Friday 14 October 2011

Mystical Voyages (5) Jason and the Argonauts

Although I said that the Odyssey was the grand-daddy of voyage stories, perhaps I was rash, for the story of Jason and the Argonauts is just as old and maybe even older. We know this because Homer clearly expected his audience would be familiar with it. In Book 12 of the Odyssey, when Circe is advising Odysseus and his men how to avoid the Clashing Rocks, she says:

…against them
crashes the heavy swell of dark-eyed Amphitrite…
That way the only sea-going ship to get through was the Argo,
who is in all men’s minds, on her way home from Aeetes;
and even she would have been driven on the great rocks that time,
but Hera saw her through, out of her great love for Jason.  

But the only full remaining account of Jason’s adventures is the ‘Argonautika’ by Apollonius of Rhodes, written in the mid 3rd century BC and clearly a ‘literary’ achievement, while the Odyssey, like the Iliad, dates from the late 8th century BC - so I tend to think of Jason as coming later. (Add the fact that Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey refer to events of the Bronze Age in the early 12th century BC, and I don’t know about you, but I begin to feel giddy with all this gazing into the dark backward and abysm of time.)

I rather like the story that Apollonius wrote the first draft of the Argonautika as a very young man, and it got terrible reviews.   Undeterred, he moved from Alexandria to Rhodes, rewrote the poem, and finally published it to great critical acclaim - a story which demonstrates the importance of resilience (and revision) for writers of all eras! 

Anyway, as everyone knows, the Argo was built to carry Jason and his band of fifty heroes (including Hercules, Hylas, Orpheus, and the twins Castor and Pollux) all the way from Thessaly to Colchis, Georgia, in search of the Golden Fleece.  Argo herself was a prophetic ship with her own voice, for a beam of the sacred oak of the oracle of Zeus at Dodona had been built into her.

Jason wept as he turned his eyes away from the land of his birth.  But the rest struck the rough sea with their oars in time with Orpheus’ lyre, like young men bringing down their quick feet on the earth in unison with one another and the lyre, as they dance for Apollo round his altar at Pytho… On either side the dark salt water broke into foam, seething angrily in answer to the strong men’s strokes.  The armour on the moving ship glittered in the sunshine like fire, and all the time she was followed by a long white wake which stood out like a path across a green plain.

Can’t you just smell the salt? I love this vigorous, stirring passage. It’s so clearly an account by someone who has often seen these very things.

As in all these mystical voyages, the Argo island-hops to her destination – reflecting the real-life practice of ancient ships which rarely spent long out of sight of land.  The heroes head first for Lemnos in the Northern Aegean, where the women of the island have recently murdered all their menfolk and greet the Argonauts as useful breeding partners to repopulate the island. From thence the Argo passes the Hellespont and heads into the Sea of Marmara, making landfall at Cius in Bythynia (northwest Turkey) where Hercules’ companion, the youth Hylas, is drowned by a nymph as he goes to fetch water:

The naiad of the spring was just emerging as Hylas drew near.  And there, with the full moon shining on him from a clear sky, she saw him in all his radiant beauty and alluring grace.  Her heart was flooded by desire… Hylas now leant over to one side to dip his ewer in, and as soon as the water was gurgling loudly round the ringing bronze she threw her left arm round his neck in her eagerness to kiss his gentle lips.  Then with her right hand she drew his elbow down and plunged him in midstream.

Terribly upset, Hercules abandons ship at this point and the Argo sails on without him.  At the Bosphorus, the Argo encounters the Harpies and the Clashing Rocks till, finally arriving at Colchis, Jason wins the Golden Fleece with the aid of the witch princess Medea.  Jason’s protectresses, the goddesses Hera and Athene, bribe little Eros to shoot one of his arrows at Medea, ensuring she falls in love with their protégé. In the charming passage where they beg Eros’ mother Aphrodite to assist them, she responds:

“He is far more likely to obey you than me. There is no reverence in him, but faced by you he might display some spark of decent feeling.  He certainly pays no attention to me… I am so worn out by his naughtiness I have half a mind to break his bow and wicked arrows in his very sight, remembering how he threatened me with them in one of his moods. He said, ‘If you don’t keep your hands off me while I can still control my temper, you can blame yourself for the consequences." Hera and Athene smiled at this and exchanged glances.

