Saturday, November 11, 2017

Mythical Monarchical Figures: Prince Jason

There may be no more appropriate figure to look at here from Greco-Roman mythology than Jason, prince and heir of the Kingdom of Iolcos. As mentioned previously, back when I was in school we still had to learn about these figures of pagan mythology but, as a child, what I first knew about Jason came from watching the 1963 film “Jason and the Argonauts”. I’m sure this has been remade by now because that’s all Hollywood does these days but, I have to say, the film I know was fairly true to the source material, certainly compared to another favorite, “Clash of the Titans” from 1981. The story of Jason was a very important one for the ancient Greeks, was also frequently retold by the Romans and is all about royal authority; the heir of a slain and defeated king who goes on an epic quest to win back his kingdom by obtaining the Golden Fleece which itself, because of this story, came to symbolize royal authority and kingship.

Jason, like most heroes of Greco-Roman pagan mythology, had an impressive pedigree. Not only was he the eldest son and heir of King Aeson of Iolcos in Thessaly (today the port city of Volos) but he was also the great-grandson of the god Mercury (or Hermes as the Greeks knew him). He was all set to have a normal royal life when everything went wrong thanks to his uncle Pelias, his father’s half-brother. Pelias had the same mother as Aeson, Tyro, but Pelias’ father was Neptune, god of the sea, which might explain a few things about this story but Pelias wanted to conquer Thessaly and so he attacked the Kingdom of Iolcos, overthrowing his half-brother and killing all of his children that he could find. Jason had only just been born and his mother and her ladies-in-waiting clustered around the newborn wailing as if he had been born dead so that Pelias would not kill him. Jason’s mother, Alcimede I, then smuggled the baby out to be raised by the centaur (a half-man, half-horse) Chiron. Pelias, now King of Iolcos, was told by a fortuneteller that he would one day lose his ill-gotten kingdom to a man wearing one sandal.

When Jason had grown up into strapping young manhood, he came back to reclaim his kingdom. Along the way the goddess Juno (Hera) disguised herself as an old woman and pretended to be drowning in the river Anauros. Jason, showing proper princely virtue, jumped in to save her, losing one of his sandals in the process. Obviously, when Pelias was presented with Jason, wearing one sandal, he knew his game was up. However, Pelias, while seemingly resigned to losing his kingdom, tells Jason that he must first retrieve the Golden Fleece. This was the golden skull and skin of a ram that was a gift of the gods (there is a whole other story about why and how it came to be) which brought health, wealth and prosperity to whoever held it and would be just the thing for a new king to have, particularly when his kingdom would be starting out in a sorry state. By retrieving it, Jason would also prove that he had been chosen by the gods and was truly the rightful king. Pelias, of course, also expected Jason might be killed on such a dangerous quest and solve his problem for him.

The Argo
Jason gathered a collection of Greek heroes to accompany him, including the Boreads, the sons of the North Wind who could fly; Orpheus, who could charm even the stones with his music; the Gemini twins from Sparta, the virgin huntress Atalanta, Euphemus, son of Neptune, who could walk on water; Telamon, father of Ajax, and even Hercules, strongest man on earth and son of Jupiter/Zeus and great-grandson of Perseus (who would also have been his half brother because ol’ Zeus couldn’t keep it in his toga). In other words, he had a crew of the best of the best and they set out on their ship the Argo to find the Golden Fleece at the end of the world. Because of the ship, Jason’s crew are known as the Argonauts.

Their first stop was the island of Lemnos, inhabited by bad smelling women who had had killed off all of their husbands. Evidently the
The Gegenees
Argonauts had been at sea long enough that the smell didn’t bother them and they fathered a whole new race with the women of the island, Jason himself producing a set of twins with the Queen. Hercules finally got them to leave and, while we are not told all of the details, you know the debauchery must have reached some pretty freakish depths if even the notorious hound dog Hercules thinks you’re debasing yourself and best to move on. Jason and the Argonauts did, next landing on an island in the Doliones where, while gathering supplies, their ship was raided by a race of giants with six arms called the Gegeines. Fortunately, Hercules was with the ship and managed to fight them off, however, while foraging for food with Jason, Hercules’ houseboy Hylas was pulled into a stream by some nymphs who wanted to make him their boy toy. Hercules then left the Argonauts to recover Hylas though, alas, he was never able to and eventually went on to his other adventures.

