Renowned mythologist Bernard Evslin’s retelling of the perilous adventure of Jason and the Argonauts
“This story begins very soon after the world began, when great raw things called monsters roamed the unfinished places eating whatever they could catch.” So says Ekion, son of the god Hermes, as he relates the tale of the treacherous crusade of Jason and the Argonauts. When Jason, a prince with the gift of healing, is assigned a quest to obtain the golden fleece of the winged ram—which, once obtained, will set Jason upon his rightful throne as king—a fantastic adventure begins. In the vein of classic storytelling, mythologist Bernard Evslin offers his own masterful recasting of the famous tale of Jason, Medea, and the Argonauts, and follows the hero’s journey to its startling and tragic conclusion.
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Jason and The Argonauts
By Bernard Evslin
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1986 Bernard Evslin
All rights reserved.
This story begins very soon after the world began, when great raw things called monsters roamed the unfinished places eating whatever they could catch. The earth was flat then, as anyone could tell; it had been broken into islands and the pieces flung upon a huge puddle of sea. The islands bobbed uneasily on the heaving purple water and had to be pinned down by mountains or they would have blown away altogether; that's how strong the winds were.
On top of one of these mountains, called Olympus, lived a family of gods. They had chosen Olympus because it was high enough to look down upon the pasture lands of the restless new herds they had inherited: strange, wild, and clever creatures, neither god nor beast but something in between, who called themselves men and women and were difficult to manage.
The gods loved to hunt and soon found that men and women, although lacking horns or claws and absurdly slow-footed, nevertheless offered fine sport, for human prey, unlike any other, kept trying to understand what was happening to them. But, try as they might, they could make no sense of these arrows that struck out of nowhere, taking the young and strong as well as the old and feeble. And their anguished confusion amused the gods mightily.
Finally, Zeus, the king of the gods, saw that the human herd was shrinking before the invisible arrows faster than it could replace itself, and he decided to lay down some game laws. It was forbidden to kill more than a certain small quota of humans each month, and the penalties were severe. He decreed that anyone who broke the new law would be chained to the roots of a mountain in Tartarus and kept there in suffocating darkness through eternity.
The gods feared Zeus. They knew how ferocious he could be when crossed. So they pretended to obey. But as time passed, they found a way to break the law without suffering the penalties.
They employed monsters—particularly dragons, who developed a taste for heroes.
And now that we know something about the games gods play, and the reason for dragons, we can better follow the adventures of those who shipped with Jason on his quest for the Golden Fleece.CHAPTER 2
Let's start with me, Ekion.
I am a son of Hermes by one of the Nymphs of the Grove, which one I'm not sure. Hermes married all three one summer night and planted a son in each. Consequently, we were all born on the same summer afternoon, and our mothers found it convenient to swap us around, giving one another more time to do what nymphs do. We were shifted around so much that the sisters forgot who had borne whom, and none of them ever cared whether it was a son or a nephew she was suckling at her breast.
But if we were unclear who was our mother and who were our aunts, we did know who our father was. Hermes visited the grove from time to time bringing a hot silver moonlight with him, always, and the music of pipe and lyre—which he had invented—and danced with the sisters all night long.
So there were the three boys: myself, Autolycus, and Daphnis. We'll get to them; they became Argonauts, too, but let's consider me first.
Let's take my name. Do you know what "Ekion" means in our language? It means "viper." Viper. Perhaps it began as a pet name. The nymphs played rough—seizing us and tossing us from one to the other, tickling, biting, kissing us all over. Their speech could be wild and rough, too. But of the three I was the only one given an unkind name. "Daphnis" means "laurel." "Autolycus" means "wolfish," but in a noble sense. And I was called Ekion, a poisonous little snake, swift and deadly. What a name for an innocent child to bear. For I was innocent, until the age of two anyway.
Two brothers—I hated one and feared the other. Daphnis was chubby, clinging, clumsy in movement, and slow in speech, and everyone loved him best—except me. His eyes were like wet violets, and I wanted to poke them out with a sharp stick. Oddly enough, he was so cuddly and smelled so delicious that I liked to hug and kiss him, too, and disliked him more for confusing me.
The three of us were exactly the same age, as I told you, but anyone looking at us would have thought that Autolycus was two years older. He was a tall, sturdy boy with a brown-gold shock of hair thick as a pelt and a narrow fierce face. He had the quickest pair of hands anyone had ever seen; to fight him was madness. His fists were a blur, and he could blacken my eyes and bloody my nose before I could get in a blow. This was the reason Daphnis was more or less safe from me. Autolycus had appointed himself his protector and thrashed me every time I began to educate the little half-wit.
Those same fast hands later gave him his vocation. He became a master thief.
In Daphnis, feeble-mindedness turned lyrical: he became a poet.
