Jason stands out in his epic as an unusual hero. He is called to retrieve the golden fleece: a mission he is asked to complete by King Pelias. Whereas heroes like Hercules and Achilles seem to be charged by the gods for a mission or war, or like Odysseus, enduring a long journey home, Jason seems to be set out on this mission purely for the gain of King Pelias who desires something so renowned and valuable. An interesting trait of Jason’s journey is the crew he takes with him. The Argonauts consist of the hero Hercules and the fathers and sons of many famous heroes such as Achilles, Odysseus, and Ajax. It appears to be a righteous mission full of men destined to become heroes in their own right. But Jason’s obstacles are made harder by his and his men’s own shortcomings. They fall prey to lust and irresponsibility and rely more on lies and manipulation than strength. Similar to many heroes, Jason has some of the gods, mainly female, on his side. And he does ultimately succeed in his conquest, finally bringing home the golden fleece for the king and a wife for himself. However, in examining the methods that Jason and his men employ, the traps they fall into, and the long-term outcomes of their mission, Jason can hardly be considered a true Homeric hero.
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Jason’s trials are often both impeded and expedited by deceit, theft, and manipulation. This is an interesting dichotomy because though these traits often land him and his men in pitfalls, they are almost always the same traits that help them get what they want. When the Argonauts land at Lemnos and meet the women of the island, Queen Hypsipyle convinces the men to mate with the women so that they can repopulate the island, omitting the fact that the men were all murdered by the women before Jason and his men got there. This can be considered one moment at which Jason allowed his lust and irresponsibility to put himself and his men in a position that may have very easily put themselves and their mission in danger. Had Jason been a shrewder hero, he would have put the facts together and recognized the island as a dangerous place for men. In comparison to Odysseus, whose men are nearly lured to their death as they pass the islands of the beautifully singing sirens, Odysseus uses his strength and will-power, and the shackles with which he asks his men to fasten him to the ship, to resist a temptation that surely could have prevented him from his end goal of reaching home.
Jason, on the other hand, gives in to the appeal of the women in front of him, even though it posed not only a huge risk to himself and his men, but to the generations of men they spawned. Perhaps this is why Jason adds the last-minute request that any son he produces be sent to his parents to be raised. This shows insight and a desire to protect his descendants, which any good hero would do, but still does not explain the fact that Jason allowed his crew to get thusly sidetracked. Jason appears to be less of a heroic leader and more like a young man desperate for adventure. “Jason takes up the burden of his quest reluctantly and is given to bouts of despondency that stand in stark contrast to Odysseus’ resourcefulness: Whereas the Homeric hero bears the epithet polymechanos (‘of many resources’), the Apollonian narrator describes Jason as anechanos (‘without resources, at a loss’)” (Krevans 201). As Krevans explains here, Jason simply does not possess the traits of a hero searching for virtue and dignity. He lacks the craftiness, quick-thinking, and resourcefulness that the classic heroes possessed.
Another rather un-heroic trait that Jason possesses is exhibited in his relationship with Medea. Jason meets her with the luck of the gods, who cast a spell on her to fall in love with Jason so she can use her magical powers to help Jason acquire the golden fleece from her unyielding father King Aeetes. Initially, we read this passage: “’Poor girl…I’ll set you up in my home as my wedded wife when our voyaging’s done and we reach the land of Hellas.’ So he spoke, and straightway clasped her right hand in his; and at that she bade them row the swift ship to the sacred grove without further ado, so that…they could seize the Fleece and remove it against Aeetes will” (Rhodios 153, 950-102). Jason promises this innocent, virginal young savant that he loves her and will take her home to marry her. Though he does this ultimately, it is clear that his motives with her are based on what she can do for him.
