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Definition: Jason from Philip's Encyclopedia

In Greek mythology, hero and leader of the Argonauts. Sent on a quest for the Golden Fleece, Jason sailed aboard the Argo. After surviving many perils, he found the fleece in Colchis and stole it, with the help of the sorceress Medea, whom he married.


Summary Article: Jason from Dictionary of Classical Mythology

The hero who captained the Argo on the quest for the GOLDEN FLEECE. He was the son of AESON and Alcimede (or Polymede). In the usual version of the myth, Aeson should have become king of Iolcus on the death of his father, Cretheus, but the throne was usurped by his half-brother, PELIAS. At Jason's birth his parents, fearing for his life, told Pelias that their baby had been born dead, then secretly sent him to Mount Pelion, to be brought up by the wise Centaur CHEIRON, the educator of so many great heroes. Pelias, meanwhile, ruled on, though he knew from an oracle that he must beware of a man, coming from the country and wearing a single sandal, by whom he was destined to die.

When he grew to manhood, Jason returned to Iolcus to claim his heritage. He arrived wearing only one sandal, for he had lost the other while he was carrying the goddess HERA, disguised as an old woman, across the flooded River Anaurus. Hera hated Pelias because he had often ignored the honours due to her divinity, and in this way she marked Jason as the instrument of her enemy's destruction, from then onwards aiding him in all his tribulations until the day of Pelias’ death. Pelias recognised his danger as soon as he saw Jason, so he asked him what he would do if he knew from an oracle that a certain man would kill him. Jason, perhaps inspired by Hera, replied that he would send such a man to fetch the Golden Fleece from King AEETES of Colchis. Thus he sealed his own fate. Pelias at once ordered him to set off on this quest, convinced that he could never return.

In Pindar's version, Jason was supported on his arrival in Iolcus by all his kinsmen: not only his father, but his uncles, PHERES (1) and AMYTHAON, and their sons. Jason claimed the throne from Pelias, but offered to let him keep the land and flocks that he had seized. Pelias gave a smooth reply, pretending that the spirit of the dead PHRIXUS, the original owner of the Golden Fleece, kept haunting his dreams, ordering him to fetch the Fleece from Colchis. Since he himself was too old, Jason must go on his behalf. Pelias promised that on the successful completion of this quest, he would hand over the throne to Jason. Again, the king was quite sure that Jason would never survive to claim it.

Whichever the motivation for Pelias’ command, Jason, eager for glory, swiftly prepared for the adventure. ARGUS (4) built the ship Argo under the direction of Athena, and Jason invited the bravest heroes in Greece to accompany him. Joyfully they set sail. Pelias watched them go, and even though his own son ACASTUS was on board, he rejoiced that he would never more be troubled by the threat posed by Jason to his throne and his life. He little knew that this was but the first move in Hera's elaborate plan for his destruction.

For the long expedition, beset by dangers, see ARGONAUTS. On the way to Colchis, Jason fathered two sons, EUNEUS and Thoas on the Lemnian queen HYPSIPYLE. Once in Colchis, he succeeded in winning the Golden Fleece (Figs 26 and 27), helped by Aeetes’ daughter, the sorceress MEDEA, who was another of Hera's instruments in her plan for Pelias’ death. Jason returned to Iolcus with Medea as his bride. Here he found that Pelias had exterminated his family: Aeson, seeing death coming, had asked to take his own life, then had drunk bull's blood, believed by the ancients to be poisonous. Jason's mother had also killed herself, and his infant brother, Promachus, had been killed by Pelias.

But Pelias was about to meet his own fate through the witchcraft of Medea, who persuaded his own daughters to kill him: she showed them how she could rejuvenate an old ram by cutting it up and boiling it in a cauldron with magic herbs. When it emerged as a lamb, they were persuaded that she could restore the youth of their ageing father as well. So they killed Pelias, and cut him up and boiled the pieces – and that was the end of him.

Despite the death of the usurper, Jason did not become king of Iolcus. After the brutal murder of Pelias, Acastus became king and held splendid funeral games for his father, while Jason and Medea fled from Iolcus and took refuge with CREON (1), the king of Corinth. Jason later went with other heroes of his generation on the CALYDONIAN BOARHUNT; and he returned to Iolcus once more to help his friend PELEUS gain revenge on Acastus, who had tried to engineer Peleus’ death. With the help of the DIOSCURI they sacked the city and killed Acastus’ wife, Astydameia, and perhaps Acastus too.

Medea bore Jason children, sometimes named as MEDUS (1) and Eriopis, or THESSALUS (1), Alcimenes and Tisander, or – most commonly – MERMERUS AND PHERES. They were usually said to have died, killed either by the Corinthians or by Medea herself, either intentionally or unintentionally. In the version made famous by Euripides’ tragedy Medea, Jason deserted Medea and married King Creon's daughter (see GLAUCE). Medea murdered the new bride and her father; but to get the greatest possible revenge on her treacherous husband, she also killed her two sons by him (Fig. 105), because this was the deed that would bring him the greatest pain. She escaped to Athens in a dragon-chariot sent by her grandfather, the Sun-god Helios, while Jason was left alone, his life in ruins around him (Fig. 106). It was sometimes said that he killed himself in despair, but he was more usually said to have been crushed to death by a beam, falling from the rotting carcase of his once glorious ship, the Argo.

There is only a brief mention of Jason and his quest in Homer (Odyssey 12.69–72), where already he is called “dear to Hera”. Our first description of him is in Pindar's Pythian 4, where he strides into Iolcus, clad in a leopard-skin and brandishing two spears, his long hair flowing down his back. Sadly, there is no epic version of his story preserved from the archaic period, so we have lost any clear picture of what would no doubt have been the early Greek conception of him, the heroic achiever of seemingly impossible tasks, like Perseus or Bellerophon or Heracles. The next major depictions of him that survive are very different: in Euripides’ Medea (431 BC) he has lost all trace of his early heroism, becoming a selfish and obtuse man, concerned with materialistic values and his own social standing; and in Apollonius’ late epic, the Argonautica (3rd century BC), he has become almost a travesty of an epic hero, often timid and confused, and easily prone to doubts and despair, a man who cannot succeed without the help of others, mortal and divine.

[Hesiod, Theogony 992–1002; Apollodorus 1.8.2, 1.9.16–28, 3.13.7; Diodorus Siculus 4.40–53; Pausanias 2.3.6–11, 5.17.9–10, 8.11.1–3; Ovid, Metamorphoses 7.1–397, 8.302, Heroides 6, 12; Seneca Medea]

Text © Jennifer R. March 2014, illustrations © Neil Barrett 2014

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