Episode 38: The Epic Anti-Hero

Jason and the Argonauts, Books 1-2. Journey with Jason to find the Golden Fleece, and learn about the Greco-Egyptian writer, Apollonius of Rhodes.

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Apollonius’ Argonautica, Books 1-2

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 38: The Epic Anti-Hero. This is the first of two shows we’ll do on the Argonautica, commonly known as Jason and the Argonauts. In this show, we’re going to explore the first two books of this famous epic, written some time in the mid 200s BCE by an erudite librarian called Apollonius of Rhodes. The epic is about the hero Jason’s journey – over 9,000 miles in total, to the eastern lands at the edge of the Black Sea, to the Danube and then Adriatic, the Po and Rhine and Rhône rivers, Libya and Tunisia and then, finally, back to the familiar waters of the Aegean.

Over the course of this journey, there will be dragons and giants, witchcraft and diabolical prayers, fighting and murder, foul monsters and cursed prophets, loyalty and betrayal, and a thousand dawns, with the sun breaking over bright saltwater coves, gloomy inland river valleys, headlands and rocky islands, palaces and desolate stretches of empty countryside. It’s a gigantic narrative, populated with a broad cast of characters. But at its heart is a dark love story, a tale of a rather unexceptional young Greek named Jason, and the powerful woman who could shatter giants and summon hell itself to come to her aid. We’ve met her once before, in a play by Euripides. Her name is Medea. We won’t meet her until the next episode, but when we do, she will be, as she was before, one of the most overwhelming characters in ancient literature.


The world of Apollonius of Rhodes, who lived and worked in Alexandria, Egypt, was vast, cosmopolitan and multilingual. Map by Ian Mladjov.

A lot about this epic is overwhelming, actually. Apollonius wrote at a time of geographical expansion, and discovery, when the Greek speaking world had very recently become dizzyingly larger through the conquests of Alexander the Great. There is in the Argonautica a contagious zest for adventure, and almost a travel writer’s enthusiast for describing places. Apollonius describes the trees, and landforms, and ocean currents of places the heroes encounter on their quests – the cultures and architecture of foreign cities, and lovingly stops to illustrate the hue of an afternoon on the Danube, the foam on the waves of the Tyrrhenian Sea, and the brackish marshes of the northern Adriatic. To read this epic is to feel like you’re standing on a ship splashing through breakers – it has a sense of excitement and wonder at the vastness and diversity of the world.

So again, this episode will cover the first two books of the Argonautica – out of a total of four – a journey from Greece up through the Hellespont, into the Black Sea, and all the way to modern day Georgia and the foot of the Caucasus mountains. Whatever you’re doing – commuting, or working, or walking, this is a story that I hope will make you smile and dream of far off places, because, 2,200 years ago and today, that is what it’s meant to do. Once we get Jason and the Argonauts to their destination – an ancient land called Colchis, we’ll break from the narrative and I’ll tell you a little bit about the epic’s author, Apollonius – the kingdom and city in which he lived, and how these may have influenced the way he wrote about the legendary hero Jason. But before that, we need to hear the story itself. [music]

Iolcus, Colchis, and Jason

The Argonautica is, unlike the Iliad or Odyssey, pretty easy to jump right into. It doesn’t begin in the middle of things – a ten year war, for instance, and it’s not a story that exists in multiple timeframes. The Argonautica has a beginning, middle, and end, and goes right through in that order. You really just need to know two things ahead of time, and to introduce those two things, we’re going to do something we’ve done from time to time, and build a T-chart.

Just like with our Iliad T-chart, Greece is going to be on the left. Only, on the right, we won’t have Troy. We’re going to have another eastern civilization. This eastern civilization is called Colchis, and it is, again, at the easternmost reaches of the Black Sea, in the modern day country of Georgia. So, Greece on the left, and Colchis on the right. As the crow flies, these two places are a thousand miles apart – Jason’s journey there is much longer, because he has seacoasts to navigate along, and archipelagos and narrow straits to weave through, many improvised stops for swashbuckling and fraternizing with locals, and that kind of thing. In contrast, Greece and Troy aren’t even two hundred miles apart, and so the much vaster scope of Jason and the Argonauts alone is evidence that it was written at a later, more geographically expansive period of Ancient Greek history than the Iliad and Odyssey. Ancient Greece is a subject familiar to us – if you’ve listened to the shows leading up to this one, you already have a pretty good idea of the political, cultural, and of course literary history of Ancient Greece. But Colchis – not so much. Let’s talk about Colchis for a second – we already did this a few shows ago when we talked about Euripides’ Medea, but reviewing is always a good idea.

Ancientcolchisandiberia andersen

The ancient kingdom of Colchis, located in the far southeast of the Black Sea, was Medea’s home.

Colchis, to the Greek imagination, was the extreme east – in their minds so far east that it was where the sun came up. It was mostly a flatland kingdom, located along a seacoast and inland valley with the Greater Caucasus Mountains to the north of it and the Lesser Caucasus to the south. It’s an absolutely gorgeous place, because it’s in the watersheds of two major mountain ranges. Rivers, streams, and greenery all abound. To the Ancient Greek visitor, the awe inspiring size of the Caucasus Mountains, together with the verdure on the valley floor, would have made far off Colchis seem especially exotic and strange. Modern day Georgians think of Colchis as their region’s first confederated kingdom, and there’s even a giant statue of Medea in the town center in the modern seaside city of Batumi, since she and her legendary kingdom were located in that region of Georgia. There is not a statue of Jason. And that takes us to the main idea of today’s show.