He relies on the magic of the gods to acquire Medea’s love, and then on Medea’s magic to help him through the challenges he must face. He is able to harness Aetees’ bulls and sedate the dragon guarding the golden fleece using Medea’s gifts. However, after he has exhausted his use of her and is ready to sail home with his winnings, he contemplates the idea of sacrificing Medea to the gods, a suggestion that finds her understandable outraged. Medea is an aspect of Jason’s story that is understatedly integral to his success. “Female characters (whether in love or not) play central roles in what survives of Hellenistic poetry [including] Apollonius’ depiction of Medea’s infatuation with Jason and her terrifying anxiety on the journey back” (Hunter 492). Not only does Medea play an essential role in Jason’s success, but her presence is strong enough to warrant her own heroic label. Perhaps this is an aspect of Apollonius’ work that is overlooked by most scholars. Though Medea does have her own story, illustrated by the likes of Sophocles and Seneca, the effort she made to facilitate Jason’s journey can be considered her own heroes journey.
There are also a few incidences that the reader can approach as examples of Jason’s rather un-heroic tendency towards uncontrolled violence. For example, when Jason leads his men to Hellespont where the Doliones live, they encounter a welcoming people and a kind King Kyzikos. “All together, the Doliones, and Kyzikos in person, came out to meet them in friendship…hailed them hospitably, issued an invitation to row on further, cast their mooring hawsers ashore inside the city harbor…” (Rhodios 68, 961-965). However, the Argonauts find themselves in a battle and the King is killed, along with his widow who takes her own life in grief.
Though Jason makes sacrifices to the gods in an attempt to repent for his mistakes, his remorse seems to be more out of the fear that he may incur the wrath of the gods as a punishment for his irresponsibility, as opposed to feeling bad for taking another man’s life. These scenes are reminiscent of Hercules, who was described as having an impulsive temper and a streak of violent rage which led him to kill a teacher in his younger years, and when he was older, the wife of his good friend, who he eventually traveled to Hades to retrieve. But unlike Jason, Hercules is known along with his violence for his remorse. Though Hercules loses his temper with sometimes deadly consequences, these stories, almost without exception, also entail Hercules’ fierce remorse and his attempts for redemption. When we see Jason making similar mistakes it seems to be chalked up to the unfortunate but expendable casualties that a hero leaves in his wake.
Thus, it is unlikely that we can put Jason in the same Homeric genre as his fellow heroes Odysseus, Achilles, Hector, etc…These men earn their Hero labels through sacrifice, honor, and strength, while Jason earns his through deceit, manipulation, and at times pure luck. Odysseus and his contemporaries faced the long and brutal Trojan war. Their depiction as heroes lies very strongly in the way they exhibited their strength as warriors and as leaders in the war. Not only does Odysseus earn heroic status in the war, but he demonstrates further ability by retaining his virtue and loyalty until he reaches his waiting wife Penelope at home. He is represented by the dedicated wife and son that he leaves at home. Jason on the other hand has Medea who he uses as a tool for his own success and even at one point as bait, who eventually kills her own children out of anger over Jason’s betrayal.
It can not be doubted that Jason is a hero of some sort. Even the greatest in canonical Greek and Roman literature make grave mistakes, severe ones, and Jason certainly can not be ruled out as a hero despite some of his foolish behavior. But a Homeric hero he is not—these men exhibit strength and honor, go to great lengths to avoid temptation and uphold the value and dignity of human life, and Jason seems frequently to lack or overlook these traits. Fulfilling a role as a Homeric hero, though, is not Jason’s only value. “…Jason seems—in a way that anticipates Virgil’s Aeneas—to be a hero brought down to sixe, a man overwhelmed by the epic world in which he finds himself and compelled by circumstance to accomplish tasks that seem to him impossible and mysterious” (Krevans 202). By offering us a unique rendition of the hero, this story teaches us the multi-faceted entity that is the hero in classical literature, a man with emboldened goals who can only hope to compensate with his charms for his own weaknesses.
Bugh, Glenn Richard. The Cambridge Companion to the Hellenistic World (2006). Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. 371 pages.
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Rhodios, Apollonios. The Argonautika (1997). University of California Press: Los Angeles. 480 pages.