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, "O.K. 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 billionth time.
We can see why folks got so excited about the story of Jason. From his near murder as an infant to his dangerous voyage in search of 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 on the edge of their seats. Back in the day, Jason's exciting exploits were a popular subject for pretty much every kind of artist you can think of: sculptures, painters, potters, candlestick makers. (O.K. maybe not candlestick makers, but you get the point.)
The legend of Jason was around a long time before anybody ever wrote it down. It was part of the oral tradition, where 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. 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 Apollodorus of Rhodes. There's also another version of The Argonautica by a 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 Euripides.
These days, people are still lovin' on some Jason. The hero made a cameo in the Hercules 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 that, Jason's tale is the inspiration for the classic 1963 film, Jason and the Argonauts, and 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 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.
Jason is raised in the wilderness by Chiron the centaur, until the budding hero is old enough to return to his hometown of Iolcus to claim his birthright. This transition from the country to the city was probably a major culture shock for young Jason. Imagine if you'd spent your entire life hanging out in the woods, and then one day walked into New York City. Your mind would probably be blown. We're guessing it must have been the same way for Jason.
The convention of heroes growing up or spending some part of their lives in the wilderness happens a lot in world mythology. It seems to get across the idea that spending time away from civilization in some way purifies a hero, making him ready to go out and do great things.
The myths of Jason all take place a super long time ago. 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.
It's important to think about the fact 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.
When Jason comes of age, he heads to Iolcus to reclaim the throne of his father, Aeson, from Pelias.
There's no refusal of the call. Jason gets on the road as soon as he's able.
Chiron, who Jason, has grown up with is his real mentor. Jason learned everything from the wise centaur. At this point in the story, he also meets Hera, the queen of the gods, who supports his quest.
Jason reaches Iolcus and is challenged by Pelias to sail away and find the Golden Fleece. The young hero is all about it, because he's eager to be famous.
The next steps happen in "Jason and the Golden Fleece."
When King Aeson, Jason's father, is kicked off of his throne by his half-brother Pelias, Jason's mother sends him off into the wilderness to be raised by the wise centaur, Chiron. Growing up with Chiron, Jason learns everything he needs to know in order to live the life of a hero. This whole hero-in-the-wilderness thing reminds us of several other myths. One example from Greek mythology is Oedipus whose parents abandoned him on a mountainside. Ironically, another example is Jason's uncle Pelias, who is the one who caused Jason to be sent away. Pelias was abandoned by his mother, Tyro, because she had been tricked into conceiving him by the sea-god Poseidon. Both Oedipus and Pelias were raised for a while by shepherds.
Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome, were also said to have gone through a similar experience. Like Jason, these twins ended up in the wilderness because one power-hungry brother kicked another off of a throne. Romulus and Remus's, grandfather, King Numitor, was killed by his brother, Amulius, who then took over the throne of Alba Longa, a city in ancient Italy. Later, however, Numitor's daughter, Rhea conceived Romulus and Remus by Mars, the Roman God of War. To keep the babies safe from Numitor, Rhea set them adrift on the River Tiber. Romulus and Remus were found by a she-wolf who nursed them with her tasty wolf-milk. Later on, like Oedipus and Pelias, the twins were raised by shepherds. Eventually, like Jason, Romulus and Remus grew up and avenged their grandfather.
When Jason crosses the river with Hera on his back, it is a rite of passage. The young man is not only crossing a body of water, he's also crossing into another stage of his life. Jason's life with his mentor, Chiron, is over, and now he has to apply everything he's learned out there in the real world. The torrential river is the first challenge of the many that Jason will have to face, and the fact that he passes the test shows that he just might have what it takes to be a great hero. He starts into the river a boy; when he emerges on the other side, he's a man.
The crossing of a river is often used to symbolize passing from won state to another. Another example from Greek mythology is the crossing of the River Styx, which divides the land of the living from the world of the dead. In order to cross this stream, souls must pay Charon, the ferryman, to take them across in his boat. (You have to pay for that?) So, the crossing of the River Styx represents passing from a state of living to a state of death.
Another famous river crossing from world mythology is the crossing of the River Jordan, which took the Hebrews into the Promised Land. In the Judeo-Christian belief system, this crossing represented a promise made by God that the Jewish people would one day find a homeland. To the Hebrews, crossing the river transformed them from a wandering people to a people with a home. It also symbolized that they were sacred to God.