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

The Slaying of Apsyrtus

That silver veil was to be splashed with a brother's blood, and the Argonauts, because of that calamity, were for a long time to be held back from a return to their native land.

Now as they went down the river they saw that dangers were coming swiftly upon them. The chariots of the Colchians were upon the banks. Jason saw King Æetes in his chariot, a blazing torch lighting his corselet and his helmet. Swiftly the Argo  went, but there were ships behind her, and they went swiftly too.

They came into the Sea of Pontus, and Phrontis, the son of Phrixus, gave counsel to them. "Do not strive to make the passage of the Symplegades," he said. "All who live around the Sea of Pontus are friendly to King Æetes; they will be warned by him, and they will be ready to slay us and take the Argo. Let us journey up the River Ister, and by that way we can come to the Thrinacian Sea that is close to your land."

The Argonauts thought well of what Phrontis said; into the waters of the Ister the ship was brought. Many of the Colchian ships passed by the mouth of the river, and went seeking the Argo  toward the passage of the Symplegades.

But the Argonauts were on a way that was dangerous for them. For Apsyrtus had not gone toward the Symplegades seeking the Argo. He had led his soldiers overland to the River Ister at a place that was at a distance above its mouth. There were islands in the river at that place, and the soldiers of Apsyrtus landed on the islands, while Apsyrtus went to the kings of the people around and claimed their support.

The Argo  came and the heroes found themselves cut off. They could not make their way between the islands that were filled with the Colchian soldiers, nor along the banks that were lined with men friendly to King Æetes. Argo  was stayed. Apsyrtus sent for the chiefs; he had men enough to overwhelm them, but he shrank from a fight with the heroes, and he thought that he might gain all he wanted from them without a struggle.

Theseus and Peleus went to him. Apsyrtus would have them give up the Golden Fleece; he would have them give up Medea and the sons of Phrixus also.

Theseus and Peleus appealed to the judgment of the kings who supported Apsyrtus. Æetes, they said, had no more claim on the Golden Fleece. He had promised it to Jason as a reward for tasks that he had imposed. The tasks had been accomplished and the Fleece, no matter in what way it was taken from the grove of Ares, was theirs. So Theseus and Peleus said, and the kings who supported Apsyrtus gave judgment for the Argonauts.

But Medea would have to be given to her brother. If that were done the Argo  would be let go on her course, Apsyrtus said, and the Golden Fleece would be left with them. Apsyrtus said, too, that he would not take Medea back to the wrath of her father; if the Argonauts gave her up she would be let stay on the island of Artemis and under the guardianship of the goddess.

The chiefs brought Apsyrtus's words back. There was a council of the Argonauts, and they agreed that they should leave Medea on the island of Artemis.

But grief and wrath took hold of Medea when she heard of this resolve. Almost she would burn the Argo. She went to where Jason stood, and she spoke again of all she had done to save his life and win the Golden Fleece for the Argonauts. Jason made her look on the ships and the soldiers that were around them; he showed her how these could overwhelm the Argonauts and slay them all. With all the heroes slain, he said, Medea would come into the hands of Apsyrtus, who then could leave her on the island of Artemis or take her back to the wrath of her father.

But Medea would not consent to go nor could Jason's heart consent to let her go. Then these two made a plot to deceive Apsyrtus.

"I have not been of the council that agreed to give you up to him," Jason said. "After you have been left there I will take you off the island of Artemis secretly. The Colchians and the kings who support them, not knowing that you have been taken off and hidden on the Argo, will let us pass." This Medea and Jason planned to do, and it was an ill thing, for it was breaking the covenant that the chiefs had entered with Apsyrtus.

Medea then was left by the Argonauts on the island of Artemis. Now Apsyrtus had been commanded by his father to bring her back to Aea; he thought that when she had been left by the Argonauts he could force her to come with him. So he went over to the island. Jason, secretly leaving his companions, went to the island from the other side.

Before the temple of Artemis Jason and Apsyrtus came face to face. Both men, thinking they had been betrayed to their deaths, drew their swords. Then, before the vestibule of the temple and under the eyes of Medea, Jason and Apsyrtus fought. Jason's sword pierced the son of Æetes; as he fell Apsyrtus cried out bitter words against Medea, saying that it was on her account that he had come on his death. And as he fell the blood of her brother splashed Medea's silver veil.

[Illustration] from Golden Fleece by Padraic Colum

Jason lifted Medea up and carried her to the Argo. They hid the maiden under the Fleece of Gold and they sailed past the ships of the Colchians. When darkness came they were far from the island of Artemis. It was then that they heard a loud wailing, and they knew that the Colchians had discovered that their prince had been slain.

The Colchians did not pursue them. Fearing the wrath of Æetes they made settlements in the lands of the kings who had supported Apsyrtus; they never went back to Aea; they called themselves Apsyrtians henceforward, naming themselves after the prince they had come with.

They had escaped the danger that had hemmed them in, but the Argonauts, as they sailed on, were not content; covenants had been broken, and blood had been shed in a bad cause. And as they went on through the darkness the voice of the ship was heard; at the sound of that voice fear and sorrow came upon the voyagers, for they felt that it had a prophecy of doom.

Castor and Polydeuces went to the front of the ship; holding up their hands, they prayed. Then they heard the words that the voice uttered: in the night as they went on the voice proclaimed the wrath of Zeus on account of the slaying of Apsyrtus.

What was their doom to be? It was that the Argonauts would have to wander forever over the gulfs of the sea unless Medea had herself cleansed of her brother's blood. There was one who could cleanse Medea—Circe, the daughter of Helios and Perse. The voice urged the heroes to pray to the immortal gods that the way to the island of Circe be shown to them.