Okay, I apologize for this, but we’re jumping into the (early) middle of the voyage of the Argo, just for this one tale. Because this seemed the most interesting way to handle Lemnos. To introduce the cast of characters a bit, the Argonauts always include Heracles, Hylas, Peleus, Telamon, and Orpheus, and usually the Dioscuri, Castor and Polydeuces. Zetes and Calais, the winged sons of Boreas, the North Wind, are also always among their number. Some traditions have added Meleager to the list, so he’s here, too (since I mentioned him as being an Argonaut in the story of the Calydonian Boar Hunt), and some late versions added Menoitios, father of Patroclos, to the crew of the Argo, as well. (Though most of those men don’t actually enter into this telling of the story, but they might have done!)
Not long after they had left Iolcos, the Argonauts put into port on the island of Lemnos, but they were surprised to find only women greeting them at the dock. Though some of the men stayed behind to guard the ship, the rest followed the women from the port to the palace to greet their queen, Hypsipyle. She was a beautiful woman, and smiled warmly at Jason as she asked him his business in Lemnos.
“We’re on our way to Colchis, to fetch the Golden Fleece,” he told her.
“Such a long voyage you have ahead of you!” she exclaimed. “Won’t you stay a while and rest yourselves first?”
“We’ll never get done if we stop to rest already,” Heracles told Jason. “Let’s just get our supplies and be on our way.”
But Jason liked the way Hypsipyle smiled at him. “No, we can stay a few days. There’s no harm in that.”
The women in the court let out a joyous cry, and began to swarm the Argonauts in delight. “What–what ails these women?!” Meleager shouted in alarm.
“Forgive them,” Hypsipyle laughed, “but we’ve been without male companionship for some years, so we’ve grown quite…lonely.”
“That’s all the more reason to stay a few days, then,” Jason agreed.
“That’s all the more reason to leave right now!” Heracles countered in a yell. He shook off the women clinging to him, and hastened to remove the one who had latched onto Hylas’ arm. “The boy belongs to me!” he shouted at her.
“I’m not your slave,” Hylas countered petulantly, even as he let Heracles cover him in a protective embrace.
The other Argonauts laughed at Heracles’ jealousy, and agreed wholeheartedly with Jason that they should stay in Lemnos at least a week. Outraged that his opinion was being ignored, Heracles withdrew to the ship with Hylas, and told the others on board the ship what had happened. The rest of the Argonauts quickly left the ship to join their fellows in consoling the lonely Lemnian women, leaving Heracles and Hylas alone, which suited Heracles just fine.
Queen Hypsipyle threw a magnificent feast for Jason and his companions, and each man soon found himself well provided with warm female companionship. Hypsipyle herself monopolized Jason’s attentions, but most of the other men amused themselves with more than one woman over the course of the week that they had initially agreed would be the duration of their visit.
At the end of the week, Hypsipyle begged Jason not to leave yet. Feeling sorry for her loneliness, he asked just what had happened that there were no men left on the island. She explained that a terrible plague had struck the island, killing almost all the men, and the few who hadn’t been killed had fled in terror to Thrace, abandoning the poor women. Jason didn’t want to abandon her again, so he agreed to stay for another month…
Some time later, on board the ship, Hylas began to grow restless. He complained to Heracles that they had been there for a very long time indeed! “It was summer when we arrived, and now it’s mid-winter!” he pointed out.
Heracles sighed. “I thought it had grown a bit nippy lately.”
“Is that really all you have to say? What are they doing?”
Heracles laughed at the question, making Hylas blush, and shake his head.
“All right, all right, I know what they’re doing,” the boy admitted. “I just don’t understand what they’re thinking.”
“They’re not thinking at all,” Heracles replied. “Hard to think with a pretty girl or two wigglin’ around in front of ya. Or a pretty boy,” he added, stroking Hylas’ hair.
“Shouldn’t we be trying to find out what’s going on?” Hylas objected. “What if those women are up to no good? What if they’ve hurt our friends, and we’re the only ones left?”
“What woman would be strong enough to hurt such great heroes?” Heracles laughed. “My brothers are on the island, too, you know!”
“Only one of them is your brother,” Hylas reminded him. “Anyway, I want to know what’s going on. I’m going to go into town and look around.”
“No, you’re not,” Heracles told him firmly. “One of those girls might try to get her claws into you. I’ll go.”
“But they might try to seduce you!” Hylas objected. “Maybe we should go together.”
“What woman could be as pretty as you are? You don’t need to be jealous. I’ll be right back,” Heracles assured him, then threw the skin of the Nemean Lion back across his shoulders, and hopped down off the boat.
