Jason and the quest of the Golden Fleece

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The myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece describes the first steps on the spiritual journey, the encounter with the spiritual master and the tests until the first great spiritual experience.

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Jason bringing back to Pelias the Golden FleeceJason bringing the Golden Fleece to Pelias – Louvre Museum

An age of Truth, India’s Satya Yuga, or rather, an age of intuition,
preceded the history of our mental humanity. Judging by
the shreds of our traditions, our infancy in the world was struck with an illumination, as is sometimes our brief human infancy before reason tramples on our dreams, or as with the seeker of truth when at the start of his quest, for an instant the veil is rent in a dazzling light, as if to tell him, “Here is where you are going.” Then everything closes again, and we are left to the slow plodding of years or centuries, at the end of which we rediscover a child’s truth.

(The Veda and Human Destiny)


If people in ancient times situated the myth of the Golden Fleece under Iapetus’ lineage and more specifically under Aeolus’ lineage it is because the crowning experience in that  evolution comes more specifically from ascending the planes of consciousness rather than the path of purification and liberation of Oceanus’ lineage, though the psychic being can manifest itself in either way.

In other words it is an experience that arises more from a perfecting, purifying, and expanding of the mental-consciousness rather than from an act of purification and liberation of the vital being, though the two paths can never be completely dissociated.

As related by Apollonios of Rhodes (a disciple of Callimachus who was probably disowned by him) the myth of Jason and the Argonauts retraces the steps of the seeker from the very  moment of his entry into the journey to the point of a major experience of spiritual descent of power and knowledge from the plane of the overmind. This descent first illuminates the mind and then descends toward the centers below, creating a psychic opening in the heart. The light first acts on the mind because descending force is received more rapidly by the higher mind although it is always the heart that recognises the divine essence first. That is why Hermes figures among the ascendants of Jason (it is a descent of the overmind) and why we can consider Cretheus’ lineage to belong to the plane of the higher mind.

To the best of our knowledge the first experience does not generally last beyond a few days or weeks: it only constitutes a temporary rupture of the veil of the mind.

It is due to this that Medea separates herself from Jason upon returning from the quest, destroying even the fruits of their union (she kills her children before returning to Colchis). In fact we see that only realisations are permanent, not experiences.

Yet it would be a mistake to reckon that the experience of illumination is a mandatory passage into the beginning of the journey or that it is the first to appear although it is the most widespread in a civilisation which gives prominence to the mind.

(At least this seems to be the case among men, women live other experiences more intensely. By way of illustration let us cite the contemplative seeker Bernadette Roberts who, in her outline of the different stages of the path stated that she had not lived through significant experiences of enlightenment during the “dark nights” and had experienced her growth in the mental light as a more continuous process. On the other hand the ‘nights’ which are for her as sudden as they are violent seem for men engaged in this contemplative path to be more extended and less easy to clearly be identified. It is as if in the contemplative experience which we associate here with the path of purification-liberation women experience more of a shock with the aim of connecting with the divine within matter by a total annihilation of the mind while in contrast men more often experience these long nights to reach the divine in the realm of the spirit.)

Many other seekers first experience a psychic opening or one of the other innumerable experiences that Sri Aurobindo writes copiously about in the Letters on Yoga.

Although the Elders of ancient times were aware of the absolute necessity of purification and liberation and extolled the labors of Heracles before any other, the quest of the Golden Fleece seems to have gained increasing importance over time. In fact given that the path of purification and liberation is riddled with obstacles that hinder transformation, the experience was highlighted as a first step toward an experience of union with the Self or toward an awakening and considered of paramount in so far as it had not be substituted by the Dionysian path of mystic ecstasy in several schools of initiation.

Although many schools continue to study the union with the Self in our time, Sri Aurobindo emphasizes in particular the process of psychic transformation of the being as a first movement which should be followed by the spiritual transformation to eventually allow the work of the Supreme Power to take place for the transformation of the exterior being. This progression helps to avoid many a trap.

In addition, given that his purpose was to render nature divine for all humanity he wished to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past wherein it was sufficient to attain individual liberation of the Spirit without bringing about a change in any aspect of the external nature of the seeker or in the rest of the humanity.