The main idea of today’s show is in its title – Episode 38, The Epic Anti-Hero. Generations of readers and literary critics alike have read Jason and the Argonauts and expected to see a figure like Achilles, or Odysseus, standing at the prow of the Argonauts’ ship. Fans of ancient Greek epics have, for a long time, opened the pages of the Argonautica and expected a figure with brawn, and ingenuity, and initiative – one who heroically embarks on his eastward quest, a leader every step of the way. They have expected to see this figure, and instead have found – Jason.

Jason is just – kind of – a dude. An average guy. He doesn’t really shirk his responsibilities. But at a number of moments central to the action of the epic, Jason lets other people do his work for him. Particularly after the powerful and brilliant Medea shows up, Jason tends to delegate his most difficult tasks to others. Now, he doesn’t seem to do this deliberately. It’s just that he has a really capable crew, and also a superhuman wife, and he makes full use of them. On one hand, as we’ll see, Jason is a competent team player who doesn’t try to hog all the glory for himself. But on the other hand, sometimes when you’re reading the epic, you’re struck with the sense that just about anybody could have led the Argonauts. And that just about anybody happens to be a man named Jason. He’s handsome, he’s a disinherited prince, and he has the backing of the goddess Hera. But aside from these salient features Jason is, again, an epic average Joe.

This, actually, ends up being a really good thing. Jason is quite a bit more human than, say, invincible Achilles, or wily Odysseus, or steady old Moses. Jason asks for advice and input, and takes votes, and confesses his anxieties. He’s sort of like a competent white collar middle manager – only in a bronze helmet. He’s not incapable of bravery or courage, and he fights hard with everyone else when called to, and Jason certainly sees his perilous quest through to the end. But of all the world’s epics, the titular character of Jason and the Argonauts is memorably run of the mill.

Alright, I think you know everything you need to in order to jump into the great, oceanic journey of Jason and the Argonauts. The edition I’ll be occasionally quoting from was published by Penguin Classics in 2014. It was translated by Aaron Poochigian, with an introduction and notes by Benjamin Acosta-Hughes – and I highly recommend it – again the Penguin Classics edition, published in 2014. So folks, dust off those circular shields, sharpen your swords. Make sure your goat skin is full of wine, sit down on one of the ship’s benches, and grab an oar. Because we have quite a journey ahead of us. [music]

Pelias, Aeson, and Jason

The Argonautica, Book 1

In ancient times, about a hundred miles north northwest of the city of Athens as the crow flies, over bays, and islands, mountains and isthmuses, there was a kingdom called Iolcos. Iolcos rested in the interior of a beautiful bay, a bay ringed with wooded mountains that looked down on beaches and dark blue water. And in Iolcos, there lived a king named Pelias. King Pelias of Iolcos was the son of a god – the god of the ocean, Poseidon. And yet in spite of his divine parentage, King Pelias had a checkered background. Pelias’ mother, before being duped into a union with Poseidon, had already been married. With her husband, the legitimate king of Iolcos, the legitimate queen had three legitimate sons. The oldest of these, whose name was Aeson, was to be the king of Iolcos. But Pelias, the legitimate king’s half-brother and son of Poseidon, after an absence of some years, returned to Iolcos and imprisoned the legitimate heir, Aeson. Pelias wanted the kingship for himself, and so he took it.

The usurpation of the throne, needless to say, meant that the legitimate heirs of the kingdom were in danger. And so the rightful heir, Aeson, from his prison, made plans for his son. This son’s name was Jason. So, to recap, the illegitimate king is Pelias, the legitimate, although imprisoned king is called Aeson, and his son is called Jason. Aeson was deeply worried about his son. Legitimate heirs had short life spans when thrones were wrongly seized. Aeson knew this. And so Aeson sent his son Jason to a high, forested mountain across the bay southeast of the city. Jason was to have a teacher – the finest teacher of up and coming heroes in all of Greece. This teacher had taught Achilles, and Theseus, and Perseus, and other figures of legend. The teacher was a centaur, or half man and half horse, and his name was Chiron. And from Chiron, young Jason learned arts of rhetoric, and warfare, and intrigue, arts which would all be useful to him in the decades to come. [music]

Jason Meets Hera and Pelias

Some years later, the usurper, King Pelias, continued to reign in the kingdom of Iolcos. He had wanted power, and had taken it. And yet the usurper King Pelias heard from an oracle a dire prophecy. King Pelias was told to beware of a man who would appear at his court wearing only one sandal. King Pelias, forever after, would keep careful watch for such a man. But the years passed, and the legitimate king Aeson remained imprisoned, and young Jason grew up under the peerless tutelage of the centaur Chiron, and the usurper Pelias began to believe the prophecy had been a mistake.

The golden fleece and the heroes who lived before Achilles (1921) (14580243159)

Pelias meets Jason for the first time.

One day, King Pelias was offering a great sacrifice to his father, Poseidon. The occasion was an athletic competition, and the games that year were an event so important that King Pelias summoned youths from all over the lands of Iolcos to attend. One of these youths was Prince Jason. In order to get to the athletic competition, Jason had to cross a river. And crossing the river was a pivotal experience in his life, though he didn’t know it at the time.

