King Athamas divorced his first wife to marry another. His second wife was ambitious for her own children and devised a way to get rid of Athamas' children by his previous wife. She arranged a famine that could only be alleviated by the death of her stepchildren. As these children were about to be sacrificed Hermes sent a golden ram to rescue them. This divine ram saved the boy Phrixus and his sister Helle and flew north with them. Helle lost her grip and fell into a body of water that was named the Hellespont after her. The ram delivered Phrixus to Colchis, where the boy was taken in by King Aeetes. In thanksgiving for his deliverance Phrixus killed the golden ram as a sacrifice to Zeus, and its fleece was hung in a sacred grove.
Now the kingdom that Jason was supposed to inherit had been usurped by his cousin Pelias, and Jason was raised in secrecy for his own protection. Pelias had learned from an oracle that he himself would die because of a kinsman, and that he must beware of any stranger wearing a single sandal. When Jason arrived to claim rulership he wore but one sandal. A handsome, ambitious young man, Jason boldly confronted King Pelias and offered to let him have the wealth Pelias had accumulated, but that he, Jason, would take over the kingship. Pelias agreed but demanded that Jason fetch the Golden Fleece from far-off Colchis, thinking that the brash young man would never return.
Jason, consented to Pelias' condition and commissioned a ship, the Argo, to be built. He sent word to every court in Greece that he wanted volunteers, a band of Argonauts, to accompany him on his adventure. The journey would take them past Troy, up the Hellespont, through the Bosphorus, and all the way to the eastern shores of the Black Sea, where Colchis was located.
Among the many heroes who assembled for the expedition were Heracles, Castor and Polydeuces, Atalanta, Meleager, and Orpheus. The illustrious crew offered a sacrifice to Apollo before setting sail, and Jason himself was under the special protection of Hera.
The first stopover was at Lemnos, an island where the women had killed all but one of their males in a rage. But after a year without men the Lemnian women welcomed the Argonauts, slept with them, and gave them gifts of food, wine, and clothing. Soon thereafter the company lost Heracles when he went to search for his squire, Hylas, who had fallen into a fresh spring in his attraction to a nymph. Since Heracles did not return, the Argonauts had to sail without him.
The Argo slipped past Troy in darkness to avoid paying tribute to King Laomedon. A bit later Polydeuces had to kill King Amycus in a boxing match before the crew could continue on. Next the Argonauts came to a place where fierce birdlike females were plaguing a seer who had offended Zeus. These creatures, the Harpies, would swoop down at every meal to defile the seer's food, leaving it inedible. So two of Jason's comrades, both able to fly, pursued the Harpies. Moreover, they extracted a promise from Iris, the messenger of the gods, that the Harpies would never bother Phineus the seer again. In gratitude for ridding him of the Harpies Phineus foretold all that would happen to the Argonauts on the way to Colchis. And through his advice the heroes were able to pass between the Symplegades, or Clashing Rocks, without mishap.
Having gained the Black Sea, the Argo sailed along the southern coast toward the eastern shore. At one point the Argonauts were tempted to battle those savage warrior women, the Amazons, but they sailed on and at last came to the land of Colchis. The heroes put in at a secluded inlet and debated the best course to take. They decided to go directly to King Aeetes and ask him for the Golden Fleece. Jason led some of his company to the palace, but they were greeted with hostility because the Colchians hated the Greeks. In fact King Aeetes threatened to mutilate the Agronauts, but Jason answered him softly, promising to undertake any tasks he should set. Aeetes then offered to give them the fleece if Jason could yoke two fire-breathing bulls, plow a huge field belonging to Ares, and sow the furrows with dragon's teeth. These seemed like impossible tasks to Jason, but he agreed to undertake them.
The goddess Hera had arranged that Aeetes' beautiful daughter Medea should fall instantly in love with Jason. Not only was Medea lovely, she was skilled in sorcery. Medea contrived a meeting with Jason, who seemed entranced with her. He pledged to take her back to Greece with him and to remain faithful. In return Medea gave him an ointment that would enable him to conquer the bulls and plow the field. She also told him the secret of defeating the awesome crop of warriors that would sprout from the dragon's teeth. On the following day Jason yoked the fiery bulls, plowed the field, and sowed the teeth. When armed warriors sprang from the soil to attack him, Jason threw a stone into their midst and they fell upon one another murderously until not one was left alive. But King Aeetes refused to give Jason the fleece, vowing to get rid of the Argonauts. Medea then bid Jason to take some men and steal the Golden Fleece from its place in the sacred grove of Ares. By night Medea led the troop to the grove, and there she charmed to sleep the dragon who guarded the fleece. Jason took the fleece from its perch and hurried back to his ship, the Argo, with Medea and his men.
