A somewhat unconventional hero, Jason was the leader of the Argonautic Expedition in the quest of retrieving the Golden Fleece. The son of Aeson and Alcimede, he was supposed to succeed his father on the throne of Iolcus, but the position was usurped by his half-uncle Pelias. Fearing for his life on account of an ancient prophecy, Pelias wanted Jason as far as possible from Iolcus, so he ordered him to do the seemingly impossible and fetch the Golden Fleece from the King Aeetes of Colchis. Jason had a ship built and assembled a fleet made up of the greatest heroes of his time; after an exhausting expedition beset by giants and monsters, the Argonauts managed to successfully retrieve the Golden Fleece and bring it back to Iolcus. However, unusually for a hero of his stature, Jason received a lot of help along the way, not just from a goddess (Hera, who wanted to punish Pelias for neglecting to honor her), but also from the members of his crew, and, especially, from King Aeetes’ daughter, Medea, who fell in love with him and left everything behind her to be with him. Even so, few years after the expedition, Jason deserted her for Corinth’s princess, Creusa; unable to bear the betrayal, Medea murdered both Creusa and her two sons by Jason.
Jason’s Early Life
The rightful prince, Jason was born in the middle of an interfamilial war for the throne of Iolcus. After being raised by the Centaur Chiron, Jason returned to his hometown to claim the throne but instead ended up being tasked with the spine-chilling mission of fetching Golden Fleece.
Pelias Usurping the Throne of Iolcus
Jason was the son of the king of Iolcus, Aeson, but it is not certain who his mother was; various names appear in different sources. However, most likely, it was Alcimede, the daughter of Clymene, or Polymede, one of Autolycus’ daughters. When Jason was still a baby, his half-uncle Pelias, vying for the throne of Aeson, killed all of Aeson's children, and overthrew Aeson from the throne; however, he failed to kill Jason, who, on the premise of being stillborn, was sent by his parents to the Centaur Chiron; just like he had many heroes before him, Chiron nurtured Jason into adulthood. Pelias, in the meantime, learned from an oracle to be wary of a man wearing a single sandal and coming from the country.
Jason Returning to Iolcus
Now a grown man, Jason returned to Iolcus to attend some games held by Pelias in honor of the god Poseidon; during his travel, he lost one of his sandals in the river Anaurus while helping a disguised Hera to cross. Hera – who hated Pelias for neglecting to honor her – secretly blessed Jason at that point, instantaneously turning him into an instrument by which she planned to bring Pelias’ demise in the future. Jason appeared in front of Pelias and introduced himself as the rightful heir of Aeson. Recognizing the danger, Pelias asked Jason what he would have done if he had just met the man destined to bring about his death; perhaps inspired by Hera – who, just like Zeus with Heracles, wanted to heighten Jason’s glory – Jason replied that he would send that man to fetch the Golden Fleece. And, so, Pelias did just that: he gave Jason the quest to bring the Golden Fleece to Iolcus, promising him that, once Jason does that, he would step down from the throne.
Jason and the Argonauts
Gladly accepting the mission to bring the Golden Fleece from Colchis to Iolcus, Jason had a boat built and assembled a party of heroes, collectively called the Argonauts, after the name of the ship, Argo. In the course of their journey, Jason and the Argonauts met with many adventures and perils (see Argonauts for a more extended account) – and overcome them all.
The Isle of Lemnos
After the Argonauts set sail, they first reached the island of Lemnos. Ruled by Hypsipyle, at the time of the Argonauts’ arrival, the island was inhabited only by women, since some time before they had killed all of their husbands for spurning them on account of their stench (a curse by Aphrodite) and taking in Thracian concubines. The Argonauts stayed for a while on Lemnos, sleeping with the women of the island and creating a new race, called Minyans. Jason himself begot at least one child with none other than Hypsipyle, Euneus.
After Lemnos, the Argonauts went to the land of the Doliones, where they were warmly greeted by their king Cyzicus. While most of the Argonauts were on the hunt for supplies beyond the nearby Bear Mountain, their ship was attacked by the Gegeines, “the Earthborn,” a race of six-armed giants who happened to inhabit the same island. Heracles, a member of the Argonauts’ crew himself, managed to kill many of them before the rest of the Argonauts came and pushed the giants back. At night, the Argo set sail once again, but, unfortunately, it was blown back to the island, where the Doliones, thinking they had been attacked by pirates, stormed the ship; in the battle which ensued, many Doliones were killed, including Cyzicus himself who was murdered by Jason. The following day, as the morning light revealed the tragic error, the remorseful Argonauts held a funeral for the slain king; his wife, Cleite, however, couldn’t bear the scene and hanged herself from grief.
Phineus and the Harpies
The Argonauts’ next stop was Salmydessus in Thrace, where they happened upon the blind King Phineus, starved almost to death – a victim of the Harpies, vicious monsters sent by Zeus to steal his food on a daily basis. Jason took pity on Phineus and ordered his crew to help the king; after luring down the Harpies with a luxurious feast, the Boreads (Calais and Zetes) chased the Harpies away for good. Phineus, grateful for Jason's help, revealed to the Argonauts the location of Colchis as well as the method by which they may pass through the Symplegades, the Clashing Rocks.
The Symplegades were huge rock cliffs that would move and crush anything that passed between them. Phineus told Jason to release a dove and see if it would make it through, an omen for what would happen to the ship. The dove successfully passed, losing only a few tail feathers; so, when the Argo traveled through the rocks, only minor damages were caused at the stern of the ship.
