This week's mythology reading was "The Quest of the Golden Fleece", which is mostly an adventure story but with a sting at the end of it. Edith Hamilton draws on several sources for her retelling of this story, which you might recognize more easily as the story of Jason and the Argonauts. The oldest source (about the same time as Homer was writing) is a long poem by Apollonius of Rhodes. However Hamilton tacks on an ending not found in the poem which comes from fifth-century poet Euripides. There is also a little thrown in from an ode by Pindar. It's interesting to see how these myths morphed over time through the many retellings.
The golden fleece is the wool from a "wondrous" ram that Jason must search out on a quest in order to restore himself as the rightful heir to a kingdom in Greece. It all began when when King Athamas got tired of his wife and took another. When the first wife left she brought a drought to the land. The second wife saw this as a great opportunity to get rid of the first wife's children. A good sacrifice is the way to appease the gods and guess who was offered up. Before the king's son could be sacrificed a golden ram swooped down and rescued both him and his sister. The sister has the misfortune of falling and drowning. She was called Helle and gave her name to the Sea of Helle, the Hellespont.
Time passes and along comes Jason who should have been the true king, but after a series of maneuverings was left out in the cold. King Pelias agrees to give back the kingdom to Jason but he must first complete a quest and bring back the golden fleece. So Jason sets out on a ship called the Argos and with him he brings the best and noblest heroes of the day. Travelling by sea in ancient Greece was a dangerous thing to do.
"Rivers, lakes, and seas, were the only highways; there were no roads. All the same, a voyage had to face perils not only on the deep, but on the land as well. Ships did not sail by night, and any place where sailors put in might harbor a monster or a magician who could work more deadly harm than storm or shipwreck. High courage was necessary to travel, especially outside of Greece."
And indeed Jason and his Argonauts must confront all sort of terrible monsters like harpies, Clashing Rocks, Amazons and even when they finally get to their destination are confronted with ever more difficult trials. As a matter of fact the prize of the fleece seems practically unattainable, so Hera steps in and offers help. She talks Aphrodite into making the daughter of King AEtes fall in love with Jason. It was on the island of King AEtes' where the fleece was hidden. Medea, his daughter, had magical powers. Cupid sends his bow piercing Medea's heart and she offers Jason her help with whom she has fallen in love. Had it not been for her Jason would not have gotten the fleece, nor would he have made it back home again safely.
Unfortunately for Medea Jason was an ambitious guy and no sooner had he returned home did he decide to marry the daughter of the King of Corinth and send Medea and her sons into exile, which for the Greeks was a fate worse than death. No matter that Medea had been the one to help Jason finish his quest, or that she had caused death and destruction to her own family. Jason's response--Medea didn't save him but it was Aphrodite who made her fall in love with him in the first place. Needless to say Medea took her revenge on Jason--or more to the point on his second wife.
Now seems like a good place to take a little diverging path and perhaps read Euripides's Medea and maybe even Apollonius of Rhodes's The Voyage of Argo. I'll have to see what my library has on hand and how long the works are. There's nothing like reading the original, right?
Next up: Four Great Adventures, which is the last chapter of part two. Looking ahead to part three I finally come to heroes in the run up to the Trojan War.