Jason was one of the great heroes of ancient Greece, ranking right up there with Perseus, Theseus, and Heracles. The legend of his epic and dramatic life was massively popular. Kids sat around going, “Oooh Mom, tell us the story of Jason again.” And moms were like, “By Zeus, I'm sick of telling that story.” Then kids would get all nasally and whine, “BUT I REALLY WANT TO HEAR IT!” So, then frazzled moms would sigh and say, “Okay, fine, anything. Just please please be quiet.” Then kids would sip their chocolate goat's milk and smile as their mothers wearily rattled off the tale of Jason for like the jillionth time.
Even thousands of years later, we can see why folks got so darn hyped about the story of Jason. From his near murder as an infant, to his dangerous voyage to fetch the Golden Fleece, to his betrayal of his wife Medea, to Medea's horribly bloody revenge—this epic myth is packed with enough thrills and chills to keep anybody's butt on the edge of its seat. Back in the day, Jason's exhilarating exploits were a popular subject for just about every kind of artist you can think of: sculptures, painters, potters, balloon-artists. (Okay, maybe not balloon-artists, but you get the point.)
The legend of Jason was around for quite a while before anybody ever wrote it down. It was part of the oral tradition. That means it was told and re-told by tons of different people over a whole bunch of years. No one's even all that sure where it originated in the first place. Chances are, it didn't even begin with the Greeks, but nobody can prove it one way or another.
The most famous record of Jason's life is the epic poem The Argonautica, by a Greek named Apollodorus of Rhodes. There's also another version of The Argonautica by a Roman dude named Valerius Flaccus. (A plea from Shmoop: someone out there please name your first born child Valerius Flaccus.) Like anybody who's anybody, Jason also pops up in Ovid's Metamorphoses, and the tale of the wrath of his vengeful wife is told in the tragedy, Medea, by the late, great tragedian Euripides.
These days, the people are still lovin' on some Jason. The sex bomb and nautical champion hero made a cameo in the Hercules American cartoon series, and Jason Grace of Rick Riordan's Heroes of Olympus series is named after him. Also, like a lot of other legends of ancient Greece, Jason and the Golden Fleece both show up in the God of War video game.
On top of all that, Jason's tale is the inspiration for the classic 1963 film, Jason and the Argonauts, as well as the 2000 TV movie version of the same name. There's not a new new version for Jason's exploits in the works that we know we know about, but with Hollywood pumping out hit movies like Immortals and Clash of the Titans 1 & 2, we're guessing Jason will soon make his triumphant return to the big screen. Real heroes just don't quit.
This is the story of a long journey that takes its heroes through many different lands. Some of the places include: the island of Lemnos, where the women are in the market for some menfolk; the land of King Cyzicus, who dies in a violent incident of mistaken identity; the island of Circe, the witch who cleanses Jason and Medea; the island of Crete, where Medea kills Talos the bronze man. The many episodes of Jason's quest are defined by each new setting to which he and the Argonauts travel. In turn, each setting seems to be defined by its eccentric inhabitants.
Stories like The Argonautica belong to a family whose name is almost as fun to say as it is to write about. Picaresques are tales that involve a hero venturing through a whirligig tour of episodes and locations. Some notable favorites include The Odyssey, The Aeneid, Gulliver's Travels and Pinocchio. They keep the reader guessing what zany new thing is coming next.
The main goal of Jason's quest is to reach Colchis, the land of the Golden Fleece. Colchis was an actual historical kingdom with a very long history. The boundaries of ancient Colchis are today contained within the borders of Georgia. This is, of course, not to be confused with the U.S. State, Georgia (the land of the golden peaches). Georgia is a country on the western shore of the Black Sea. (Check it out here.)
Georgia is situated at a real crossroads of the world. To east is continental Europe and the Mediterranean, to the north is Russia, to the west is Asia, and to the south is the Middle East. In ancient times as well as today, this land contains a blend of many different cultures, which would have made it seem all the more exotic to the ancient Greeks.
The myths of Jason all take place a super long time ago (pre-Trojan War, in fact). Even to the old guys who first wrote down Jason's story, he was a legendary hero from the distant past. Sometimes the era that Jason and his fellow heroes lived in is called the Heroic Age. Back in these days, the heroes were the sons of gods, and the world was crammed with villains and nasty beasts that really needed slaying.
Remember that even to ancient Greeks, Jason was an ancient figure. It's pretty likely that the fact that heroes in the stories lived so long ago added to the highly fantastical and exaggerated nature of the tales. If a rumor gets passed around school long enough, it gets totally blown out of proportion, right? Well, it's the same way with myths. Someone tells another person about a cool thing somebody did, then after a thousand years of people retelling the story, it gets totally off the hook.
