Sunday, June 15, 2014

Argonautica - Part II – Heroes’ Deeds, Not Words

When Jason and the Argonauts left Lemnos, they were feeling pretty good.

Who wouldn’t after spending time on a beautiful island making love to women who hadn’t seen in man in years? The young heroes would have been feeling pretty positive as the Argo cut through the sea once more.

But, for men, happiness can be fleeting.

The Argo plies the sea through the Chersonesus and along the Dardanian coast. Again, Apollonius shows his knowledge of geography by detailing the many places and peoples that the Argonauts pass on their way through the Hellespont.

There are so many episodes along the way to Colchis that are ignored by modern productions. Of course, one film or two-part series can’t hope to capture them all. But they are wonderful and, I think, would make for a fantastic HBO series.

Six Arms Are Not Better Than Two

One such episode is when the Argonauts encounter the Doliones and their king, Cyzicus. The Doliones, descendants of Poseidon, are friendly and welcome the Argonauts with feasting and supplies. 
Jason builds an altar to Apollo on the beach, in thanks. The gods must be given their due.

The Earthborn
However, the Doliones’ neighbours, a vicious race of six-armed men, known as the Earthborn, seek to block the Argonauts’ way. Jason and most of the men are not there when the attack comes, but Herakles and a few others hold the Earthborn off with bows and spears until the others arrive. They slaughter the Earthborn on the beach.

When the Argo leaves the Doliones, great winds rise up and take them back to the island of the Doliones without them knowing it. This is where the tragic reality of Greek tales hits.

The Doliones take the returned Argonauts for Macrian enemies and soon a huge battle takes place between the two armies in which Jason kills King Cyzicus, his former host. Many Doliones die.

Both sides realize their error and they mourn and hold games for three days. Cleite, Cyzicus’ new young bride, hangs herself in her grief.

The Argonauts are held there for twelve days because of high winds and it is only after Mopsus, the crew’s seer, tells Jason that he must propitiate the great goddess that they are able to calm the winds.

They set sail, less happy than the last time they left the Doliones. The journey continues, and there are more storms, until they come to the land of the Mysians who welcome them with provisions, sheep and wine.

Dangerous Beauty

At this point we come to an episode that, I admit, I did not know was a part of the Argonautica. I’d known it from famous paintings, even recreations in movies such as Sirens. So, when I read this passage, I was pleasantly surprised, despite the tragedy it entails. Here's what happens.

During the storms, Herakles had broken his mighty oar, and so during the feasting he heads into the forest to look for a tree that will serve as a new oar.

While he is gone, his friend Hylas goes into another part of the wood to fill a pitcher with water so that he can prepare a meal. Hylas comes to the spring of Pegae where the nymphs are beginning their dances in honour of Artemis. The nymphs…

who held the mountain peaks or glens, all they were ranged far off guarding the woods; but one, a water-nymph was just rising from the fair-flowing spring; and the boy she perceived close at hand with the rosy flush of his beauty and sweet grace. For the full moon beaming from the sky smote him. And Cypris [Aphrodite] made her heart faint, and in her confusion she could scarcely gather her spirit back to her. But as soon as he dipped the pitcher in the stream, leaning to one side, and the brimming water rang loud as it poured against the sounding bronze, straightway she laid her left arm above upon his neck yearning to kiss his tender mouth; and with her right hand she drew down his elbow, and plunged him into the midst of the eddy. (Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica)

Hylas and the Nymphs
Hylas cries out, but he is gone. Some of his comrades think a wild beast is attacking him and they go searching for him. While searching, they find Herakles who is overcome with wrath when he hears what has happened to his friend. The hero refuses to continue on the journey with the rest of the Argonauts, opting instead to remain in Mysia and search for Hylas whom he never finds.

Amidst much quarrelling, the Argo sails without its greatest hero.

This is certainly an interesting turn of events. In the Hallmark production, Herakles goes all the way to Colchis where he dies in battle, and in the Ray Harryhausen version, he stays to look for Hylas on the island of Thalos, who does not make an appearance in Argonautica until the homeward voyage.

We discover that it is the will of Zeus that Herakles not accompany the Argonauts to Colchis since he has yet to finish his Labours. As soon as the heroes discover this, their quarrelling ends and they press on. The Gods’ will must be respected.

Boxing the Bebrycians

The next part of their adventure is another that is often ignored, but I think it is a great part of the story that speaks to the power of youth and the Argonauts’ sense of adventure and optimism.

Ancient Boxers
When the winds die down, the Argo is forced to beach itself in the lands of Amycus, king of the Bebrycians. Amycus is a violent, arrogant man, and where the Argonauts have been well-received before, they now get anything but a warm welcome.

Amycus, a monster of a man according to Apollonius, tells the heroes that they will never be allowed to leave until one of them faces him in a boxing match.

