Myths of Greece and Rome Narrated with Special Reference to Literature and Art

Page: 123

The Symplegades.

[268] Some time during the course of their journey the Argonauts came to the Symplegades,—floating rocks which continually crashed together, and ground to powder all objects caught between them. Jason knew he was obliged to pass between these rocks or give up the expedition: so, calculating that the speed of his vessel was equal to that of a dove on the wing, he sent one out before him. The dove flew safely between the rocks, losing only one of its tail feathers as they again clashed together. Watching his opportunity, therefore, Jason bade his men row swiftly. The Argo darted through the opening, and, when the rocks again came into contact, they merely grazed the rudder. As a vessel had passed between them unharmed, their power for evil left them, and they were chained fast to the bottom of the sea, near the mouth of the Bosporus, where they remained immovable like any other rocks.

Arrival at Colchis.

The Argonauts, after other adventures far too numerous to recount in detail, reached the Colchian shores, and presented themselves before Æetes, the king, to whom they made known their errand. Loath to part with his golden treasure, Æetes declared, that, before Jason could obtain the fleece, he must catch and harness two wild, fire-breathing bulls dedicated to Vulcan, and make use of them to plow a stony piece of ground sacred to Mars. This done, he must sow the field with some dragon’s teeth, as Cadmus had done (p. 48), conquer the giants which would spring up, and, last of all, slay the guardian dragon, or the fleece would never be his.

Medea’s aid.

One of these tasks would have sufficed to dismay many a brave youth; but Jason was of the dauntless kind, and merely hastened down to his vessel to ask the figurehead how he had better proceed. On his way to the seashore he met the king’s daughter, Medea, a beautiful young sorceress, who had been charmed by his modest but firm bearing, and who was quite ready to bring her magic to his aid if he would but promise to marry her. Jason, susceptible to her attractions, and free from any conflicting ties, readily agreed to her proposal, [269] and, carrying out her directions, caught and harnessed the fiery bulls, plowed the field, and sowed it with the dragon’s teeth.

“And how he yoked the bulls, whose breathings fiery glow’d,
And with the dragons’ teeth the furrow’d acres sow’d.”
Onomacritus (Elton’s tr.).

But when he saw glittering spears and helmets grow out of the ground, and beheld the close ranks of giants in full armor, he was filled with dismay, and would have fled had it been possible. However, aware that such a performance would insure his ruin, he stood his ground, and, when the phalanx was quite near him, threw a handful of dust full in the giants’ faces. Blinded with the sand, the giants attacked one another, and in a short time were exterminated.

“They, like swift dogs,
Ranging in fierceness, on each other turn’d
Tumultuous battle. On their mother earth
By their own spears they sank; like pines, or oaks,
Strew’d by a whirlwind in the mountain dale.”
Apollonius Rhodius (Elton’s tr.).
The fleece captured.

Accompanied by Medea, Jason next hastened to the tree where the dragon kept guard over his treasure. An opiate prepared by Medea’s magic skill soon made the dragon forget his charge in a profound sleep, and enabled Jason to draw near enough to sever his frightful head from his hideous trunk. Jason then tore the coveted fleece from the branch where it had hung for many a year, and bore it in triumph to the Argo.

“Exulting Jason grasped the shining hide,
His last of labors, and his envied pride.
Slow from the groaning branch the fleece was rent.”
Flaccus (Elton’s tr.).

His companions, who had made ready for a hasty departure, were already seated at their oars; and, as soon as he had embarked with Medea and her attendants, the Argo shot out of the Colchian harbor.


Refer to caption


[271] “How softly stole from home the luckless-wedded maid,
Through darkness of the night, in linen robe array’d;
By Fate to Argo led, and urged by soft desire,
Nor yet regarding aught her father’s furious ire.”
Onomacritus (Elton’s tr.).

When morning dawned and Æetes awoke, he heard that the dragon was slain, the fleece stolen, his daughter gone, and the Grecian ship far out of sight. No time was lost in useless wailing, but a vessel was hurriedly launched and manned, and the king in person set out in pursuit of the fugitives, who had, moreover, taken his most precious treasure, his only son and heir, Absyrtus. Although the Colchian men were good sailors and skillful rowers, they did not catch sight of the Argo until they came near the mouth of the Danube, and Æetes wildly called to his daughter to return to her home and to her father.

“‘Stay thy rash flight! and, from the distant main,—
For oh! thou canst, my daughter,—turn again.
Whither depart? the vessel backward steer;
Thy friends, thy still fond father, wait thee here.’”
Flaccus (Elton’s tr.).