What is the truth behind the Jason and the Argonauts myth?

3 min read

What is the truth behind the Jason and the Argonauts myth?
The tale of the legendary Jason and the Argonauts is one of the oldest in Greek mythology and tradition. But is there any truth behind this myth?
One of the oldest tales related from Greek tradition involves the reluctant hero Jason and his not-so-merry band of Argonauts. The myth recounts the adventure of Jason and a carefully handpicked crew of men who set sail on the Argo to the farthest reaches of the known eastern waters to bring back the illustrious Golden Fleece, the golden wool of a ram.
The ancient legend met with the usual embellishments along its passage through the mouths of Greek story-weavers from as far back as 1,300BC. But what truth, if any, lies behind the Argonauts’ tale?

Finding the reality in myths

With such vivid descriptions of rivers conquered and battles waged, are there any morsels of fact that can be culled from Jason’s quest? Indeed, the tricky part of reading ancient myths is extracting those titbits of information based on reality, however mundane they tend to make the glorious pictures of life in antiquity. Putting aside the fantastical creatures and wars the heroes faced, much can be discovered about Jason’s adventures on the high seas.
"Morsels of fact can be discovered from Jason's adventures on the high seas"
From the very date of the story and from uncovered artefacts, we know that ancient Greece had established itself as a maritime power long before most civilisations. In fact, proof of Mediterranean nautical expeditions by the pre-Hellenic people (whom ancient Greece would eventually incorporate) date as far back as 6,000–7,000BC.

The Argo

Most experts date Jason’s quest to 1,289BC when shipbuilding was a relatively simple process. Although the characteristics of the divine ship the Argo are often boasted of, it actually had no deck. Most likely, when the Argonauts (and other explorers of the time) reached land, their ship was disassembled, its parts were carried to the next shore, and they were reassembled, good as new.
Konstantinos Volanakis' painting of the Argo: a sailing ship with dozens of crew members on a calm sea
However, the depth to which the story goes to affirm a boat’s superiority shows not only the bonds between the Greeks and the adventure, but also between the Greeks, the rough sea, and its unruly master, Poseidon. Chances are, the real Jason and his cronies were little more than glorified treasure hunters.

The rivers of Colchis

The legend of gold in the rivers of Colchis was quite common in the 12th century BC, and that precious metal was in all probability the actual impetus of the Argonauts’ journey.
"The promise of finding gold was probably the impetus of the Argonauts' journey"
Seamen of old were most moved by the promise of finding great rewards on the high seas—not by the spirit of adventure. But perhaps more significant than their mission and exaggerated battles with monsters is the Argonauts’ wild ride through European waters.

The crew's route

Based on astronomical observations made throughout their tale, it is clear that Jason and his men weren’t just chancing it on the open waves; they had a deep understanding of navigational techniques, all the way back 3,500 years ago. Their escapade carries the men far to the east through the Black Sea, toward the base of the Caucasus Mountains in an area that today is part of Georgia.
"Jason and his men had a deep understanding of navigational techniques"
As far as Greek navigators knew at the time, the Black Sea was a gulf into an infinite ocean, not bounded as it is by the towering mountains of Asia. This discovery no doubt showed their place in respect to Eastern nations.

Jason: The first explorer

The Argonauts’ return route, according to various historians, took them north toward Scandinavia, west to the British Isles, and then south along the western coast of Europe, where they gently slipped back into the Mediterranean. Others theorise that the return route took them through the heart of Europe, west along the Danube, and farther west along smaller rivers to the Adriatic, where they went south down to the Ionian Sea and Greece.
Konstantinos Volanakis' "Return of the Argo", depicting two sailing ships returning to a port where dozens of people are stood
Either way, the Argonauts’ journey, spurred on by the promise of booty, inadvertently revealed much about the geography of European waters. The Argonaut legend was the first tale of a ground-breaking nautical expedition, thereby making Jason the first explorer. Perhaps Jason’s real reward was his contribution to the Greeks’ knowledge of the physical world.
Banner photo: What truth can we find in the legend of Jason and the Argonauts? (credit: Lorenzo Costa (Wikimedia Commons))
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