a famine which she had caused by having the grain secretly roasted before it was sown. But before the sac-rifice the shade of Nephele appeared to Phrixus, bringing a ram with a golden fleece, on which he and his sister Helle were to escape over the sea. Helle fell off and was drowned in the strait, which thence took the name of Hellespont. Phrixus reached the other side, and proceeding on land to Colchis, sacrificed the ram, and hung up its fleece in the grove of Mars. With the family of Athamas the original crew of the "Argo" were more or less connected. But in the later versions of the story it is clear that such a voyage could not in after times be conceived without a variety of adventures, for which other and better known heroes had to be added. Of these the chief were Hercules, Castor and Pollux, Orpheus, Mopsus, and the sons of Boreas, Calais and Zetes. The outward course of the "Argo" was the same as that .of the Greek traders, whose settle-ments as early as the 6th century B.C. dotted the southern shore of the Black Sea. The first landing-place was Lemnus, which the Argonauts found occupied only by women who, at the instigation of Aphrodite, had slain their husbands, fathers, &c. Here some stay was made, and Hypsipyle bore Jason a son, Euneos, who afterwards traded with the Greeks before Troy and with the Phoeni-cians. That the Minyae had at a very early period formed settlements in Lemnus is known from Herodotus (iv. 145). They landed at Cyzicus next, and here occurred the in-cident of Hercules and Hylas. The former having broken an oar after they started, went into a wood to cut a new one, Hylas accompanying him to fetch water. Some nymphs admiring the beauty of the youth carried him off. Hercules followed his cries, but could not find him. Nor was he ever found, though the hero exacted hostages till this should be done. On reaching the modern Scutari, they again landed to get water, and were challenged by the king, Amycus, to match him with a boxer. Pollux came forward, and in the end overpowered his adversary, and bound him to a tree. At the entrance to the Black Sea they met Phineus, the blind and aged king whose food was being constantly polluted by the Harpies. He knew the course to Colchis, and offered to tell it, if the Argonauts would free him from the Harpies. This was done by the winged sons of Boreas, and Phineus now told them their course, and that the way to pass through the Symplegades _—two cliffs which moved on their bases and crushed whatever sought to pass—was first to fly a pigeon through, and when the cliffs, having closed on the pigeon, began to retire to each side, to row the "Argo" swiftly through. His advice was successfully followed. The next place they landed at, and the last before reaching Colchis, was Hera clea, where the steersman Tiphys died. To the early Greeks Colchis was the eastern extremity of the earth, as the Pillars of Hercules were the western. Behind both was the Oceanus, into which the river Phasis flowed at Colchis. At Colchis was the rising of the sun, and iEetes the king was a son of Helios; while his daughter Medea was, by her know- ledge of witchcraft, connected with the worship of the moon. iEetes required of Jason that he should first yoke to a plough his bulls which snorted fire and had hoofs of brass, and with them plough tlie field of Mars. That done, the field was to be sown with dragons' teeth, from which armed men were to spring. Successful so far by means of the mixture which Medea had given him as proof against fire and sword, Jason was next allowed to approach the dragon which watched the fleece; Medea soothed the dragon with another mixture, and Jason became master of the fleece. Then the voyage homeward began, Medea accompanying Jason, and iEetes pursuing them. To delay him and obtain escape, Medea dismembered her young brother Absyrtus, whom she had taken with her, and cast the limbs about in the sea for his father to pick up. In another report Absyrtus had grown to manhood then, and met his death in an encounter with Jason, in pursuit of whom he had been sent. Of the homeward course various accounts are given. In the oldest existing account, the "Argo" sailed ulong the river Phasis into the Oceanus, thence to the mythical lake Tritonis, after being carried twelve days over land through Libya, and thence again to Iolcus, Hecatasus of Miletus suggested that from the Oceanus it may have sailed into the Nile, and so to the Mediterranean. Others, like Sophocles, described the return voyage as differing from the outward course only in taking the northern instead of the southern shore of the Black Sea. Some supposed that the Argonauts had sailed up the river Tanais, passed into another river, and by it reached the North Sea, returning to the Mediterranean by the Straits of Gibraltar. And again, others laid down the course as up the Danube (Istros), from it into the Adriatic by a supposed mouth of that river, and on to Corcyra, where a storm overtook them. Next they sailed up the Eridanus into the Rhodanus, passing through the country of the Celts and Ligurians, and reaching the Tyrrhenian Sea and the island of Circe, who absolved them from the murder of Absyrtus. Then they passed safely through Scylla and Charybdis, past the Sirens, through the Planctae, over the island of the Sun, Trinacria, and on to Corcyra again, the land of the Phaeacians, where Jason and Medea held their nuptials. They had sighted the coast of the Peloponnesus when a storm overtook them and drove them to the coast of Libya, where they were saved from a quicksand by the local nymphs. The "Argo" was now carried twelve days and twelve nights to the Hesperides, and thence to lake Tritonis, whence Triton conducted them to the Mediter- ranean. At Crete the brazen Talos, who would not permit them to land, was killed by the Dioscuri. At Anaphe they were saved from a storm by Apollo. Finally they reached Iolcus, and the "Argo" was placed in a grove sacred to Neptune on the isthmus of Corinth. Jason's death, it is said, was afterwards caused by part of the stern giving way and falling upon him. (A. S. M.)

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