The Argonauts next landed in Thrace and found King Phineus of Salmydessus (in the film played by “Doctor Who” Patrick Troughton, I also cannot help mentioning that the part of Hercules was played by Nigel Green who was in a ton of great movies like “Play Dirty”, “Tobruk”, “Khartoum” and “Zulu”). He is being plagued by harpies who snatch away his food every day and so is starving. Jason and the Argonauts feel sorry for the old guy, even though this is made known to be punishment from the gods, and they deal with the harpies for him, chasing them away. In thanks, Phineus tells Jason where he can find Colchis, the land at the end of the world where the Golden Fleece is and that they will have to pass through the Symplegades of “The Clashing Rocks”. These are huge, rocky cliffs that smash anything that sails between them. However, Phineas tells them to send a dove through first to test if it is safe for them to pass before going in. The Argonauts sail on, reach the cliffs and did as they were told. The dove made it through, as did the Argonauts and the cliffs closed behind them, never menacing navigation again. There may be more to the story that I am missing, but I always wondered why no one just sailed around the rocks in the first place instead of always going between them?

Jason taming the fire-breathing bulls
Anyway, Jason and the Argonauts finally arrive at Colchis, at the end of the world which, according to the ancient Greeks, was a smaller world than we have today as the end of the world back then was apparently on the Black Sea coast of Georgia. Jason goes to see the local potentate, King Aeetes, and tells him to cough up the Golden Fleece. Jason has a pretty good story but, as with all of these stories, Aeetes agrees but only if Jason can accomplish a given set of incredible feats. Despite having fought six-armed giants and sailed to the end of the world, Jason thinks these tasks are impossible and practically gives up in despair, going all Hamlet on them all of a sudden. Fear not, though, for the gods have not forsaken Jason and the ladies of Mt Olympus get together to help him out. Juno tells Venus to tell her son Cupid (that’s Hera, Aphrodite and Eros for the Greeks) to made the King’s daughter Medea fall in love with Jason. He does and Medea then uses her womanly ways to motivate Jason into fulfilling his seemingly impossible mission. He must plow a field using oxen that breath fire but Medea gives him some magical, soothing, skin cream to protect himself. He then plants a field with the teeth of a dragon (not the Hydra unfortunately as in the film) which then sprout into an army of really strong but really quite stupid warriors known as the spartoi. Medea clued Jason in on how to deal with them though and he basically just hits one with a rock from a distance and they all get in a big brawl and kill each other (again, not the same as the movie which, in this instance, was far more exciting than the actual story).

Jason obtains the fleece (thanks to Medea)
Finally, the only task left to complete is to kill the insomniac dragon that guards the Golden Fleece. This dragon never goes to sleep and so is understandably irritable. However, again, Medea provides Jason with a secret weapon. She gives him a sleeping potion to make the dragon take a nap. It’s not as exciting as fighting the Hydra but it is certainly safer and it works. Jason grabs the Golden Fleece and sails away with his beloved Medea who made his dream come true. Unfortunately, Medea also was sort of a murdering psycho as she got away from her father by murdering her brother, chopping his body into pieces and throwing them in the sea, making her getaway while her father was trying to collect the remains of his dismembered son. Yeah, Jason should really be careful to stay on her good side. This angers Jupiter/Zeus who blows the Argo off course on its way back to Greece and they have to go to Cyrene to get purified by a nymph. They do so, Euphemus becomes King of Cyrene and Jason and the other Argonauts sail on.

Orpheus plays for the Sirens
Now, you probably were not wondering why Jason should have brought along a musician like Orpheus on this quest but, if you had been, the answer is that his centaur childhood guardian told him he would come in handy when passing the rocks where the infamous Sirens lived. The Sirens were bird-women who lured sailors with their irresistible song so that their ships would be dashed on the rocks and the men eaten. The Argos, on its way home, after being blown off course, must sail near the Sirenum scopuli and so Jason has Orpheus start playing his lyre, making such beautiful music that the Siren’s song was drowned out, could not be heard and their ship was able to pass safely. The only other bump in the road, so to speak, was when the Argo sailed near the island of Crete. On the island of Crete was a giant made of bronze named Talos and he starting tossing huge boulders at the Argo so that the ship could not pass. Talos would have to be dealt with but, once again, Medea is the one who saves the day rather than Jason (really, once you get to Colchis this story could be called Medea and the Argonauts). She uses a spell to keep Talos dazed for a bit and then pulls out the nail in his ankle which unplugs his one and only blood vessel, causing Talos to bleed to death and allowing the Argo to sail on.

