THE QUEST OF THE GOLDEN FLEECE
BY M. M. BIRD
The great hall was decked for a banquet. Revelers
sat round the laden board and feasted and sang
and quaffed rich wines from silver goblets. The king on
his daïs toyed with his jeweled wine-cup and gazed down
the length of the hall at the flushed faces of the feasters,
and heard their gay laughter peal up to the vaulted roof.
Yet the eyes of Pelias, the king, were dark, and a settled
scowl was on his brow. Terror of Heaven's vengeance
still haunted him. He had commanded this festival in
honor of Neptune, and yet he knew that the anger of
Jupiter was unappeased while the Golden Fleece still
hung in the wood at Colchis.
For Phrixus, son of Ĉolus, had fled on the Sacred
Ram with the Fleece of Gold, to Ĉetes, King of Colchis,
who had protected him and given him his daughter Chalciope
to wife. Though Phrixus was now dead, Ĉetes
still held the Fleece in Colchis, and the line of Ĉolus
languished under the wrath of Jupiter till such time as it
was restored to Greece.
This was the subject of the king's meditations as he
looked down on the gay company assembled at his feast.
And of a sudden his eyes lighted on a travel-stained
figure making his way up the long hall to the steps of his
throne, in spite of the soiled and tattered weeds. He
recognized his royal kinsman. It was Jason son of
Ĉson, his own nephew, who, determined to have speech
with his uncle the king, had now dared the crossing of the
river Anaurus, although swollen by winter rains, and had
hardly won through. Till he entered the palace he did
not know of the great feast that was being held, but
he stood not on ceremony, and made his way to the foot
of the throne, just as he was. One of his sandals had
stuck in the mire and been left in the river bed.
Now an oracle had come to the king but a short time
before, warning him to beware of a man coming in from
the field with one sandal lacking. And King Pelias
shrank from the sight of the innocent youth who stood
before him; and in the dark depths of his heart devised
a cruel plot for his destruction, whereby he might rid
himself of the menace and, at the same time, be restored
to the favor of Jupiter.
Undaunted by the tyrant's frown, Jason stood before
him and asserted his claim to the throne. "I, Jason, son
of Ĉson, of the line of Ĉolus, live as a peasant among
peasants on the banks of Anaurus," he cried, in his brave
young voice. "Restore me to my rightful place as son
of the late king."
The king dared not openly dispute the claim, but with
a feigned smile he answered: "Fetch hither the Golden
Fleece held by Ĉetes in Colchis, that you may thus
prove worthy to boast yourself of the proud line of
Ĉolus. Deliver your father's house from the wrath of
Jupiter, and then come to claim your birthright!"
He devised this task, thinking that even could Jason
perchance overcome the Colchians, he must assuredly
be slain by enemies or lost in the sea ere ever he won
home again. For it was well known that Ĉetes had hung
the Golden Fleece in an enchanted wood, and set a
sleepless serpent to guard the treasure against any who
should pass his men-at-arms.
At first Jason was cast into despair at the greatness of
this task, but strong in his own innocence and determined
to vindicate his rights, he took up the challenge.
"I go," he cried, "at the ruthless behest of a tyrannous
king and the doom of a god! Who will go in my company—who?"
And from east and west and south the heroes of a
hundred deeds came hasting to join him on his quest,
for all had heard of the Golden Fleece and its theft by
the Colchian men.
And the fame of its quest was noised abroad so that
all who loved a bold venture came to proffer Jason their
aid; and with others it was the lust of gold that drew
them; and with others, again, love of justice and pity for
the youth robbed of his birthright by an unjust king.
Thus there came to Iolcus the mighty Hercules, and the
twin sons of Jupiter, Castor and Pollux, Orpheus with
his magic lute, Idmon the seer, and Tiphys the steersman,
and others all famous for their prowess in war, the sons
of gods and heroes, too many to name.
Then Jason set himself to prepare for his great enterprise,
gathering stores and arms, and eagerly seeking
information of those who had traveled afar off of the
Colchians and their king Ĉetes, and the famed Fleece of
Gold, while the good ship Argo was daily growing under
the fashioning hands of Argus and his men, who, instructed
by Minerva, built so gallant a ship as had never
before sailed the seas. And daily there were added to
Jason's company valiant warriors and men of renown,
young and old, till at last the day came when the Argo
was launched for her great enterprise, and the last
sacrifices were paid to the protecting gods, and the last
feast was eaten on the Pagasĉan shore. Then the
heroes cast lots for their places at the oars—for all but
the place of honor at the middle thwart, which was given
to Hercules and his companion Ancĉus. Tiphys, by
common consent, was set at the helm, while Jason was
proclaimed captain and chief, in peace and in war, of
all the goodly band.