At the riverbank stood a tattered old woman. She asked handsome young Jason if he might help her get across – the river was flooded and she was too feeble to traverse it herself. Evidently Jason’s tutor Chiron had taught him courtesy to elders, because Jason picked the helpless old woman up, and hurried on his way. The river at this point was thick with mud coming down from the mountains, and crossing it proved to be a bit of a labor. In fact, once he reached the other side, lifting his leg out with some effort, Jason saw that his sandal was gone. He finished crossing the river, and parted ways with the old woman. She was not, however, an old woman. She was the goddess Hera in disguise, and forever after, Jason would be in her good graces. Jason, however, didn’t know this. With visions of athletic games in his head, he went to the court of King Pelias, where a feast was being held.

King Pelias noticed the younger man. And he noticed Jason’s single sandal. Pelias decided he would not commit outright murder based on an aging prophecy. He would deal with Jason in a different way. He would send the young man with the single sandal on a quest – to a far off land, over a thousand miles to the east, on a perilous mission. In the far east, on the fringes of the Greek world, in the shadow of the Caucasus mountains there was a kingdom called Colchis. Jason, said King Pelias, must travel all the way to Colchis, and find a famous artifact – a sheep’s fleece, from a golden ram. Jason, Pelias said, had to go to Colchis and retrieve the Golden Fleece. This, thought Pelias, the usurper King of Iolcus, would get rid of the strange and possibly very dangerous young man with the missing sandal. [music]

The Argonauts Gather and Prepare to Depart

Notwithstanding the dubious reasons for Jason’s voyage, Jason was able to gather an illustrious crew in Iolcos to join in his voyage. The crew included the world’s greatest musician, Orpheus, who could soften rocks and change the direction of rivers with his lyre. And it included many others – in fact Apollonius includes a long catalog of the heroes – their lineage and their unique attributes, but we’ll meet all of the important ones in due time. Briefly put, the ship’s crew would include warriors of all stamps – horsemen, swordsmen, spearmen, men skilled with the ax, and in various tactics in combat. There were tricksters, masters of subterfuge capable of both military and political victories. A diviner of oracles joined the crew, and a famous navigator. Men joined the crew who were fleeing the persecutions of their crimes, seeking any opportunities for ventures in a far off land. And men joined the expedition who had supernatural abilities – a man with inhumanly keen vision, and a shapeshifter, a man who could run over water, two brothers with wings and long black braids


The Pagasetic Gulf, where the ancient kingdom of Iolcus was situated. Photo by Flashdart2.

And the crew had two other assets – perhaps more important than any of these. They had a legendary ship, the Argo, after whom the Argonauts take their name, and this ship’s carpenter came with them, as well. The Argo hadn’t yet been sailed – it rested in its berth in the bay at the city of Iolcos, awaiting its maiden voyage. And in addition to the Argo, the Argonauts had with them the great hero Heracles. Heracles, hearing of the impending voyage to the east, dropped a giant boar he had just slaughtered and hurried to join the voyage, bringing with him his youthful squire, Hylas, to carry his weapons.

In addition to all these powerful fighters, Jason’s uncle, and his half brother also joined in the expedition, and we assume that the usurper King Pelias was not pleased to see his son sign up to perish on what was supposed to be a lethal boondoggle to the east. Whatever their motivations, or their unique skills, or their reasons for being there, the Argonauts, as they gathered at the shorefront were a magnificent sight. Apollonius writes that “[T]he heroes shone like starlight between clouds. / The men who watched them marching under arms / stood wonderstruck and muttered to each other.”1 The crowd assembled there remarked on the diversity and the valor of the heroes, and also expressed sadness that Jason’s father Aeson would live to see his son disappear on what would in all likelihood be a lethal and futile journey.

Before he departed, Jason shared a final visit with his parents. His father, old and broken, lay on a cot, covered in shawls, groaning that his cherished son was departing. And Jason’s mother embraced him desperately, crying that she’d only wanted to live long enough to be buried by her son – and now everything was painfully uncertain. Jason told her to be courageous and try to bear the sorrows the fates had allotted to her. Then he went to his ship.

A few more adventurers trickled in to join the expedition and, as the Argonauts sat on furled sales and leaned against the vessel’s masts, Jason made a speech. Everything was ready, he said. The gear and provisions were stocked, and they’d soon head to the east. There was just one thing left to do. They needed to select a leader. The men looked around, and their eyes fell upon the giant Heracles. But Heracles said he wouldn’t lead. In fact, Heracles said, Jason needed to lead them. Jason had summoned everyone there, after all, and, Heracles added, he wouldn’t allow anyone else to lead the Argonauts. And so it was decided.

The men stripped off their clothing and began preparations to get the Argo into the water. Apollonius captures the spirit of zest and adventure of the Argonauts as they push their vessel into the ocean for the first time.
After the stems were fastened to the oarlocks, [Apollonius writes]
[The Argonauts] stood on either side between the oars,
Their hands and torsos pressed against the hull.
. . .One concerted heave,
and they had loosed the vessel from the props,
feet dancing as they pushed and pulled it seaward.
[The] Argo followed in a rush,
the men on each side boisterously shouting
as they were swept up in its course. The rollers
squealed as the sturdy keel scraped over them.
Friction and torsion sent up coils of smoke. (16)
And again this wonderful translation is Aaron Poochigian’s, published by Penguin in 2014. Once the Argonauts’ ship had splashed into the dark blue waters of the bay, the men chose their benches in the Argo, and made an altar to Apollo on the beach. The men gathered at the shrine as more grain and water were brought onboard.

