Famous Men of Greece - John Haaren

Jason and the Golden Fleece

In a city of Greece named Iolcus a good man called Aeson was king. His younger brother, Pelias, seized the throne. But Pelias did not enjoy much happiness in his stolen kingdom. He had no fear of Aeson, who was a weak man. But he was very much afraid that Aeson's son Jason, then only a boy, might some day take the kingdom from him.

So he tried to kill Jason, but the child was taken away by night and Pelias never found him. It was said that he was dead. Twenty years passed, and though Jason was never seen in Iolcus Pelias was still afraid that he was alive. Finally, to settle the matter, he consulted the oracle of Apollo.

He received the answer, "Beware of the man who wears but one sandal."

After that Pelias ordered the watchman at the city gate to take notice of the feet of every stranger who entered the city.

Jason had been all these years in charge of Chiron, the centaur, who was the most famous teacher in Greece. Jason had heard of the wickedness of his uncle, and now that he was a man he determined to regain his father's kingdom.

[Illustration] from Famous Men of Greece by John Haaren


So one day he set out for Iolcus. On the way he came to a wide stream over which there was no bridge. At the same time a feeble old woman came up and wished to cross. The stream was swollen, and it looked as if she would be swept away by the current and drowned if she tried to wade across. So Jason took her in his arms and carried her over.

That old woman was really Juno, the queen of the gods. She had come down from Olympus to take a journey on earth without telling any one who she was, because she wished to find out if there was any real kindness among men. She never forgot Jason's courtesy; and to her help he owed his success in his career.

In crossing the stream he lost one of his sandals, and so he reached Iolcus with one foot bare. He cared very little about this; but when word was brought to Pelias that a man wearing one sandal had entered the city, the king was greatly alarmed.

"Either I must kill that man," Pelias said to himself, "or he will kill me." He therefore sent a messenger to invite the stranger to the palace, and Jason soon stood before him.

"What would you do," asked Pelias, "if you had in your power the man who was fated to kill you?"

"I should tell him," answered Jason, "to go to Colchis and bring me 'the golden fleece.' "

"Then you shall go," cried Pelias, "You have come to take my kingdom from me; but not till you bring me that fleece will I yield you my crown."

The story of the golden fleece is very interesting.

Many years before one of the Grecian kings, who had a son named Phrixus, was told by an oracle that Jupiter wished him to offer up his son as a sacrifice. The poor father prepared to make the offering. As the young man was standing before the altar and his father was just about to slay him, a ram with shining fleece of gold came down from the sky and stood beside them. Phrixus jumped to the back of the ram. His sister, Helle, who was standing with him at the altar, jumped on behind her brother, and the ram immediately ran off with the two. He went so fast that people who saw him thought he had wings. When he came to the strait which separates Europe from Asia he plunged into the waves. Poor Helle soon fell off and was drowned; and ever after that the strait was called by the Greeks the Hellespont, a word that means the Sea of Helle. It is the strait that is named the Dardanelles' on our maps.

The ram carried Phrixus safely across the strait, and went on until he reached the palace of Aeetes the king of a country called Colchis, which lay on the shores of the Euxine, or Black Sea.

[Illustration] from Famous Men of Greece by John Haaren


Phrixus felt very thankful for having made such a wonderful journey in safety, so he offered the ram as a sacrifice to Jupiter and nailed the fleece to a tree that was sacred to Mars.

This fleece became one of the wonders of the world; and lest it should be stolen a dragon was set to watch it. Many persons tried to get possession of it, but most, if not all of them, lost their lives in the attempt.

Jason knew all this, but he said at once that he would get the fleece. Before setting out on the journey, however, he went to a place called Dodona to ask the advice of Jupiter; for at Dodona there was a wonderful talking oak which told men the advice and commands of Jupiter. As soon as Jason came near the oak the leaves began to rustle, and a voice from within the tree said:

"Build a fifty-oared ship. Take as companions the greatest heroes of Greece. Cut a branch from the talking oak and make it a part of the prow of the vessel."

All these commands Jason obeyed. The ship was built and a piece of the talking oak was used in making her prow. Jason invited forty-nine of the bravest men of Greece to go on the expedition. He named his ship the Argo, and he and his companions are known as the Argonauts, or sailors on the Argo. One of them was Orpheus, the greatest musician that ever played or sang in Greece. It was said of him that the trees of a forest once danced in wild delight at his music.

