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Role playing games are usually focused on a relatively small and disparate party of adventurers, that come together to achieve a common goal. More often than not each member's motivation for joining the party is unique; some join for honour, some for solidarity, some for gold and others simply because they don't have a choice. The members may not always share the same loyalties, or even be of the same species.

There sometimes is a clear leader of the pack, but the rest of the party aren't just followers. Each member's background, unique skills, and sense of morality usually play a crucial part in the story. In the more complex games of the genre, your pick of the lot may affect the story to the point that it may even lead to a different ending.

A very common example of a story centered around such a party of adventures in modern literature is Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. The "company" formed in the first book of the trilogy, quite possibly provided the template early RPG game writers based their own adventuring parties upon.

But how about ancient myths? Are there any myths from historical periods before the Middle Ages that are focused on such a party of adventurers?

  • ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​This was inspired from a similar question on History.SE: Did parties of adventurers actually exist?. I realize it may be a bit broad, but since we are at the defining stages of the site, I decided to go for it. – yannis May 10 '15 at 15:47
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    Besides adventuring parties, ancient epics have stories about noblemen offering valuable rewards for quests; as well as long accounts of loots from the fallen enemies that the heroes got from fallen enemies and how they divide them. – b_jonas May 17 '15 at 17:34
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An archetypal story of a wandering party of adventures is the story of Jason and the Argonauts long and arduous expedition to Colchis in order to retrieve the Golden Fleece. Although the myth was known in Homeric times, its classic telling is the Argonautica, the only surviving Hellenistic epic, written by Apollonius of Rhodes. The oldest surviving version of the story can be found in Pindar's Pythian Ode IV: For Arcesilas of Cyrene Chariot Race 462 BC.

In the story, the party is first assembled in Iolcos, when famed heroes of the era answer Jason's call for adventure. The story is noted for its moral ambiguity, a departure from the clear lines between good and evil in the Homeric epics. Whether the Argonauts are a party of heroes returning the Golden Fleece to its rightful place, or a bunch of pirates wreaking havoc for little more than personal gain is left to the reader to decide.

As for the adventures themselves, although there's no definitive list of the Argonauts, here are some of the more interesting characters:

  • Jason

    The leader of the company is the only one of the adventurers who isn't an established warrior or craftsman at the beginning of the story. The Argonautica is essentially his coming of age story.

  • Orpheus

    In modern RPG vernacular, the legendary poet would be the bard of the party. His songs soothe tensions amongst the crew, and he saves the day when the Argonauts encounter the Sirens.

  • Argus

    The builder of Argo, and also a member of her crew. It is heavily implied in the story that the journey would be impossible without Argus at the helm of the ship. He is the elder of the company, and the one Jason would more often turn to for counsel.

  • Medea

    The echantress fulfils the role of Jason's love interest. She appears late in the story, and only joins the crew after they've retrieved the Golden Fleece. She commits fratricide to help the crew escape Colchis and uses her magic to kill Talos and Pelias. If you are familiar with Dungeons & Dragons, you'd probably think of Medea as neutral evil.

  • Heracles

    The legendary brute doesn't feature much in the story, in Argonautica he's left behind in the first book. However, his role is crucial in the forming the company: The Argonauts, including Jason, elect him to lead their journey. However, Heracles passes the role to Jason, establishing the young adventurer's position atop the hierarchy of the company early on in the story.

I think this limited set is enough to show how diverse the members of the party were. This wasn't an army ordered to retrieve the Fleece, but a party brought together by a common sense of adventure. Although tensions between members were common, ultimately the combination of their unique strengths and skillsets lead them to success.

  • You said it was known in Homeric times. Do you know where in the Illiad or Odyssey it's mentioned? – Keshav Srinivasan Dec 21 '16 at 6:51
  • "One seafaring ship alone has passed thereby, that Argo famed of all, on her voyage from Aeetes, and even her the wave would speedily have dashed there against the great crags, had not Here sent her through, for that Jason was dear to her." - Odyssey, Book 12 @KeshavSrinivasan – yannis Dec 21 '16 at 10:34
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The other great "adventure" besides the Argonaut journey was the boar hunt. The most famous was the Calydonian Boar Hunt. This one is a bit more difficult in the ancient details, since no epic exists of it. Nevertheless, it is attested as early as the Iliad.

First, all primary sources for it can be found on Theoi. I'll list the main ones.

  • Homer, Iliad 9.543ff.
  • Hesiod, Catalogue of Women, fr. 98
  • Ps.-Apollodorus, Bibliotecha, 1.66
  • Ovid, Metamorphoses, 8.269

The point was to kill an oversized boar which was ravaging the land around Calydon. The king, Oenaus, put a bounty out on it, and the most famous Greek heroes of the time (barring Heracles) joined in, including:

  • Meleager, son of Oenaus, and the subject
  • Castor and Pollux, twin sons of Zeus (though one was said to be born of his mortal father Tyndareus); these two were always adventuring about, and they also joined in the Argonaut quest (they're also the "Gemini" in the sky);
  • Jason, leader of the Argonauts as outlined by Yannis;
  • Iolaus, most famously known as the side-kick of Heracles;
  • Peleus, father of Achilles, the greatest Greek warrior to fight in the Trojan War;
  • Theseus, slayer of the Minotaur and hero of Athens;
  • Atalanta, with whom Meleager fell in love; also known as the quickest woman in the ancient world, and the only woman ever mentioned in these adventures.

The prime hero of the story is Meleager, and this adventuring ultimately led to his demise.

(Ps.-Apollodorus, Bibliotecha 1.66, translated by Aldrich with emendations by me)

When they had gathered, Oeneus entertained them for nine days. On the tenth day, Kepheus and Ankaios and some of the others refused contemptuously to go out hunting with a woman [i.e. Atalanta], but Meleager...wanted to make a child with Atalanta, and so compelled the men to join the hunt with her. When they had encircled the boar, the animal killed Hyleus and Ankaios, and Peleus accidentally speared Eurytion [king of Phthia] with his javelin. Atalanta was first to hit the boar, in the back with an arrow. Amphiaraus then got it in the eye, and Meleager killed it with a blow on the flank. When he received the skin, he gave it to Atalanta. But the sons of Thestius, who considered it disgraceful that a woman should get the trophy where men were involved, took the skin from her, saying that it was properly theirs by right of birth, if Meleager chose not to accept it. Outraged by this, Meleager slew them and again gave the skin to Atalanta. But Althaea, in grief over the death of her brothers, set fire to the brand [that the Fates declared when consumed would end the life of Meleager, otherwise he would have lived forever], and Meleager died on the spot."

Another variant preserved by Ovid's Metamorphoses is that Meleager instead killed his brothers Plexippus and Toxeus, who were the ones that took it from Atalanta. This makes better sense out of the "birthright" claim.

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