The Argonauts (Ancient Greek: Ἀργοναῦται, Argonautai) were a band of heroes in Greek mythology, who in the years before the Trojan War, accompanied Jason to Colchis in his quest to find the Golden Fleece. Their name comes from their ship, the Argo, named after its builder, Argus. "Argonauts" literally means "Argo sailors". They were sometimes called Minyans, after a prehistoric tribe in the area.
After the death of King Cretheus, the Aeolian Pelias usurped the Iolcan throne from his half-brother Aeson and became king of Iolcus in Thessaly (near the modern city of Volos). Because of this unlawful act, an oracle warned him that a descendant of Aeolus would seek revenge. Pelias put to death every prominent descendant of Aeolus he could, but spared Aeson because of the pleas of their mother Tyro. Instead, Pelias kept Aeson prisoner and forced him to renounce his inheritance. Aeson married Alcimede, who bore him a son named Jason. Pelias intended to kill the baby at once, but Alcimede summoned her kinswomen to weep over him as if he were stillborn. She faked a burial and smuggled the baby to Mount Pelion. He was raised by the centaur Chiron, the trainer of heroes.
When Jason was 20 years old, an oracle ordered him to dress as a Magnesian and head to the Iolcan court. While traveling Jason lost his sandal crossing the muddy Anavros river while helping an old woman (Hera in disguise). The goddess was angry with King Pelias for killing his stepmother Sidero after she had sought refuge in Hera's temple.
Another oracle warned Pelias to be on his guard against a man with one shoe. Pelias was presiding over a sacrifice to Poseidon with several neighboring kings in attendance. Among the crowd stood a tall youth in leopard skin with only one sandal. Pelias recognized that Jason was his nephew. He could not kill him because prominent kings of the Aeolian family were present. Instead, he asked Jason: "What would you do if an oracle announced that one of your fellow-citizens were destined to kill you?" Jason replied that he would send him to go and fetch the Golden Fleece, not knowing that Hera had put those words in his mouth.
Jason learned later that Pelias was being haunted by the ghost of Phrixus. Phrixus had fled from Orchomenus riding on a divine ram to avoid being sacrificed and took refuge in Colchis where he was later denied proper burial. According to an oracle, Iolcus would never prosper unless his ghost was taken back in a ship, together with the golden ram's fleece. This fleece now hung from a tree in the grove of the Colchian Ares, guarded night and day by a dragon that never slept. Pelias swore before Zeus that he would give up the throne at Jason's return while expecting that Jason's attempt to steal the Golden Fleece would be a fatal enterprise. However, Hera acted in Jason's favour during the perilous journey.
Jason was accompanied by some of the principal heroes of ancient Greece. The number of Argonauts varies, but usually totals between 40 and 55; traditional versions of the story place their number at 50.
Some have hypothesized that the legend of the Golden Fleece was based on a practice of the Black Sea tribes; they would place a lamb's fleece at the bottom of a stream to entrap gold dust being washed down from upstream. This practice is still in use, particularly in the Svaneti region of Georgia. See Golden Fleece for other, more speculative interpretations.
The crew of the Argo
There is no definite list of the Argonauts. H.J. Rose explains this was because "an Argonautic ancestor was an addition to even the proudest of pedigrees." The following list is collated from several lists given in ancient sources.
- Actor (son of Hippas)
- Amphion (son of Hyperasius)
- Argus (builder of Argo)
- Argus (son of Phrixus)
- Asterion (son of Cometes)
- Asterius (brother of Amphion)
- Autolycus, son of Deimachus
- Calaïs (son of Boreas)
- Caeneus (son of Coronus)
- Castor (son of Tyndareus; twin and half-brother of Pollux)
- Cepheus, King of Tegea
- Clytius (son of Eurytus)
- Coronus (son of Caeneus)
- Deucalion of Crete
- Erginus (son of Poseidon)
- Erytus (brother of Echion)
- Eurymedon (son of Dionysus)
- Eurytus (son of Hermes)
- Heracles (son of Zeus)
- Iolaus (nephew of Heracles)
- Laërtes (Father of Odysseus)
- Laokoön (half-brother of Oeneus and tutor of Meleager)
- Medea (joined when the Fleece was recovered)
- Neleus (son of Poseidon)
- Palaimonius (son of Hephaestus)
- Perseus (son of Zeus, slayer of Medusa)
- Periclymenus (grandson of Poseidon)
- Phanus (brother of Staphylus and Eurymedon)
- Phlias (son of Dionysus)
- Prias (brother of Phocus)
- Pollux (son of Zeus)
- Thersanon (son of Helios and Leucothoe)
- Theseus (son of Poseidon and slayer of the Minotaur)
- Zetes (son of Boreas)
Several more names are discoverable from other sources. Amyrus, eponym of a Thessalian city, is given by Stephanus of Byzantium as "one of the Argonauts"; he is otherwise said to have been a son of Poseidon and to have given his name to the river Amyrus. Azorus was the helmsman of Argo according to Hesychius of Alexandria; he could be the same as the Azorus mentioned by Stephanus as founder of the city Azorus in Pelagonia.
