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City of southern Thessalia (area
Iolcos was famous for being the birthplace of Jason, the leader of the Argonauts in their quest for the Golden Fleece.
Iolcos was founded by Cretheus, a son of Æolus, himself a son of Hellen and grandson of Deucalion. Cretheus married his niece Tyro, the daughter of his brother Salmoneus, whom he had raised in his house. Before he married her, she had had twins from Poseidon, Pelias and Neleus, whom she had exposed at birth and who were raised by a mare sent by Poseidon (or by horse traders who happened to find them). When he married Tyro, Cretheus adopted the twins, and he had three sons of his own with her : Æson, Pheres and Amythaon.
Pheres founded the Thessalian city of this name (west of Iolcos). He was the father of Admetus, who succeeded him on the throne of Pheres and had for a while as one of his cowherds Apollo himself, punished by Zeus for having killed the Cyclops in reprisal for the killing by Zeus' lightning of Apollo's son Asclepius, who had become so good a physician that he could resurrect deads. Admetus married Alcestis, the most beautiful of all the daughters of his uncle Pelias and the only one who didn't take part in the murder of her father (see below). To earn the right to marry her, he first had to win, with the help of Apollo, the trial imposed upon suitors by her father : harnessing together to his charriot a lion and a boar. Apollo also managed to obtain that Admetus not die on the day set by the Fates if only he could find someone willing to die in his place. But on the set day, no one, not even his old father, accepted to die in his place, but his wife Alcestis, so great was her love. When Alcestis was dead, and everybody was mourning her, Heracles, on his way toward the capture of the mares of Diomedes, happenned to stop by (he knew Admetus from the expedition of the Argonauts, in which both had taken part). No sooner did he know what had happened that he descended to Hades and brought Alcestis back, youger and more beautiful than ever (this story is the theme of Euripides' play Alcestis ; it is also mentioned by Phædrus in his speech in the Symposium, 179b-d ; 180b, and by Diotima in her discussion with Socrates, 208d, later in the same dialogue).
Amythaon was the father of Bias and Melampous, who later moved to the court of their uncle Neleus at Pylos, where Bias married Neleus' daughter Pero to become the grandfather of Adrastus, the king of Argos who led the expedition of the Seven against Thebes at the request of Polynices, Oedipus' son. Melampous was a seer and a healer endowed with magical powers and, after helping his brother Bias triumph of the trial set by Neleus to win the hand of his daughter (to steal the herds of Phylacus, the father of his sister-in-law, Æson's wife Alcimede), he came to the rescue of Proetus, the king of Argos, when his daughters, struck with madness, were roaming the countryside, pretending to be cows. As a salary for this work, he asked Proetus one third of his kingdom for himself, and one third for his brother Bias. After Melampous had healed the girls, Proetus gave him and his brother Bias two of them as wives and they jointly reigned over Argos. Yet, it is a son Bias had had with Pero, Talaus, who succeeded him as king of Argos and was the father of Adrastus.
Æson is the son of Cretheus who succeeded his father on the throne
of Iolcos. He married Polymede, the daughter of Autolycus (a son of Hermes)
and sister of Anticlea (Ulysses' mother) and,
from her, had a son named Jason. But Pelias and Neleus
both wanted Æson's throne. In their fight for the throne, Pelias won and
became king of Iolcos, while Neleus fled in Messenia,
where he founded the city of Pylos (Neleus was the father
Pelias married Anaxibia, daughter of his nephew Bias, and had a son named Acastus. Meanwhile, Jason was being raised in Mount Pelion (a mountain near Iolcos) by Chiron the wise Centaur (who also tutored at some time or other Achilles, Asclepius, Heracles and even, say some, Apollo himself, teaching them music, ethics, medicine, hunting and the art of war) until he was old enough to go back to Iolcos claim the kingdom of his father. But when he did come, dressed with a panther's hide, and with a bare left foot, Pelias, reminded of an oracle that had told him to be wary of the man wearing one single shoe, sent him in an expedition to bring him the Golden Fleece back from Colchis, hoping that he would die along the way : after all, Colchis was about as far as you could sail eastward from Iolcos, through the Black Sea. Some traditions say that it is Jason himself who suggested this trial when asked by Pelias, who hadn't recognized him yet, what punishment he would impose upon one conspiring against his own king. Anyway, the Golden Fleece was the fleece of the winged ram offered by Hermes to Nepehele, that allowed Phrixus, the son she had had with Athamas, king of Coronea, to escape the sacrifice he was led to at the instigation of Ino, Athamas' second wife, jealous of her stepchildren. The ram had led Phrixus to the court of king Æetes in Colchis, where Phrixus offered him to Zeus in thanksgiving and entrusted its fleec to Æetes. The Golden Fleece had been consecrated by Æetes to Ares, and was guarded by a dragon.
To help him in this quest, Jason called upon Argus, who, with the help of Athena, built for him and his companions a ship called Argo. This Argus, who should not be confused with the son of Zeus and Niobe, nor with his great-granson, who was charged by Hera to guard Io changed by Zeus into a cow, was sometimes identified with the son of Phrixus and Chalciope, daughter of Æetes, who plays an important role in other episodes of the story of the Argonauts, as will be seen later, though in other traditions, he is presented as distinct from him. The Argo was built in Pagasæ, a harbor near Iolcos, with wood from Mount Pelion. Its bow was made from wood taken by Athena from the sacred oak of Dodona, and endowed by her with the ability to speak and foretell the future.
Heralds were sent throughout Greece to proclaim that Jason was planning an expedition toward Colchis, so that many heroes came to join him. Several lists of so-called "Argonauts", members of Jason's expedition, have come down to us, probably dating back from different stages of the legend. They differ to a large extent, but all include about the same number of persons, fifty to fifty-five, which is the number of rowers the ship could accomodate. Names common to these lists include, aside from Jason himself, their captain :