Fill my cup with wine, girl. Pass the honey cakes, and I shall tell you a tale of adventure and heroes. I was there. I knew them all.
Meleager liked to think it was for his sake that I ran away from home and joined the crew of the Argo. Ours, he believed, was the kind of epic love that bards sing about from one age to the next.
He even believed this sober.
I loved him well enough, but I had no illusions about how our song would end. He had a wife at home, for all he pretended otherwise.
No matter. With Meleager warming my side at night, the rest of the crew kept their hands to themselves, and I was able to make the most of the adventure I stole for myself.
I signed my name to that enterprise for love, yes, but not love of a man. I fell in love with a ship: the Argo, a beautiful lady in the hands of a captain who never deserved her.
Jason is remembered as a hero, and I do not dispute that. But I think perhaps the definition of the word “hero” has shifted over the years.
We all know men like Jason. He was tall and muscled and golden: it was easy to believe he was favoured of the gods.
The gods have shit taste when it comes to picking favourites.
I should have known there was something wrong with him from the first—you can tell a man’s worth by how he treats his servants. Our Jason was busy flogging an oarsman when Meleager first led me to the dock at Iolcus.
Young and thirsty for adventure, I ignored the warning signs. By the time I had the full measure of Jason as a captain and as a man, I had already fallen for the Argo: hook, line and sinker. I would have put up with any amount of bullshit to be part of her maiden voyage.
Jason ruined everything for his crew: the quest, the prize, even the legend that followed. We hoped to do great deeds, and be remembered as…
Yes, all right, I’ll say it. Heroes.
Instead we ended up as supporting characters in Jason’s tragic romance with himself. Sometimes, we are not even that. I myself am often cast out of the Argonaut legend because the idea that Jason might have allowed a woman on board a ship is beyond the pale. (Hesiod, I’m looking at you.)
Everything that Jason did, all those stories testifying to his selfishness and excess, and you fucking poets think risking a maid’s virginity is where he might have drawn a moral line?
I am Atalanta of Arcadia, and I was there. My life map allowed two possible roles: to be a spinster princess or a married princess. I chose a third.
I chose to be an Argonaut.
I did not care a wet fart about the Golden Fleece. To sail and to fight, to be a comrade alongside my fellow adventurers, was all I ever wanted. The Fleece was an excuse, a story to sail ourselves into: it could as easily have been a monster to slay, a crown to collect, or a stable to scrub clean.
It was Jason who believed that the treasure gave us purpose.
As the Argo neared Colchis, we rescued four sailors from a wreck and they asked us whither we were bound. We told them, and they were surprised.
“You know the king of Colchis is an eccentric host,” said one.
“He claims to be son of Helios,” said another, with a smirk that suggested he did not believe the tale. “And he punishes those who challenge that claim.”
“You’re not mocking the gods, are you?” my shipmate Perseus demanded. He was one of at least three sons of Zeus on the voyage, not including Herakles who had abandoned us weeks earlier.
“Nay, friend, but when a king wears a golden hat with spikes and regularly descends into his throne room on a string and pulley so as to pretend he is the sun itself…”
We all agreed that it would be hard to keep a straight face with such antics going on.
“My crew and I are on a quest to steal the Golden Fleece so that I can reclaim my father’s throne,” Jason declared proudly.
The four sailors stared at him a long while and then, in unison, laughed so hard they were nearly sick.
This did not bode well for our quest.
Jason claimed that Herakles jumped ship in pursuit of a lover. We knew better than to believe our captain’s lies by then.
There had been blazing rows between the two heroes, and not only when they were in their cups. Herakles believed a hero should do more than collect shiny trinkets and kiss up to royalty. (This was rich, frankly, coming from him.)
Jason, as royalty himself, took those insults personally, and insulted Herakles in turn for his treatment of women. (I know. Believe me. The hypocrisy did not go unnoted.)
A crew cannot survive with two captains. We owed Jason our loyalty even if most of us agreed that Herakles would make a better leader.
So Herakles left and the boy Iolaus scurried after him. The Argo was lighter and quieter with them gone. No one argued with Jason for a while, and the next time we slew a sea monster, we toasted the name of our good friend, Herakles the hero.
He met a bad end, of course, but not before Jason met his.
