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(Epic Poem, Greek, c. 246 BCE, 5,835 lines)

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“The Argonautica” is the best known work by the 3rd Century BCE Hellenistic poet and scholar, Apollonius of Rhodes. It is an epic poem in the style of Homer, and tells the story of Jason and the Argonauts and their quest for the Golden Fleece. But it is Greek epic poetry updated for the tastes of a more discerning and rational Hellenistic audience. Little regarded in ancient times, it has since come to be recognized for its own intrinsic merit, and for its influence on later Latin poets.

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Pelias, king of Iolcus in Thessaly, has been warned in a prophesy that a man with only one sandal will one day bring about his downfall. When news comes that Jason has recently lost a sandal, Pelias decides to send him on an apparently impossible and suicidal task: to bring back the mythical Golden Fleece from Colchis, on the distant and dangerous shores of the Black Sea, a land ruled over by the warlike King Aetes.

Jason, however, recruits a band of heroes to help him in this venture, and makes ready a ship called the Argo (built by the shipwright Argus, according to instruction from the goddess Athena). Initially, the crew elect Heracles as leader of the quest, but Heracles insists on deferring to Jason. Although Jason is glad for this vote of confidence, he remains worried as some of the crew are clearly unconvinced of his worthiness for the task. But Orpheus’ music calms the crew, and soon the ship itself calls to them to set sail.

The first port of call is Lemnos, ruled over by Queen Hypsipyle. The women of Lemnos have killed off all their menfolk, and are keen that the crew of the Argo should stay with them. Hypsipyle instantly falls in love with Jason, and Jason soon moves into her palace, along with most of his fellow questers. Only Heracles remains unmoved, and is able to make Jason and the other Argonauts see sense and continue the journey.

Next, while travelling through the Hellespont, the Argo encounters a region inhabited by hostile six-handed savages and by the much more civilized Doliones people. However, the Argonauts and the Doliones end up fighting each other by accident, and Jason (also accidentally) kills their king. After some magnificent funeral rites, the two factions are reconciled, but the Argo is delayed by adverse winds until the seer Mopsus realizes that it is necessary to establish a cult to the mother of the gods (Rhea or Cybele) among the Doliones.

At the next landfall, at the river Cius, Heracles and his friend Polyphemus goes off in search of Heracles’ handsome young squire Hylas, who has been abducted by a water nymph. The ship leaves without the three heroes, but the sea divinity Glaucus assures them that this is all part of the divine plan.

As Book 2 begins, the Argo reaches the land of King Amycus of the Bebrycians, who challenges any Argonaut champion to a boxing match. Anger by this disrespect, Polydeukes accepts the challenge, and beats the hulking Amycus by guile and superior skill. The Argo departs amid further threats from the warlike Bebrycians.

Next, they encounter Phineas, cursed by Zeus with extreme old age, blindness and constant visits from the Harpies for giving away divine secrets due to his gift of prophesy. The Argonauts Zetes and Calais, sons of the north wind, chase away the Harpies, and the grateful blind old man tell the Argonauts how to get to Colchis and, in particular, how to avoid the Clashing Rocks en route.

Avoiding this natural menace, the Argo arrives in the Black Sea, where the questers build an altar to Apollo, who they see flying overhead on his way to the Hyperboreans. Passing the river Acheron (one of the entrances to Hades), they are warmly welcomed by Lycus, king of the Mariandynians. The prophet Idmon and the pilot Tiphys both die unrelated deaths here, and, after suitable funeral rites, the Argonauts continue their quest.

After pouring libations for the ghost of Sthenelus, and taking on board three more of Heracles’ old acquaintances from his campaign against the Amazons, the Argonauts carefully pass the river Thermodon, the Amazons’ main harbour. After fighting off the birds that defend an island devoted to the war-god Ares, the Argonauts welcome into their number four sons of the exiled Greek hero Phrixus (and grandsons of Aetes, king of Colchis). Finally, approaching Colchis, they witness Zeus’ huge eagle flying to the Caucasus mountains, where it feeds daily on the liver of Prometheus.

In Book 3, the Argo is hidden in a backwater of the river Phasis, the main river of Colchis, while Athena and Hera discuss how best to help the quest. They enlist the help of Aphrodite, goddess of love, and her son Eros, in making Medea, daughter of the king of Colchis, fall in love with Jason.

Jason, along with King Aetes’ grandsons, make an initial attempt to gain the Golden Fleece by persuasion rather than arms, but Aetes is unimpressed, and sets Jason another apparently impossible task first: he must plough the Plain of Ares with fire-breathing oxen, then sow four acres of the plain with dragon's teeth, and finally cut down the crop of armed men that will spring up before they can cut him down.

