Jason and the Golden Fleece
The Tales of Aries and Argo

Chapter 1: Phrixus and Helle and the Golden Ram

King Athamas had three wives. That was the cause of his family misfortunes. There might not have been such tragic consequences had he not had a kingdom at stake, but treachery often follows power and wealth like a shadow.

First, King Athamas married Nephele, a goddess of the clouds, and they had a son named Phrixus and a daughter named Helle. Sadly, King Athamas grew bored with his wife and decided to marry Ino, the daughter of King Cadmus of Thebes, with whom he had two sons named Learchus and Melicertes. But, after a few years of marriage, Ino grew bored with King Athamas and she went to the city of Parnassus looking for excitement. She failed to tell anyone of her plans so Athamas assumed that she was dead. He mourned for her but then grew bored with mourning and married Themisto. They had two sons named Sphincius and Orchomenus.

After a few years, Ino grew bored with life at Parnassus and returned to see her family. This made King Athamas very happy and he was attentive to his errant wife, but Themisto was not pleased at all. "Ino has robbed me of my marriage," Themisto thought. "The king is a fool to accept her back. I can see now that he will also treat her sons better than mine. I will not be humiliated like this and have my sons lose the kingdom as well. I will make sure that that does not happen." And so Themisto devised a plan to murder Ino's sons.

"Tonight," she instructed the children's nurse, "I wish you to cover my sons with white robes and dress Learchus and Melicertes in black." She had forgotten that the nurse had been with the royal family for many years and was loyal to Ino, whom she immediately told of this suspicious request.

That night Ino, disguised as the nurse, dressed her sons in white and Themisto's sons in black. Themisto saw her turn out the lights and leave the children's room and when only the deep breaths of sleep could be heard, she entered and stabbed the tiny black robed figures.

In the morning the screams of the nurse could be heard and she ran to Themisto. "Madam, your sons have been killed," the nurse said. Themisto went mad and that evening the sun also set on her body, for Themisto hanged herself.

As if that tragedy were not enough, Ino now was worried for the future of her sons. "If Athamas decides to punish my sons because I once left him, they will be without a kingdom to rule. I am the daughter of a king and my sons were born to rule. The only one standing in their way is Phrixus." She thought and thought of how to eliminate the obstacle until one day she arrived at the perfect evil plan.

Patiently she gathered all the seed corn in the kingdom and baked it, killing the kernel of life inside. No one anticipated problems, for the corn was planted just as it had been for centuries; but that year not only was there no harvest, no shoots even sprouted. The people were frightened. "Demeter must be angry to threaten us with starvation," they said. King Athamas sent a messenger to the oracle to discover the reason and the solution.

But Ino was wily and she bribed the messenger. When he returned from the oracle he reported to the king the lies that Ino made up, "The oracle says that corn will not grow again unless Prince Phrixus is offered as a sacrifice to Demeter on the altar of the temple."

King Athamas refused to kill his son; but the clever Ino stirred up hostility in the people of the kingdom. Afraid for their survival, they demanded the sacrifice of Prince Phrixus. Reluctantly, King Athamas finally agreed.

"Dear gods of Olympus," sobbed the forgotten Nephele, "I have no life but for my children. I beg you to save the life of my innocent son. There is evil in the royal household. Please also save my daughter from that evil. I ask for nothing more."

Nephele's prayers were answered, for, as her son was led to the alter of his death and as her daughter tearfully watched by his side, Hermes sent a ram with a fleece of pure gold and it flew into the temple lifting Phrixus and his sister Helle onto its back and then flew away on the swift north wind.

The ram was the son of Poseidon and Theophane. Poseidon had fallen in love with Theophane and she tried to hide from him by taking the form of a sheep. Hiding from Poseidon was never successful for, when he found her, he turned into a ram and mated with her. The result of that union was the magical golden ram.

After the ram had flown away, Hermes walked through the excited crowd, stood next to King Athamas and whispered so only the king could hear, "this has all been caused by Ino. She baked the seed corn and bribed the messenger." The king exploded with rage but he waited to find the perfect revenge. Finally, one night, he was driven mad by Zeus and killed his son Learchus. The frightened Ino ran away with Melicertes, her only remaining son. On board ship during their escape, they accidentally fell into the sea and both she and Melicertes were drowned. King Athamas no longer had any children or any wives and he bitterly lived out his remaining years alone.

Meanwhile, Phrixus and Helle, flying high over the sea between Europe and Asia were mesmerized by their view of the sparking waters far below as they reflected the sun and the fleece of their golden ram. "How extraordinary!" exclaimed Helle, loosening her grasp of the ram's golden wool as she gazed at the glittering beauty of the scene below. A sudden gust of wind blew her off balance and although she grabbed for the ram's wool, it slipped from her fingers and she fell into the sea. Phrixus wasn't fast enough to save her and his tears dropped like rain over what would later be called the Hellespont, after the drowned princess.

The ram flew to the Black Sea and landed in a country called Colchis. Although the Greeks called the Black Sea the Unfriendly Sea and said that the people of Colchis were barbaric, they treated Phrixus like a hero. When he grew older, he married King Aeetes' daughter and the grateful Phrixus sacrificed the ram to Zeus, giving its golden fleece to his father-in-law.

Phrixus' mother Nephele was the daughter of King Cretheus of Iolcos in Thessaly. She had a brother named Aeson, who was the rightful heir to their father's kingdom, but Aeson's half brother Pelias deprived him of the throne. When the coup happened, Aeson and his wife had just given birth to a boy named Jason and they feared for their son's safety. Claiming he was dead, they staged a mock funeral for the child and took him to the cave of Chiron, the centaur, where Jason remained until he was grown.

One night Jason had a dream. Hera appeared to him and said, "I want you to be my champion and kill your uncle Pelias. He insulted me long ago and I never forget an insult. If you do this for me, I'll help you become king of Iolcos." When Jason awoke in the morning, he gathered provisions and set out for Iolcos to find his fortune.

Myth Index | Chapter 2: The Voyage of the Argo

Tales of the Immortal Night ©2003, J.J. Kuhl


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