Let me tell you about this hero of ours, captain of the beautiful Argo (seriously, that ship was spectacular, it breaks my heart the way she ended).
On the isle of Lemnos, Jason seduced the local queen, only to abandon her with a thickened waistline. I don’t mean that he baked her a nice cake before we stole out in the dead of night without paying for a winter’s worth of bed and board. I mean he knocked her up.
It was a terrible winter. Our mast cracked in two places, and there’s only so much you can do to repair wind damage to sails before there’s nothing left of them at all.
Thus we arrived on Lemnos: the isle of women, surrounded by a stormy sea. All their men had left, in boats that never returned.
While Jason negotiated for us to winter on Lemnos, our heroic Argonauts joked that it was the women’s hairy legs, or their smell, that sent their men packing. This was a fishing island, and I can tell you now that the smell of fish scale and bone had nothing to do with the women.
We could have been happy there, Meleager and I. We learned to fish, and it was easy enough to forget about my lover’s own abandoned bride while we were so far from home. But adventure called, spring awoke, and thanks to Jason’s honeyed promises to the queen (who still believed they would marry before her babe was born) we had to slide the Argo into the water under cover of darkness and make away in secret.
Jason laughed that night about his narrow escape, and I seethed at him in silence. For love of the Argo and the quest ahead of us, I said nothing.
No hero ever claimed to be a good person.
Let me explain more about Jason.
You would think he had been born to the crown, that his childhood was all pomp and silk cushions and “your Majesty” and sweetmeats, every inch of wealth and privilege ever extended to a child. A life like the one I ran away from, as fast and far as I could.
In truth, Jason was raised far from all that. The son of a usurped king, he was hidden as a baby, raised by peasants or by centaurs, depending on which story you believe.
My money is on centaurs. There was nothing humble about our Jason: he was all piss and arrogance. Every step he took was in the expectation of an embroidered carpet sliding beneath his foot. No peasant-raised creature would ever behave thus.
When he came of age, Jason presented himself to the kingdom of Iolcus in Thessaly to claim his father’s throne, armed with fairy stories and a sharp sword. This was inconvenient for everyone, not least his uncle Pelias who was enjoying the job of king.
Jason had lost a sandal on his journey while helping an old woman (possibly the goddess Hera) across a river. Clytius of Troy reckoned it was more likely Jason lost the sandal while shagging a wine maiden. You can guess for yourself which version sounds more authentic to my ear.
An oracle had warned King Pelias he would be killed by a man with one shoe, so he was never going to embrace his nephew in friendship. Destiny and paranoia collided.
“What would you do, dear boy, if a man came before you whom the oracles had foretold would be your murderer?” the wicked uncle asked Jason over a cup of wine.
Jason, never the quickest ship in the fleet, wiped wine off his mouth and said “Give him an impossible task that will see him killed; or at the least, out of your hair for a year or three.”
How they laughed.
The next day, Jason was sent on his epic voyage to claim the Golden Fleece, and prove his worth.
Would I have joined the crew if I knew our quest was deemed impossible long before I even reached Thessaly? Hells yes. I would have fought a dragon for a chance to fly the Argo across the waves. I would fight a dragon for that ship still, if she was prepared to wait a little longer for me to lay my old-lady cane down and ready myself.
If she still sailed; the Argo never got a chance to become a crone like me.
Putting up with Jason was a price worth paying, or so I thought back then. I had no idea how steep the price would rise.
So, there we were in the waters of Colchis, finally. We arrived, tired and hungry, presenting ourselves as friendly travellers seeking royal hospitality from a dangerous king. Our mission: to steal his most precious and beloved treasure.
I know what you’re thinking right now. You’re thinking, “What is the worst possible thing Jason could have done to sabotage this difficult and sensitive task?”
How exactly did Jason of Thessaly fuck it up?
I present the following evidence: The King of Colchis had a daughter. A young, barely marriageable and voluntarily chaste daughter.
The epic poem writes itself, doesn’t it?
Medea reminded me of myself. She was a princess who would rather be anywhere than her father’s palace. She wanted to escape, and in Jason she saw a handsome, golden prince straight out of a children’s tale. She saw a hero.
She was smart, Medea, but young, and she crumbled beneath the golden boy’s charm. She became our secret weapon—we would never have got past the dragon or escaped the city without her.