And thus it came that such a company of heroes as
had never before been gathered together on one quest
sailed forth from Iolcus in the Argo in search of the
For many days they pursued their way, braving the
storms of those dangerous seas, landing on strange coasts
where sometimes they found shelter and kindness, but
oftener had to fight for life and honor. But ever the
glorious quest inspired them, the Golden Fleece brightened
their dreams, and they strove loyally together to
win through all temptations and dangers. But not all of
them survived to reach their goal. Great Hercules was
left on the Mysian hills seeking his lost armor-bearer
Hylas; and Idmon the seer, faring across a marshy
plain, was suddenly attacked by a wild boar and so
wounded that he died. For three whole days the heroes
mourned his loss; and while they mourned, Tiphys the
steersman fell sick, and his sickness was unto death.
For grief then the band had gone no farther on the
quest had not Ancĉus rekindled their courage with
brave words and offered himself as their steersman.
And by general acclamation he was elected to the post,
and they set forth on their way with renewed faith.
But at last the gallant Argo won through the Pontus
Sea and the dreadful Dark Blue Crags, and the voyagers
knew themselves to be near to Colchis and the
end of their journeying. Picture to yourselves the
storm-tossed Argo flying over the seas, and great eagles
swooping and wheeling overhead, by which Jason, the
captain, knew that they approached the island of Mars,
where those winged messengers of the gods were wont
to attack any who dared effect a landing. But by his
command the heroes armed themselves, and the oarsmen
were protected by the shields of their comrades
from the feathered darts rained down upon them by the
furious birds. And with loud clashing and clanging of
their harness the creatures were scared away. So the
heroes reached the shore and rested there in peace after
their battling with the storm. And as they lay on the
shore they saw in the waves a great spar, and four young
men clinging to it, tossed hither and thither, till at
length it was cast up on to the beach. These proved to
be the four sons of Phrixus, who had been thrust out
of Colchis by their stern grandsire Ĉetes, and sent away
in a little boat. Their skiff had been too frail to withstand
the storm that the good ship Argo had outlived.
When these heard of the quest, they offered Jason
their allegiance, and begged him to accept their aid in
his perilous venture, which he gladly did. So, in calm
weather, they sailed gaily on to Colchis, elated to have
thus escaped all the perils and to be within sight of their
The Golden Fleece burned ever brighter before the
longing eyes of that hero band; courage and loyalty
inspired each heart and nerved each arm; they were
ready to give life itself, if need be, to achieve their
task and bring again the miraculous Fleece to Greece—and
such a spirit is unconquerable.
Now Ĉetes, King of Colchis, dwelt in his city by the
sea. He had but two daughters, the elder, Chalciope,
was the widow of that Phrixus who had come hither riding
on the Golden Ram, while the younger was Medea, a
sorceress. She was a priestess of Hecate, and served
the dreadful mysteries of the goddess. She was versed
in all poisons and philters, and would wander out into
wild places beyond the city to gather herbs for the brewing
of her mystic potions. She lived with her brothers,
the sons of Ĉetes, and Chalciope her sister, in a palace
in the city, and beside it stood a temple to Hecate.
It happened on a certain day that Medea, as was her
wont, went into the hall of the temple, and as she stood
there she saw a crowd approaching up the street. Foremost
in the throng she saw her sister's four sons, who
had been mourned as lost for ever. She cried aloud, and
the waiting-women in the palace heard her cry and
dropped their broideries, and with Chalciope her sister
came running to learn the cause of her fear. And Chalciope
saw her sons and clasped them to her with tears of
joy. But Medea stood gazing at the splendid strangers
who came with them—Jason and his two friends, Telamon
and Augias. And as she gazed, Cupid let fly one of
his burning shafts, and it pierced the maiden's bosom
and there burned with a dull flame. And her eyes were
fastened on Jason's comely face, and the conscious
blushes flamed in the whiteness of her cheeks, and she
stood as if bound by one of her own spells.
Hearing the commotion, the king and queen inquired
the cause; and when they saw the handsome strangers
they gave them fair welcome, and invited them to join
their banquet. Though Ĉetes looked sourly on the sons
of Phrixus, of whom he had thought to have rid himself
for ever, he was constrained to receive them also with
When seated at the banquet, Argus, one of Phrixus'
sons, explained to the king all the circumstances of
Jason's coming, and the quest on which he came. "Not
to take the Fleece by force he comes," pleaded Argus,
"but is minded to pay a fair price for thy gift. He has
heard of the bitter enmity of the Sauromatĉ: these rebels
he will subdue for thee, and put them under thy sway."