Medea, affected by Eros’ arrow of love, looks for a way to help Jason with this task. She conspires with her sister Chalciope (mother to the four young men of Colchis now in Jason’s band of warriors), and eventually comes up with a plan to help Jason by means of her drugs and spells. Medea secretly meets with Jason outside the temple of Hecate, where she is a priestess, and it becomes clear that Medea’s love for Jason is requited. In return for her help, Jason promises to marry her and make her famous throughout Greece.

On the day set for the trial of strength, Jason, strengthened by Medea’s drugs and spells, succeeds in carrying out King Aetes’ apparently impossible task. Stung by this unexpected setback to his plans, Aetes plots to cheat Jason out of his prize.

Book 4 begins with Medea planning to flee Colchis, now that her father is aware of her treasonous actions. Doors open for her by magic, and she joins the Argonauts at their camp. She puts to sleep the serpent that guards the Golden Fleece, so that Jason can take it and escape back to the Argo.

The Argo flees Colchis, hotly pursued by two fleets of ships. One fleet, led by Medea’s brother Apsyrtus (or Absyrtus), follows the Argo up the river Ister to the Sea of Cronus, where Apsyrtus finally corners the Argonauts. A deal is struck whereby Jason can keep the Golden Fleece, which he won fairly after all, but Medea’s fate must be decided by a mediator chose from neighbouring kings. Fearing that she will never get away, Medea lures Apsyrtus into a trap where Jason kills him and then dismembers him to avoid retribution from the Erinyes (Fates). Without their leader, the Colchian fleet is easily overcome, and they choose to flee themselves rather than face Aetes’ wrath.

Zeus, though, furious at the insupportable murder, condemns the Argonauts to wander far out of their way on their return journey. They are blown all the way back to the river Eridanus, and thence to the Sardinian Sea and the realm of the witch, Circe. Circe, however, absolves Jason and Medea of any blood-guilt, and Hera also prevails on the sea nymph Thetis to help the group. With the help of the sea nymphs, the Argo is able to safely pass the Sirens (all except Butes, that is), and also the Wandering Rocks, eventually arriving the island of Drepane, off the western coast of Greece.

There, however, they encounter the other Colchian fleet, which is still pursuirng them. Alcinous, the king of Drepane, agrees to mediate between the two forces, although secretly planning to give Medea up to the Colchians unless she can prove that she is properly married to Jason. Alcinous’ wife, Queen Arete, warns the lovers of this plan, and Jason and Medea are secretly wed in a sacred cave on the island, so that the Colchians are finally forced to give up their claims on Medea, and they decide to settle locally rather than risk returning to Colchis.

The Argo, though, is blown off course once again, towards an interminable sandbank off the coast of Libya called the Syrtes. Seeing no way out, the Argonauts split up and wait to die. But they are visited by three nymphs, who act as the guardians of Libya, and who explain what the questers need to do in order to survive: they must carry the Argo across the deserts of Libya. After twelve days of this torment, they arrive at Lake Triton and the Garden of the Hesperides. They are astonished to hear that Heracles was there just the previous day, and that they have missed him again.

The Argonauts lose two more of their number - the seer Mopsus dies from a snake bite, and Canthus from a wound - and are begining to despair again, until Triton takes pity on them and reveals a route from the lake to the open sea. Triton entrusts Euphemus with a magical clod of earth that will one day become the island of Thera, the stepping stone that will later allow Greek colonists to settle Libya.

The tale ends with the Argonauts’ visit to the island of Anaphe, where they institute a cult in honour of Apollo, and finally to Aegina (close to Jason’s ancestral home), where they establish a sporting festival competition.

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Apollonius"Argonautica" is the only surviving epic poem from the Hellenistic period, despite evidence that many such narrative epic poems were in fact written during that time. Its date is uncertain, with some sources placing it during the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (283-246 BCE), and others at the time of Ptolemy III Euergetes (246-221 BCE). Mid-3rd Century BCE is, then, perhaps as close as we can justifiably estimate, the mid-date of c. 246 BCE being a reasonable figure for that.

The story of Jason and the Argonaut’s quest for the Golden Fleece would have been quite familiar to Apollonius’ contemporaries, although Jason is only mentioned fleetingly in Homer and Hesiod. The first detailed treatment of the Goldee Fleece legend appears in Pindar’s "Pythian Odes".

In antiquity, "The Argonautica" was generally considered to be quite mediocre, at best a pale imitation of the revered Homer. More recently, though, the poem has seen something of a renaissance in critical approval, and has been recognized for its own intrinsic merit, and for the direct influence it had on later Latin poets like Vergil, Catullus and Ovid. Nowadays, it has established its own place in the pantheon of ancient epic poetry, and it continues to provide a fertile source for the work of modern scholars (and a much less congested one than the traditional targets of Homer and Vergil).

