A Boxing King, Harpies & the Clashing Rocks

Not all the Argonauts were destined to reach Colchis. When Heracles’ oar snapped, they put ashore to let him uproot a tree and make another. But when it was time to sail they discovered that Heracles’ friend (or lover) Hylas had not returned from fetching water. Heracles set out to find him, but despite scouring the countryside he failed. Loath to sacrifice the breeze, but with Heracles refusing to abandon Hylas, the Argonauts set off without them Hylas was never found – a lovesick nymph had drawn him down into her pool, where she kept him to herself forever.

Despite Heracles’ absence, the Argonauts managed to defeat a savage king, Amycus, who challenged all comers to a brutal boxing match. Leaving him for dead, they sailed safely through the treacherous Bosphorus, before landing at Salmydessus on the east coast of the Black Sea (modern Kiyikoy, called in medieval times ‘Medea’). Here lived Phineas, originally a Theban prophet, whom the gods punished for revealing more than was permitted. Not only was he blind, but he was plagued by Harpies – loathsome creatures, half-bird, half-woman. Whenever Phineas tried to eat, they plunged from the sky, screeching and flapping their huge wings, snatching his food and defecating prodigiously over anything they failed to grab.

When Jason sought his advice, Phineas announced that he would help only if the Argonauts chased off the Harpies. So they laid out a mouth-watering banquet. At once the Harpies swooped down. Swifly, Calais and Zetes, sons of the North Wind, drew their swords and soared into the sky, slicing and lunging. Terrified, the Harpies fled squawking west, with Calais and Zetes flying in hot pursuit, until they came to the Ionian Sea. Here the brothers left them, turned (so giving the nearby islands their name, ‘Strophades’, ‘Turning Place’) and flew back to the Argo.

A Boxing King, Harpies & the Clashing Rocks Photo Gallery

The delighted Phineas first feasted, then gave Jason good advice: the Symplegades (‘Clashing Rocks’) were high cliffs on each side of a narrow strait through which the Argo must sail. Not anchored to the earth, at any ship’s approach they crashed together like a pair of cymbals, smashing the vessel and killing its crew. Phineas recommended that they send a dove ahead between the rocks and see how it fared. If it survived, so would the Argo.

As they approached the Symplegades, dull blue in morning mist, they released the bird. At once the cliffs slammed tight together in a spume of icy water – but, with just a few trapped tail feathers, the dove soared free. Immediately the crew strained at their oars, and the ship sped forward. Soon the wet crags loomed above them, motionless at first, but then with increasing momentum rushing relentlessly towards them With a sickening crunch they slammed together – too late to harm the Argo. Apart from a few stern planks, the ship was safe thanks to the crew’s efforts and Athene’s aid, for the goddess had pledged to help Jason whenever he was in danger. The Symplegades now stayed rooted to the spot, never to move again, and the Argo sped on to Colchis.

At last the Argo nosed into the broad estuary of the Phasis. Next morning, as Apollonius of Rhodes describes, Jason and a few companions set off for the palace:

They left the river and the ship, where it was hidden among tall reeds, stepped on to the shore and made their way on to the plain, which is named the Plain of Circe. Here are planted many rows of osiers and willow trees, and tied with ropes on to their topmost branches corpses hang suspended.

Met by Aeetes and his family at the palace, they explained why they had come. Aeetes was furious, and only just stopped himself from leaping up and killing them Instead, he struck a bargain, setting Jason a task which he was confident the Greek would not survive.

Aeetes possessed two bronze-hoofed, fire-breathing bulls. Each morning he yoked them and ploughed a four-acre field, then sowed it with dragon’s teeth – and when angry armed men rose from the furrows he fought against this earth-born army until by evening all the warriors were dead. If Jason took his place and proved his worth, Aeetes would give him the fleece. Fearing that to do so would mean his death, Jason accepted the challenge.

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