The king's wrath waxed hot, and chiefly with his
daughter's sons, for he deemed that they had stirred up
Jason to this quest. "Not for the Fleece come ye!" he
cried; "but my scepter and my kingly honor ye come
to steal! Now, if ye had not broken bread at my table
before ye spoke, your tongues had I surely cut out, and
had hewn your hands from your wrists, and had sent
you forth with naught but your feet to fare through the
land! So should ye refrain hereafter from coming on
such like quest."
But Jason made gentle answer to the angry king, assuring
him that no such wild dream had brought him to
this land, but the ruthless behest of a tyrannous king and
the doom of a god.
Then the king inly pondered whether to fall on the
heroes and do them to death or put their might to the
test. And this he decided to be the better way, for they
were mighty men and renowned for valor, and he saw
that he should have to overcome them by subtlety. So
he set Jason this impossible task: On the plain of Mars
were two brazen-hoofed bulls, breathing flames of fire;
these Jason must yoke, and by them drive four plowshares
across the plain from dawn to dusk. And in the
furrows sow the teeth of a dragon, from which out of
the earth armed warriors should spring, and these he
must smite and conquer!
The hero sat speechless in his despair, for he deemed
no man sufficient for so terrible a task. But Argus
went out with him, and knowing his own and his
brothers' fate to hang on him, implored him to consult
his mother's sister, Medea, the sorceress. Jason, for
kindness, consented, but with little hope of the issue.
So Argus returned to his mother, to beg her to intercede
Medea, torn with love for Jason, spent the night in
mourning over his certain fate unless he craved her aid
in his gigantic task, and was longing, yet ashamed, to
proffer it. It was, therefore, to the relief of her indecision
that her sister Chalciope came to her at length,
and begged her to interfere to save her four sons from
the doom that threatened them. Medea was glad, for
she was thus enabled to save her dignity, and in obeying
the dictates of her heart seem only to be concerned with
the safety of her sister's sons.
Next morning, therefore, she called her maidens and
went out in her chariot to the fane of Hecate on the
plain beyond the city, a place where she was often wont
to go to gather herbs. There Jason met her, and he
sacrificed his pride to beg her assistance. She was torn
between love for him and a sense of duty to her father;
but yet love was the stronger, and she promised him her
aid. Long they talked together in that wilderness till
the shades of evening fell and her attendants became
uneasy at her long tarrying. She gave him a magic
drug that would render his body and arms invulnerable
against all attack, and gave him also minute directions
for his guidance in his dreadful conflict. And Jason saw
how beautiful and tender she was, and love for her
awoke in his heart, and he wooed her with gentle words,
and vowed that if she would go with him to Greece she
should there be made his honored wife.
Evening drew on, and Medea went sadly back to her
night of anguished vigil in her palace in the city, while
Jason prepared himself for his doubtful conflict. At
midnight he bathed alone in the sacred river. Then he
digged a pit in the plain as Medea had directed him, and
offered a lamb by the pit's brink, and kindled a pyre
and burned the carcase. Mingled libations he also
poured, and then, calling on Hecate, drew back and
strode from the place, and looked not once behind him
at the awful queen he had invoked, nor the shapes of
fear that accompanied her, nor turned at the wild baying
of the hounds of hell.
Then he sprinkled his corslet, his helm, and his arms
with the drug Medea gave him, and his comrades proved
his harness with all their might and main, whose ringing
blows fell harmless upon it. Then he sprinkled his own
limbs with the magic drug and fared forth invincible.
At dawn, the heroes sailed in the Argo up the river
till they came near to the plain of Mars, and there anchored.
King Ĉetes came out from the city in procession
to the lists, and all the men of Colchis were gathered
on the one hand and the heroes on the other to watch
the outcome of this terrible strife.
So Jason set to his task. Bearing with him his helm
full of the dragon's teeth he crossed the field, and there
saw the brazen yoke lying, and the plow of massive
stone. Suddenly, from their lair, the bulls rushed out
together and bore down upon him. Jason, setting his
feet wide, caught their charge on his shield and withstood
the shock. Mightily he seized the horn of one of
the monsters, haled with all his strength, and striking its
hoof with his foot cast it down on its knees. And, to the
amazement of all, he did likewise to its fellow. Then
he cast away his shield, and holding them down set the
brazen yoke on their necks. All marveled at his superhuman
strength. The brow of Ĉetes was black, but the
heroes rejoiced and cheered their leader right lustily.