Hesiod, who was spitting verse around the same time as Homer, outlined the Ages of Man in his major poem Works And Days. In this poem, he whines about having to live in the wretched, boring age in which he was born, wishing he'd been around for the golden, silver and heroic ages. Nostalgia for a time that ended well before out birth is not new: the brooding artistes of early 20th-century France you admire so much wished they had been around for an older age, and so on ad infinitum.
The Hero's Journey is a framework that scholar Joseph Campbell came up with that many myths and stories follow. Many storytellers and story-readers find it a useful way to look at tale. (That's actually putting it lightly. Some people are straight-up obsessed.) Chris Vogler adapted Campbell's 17 stages of a hero's journey, which many screenwriters use while making movies. Vogler condensed Campbell's 17 stages down to 12, which is what we're using. Check out a general explanation of the 12 stages.
Jason and the Argonauts face and defeat all kinds of enemies on the way to fetch the Golden Fleece. Harpies, giants, a king who's a little too into boxing—all fall before the mighty Argonauts. Our heroes also make a lot of friends along the way too. There's King Phineus, the ladies of Lemnos (who are super friendly), and also the sons of Phrixus, the guy who originally brought the Golden Fleece to Colchis.
Jason and the Argonauts finally near Colchis, the land of the Golden Fleece. Jason has just gotten the surprise news that there's a dragon guarding the Fleece, so he's more than a little freaked out.
King Aeëtes says he'll give Jason the Golden Fleece as long as he completes three tasks: till a field with some fire-breathing oxen, defeat some warriors grown from dragon teeth, and defeat the actual dragon that guards the Golden Fleece. With the help of magical Medea, Jason passes these stupefying tests with flying colors.
Jason grabs the Golden Fleece and the Princess Medea, hops back into the boat with his buddies and makes his getaway across the sea.
As Jason, Medea, and the Argonauts sail back to Greece, they are chased by King Aeëtes. Medea decides to distract her father by chopping up her brother and throwing his body parts overboard. This grisly tactic is effective and the... um... heroes make their get-away.
Jason and Medea have a symbolic resurrection when they are cleansed of the murder of Medea's brother by the sorceress, Circe.
Jason returns triumphantly with the Golden Fleece, but will his dreams of the throne of Iolcus come true?
Jason's quest for the Golden Fleece has a lot of similarities to pretty much every quest story there is. The basic plot—hero goes in search of some valuable thing—is pretty widespread. One of the most common comparisons to the myths of the Golden Fleece is the legend of the Holy Grail. The most popular story is that this artifact is the cup that Jesus drank from at the Last Supper and also the cup in which Joseph of Arimathea caught some of Christ's blood when the martyr was entombed. The “Quest for the Holy Grail” is pretty essential to Arthurian legend, in which knight after knight heads off to distant lands to gain the magical cup. Learn more Grail lore here.
Plenty of other heroes have gone on quests for golden objects as well. One example is Jason's Greek hero buddy, Heracles, who went off to fetch the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. Another example is the fairy tale The Golden Bird, which was recorded by the Brothers Grimm. In this story, a prince sets off to capture a priceless golden bird that has been stealing his father the king's golden apples. (For the full story, click here.) Another myth is the legend of El Dorado, the legendary City of Gold, which had Spanish explorers traipsing all through South America in hopes of becoming fabulously wealthy. (Click here to learn more about El Dorado.)
The Golden Fleece is a symbol of everything that Jason wants in the world. More than anything else, Jason longs to be a king, and he's been told that if he brings it back to Iolcus that he will be given his rightful throne. But why, we wonder, did the makers of this myth decide that it's specifically a Golden Fleece that Jason has to bring back? It's a fleece made of gold. That's kind of weird, right? Why not basket-ball shoe made of silver? Or a dump-truck made of bubble-gum? We're guessing there might be some deeper elements of symbolism to think about.
The significance of the gold is a no-brainer. Gold makes anything better, or at least we think so, as we know from the tale of King Midas. But the fleece part? That still seems kinda wack. It may be as simple as the fact that the fleece's origins are the golden ram that saved Phrixus from sacrifice. Or it may have be a symbol of masculinity, as rams boast big ol' horns that translate easily into a multitude of many interpretations. There may just be an allusion to another myth, that of Cupid and Psyche. In this myth, Aphrodite forces the girl Psyche to fetch golden wool from across a river.
A much grimmer take on the meaning of the fleece is simply that it's a totally arbitrary goal. A golden fleece is pretty much useless; and as far as Pelias, Jason, or any of the other Argonauts are concerned, there's no point in going after it expect to have something to quest after. This spells out a dark lesson about the nature of ambition: we rarely pursue things for their own sake, when what we truly desire is fame and the fate of our rivals.