Sunday, June 8, 2014

Argonautica - Part I - Epic Storytelling in the Age of Heroes

Beginning with thee, O Phoebus, I will recount the famous deeds of men of old, who, at the behest of King Pelias, down through the mouth of Pontus and between the Cyanean rocks, sped well-benched Argo in quest of the golden fleece. (Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica)

Thus begins one of the most famous and influential stories to come out of ancient Greece. The story of Jason and the Argonauts has captured peoples’ imaginations for ages, and to this day it is held up as the supreme example of ancient epic.

Today, the story has been retold in cartoons, comics, movies, and television adaptations. Its grip on the popular psyche is firm, and its archetypes reverberate throughout western culture.

The Argonautica isn’t just another fanciful story, it’s a well thought-out tale, carefully crafted, enriched with geographic, ethnographic, and religious details that other ancient stories lack.

And to the ancient world, this WAS history! The lines of this tale are a who’s who of gods, goddesses and heroes whom the reader (or listener) meets in unusually candid moments.

Before I go any further, I have a confession to make.

Until just a few weeks ago, I had never read the text of the Argonautica.

Like most people, I suspect, my knowledge of the tale of Jason and the Argonauts came from popular movies, mainly the Ray Harryhausen and Hallmark productions of Jason and the Argonauts. Those two film and television movies were fantastically entertaining and I highly recommend them both.

However, they differ from the original text in many ways.

In this series of blog posts, I’m going to talk a bit about my experience reading the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes, what elements stand out for me, and how it differs from the popular image of the story.

Before we get started, who was Apollonius of Rhodes?

A Hellenistic Bestseller

Apollonius was actually born in Ptolemaic Alexandria sometime between 296 and 260 B.C. He was a student of Callimachus, a famed poet and scholar at the Library of Alexandria.

Alexandria, during the Hellenistic age, was the centre of the world as far as education, research and the scholarly pursuits. Anyone who was anyone wanted to be there.

Apollonius composed and recited the Argonautica when he was a youth in Alexandria. Unfortunately, the poem was condemned on the Alexandrian scene, and some say that Callimachus was one of its slanderers, for he and his student, Apollonius, had a massive falling out.

Alexandria's Canopic Way
In Alexandria, it seemed that poetics was much more highly regarded than epics, which is what the Argonautica is. Kind of like the battle today between literary and genre fiction. Apollonius probably couldn’t stand his academic critics any longer, and so he moved to Rhodes where the Argonautica received much acclamation.

From then on, Apollonius considered himself a Rhodian.

Some other sources say that later in life, he returned to Alexandria where the poem received the credit it deserved, and that he even became head of the Alexandrian Library.

Like many writers, Apollonius had his own sources, oral and written, for his story. It seems that he may have drawn mainly on Pindar’s fourth Pythian Ode. But that is a much shorter work than the Argonautica.

Being from a more academic school, Apollonius did a lot of research and indeed he had access to a lot of sources in Alexandria.

When I set out to read the Argonautica, my main question was this: How does it differ from the modern film and television interpretations that had captivated me so?

I had my answer almost right away. It’s quite different.

Pelias in the Wings

The movies (film and TV) make much of the murder of Jason’s father, his fostering with Chiron the centaur, and of his return to Thessalian Iolclus to reclaim his birthright from his treacherous uncle, Pelias. He shows up at Pelias’ court wearing one sandal, fulfilling the prophecy Pelias so fears.

Argonautica makes very little of these things. There is only passing reference. The same is true of Pelias’ obsession with the Golden Fleece; in the Argonautica the search for the Fleece is more of an impossible task that Pelias hopes will end in Jason’s death, so that he never comes back to Iolclus.

Pelias’ real motive is to destroy Jason, not to obtain the Golden Fleece.

A Ship Full of Heroes

As with most ancient and medieval heroic epics, there is a list of the men involved at the beginning of the Argonautica. But this is no ordinary list of heroes, and Apollonius gives not just the names of the men, but also their lineage and deeds.
Some of the Argonauts

I won’t go through all fifty-odd names but there are some you might recognize…

First mentioned is Orpheus, the son of the Muse, Calliope. There is Polyphemus who had fought bravely in the war between the Lapiths and Centaurs, and Erytus and Echion the sons of Hermes. Mopsus is there to play a role, as he learned augury from Apollo himself.

