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The Saga of Jason and the Golden Fleece
An examination of the myth and its legacy.
By Andrew Osmond
May 06, 2000
In 20th century terms, the legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece might be sold as a giant superhero crossover story. See! Fifty Heroes (at least!) on a quest to the end of the world! See! A lineup of monsters, kings, and strange new realms! See! The beautiful and deadly Medea, greatest femme fatale of the Heroic Age!
Like much mythology, the Jason story has survived in many contradictory forms. As Robert Graves notes in his study Greek Myths
, at one time any town or city hoping to trade in the Black Sea needed their 'local' historic Argonaut; hence the dozens of pick-n-mix lists of the ship's heroic crew. However, the most famous surviving account of Jason's journey is unquestionably the Argonautica, an epic-length poem by Apollonius of Rhodes, written round 250BC. (As an example of its kind, it's often rated just behind Homer and Virgil.) The post-voyage tragedy of Jason and Medea was immortalised by Euripides in his play Medea
(431BC), which was famously filmed by the Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini in 1970, with Maria Callas in the title role.
The basic story is well-known: Jason, rightful heir to the throne of Ioclus, is obliged to journey to the world's end (or thereabouts) and take the fabled Golden Fleece from the land of Colchis. Along the way, the crew encounter many strange monsters and travel to lands both fair and foul. (The visual potential is endless, both as exotic travelogue and special-effects bonanza.) Jason's Argonaut companions at times include Orpheus, the singer who braved the underworld; Theseus who battled the Minotaur; strongman Heracles, known to the Romans as Hercules; and young Nestor, who later fought at Troy.
Nestor's (alleged) presence is representative of the way Jason's legend works like a hypertext, with many references and connections to other stories. For example, there's Hypsipyle, queen of the Isle of Lemnos with dark secrets to hide. (Hallmark's version has her played by Natasha Henstridge of Species
fame.) Hypsipyle's later adventures, involving exile and her long-lost children by Jason, were dramatised in another Euripides play to which the character gives her name. Meanwhile Talos, the brass man who fights the Argonauts, was created by the god Hephaestus for the first King Minos, one of whose family built the Labyrinth. The original Talos, by the way, was only eight feet tall; Harryhausen's iconic giant was inspired by the ancient Colossus of Rhodes. And then there are foreshadowings of the voyage of Odysseus, with various accounts having the Argonauts meeting Circe (Medea's aunt), braving the Sirens and dodging Scylla and Charybdis.
As one might expect, the story has been 'spun' and interpreted in very different ways. It can be trumpeted as an example of true heroism, or it can be seen as a tale of folly, of a (literal) ship of fools. It'll be interesting to see which course Hallmark chooses to take, particularly with characters like Medea's brother Absyrtus (played in the new version by James Callis). Without too many spoilers, Medea is often portrayed in legend as a monster, a killer capable of acts that would make Hannibal Lecter wince. Jason is sometimes not much better, and his fate in many of the stories is truly miserable, involving the loss of everything he loves. Not for nothing does Euripides' Medea
start with the lament, 'If only they (the Argonauts) had never gone!'
But of course other versions show the upside, a bold voyage into the unknown that would test the mettle of any starship crew. The 1963 version put many of its own ingenious spins on the tale, such as Jason visiting Mount Olympus and Acastus (son of Jason's rival King Pelias) becoming the villain of the piece. Hopefully, the new version will prove equally inventive. How about a trip to the land of the Norsemen, described in some story variants, where the Argonauts face wild proto-Vikings and polar bears?Jason in Science Fiction & Fantasy Literature
One important retelling of Jason appears in The Heroes
(1856) by Charles Kingsley, who also wrote the great Victorian fantasy The Water Babies
. More recently, author Henry Kuttner wrote The Mask of Circe
, in which a descendant of Jason travels to a world of Greek myths where the fleece is an alien artefact. (The story was published in Startling Stories
magazine in 1948, in book form in 1971.) Elements of the legend appear in a cheesy Tom Baker Doctor Who
adventure called 'Underworld.' Perhaps the most outrageous reworking is Simon Hawke's The Argonaut Affair
, seventh in his 'Time Wars' series, in which the heroes and monsters are revealed to be genetically engineered by one Doctor Moreau!