Transfixed by Eros’ arrow, Medea has no choice.  She falls in love and shows Jason how to pass (and survive) the three tests set by her father King Aeetes: to harness bulls with bronze hooves, to plough the field of the war god Ares, and to sow the dragons’ teeth which turn into an army of warriors.  Finally, as King Aeetes still refuses to part with the Fleece, Medea uses her herbal skills to put to sleep the dragon which guards the Fleece.

It seems likely the legend of the Fleece itself sprang from the ancient Georgian practice of  using sheep fleeces submerged in running streams to collect particles of gold, and this may be reflected in a sentence from one of Pindar’s odes which describes ‘the fleece, glowing with matted skeins of gold’ (trans: Nigel Nicolson). But in the Argonautika it takes on a much more magical appearance:

Lord Jason held up the great fleece in his arms.  The shimmering wool threw a fiery glow on his fair cheeks and forehead and he rejoiced in it, glad as a girl who catches on her silken gown the lovely light of the full moon as it climbs the sky and looks into her attic room.  …The very ground before him as he walked was bright with gold.

Jason and Medea escape together on the Argo, and eventually return to Thessaly, avoiding the Sirens and helped through the Clashing Rocks by sea nymphs who:

… holding their skirts up over their white knees, began to run along on top of the reefs and breaking waves, following each other on either side of the ship.  Argo, caught in the current, was tossed to right and left… but the Nereids, passing the ship from hand to hand and side to side, kept her scudding through the air on top of the waves.  It was like the game which young girls play beside a sandy beach, when they roll their skirts up to their waists on either side and toss a ball round to each other, throwing it high in the air so that it never touches the ground.

Isn’t that lovely?  Old as the story of Jason may be, this later telling of Apollonius often feels light, sophisticated and playful.  But the voyage across the sea to Colchis, and the journey into the sacred, dragon-or-serpent-guarded grove has a resonance that has lasted down the ages.  And Medea is Circe’s niece, a priestess of Hecate, goddess of childbirth, death, necromancy, doorways and crossroads, magic, torches and dogs.  In keeping with this, Medea is an often ruthless figure of great power, who near the end of the Argonautika calls on the spirits of death, the hounds of Hades, to slay the bronze giant Talos.  In other versions of her legend, she is the owner of a magical cauldron which can restore life to the dead (something which will turn up in Celtic mythology too: see next week's post).  She poisons her rivals and murders her own children.  The voyage of Jason to the land of the Golden Fleece and his meeting with Medea, giver of life and death, seems to suggest that his too is an Otherworld journey.

The quotation from the Odyssey in this post is from the translation by Richmond Lattimore, Harper Torchbooks, 1965
The quotations from the Argonautika are from the Penguin translation by E.V. Rieu

Picture credits:  The Argo and Argonauts - red-figure Greek vase
Building of the Argo - William Russell Flint
Hylas and the Nymphs - John Waterhouse
Jason and the Golden Fleece - Apulian red-figure krater
Naiads Playing - Arnold Böcklin


  1. My favorite depiction of the Argo's journey, I think, is done by Lloyd Alexander in "The Arkadians." He treats it with such dry humor, showing the sketchiness of almost all the characters involved, while still capturing the excitement of such a journey - the adventure for its own sake was a worthy venture, no matter how it turned out in the end!

  2. Ah - I don't know that one! Does anyone know of other retellings of the Argo story? Robert Graves wrote one for adults, I seem to remember - but any more for children?

    Incidentally I have one up my own sleeve - all will be revealed on this blog in a few weeks...

  3. One of my favorite tales. I too wish there were more versions of this tale in modern fiction. Will be watching blogs. Thanks for such a great post.

  4. Another beautiful post, Kath - this blog is probably my favourite!

  5. I've got some catching up to do and this was a great post to start with, I've thoroughly enjoyed revisiting these myths... thanks!
    Carrie... :)

  6. Dear Kath, I'm enjoying this series on voyages very much. As you might suspect, I remember another Jason story written by a certain somebody not a million miles from here, illustrated too, and with some delicious rhyming... Is that what you're hinting at in your comment of 14 October? I can't wait to find out!
    love, Kate (H)