Apollonius of Rhodes himself was a scholar of Homer, and, in some ways, "The Argonautica" is Apollonius’ homage to his beloved Homer, a kind of grand experiment in bringing the Homeric epic into the new age of Hellenistic Alexandria. It contains many (quite deliberate) parallels to the works of Homer, both in plot and in linguistic style (such as syntax, metre, vocabulary and grammar). However, it was written at a time when the literary fashion was for small-scale poetry displaying conspiciuous erudition, and so it also represented something of an artist risk for Apollonius, and there is some evidence that it was not well received at the time.

Although clearly modelled on the epic poetry of Homer, "The Argonautica" nevertheless presents some substantial breaks with Homeric tradition, and it is certainly not a slavish imitation of Homer. For one thing, at less than 6,000 lines, "The Argonautica" is significantly shorter than either "The Iliad" or "The Odyssey", and collected into a mere four books rather than the Homeric twenty-four. This is perhaps a nod to the shorter poems of Apollonius’ contemporary and literary rival, Callimachus, or it may be a response to calls for shorter poems by the influential critic Aristotle in his Poetics.

Apollonius also tones down some of the mythological grandeur and rhetoric of Homer, portraying Jason as a much more human-scaled hero, not one on the superhuman scale of the Achilles or Odysseus as described by Homer. Indeed, Jason in some ways may be considered something of an anti-hero, presented in stark contradistinction to the more traditional and primitive Homeric hero, Heracles, who is portrayed here as an anachronism, almost a buffoon, and who is effectively abandoned early in the story. ApolloniusJason is not really a great warrior, succeeding in his biggest tests only with the help of a woman’s magical charms, and he is variously portrayed as passive, jealous, timid, confused or treacherous at different points in the story. Other characters in Jason’s band, while nominally heroes, are even more unpleasant, sometimes almost farcically so.

Unlike in the earlier, more traditional epics, the gods remain notably distant and inactive in "The Argonautica", while the action is carried by fallible humans. Additionally, where alternative versions of stories were available - for example, the grisly death of Medea’s little brother Apsyrtus - Apollonius, as a representative of the modern, civilized society of Alexandria, tends towards the less garish, shocking and bloodcurdling (and perhaps more believable) version.

Homosexual love, such as that of Heracles and of Achilles and others in the works of Homer and the early Greek playwrights, was very much played down in the Hellenistic worldview, and the main love interest in "The Argonautica" is the heterosexual one between Jason and Medea. Indeed, Apollonius is sometimes credited with being the first narrative poet to deal with the “pathology of love”, and there are even claims that he went some way towards inventing the romantic novel with his narrative technique of “inner dialogue”.

Apollonius’ poetry also reflects some of the more modern trends of Hellenistic literature and scholarship. For example; religion and myth was typically rationalized and looked on more as an allegorical force, rather than as the literal truth of Hesiod’s approach. Also, Apollonius’ work makes many more forays into areas such as local customs, the origins of cities, etc, reflecting the Hellenistic interest in geography, ethnography, comparative religion, etc. The poetry of Apollonius’ teacher Callimachus’ abounds in aitia (descriptions of the mythical origins of cities and other contemporary objects), a popular literary fashion trend of the times, and it is no surprise to find that there are an estimated 80 such aitia in Apollonius"Argonautica". These, and the occasional almost verbatim quotation from poems of Callimachus, may have been intended as a statement of support for, or artistic debt to, Callimachus, and the label “Callimachean epic” (as opposed to “Homeric epic”) is sometimes applied to the work.

"The Argonautica" has also been described as an “episodic epic”, because, like Homer’s "Odyssey", it is to a large extent a voyage narrative, with one adventure following another, unlike "The Iliad" which follows the unfolding of a single great event. Indeed, "The Argonautica" is even more fragmented than "The Odyssey", as the author interrupts the flow of the plot with one aitia after another. The poet of "The Argonautica" is much more of a presence than in either of Homer’s epic poems, where the characters do most of the talking.

Characterization does not play an important part in "The Argonautica", an absence that some have used to criticize the work. Rather, Apollonius was more concerned with telling a story in a manner that would resonate symbolically with the population of the relatively young Hellenistic colony of Alexandria in which he lived and worked. Individual figures, therefore, take a back seat to symbolism, and the establishing of parallels between, for example, the Argonauts’ colonization of North Africa and the later Greek settlement of Ptolemaic Alexandria in Egypt.

Indeed, Medea, rather than Jason, may be the most rounded character in the poem, but even she is not characterized in any depth. Medea’s role as a romantic heroine may seem to be at odds with her role as a sorceress, but Apollonius does make some attempt to downplay the sorceress aspect. In keeping with the Hellenistic yen for rationality and science, he is careful to emphasize the more realistic, technical aspects of Medea’s magic (her reliance on potions and drugs, for example) rather than the supernatural, spiritual aspects.

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Introduction | Ancient Greece | Ancient Rome | Other Ancient Civilizations
Timeline | Alphabetical List of Authors | Index of Individual Works | Index of Important Characters | Sources
© 2009 Luke Mastin