The Argonauts (Ancient Greek: Ἀργοναῦται, Argonautai; Georgian: არგონავტები, ArgonavTebi, (Laz language: Argonatepe)) were a band of heroes in Greek mythology who, in the years before the Trojan War, accompanied Jason to Colchis (ancient Georgian Kingdom) in his quest to find the Golden Fleece. Their name comes from their ship, the Argo, which was named after its builder, Argus. "Argonauts", therefore, literally means "Argo sailors". They were sometimes called Minyans, after a prehistoric tribe of the area.
After the death of King Cretheus, the Aeolian Pelias usurped the Iolcan throne from his half-brother Aeson and became king of Iolcus in Thessaly (near the modern city of Volos). Because of this unlawful act, an oracle warned him that a descendant of Aeolus would seek revenge. Pelias put to death every prominent descendant of Aeolus he could, but spared Aeson because of the pleas of their mother Tyro. Instead, Pelias kept Aeson prisoner and forced him to renounce his inheritance. Aeson married Alcimede, who bore him a son named Diomedes. Pelias intended to kill the baby at once, but Alcimede summoned her kinswomen to weep over him as if he were stillborn. She faked a burial and smuggled the baby to Mount Pelion. He was raised by the centaur Chiron, who changed the boy's name to Jason.
When Jason was 20 years old, an oracle ordered him to dress as a Magnesian and head to the Iolcan court. While traveling Jason lost his sandal crossing the muddy Anavros river while helping an old woman (Hera in disguise) ford. The goddess was angry with King Pelias for killing his stepmother Sidero after she had sought refuge in Hera's temple.
Another oracle warned Pelias to be on his guard against a man with one shoe. Pelias was presiding over a sacrifice to Poseidon with several neighboring kings in attendance. Among the crowd stood a tall youth in leopard skin with only one sandal. Pelias recognized that Jason was his cousin. He could not kill him because prominent kings of the Aeolian family were present. Instead, he asked Jason: "What would you do if an oracle announced that one of your fellow-citizens were destined to kill you?". Jason replied that he would send him to go and fetch the Golden Fleece, not knowing that Hera had put those words in his mouth.
Jason learned later that Pelias was being haunted by the ghost of Phrixus. Phrixus had fled from Orchomenus riding on a divine ram to avoid being sacrificed and took refuge in Colchis where he was later denied proper burial. According to an oracle, Iolcus would never prosper unless his ghost was taken back in a ship, together with the golden ram's fleece. This fleece now hung from a tree in the grove of the Colchian Ares, guarded night and day by a dragon that never slept. Pelias swore before Zeus that he would give up the throne at Jason's return while expecting that Jason's attempt to steal the Golden Fleece would be a fatal enterprise. However, Hera acted in Jason's favour during the perilous journey.
Jason was accompanied by some of the principal heroes of ancient Greece. The number of Argonauts varies, but usually totals between 40 and 55; traditional versions of the story place their number at 50.
Some have hypothesized that the legend of the Golden Fleece was based on a practice of the Black Sea tribes; they would place a lamb's fleece at the bottom of a stream to entrap gold dust being washed down from upstream. This practice is still in use, particularly in the Svaneti region of Georgia. See Golden Fleece for other, more speculative interpretations.
The crew of the Argo
There is no definite list of the Argonauts. Many Greeks would claim their ancestors were Argonauts, though there were too many named for them all to be accurate. As such, the lists compiled by ancient authors were no more than an educated guess.
The following list is collated from several lists given in ancient sources.
Actor (son of Hippas)
Amphion (son of Hyperasius)
Argus (builder of Argo)
Argus (son of Phrixus)
Asterion (son of Cometes)
Asterius (brother of Amphion)
Autolycus, son of Deimachus
Calaïs (son of Boreas)
Caeneus (son of Coronus)
Castor (son of Zeus)
Cepheus, King of Tegea
Clytius (son of Eurytus)
Coronus (son of Caeneus)
Deucalion of Crete
Erginus (son of Poseidon)
Erytus (brother of Echion)
Eurymedon (son of Dionysus)
Heracles (son of Zeus)
Iolaus (nephew of Heracles)
Laocoön (half-brother of Oeneus and tutor of Meleager)
Neleus (son of Poseidon)
Palaimonius (son of Hephaestus)
Phanus (brother of Staphylus and Eurymedon)
Phlias (son of Dionysus)
Prias (brother of Phocus)
Pollux (son of Zeus)
Thersanon (son of Helios and Leucothoe)
Zetes (son of Boreas)
Several more names are discoverable from other sources. Amyrus, eponym of a Thessalian city, is given by Stephanus of Byzantium as "one of the Argonauts"; he is otherwise said to have been a son of Poseidon and to have given his name to the river Amyrus. Azorus was the helmsman of Argo according to Hesychius of Alexandria; he could be the same as the Azorus mentioned by Stephanus as founder of the city Azorus in Pelagonia.
Atalanta is included on the list by Apollodorus, but Apollonius claims that Jason forbade her because she was a woman and could cause strife in the otherwise all-male crew. Other sources state that she was asked, but refused.
Apollonius also claims that Theseus and Pirithous were trapped in Hades at the time and could not join.
Theseus being on the list is inconsistent with accounts of his life usually including him encountering Medea at an early stage of his adventures, yet many years after the Argonauts completed their adventure (Medea, by that time, was not only abandoned by Jason, but also bore a child from Aegeus).
Argus, Phrontis, Melas and Cytissorus, sons of Phrixus and Chalciope, joined the crew only after being rescued by the Argonauts: the four had been stranded on a desert island not far from Colchis, from where they initially sailed with an intent to reach their father's homeland. However, Argus is not to be confused with the other Argus, son of Arestor or Polybus, constructor and eponym of the ship Argo and member of the crew from the beginning.