Jason made a solemn prayer. He prayed he and his men would make it to their destination and then back to Greece, and that all of them would remain “alive and healthy” (17). And he concluded with these words: “May the gale be gentle, / the weather always favorable for sailing / as we pursue our quest across the sea” (17). Bulls were then sacrificed to Apollo. The crew’s seer, interpreting signs, said that he would perish in the voyage in a far off land – and that he’d known this for a long time, and that he would proudly meet this fate.

The afternoon deepened, until the sun began to descend behind the mountains to the west, and evening shade enshrouded the fields and rocks and saltwater. The Argonauts fashioned beds of leaves and drank unmixed wine, telling each other stories and becoming acquainted, filled with wanderlust at the thought of distant lands and strange kingdoms. They were strong, and in their prime, and thousands of miles of deep water and great adventure lay before them.

Jason, however, amidst the wine and twilight, the spirit of adventure and the sound of waves lapping against the beach, lay in an introspective gloom. One of his spearmen tried to console him, but the man’s overconfident assurances offended the party’s seer, and the two men nearly came to blows. Fortunately, Orpheus was there. The great musician sang a song about the creation of the earth and its roaring rivers and mountains, about the titans and the gods, and when it was finished, the Argonauts leaned breathlessly forward, eager to hear more. But the song was over. Following Orpheus’ performance, the Argonauts poured libations to the gods and turned in for the night. [music]

The Argonauts Set Out to Sea

The next morning, the dawn broke over the bay at Iolcos. Radiant light came down the mountain where Jason had spent his youth with the centaur Chiron. Soft winds fluttered over the ocean, and the Argo itself spoke to the crew, for, strangely enough, it had a talking plank! The heroes got onboard their ship, and they took their seats, and with great reluctance in his eyes, Jason watched the bay fade as they glided out to sea. Apollonius writes that
The billows surged
around the oar blades, and to port and starboard
the dark brine boiled in foam, its spray excited,
stirred up by the thrusts of mighty men.
Their armor shone like fire in the sunlight,
and Argo plunged onward, its long white wake
most like a pathway through a glassy plain. (22)
Once they’d reached the open water, the men unfurled the sail, and Orpheus sang a song as fish jumped in the sunny wake of the ship. On the first afternoon of their journey, a brisk wind compelled them to go ashore, and they waited out the weather there for two days and nights. Then they began the journey again, voyaging briskly northeast through the Aegean, noting many familiar territories as they approached the northern region of Thrace, where dark mountains rose out of the ocean. In this part of the upper Aegean, they reached the rocky island of Lemnos, and had the first of their many adventures. [music]

The Argonauts Meet Hypsipyle and the Women of Lemnos

There was a – prickly situation on the island of Lemnos. The Argonauts discovered that the island was home to only women. The women who lived there on Lemnos had killed all of the men – even the young boys. What had happened was that all the men of Lemnos had been neglecting their wives, and only sleeping with the concubines they’d kidnapped during raids in Thrace. This willful neglect of their wives had incurred the wrath of Aphrodite, who had compelled all the women of Lemnos to murder their husbands, their husbands’ foreign concubines, and all the innocent male children of the island, as well. Which makes about as much sense as anything Aphrodite ever does in Greek mythology. Why not needlessly extend your act of overblown retribution to include innocent victims of overseas warmongering and toddlers and infants, too? Couldn’t Aphrodite have just sprayed some love potion on those negligent men of Lemnos and steered clear of genocide? Well, I guess not. So, the island of Lemnos, when the Argonauts reached it, was populated exclusively with murderous, jealous women.

Hypsipyle sauve Thoas BnF Français 599 fol. 16

Hypsipyle saves her father Thoas in a 15th or 16th-century illustration to Boccaccio’s De mulieribus claris. More than her tryst with Jason, Hypsipyle was remembered for her loyalty to her father during the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Only the queen of Lemnos, a woman named Hypsipyle, was reluctant to kill all the men in her life, and she’d put her aging father in an empty chest and let him drift out to sea. Which I guess is what passes for mercy when you’re participating in a mass execution. Anyway, the women of Lemnos were doing pretty well overall, except that they feared an invasion from the marauders of the northern land of Thrace. Thus, when the women of Lemnos saw the Argo and all of its men, they feared that the ship would be full of hostile Thracians, and rushed out wearing the armor of their husbands.

The Argonauts sent an emissary out to speak with them, and he convinced the violent damsels of Lemnos to let them beach their ship there for the night. The women of Lemnos agreed, but when dawn broke, the Argonauts showed no signs of leaving, because another intense wind was keeping them anchored to the island. Now, the women of Lemnos discussed what was to be done. Queen Hypsipyle emphasized that it was a delicate situation – they definitely didn’t want the Argonauts to find out their awful secret – that they’d done away with all of the island’s men and foreign women. Initially Queen Hipsipyle proposed bearing the Argonauts gifts. But an old woman in the all-female assembly suggested something different. The women of Lemnos, she said, needed protection from foreign intruders. And what better way to secure this protection than to enter into marriages with all the Argonauts who’d shown up on their shore? What better plan than to marry the – uh – utterly random boatload of dudes who’d showed up out of nowhere that they knew nothing about – why not entirely entrust their futures to these total strangers? Everyone agreed that this was a great idea, and Hipsipyle requested an audience with Jason.