Peleus, the father of Achilles, is a part of the crew, as well as Telamon and Argus, the ship builder whom the Argo is named after and who received help from the goddess Athena in building it.

Phlias the son of Dionysus is there, and Nauplius, Erginus, and Ancaeus, all three the sons of Poseidon.

Brian Thompson as Hercules
Hallmark production
Most famously of all perhaps, is that Herakles is a part of the crew. He is accompanied by his good friend and bow-carrier, Hylas. Other sons of Zeus that are there include Polydeuces and Castor from Sparta; they are the Dioscouri, or the Gemini, who were later remembered in the stars. Their mother is Leda.

Augeias, the son of Helios, Lernus, the son of Hephaestus, and Zetes and Calais, the sons of the wind Boreas, are all a part of the crew too. Jason is also joined by Acastus, the son of Pelias. Much is made of the latter in the movies, but in the Argonautica he is one of the lesser characters.

These are just a few of the heroes who make up the crew of the Argo. You can see that their lineage is nothing to spit at, and it’s no wonder the people of Iolclus (modern-day Volos) are in awe of them as they assemble on the strand beside Argo where they “shone like gleaming stars among the clouds”.

Iolclus - modern Volos, Greece
This is a story of the glory of youth, and of valour. When these heroes are setting out, there is a sense of excitement, anticipation, and of danger. The men are keen, but the women of Iolclus are weeping and praying to the gods, foreshadowing the potential doom.

The thing that really strikes me, and perhaps this is the genius of it, is that among all these heroes who are proven in battle and skill, divine descendants or not, Jason seems to be the only one (apart from Acastus) with no deeds to his name.

Jason is youth. Though he is surrounded by proven men, Argonautica, to my mind, is mainly about his own personal hero’s journey.

When all the supplies are loaded and the expedition is ready to sail, Jason turns to the men and says that all that remains is to choose a leader:

…and the young heroes turned their eyes towards bold Herakles sitting in their midst, and with one shout they all enjoined upon him to be their leader; but he, from the place where he sat, stretched forth his right hand and said: “Let no one offer this honour to me. For I will not consent, and I will forbid any other to stand up. Let the hero who brought us together, himself be the leader of the host.” Thus he spake with high thoughts, and they assented, as Herakles bade; and warlike Jason himself rose up, glad at heart… (Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica)

As is common throughout the tale, the heroes pay their respects to the gods, in this case Apollo, by sacrificing and building an altar before finally leaving the land of Hellas behind.

Lemnian Women are Lovely

Apollonius displays his knowledge of geography, detailing the sights that the crew sees as they sail east, past the peninsula of Athos and the Thracian coast on the way to their first port – Lemnos. 

The episode on Lemnos is one that popular retellings often include. It is the island of Queen Hypsipyle who, along with all her female subjects, has killed all the men. But that is where the commonalities between the Argonautica and Hollywood end.

In popular culture, Hypsipyle and her women are demonized, portrayed as savage man-haters who seek to trick and kill the Argonauts.

However, Apollonius portrays the Lemnian women as more sympathetic. Turns out they killed their war-mongering husbands who shunned them all in favour of the slaves they had taken on raids. The Lemnian women live in fear of retribution if word should get out as to what happened to their men – they do all the work required to live, including ploughing the fields.

When the Argonauts arrive, Hypsipyle welcomes them, offering food and supplies so that they can leave the island. They have no wish to kill the Argonauts. Hypsipyle falls in love with Jason and wonders if she could get him and his crew to stay so that they could have children again, and be protected against the Thracians.

The Argonauts linger for a time until Herakles chides them for hanging about with women instead of pursuing their quest. Jason decides they should leave and tells Hypsipyle that should she have a son by him, she should send him to Iolclus to be raised by his own parents, both of whom are still alive.

It’s actually a touching parting, without animosity, and the Argonauts set sail once more.

Stay tuned for the next post as we continue our epic journey through the Argonautica.

Thank you for reading. 

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