Traveling Classroom Foundation
Tuesday May 30th 2017

Ancient Cities

Today we are driving into the hills west of Volos in search of archeological sites in the region. Our goal is the town of Sesklo (a neolithic settlement) and the city of Iolchus, the port from which Jason set out with 50 Bronze Age heroes in search of the Golden Fleece.

We start out early – to avoid the mid-day heat – and so our first priority is coffee and breakfast. We continue towards Sesklo without seeing a single place to eat. Driving through rolling hills covered with olive and fruit trees, we pretty much give up on the idea of eating – until we  arrive at the modern village of Sesklo. It is a farming community with a church and a cafe on a small stone-paved plateia (square).

We park and walk directly to the cafe, listening to the church service in progress. Orthodox services sound rather like Gregorian chanting … very beautiful. At the cafe we order two frappes (iced coffee drinks) and two tyropitas (cheese pastries commonly served up for breakfast). The owner says she has no tyropitas, so we tell her we’ll settle for the coffee. Just as we settle down at a table in the shade, the woman steps outside again and hails a young boy running across the square. She gives him some quick instructions and sends him off in the other direction. He quickly comes trotting back with a sack bearing the insignia of a bakery.

Greek bakery emblem is also a religious symbol

A few moments later the proprietor serves our frappes and tyropitas – still warm from the bakery oven. After an enjoyable breakfast listening to the church service, we continue towards ancient Sesklo.

We find the archeological site a short distance from the modern village. It is located on a small hill overlooking some of the finest farming land in Thessaly. Sesklo was built around 9,000 years ago by farmers who appreciated good soil. It was occupied for more than 4,000 years and grew to possibly 800 households, larger than modern Sesklo.

Sesklo hilltop archaeological site in Thessaly

The town was enclosed – after a fashion – but these walls would offer little defense against invaders. They were probably built to protect their children and livestock from wild animals.  For thousands of years, the town dealt with neighboring towns and perhaps even foreign traders, without the need for a military. Of course that was before the rise of the Mycenaean empire during the Bronze Age.

Artist’s reconstruction of the neolithic town of Sesklo

After exploring the town for about an hour, we drive to our next investigation: the Mycenaean city of Iolkos. Unfortunately, we cannot enter Iolkos itself, because archeologists and diggers are diligently excavating buildings and streets. No outsiders allowed – not even with our passes from the Ministry of Culture. Instead, we are directed to the neolithic settlement of Dimini on the hill above Iolkos.

Walking through the stone labyrinth that was Dimini

Dimini is better preserved than Sesklo, but it came much later in history. The site staff make it more interesting by giving us a hand-held electronic guide, which provides a complete lecture on all the important features of the town and its excavation. It is easy to walk from house to house and imagine how the inhabitants had lived during the late stone age. The town was only lightly populated by the 3rd millennium, but it continued to be occupied even after the Mycenaeans arrived in the middle of the 15th century BCE.

Dimini was protected by a series of walls within walls

As the city of Iolkos grew to huge proportions, the little town of Dimini became a necropolis (city of the dead). There are tholos tombs for the Mycenaean kings and graves for the citizens. Of course the Mycenaeans did not last as long as the earlier neolithic cultures – despite all the military weaponry and defensive walls. Iolkos was destroyed by fire in the 12th century BCE.

Exploring a Bronze Age tomb in the neolithic town of Dimini

What remains of Iolkos is the famous story of Iason (Jason in English) and the voyage of the Argonauts. In case you have forgotten, this is it:

Long ago, King Aeson of Iolkos in Thessaly, surrendered his throne to his ambitious brother Pelias. Some say Pelias usurped his brother’s throne, others say that Aeson had grown tired of his responsibilities and had voluntarily relinquished his rule to Pelias, under the condition that he in turn surrender the throne to Aeson’s son Jason once the boy came of age. Whatever the case, Pelias certainly did not intend to give up the throne once he had it. Jason’s mother, not trusting Pelias sent Jason away to be raised in secrecy by the famous centaur Chiron.

A harsh, suspicious ruler, Pelias had no fear that his own subjects would overthrow him. He only feared the prophecy that said a stranger wearing one shoe would cause his death. Once Jason came of age, he was told of his right to rule in Iolkos, and he set out to claim his throne. Along the way he encountered an old woman who begged him to help her get across a river. Jason politely took the old woman onto his back and began to swim. The current was so strong that it swept one of his sandals right off his foot. Meanwhile, the old woman, who had at first seemed as light as a bundle of twigs, grew heavier as he swam – a lot heavier.

By the time he reached the other side of the river, Jason was exhausted. Helping the old woman down from his back, he discovered that he had actually been carrying the goddess Hera. She had disguised herself as a helpless old woman to test Jason, to see if he was worthy of her patronage. Thus he a gained a benefactress, the queen of the gods. Pelias was undoubtedly distressed when Jason arrived at his court and announced that, as Aeson’s son, he had come to claim his throne.

