The story of Jason and the Argonauts (a large company of heroes, including Heracles) was one of the oldest mythological stories produced in ancient Greece. Even though the oldest recovered full account of the story is the version of Apollonius of Rhodes (written in the 3rd century BCE), the story of Jason and the Argonauts is believed to have existed before the works of Homer in the 8th and 7th century BCE—Homer even adapted parts of Jason’s adventures into The Odyssey and mentioned their famous ship, the Argo, by name.
Some historians believe that the tale of the Argonauts may be the oldest account of human maritime trade and exploration. Lionel Casson proposed that Jason’s adventures across the Black Sea upon the Argo may have been an elaborate analogy or metaphor for ancient maritime trade. Specifically, the theory focuses on the story of the Golden Fleece, supposedly symbolizing the ancient Greeks journeying across the Black Sea to trade for gold. For further evidence, historians have hypothesized that the idea of the ‘Golden Fleece’ derived from the occurrence of ancient peoples in the Black Sea region placing fleece or wool in gold-rich waterways to catch particles of the precious metal.
As always, the interpretation and ranking of relics from the ancient past will continue to change and adapt as new information is found. Older maritime stories than Jason and the Argonauts may be found in the future, and Jason’s adventures may have been originally created without the merest thought for maritime trade. Nevertheless, the theory is interesting to ponder.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- Jason and the Argonauts by Apollonius of Rhodes, translated by Aaron Poochigian. New York: Penguin Classics, 2014.
- Transnationalism in Ancient and Medieval Societies: The Role of Cross-Border Trade and Travel by Michael C. Howard. McFarland & Company, Inc., 2012.