Jason put on his nicest clothes. He had a richly colored purple mantle, embroidered with beautiful, detailed illustrations. And when I say detailed, I mean Achilles shield detailed – Apollonius goes on for pages about the things embroidered on Jason’s mantle – Cyclopes, Thebes, a half naked goddess, a scene of a cattle raid, a chariot race, Apollo fighting another deity, a man listening to a ram speaking, and other little vignettes. Decked out in his beautiful mantle, and looking like a single star in the dark blue night, Jason headed to his audience with Hipsipyle.

He was escorted into the palace and ogled by the women of Lemnos. When he met Hipsipyle, Hipsyple told Jason a lie – she said all the men of Lemnos were up working on the mainland in Thrace to the north. Then she began telling him part of the truth. Their husbands, she said, had been filled with a compulsion to spurn wives, couple only with foreign captives, and replace their legitimate heirs with new, illegitimate ones. Because men of Lemnos had done this, Hipsipyle said, the women of Lemnos had locked the city gates against them, and the men of Lemnos had taken the male children and gone to Thrace. Hipsipyle then made her proposal to Jason.
If you are willing [, she said,] and would find it pleasant
to stay with us, you could assume the kingship
and honors of my father. . .You
will not be disappointed in our soil,
I think. Ours is the richest, the most fruitful
of all the islands riding the Aegean. (32)
Jason said he’d go and talk to his men about it, and soon an excited company of women joined the heroes on the shore, bringing them gifts, and inviting them into their homes. Now, you can guess what happened next. I mean the whole set up for the Lemnos episode sounds like the premise to a very cheesy Iron Age adult film. An island of only women, a ship full of only men, gosh, whatever is going to happen? So the Argonauts and the women of Lemnos feasted and slept together, and the Argonauts forgot about the urgency of their quest, and the whole thing might have ended right there, were it not for a couple of guys. The leader of these guys was Heracles, who throughout the Argonautica is much more interested in his young squire Hylas than fraternizing with foreign women.

Heracles chastened all of them. What were they doing on Lemnos? he said after a while. If they settled down there they’d be giving up any chance for glory promised to them in the quest for the Golden Fleece. The Argonauts took Heracles’ advice. It was no time to be settling down. They had oceans to cross. So Jason and his men headed back to the ship. Now, you would imagine that the women of Lemnos wouldn’t be too happy about this. After all, they’d butchered all their civilization’s men for infidelity. But, surprisingly, the women of Lemnos saw the Argonauts off peacefully, and Hipsipyle told Jason that if he ever wanted to come back and be king, he would be welcome to. In turn, Jason said that if Hipsipyle ended up having a child from their tryst, the child could stay with his parents’ house at Iolcus. Soon enough, the heroes had all boarded the Argo and headed out to sea once more, the first of their many adventures behind them. [music]

The Island of the Doliones

After a night of ritual on a nearby island, the Argonauts continued northward, sailing through the next night. They passed headlands and beaches, holy lands and long stretches of empty sand, and they came to the Hellespont, and a tall island on which their dwelt giants and a people called the Doliones. This would be the site of their next adventure.

Constantine Volanakis Argo

Constantine Volanakis’ Argo.

The heroes anchored at this island, again compelled to pause due to swift winds, and they met an embassy of the Dolione people, including their king. The King of the Doliones was called Cyzicus. Cyzicus was young – the same age as Jason. He had a wife, but as of yet no child, and although he had only recently married, and yearned for the company of his wife, Cyzicus, King of the Doliones joined the Argonauts in a feast.

Now, remember that the Doliones lived alongside a race of giants. The giants were peaceful toward the Doliones, but had no such pact with the Argonauts. When the Argonauts were attempting to depart the next morning, the local giants hurled boulders along the entrance to the harbor in order to trap the Argonauts there. Jason’s men responded with immediate violence. Heracles killed giants with arrows, and the other Argonauts rushed landward and slaughtered all of the giants who’d attacked them. The giants were left dead on the beach, and the Argonauts set sail.

Unfortunately, a gale blew, which picked up right around dusk, them right back to the island of King Cyzicus and the Doliones. The Argonauts reached this island and had no idea where they were. The Doliones were equally unsure of the identity of the newcomers. The night was dark, and harsh winds blew over the ocean, and the Doliones believed that the warriors who were disembarking under cover of nightfall were hostile invaders. In the windy gloom, the Argonauts fought the Doliones, and King Cyzicus was stabbed in the heart by Jason himself. Many Doliones were killed, and the surviving Doliones were chased back to their palace. In the morning, everyone realized what had happened. Funerals were held for the fallen Dolione warriors and their young king, and the queen, unable to bear the loss of her husband, hung herself.

The Doliones knew that the attack and violence had been a mutual mistake. Still, I imagine that the twelve days the Argonauts spent on the island of the Doliones, grounded there by wind – I imagine those twelve days were pretty awkward and uncomfortable. Finally, an Argonaut interpreted an oracle brought in by a seabird – Jason needed to ascend to the heights of the island of the Doliones and perform some sacred rituals. In the holy spot where Jason performed the rituals, a sacred spring suddenly sprang up, and the winds died down. It was time to go. Thus, having impregnated and then abandoned an island full of murderous women, and then accidentally killed the king and famous warriors of another island, the second (and equally dubious) adventure of the Argonauts was complete. [music]

Heracles and Hylas Leave the Crew

With conditions thus favorable, the Argonauts hurried westward, paddling swiftly over the windless waters. They disembarked for the night in a riverside land beneath a broad mountain, where the people were hospitable. Heracles trekked off into the woods to find a tree to use to carve himself a new oar. He found a nice pine, smacked it with his club a couple of times, and then uprooted it. Satisfied, Heracles picked up his gear and lumbered back out of the forest.

