Before the Trojan War, the hero Jason was tasked with retrieving the Golden Fleece from the distant land of Colchis to secure his right to rule the Thessalian city of Iolcus. He was joined on his mission by fifty heroes from all over Greece, including notable figures such as the mighty Heracles and the Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux. They boarded the ship Argo and thus became known as the Argonauts.
To cut a long story short, Jason managed to obtain the Golden Fleece in Colchis. He also fell in love with the Colchian king’s daughter, Medea, who was a sorceress. After beating a hasty retreat, the Argonauts sailed back home. On their voyage, which presented them with several challenges, they eventually came across the island of Crete, which was guarded by a bronze man called Talos.
The bronze guardian
The episode with Talos is summarized by Pseudo-Apollodorus in his Bibliotheca (1.9.26), a compendium of Greek mythology dated to the first or second century AD. The Bibliotheca gives different origins for Talos. According to some, he belonged to the “Bronze Race” of men known from Hesiod’s Works and Days (ca. 700 BC), which predates the era of the heroes. Others, Pseudo-Apollodorus writes, claim that Talos was a gift from the god Hephaestus to King Minos of Crete. The latter suggests that Hephaestus, the ancient Greek god of the forge, had made Talos.
A slightly different origin for Talos is given by Apollonius Rhodius in his epic Argonautica (4.1638-1688). He writes that Talos “was of the stock of bronze, of the men sprung from ash-trees, the last left among the sons of the gods; and the son of Cronos,” that is to say, Zeus, “gave him to Europa to be the warder of Crete.” (The full text can be read over on the Theoi website, if you’re curious.) Incidentally, Europa had been kidnapped from the Levant by Zeus and taken to Crete, and the continent of Europe is named after her.
The Bibliotheca notes that while Talos was a bronze man, some suggest that he was instead fashioned in the shape of a bull, the Cretan animal par excellence. He was tasked with guarding the island of Crete. He did this by running around it three times each day. When he spotted the Argonauts, he started hurling rocks at their vessel. Somehow, at least some of the Argonauts managed to make landfall and a plan was concocted to rid themselves of this bothersome bronze protector.
Despite being made of metal, Talos did have a weakness: a single vein that extended from his neck to his ankles, with a bronze nail at the end of the vein closing it off. The Bibliotheca gives three different versions of how Talos met his end. He may have been driven mad by Medea, or she may have promised to make him immortal and then drew out the nail so that all of the ichor that was his lifeblood flowed out of him. Or, Pseudo-Apollodorus writes, he was simply shot in the ankle by Poeas, a friend of Heracles and one of the Argonauts.
The moment of his demise is captured in an Attic red-figure vase from Ruvo in Southern Italy. One side of the krater depicts Talos collapsing, with the horse-riding Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux) grabbing hold of him as he falls. The painter has executed Talos in a different colour from the other figures, which marks him as special. The female figure at extreme left is Medea, clad in “oriental” dress. She holds an embroidered sack that presumably contains her (magic) potions. At far right, the sea-god Poseidon and his wife Amphitrite observe the scene.