Notes to the list
- Atalanta is included on the list by Pseudo-Apollodorus, but Apollonius claims that Jason forbade her because she was a woman and could cause strife in the otherwise all-male crew. Other sources state that she was asked, but refused.
- Apollonius also claims that Theseus and Pirithous were trapped in Hades at the time and could not join.
- Theseus being on the list is inconsistent with accounts of his life usually including him encountering Medea at an early stage of his adventures, yet many years after the Argonauts completed their adventure (Medea, by that time, was not only abandoned by Jason, but also bore a child from Aegeus).
- Argus, Phrontis, Melas and Cytissorus, sons of Phrixus and Chalciope, joined the crew only after being rescued by the Argonauts: the four had been stranded on a desert island not far from Colchis, from where they initially sailed with an intent to reach their father's homeland. However, Argus is not to be confused with the other Argus, son of Arestor or Polybus, constructor and eponym of the ship Argo and member of the crew from the beginning.
Adaptations of the myth
- The Life and Death of Jason (1867) by William Morris
- Hercules, My Shipmate (1945) by Robert Graves
- The Greek Myths by Robert Graves
- Jason and Medeia by John Gardner, a modern, epic poem in English.
- The Argonautica by Gaius Valerius Flaccus, a first-century AD Latin epic poem.
- The Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes, a Hellenistic, Greek epic poem.
- Despoiled Shore Medea Material Landscape with Argonauts (1982) -- a play in the synthetic fragment form by Heiner Müller
- In comics, The Argonauts was included in the British version of the Classics Illustrated series. In addition to a comic book adaptation of the film Jason and the Argonauts published by Dell Comics in 1963 as part of their Movie Classics series, there were 2 series that featured The Argonauts alongside Jason. The first was a 5 issue series published by Caliber Press in 1991, while the other was a series called Jason and the Argonauts: Kingdom of Hades, a 5 issue mini-series, published by Bluewater Comics in 2007. In 2011, Campfire Books published a graphic novel called Jason and the Argonauts written by Dan Whitehead.
- The Heroes of Olympus by Rick Riordan is loosely based on a modern version of the story of Jason and the Argonauts. The myth is mentioned on several occasions.
- Argonauts of the Western Pacific, the famous ethnography written by Bronislaw Malinowski about kula exchange in the Trobriand Islands.
Film and Television
A Soviet cartoon called The Argonauts was made in 1971.
The German movie Das Goldene Ding (The golden thing, 1972), directed by Edgar Reitz together with three co-directors, depicts Argonauts as young boys, as they seem to have been according to original Greek sources. It pays a special attention to how machines that were made possible by the relatively simple technology of the time allow for building the ship and other devices.
A Hallmark presentation TV movie, Jason and the Argonauts (2000), shows Jason having to settle for men with no sailing experience. This includes a thief who says "Who better than a thief to grab the Golden Fleece?"
Two movies titled Jason and the Argonauts have been made, and a film entitled Rise of the Argonauts is in production but is not an adaptation and will act as a prequel to the first film. This film will be released sometime in spring 2011.
Jason and the Argo, along with a small number of the more legendary Argonauts and Greeks, were featured in the 2008 video game Rise of the Argonauts
- Argo Navis
- Argonaut Mine
- Jason for more details on the quest for the Golden Fleece
- Toronto Argonauts, a Canadian Football League Team
- Argonaut Rowing Club, a rowing club based out of Toronto
- "Jason and the Argonauts", a song by XTC, from their album English Settlement
- Rutlish School; "Argonauts" is the name of one of eight houses within the school system
- Rose, A Handbook of Greek Mythology (New York: Dutton, 1959), p. 198
- Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica, 1. 23 - 228
- Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 1. 9. 16
- Hyginus, Fabulae, 14
- Stephanus of Byzantium s. v. Amyros
- Scholia on Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica, 1. 596. The Argonauts are reported to have sailed past this river by both Apollonius (1. 596) and Valerius Flaccus (2. 11)
- Hesychius s. v. Azōros
- Stephanus of Byzantium s. v. Azōros
- Arg. 1. 770
- Arg. 1. 100
- Roger Lancelyn Green, in his Tales of the Greek Heroes, gets round this problem by suppressing the name of the witch-wife who Theseus encountered in his early life.
- Arg. 2. 1193
- Arg. 1. 112; Hyg. Fab. 14
- Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica I, 23–227
- Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca I, ix, 16.
- Ken Inglis, This is the ABC: The Australian Broadcasting Commission 1932–1983, 2006
- J. R. Bacon, The Voyage of the Argonauts. (London: Methuen, 1925).
- Definition of an "argonaut" and the history of how this myth has become embedded in Western culture.
- Argonauts Information and Gallery
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