As the son of its founder Cretheus, Aeson was Iolcus’ rightful king. However, Pelias, Aeson’s stepbrother by their mother, Tyro, enjoyed an even higher pedigree. As a young girl Tyro had left Thessaly when her father, Salmoneus, went south to rule Elis. But Salmoneus was overbearing, and thought himself Zeus’ equal. Hurling burning firebrands as if they were lightning bolts, he drove the streets in a chariot equipped with bronze drums, which boomed like thunder. So Zeus hurled a lightning bolt of his own and put an end to Salmoneus.
Abused by her stepmother, Tyro moped by the river’s edge, where Poseidon spied her, with inevitable consequences. He engulfed Tyro in a towering wave, and nine months later she was delivered of twins, Pelias and Neleus. In shame she exposed them on the mountainside to die, but a herdsman found them and reared them until they came of age. Discovering their parentage, they rescued Tyro and returned with her to Iolcus. Here Tyro married King Cretheus and bore Aeson -who subsequently fathered a son of his own and sent him to be schooled by Cheiron on Mount Pelion. While the boy was away, old Cretheus died, and it was now that Pelias showed his colours. Imprisoning Aeson and banishing Neleus (who fled in exile to the southwest Peloponnese to found Pylos), he seized the throne. Pelias could not relax, however. He lived in dread of a one-sandalled man, whom the Delphic oracle foretold would kill him.
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Meanwhile, on Mount Pelion Aeson’s son became well-versed in medicine and took the name Jason (‘Healer’). Now twenty years old and eager to restore his father to the throne, he set off for Iolcus. In his path lay the River Anaurus, thundering in spate. As he prepared to ford it, an old woman begged him to carry her across. Without a second thought, Jason set her on his back and struggled through the swollen stream Only when they were safely across did she reveal her true identity: she was Hera in disguise, and, because Jason had helped her so willingly, she promised to aid Jason in return.
Encouraged, Jason strode on to Iolcus. Pindar describes him as: a man of magnificent appearance, with two spears and a double tunic, the costume of his native land, close-fitting his magnificent physique. Around him he had slung a leopard skin to keep out the icy rain, and his uncut hair cascaded down his back in waves. Swiftly he strode, still testing his unshakeable resolve, until he came into the market place and stood there in the middle of the jostling crowd.
People were speculating whether Jason was a god when Pelias drove up in his polished mule-cart and stared in horror at the young man’s feet. In the swirling currents of the river Jason had lost a sandal. Pelias’ nemesis had arrived.
Jason demanded that Pelias restore Aeson to the throne. Deceitfully Pelias agreed, but first he asked Jason to ‘appease the anger of the dead’. Iolcus, he said, was haunted by the ghost of Phrixus, a local prince who had fled far to the east, borne by a miraculous golden ram. The oracle had ordered Pelias to restore to Greece both the ram’s fleece and Phrixus’ hapless ghost, that it might rest forever in its homeland. If Jason accomplished this task, Pelias would concede the kingship.