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Humanities Libertexts

23: Jason

  • Page ID
    15358
  • Functions: Hero and leader of the Argonauts

    The Birth of Jason

    Jason was the son of Aeson, the rightful king of Iolcus. Before Jason was born, his uncle, Pelias, took the throne from Aeson. Aeson and his wife still lived in Iolcus, but they lived with the constant threat of death over them. After Jason was born, in order to protect him from the wrath of his uncle, Aeson sent his son to the nearby Mount Pelion to be raised by the centaur [see Centaurs], Chiron.

    For years, Pelias lived in fear of a man with one sandal, because he had been told by the Delphic Oracle that he was fated to be killed by a man who was wearing only one sandal. When Jason turned twenty-one, he decided to reclaim the throne and returned to Iolcus to confront his uncle. In order to get there, he had to cross a river, and on the bank sat an old woman asking to be carried across. Jason did not know that the woman was Hera in disguise, testing the young man to see if he was worthy to help her in destroying Pelias, who had scorned her many times. In the process of carrying the goddess through the water, Jason lost one of his sandals and continued the rest of the way wearing only one.

    How Jason was Sent to Bring Back the Golden Fleece

    Once the youth came to Iolcus, news of the man with one sandal quickly reached Pelias. He met with the young man, who revealed his identity and stated his intention to regain his father’s throne. Pelias was afraid to kill Jason outright, so he asked him what he would do with a man who was destined to kill him. Jason responded saying that he would ask the man to retrieve the Golden Fleece. (The Golden Fleece came from a magical golden ram who had saved the youth Phrixus from death by carrying him to the land of Colchis. Once they had arrived in Colchis, the ram told Phrixus to sacrifice him and hang the fleece in a grove sacred to Ares, where it was guarded by a dragon.)  Upon hearing Jason’s answer, Pelias asked his nephew to fetch the Fleece from Colchis. Another version states that Pelias was kind to his nephew and told him that the oracle at Delphi had told him that the dishonored spirit of Phrixus, needed to be returned home to Thessaly along with the Fleece to appease the underworld gods [Pindar]. In either case, Jason agreed to go to Colchis and bring back the Golden Fleece, and he organized an expedition which included some of the greatest heroes in Greece at the time [See Argonauts].

    Jason and Medea

    The Argonauts returned to Iolcus with the Golden Fleece, bringing with them Jason’s new wife, the Colchian princess, Medea (who was also a witch). Jason suspected that his uncle would not hand over the kingship, so the group stayed outside the city while trying to figure out what to do. Medea came up with a plan to rid them of the problem. Using her magic, she disguised herself as an old woman and went to the palace, claiming to be a priestess of Artemis who had come to rejuvenate the king. When she transformed from an old woman into her real, youthful form, Pelias agreed to allow her to bring back his youth. Medea told his daughters that they needed to cut their father into pieces and boil him in her cauldron, along with some magical herbs, in order for the process to work. The girls were naturally skeptical, but Medea convinced them by performing the procedure on a ram. When a little lamb leaped from the cauldron, they agreed to cut their father into pieces. Of course, when the daughters of Pelias tried this, their rejuvenated father did not spring out of the cauldron. Medea probably “forgot” to put the right herbs into the cauldron; in any case, Peleus was dead.

    Pelias’ son, Acastus, who was one of the Argonauts, became king at his father’s death and exiled Jason and Medea for the brutal killing of his father. The king of Corinth, Creon, offered them a home in his kingdom on account of the fame the expedition of the Argo had brought to Jason. There they lived peacefully for about ten years, and they had two sons. Eventually though, Jason grew tired of living with a barbarian witch who brought him no social standing and Creon offered his daughter, named either Glauce or Creusa, in marriage to the hero. Jason divorced Medea and married the princess.

    Medea was devastated and most of all angry at the betrayal. After all, she had helped Jason steal the Golden Fleece, she had helped him sail safely back to Greece, and she had helped him punish Peleus for seizing the throne; she had also born him two sons, to perpetuate his line. But Medea was not about to suffer in silence; she hatched a plan to hurt Jason in every way possible. She sent her sons to deliver wedding gifts for the princess: a tiara and a beautiful dress. As soon as the princess put them on, however, they burst into flames. Her father, hearing her screams, ran to help, but once he had touched her he could not pull away, and he burned alive alongside his daughter. Medea’s sons, because they were accessories to the murders, were in danger as well. Some versions say the Corinthians killed the boys and later the spirits of the children punished the city for their murder, but the more prominent version, popularized by Euripides, has Medea herself killing the children to take revenge on their father. Medea, who was the granddaughter of Helius, the sun, asked for and received her grandfather’s chariot (drawn by four winged horses) to help her escape. Medea flew to Athens in Helius’ chariot and went to live with King Aegeus [see Theseus]. Some accounts say that Jason took his own life, but the more popular story is that, many years after these events, he was sitting under the rotting ruins of the Argo, the ship that had made him so famous, when a beam from the ship fell and struck him on the head, killing him.

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