Later, years later, Jason claimed that Medea’s love for him was a gift from the gods; if that is true, then he is not the only one in debt to Aphrodite.
I would be dead, were it not for our quiet, dark-eyed princess and her skills of healing. Medea saved me.
If only she could have saved herself.
The worst part of that night…
I can’t speak of it yet, give me a moment to gird my strength.
We ran, Argonauts all, back to our ship with the stolen Fleece and the stolen princess. There were shouts and cries and torches, and we knew how badly we had gone astray.
King Aëetes was going to kill and eat us all, and who could blame him?
Two hard-faced young warriors with fine clothes and expensive swords—Medea’s brothers—met us at the dock, ready to kill us all. My Meleager and Perseus and the others stepped up to fight at Jason’s side.
I was already hurt, having taken the kind of slow wound you don’t recover from, while our fearless leader was seducing his new girl.
Our heroic crew made short work of the princes and left them bleeding out on the ground. We had to step over the bodies to make the ship ready: ropes and sails flying through our hands.
I dragged the Fleece aboard, wretched and foul-smelling thing that it was.
Medea stood on the docks, wrapped in her shawl. Jason hovered on the gangplank of the Argo, his hand outstretched and faltering. Did she want to join us or not?
“We should bring the bodies,” she said finally. “My father is a superstitious man. If we separate their limbs and scatter them in the seas, our pursuers will be delayed by trying to restore the bodies of the princes.”
We all stared at her. What a mind she had, to come up with such a plan: devious and devastating.
“Make haste!” Jason cried, hauling Medea aboard. He gave the orders to seize the bodies and bring them on deck.
It was foul work that we did, butchering those corpses and dropping the pieces one by one in the waters of the shallow shores of the Aegean.
True to Medea’s prediction, the men of Colchis collected our grisly gift, piece by piece, and risked drowning to plunge after the pieces that floated further and further away.
We sailed to safety.
“A strange people,” Jason said later, his eyes on the princess as she worked on my belly, smearing the neatly stitched wound with a poultice that stung my eyes with its fumes. I would not die after all. Her hands were cool as she worked; her face professional.
Medea had served Hekate since she was six years old. Her skills went beyond a talent for potions and creams. She was witch, sorceress, priestess. She was more dangerous than anyone on our ship.
Jason saw only a girl that he wished to possess.
I lay back on the ship’s deck, in a haze of sweet-smelling drugs and the smell of my own blood, while Medea saved my life. Through my heavy eyelids, I observed the princess, that angry, powerful, dead-inside witch, and I thought: that girl needs a friend.
Never let Meleager tell you the story of the golden apples, especially when he’s drunk.
It is not his story to tell.
The story of the apples belonged to a younger, prettier man: Hippomenes of Thebes. Hippomenes Fleet-Foot. Hippomenes Sharp-Wits.
I had already run away from home once by the time I was sixteen. I joined the great Hunt for the Calydonian Boar, a monster set upon the world by a vengeful Artemis. This was my first taste of what it was to be a hero: the Hunt was full of men desperate to earn a line or two for themselves in an epic ballad.
Men, and me.
King Oeneus of Calydon called for heroes to save his kingdom from the rampaging beast; he forgot to specify that those heroes be male. When I arrived with my bow and leathers, many so-called adventurers refused to join the hunt if a woman came along. Meleager, son of King Oeneus, was in charge of listing our names, and he thought it a grand old joke to let me play.
It was less of a joke when my arrow found the Boar first: fourteen of us brought the creature down in the final battle, but I had made first touch and thus, when the spoils were divided, I won the hide.
Meleager placed it around my shoulders and winked at me; I lifted my chin and thought myself dignified because I did not let him charm me into his bed. (Not then, at least, not yet.)
My furious father dragged me home to Arcadia. He demanded I marry like a proper princess, or dedicate my chastity to the gods—anything but live the life of adventure I had barely begun to taste.
Over-confident with the smell of fresh-killed boar hide still lingering in my hair, I pledged to my father this: I would marry any prince who bested me in a foot-race.
No prince was that fast.
I saw off dozens of suitors, all embarrassed and limping by the end of their travails, but it was Hippomenes who got the better of me.