Amycus is no slouch when it comes to fighting – he has killed many men with his challenge.
Polydeuces, the twin brother of Castor, and son of Zeus, steps forward to accept the challenge. He is young and powerful and known for his skill in boxing.

Amycus stands by, still and confident, watching the young Polydeuces step forward. Polydeuces carefully removes an ornate cloak that was given to him by one of the Lemnian maidens. He folds it, and begins warming up his body before tying the rawhide gauntlets to his fists.

The one seemed to be a monstrous son of baleful Typhoeus or of Earth herself, such as she brought forth aforetime, in her wrath against Zeus; but the other, the son of Tyndareus, was like a star of heaven, whose beams are fairest as it shines through the nightly sky at eventide. Such was the son of Zeus, the bloom of the first down still on his cheeks, still with the look of gladness in his eyes. But his might and fury waxed like a wild beast’s; and he poised his hands to see if they were pliant as before and were not altogether numbed by toil and rowing. (Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica)

The two men begin to circle each other, Amycus taunting Polydeuces. But the latter does not give in to the taunts. Rather, he observes Amycus’ style, testing him, trading blow for blow.

Castor and Polydeuces
The youth is fast and gives as good as he gets before a break is called and the two step back. When they return to the ring, the fight is much more ferocious, and Polydeuces takes his chance to land a punishing blow on the side of Amycus’ head, crushing the side of the king’s skull and killing him instantly.

The Bebrycians rush to attack Polydeuces, but the Argonauts come to his aid, his brother Castor first, and they beat and kill many of the Bebrycians.

Another thing I noticed in this episode is that even though Argonautica is about Jason’s journey as a hero, to this point, he has not yet performed any great deeds. Though he has fought in battles and killed enemies, the king he did kill was his one-time friend and host, Cyzicus. It was a mistake. The glorious set pieces such as this fight with Amycus, are the deeds of others in his company.

Apollonius is building to something I think, by leaving Jason on the side. Perhaps the listener, or reader, is meant to begin doubting the youth as others do, the expectation built up?

But Jason’s time is coming.

Obeying the Gods

Another set piece that has received much attention in film and television is the Argonauts’ visit to Phineus, the blind prophet tormented by the Harpies. After leaving the land of the Bebrycians with spoils, the Argonauts come to the place where Phineus lives by the sea.

Jason and Phineus
Phineus was given the gift of prophecy by Apollo himself, but after he slighted Zeus by revealing too much to people, he was cursed with permanent old age and the loss of his eyes. He was also cursed with Harpies who would not let him eat anything.

When Jason arrives, we discover that Phineus is expecting him and knows of their mission for the Fleece. When they hear his tale, the young pity the old man and want to help him. In exchange, Phineus shares his wisdom.

When the Harpies come to attack, it is not Jason who attacks them, as in the Hallmark production, but rather fascinatingly, the sons of Boreas, Zetes and Calais, who take to the air to attack the Harpies. They come close to killing them, but Iris, a goddess of the sky and a messenger, as well as the Harpies’ sister, stops Boreas’ sons from carrying out the killings.

Iris swears on the waters of the Styx (the ‘water-tight’ oath feared even by the gods) that the Harpies will no longer bother Phineus. In the films, the Harpies are killed or caged.

The Boreads and the Harpies
The Argonauts make sacrifices to the gods and prepare a feast for the old man who devours enough food to sate his incredible hunger. Then it is time for him to tell Jason and his men what they can expect.

But he cannot tell them everything, having learned his lesson in revealing too much. To get to Colchis, he tells them that they must pass through the Cyanean Rocks, and how they can use a dove to help them get through. When they pass into Pontus, they are to keep Bythinia on their right. They must stop in the land of the Mariandyni.

This is where Apollonius continues to show off his geographical knowledge. Phineus goes through all the peoples and places they will see on their way – the land of the iron-working people, Amazons along the River Thermodon etc.

The Cyanean Rocks
They are to travel until they come to the River Phasis which will lead them to Aeetes’ capital in Colchis, and the Grove of Ares where a terrible dragon watches over the Golden Fleece where it hangs on an oak tree.

This impending danger strikes fear into the Argonauts’ hearts.

Jason asks if they will see Hellas again, and Phineus replies that they will, but with the help of many guides.

He does give one striking piece of advice. Phineus tells Jason that he must heed Aphrodite’s aid most of all, since the success of their entire quest depends on her!

This is where the Argonautica stands apart from all other stories, indeed it breaks new ground.

The theme of Love, and the romantic treatment of Love, was new to epics when Apollonius of Rhodes composed the Argonautica.

As we shall see in Part III of this series, Love will play a major role in the development of Jason as a hero.

Thank you for reading.

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