As he wandered through the streets of Lemnos, Heracles saw sights unlike any he had seen before. Every task that a man would do in Hellas was being handled by a woman. Bakers and blacksmiths, potters and poultry-keepers, everything was being done by women. Though he could tell that his comrades had been busy: some of the women were visibly pregnant.
Eventually, Heracles finally found one of the other Argonauts. Meleager was sitting in a shaded garden just off the street, looking depressed. “So you’re not all abed, then!” Heracles roared in greeting.
“Who are you to talk?” Meleager laughed back at him. “I doubt you’ve been out of Hylas’ bed this whole time.”
“Don’t be preposterous, man! I’ve been giving him lessons in fighting every day! I don’t make love in the day like a common savage,” Heracles insisted.
“I’ve heard otherwise from some men whose daughters have borne your children, but I suppose I’m no one to talk about that now,” Meleager sighed.
“What happened to all the men here, anyway?” Heracles asked as he sat down nearby.
“Hypsipyle told Jason they got killed by a plague, but one of the girls I’ve been…ah…spending my time with…told me that they were seduced away by Thracian women.” Meleager scowled. “Castor and Polydeuces swear theirs have told them that the men were taken away due to the wrath of the gods.”
“So it’s something the women don’t want to admit to, then,” Heracles concluded. “Then let’s set sail again, before we meet the same fate, whatever it was!”
“Jason says he won’t sail while the queen is still pregnant with his child,” Meleager replied.
“For the gods’ sake!” Heracles roared. “Is he on a quest or isn’t he?!”
“He says the Golden Fleece hasn’t been moved from Colchis in generations, so it’ll still be there in a year or two, so there’s no rush,” Meleager sighed. “I don’t feel right telling him what to do. I should never have come on this voyage. I should have refused to board after he didn’t let Atalanta accompany us…”
“Aye, at least she would have been able to resist these seductresses,” Heracles agreed. “And a good Amazon always livens up any expedition.”
Meleager agreed. To an excessive degree. In fact, he kept moaning on about Atalanta in such a nauseatingly lovesick fashion that Heracles began to feel sick to his stomach just listening to him, and soon was seeking a good excuse to leave and go back to the ship. As he was leaving, of course, he did tell Meleager to get the rest of the men to gang up and force Jason to sail again.
But naturally that didn’t happen, and soon Hypsipyle was so pregnant that she could barely function in her capacity ruling the island. And yet, she still went daily through a special door off her chamber, a door that Jason had been forbidden to enter.
As an adventurous and curious young man, this door had been bothering him for some time, but until the queen became taken with labor pains, he didn’t have any opportunity to investigate it. During the chaos of childbirth, however, he found that there were so many midwives and healers and priestesses and servants and slaves and who-knew-whats that he could slip through the door unobserved.
Beyond the door, Jason found a concealed staircase that led deep into the rocky island. At the base of the stairs was a small, miserable room, where a miserable old man slept on a cot. The old man woke and looked at Jason suspiciously.
“Who are you, then?” he asked. “I’ve never seen your face before.”
“I’m Jason, son of Aison,” the other replied. “Who are you?”
“What are you doing coming down those stairs?” the old man asked, without even acknowledging that he had heard Jason’s question. “How did you get into the queen’s bedchamber?”
“I…well…the usual way a man gets into any chamber,” Jason answered uncertainly. “Through the door.” Somehow, he hadn’t quite wanted to admit that he was the queen’s lover…
“That’s no answer, boy!” the old man snapped at him. “If you’ve harmed my daughter in any way, I’ll–”
“Your daughter?” Jason repeated, cutting him off. “Who are you? What are you doing down here?”
The old man sighed deeply. “I am Thoas, son of Dionysos. King of Lemnos.”
“But…” Jason tried to object, but it was hard to know where to begin.
“Some time ago, our women began to neglect to worship Aphrodite properly. A rumor had spread that she was not truly the daughter of Zeus, and didn’t deserve to be worshiped alongside the true Olympian gods,” Thoas explained. “The goddess grew angry at them for their neglect, and laid a curse on them so that they would let off the most terrifying stink, so no man would be willing to touch them, or even come near them. Well, the men couldn’t go without women, so they went and raided Thrace for concubines. And for a while, everyone seemed happy enough. Our women smelled terrible, but the concubines were pretty and cooperative, and producing healthy, happy little children. It seemed quite nice. But for some reason our own women began to grow discontented. They began to plot against us. And one night, every woman slew her husband, his concubine, and any children the concubines had borne him.” Thoas shook his head sadly. “The next day, they went about slaughtering the widowers and unmarried men, too. But my daughter couldn’t go through with it. She hid me down here, and told the other women that she had slain me. And being gullible, like women are, they believed her.”