This is the story that Meleager tells (that all men tell, when they repeat it): Hippomenes tossed golden apples before me as we ran, and thinking myself unbeatable, I allowed myself to be distracted by the pretty trinkets.
A princess after all: soft and weak for beautiful objects, for the gifts of the gods.
In truth: he did not throw apples, but rocks. There was no godly work in this. He broke my leg.
I never saw my father so furious as when he exiled Hippomenes from the kingdom; never saw him so guilt-ridden, so completely on my side.
So I asked a boon of him: to let me have my quest, as all heroes do, before they settle down. I almost had him convinced. But my father could not imagine a world in which a woman was a hero without being raped and ruined. He refused me.
Once my leg healed good and straight, I stole myself all over again. This time, my father did not catch me. I found Meleager, and Jason, and the Argo.
Atalanta of Arcadia sailed into adventure, and never looked back.
Ours was no grand romance. Meleager and I simply fell in with each other. I liked his wit; he liked the swing of my hips and my bold talk.
He thought himself in love; I did not challenge the notion.
If Meleager were not married already, I might have given in to the notion of being a wife: I liked the idea of a husband who could be friend and travel companion. His hands were warm and clever in the dead of night, while our friends slept around us on the deck. A future together would have been amiable.
But he was not free, and I was no Medea; there would be no poisoning of my lover’s wife.
(That horror was still in her future, as the Argo creaked around us, carrying us home.)
Medea made a good companion. She charmed the men with cheerful prophecies of their noble futures. She made a herbal soup that made us all merry and filled our bellies with cheer.
As my mortal wound healed, I watched Medea blossom into the role of Jason’s wife. Happiness suited her.
We faced monsters on the way back to Thessaly. Medea hypnotised them, and made them bleed. We grew comfortable and lazy as her powers steered us safely home.
She was heavily pregnant by the time we stepped ashore in the city where it all started. Pregnancy did not slow her down in the least; her fierce loyalty meant that she was already calculating how best to support her man.
There was a parade in Iolcus for the returned prince: Jason was given the people’s ovation. He waved the Golden Fleece with one hand, and clutched his stolen princess with the other. We followed in his wake, his Argonauts, waiting for the pomp to end so we could escape.
He had promised his ship to us. He would need the Argo no longer, when he replaced his uncle as king. We stayed for every feast and celebration, while King Pelias grew harder of face and stiffer of shoulder.
Meleager danced with me, wine on his breath and hands warm on my hips. “We’re not getting that ship,” he whispered, and I saw that his eyes were not as glassy as I had believed. “We have to leave, tonight.”
“But he promised us the Argo,” I replied in my own furious whisper.
“Jason’s going to need her to escape with his life,” Meleager whispered back. “Look at them all.”
Above the celebrations, King Pelias and his daughters watched a would-be usurper dance his way across their banquet hall.
I loved the Argo, but I wasn’t stupid enough to die for her. “You’re right,” I conceded. “We don’t want to be here for what happens next.”
Here is what happened to Meleager: after many adventures: animals hunted, monsters slain, treasures found, he begged his lover Atalanta to return home with him and be his mistress while he filled his wife with a new generation of royal babies.
Atalanta refused politely, and they parted on good terms.
Meleager died many years later, in a fire that may or may not have been a curse from the gods. His family line continued. He had allowed his daughter to learn the bow and the knife; a better choice on whole than when he arranged for his sister Deineira to marry Herakles.
Heroes make the worst husbands.
What of Atalanta?
I took my own share of the spoils we won together and went to Argus, builder of the original Argo, and one of our former shipmates. I commissioned a ship: the Calydonian Boar. She was a splendid craft, small enough to manage with a minimal crew.
I sailed into adventure.
Sometimes, I heard word of the Argonauts: of Herakles and his labors; of Laertes, father of Odysseus, of Perseus and Castor and Deucalion and all the rest.
The stories of Jason and Medea were the worst: they left murder and misery in their wake. King Pelias’ daughters became convinced that Medea’s herbs and spells were enough to heal their father of his silver hair and the pains of age, when in fact the best choice for his health would have been to give up the throne and live in comfortable retirement.
Medea’s spells went wrong; Pelias died. The anger of the people sent Jason and his witch wife into exile. They went to Corinth, I heard. Corinth, a bright and prosperous city which had need of a new king, as long as he did not mind setting Medea aside to marry a nubile young princess.
