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

They Come to the Desert Land

And now with sail spread wide the Argo  went on, and the heroes rested at the oars. The wind grew stronger. It became a great blast, and for nine days and nine nights the ship was driven fearfully along.

The blast drove them into the Gulf of Libya, from whence there is no return for ships. On each side of the gulf there are rocks and shoals, and the sea runs toward the limitless sand. On the top of a mighty tide the Argo  was lifted, and she was flung high up on the desert sands.

A flood tide such as might not come again for long left the Argonauts on the empty Libyan land. And when they came forth and saw that vast level of sand stretching like a mist away into the distance, a deadly fear came over each of them. No spring of water could they descry; no path; no herdsman's cabin; over all that vast land there was silence and dead calm. And one said to the other: "What land is this? Whither have we come? Would that the tempest had overwhelmed us, or would that we had lost the ship and our lives between the Clashing Rocks at the time when we were making our way into the Sea of Pontus."

And the helmsman, looking before him, said with a breaking heart: "Out of this we may not come, even should the breeze blow from the land, for all around us are shoals and sharp rocks—rocks that we can see fretting the water, line upon line. Our ship would have been shattered far from the shore if the tide had not borne her far up on the sand. But now the tide rushes back toward the sea, leaving only foam on which no ship can sail to cover the sand. And so all hope of our return is cut off."

He spoke with tears flowing upon his cheeks, and all who had knowledge of ships agreed with what the helmsman had said. No dangers that they had been through were as terrible as this. Hopelessly, like lifeless specters, the heroes strayed about the endless strand.

They embraced each other and they said farewell as they laid down upon the sand that might blow upon them and overwhelm them in the night. They wrapped their heads in their cloaks, and, fasting, they laid themselves down.

Jason crouched beside the ship, so troubled that his life nearly went from him. He saw Medea huddled against a rock and with her hair streaming on the sand. He saw the men who, with all the bravery of their lives, had come with him, stretched on the desert sand, weary and without hope. He thought that they, the best of men, might die in this desert with their deeds all unknown; he thought that he might never win home with Medea, to make her his queen in Iolcus.

He lay against the side of the ship, his cloak wrapped around his head. And there death would have come to him and to the others if the nymphs of the desert had been unmindful of these brave men. They came to Jason. It was midday then, and the fierce rays of the sun were scorching all Libya. They drew off the cloak that wrapped his head; they stood near him, three nymphs girded around with goatskins.

"Why art thou so smitten with despair?" the nymphs said to Jason. "Why art thou smitten with despair, thou who hast wrought so much and hast won so much? Up! Arouse thy comrades! We are the solitary nymphs, the warders of the land of Libya, and we have come to show a way of escape to you, the Argonauts.

"Look around and watch for the time when Poseidon's great horse shall be unloosed. Then make ready to pay recompense to the mother that bore you all. What she did for you all, that you all must do for her; by doing it you will win back to the land of Greece." Jason heard them say these words and then he saw them no more; the nymphs vanished amongst the desert mounds.

Then Jason rose up. He did not know what to make out of what had been told him, but there was courage now and hope in his heart. He shouted; his voice was like the roar of a lion calling to his mate. At his shout his comrades roused themselves; all squalid with the dust of the desert the Argonauts stood around him.

"Listen, comrades, to me," Jason said, "while I speak of a strange thing that has befallen me. While I lay by the side of our ship three nymphs came before me. With light hands they drew away the cloak that wrapped my head. They declared themselves to be the solitary nymphs, the warders, of Libya. Very strange were the words they said to me. When Poseidon's great horse shall be unloosed, they said, we were to make the mother of us all a recompense, doing for her what she had done for us all. This the nymphs told me to say, but I cannot understand the meaning of their words."

[Illustration] from Golden Fleece by Padraic Colum

There were some there who would not have given heed to Jason's words, deeming them words without meaning. But even as he spoke a wonder came before their eyes. Out of the far-off sea a great horse leaped. Vast he was of size and he had a golden mane. He shook the spray of the sea off his sides and mane. Past them he trampled and away toward the horizon, leaving great tracks in the sand.

Then Nestor spoke rejoicingly. "Behold the great horse! It is the horse that the desert nymphs spoke of, Poseidon's horse. Even now has the horse been unloosed, and now is the time to do what the nymphs bade us do.

"Who but Argo  is the mother of us all? She has carried us. Now we must make her a recompense and carry her even as she carried us. With untiring shoulders we must bear Argo  across this great desert.

"And whither shall we bear her? Whither but along the tracks that Poseidon's horse has left in the sand! Poseidon's horse will not go under the earth—once again he will plunge into the sea! "

So Nestor said and the Argonauts saw truth in his saying. Hope came to them again—the hope of leaving that desert and coming to the sea. Surely when they came to the sea again, and spread the sail and held the oars in their hands, their sacred ship would make swift course to their native land!