Literature Study GuidesMythologyPart 2 Chapter 3 Summary

Mythology | Study Guide

Edith Hamilton

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Mythology | Part 2, Chapter 3 : The Quest of the Golden Fleece | Summary

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Summary

The Quest of the Golden Fleece originates in the story of a prince named Phrixus, whose father Athamas takes a second wife named Ino. Athamas's first wife, Nephele, rightly fears Ino will kill Phrixus and his sister Helle to make way for her own children to inherit Athamas's throne. Ino parches the kingdom's seed-corn and convinces Athamas to sacrifice his children to prevent a famine. Nephele prays for her children's safety, and a ram with a golden fleece takes them from the altar where they are to be sacrificed. The ram carries Phrixus to Colchis, a country on the Black Sea, but Helle falls into the strait between Europe and Asia. In Colchis, Phrixus sacrifices the ram and gives the Golden Fleece to King Æetes as a gift of gratitude.

Back in Greece, Phrixus has an uncle whose throne is usurped by his nephew Pelias. The rightful heir to this throne is Jason, who is hidden as a child and returns to confront Pelias as an adult. Pelias agrees to yield the throne to Jason if Jason brings him the Golden Fleece. Pelias believes Jason will die on the quest, but Jason is eager for the adventure.

With a crew of heroes, including Hercules and Achilles's father, Peleus, Jason sets out on the ship Argo. The Argonauts, as the crew is known, find hospitality on Lemnos, an island populated by women who eschew the company of men. Hercules leaves the crew on another island to search for his armor-bearer Hylas who is taken by a water nymph. The Argonauts land on an island where an old prophet named Phineus is plagued by Harpies because his prophecies displeased Zeus. The sons of the North Wind fight the Harpies and earn Zeus's promise that they will plague Phineus no more. Phineus tells the Argonauts how to get past the clashing rocks called the Symplegades by sending a dove through ahead of their ship. After the Argo passes, the rocks are rooted together and cause no more trouble. The Argonauts also pass the island of the Amazons and see Prometheus chained to his rock in the Caucasus Mountains.

When the Argonauts arrive in Colchis, King Æetes welcomes them to his table but is angered when he learns of Jason's purpose. They have eaten with him, so he can't kill them. Instead, he gives Jason an impossible task, which he claims to have done himself. Jason is to yoke two fire-breathing bulls with bronze hooves and plow a field with them. He is to sow dragon's teeth there and defeat the crop of armed men who grow from the teeth. This will prove Jason's worthiness to possess the Golden Fleece.

Hera and Aphrodite conspire to help Jason by making Æetes's daughter Medea fall in love with Jason. Medea, a powerful sorceress, gives Jason a charm to make him invincible for a day and advises him to throw a stone amid the army so that they will kill each other. Æetes is angry when Jason succeeds at his trial, and begins planning more treachery against him. Following a warning from Hera, Medea tells Jason to take her and the Fleece back to Greece immediately. She helps him charm the serpent that guards the Fleece, and they all flee in the night. Æetes sends Medea's brother Apsyrtus to pursue them, and Medea kills him to ensure their escape. Hera sends nymphs to guide the Argo between the rock of Scylla and the whirlpool of Charybdis, and Medea saves them from landing on Crete and being destroyed by a man of bronze.

When the Argonauts return, Jason discovers that Pelias has driven Jason's father to suicide. Medea tricks Pelias's daughters into killing him by promising them a spell that will restore his youth if they cut Pelias to pieces. After Pelias's death, Jason and Medea move to Corinth and have two sons. Then Jason gets engaged to the king's daughter, and Medea threatens the princess's life. The king exiles Medea and her sons, and Jason scolds her for her jealousy. Medea sends the princess a poisoned robe that kills her, then she kills her sons to save them from a life of punishment in Corinth. Jason returns to find his sons' bodies and Medea stepping into a chariot on the roof drawn by dragons. He curses her has she rides away.

Analysis

The backstory of the Quest of the Golden Fleece itself, in which a ram rescues the young prince Phrixus and his sister from the machinations of an evil stepmother, reveals a number of unpleasant truths about the lives of royalty in the ancient world. Women and children are essentially powerless in the face of the king's whims. When Athamas grows tired of his first wife, Nephele, he casts her and his heirs aside with little thought. Perhaps he did not anticipate that his new wife would actively plot to kill his children, but he is easily convinced to sacrifice them when the threat of famine hangs over his kingdom. His choice to value the needs of his kingdom over his personal needs appears honorable, but his readiness to agree to the sacrifice with little question reveals a profound detachment from Phrixus and Helle. The gods' intervention in sending the ram indicates both divine and cultural disapproval of human sacrifice, and shows how the gods can be helpful and merciful to innocents truly in need of assistance.

Edith Hamilton describes Jason as "The first hero in Europe who undertook a great journey." From this perspective, Jason's quest provides a template for the heroic quests that follow his example. In 1949, only seven years after Hamilton published Mythology, Joseph Campbell published his seminal work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Where Hamilton's Mythology strives mainly to compile the classical myths into a single compendium, Campbell presents an analysis of heroic traditions from the classical period and beyond. In this book, he introduces the concept of the "hero's journey," arguing that all heroic quests follow a similar pattern, and this pattern traces back to the myths of the classical period. These steps include a call to adventure; a brief refusal of the call, acceptance of the quest, a series of obstacles and challenges, a major battle, obtaining the object of the quest, the return home, a final challenge before the end of the journey, and a personal transformation of some kind.

Jason accepts the call to seek the Golden Fleece with little hesitation in Hamilton's telling, but many of the other steps in his journey follow Campbell's model closely. The Argonauts face many obstacles on their way to Colchis, and as is the case for many heroes, they receive supernatural assistance in overcoming them. The Argonauts' defeat of the Harpies on Phineus's behalf allows Phineus to help them past the clashing rocks. Medea's skills at sorcery allow Jason to face and defeat his major challenge, which allows him to claim the object of the quest, the Golden Fleece. Medea—along with the gods themselves—further assists Jason on his journey home. Upon his return, Jason must defeat his uncle Pelias so as to avenge his father. At the end of the story, Jason's story once again departs from Campbell's model. Jason has completed his full journey, he has the Fleece and is set to marry the princess of the powerful city of Corinth. These are the rewards of his quest; however, Jason does not reap these rewards. When he betrays Medea, he forfeits his rewards. The princess is killed, as are his children. Jason fails to see how his selfishness leads to these events. He curses Medea as she escapes, and fails to experience a transformation that might make him a better person.

Even though Jason is a flawed hero with a flawed journey, he demonstrates values important to the society that confers heroic status upon him. For a start, he is physically ideal, with "splendid limbs" and "bright locks" of hair. He is well dressed, except for a missing shoe, which tells Pelias he is destined to conquer Pelias's ill-gotten kingdom as its rightful heir. When he confronts Pelias before the quest, Jason speaks to Pelias with honor and integrity. He tells Pelias, "You and I must rule ourselves by the law of right—not appeal to brazen swords or spears." Jason's appeal to Pelias is one of reason over violence. Pelias's decision to send Jason on the quest is, in contrast, an underhanded trick designed to bring about Jason's death. Jason's bravery is unassailable. He leaps into his quest, excited for the adventure. His strength in facing obstacles, even his ability to gain the favor of beautiful women—first Medea, then the Corinthian princess—all speak to his prowess and worthiness as a hero.

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