It was bad enough that Jason wanted to take his place as king, but there was also the matter of the missing shoe. Pelias knew trouble when he saw it. Pretending to welcome his nephew, Pelias slyly suggested that before taking up the responsibilities of kingship, Jason should first do a little traveling, see the world – and maybe complete some sort of heroic quest, to make a name for himself and to show his new subjects how worthy he was to be their king. Naturally a suggestion like that appealed to the brave young man, so he asked Pelias what sort of deed he should perform. Pelias spun a tale about how king Aeetes of Colchis had stolen the Golden Fleece, which rightly belonged to Greece, and that Jason should redress that wrong by returning the prize to Greece. Pelias was lying, but Jason had no idea the Golden Fleece belonged to king Aeetes, not to Greece.

Jason aboard the Argo in search of the Golden Fleece (by Fridayeve)

Jason hired the master shipwright Argus to build a ship large enough to hold 50 men, and strong enough to withstand a voyage to unknown waters. The ship was named the Argo, and those who sailed on it were The Argonauts. Jason sent out a call to all the bravest most noble warriors of Greece, who flocked to Iolkos to join Jason. They knew the voyage would be long and dangerous, but such a glorious quest would bring them honor and fame.

Among these warriors was Hercules. When they reached Colchis, Jason told King Aeetes that he had come for the Golden Fleece. The king did not reveal his annoyance, but told Jason he must earn the Fleece by proving his courage and strength. He must harness a pair of bulls, sow and then harvest a field before sundown. Jason accepted the challenge, but his heart sank when he saw the two huge fire breathing bulls with razor-sharp brazen hooves.

Fire breathing bull of Colchis (by Fridayeve)

Now Hera still favored Jason, so she told Aphrodite to have her son Eros (Cupid) shoot an arrow into the heart of Medea, King Aeetes’ daughter. Struck by Eros’ arrow, Medea fell instantly in love with Jason. Now Medea wasn’t just any beautiful princess, she was also a priestess and a powerful skilled sorceress – just like her aunt Circe, who (in another myth) transformed Odysseus’ men into swine.

That night Medea approached Jason and secretly slipped him a container of magic oil, which would protect him from the hooves and the fiery breath of the bulls. The next day, Jason fearlessly approached the bulls and harnessed them. With such powerful bulls, Jason made short work of sowing the bag of seed he had been given. Sowing the seeds as quickly as possible, Jason didn’t realize that what he was sowing was actually not seed, but dragon’s teeth. From each sprang an armed warrior, until the field was crowded with armed men.

The oil Medea had given Jason gave him some protection from the warriors, but he soon grew tired. Medea decided to help him again by tossing a rock into the crowd of soldiers and hitting one of them in the back of the head. Thinking it was another warrior that has struck him, the first one attacked his comrade. After a few more well placed rocks, the entire army fought each other until there was not one warrior left.

Medea calms the dragon guarding the Golden Fleece (by Fridayeve)

Medea knew her father would not give up the Fleece, so that night she led Jason to the sacred grove where the sleepless dragon guarded the Golden Fleece. Near the dragon, she uncorked a vial containing a powerful potion. When the dragon smelled the fumes, it immediately fell asleep , and Jason was able to grab the Golden Fleece.

Accompanied by Medea, Jason and the Argonauts sailed away on the Argo, pursued by Aeetes. Expecting pursuit, Medea had persuaded her younger brother to come with them. As Aeetes gained on the Argo, Medea killed and dismembered her own brother and scattered his body parts all over the surface of the sea, so her father had to stop to gather his son’s remains in order to give him a proper burial.

Once they arrived in Iolkos and married, Jason asked Medea to use her magic to take some years off from his own life and add them to his father’s, for Aeson had grown quite old and frail. Medea told him that she would not shorten his life, but would gladly add years to his father’s. After preparing a pot with a magical brew, she cut up an old ram and threw its pieces in the boiling potion. Out jumped a young frisky lamb.

Having seen this test, Aeson agreed to let Medea take a knife to him. She put his remains into the pot, said her magic words and out jumped Aeson, strong and youthful. Medea had let the daughters of Pelias to witness this act of magic, so they would approach her to do the same for their father. They knew he was suspicious, so Medea gave them a sleeping potion to use in order to get him to submit to the process.

Once the king was asleep, his daughters took him to Medea, who proceeded to cut him up and place him in the pot. But instead of saying the magic words, she simply left him to boil in front of his daughters.

… So much for dysfunctional families.

Next time we will tell you of our journey to Mt. Pelion and the realm of centaurs.

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