Hylas and the Nymph by François Gérard

Hylas’ departure from the Argonauts’ crew, and by extension Heracles’, is one of the more famous parts of the Argonautica‘s opening. The painting is François Gérard’s Hylas and the Nymph (1826).

Meanwhile, Heracles’ squire Hylas was gathering his master water from a nearby river. At this point, Apollonius treats us to a little back story about how Heracles met Hylas. Heracles had been at war with Hylas’ people. He found Hylas’ poor father plowing a field, and demanded that the man give him his ox. Hylas’ father couldn’t afford it, and so Heracles killed the innocent farmer in order to start a war. Thereafter, Hylas served Heracles. Who wouldn’t want to devote his life to a man who’d murdered his helpless, moneyless father over a hoofed mammal in a warmongering expedition? Well, Hylas had been fine with this, evidently.

Anyway, handsome young Hylas was gathering water for his master, and Hylas was glimpsed by a water nymph. This nymph, seized with desire for the youth, crept up as he dipped his pitcher in a fresh spring, grabbed him and kissed him, forcing him to tumble into the water. One of the Argonauts heard the distant cry, and rushed to help Hylas, but found him missing. The Argonaut searched for young Hylas, and then had to inform Heracles that Heracles’ handsome young squire was gone. Heracles bellowed in fury and rushed off to find his beloved squire, along with the Argonaut who’d discovered the boy’s absence. The two men dashed into the woods.

Meanwhile, at the beach, the Argonauts saw that it was time to set out. The winds were suddenly favorable. And as with many of Apollonius’ descriptions of seaborne travel, his verses about the Argonauts raising anchor that morning are magnificent, and the translator Aaron Poochigian really makes these lines shimmer.
Straightaway [the Argonauts] embarked and with a will
pulled up the anchor stone and hauled the cables
astern. The mainsail bellied with the gale,
and they were happy to be far from shore
coasting around the headland. . .
Only after Bright-Eyed Dawn had risen
from the horizon to the middle sky,
and all the seaways were distinct and vivid,
and the dew-wet plains were spangling bright,
did they discern that they had accidentally abandoned Heracles. (49)
It’s a little curious that they didn’t notice the giant hero was missing before they actually set out, but in any case, the Argonauts erupted into debate, some counseling Jason to continue and others bitterly urging him to go back and find Heracles. But the appearance of a prophetic sea god decided them. This god – called Glaucus – burst out of the saltwater and offered them a warning. They must not, said the god Glaucus, take Heracles to the east. Heracles still had labors to complete back in Greece! As to the other Argonaut who’d been left there, he was going to stay there, found a city, and prosper. Oh, and the squire Hylas? Why, he’d been conscripted into marriage with a beautiful water nymph! This was probably better off than being enslaved to the murderer who’d slaughtered his father., wasn’t it? Overall, the sea god Glaucus emphasized, the three that were left behind were doing fine. He told them it was time to keep going. And so, with three fewer in their crew, the Argonauts continued eastward. They sailed for the rest of the day, and on through the night, but at dawn the wind receded, and as the sun rose, they beached their ship on a broad and hospitable looking headland. [music]

The Fight with King Amycus

The Argonautica, Book 2

Following the departure of Heracles and his squire from their crew, the Argonauts reached the land of a king called Amycus. King Amycus was not amiable. He was actually very contentious. King Amycus forced anyone who landed in his kingdom to box him, and had a bad habit of beating neighbors and foreigners alike to death. So the aggressive King Amycus hurried out to the Argonauts’ ship and treated them to this little speech.
Listen to me, you seaborne derelicts,
and learn what you most certainly should know.
The law here stipulates no foreigner
that comes ashore upon [my] land
may ever leave again until he holds up
his fists against my fists and fights with me.
So quick, now, pick the strongest man among you
And let him step right up and face the challenge. (53)
You can imagine the Argonauts chuckling, then looking around for Heracles, and then saying, “Oh, damnit.” Anyway, one of the Argonauts was up to the task, a tough young hero named Polydeuces. So the beardless, handsome youth Polydeuces faced off against the grizzled, muscle bound, and not so amicable king Amycus. They wrapped their hands in oxhide straps, and locked in mortal combat. After a long fight, garnished with Apollonius’ epic similes, Amycus went down, his skull cracked by a haymaker from Polydeuces, and abruptly, Amycus’ men all attacked.

Then follows an Illiad-like scene of ultra violence. Heads are chopped in half, eyelids torn off, clubs shatter heads, and the Argonauts are likened to sudden wolves amidst sheep, and then a hive of startled bees, and soon enough the men of the fallen King Amycus were routed, and they fled. The Argonauts bandaged their wounds, feasted, made sacrifices, and sung a victory ode, and spent the night there. The next morning, as the dew evaporated from nearby hills, the Argonauts embarked on the next leg of their journey to the east. [music]

Phineas and the Harpies

The golden fleece and the heroes who lived before Achilles (1921) (14580188140)

Phineas and the harpies.

