The Argo Renaissance painting by Lorenzo Costa
Italian Renaissance painting of the Argo. In Greek mythology, the Argo was a ship built by Argus the shipbuilder on which Jason and the Argonauts sailed from Iolcos to Colchis on a quest for the Golden Fleece. Credit: The Argo by Lorenzo Costa.

What is an Argonaut?

The etymology of argonaut

The Argo ship in the shape of a fish on a Greek stamp.
Jason’s ship the Argo depicted here on a Greek stamp in the Merchant Marine Greek Shipping series circa 1958. Credit: The Argo by Lorenzo Costa.

The word “argonaut” (Ancient Greek: Ἀργοναῦται) comes from an ancient tale sung of the strongest and bravest band of heroes ever assembled in Greek Mythology — Jason and the Argonauts (literally meaning sailors of the Argo). This myth chronicles Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece and the restoration of his family’s throne. Read the story. It is perhaps the second oldest adventure story in the Western World after the Epic of Gilgamesh.

The timeless appeal of Jason and the Argonauts, an archetypal myth influencing Odysseus’ odyssey and King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail, may lead one to wonder if this myth owes its success to popular entertainment, or if Jason’s quest speaks to us on a more fundamental level, as if a reflection of our own journeys through life and battles with inner dragons. Perhaps the Golden Fleece is a metaphor for our own awakening to the golden truths of the universe, or the Golden Fleece may represent a more literal boon to our community when the adventurer returns home with the prize.

Historians speculate that the origin of the myth of Jason and the Argonauts was based on a true story of a young crew of teenagers out to discover the new world, much like has been proven of the ancient Vikings. The crew of the Argo returned with tall tales of their adventures, which continued to be embellished each time it was told.

The Definition of argonaut

As you will see below, there are many ways this word is now used, along with derivatives of “naut”.

There are 3 basic definitions according to Merriam-Webster dictionary. We like to use definition 1b.

Pronunciation: ar·​go·​naut | \ ˈär-gə-ˌnȯt  , -ˌnät \
1a. any of a band of heroes sailing with Jason in quest of the Golden Fleece.
1b: an adventurer engaged in a quest.
2: Paper nautilus. (See below.)

Jason and the argonauts battling skeleton warriors

Read the classic heroic myth, Jason and the Argonauts, re-imagined by Scott Stoll, or the illustrated kid’s version.

You might also like:
What is an adventure?
What is a hero?

The etymology of naut

Throughout the millennia, the quest for the Golden Fleece has become embedded in the cultures of the western world; for example, the miners during California’s 1849 gold rush were nicknamed argonauts. Thus the etymology of “argonaut” has become synonymous with “adventurer on a quest” and is reflected in words like: astronaut, cosmonaut, aeronaut, aquanaut and oneironaut (dream adventurer). In fact, it is very popular to use naut (from the Greek ναυτίλος “nautilus” meaning “sailor”) as a suffix to just about any word, implying being a voyager of that given subject, e.g. bikenaut.

Since we are all adventures on the journey of life, you might like to ask yourself: What kind of naut am I? (Pun intended.)

Below are examples of how the Argonauts have become embedded in our culture.


Classical Literature and the tale of Jason and the Argonauts

Read the Argonautica by Apollonius Rhodius, a third century B.C. Greek poet who composed the oldest surviving record of the myth, which was formerly passed down through the generations by oral verse.

Read another one of the earliest written recordings of Jason and the Argonauts. The Argonautica by Valerius Flaccus, a Roman poet in the first century.

And arguably, Jason’s wife, Medea is the true hero of the story. The story of Jason and the Argonauts is told from Medea’s point of view in Book VII of The Metamorphoses, by the poet Ovid.


Tagline for the movie read, "the epic story that was destined to stand as a colossus of adventure!"
The classic stop-motion film, Jason and the Argonauts, 1963 movie poster. Note: Talos, the giant bronze statue, depicted as Talos, the Colossus of Rhodes.

Jason and the Argonauts in popular culture

There are hundreds of great adaptations of the story of Jason and the Argonauts. Here are a few of the most famous categorized by genre.

Jason and the Argonauts, the classic 1963 movie

One of my earliest childhood memories is the awe I felt watching this movie and others like Sinbad and Indiana Jones. There have been at least 5 movies so far, each one an eyeball-popping extravaganza, but not all of them inspire the metaphor of an inner adventurer. Here is a clip as the Argo is saved by an unlikely hero as it tries to sail through the Symplegades, the clashing rocks. This is a must-see classic movie with groundbreaking special effects.

Jason and the Argonauts in classical music

Medea’s Dance of Vengeance composed by Samuel Barber and premiering in 1956. In one anticlimactic ending to the myth, Jason’s wife, the enchantress Medea, seeks her revenge when Jason leaves her by murdering his children.

The Argonauts in radio

In 2001, a radio drama adaptation of Apollonius’ Argonautica was presented on the Radio Tales series for National Public Radio.

Jason and the Argonauts in video games

Rise of the argonauts video game
Rise of the Argonauts video game. Credit.

The band of mythical warriors has inspired billions of people, and movies, mini-series, radio serials, books and more. Rise of the Argonauts Rise of the Argonauts is one of many video games featuring Jason and his band of heroes. It is a fantastic RPG video game with graphics that make the classic movie look a bit silly.

Jason and the Argonauts play football

Toronto Argonauts Mascot Jason
The Toronto Argonauts Mascot Jason replete with a football belt buckle.
Toronto Argonauts Labour Day logo. The boat the Argo shaped as a football.
Toronto Argonauts Labour Day logo

If you are a football fan you already know about the Canadian Toronto Argonauts. Above is their team mascot Jason; and on the right, you see Jason’s boat, the Argo, which was blessed by the goddess Athena to be indestructible, made into a football logo.


An argonaut sea monster

An argonaut is also a type of cephalopod like an octopus, squid, cuttlefish and nautilus, sometimes called a paper nautilus. Below is an illustration of “The argonaut retired within its shell” and next to that is a beautiful photo showing how the argonaut is like an undersea chameleon. It was originally believed the argonauts and nautilus could use their arms as sails and that their shell was like a boat. Can you imagine them sailing across oceans? See how these creatures got their names above.

A black and white line illustration of an argonaut cephalopod.
“The argonaut retired within its shell.” Illustration of an argonaut cephalopod inside its shell. Credit: Goodrich, 1859.
Argonauta nodosa or paper nautilus
A very colorful argonauta nodosa, or paper nautilus. Credit: Rudie Kuiter. (Sorry our footnotes were lost in an upgrade, but I think this was part of an excerpt from the book, “World Atlas of Marine Fishes.”)
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