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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Argonautic Legend
Critical Introduction
THE LEGEND of the Argonauts relates to the story of a band of heroes who sailed from Thessaly to Æa, the region of the Sun-god on the remotest shore of the Black Sea, in quest of a Golden Fleece. The ship Argo bore the heroes, under the command of Jason, to whom the task had been assigned by his uncle Pelias. Pelias was the usurper of his nephew’s throne; and for Jason, on his coming to man’s estate, he devised the perilous adventure of fetching the golden fleece of the Speaking Ram which many years before had carried Phrixus to Æa, or Colchis. Fifty of the most distinguished Grecian heroes came to Jason’s aid, while Argus, the son of Phrixus, under the guidance of Athena, built the ship, inserting in the prow, for prophetic advice and furtherance, a piece of the famous talking oak of Dodona. Tiphys was the steersman, and Orpheus joined the crew to enliven the weariness of their sea-life with his harp.  1
  The heroes came first to Lemnos, where the women had risen in revolt and slain fathers, brothers, and husbands. Here the voyagers lingered almost a year; but at last, having taken leave, they came to the southern coast of Propontis, where the Doliones dwelt under King Cyzicus. Their kind entertainment among this people was marred by ill-fate; for having weighed anchor in the night, they were driven back by a storm, and being mistaken for foes, were fiercely attacked. Cyzicus himself fell by the hand of Jason. They next touched at the country of the Bebrycians, where the hero Pollux overcame the king in a boxing-match and bound him to a tree; and thence to Salmydessus, to consult the soothsayer Phineus. In gratitude for their freeing him from the Harpies, who, as often as his table was set, descended out of the clouds upon his food and defiled it, the prophet directed them safe to Colchis. The heroes rowing with might, thus passed the Symplegades, two cliffs which opened and shut with such swift violence that a bird could scarce fly through the passage. The rocks were held apart with the help of Athena, and from that day they became fixed and harmless. Further on, they came in sight of Mount Caucasus, saw the eagle which preyed on the vitals of Prometheus, and heard the sufferer’s woeful cries. So their journey was accomplished, and they arrived at Æa, and the palace of King Æetes.  2
  When the king heard the errand of the heroes he was moved against them, and refused to give up the fleece except on terms which he thought Jason durst not comply with. Two bulls, snorting fire, with feet of brass, Jason was required to yoke, and with them plow a field and sow the land with dragon’s teeth. Here the heavenly powers came to the hero’s aid, and Hera and Athena prayed Aphrodite to send the shaft of Cupid upon Medea, the youthful daughter of the king. Thus it came about that Medea conceived a great passion for the young hero, and with the magic which she knew she made for him a salve. The salve rendered his body invulnerable. He yoked the bulls, and ploughed the field, and sowed the dragon’s teeth. A crop of armed men sprang from the sowing, but Jason, prepared for this marvel by Medea, threw among them a stone which she had given him, whereupon they fell upon and slew one another.  3
  But Æetes still refused to fetch the fleece, plotting secretly to burn the Argo and kill the heroic Argonauts. Medea came to their succor, and by her black art lulled to sleep the dragon which guarded the fleece. They seized the pelt, boarded the Argo, and sailed away, taking Medea with them. When her father followed in pursuit, in the madness of her love for Jason she slew her brother whom she had with her, and strewed the fragments of his body upon the wave. The king stopped to recover them and give them burial, and thus the Argonauts escaped. But the anger of the gods at this horrible murder led the voyagers in expiation a wearisome way homeward. For they sailed through the waters of the Adriatic, the Nile, the circumfluous stream of the earth, passed Scylla and Charybdis and the Island of the Sun, to Crete and Ægina and many lands, before the Argo rode once more in Thessalian waters.  4
  The legend is one of the oldest and most familiar tales of Greece. Whether it is all poetic myth, or had a certain foundation in fact, it is impossible now to say. The date, the geography, the heroes, are mythical; and as in the Homeric poems, the supernatural and seeming historical are so blended that the union is indissoluble by any analysis yet found. The theme has touched the imagination of poets from the time of Apollonius Rhodius, who wrote the ‘Argonautica’ and went to Alexandria B.C. 194 to take care of the great library there, to William Morris, who published his ‘Life and Death of Jason’ in 1867. Mr. Morris’s version of the contest of Orpheus with the Sirens is given to illustrate the reality of the old legends to the Greeks themselves. Jason’s later life, his putting away of Medea, his marriage with Glauce, and the revenge of the deserted princess, furnish the story of the greatest of the plays of Euripides.  5

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