Following in Sri Aurobindo’s footsteps Satprem in his work On the way to Supermanhood (Chapter 4) goes so far as to suggest that from a certain stage of progress in the ascension of the planes of consciousness the seeker must renounce further pursuit of the path and proceed to a deeper purification and liberation of his nature. According to him the seeker should at some point choose between the path of ascent wherein he can explore the higher planes of the mind “that are like the pure source of everything that occurs here distorted” and the path of the liberation of Nature. He tells us that the first path is so tempting that all the sages of the past and the advanced spirits of today follow it but once they reach its heights they cannot but realise that the ways of the heights have little power here. It is, he says, the eternal story of the Ideal and the realities. For him it is not about rejecting all encumbrances to escape upward, but about an all-encompassing method that would be more of a descent or an unveiling of the Truth present everywhere down to the cells of our body.

Even if we admit that the experience of the descent of lightning flashes of truth from the overmind is only one possible form we should be careful before considering the discourse of Apollonios of Rhodes to be the only approach toward it.

In fact the greater is the relative ease in the theoretical description of the journey when it involves an illustration of its main objectives (for example in the psychic transformation of the being, the abandonment of desire and ego, the battle against illusion and fear, the expansion of knowledge, etc.), the more complicated the problem becomes when it involves experience because it then becomes indispensable to distinguish between the general and the specific.

It is thus imperative to determine to what extent the individual experiences are a mandatory passage for all, whether they belong to a particular yoga or to a specific seeker, whether they always occur in the same order, form part of a repetitive process or mark the end of one.

Although preliminary knowledge of some stages might possibly help the seeker, this should be perfectly defined and universal, and the evolutionary process that leads to them should be clearly identified. Their explanation should not make the seeker worry because he has not had a particular experience, nor establish a hierarchy in progression that would make him fall into the classical trap of the race for spiritual rank.

This was probably the main reason for an absolute prohibition of any kind of disclosure, even partial, of the deeper meaning of myths.

In any case the initiated have always advised seekers to share their experiences only with their guides or at least with utmost precaution to avoid the energy dissipating too rapidly and losing many of its benefits.

Numerous accounts of the myth of the Golden Fleece appear to have existed but we have only one complete Greek version, that of Apollonios of Rhodes from the Hellenistic Age from around the IIIrd century BC. Our study is based on this version. There exists another version by Gaius Valerius Flaccus, a Latin author from I century AD who was greatly influenced by Apollonios.

Every seeker could thus narrate his “own” quest. The progression that we will be examining by means of this text begins at the preparatory stages for the journey. The experience of illumination in the real sense comes only at the end of the tale. Since it is a descent from the Spiritual plane it chooses its time but it seems that the seeker is forewarned that something exceptional is going to occur.

It could thus occur in the midst of everyday life under no particular conditions, but the external circumstances are organized so that the seeker may experience the descent fully.

For seekers who have not worked enough toward the purification of their being the power of the force that descends mostly manifests itself as an exuberant expression that is difficult to control since the force bursts into a non-purified vital being.

It may be noted that the study of the myth here is based on inner experiences but it could be illustrated by external confrontations for every individual, and in this vein Satprem, in By the body of the earth or The Sannyasin, writes that: “All outer roads seem to be doubled by an inner road, and the obstacles, the obscurities, the accidents that we have not overcome on the inner road come back to us on the outer road, but a road infinitely harder, longer, and more relentless, because it swallows up a whole life for one single small experience that makes us say –that is all! “. 

The myth of the Golden Fleece

The background of the myth is set by:

– On the one hand, the major characters in Salmoneus’ and Cretheus’ lineage which we studied in the previous chapter. We will discuss their main characteristics below.

– On the other hand by Jason’s companions, symbolising certain kinds of evolution in specific orientations.