Jason and his prize
Jason and the Argonauts return with the Golden Fleece and are hailed as heroes. Jason is a little disappointed that his own father is too old and frail to take part in the merriment, so he has Medea use her magic to take a few years off of his life to give to his father, making him a little younger and more robust. That works great but the daughters of Pelias see the change and want the same done for their own father. Medea, who really seems to have a thing for this, convinces them that they need to kill their father, chop his body up into pieces and cook it in a pot for this to work, after which he will emerge looking like a young man. The airheads fall for it, kill their father and hack him up. Needless to say, after that, the whole ‘handing over the kingdom to Jason’ thing rather falls apart as Pelias’ son Acastus drives Jason and Medea out and they must go live in Corinth.

Jason, once again a prince without a kingdom, decides to make a marriage alliance with the King of Corinth by marrying his daughter Creusa. Well, as anyone with half a brain could guess, Medea flies into a rage when she hears about this betrayal by her beloved and recounts everything she has done for Jason. Now, true, Medea does seem to have been a murdering psychopath but it was her who basically made it possible for Jason to get the Golden Fleece and to get back home. Jason, however, says that since Cupid put a spell on her to love him, Venus deserves the credit rather than Medea. No, sorry Jason, that does not wash. Even if Medea had no choice but to love you, it isn’t as though you were treating her like a sister this whole time, you took full advantage of the situation and seeded two sons by Medea during this time, you don’t get off that easy! And, indeed, he did not as the women who butchered her own brother just as a distraction turns out to be the sort of woman you really shouldn’t make angry. She put a curse on Creusa’s wedding dress, causing it to burn her alive, murders her two sons by Jason and then flees to Athens in a chariot of light pulled by dragons sent by the sun god (her grandfather) Sol/Helios.

Order of the Golden Fleece
The only punishment Medea ever received was to have her name used in a long string of really ridiculous Tyler Perry movies. Jason, however, did go on to team up with Peleus, father of Achilles of Trojan War fame, to defeat Acastus and at long last reclaim the Kingdom of Iolcos though it would be his son, Thessalus, rather than himself who became King. Juno/Hera, who had previously looked out for Jason, abandoned him over his treatment of Medea and he died alone and unhappy, sleeping under the stern of the decaying Argo which rotted off, fell on him and crushed him to death. Not a happy ending but that really was not all that uncommon as these stories frequently made a point of the heroes being fallible. His story, of course, would live on forever. Even into the Christian era, the pagan traditions of Europe were not forgotten but were folded in and viewed as important lessons and symbols as well. Jason appeared in the pages of Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, being tormented in the Eighth Circle of Hell. The Golden Fleece became a symbol of monarchical divine right and was eventually taken as the symbol for the Order of the Golden Fleece by the Burgundian Habsburgs, going on to be the preeminent order of knighthood for Spain and Austria. At the time of its founding, the enemies of the Habsburgs did note the pagan origins of it but, in a very Renaissance way, the Golden Fleece was reinterpreted, so to speak, to become a significant symbol for Christians, the quest for it being seen as the struggles one must go through to obtain the blessings of Christ, the Lamb of God.


  1. I recall once, my conversion and confirmation godfather asked me to pray for a pregnant woman "codename Medea".

    Guess what she was contemplating?

    1. I can well imagine. Thank God you were not asked to pray for a man codenamed "Saturn".

  2. Just in case you thought psychopathy like Medea's merely mythical.

    Btw, the pedigree from Mercury ... check out Paul the Deacon's opening chapters of Gesta Langobardorum.

    There is a scene featuring Godan. Paul the Deacon thinks this is ridiculous - one of the reasons being "Godan is Mercury, and Mercury was a magician who lived a thousand years earlier in Greece". He could not figure out that "same pagan god" didn"t necessarily boil down to same human person (and in Godan's case, impersonator, see Snorri).

    St Francis Xaver considered the god of the Buddhists must be mythical, since no man has lived 9000 years in diverse reincarnations. Not withstanding, "the last incarnation" as Siddharta Gautama is now generally considered historical.

    1. Well, after reading a theory proposed last year I have been intrigued by the notion that the Greco-Roman gods and heroes might not have been mythical at all. The theory proposed that these may have been the Nephilim and their offspring spoken of in Genesis. Of course, the Great Flood presents a problem with that but, all the same, I have found it an interesting notion that has given me much to ponder on the subject.


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