Once on board the Argo Jason set sail. But before long they were pursued and cornered by the Colchian fleet, which was commanded by Medea's brother, Apsyrtus. To save Jason, Medea wrote her brother, saying that she had been abducted and that if he would meet her in a clandestine spot she would return the fleece and go home with him. When Apsyrtus met Medea that night Jason stepped out from hiding and slew him. Without Apsyrtus' leadership the Colchian fleet was dispersed, leaving Jason free to return home with Medea, who had become his mistress.
In another version of this story, Medea abducted her brother Apsyrtus aboard the Argo and there she murdered him. When King Aeetes pursued the ship and drew dangerously close, Medea would cut part of her brother's corpse off and fling it into the sea. Aeetes then had to retrieve the member to prevent his son's ghost from haunting him. In this way the Argo escaped the Colchian navy.
Jason and Medea had to purify themselves for the murder of Apsyrtus, so they journeyed to the sorceress Circe, who purged them. To get back to Greece the Argo had to pass between the cliff of Scylla and the whirlpool of Charybdis, but Hera saw that nymphs guided the ship. At Crete the Argonauts came upon Talus, a gigantic bronze warrior who threatened to sink the vessel with boulders. Again Medea came to the rescue, using sorcery to defeat Talus by calling upon the hounds of Hades. At length the Argonauts reached Greece and disbanded, returning to their separate homes.
When Jason arrived at Iolcos, his own birthplace, he learned that King Pelias had put his parents to death during his quest for the Golden Fleece. Medea offered to obtain revenge upon Pelias. Gaining an audience with the king and his daughters, Medea proclaimed her ability to rejuvenate men. Pelias, who was now old, grew interested. To prove her power she cut up an old ram, threw it into a boiling caldron, put in some magic herbs, and produced a frisky lamb. Medea then persuaded the daughters of Pelias to cut him up and put him in the pot. After they had done so, of course, Pelias was dead once and for all. Because of this mischief Jason and Medea were forced to leave Iolcos shortly. From there they went to Orchomenus, where they hung the Golden Fleece in the temple of Zeus.
The pair took up residence in Corinth, and Medea had two sons by Jason. However, Jason began casting his eyes about for a more suitable mate. As ambition would have it, he arranged to marry the king of Corinth's daughter, Glauce (also called Creüsa). When Medea learned of this she uttered some rash words that caused her to be banished from the city. Medea was heartsick at Jason's coldness after everything she had done for him, and she determined to take her revenge. Medea prepared a splendid garment for Jason's bride. When Glauce tried it on she felt her flesh burn away and died in agony. Knowing that life in exile would be harsh on her two sons, Medea killed the boys. She escaped Jason's wrath in a sky-borne chariot drawn by dragons. Jason also lost Hera's favor, and lived an empty life from then on. His single triumph was finished, and he ruled Corinth but produced no more children. Finally, one day as he was brooding under the prow of the Argo its beam fell on him, killing him.
Having no son, King Aegeus of Athens consulted the Delphic oracle, which told him in very obscure terms that he was not to lie with any woman until he reached his home, or he would die of grief. He failed to grasp the meaning, and while visiting King Pittheus at Troezen he got drunk, so Pittheus sent Aethra into him, knowing that this daughter would produce an heir to Aegeus' throne. Some claim that Poseidon also slept with Aethra on that night. In any case, Aegeus showed Aethra a rock under which he was leaving his sandals and sword, and he told her that if she gave birth to a boy and if he grew strong enough to lift the rock and recover the sword and sandals he should come to Athens to claim his inheritance.