Hermes seemed to find us entertaining. Upon one visit he gathered us about him and said, "Sons of the grove, I rejoice in the sight of you. For it is a sad fact that god spawn are not always godlike. Handsome Dionysus and gorgeous Aphrodite, for instance, did not breed true. They produced a misshapen little gargoyle called Priapus. But I have been luckier here in the grove. I see in each of you some expression of my godhead. I am Lord of Thieves, as you know—and you, Autolycus of the swift hands, shall raise larceny to an art. I am also he who invented the lyre, and so am associated with that sweet primal utterance called poetry—wherein speech partakes of song—and you, Daphnis, heaven help you, show symptoms of that vocation."
"Why must heaven help me, Da-da?" lisped Daphnis, making me want to kill him on the spot.
"Because, my son, poetry can be a cruel gift. A very mixed blessing. Nevertheless, I have bred true, and I am proud of you."
They were all looking at me now. I stood there waiting. Hermes didn't say anything. But I saw laughter smoldering in his gray eyes, tugging at the corner of his lips. He can read my heart and knows that I love him more than all the others put together, that I worship him, and it amuses him to tease me. He lolled there on the grass now, the silvery one, smiling that subtle smile.
I couldn't stand it any longer. "How about me, Father?"
"What about you?"
"What have I inherited?"
"What indeed, little viper?"
"Viper," I said slowly. "Yes-ss. Perhaps I am your true heir."
He threw back his head and chortled. "You are quick-witted, suave in manner, fancy of speech, with more taste for negotiation than combat. If you can but learn to smile when you want to kill, you might make a pretty fair herald. And I am also Patron of Heralds, you know."
"I've never thought of myself that way," I said.
"Fortunately, you have an affectionate father to do your thinking for you. Herald I have named you, and herald you shall be—a profession that will make you the confidant of kings and put you squarely in the middle of great events. A profession more profitable than theft, and less hazardous. A calling more comfortable in every way than that of poet. Your person shall be inviolate, you shall bear the sacred truce and most closely resemble me, Herald to the High Gods."
"I thank you, Father."
"Come kiss me."
I did. He sprang into the air, ankle wings whirring, and I didn't see him again until that fateful day when he first told us about Jason.
Of envy and hatred am I compounded.
The very glands under my jaw grow heavy with venom. My teeth grow hollow for it; my body dwindles and moves in stealth when I think of that Jason whom my father called the most beautiful boy on this disk of earth.CHAPTER 3
Jason's troubles began when he was still a baby, on the day that his father, Diomedes II, suddenly stopped being king of Iolcus. The king was a gentle man, still young, and would have reigned many more years if it had not been for his stepbrother, Pelius the Impatient. He knocked Diomedes on the head and rolled him off a cliff into the sea, then named himself regent because the crown prince was an infant.
Pelius's first royal act was to declare war on a neighboring country to give people something else to think about. Because he had plans for his nephew. He meant to solve the problem of succession very simply by dropping the baby out the window. But when he went to the nursery that night, he found the crib empty. He was frantic. He ordered the palace turned inside out. Every cottage, barn, and haystack for miles around was searched and searched again, but the infant prince had been swallowed by the night.
Thereupon Pelius announced that, in the light of the royal baby's disappearance, it was the clear duty of the regent, who happened to be himself, to choose a new king, also himself. And now, as king, he could get on with the business of winning the war and celebrating that victory with another war, and on and on, until every patriotic Iolchian would thank the gods for allowing them to be ruled by a winner, even if he had been lethal about gaining the throne.
Pelius prospered. He grew in fame and wealth, getting meaner and fatter each year. But even as paunch and power grew, he kept being haunted by the idea that the little prince was alive somewhere and would turn up one day to claim his kingdom. He gave orders that every young stranger in the kingdom was to be watched very closely and killed on the spot if he came within ten miles of the castle.CHAPTER 4
Zeus had a brother named Hades who ruled the dead. Tartarus was his kingdom, an underground realm of linked caverns where the homeless spirits were taken after being evicted from their bodies. Squeaking and gibbering, each day's draft of fresh ghosts were herded through vast, shifting shadows toward the Place of Judgment. Invisible hands seized them; they were made to shuffle past a throne of ebony and pearl, where sat Hades—huge, black-robed, silent. With one glance he judged each spirit, and with a flick of his hand he sent it off to be indulged, ignored, or tormented through eternity.
Upon this day, Hades was in a bad temper and sent more than the usual number of souls to the roasting pits. Nor did he arise from his throne after the last whimpering shade had been whisked away, but sat there waiting. Earlier that day he had sent for Ares and had been told that the god of war was on his way.
Ares strode into the throne room. He was the largest of the gods who are all huge. He wore a breastplate, shin greaves, and helmet, all of brass. Crossing the floor, he absorbed every bit of light in that gloomy chamber. He burned upon the shadows. His great arms were hard as marble; his face was a slab of raw beef. His eyes were pits of redness.
Hades descended from his throne and embraced Ares; it was like black sleeves of smoke winding about a fire.
"Lord of Battles, I greet you."
"All reverence, my melancholy master," said Ares. "How can I serve you?"
"Are you acquainted with Jason, prince of Iolcus?"
"No, sire, I am not."
"I desire you to make his acquaintance," said Hades.
