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 search for 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.
We don't get a lot of details about what Iolcus and Corinth were like, but we do know what both cities end up representing to Jason: awful, soul-crippling disappointment.
Iolcus is the city of Jason's birth. He's the rightful ruler of the place, but in the end he never gets to claim his throne. First it's stolen by his uncle, Pelias, and then, even after he goes on the whole quest for Golden Fleece to gain the crown, Pelias manages to keep it away from his nephew. After Medea murders Pelias for his betrayal, Jason is once again banished from his hometown. For Jason, Iolcus represents something that he's always wanted, but that he's just never destined to have.
When Jason and Medea take refuge in Corinth, it's a place of sanctuary. It's a haven where they're protected from all the angry people in Iolcus, still seething over the death of Pelias. They have kids there and probably build a house with a white picket fence. Soon, however Jason's ambition to be a king turns it all bad. When he sees an opportunity to join the royal family of Corinth by marrying the Princess Glauce, he totally kicks Medea to the curb. By the time Medea is through with violent revenge, Corinth is transformed from a city of hope to a city of horror.
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.
The legend of Medea killing her and Jason's sons is probably one of the most famous acts of filicide in Greek mythology. Pretty much as soon as you say Medea's name, people go, "Oh, that woman who killed her kids?" Though Medea might be one of the most famous murderous mothers of mythology, she's definitely not the only one. Another big example would be Agave, who, driven insane by Dionysus, was said to have ripped the head off of her son, King Pentheus. Of course, Agave doesn't have as bad a reputation as Medea, probably because her son was all grown up, and, more importantly, because she was supposedly possessed by a god
There's also a long list of Greek mythological mothers who tried to kill newborn babies by "exposing" them, which means leaving them in the wilderness to fend for themselves. Jocasta, the mother of Oedipus, signed off on having his ankles pinned together and left on a mountain to die. There's also Heracles's mother, Alcmene, who abandoned him in a field for fear of the wrath of Hera. In both these cases, however, the ladies failed to kill the children, and their little boys eventually came back to them. In Alcmene's case this ended up being a good thing, while in Jocasta's case it was a bad bad bad thing... did we mention in was bad?
The women are definitely not the only ones in Greek mythology who killed their children. The men did took part in their fair share of filicides as well. There was Agamemnon who sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenia. This in turn caused his wife, Clytemnestra, to kill him, and his son, Orestes, to kill Clytemnestra. So, that's a filicide to mariticide to matricide situation. (Dude.) Probably, the most famous child killer was the great hero Heracles, who was driven insane by Hera, causing him to slaughter his little ones.
Of course, the Greeks weren't the only ones with myths of filicide. One example is happens in the Celtic legend of the hero Cuchulain, who is said to have accidentally killed his son, Connla, not knowing who he was. There's also the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, in which God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac in order to test Abraham's faith. At the last minute, however, God tells Abraham not to go through with it. Also in the Bible, there's the story of Absalom, who rebels against his father, King David, and is killed by David's men in battle.
Latin American folklore has a story that's actually really similar to the myth of Medea. In this story there is a fabulously beautiful and incredibly vain woman named Maria (rhymes with Medea), who marries a handsome ranchero. For a while, the two are happy, and they have two kids (like Jason and Medea). Eventually, though, the ranchero gets tired of Maria. He only pays attention to the children and starts making plans to marry another woman (sound familiar?). Crazy with jealousy, Maria throws her children in a river, and they drown. Afterwards Maria feels so bad that she kills herself as well. Now, it's said that a woman in white, whom people call "La Llorna," walks up and down the river crying for her children. Mothers tell their children not to go out at night, or else La Llorna might snatch them.
Jason dies when while leaned against the rotting hulk of the Argo, the ship that he and the Argonauts took on their quest. This pathetic and bitterly ironic death seems to be totally symbolic of sorry state of the Jason's life. Let's pick it apart a bit...
First, there's the fact that the Argo is just sitting around and rotting. Here's the famous ship that took the famous Jason off on his famous voyage. Like Jason, the vessel is a legend in its own time, but now it sits neglected on a beach. Just like Jason, the boat is forgotten. Without another quest to go on, Jason and his ship are both falling apart.
Just when you thought you were safe, we add another layer. The fact that Jason is killed by a falling chunk of the rotting Argo is also pretty symbolic. You could see the Argo as a symbol for all that Jason achieved, since it's the ship that took him on his great quest. But now, a piece of that same ship that kills him. (This would be where the bitter irony comes in.)
Could it be that Jason's death-by-Argo symbolizes that it's Jason's quest that eventually brings him to a bad end? If he'd never gone on the quest, he never would've met Medea, and perhaps he never would've gotten such a big head that he thought he could kick her to the curb without any repercussions.
Also, it could be that the symbolism is even bigger than just Jason. What the story might be saying is that when any human being strives to do great things, he or she is risking failure. And beyond even that, they may just be planting the seeds of their own destruction.