The following finds expression through Salmoneus’ and Cretheus’ lineage:

  • The seeker’s external being, where in a more or less subconscious manner, “forces contributing to evolution in the process of liberation” confront a more mixed force, that of progression in the ignorance of one’s own journey coupled with a vital ambition (Pelias). However the latter creates an aspiration for justice (Pisidice) and a strong righteousness (Alcestis). Among Neleus’ descendants the only surviving dynamism is embodied by his youngest son Nestor who represents “the evolution of rectitude”, “the evolution of sincerity”, or a “capacity to assimilate the experience”.
  • An “endurance” (Pheres) that brings out “a passionate desire for the Light” (Lycurgus), “a will to liberate oneself from the yoke” (Admetus) and a certain “capacity to see (on the way to be a seer)” (Eidomene).
  • A “capability of going into silence” (Amythaon), a source of “strength” (Bias) and an “intuitive sensitivity of the mind” (Melampus).
  • In the end, “a will to fulfill one’s personal destiny” or the “turning over of consciousness from the external to the internal” or even “a higher intellectual consciousness” (Aeson) which receives the influence of the overmind (Hermes) through its capability “to be for himself his own light” (Autolycus) and tend toward “a powerful mind” though with some dispersion (according to his wife’s name Polymede or Alcimede). The Aeson-Polymede couple thus represents the seeker whose powerful individualised mind directs the quest according to its own ideas.

The seeker has also worked to expand his mind and fought against numerous illusions (Sisyphus and Bellerophon) and fears (Perseus). He continues to battle his susceptibility and self-importance which make him portray himself as a constant victim of other people’s acts (the Lion of Cithaeron). It is also possible that he has deeply engraved in his subconscient the memory of a state of intense happiness, his first fleeting experience of union (Phrixus).

Among the countless illusions that delay entry into the path is the prominent idea that one can change the outer world without changing oneself, that is by undertaking humanitarian, social, political or similar commitments without really questioning one’s own actions. Therefore one of the signs that mark the beginning of the quest is the moment when the seeker no longer wants to transform the world and starts taking interest in his own transformation.

In the preliminary stage of the journey a sincere seeker receives help while mostly being unaware of it, for instance in:

  • Protection for his physical body (from risk of serious accidents, disease, etc.).
  • Experiences considered a posteriori as “initiations” or confrontations that accelerate the experience of some stages depending on the individual’s level of evolution/development.
  • Knowledge stemming from the higher self and received through different channels (intuitions, encounters, work, dreams, etc.) that the seeker acknowledge as evidence.

When the quest begins the Isthmian Games had been held (cf. Sisyphus in the previous chapter), indicating that the seeker had embarked on the “narrow passage”. In the symbolic initiations of the past – which did not at all dispense with the confrontations of the journey – he portrayed himself as a neophyte at the doors of the temple in order to be initiated to its mysteries.

The symbol chosen for this experience, the Golden Fleece of a ram has been studied in the previous chapter. It must be recalled that it signifies the refinement of sensitivity (the fleece), a beginning (the ram), the support of the inner fire or psychic fire, and elicits awakening and spiritual purity.

The ram is very often winged to indicate that the very first experience of the supramental world (that of Phrixus) was a gift of the divine and that a long quest has to be done to recover it.

Jason’s youth and the preparation for the quest


As we have seen the Golden Fleece came from a ram which carried Phrixus to Colchis, the kingdom of Aeetes, son of the sun god Helios, who hung it on an oak tree in the sacred grove of Ares close to his city of Aia.

According to Pindar Jason was like several other heroes raised by the centaur Chiron. We have already come across this character who represents “the right movement of focusing one’s entire being” or “the capacity to concentrate”. His name Chiron signifies “hand”, most likely in relation to his mastery and probably also as a symbol of energetic medicine that acts through the body.

He belonged to the Centaurs, advanced seekers who gained control over their vital nature but only to a certain extent. He did not however belong to Ixion’s lineage as the other Centaurs did although he too was chased away from Thessaly. He is not therefore a symbol of an illusory progression.

He was above all a healer who could restore the right balance, put everything in its place, that is to say purify.

He was the accredited tutor of the heroes in their childhood days for music and medicine, the art of war, and the art of hunting which are symbols respectively of the capacity to achieve harmony from the highest vital plane to the corporal plane, of the path of the spiritual warrior and of the necessary capacities for the purification.

As the son of Cronus he represents the earliest capacities of harmonisation developed by the seeker during the stage that leads to the beginning of the quest.

His mother was Philyra, “one who likes the right movement in evolution”. And since he was an immortal who had to die it may well be imagined that a satisfactory level of “purification” was achieved so that the seeker could master the dualities of the vital plane, such as the love-hate duality, but would then have to move up to a higher stage  of integration.

