19. THE SLAYING OF APSYRTUS
That silver veil was to be splashed with a brother’s blood, and the Argonauts, because of that calamity, were to be held back from a return to their native land for a long time.
Now as they went down the river they saw that dangers were approaching swiftly. The chariots of the Colchians were on the banks. Jason saw King Æetes in his chariot, a blazing torch lighting his armour and his helmet. The Argo went swiftly, but there were ships behind her, and they went swiftly too.
They came into the Sea of Pontus, and Phrontis, the son of Phrixus, advised them. “Do not try to go up the Symplegades,” he said. “All those who live around the Sea of Pontus are friendly to King Æetes. They will be warned by him, and so will be ready to kill us and take the Argo. Let us journey up the River Ister, and by that way we can reach the Thrinacian Sea which is close to your country.”
The Argonauts considered what Phrontis said and then took the ship into the Ister. Many of the Colchian ships passed by the mouth of the river, and went looking the Argo near the mouth of the Symplegades.
But the Argonauts were headed for danger because Apsyrtus had not gone toward the Symplegades seeking the Argo. He had led his soldiers overland to the River Ister. There were islands in the river and the soldiers of Apsyrtus landed on the islands, while Apsyrtus went to the kings of the people around their and asked for their support.
The Argo arrived and the heroes found themselves cut off. They could not make their way between the islands that were filled with the Colchian soldiers, nor along the banks that were lined with men friendly to King Æetes. Argo was stuck. Apsyrtus sent for the chiefs because although he had men enough to overwhelm them he was reluctant to fight with the heroes. He thought that he might gain all he wanted from them without a struggle.
Theseus and Peleus went to meet him. Apsyrtus wanted them to give up the Golden Fleece .He also wanted them to give up Medea and the sons of Phrixus.
Theseus and Peleus appealed to the judgment of the kings who supported Apsyrtus. Æetes, they said, had no more claim on the Golden Fleece. He had promised it to Jason as a reward for tasks that he had imposed. The tasks had been accomplished and the Fleece, no matter how it was taken from the grove of Ares, was theirs. The kings who supported Apsyrtus gave judgment in favour of the Argonauts.
But Medea would have to be given to her brother. If that were done the Argo would be allowed to go, Apsyrtus said, and the Golden Fleece would be left with them. Apsyrtus said, too, that he would not take Medea back to the anger of her father. If the Argonauts gave her up she would be allowed to stay on the island of Artemis and under the guardianship of the goddess.
The chiefs brought Apsyrtus’s words back. There was a council of the Argonauts, and they agreed that they should leave Medea on the island of Artemis.
But grief and anger took hold of Medea when she heard of this decision. She went to where Jason stood, and she spoke again of all she had done to save his life and win the Golden Fleece for the Argonauts. Jason made her look at the ships and the soldiers that were around them. He showed her how these could overwhelm the Argonauts and kill them all. With all the heroes dead, he said, Medea would come into the hands of Apsyrtus, who then could leave her on the island of Artemis or take her back to the anger of her father.
But Medea would not agree to go nor could Jason’s heart agree to let her go. Then these two made a plot to deceive Apsyrtus.
“I have not been part of the council that agreed to give you up to him,” Jason said. “After you have been left there I will take you off the island of Artemis secretly. The Colchians and the kings who support them, not knowing that you have been taken off and hidden on the Argo, will let us pass.” Medea and Jason planned to do this, and it was a bad thing, for it was breaking the agreement that the chiefs had made with Apsyrtus.
Medea then, was left by the Argonauts on the island of Artemis. Now Apsyrtus had been commanded by his father to bring her back to Aea. He thought that when she had been left by the Argonauts he could force her to come with him. So he went over to the island. Jason, secretly leaving his companions, went to the island from the other side.
In front of the temple of Artemis Jason and Apsyrtus came face to face. Both men, thinking they had been betrayed, drew their swords. Then, before the entrance of the temple and in front of Medea, Jason and Apsyrtus fought. Jason’s sword pierced the son of Æetes and as he fell Apsyrtus cried out bitterly against Medea, saying that it was on her account that he had come to his death. As he fell the blood of her brother splashed Medea’s silver veil.
Jason lifted Medea up and carried her to the Argo. They hid the maiden under the Fleece of Gold and they sailed past the ships of the Colchians. When darkness came they were far from the island of Artemis. It was then that they heard a loud wailing, and they knew that the Colchians had discovered that their prince had been killed.
The Colchians did not pursue them. Fearing the anger of Æetes they settled in the lands of the kings who had supported Apsyrtus and never went back to Aea. They called themselves Apsyrtians, naming themselves after the prince they had come with.
They had escaped the danger, but the Argonauts, as they sailed on, were not content. Agreements had been broken, and blood had been shed in a bad cause. As they went on through the darkness the voice of the ship was heard. At the sound of that voice fear and sorrow came on the voyagers, for they felt that it was a prophecy of doom.
Castor and Polydeuces went to the front of the ship and prayed. Then they heard the words that the voice uttered. The voice proclaimed the fury of Zeus on account of the killing of Apsyrtus.
What was their doom to be? It was that the Argonauts would have to wander forever over seas unless Medea had herself cleansed of her brother’s blood. There was one who could cleanse Medea—Circe, the daughter of Helios and Perse. The voice urged the heroes to pray to the immortal gods that the way to the island of Circe be shown to them.