This wonderful musician was of very great use on the Argo. The ship was the largest that had ever been built in Greece and it was found too heavy to launch. The strength of all the fifty heroes did not move it an inch. Jason did not know what to do. So he consulted the talking prow, which told him that everybody must get on board and that Orpheus must then play his lyre and sing. No sooner was the music heard than the great ship glided easily into the water, and the famous voyage began.

Another companion of Jason was Hercules, about whose wonderful labors you have already been told. Then there were Castor and Pollux, twin brothers, who did such wonders that after their death the gods took them to heaven, where they still shine as stars in the constellation called the "Twins."

Still another of the Argonauts was a hero named Lynceus, which means the lynx-eyed. He was kept on watch all through the Argo's voyage, because he could see a whole day's trip ahead.


After many adventures the Argonauts at last crossed the Black Sea and reached the shores of Colchis. Aeetes received them in a kind manner; but he was not at all pleased when he learned their errand, because there was nothing in his kingdom which he prized so much as the golden fleece.

However, when Jason explained the matter, Aeetes said, "Very will, you may try to get the fleece if you choose to run the risk. But first you must yoke my pair of brazen-footed, fire-breathing bulls and with them plow a field near the grove where the golden fleece hangs. Then you must sow the field with some of the teeth of the dragon that Cadmus killed. And finally, you must fight with the dragon that guards the fleece."

Aeetes felt sure that Jason would lose his life in trying to do all this; for many brave men had been burned to death in the streams of fire that the bulls breathed out from their nostrils.

King Aeetes had a daughter named Medea. She was famed for her beauty and her skill as an enchantress. Fortunately, she fell in love with Jason and now came to his aid.

"Take this ointment," said Medea, "and rub it all over your body. Then the flaming breath of the bulls cannot harm you. At midnight I will go with you to the pasture where the creatures feed."

[Illustration] from Famous Men of Greece by John Haaren


That night Jason went with Medea and found the bulls in the pasture. The magic ointment saved him from being burned by their fiery breath. He seized and yoked them without any trouble, and very soon the field was plowed and harrowed. Jason sowed the teeth of the dragon and then stood waiting to see what would happen.

Soon points of light glistened here and there in the soil. They were the tops of helmets coming up out of the ground and touched by the rays of the rising sun. In no great while where each point of light had appeared stood a full-armed warrior.

"Throw a stone into the midst of the host!" commanded Medea; and Jason obeyed.

The stone struck one warrior, glanced off to another, and then to a third. The new-born heroes, not knowing whence the stone had come, became wild with rage, and hacked and battered one another with swords and clubs. At last only one was left and he was fatally wounded.

Then Jason went back to the palace and told Aeetes what he had done, and said that he was ready to fight the dragon that guarded the golden fleece.

At midnight he went with Medea to the grove in which the fleece hung. The dragon rushed with wide-open jaws to devour him, but Medea threw an enchanted potion into the monster's mouth, and he sank to the ground in a death-like sleep.

"Make haste!" cried Medea. "Take down the fleece." In a twinkling Jason had done so. "And now," she added, "we must start at once for Greece; for my father will never let you carry the fleece from Colchis."

Taking Medea with him, Jason made all haste to the Argo. When he reached the shore where the ship lay, his companions welcomed him heartily, and they were filled with delight when they saw the golden fleece. All hurried on board the Argo, the sails were hoisted, and the ship began her homeward voyage.

To get back to Greece the Argonauts had to sail past the Isle of the Sirens. The sirens were maidens with beautiful faces but cruel hearts. They sat upon dangerous rocks on the shore of their island and sang songs of enchanting sweetness. Sailors who heard them would steer nearer and nearer, till their vessels were wrecked on the jagged rocks. The Argonauts escaped this peril through the help of Orpheus. He played his lyre and sang more sweetly than even the Sirens, and listening to him, Jason and his companions steered their vessel beyond the dangerous rocks.

As soon as Jason reached Iolcus again he showed the golden fleece to Pelias, and then hung it up as a thank-offering in the temple of one of the gods. What became of it afterward nobody knows.

While Jason was getting the golden fleece Pelias murdered Aeson. In revenge for this Medea made a plot by which Pelias was killed by his own daughters. Then the son of Pelias drove both Jason and Medea from Iolcus.