Odysseus and his Odyssey are familiar to all of us. But Homer never tells us the name of Odysseus’ ship. Perhaps that is because that ship went down with all hands on board (except, of course, for Odysseus). But Homer knew the name of the Argo. In his words, it was the ship that “matters to everyone.”
The voyage of the Argo is in essence a story about ancient Greece and its people. Greece had little farmland and few natural resources. It could not sustain a large population. In order to survive, Greek men had to leave the towns in Greece where they were born and travel to every corner of the Mediterranean Sea. They went not only to buy and sell produce but also to discover new lands to settle in.
The Argo’s goal was to recover the fleece of the ram that had belonged to Jason’s ancestors. If the story of the Argo were simply a fairy tale, the Golden Fleece would be the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, a reflection of the rewards of trading in historical times. But in the myth, the Fleece is less important than the journey itself and the new contact with civilizations on the shores of the Black Sea, Asia Minor (Turkey), the north coast of Africa, Sicily and southern Italy. In the eighth century B.C., Greeks founded settlements in all of these areas.
Greek colonists came to stay and profit, not to take away. But the Greeks recognized that their presence in new lands could bring both benefits and harm to the natives. So in the myth, the Argonauts helped the local people. Zeus’ son, the hero Pollux, killed the brutal king Amycus. The son of the North Wind, Zetes, rescued Phineus, whose meals were continually fouled by attacks from the flying Harpies. But the Argonauts also did lasting harm to friends as well as enemies. Jason took Medea away from her father, King Aietes, and killed her half-brother Apsyrtos.
The Argonauts were first and foremost fighting men. Their expedition took them from Greece to what was then the eastern extremity of the world. It was the beginning of a long series of conflicts between East and West that continues to the present day. As the Greeks portrayed them, Eastern empires were rich, dangerous and ambitious. Whatever the Greeks may have looked like to their enemies, they saw themselves as moderate, pious and aware that all their achievements had been made possible by the gods.
The goddess chiefly responsible for the Argo’s success was Hera, the wife of Zeus, the king of the gods. Hera kept close watch over Jason, because when she was disguised as an old woman, he had been willing to carry her across a raging river. Zeus’ daughter Athena supervised the building of their famous ship. The Argonauts counted on the gods to send prophecies and omens to guide them.
But the gods, as Homer said, liked to live at their ease and spend their days feasting and their nights comfortably asleep. Most of the time, they did not take the trouble to intervene directly in human affairs. They preferred to get human beings to do their work for them. That is why Hera did not simply bring Jason to the Golden Fleece and assist him in killing the serpent that guarded it. The Argonauts were able to deal with many formidable challenges, but they needed superhuman help to handle the dangerous King Aietes. So Hera needed to intervene, at least indirectly. Along with Athena she persuaded Aphrodite, the goddess of passion, to send her son Eros to make the daughter of the hostile King Aietes fall in love with Jason. This daughter, Medea, had magical powers and used her drugs to give Jason the power to overcome every obstacle the king placed in his path.
The fairy-tale version of the story would have ended here, with Jason and Medea making a triumphant return with the Golden Fleece, taking over the kingdom and living happily ever after. But unlike fairy tales, myths rarely have happy endings. In the ancient Greek version of the story, the gods existed to serve themselves, not to help mortals. The gods cared about justice in general but not about the fate of particular individuals. Once her own desires were satisfied, Hera lost interest in Jason and Medea.
Hera was eager to bring Jason back safely so that she could punish his uncle Pelias for having neglected to give her due honor in the past. Once Jason returned with the Golden Fleece, bringing the princess Medea with him, Medea used her magical drugs in the cruelest possible manner to murder Pelias, by getting his daughters to suppose that they might make him young again by cutting him up and boiling him in a pot. So Medea and Jason had to go into exile and give up the kingdom he might have inherited.
The couple then went to Corinth where, in order to provide a home and financial support for his sons, Jason decided to divorce Medea in order to marry the daughter of the local king. But Medea had a powerful friend in King Aegeus of Athens, who was prepared to protect her. All she needed to do was to find a means of escape. So she appealed to her grandfather Helios, the god of the sun, to send his chariot to take her beyond the reach of Jason and his friends. Then she avenged herself by using her drugs to murder the king of Corinth and his daughter. And in order to do further harm to Jason, she killed their two sons and rode to Athens on the chariot of the sun god. There she bore to King Aegeus a son, Medus, who became the ancestor of the Medes, the allies of the Persians, the historical enemies of Greece.
The myth, with its tragic ending, is characteristically Greek. Human beings are capable of great achievements, especially when they have the advice and active assistance of the gods. But accomplishing the goal, winning the prize, defeating the enemy, is just the first part of the story. Such glory lasts only a moment and usually comes at a terrible cost. The qualities that make heroes like Jason and Medea great—courage, ruthlessness and self-importance—can also work against them. They can bring death to themselves, their friends and families, as well as to their enemies.
No wonder, then, that Homer thought it was the ship, not individuals like Jason or Medea, that mattered to everyone. Some 400 years later, when Apollonius of Rhodes wrote his epic about the voyage, there were no heroes, only constant reminders of the damage the Argonauts did and of the pain they inflicted everywhere they went. The landmark voyage of the Argo opened a new and wider world to the Greeks. But it also showed that, for all their courage, the men who undertook the voyage—and the princess they brought back with them—were also weak and fallible, like the rest of us.
Mary Lefkowitz is professor emerita of Classical Studies at Wellesley College and the author of Greek Gods, Human Lives and the forthcoming History Lesson.