The Argonauts were, by this point, in the Bosphorus, that churning strait that bisects modern day Istanbul. Their helmsman, fortunately, was a journeyman navigator, and he guided them through its narrows and into the southern waters of the Black Sea. For a long time – in fact much of the remainder of this epic, the Argonauts are going to be in the Black Sea, initially skirting along its southern rim and heading east. The Argonauts came to a new land – one inhabited by a cursed prophet named Phineas. Phineas, we are told, suffered more than any man alive. For although Phineas had been given the gift of prophecy, he had never once paid heed to the gods who had given him this gift. As a result, Phineas had been blinded, and cursed with an eternal old age. And he was not allowed to eat, because when locals brought food to the poor old man, harpies – ravenous birds with the faces of women – harpies would eat food that had been left to poor Phineas. Occasionally, the harpies would leave a scrap behind – but this scrap would be suffused with the unbearable stench of the monsters, and so Phineas couldn’t eat it.

When Jason and his men came to the house of Phineas, he recognized them and hailed them. Starving old Phineas explained his situation, and asked them to help him fend off the harpies.

The Argonauts were hesitant. They asked Phineas to guarantee that they wouldn’t also suffer, and Phineas gave them his oath. And so the Argonauts set a trap for the harpies, fixing Phineas a big meal. When the poor suffering prophet reached for it, the harpies appeared and stole the food, blindingly fast, leaving a stench behind them. The heroes gave chase, but before they could kill the pestilent bird women, a goddess stopped them and told them they’d done enough – the harpies would no longer plague Phineas.

Poor old Phineas was then cleaned and given ample food. And the Argonauts heard a prophecy – a prophecy about an upcoming challenge they would face. Ahead of them, they were told, lay a place called the Cobalt Clashing Rocks. No one had ever sailed between them. What the Argonauts needed to do was send a dove ahead of them as they made their way through. If the dove was caught, then they, too would be caught. But if the dove made it through, the Argonauts had a chance. From there, they were told how to complete their journey, and offered tableaus of some of the people and lands they would visit on the way to the east. And the prophet ended with dire words. Once they reached the lands of Colchis, they would find the place that held the Golden Fleece. The fleece lay in a
gloomy grove. . .
where a serpent dreadful to behold,
a monster, glares all round, forever guarding
the fleece that lies across an oak tree’s crown.
Neither day nor night does. . .slumber
Vanquish the thing’s insatiable surveillance. (67)
The Argonauts, hearing the full scope of the journey that lay ahead of them, and the last insurmountable challenge of the dragon that guarded the Golden Fleece – the Argonauts quaked in terror. Jason himself was not immune to the fear. “I am an untried man,” he admitted, “my comrades, too, / are untried men, and [the Golden Fleece] lies at the limit of the Pontic Sea, / the far end of the earth!” (68). The prophet advised the Argonauts to be cautious and use the help of Aphrodite when they could, however slippery and unreliable the Goddess of Love might be.

Having heard these prophecies, the Argonauts were thanked by all of Phineas’ countrymen for freeing the old man from his terrible plight. Jason and his men stayed there for just a few days longer, waiting for some bad winds to subside, and began paddling eastward – to meet their first challenge – the Cobalt Clashing Rocks.

The Cobalt Clashing Rocks

After a short journey, the Argonauts arrived at the narrows where sharp crooks of rock rose out of the sea with increasing frequency. It was a place of whirlpools and white foam, strange currents and riptides, and the heroes heard, ahead of them, the thunderous roar of the Cobalt Clashing Rocks. These rocks, at irregular intervals, would suddenly smash together, causing a plume of seawater to explode between them, and anything caught there would be crushed. As they had been instructed, the heroes unleashed a dove to fly before them, and they watched as the bird made it – just barely – through the rocks, her tail feathers being pinched as she flew out the other side.

Symplegades, illustration for The Heroes

The Argonauts follow a dove in between the Cobalt Clashing Rocks.

The bird’s survival was, to the Argonauts, an auspicious sign, and at the pilot’s signal they muscled their oars through the water. The Argo passed quickly in between the Clashing Rocks, and fear shot through the men. They knew that at any moment the cliff walls might come together and reduce their whole expedition to pulp and splinters. Desperate effort seemed like it would be able to get them through the narrow passage, only a wave rose before them just as they were about to exit – a wave tall as a cliff. The Argonauts rowed, and the pilot gave a final desperate order, and the Argo crested this wave. But the ship was dragged back into the gulf between the Clashing Rocks. No matter how hard they paddled, the Argonauts were sucked back into the perilous space between the rocks, until finally a whirlpool held them there.

It was Athena who saved them. She put a hand on the stern of the Argo and shoved it forward so that the ship sliced through the turbulent water, barely escaping just before the Clashing Rocks thundered closed, crushing the tip of the stern post but doing no other damage.

With the Argonauts safely through, Athena soared away to Mount Olympus, and forever after, the Clashing Rocks never clashed again. A decree had been issued that if anyone brave enough to thread the needle of the Clashing Rocks ever actually made it through, they would be anchored, motionlessly, forever after. Gasping for breath and glad to be alive, the heroes thanked divine Athena for guiding them through their latest peril. Only one of them had been shaken nearly out of his reason by the experience. This was Jason himself.

He admitted his fears to his men. He should never have accepted King Pelias’ challenge to go and find the Golden Fleece, he said. He lived in constant fear – everywhere they went, they faced violent tribes, or monsters, or bad winds. Jason said he couldn’t sleep for all of his worrying – and more than anything he worried that his misguided expedition would cost his men their lives. But his men made it clear that they were right where they wanted to be. They cheered and bellowed for him, and seeing their confidence, Jason’s heart was warmed. He nodded, and he told them they had all proved steadfast. They had allayed his fears, and he told them that even if it came to going to hell itself, he knew his men were by his side. [music]

The Land of King Lycus

The Argonauts sped onward, past the mouths of rivers and peaks, past broad dark promontories, and at night when the wind died down, they rowed hard, like oxen pulling furrows across the dark earth. In the morning twilight, they let breakers wash them up onto a dry island. There, as the sun rose, they saw Apollo himself, his pale hair and silver arrows shining in the dawn, and the heroes built a shrine and prepared a sacrifice for the deity.