In due time Aethra gave birth to Theseus, who grew up strong, athletic, courageous, and intelligent. On reaching manhood Theseus lifted the rock that his mother pointed out, reclaiming the sword and sandals. Now King Aegeus had left a ship by which Theseus might sail safely and easily from Troezen to Athens. But Theseus disdained the easy route, deciding to take the dangerous overland way, which was beset with robbers. Modeling himself upon his heroic cousin, Heracles, Theseus made a resolution not to attack anyone first but to mete out the punishment that fitted the offense. The bandits were rather inventive in their means of murdering travelers. One clubbed them to death with an iron cudgel. Another made them wash his feet and then kicked them off a cliff into the sea, where a man-eating turtle devoured them. And one bent two pines to the ground, tied his victims to the tops and released the trees. The most famous one, Procrustes, tied his victims to the bed, and where they were too long for the bed he cut off their limbs, but when they were too short he stretched them out. Theseus destroyed each of these killers by their own methods, clearing the way to Athens of robbers.
Upon arriving in Athens, Theseus was proclaimed as a hero. However, his father, King Aegeus, had taken in Medea after she escaped Jason, and had fathered sons by her. Medea immediately recognized Theseus as Aegeus' son, so she decided to destroy him in order that her own sons would inherit the throne. Telling Aegeus that Theseus was an evildoer sent by the king's enemies, she invited the new hero to the palace and prepared a poisoned goblet for him with Aegeus' consent. Just before Theseus drank from the cup he pulled his sword as if to cut meat. Aegeus immediately recognized the sword and knocked the goblet from his son's hand. The king rejoiced to find he had such a distinguished son, and Medea was forced to flee to Asia.
To punish Athens for the death of a son King Minos of Crete demanded a tribute of seven maidens and seven youths every nine years. These were to be given to the Minotaur to destroy, a monster with the head of a bull and the body of a man. The Minotaur lived in the Labyrinth, an incredibly complex maze from which it was almost impossible to escape.
The time had come for the tribute of youths and maidens to be paid. Theseus elected to join the party of doomed young people, hoping to destroy the monster and free Athens from King Minos' demands. Aegeus was distressed at the plan, yet he gave his son a black sail to be hoisted in case of disaster and a white one to use in case of victory. So Theseus set sail for the island of Crete.
Upon his arrival Ariadne, the daughter of Minos, fell in love with him and determined to aid him. From Daedalus, the man who constructed the Labyrinth, she obtained a thread by which Theseus could find his way out of the maze once he had entered. Armed with nothing but the thread, Theseus penetrated the Labyrinth with his fellow victims. At length he came upon the Minotaur asleep, and seizing his advantage he pounded the beast to death with his fists. By means of the thread he led his companions to freedom.
Having promised to marry Ariadne, Theseus took her as far as the island of Naxos and deserted her, either by design or by accident. One legend says he loved Phaedra now. He sailed for Athens, but forgot to take down the black sail and hoist the white one. His father, Aegeus, who was watching for the ship from a cliff, saw the black sail of defeat and hurled himself off into the sea in a fit of despair. Ever since then the sea has been called the Aegean.
Theseus then took over the government of Athens. Under his wise supervision a democracy was established, with town council meetings and a popular vote. Theseus himself held the position of commander in chief and allowed the citizens to run things as they wished in the belief that political liberty made people responsible and prosperous. On his own initiative he aided the unfortunate, forcing the city of Thebes to allow the burial of its dead enemies, befriending the blind and exiled Oedipus, and welcoming the bloodstained Heracles to Athens when no one else would have him.
Perhaps one reason Theseus set up a self-running form of government was that he found the cares of rulership oppressive, preferring to engage in heroic and risky exploits. He made an expedition to the land of the Amazons and brought their Queen Hippolyta back as his wife, begetting a son, Hippolytus, on her. The Amazons attacked Athens in turn. When their queen refused to return with them the Amazons, or warrior women, slew her. And Theseus then routed them from his country.
