When a story endures for three thousand years, as the story of Jason and the Argonauts has, it endures for many reasons. To the ancient Greeks, myth and history were inseparable; they believed that these myths told the stories of their ancestors, whom they idealized as “better men, and closer to the gods than we are.” The myths were also important foundation stories for their society, explaining the origins of their own customs and traditions. And the myths functioned as pure entertainment, recounting a time of magic and heroism. The myth of Jason and the Argonauts, which began with Greek storytellers, has endured in many forms and in many lands. From the great epic poems of Apollonius and Valerius to modern books and films to Mary Zimmerman’s stage version, adaptations of this myth have seized on its potential as an escapist adventure on an immense scale.
In the 20th century, the scholar Joseph Campbell studied a wide range of world myths to find common elements that bound them together. In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell identified the “hero’s journey” as a series of steps followed by the protagonist of nearly every enduring myth: Departure (which includes the call to questing and supernatural aid in preparation), Initiation (which includes the trials faced on the journey, help from powerful companions and ultimate achievement of the prize) and Return (which includes the flight from pursuing enemies and the arrival home to enjoy the benefits of the prize). Perhaps because it was assembled from pieces of other myths, the story of Jason and the Argonauts fits this model almost perfectly.
But as ancient as it is, this myth still contains surprises. After the glorious quest for the Golden Fleece brings Greece’s bravest heroes past many dangers to their destination, they are able to fulfill that quest only when their young leader Jason falls in love with the teenaged sorceress Medea. The goddesses Hera and Athena, Jason’s patronesses, realize that only love can make Medea give him the Golden Fleece. But because they have no power over love, they must go to the source: Eros, the god of love and desire. In Apollonius’ telling, they discover the child-like Eros cheating at dice and bribe him to shoot love into Medea’s heart. Unwounded by Eros’ arrows, Jason in turn falls in love with Medea. Both fall prey to what the poet calls “Love the Destroyer.”
No Greek text addresses love and its god as fully as Symposium, Plato’s fourth-century dialogue that imagines a debate between Athens’ greatest minds. The differing views on love present Eros alternately as “the noblest and mightiest of the gods, chiefest giver of virtue in life” and “always plotting against the fair and good.” But the most unique view of love comes from the only female voice quoted in Symposium. The wise woman Diotima defines love as “the desire to possess a good or beautiful thing,” and one of the good things all people desire is immortality. Having children, one of the results of love, offers humans a chance to live forever through their descendants. “I am persuaded that all men do all things,” she concludes, “in hope of the glorious fame of immortal virtue.”
In Valerius’ Roman version of the story, Jason knows that his uncle sends him on the dangerous quest for the Golden Fleece as a mere pretext to get rid of him, but he goes anyway. For he sees Glory (personified as a woman) beckoning him from a far shore. The heroes come from all over Greece with the same hope to achieve immortality through their deeds. Valerius could be describing Eros when he says that Glory “alone fires men’s hearts and minds.” This desire for glory and adventure sounds identical to Diotima’s reasons for love.
The love story between Jason and Medea may seem like an interruption of a “hero’s journey,” but in fact it becomes a perfect reflection of the quest itself. The story unites Jason’s desire for Medea and for the Fleece, as he steals both from King Aietes at the same time. In an incredible sacrifice, Medea must give both herself and the Fleece to Jason. They even consummate their marriage using the Fleece as a bed. If both love and adventure are a quest for immortality, it is no surprise that this myth combines the two elements so seamlessly. Ultimately, they are inseparable components of the story, and together they make the myth richer and more human.
For although Jason’s quest for the Fleece seems to follow the archetype of the hero’s journey, he cannot achieve his quest or return home without Medea’s help. Their love story allows the audience to question every aspect of the seemingly glorious journey to the Fleece—the true heroism of these heroes and their deeds, the importance of the Fleece, even the original justification of the quest itself. When Jason returns home with the prize, he finds neither personal glory nor benefit to his homeland. And the love story of Jason and Medea, forged on the quest, ends in tragedy at home. Perhaps this myth has endured for thousands of years because it shows us a hero both glorious and human.—Akiva Fox, Literary Associate