“What could have made them think such an awful act was justified?” Jason asked, horrified. To think that his companions were lying nightly–and daily!–with murderers!
“I can’t imagine it,” Thoas replied, shaking his head. “To make matters worse, the smell’s faded with time, so it hadn’t even been necessary! Think of all those innocent men, slain over nothing!”
“It’s awful,” Jason agreed. Just what had he gotten his men into?
“Worst of all, it seems my daughter’s gone and gotten married without my consent,” Thoas continued. “She’s been heavy with child lately. Do you know anything about the fellow?”
Jason cleared his throat uncomfortably. Best not to admit that there hadn’t been any marriage oaths… “That, ah, that would be me, actually….Father,” he added at the end. To act the part.
Thoas was delighted to meet his son-in-law, and they spent some time talking and getting to know one another. In fact, they spent so long talking that night fell, and by the time Jason went back up the stairs, he found Hypsipyle crying in their bed. The servants were long gone, and it looked as though an infant was sleeping beside her.
“What’s wrong?” Jason asked, sitting beside her. “Did something happen to our baby?”
“No, he’s fine, but you were gone! I thought you had decided to sail away!” Hypsipyle replied, wiping away her tears. “You…you didn’t…you didn’t go all the way down the stairs…did you?” she asked, with a glance at the still-open secret door down to her hidden father.
“I did,” Jason admitted. “You should have told me the truth.”
“How could I have? You have no idea what we went through! Having our husbands turn on us like that! No amount of neglect for the gods could excuse such maltreatment as we received!”
“But–if I had known, I could have been the one to bring your father his food in these last few months,” Jason objected, somewhat weakly. Hypsipyle took heart at his encouragement, and shared all the woes she and the other women had suffered at the hands of their adulterous husbands…
The Argo had been in Lemnos a full year by the time Heracles had had enough of waiting. Even Hylas’ charms weren’t enough to make up for a year of doing absolutely nothing! When the old hag who brought them their food every day indicated that Jason had no intention of sailing any time soon, Heracles decided that he had had it, and he sent Hylas into town with a message.
Hylas marched right into the throne room, where Jason was sitting beside Hypsipyle on the throne, as if he really was her husband. Hylas was shocked to notice that the queen looked like she was pregnant again, despite the baby in her lap, but he didn’t let that stop him from delivering his lover’s message.
“Heracles wanted to send you his congratulations on your heroic love-making,” Hylas told him. “It will surely be long remembered, and sung of by the bards in ages to come.”
Then he left again, without waiting to see how Jason would take the rebuke. Assuming, of course, that he understood it was sarcasm. With Jason, it was hard to guess how that sort of thing would go. Sometimes he was very smart, and sometimes he was so stupid that it made Hylas’ head hurt just to imagine being so foolhardy.
Heracles naturally praised him for his excellent performance–as if he had seen it–and delivered his praise in all the usual ways.
More importantly, Jason’s pride had prickled at the message, and he was soon rounding up all his men, forcing them to leave behind their sons and daughters and pregnant mistresses, and within a week, the Argo was finally sailing forth from the port of Lemnos, bound once more for the distant shores of Colchis.
There are actually a lot of variations on exactly what happened to Thoas when the Lemnian women revolted against the way their men were all being such unspeakable pigs. Usually, it’s said that she put him adrift at sea to protect him, and that his divine father ensured that he made it to the shore safely. Other times, the Lemnian women find and kill him, too. Sometimes, when he escapes, he re-takes the island from the women. Other times, the rest of the women find out that he was spared, and rise up against their queen, selling her into slavery in punishment for having spared her father when none of their fathers had been spared. A slavery that she’s eventually rescued from by her sons, who then re-take the island. Either way, one of Jason’s sons by Hypsipyle is ruling Lemnos during the Trojan War, and yet Thoas’ mother is supposed to be Ariadne, which puts Theseus way too far back in time! His sons by Phaidra are among the Greek forces at Troy. But if Thoas is the son of Ariadne as well as Dionysos, then he’s of an age to be a son of Theseus himself, which would mean that the King of Lemnos is of an age to be Theseus’ great-grandson, and yet his sons are still young enough to fight? Even more confusingly, their mother, Phaidra, is the full sister of Ariadne. As I’ve said before, these myths aren’t really meant to all be tied together like this…
As to the reason why the Lemnian women were neglecting the worship of Aphrodite, well…I’ve never seen that explained in any concrete way, so I thought I’d tie it into the actual fact that Aphrodite was a foreign goddess imported and naturalized into the Greek pantheon at some time in the distant past. (She was fully adopted into the religion by Homeric times, but I’m pretty sure there hasn’t been any sign of the Mycenaeans worshipping her, so that’s a window of, what, about four or five centuries?)