Theseus acquired a fast friend in an unusual manner, the reckless Pirithoüs, a fellow who stole Theseus' cattle to test his mettle. When Theseus pursued him Pirithoüs was filled with admiration for the hero and told him to choose the penalty he would inflict. At this Theseus felt an instant affection for him, and the two became close friends. Pirithoüs invited Theseus to his wedding. As king of the Lapiths he also invited the savage horsemen, the Centaurs. These creatures proceeded to get drunk and one attempted to abduct Pirithoüs' bride, Hippodamia. In the ensuing fight both the lustful Centaur and Hippodamia were killed. A war followed between the Centaurs and the Lapiths in which Theseus took part. Their final exploit together was a masterpiece of impiety. Theseus decided to kidnap the child Helen and marry her when she grew up. Pirithoüs wanted to descend to the underworld and kidnap Persephone for his wife. So after abducting Helen, who was later recovered by her brothers, Castor and Polydeuces, the pair entered the netherworld to seize the goddess Persephone. Her husband, Hades, welcomed them and bid them sit down. When they did so Theseus and Pirithoüs could not arise again, for they had sat in the Chair of Oblivion and lost all memory of their purpose. Not until four years later, when Heracles harrowed Hell during his twelfth labor, was Theseus rescued from that fate and restored to the land of the living. But Heracles failed to rescue Pirithoüs, who had to remain in the den of Death.
Theseus' son Hippolytus grew to manhood as an expert huntsman in the service of Artemis. He had no use for women but delighted in his father's company. When Theseus took Phaedra as his wife, Hippolytus seemed to avoid his stepmother. Phaedra in turn grew madly in love with the elusive young man and tried to seduce him. When he rejected her Phaedra hanged herself after writing Theseus a letter accusing Hippolytus of rape. Despite his protests, however, Hippolytus could not convince his father of his innocence. Theseus prayed to the god Poseidon to kill his ingrate son. While Hippolytus was driving his chariot along a stretch of beach Poseidon sent a sea-bullock up from the water. The horses bolted in terror, throwing Hippolytus from the chariot. The fall killed him. In anger the goddess Artemis revealed the truth to Theseus, who became inconsolable.
As he grew older Theseus found little to take pleasure in. The Athenians had become extremely quarrelsome. And at last he died a miserable death at the hands of his host, King Lycomedes, who pushed him from a cliff because of a territorial dispute. Eventually the Athenians erected a tomb for their hero that would also serve as a sanctuary for defenseless persons.
In Jason and Theseus we have two heroes who enjoy an outstanding beginning and must suffer a tragic middle age. It is interesting how the magical and the realistic combine in many heroic legends. Often a hero's success is due to supernatural aid. Jason could have accomplished nothing without Medea's sorcery and Hera's protection. Yet an actual personality reveals itself in the legend. Jason seems bland, obliging, competent, guided solely by ambition. An effective organizer, he supervises the Argo expedition, but the ultimate purpose of the quest for the fleece is merely to establish his right to rule Pelias' kingdom. It is a right that he never obtains, because Medea takes revenge upon Pelias and they have to leave Iolcos. He then determines to rule Corinth by marrying the king's daughter, a move that brings down Medea's wrath on his head. He gains Corinth but loses his own soul, in effect, and the same ambition that guides his one great adventure ruins him in the end. The legend for all its fantastic elements is psychologically truthful.
The same holds good for Theseus, who is a different type entirely. Whereas Jason is self-serving, Theseus' great exploits prove beneficial to others. In ridding the land route to Athens of robbers he makes the way safe for other travelers. In killing the Minotaur he frees Athens of its obligatory human sacrifices. In giving Athens a democratic government he makes citizens out of subjects. Theseus makes a point of defending the weak. He is one hero who consciously models himself upon another — the great Heracles. If he lacks Heracles' sheer masculine exuberance, he is more intelligent than his model and his deeds have more point to them.
Generous, brave, helpful, and intelligent, Theseus still has flaws that undermine his happiness and bring his life to a sad end. For one thing, he has a streak of rashness that harms him. In abandoning Ariadne he seems to lay a curse on all his marital attachments. He wreaks his son's destruction through angry ignorance. He nearly perishes when he goes down to the underworld to abduct Persephone. And his negligence in failing to hoist the white sail sends his father Aegeus hurtling from a cliff, a fact that may have determined the manner of his own death, since he too dies in such a fall.
The Greeks understood character in a way that other cultures failed to penetrate. They grasped how a trait like ambition could turn from a virtue into a bane, and how a noble personality might have serious defects that lead to ruin. They regarded the exploits of Jason and Theseus as worthy of emulation, but they also knew that a price had to be paid for heroism, and they did not flinch at showing that price in these legends.