Then he took with him the helm full of dragon's teeth,
and his spear for a goad, and forced those frantic
beasts to draw the massive plow across the plain, and
sowed his baneful seed as he went. All day long he
drove his resisting team across the stony plain; and as
the granite plowshare tore its way through the earth he
cast the dragon's teeth among the upturned clods.
And at length the evening fell, and he unloosed the
yoke, and with smiting and shouting scared the bulls
across the plain to their caves. Then he gladly returned
to the Argo, plunged his helm into the river, and was
about to slake his terrible thirst, when he turned to see
the whole earth bristling with armed warriors, row on
row of shields and spears and helms. The words of Medea
came to his remembrance then, and ere he fell upon them
he took up from the earth a great round boulder such
as four strong men of to-day scarce could move, and
flung it in their midst.
Loudly the Colchians shouted, but speechless fear
seized on their king when he saw the flight of that massive
crag and beheld the earthborn slaying each other.
And among them stood Jason, beautiful as a god, hewing
them down with his sword, till not one was left
Then the night fell and Jason slept, for he knew that
his task was accomplished. Ĉetes and his princes went
silently back to their city, for the superhuman power of
the hero inspired them with nameless fears.
And in the palace Medea was smitten with terror, for
she knew that it must come to the ears of the king her
father, that by her arts Jason had been helped to victory,
and she dreaded his vengeance. She knew not
where to turn for aid but to Jason himself; so she veiled
herself, and thrusting her secret drugs and poisons into
her bosom, she fled in the darkness from her palace.
Through the night she hastened, weeping piteously, torn
between love and duty to her parents and her passion
for the man her spells had helped, till she saw the gleam
of the fire where the heroes were feasting on the river
bank. And through the noise of their revelry and the
ringing of their gay laughter a bitter cry was heard—a
woman's cry. And the sons of Phrixus, her nephews,
and Jason, her lover, knew her voice, and they hastily
thrust out from the bank and rowed to the place where
she stood, and Jason leaped to the bank beside her.
Then Medea clung to his knees and besought him to
carry her away lest her father's vengeance should fall
heavy upon her. Therefore, before them all, he swore
to take her to Greece and wed her there.
Then she adjured them to go in haste, wasting no
more precious hours in revelry, to fetch the Golden
Fleece before Ĉetes came in pursuit of them. "Speed,"
she cried, "while darkness covers your deeds!"
So they went in all haste, till they came to the enchanted
wood where the Fleece was hanging on an oak
tree. And Medea landed there with Jason, and together
they sped through the wood till they saw the Fleece
shining like flame through the dusk, while before it, in
coil on coil, loathsome, with open, watchful eyes, the
awful serpent reared its head.
Then Medea called the magic of sleep to her aid. She
anointed the serpent's head with her drugs, and rained
her spells on its unsleeping eyes, and it sank down upon
the earth in lazily undulating folds, until at length it
Then Jason cast the great Fleece across his shoulder, and
it fell down all his height and trailed upon the ground.
And he caught it up about him and hastened from the
spot. The Argonauts, watching anxiously, saw it come
flaming through the trees. They greeted the achieving
of their quest with shouts of joy, and strove among themselves
to touch the glorious Fleece. But Jason was
seized with fear lest some god or man should arrive to
wrest his treasure from him, so he covered the shimmering
Fleece with a mantle, and it lay in the stern
of the Argo, with the maiden beside it, and Jason stood
above them with his harness on his back and his great
sword in his hand.
And the rowers bent to their oars, and the strong
blades beat the waves, and swifter than a flying bird
the good ship sped down the tide.
By this King Ĉetes and the Colchians knew of
Medea's love and her deeds of rebellion. They swarmed
on the river banks, and Ĉetes on his white charger pursued
the flying boat. But he could not reach his disobedient
daughter nor stay the flight of the hero band
who had escaped the death he plotted, by the aid of love.
And in his wrath the king sent ships after them and
charged his captains: "Except ye lay hands on the
maiden and bring her so that I may pour the fury with
which I burn upon her, on your heads shall all these
things light, and ye shall learn the full measure of my
But far across the seas the good ship Argo flew, and
though the Colchians pursued, Medea was never taken,
but after all adventure reached Iolcus with Jason, her
lover and her lord.
For it was ordained of the high gods that the Golden
Fleece should be brought back to Greece by the might of
Jason and his brotherhood of heroes, that the wrath of
Jupiter might be appeased. For the heroes went on the
quest armed with the strength of innocence, and love
fought on their side that they might prove mightier than
a ruthless king or the doom of an offended god.