Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles - Padraic Colum

The Mountain Caucasus

They rested in the harbor of Thynias, the desert island, and sailing from there they came to the land of the Mariandyni, a people who were constantly at war with the Bebrycians; there the hero Polydeuces was welcomed as a god. Twelve days afterward they passed the mouth of the River Callichorus; then they came to the mouth of that river that flows through the land of the Amazons, the River Thermodon. Fourteen days from that place brought them to the island that is filled with the birds of Ares, the god of war. These birds dropped upon the heroes heavy, pointed feathers that would have pierced them as arrows if they had not covered themselves with their shields; then by shouting, and by striking their shields with their spears, they raised such a clamor as drove the birds away.

They sailed on, borne by a gentle breeze, until a gulf of the sea opened before them, and lo! a mountain that they knew bore some mighty name. Orpheus, looking on its peak and its crags, said, "Lo, now! We, the Argonauts, are looking upon the mountain that is named Caucasus!"

When he declared the name the heroes all stood up and looked on the mountain with awe. And in awe they cried out a name, and that name was "Prometheus!"

For upon that mountain the Titan god was held, his limbs bound upon the hard rocks by fetters of bronze. Even as the Argonauts looked toward the mountain a great shadow fell upon their ship, and looking up they saw a monstrous bird flying. The beat of the bird's wings filled out the sail and drove the Argo  swiftly onward. "It is the bird sent by Zeus," Orpheus said. "It is the vulture that every day devours the liver of the Titan god." They cowered down on the ship as they heard that word—all the Argonauts save Heracles; he stood upright and looked out toward where the bird was flying. Then, as the bird came near to the mountain, the Argonauts heard a great cry of anguish go up from the rocks.

"It is Prometheus crying out as the bird of Zeus flies down upon him," they said to one another. Again they cowered down on the ship, all save Heracles, who stayed looking toward where the great vulture had flown.

The night came and the Argonauts sailed on in silence, thinking in awe of the Titan god and of the doom that Zeus had inflicted upon him. Then, as they sailed on under the stars, Orpheus told them of Prometheus, of his gift to men, and of the fearful punishment that had been meted out to him by Zeus.


The gods more than once made a race of men: the first was a Golden Race. Very close to the gods who dwell on Olympus was this Golden Race; they lived justly although there were no laws to compel them. In the time of the Golden Race the earth knew only one season, and that season was everlasting Spring. The men and women of the Golden Race lived through a span of life that was far beyond that of the men and women of our day, and when they died it was as though sleep had become everlasting with them. They had all good things, and that without labor, for the earth without any forcing bestowed fruits and crops upon them. They had peace all through their lives, this Golden Race, and after they had passed away their spirits remained above the earth, inspiring the men of the race that came after them to do great and gracious things and to act justly and kindly to one another.

After the Golden Race had passed away, the gods made for the earth a second race—a Silver Race. Less noble in spirit and in body was this Silver Race, and the seasons that visited them were less gracious. In the time of the Silver Race the gods made the seasons—Summer and Spring, and Autumn and Winter. They knew parching heat, and the bitter winds of winter, and snow and rain and hail. It was the men of the Silver Race who first built houses for shelter. They lived through a span of life that was longer than our span, but it was not long enough to give wisdom to them. Children were brought up at their mothers' sides for a hundred years, playing at childish things. And when they came to years beyond a hundred they quarreled with one another, and wronged one another, and did not know enough to give reverence to the immortal gods. Then, by the will of Zeus, the Silver Race passed away as the Golden Race had passed away. Their spirits stay in the Underworld, and they are called by men the blessed spirits of the Underworld.

And then there was made the third race—the Race of Bronze. They were a race great of stature, terrible and strong. Their armor was of bronze, their swords were of bronze, their implements were of bronze, and of bronze, too, they made their houses. No great span of life was theirs, for with the weapons that they took in their terrible hands they slew one another. Thus they passed away, and went down under the earth to Hades, leaving no name that men might know them by.

Then the gods created a fourth race—our own: a Race of Iron. We have not the justice that was amongst the men of the Golden Race, nor the simpleness that was amongst the men of the Silver Race, nor the stature nor the great strength that the men of the Bronze Race possessed. We are of iron that we may endure. It is our doom that we must never cease from labor and that we must very quickly grow old.

But miserable as we are to-day, there was a time when the lot of men was more miserable. With poor implements they had to labor on a hard ground. There was less justice and kindliness amongst men in those days than there is now.

Once it came into the mind of Zeus that he would destroy the fourth race and leave the earth to the nymphs and the satyrs. He would destroy it by a great flood. But Prometheus, the Titan god who had given aid to Zeus against the other Titans—Prometheus, who was called the Foreseer—could not consent to the race of men being destroyed utterly, and he considered a way of saving some of them. To a man and a woman, Deucalion and Pyrrha, just and gentle people, he brought word of the plan of Zeus, and he showed them how to make a ship that would bear them through what was about to be sent upon the earth.

Then Zeus shut up in their cave all the winds but the wind that brings rain and clouds. He bade this wind, the South Wind, sweep over the earth, flooding it with rain. He called upon Poseidon and bade him to let the sea pour in upon the land. And Poseidon commanded the rivers to put forth all their strength, and sweep dykes away, and overflow their banks.

The clouds and the sea and the rivers poured upon the earth. The flood rose higher and higher, and in the places where the pretty lambs had played the ugly sea calves now gambolled; men in their boats drew fishes out of the tops of elm trees, and the water nymphs were amazed to come on men's cities under the waves.

