The world’s oldest sea story is the myth of Jason and the Argonauts. It’s a violent and bloody tale of Greek gods behaving badly, betrayed love and possibly madness. It reads like modern-day politics. Athamas, king of the mythical city Orchomenus, took the goddess Nephele to wife. Two children were born but Athamas strayed and married a woman named Ino. Nephele walked out and in spite brought down a drought upon the land. Ino, the step-mother, plotted the death of her step-children in retaliation but Nephele appeared in a vision to her children with a winged ram whose fleece was of gold. The ram had been sired by Poseidon, god of the sea, with a nymph who was a grand-daughter of Helios, god of the Sun. Poseidon had kidnapped the nymph and transformed her into a ewe. The ram of the Golden Fleece was the product of this bestial union.
Nephele’s children fled from their wicked step-mother on the back of the flying ram. How the ram with wings of gold could fly is not explained. Unfortunately, the girl, named Helle, fell off over the stretch of water now known as the Hellespont and drowned. The boy, named Phrixus, was delivered safely to Colchis on the shore of what is now called the Black Sea. The Golden Fleece was preserved and hung on a tree in a grove sacred to Aries, the god of war. It was protected by bulls that breathed fire and a dragon that never slept and which had teeth that could become soldiers when planted in the ground.
Years after these events, Jason, a descendant of Phrixus, was born son of the king of Iolkos but the king was held in prison by his own brother, Pelias, usurping the throne. Jason’s mother fled with the infant and found refuge in a wilderness cave with Chiron, a centaur. The goddess Hera, wife of Zeus, and Aphrodite, the goddess of love were keeping an eye on Jason.
At around 20 years of age Jason decided to claim his rightful place as king of Iolkos. His uncle Pelias seemed willing to negotiate and merely required Jason to retrieve the Golden Fleece from Colchis. It lay at the edge of the known world and was defended by insurmountable hardships. Undaunted, Jason assembled a crew and set sail in the good ship Argo. He met his first trial on the island Lemnos populated only by women who had murdered their husbands. The Argonauts were challenged to repopulate the island, which they safely accomplished. Next was the treacherous Strait of Bosphorus with strong tides that could wreck a ship, and clashing rocks that could crush her. They had to fight off harpies; hideous creatures with big beaks and sharp claws sent by Zeus
Arriving in Colchis, Jason asked the king to return the Golden Fleece, which rightly belonged to Zeus. The king did not refuse but set Jason a number of superhuman tasks before he would relinquish the Golden Fleece. Jason had to yoke the fire-breathing bulls and sow a field with dragon’s teeth that turned into warriors. Aphrodite intervened , creating confusion so that the warriors killed one another. Aphrodite also caused the king’s daughter, Medea, to fall in love with Jason and help him with his tasks as long as he promised to marry her. He agreed, promising everlasting love, and met all of the king’s demands.
The king was not happy with this outcome. He organised a banquet but Medea learned he planned to kill Jason. She warned Jason and they fled with the Golden Fleece in the Argo, pursued by the king. Medea distracted her father by killing her brother and throwing pieces of his body overboard and so they managed to escape. On the way home the Argonauts were caught in a fierce storm but saved through intervention by Zeus.
On his return to Iolkos Jason learned that King Pelias had killed his father, and his mother had died of grief. Pelias was not well. Medea offered to cure him but instead killed him. Jason and Medea went into exile in Corinth, where Jason deserted the sorceress Medea and married the king’s daughter. The enraged Medea avenged her husband’s betrayal by killing their children.
In the end, Jason became a homeless wanderer. He died sitting underneath his ship Argo when a heavy beam broke loose and killed him.