Jason, you will be shocked to learn, did not mind that in the least.
Long after the fellowship of the Argo ended, there were times when I missed Medea. It might seem strange to you, that I liked the woman; she was clearly a monster. And yet, there were many who thought the same of me.
We lived in a world that did not allow women to breathe; how could we be anything but monsters?
Medea saved my life. She sang songs that made the wind catch the sails faster. Her soup was delicious. I could use a witch like her on my crew, were she not busy with her children and her errant failure of a husband.
Years passed, and I did not hear from her. I hoped she had found happiness.
I had my own happiness: wind in my hair, wood firm under my feet, salt in my teeth. I had a crew willing to take orders from a female captain as long as I paid them well and looked the other way when they spent my gold on whores and wine.
One day, I received a letter that broke my heart. It said: My children are dead, and Corinth wants me dead too.
I went to rescue Medea. Of course I did. That’s what friends do.
Jason’s new bride Creusa was murdered. The method was a poisoned dress: a wedding “gift” to the woman who stole Medea’s husband. The people of Corinth hounded Medea out of the city. They hurled stones at her that did not find their mark, because she had doused herself in hasty protection spells.
The stones rebounded on her children.
Now she was alone and heart-sick, a prisoner of her own grief.
She was a monster, they said, for of course the city claimed that she had killed the children herself, in vengeance against Jason.
“I did not expect you to come,” she said when I broke open the lock on her prison door. “I do not deserve to survive this, Atalanta.”
“Suffer if you must,” I told her calmly. “But don’t do it here. I have need of a witch on my crew. The pay is decent, and you will be far from that ass you once called husband.”
Medea frowned at me, as if she did not quite understand. “They failed to kill me. I thought you might do it. You were always the noble one, of that whole crew. Your arrows fly the straightest.”
I rolled my eyes at her. “If you must die, do it battling a monster or facing down an endless whirlpool of terror, like a normal person.”
“Like a hero,” Medea scoffed.
I took her hand, and led her out into the sunshine. “If Jason counts as a hero, anyone can.”
This is the story of the Argo, and how she died.
Of all Jason’s failings, this is the worst: he let his ship rot. She could have survived for generations if he took proper care of her, but without children to carry on his blood, Jason grew bitter and more selfish.
He lived out his later years deep in his cups, allowing the greatest ship of our age to fall to wrack and ruin.
We grew old too, Medea and I; past the age of motherhood, we settled for being sailors and adventurers. The Calydonian Boar wintered on Circe’s island every year, so that Medea could learn from her aunt, the greatest sorceress who ever lived. It helped, I think. Circe gave Medea a peace she had never known, the forgiveness of her last surviving family member, and the companionship of a woman who knew how to read and write and think deep thoughts.
I spent those winters wandering the island during the day, gambolling with sheep and goats, and reading epic poetry. In the evenings, we drank wine, ate cake, and told stories of our adventures to entertain our hostess. Sometimes a boat would deliver supplies from the mainland: honey, oil, spices, and the snippets of news and gossip that Circe was always keen to pay for.
I had heard about Meleager’s own untimely demise exactly like this, three winters earlier.
Now Medea read aloud to us by candlelight. “Jason’s dead,” was all she said and then: “Oh, the Argo,” as if her heart was breaking.
I have never loved her more.
Circe snatched the parchment from her niece. “Her mast was rotted through,” she said in disapproval. “That sounds highly unsafe.”
“Clearly,” said Medea. “As it fell on Jason’s head.”
We drank wine and shared a moment of silence for the ship that Medea and I had both loved so very much. Our first taste of freedom and adventure. We would always be Argonauts.
“If Jason is dead,” I said a moment later.
“It changes nothing,” said Medea instantly. “We should sail the Boar further south this summer, if you’re willing? I’ve always wanted to find a dragon.”
I grinned back at her. “When have you ever known me to say no to an adventure?”
We sailed south; we found a dragon. But my wine cup is empty. Let that be a story for another night.
(Editors’ Note: “How to Survive an Epic Journey” is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 19B and Tansy Rayner Roberts is interviewed by Shana DuBois in this issue.)
© 2017 by Tansy Rayner Roberts