Soon even the men and women who had boats were overwhelmed by the rise of water—all perished then except Deucalion and Pyrrha, his wife; them the waves had not overwhelmed, for they were in a ship that Prometheus had shown them how to build. The flood went down at last, and Deucalion and Pyrrha climbed up to a high and a dry ground. Zeus saw that two of the race of men had been left alive. But he saw that these two were just and kindly, and had a right reverence for the gods. He spared them, and he saw their children again peopling the earth.

Prometheus, who had saved them, looked on the men and women of the earth with compassion. Their labor was hard, and they wrought much to gain little. They were chilled at night in their houses, and the winds that blew in the daytime made the old men and women bend double like a wheel. Prometheus thought to himself that if men and women had the element that only the gods knew of—the element of fire—they could make for themselves implements for labor; they could build houses that would keep out the chilling winds, and they could warm themselves at the blaze.

But the gods had not willed that men should have fire, and to go against the will of the gods would be impious. Prometheus went against the will of the gods. He stole fire from the altar of Zeus, and he hid it in a hollow fennel stalk, and he brought it to men.

[Illustration] from Golden Fleece by Padraic Colum

Then men were able to hammer iron into tools, and cut down forests with axes, and sow grain where the forests had been. Then were they able to make houses that the storms could not overthrow, and they were able to warm themselves at hearth fires. They had rest from their labor at times. They built cities; they became beings who no longer had heads and backs bent but were able to raise their faces even to the gods.

And Zeus spared the race of men who had now the sacred element of fire. But he knew that Prometheus had stolen this fire even from his own altar and had given it to men. And he thought on how he might punish the great Titan god for his impiety.

He brought back from the Underworld the giants that he had put there to guard the Titans that had been hurled down to Tartarus. He brought back Gyes, Cottus, and Briareus, and he commanded them to lay hands upon Prometheus and to fasten him with fetters to the highest, blackest crag upon Caucasus. And Briareus, Cottus, and Gyes seized upon the Titan god, and carried him to Caucasus, and fettered him with fetters of bronze to the highest, blackest crag—with fetters of bronze that may not be broken. There they have left the Titan stretched, under the sky, with the cold winds blowing upon him, and with the sun streaming down on him. And that his punishment might exceed all other punishments Zeus had sent a vulture to prey upon him—a vulture that tears at his liver each day.

[Illustration] from Golden Fleece by Padraic Colum

And yet Prometheus does not cry out that he has repented of his gift to man; although the winds blow upon him, and the sun streams upon him, and the vulture tears at his liver, Prometheus will not cry out his repentance to heaven. And Zeus may not utterly destroy him. For Prometheus the Foreseer knows a secret that Zeus would fain have him disclose. He knows that even as Zeus overthrew his father and made himself the ruler in his stead, so, too, another will overthrow Zeus. And one day Zeus will have to have the fetters broken from around the limbs of Prometheus, and will have to bring from the rock and the vulture, and into the Council of the Olympians, the unyielding Titan god.

When the light of the morning came the Argo  was very near to the Mountain Caucasus. The voyagers looked in awe upon its black crags. They saw the great vulture circling over a high rock, and from beneath where the vulture circled they heard a weary cry. Then Heracles, who all night had stood by the mast, cried out to the Argonauts to bring the ship near to a landing place.

But Jason would not have them go near; fear of the wrath of Zeus was strong upon him; rather, he bade the Argonauts put all their strength into their rowing, and draw far off from that forbidden mountain. Heracles, not heeding what Jason ordered, declared that it was his purpose to make his way up to the black crag, and, with his shield and his sword in his hands, slay the vulture that preyed upon the liver of Prometheus.

Then Orpheus in a clear voice spoke to the Argonauts. "Surely some spirit possesses Heracles," he said. "Despite all we do or say he will make his way to where Prometheus is fettered to the rock. Do not gainsay him in this! Remember what Nereus, the ancient one of the sea, declared! Did Nereus not say that a great labor awaited Heracles, and that in the doing of it he should work out the will of Zeus? Stay him not! How just it would be if he who is the son of Zeus freed from his torments the much-enduring Titan god!"

So Orpheus said in his clear, commanding voice. They drew near to the Mountain Caucasus. Then Heracles, gripping the sword and shield that were the gifts of the gods, sprang out on the landing place. The Argonauts shouted farewell to him. But he, filled as he was with an overmastering spirit, did not heed their words.

A strong breeze drove them onward; darkness came down, and the Argo  went on through the night. With the morning light those who were sleeping were awakened by the cry of Nauplius—"Lo! The Phasis, and the utmost bourne of the sea!" They sprang up, and looked with many strange feelings upon the broad river they had come to.

Here was the Phasis emptying itself into the Sea of Pontus! Up that river was Colchis and the city of King Æetes, the end of their voyage, the place where was kept the Golden Fleece! Quickly they let down the sail; they lowered the mast and they laid it along the deck; strongly they grasped the oars; they swung the Argo  around, and they entered the broad stream of the Phasis.

Up the river they went with the Mountain Caucasus on their left hand, and on their right the groves and gardens of Aea, King Æetes's city. As they went up the stream, Jason poured from a golden cup an offering to the gods. And to the dead heroes of that country the Argonauts prayed for good fortune to their enterprise.

It was Jason's counsel that they should not at once appear before King Æetes, but visit him after they had seen the strength of his city. They drew their ship into a shaded backwater, and there they stayed while day grew and faded around them.

Night came, and the heroes slept upon the deck of Argo. Many things came back to them in their dreams or through their half-sleep: they thought of the Lemnian maidens they had parted from; of the Clashing Rocks they had passed between; of the look in the eyes of Heracles as he raised his face to the high, black peak of Caucasus. They slept, and they thought they saw before them THE GOLDEN FLEECE; darkness surrounded it; it seemed to the dreaming Argonauts that the darkness was the magic power that King Æetes possessed.