At Colchis: Aeetes’ Tasks
Jason and the Argonauts eventually reached Colchis, where they were welcomed by King Aeetes. The Golden Fleece was in the possession of the king, gifted to him by Phrixus when he arrived there on a flying golden ram years before. Aeetes said he would give the fleece to Jason if he completed a few (seemingly impossible) tasks in the course of a single day. Upon learning them, Jason was left in utter desperation.
Fortunately for him, his guardian-goddess Hera convinced Aphrodite to bribe Eros to shoot one of his arrows into Medea, Aeetes' daughter, and make her fall in love with Jason. And Medea was not just anyone: in addition to being a princess, she was also a high priestess of Hecate well-versed in the arts of magic and sorcery.
Jason’s first task was to plow a field from end to end using the Khalkotauroi, two fire-breathing bronze-hooved bulls; urged by her sister and Jason’s promise to marry her once the expedition was over, Medea gave Jason an ointment that protected him from the fire and made him practically invulnerable. With the help of the balm, Jason successfully yoked the bulls and managed to plow the field in no time.
Jason’s second task was to sow dragon's teeth in the plowed field; though a seemingly easy task, its completion resulted in an army of stone warriors springing out from the earth. Prepared by Medea and following her advice, Jason flung a rock in the midst of the mighty warriors. Not knowing who had thrown it, the warriors turned on each other and, by sunset, Jason was the only one who remained alive on the field.
Even so, Aeetes didn’t want to hand over the Golden Fleece just yet. On the contrary, he plotted with the leading men of Colchis to kill Jason and the Argonauts during the night. Fearing something in this vein, Medea fled from her father and joined the Argonauts, leading Jason to a sacred oak tree where the Golden Fleece hung, guarded by a sleepless dragon. Using her drugs and spells, Medea caused the dragon to fall asleep, just long enough for Jason to snatch the Golden Fleece and carry it back to the Argo.
Jason and Medea
Fully committed to Jason, Medea not only helped him extinguish Talos, the giant bronze man, but also personally killed her very own brother. Even so, Jason betrayed her and married another woman. Medea’s revenge was both tragic and gruesome.
The Murder of Aeetes
After retrieving the Golden Fleece, Jason, Medea and the Argonauts left Colchis. Aeetes tried to follow them, but Medea killed her brother Apsyrtus and threw his pieces into the sea, causing Aeetes to stop and retrieve them. Zeus, angry at Medea's act of gruesomely killing her brother, caused a number of storms on the Argonauts’ way back home. To redeem themselves, Jason and Medea had to stop at the island of Aeaea, where the nymph Circe, Aeetes’ sister, purified them from the sin, not knowing its gravity or type. And so, the Argonauts sailed on.
The Sirens and Talos
First, they encountered the Sirens famous for causing ships to crash onto the reefs in consequence of their captivating voices which tended to mesmerize sailors and crews. The Argo was different, however, since it had Orpheus on board. The mythical poet played the lyre so beautifully and loudly that it completely drowned out the Sirens’ voices and helped the Argonauts pass by these strangely beguiling monsters.
Near Crete, the Argonauts hit upon an even greater danger: Talos, a giant bronze man, who guarded the island and threw stones at anyone approaching. Medea cast a spell on him and managed to remove the plug that kept Talos' ichor (the divine blood) in his single vein. Thus, he promptly bled to death.
Aeson and Pelias
The Argonauts eventually managed to return to their home. Since many years had passed in the meantime, Jason found his father Aeson at a very old age, and, distraught by the sight, asked Medea to transfer some of his life to his father. Instead, Medea cut Aeson’s throat and let all of his old blood out of him, subsequently filling his ancient veins with rich elixir. Aeson woke up forty years younger “in all the vigor of bright youth, no longer lean and sallow.” Stirred by the still unavenged Hera, Pelias' daughters asked Medea to do the same for their father; Medea tricked them into repeating the ritual – only this time, she made sure that there was no resurrection to follow. Thus, Pelias met his end at the hands of his daughters; his son, Acastus, became king and, naturally, exiled Jason and Medea from the island.
Jason’s Unfaithfulness and Medea’s Revenge
The couple went to Corinth, where Jason fell in love with King Creon’s daughter, Creusa (sometimes called Glauce). Medea, infuriated, confronted Jason, but he decided to ignore her. As revenge, Medea killed Creusa by gifting her a coronet and a poisoned dress whose effects strongly remind one of the Shirt of Nessus: “when Glauce had put the dress on, she was consumed with fierce fire along with her father, who went to her rescue.” Medea then killed Mermerus and Pheres, the two sons she had with Jason, either fearing he would kill them as retaliation or wanting to inflict him with the greatest pain imaginable. After doing this atrocious deed, Medea abandoned Jason, flying to Athens on a serpent-drawn chariot sent by her grandfather, the Sun God Helios.
The Death of Jason
Some say that Jason killed himself in despair soon after. Others are more merciful and claim that, years later, with the help of his friend, Peleus, the hero did manage to reclaim the throne of Iolcus. However, even in this latter case scenario – having lost the favor of Hera after breaking his vows to Medea – it seems that Jason cut a lonely and desolate figure, only a shadow of the influential captain he had once been. Moreover, even if he did become a king, Jason died a death unfitting of a hero: one night, while sleeping under the stern of his once-glorious ship Argo, a rotten beam fell down and crushed him into oblivion.
The voyage of Jason and the Argonauts serves as the basis of the only surviving Hellenistic epic, “The Argonautica.” The same story – with some variations – is also covered at a respectable length in the seventh book of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” and in Diodorus Siculus’ “Library of History.” As always, there is a nice summary of it in Apollodorus’ “Library.”