"I take it he is someone you dislike?"
"Someone I loathe. Very young, but growing into a first-class troublemaker."
"How can a puny mortal trouble you, Lord of Darkness?"
"It has been foretold that he shall father a child who shall possess an uncanny talent for healing, thus depriving me of my rightful quota of corpses."
"You can't always believe these things. Prophets are gloomy by nature; maybe it won't happen."
"The warning cannot be doubted. It is written on the Scroll."
What he meant was this: every so often, those twisted sisters called the Fates, whom even the gods fear, would dip their claws into starlight and scrawl their decrees upon a great scroll. Night blue was the Scroll; it hung from a place in the heavens beyond man's sight and was written upon in letters of fire. Once every several years the gods were summoned to read the Scroll and to consider how to use their divine powers within these laws.
"On the Scroll were the dreadful words written," said Hades. "I must neither doubt them nor ignore them. And, indeed, this accursed young prince has himself displayed dangerous healing power, only on animals so far, but the tendency is there. Just this year he was able to stop a cattle plague, which has made him beloved among the herdsmen of Cythera. So, my nephew, it falls upon us to overturn this prophecy."
"How can you alter a decree of the Fates?" asked Ares. "As it is written, so must it be."
"The way the sentence reads, I have room to maneuver," said Hades. "It says, 'If this youth becomes a man and fathers a child, that child shall be a great healer.' It is my intention to cut his career short before he becomes a father."
"Did he really cleanse cattle of the plague?" asked Ares, who owned vast herds.
"He did. And the people dubbed him 'Jason' which in their dialect means 'healer.' I'd like him killed. Will you do it?"
"Forgive me, good Uncle. But my game bag is overfull, and I hesitate to break the law."
"You should know more about this young man. He is of the type of Adonis."
"What do you mean?" whispered Ares.
"Slender, ivory-limbed, gray-eyed—the type that Aphrodite favors. In fact, knowing him in danger, she has set a Thessalian witch to hover over the island, keeping ceaseless vigil."
At the very sound of the name Adonis, Ares had begun to swell with rage. His neck and face went dusky red, his teeth shone, his eyes bulged. He looked like a wild boar. And indeed it was in the shape of a wild boar that he had attacked young Adonis some years before and trampled him into bloody rags. Since that time, no one had dared approach Aphrodite.
"Favors him, does she?" he panted. "And does she visit the island?"
"Not yet," said Hades. "I fancy she considers him too young. But she must have plans in that direction, or why would she employ a witch to watch over him?"
"Yes-ss, Aphrodite always has a reason for what she does, and it's always the same. Too young, is he? Well, I'll see that he doesn't get any older."
"Good ... good."
"How about that witch? She can't stop me, but she can raise an alarm."
"She won't see you. She'll be busy." Hades then put his lips to Ares' ear, and whispered.
Ares bellowed with laughter. "That should hold the old bag!"
"I'll bring you his head."CHAPTER 5
A cold wind blew over the slopes of Olympus. Aphrodite walked out of the garden and into the orchard. The pomegranate trees were being stripped by the wind, and the fig trees and the wild olives. But standing green among the fruit trees were fir and spruce and pine. Snow began to sift. Olympus stands in northern Thessaly; it is capped by snow from autumn till spring. It was autumn now. She was barefoot, clad in a blue tunic. Her throat was bare, and her shoulders and her long white arms.
A bright yell split the air—Hermes' herald call. He flashed like a blade, catching all the dull light. She watched as he fell toward her, his face drinking light.
He saw her among trees in the cold green dusk, growing taller and taller as he coasted down steeps of air into the clean smell of pine. He came to her. He saw snow melting about her feet and roses springing where she stood.
"You sent for me, O beautiful one?"
"I need your help."
"Queen of the Night, whatever is in my power I shall perform."
"I have chosen again among mortals."
"Let me guess the rest. You want my assistance in defending him against the jealous gods."
"He is startlingly like Adonis. Not surprising: he is also descended from Io."
"Therefore, perhaps, one of my own descendants," murmured Hermes.
"Quite possibly, dear friend. He is Jason, exiled prince of Iolcus, dwelling now upon the island of Cythera."
"Does Ares know about him?"
"I don't see how he could. I don't visit the island. Not yet."
"Well, if Ares doesn't know ..."
"In that brawling bully, jealousy becomes insight. He has an uncanny way of sniffing out my favorites. But I shall not permit Jason to meet the doom of Adonis."
"And what do you expect me to do—go to battle with the god of war? Do you really think that I, the most fragile and least bellicose of the Olympians, can stop that murderous brute in the full spate of his wrath?"
"I'm not asking you to fight him. I need your wits, not your sword. As I say, I don't know that he's even aware of Jason's existence, but I would like you to fly over the island. Just look things over, make sure my sentinel witch is being vigilant or see if I shall have to take stronger measures."
"I don't relish this chore, but I can refuse you nothing."
"You'll find me grateful."
Excerpted from Jason and The Argonauts by Bernard Evslin. Copyright © 1986 Bernard Evslin. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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