We do not know anything further about Jason’s youth prior to the time of his arrival in the city of Iolcus. Iolcus (Ιωλκος) could originate from the word Ιωκη with the insertion of Λ in which case the name signifies “the pursuit of the struggle for freedom”.

According to Pindar Jason arrived in Iolcus to reclaim the throne from his cousin King Pelias, as being the son of Aeson he was the legitimate heir and the eldest of the children of Cretheus. Pelias had in fact inherited the city from Aeson as a regent, or rather seized it by force.

According to other sources his arrival was in response to an invitation extended by Pelias to all his subjects to attend a sacrifice in honour of Poseidon: his presence was thus in no way related to a claim over the throne.

Nevertheless two oracles had warned Pelias that he would be brought to his death by a man from his line of descent (a descendant of Aeolus) wearing a single sandal.

While different authors disagree on the reason why Jason did arrived in Iolcus wearing only a single sandal, Pelias asked him as a favour to bring back the Golden Fleece on the pretext that he was too old to go himself. He believed that Jason would never return alive from such an expedition.

Pelias represents the dominant aspect in a seeker who sets out on the quest with a strong vital aspiration but is still ignorant of his own journey and the goal of his life or his assigned task or raison d’être, – the task that the soul want to accomplish during the present incarnation – striving in quest of the “right movement” (his daughter Pisidice)  with a strong “righteousness and sincerity” (his daughter Alcestis).

It is a will to do well which is actually also a resistance to change, progress or evolution. This dynamic will continue to be strong during the entire initial period up till the point of the opening experience, but “ignorance of the goal of life” will partly disappear as soon as Jason and Medea return to Iolcus because Hera, “the power that oversees the right turn of events”, had planned simultaneously Jason’s quest and Pelias’ death. Due to this “ignorance of his assigned task” Jason is not in a position to reclaim the throne and for this reason authors are divided about Pelias’ motive. The seeker is not yet consciously aware that his “ignorance” must give way to a higher consciousness (that somebody from his line of descent, from Iapetus’ and Aeolus’ lineage ascending the planes of consciousness, must occupy his place on the throne) although he sometimes has a vague intuition about it. He is still indeed inadequately equipped for the quest: Jason is wearing only one sandal.

Such was the reason behind the Argonauts’ expedition, their name being derived from the ship Argo named after its constructor. The name Argus simultaneously evokes light and whiteness (purity) but especially in Homer’s works it also evokes speed. The seeker is in fact not supposed to stop on his journey and surpass the stages as rapidly as possible.

The ship itself is the symbol of a well-constructed and complete personality: it had fifty oars, fifty being the number for a complete totality in the world of forms (5 at a higher level). The ship is also a symbol of yoga and the discipline followed (Cf. Mother’s Agenda, Volume 8).

In addition it was equipped with a speaking beam which encouraged the crew when it boarded the ship for the first time. This beam is the symbol of a solid structure which contributed to the success of the quest by way of its existence and proved to be indispensable in its early stages. It came from Dodona, place of the oracles of Zeus, and thus stands for an inner intuition very well established (a beam) and coming from the highest plane of the mind, the overmind. It manifest itself as inner certitudes for actions.

Next : The Argonauts >>

The rest of the chapter should be read in the following order :

Jason and the quest of the Golden Fleece (here)
The Argonauts
The departure of the Argo ship
The women of Lemnos
The Argonauts at the Dolions
The Argonauts at the Bebryces
The Argonauts at Phineus
The Cyanean rocks or Symplegades (Clashing rocks)
The Argonauts on the island of Thynia
The Argonauts pass off the coast of the Chalybes, Tibareni and Mossynoeci
The Argonauts and the birds of the island of Ares
Jason kills the sawn-men raising out from the Dragon’s teeth
The path of the return of the Argonauts
The murder of Apsyrtus by Jason
Argonauts are confronted with spiritual presumption and the awakening of kundalini
The Argonauts at Circe
The Argonauts escape the seduction of the Sirens
The Argonauts avoid Charybdis and Scylla
The union of Jason and Medea
The Argonauts and the desert test
The Argonauts in the Hesperides garden
The Argonauts and the death of the giant Talos
The Argonauts in the terrific night then the illumination
The death of Pelias and the games given in his honour
The death of the children of Medea and the end of Jason’s life