They set out again with the wind, and sailed into the night, until they came to a cape where the surf had rubbed sea rocks smooth, and a valley full of plane trees rose up from the shore. In this valley was the mouth of Acheron, one of the rivers of Hades. The river’s mouth was in a dark cave, and from this cave issued forth a cold mist at dawn, a mist that seemed to make the whole surrounding headland gloomy. The Argonauts found a breakwater around the cape and anchored their ships there, and went to a nearby town.

The Argonauts befriended the natives of this new land, and Jason, over feasts and libations, told the strangers of their adventures so far. The king of the island lamented with Jason and the others that they’d lost Heracles, and recollected knowing Heracles during his own youth. This king’s name was Lycus. And Lycus was deeply grateful to the Argonauts for killing the unamicable warrior King Amycus, for Amycus had been a plague to King Lycus and his people. King Lycus told the Argonauts that his son would join them in their voyage, replacing the lost Heracles.

Unfortunately, there in the murky headlands of King Lycus’ island, the Argonauts would soon lose another crew member. The Argonauts’ pilot and steersman, one day during their stay on the island, was walking along the shore of a river. The pilot walked slowly along beneath some willow trees, looking out at the banks of reeds that lined the watercourse. Unluckily for him, a giant boar dwelt in a nearby meadow, and this boar charged the hapless steersman and killed him.

It was a great loss for the Argonauts. The pilot had brought them safely along thus far, and guided them through the Clashing Rocks. And more loss soon followed – another Argonaut was struck down by a sudden sickness. The Argonauts despaired. In the gloomy environs of the mouth of Acheron, they wrapped themselves tightly in their cloaks and wondered if their whole voyage was irremediably doomed. Yet Hera came to the men in secret and rallied the crew, and soon the Argonauts set sail once more, having designated a new steersman.

They stopped once – briefly – to pay homage at the barrow of a famous fallen hero, and with this done, the Argonauts let the wind fill their sails, and for some time the Argo glided eastward across the south of the Black Sea, its sail like a full belly, its outrigging spread out on either side of it like the pinions of a hawk. As days passed, the Argonauts picked up three new warriors – former companions of Heracles.

Next, they nearly landed in the dangerous country of the Amazons – powerful warrior women who might have put an end to their expedition, but Zeus helped steer the Argonauts clear of these perilous territories. The Argonauts passed a land where the soil was filled with iron, and men and women could only make a living by trade, and another land where a ruler issued laws from a tower, but lived in fear of his subjects, until they reached a land that Phineas had told them about – the Island of Ares. [music]

The Sons of Phrixus and the Island of Ares

The heroes needed to make landfall on the Island of Ares. But the skies around it were swarming with dangerous birds – birds who could fling feathers into oceangoing adventurers and grievously injure them. One Argonaut was wounded this way, and the Argonauts made a shell of interlocked shields over their heads, leaving the remaining men at the oars. In spite of the danger, though, the Argonauts knew they had to land there. The oracle Phineas had told them that they would meet a key new set of crewmembers there.

Silver mirror with elaborate relief on the backside depicting an episode of the myth of Phrixus and Helle from the ancient Greek legend of the Golden Fleece, end of 2nd century AD, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome (15538943067)

This 2nd-century CE Roman mirror shows Phrixus riding the golden ram. Phrixus and his twin sister Helle were sent off to be sacrificed by their evil stepmother. The golden ram saved them, but Helle fell into the Hellespont, which is where it gets its name (not from Helen of Troy!). Photo by Carole Raddato.

These crewmembers were the four sons of a hero called Phrixus, the hero who had found the golden ram, and sacrificed it. And just as the Argonauts were heading eastward across the Black Sea, the four sons of Phrixus were headed westward, in search of fame and fortune. Only, these four young men had been run aground due to heavy rain and rough seas, howling winds and a dense and dark fog. The four sons of Phrixus, destined to meet the Argonauts, had been shipwrecked on the Island of Ares, and that was why the prophet Phineas had told the Argonauts to make landing there, whatever the peril might be.

The oldest of the four sons of the man who had originally found the Golden Fleece, seeing the Argonauts landing there, addressed Jason and made a lengthy supplication for help. Once requested, the oldest brother explained the situation at hand. Their father, Phrixus, had ridden the golden ram to the lands of Colchis and the court of King Aeëtes. This was exactly the same court where Jason and the Argonauts were headed, because Phrixus, after the golden ram bid him to sacrifice it, had given its fleece to King Aeëtes of Colchis. A couple of new names here, so to lay out the gist of the situation, the Argonauts had met four men from the exact kingdom and court where they were headed. The four brothers, who were insiders in the foreign court of King Aeëtes and mysterious lands of Colchis, would indubitably be useful.

The oldest of the four brothers from Colchis told Jason that they were headed westward to fulfill their father’s dying wish – claiming an estate that was important to the recently deceased old man. Jason gave the stranded adventurers clothing and the Argonauts, together with their new companions, built an altar, made sacrifices, and feasted. Jason asked them to join the Argonauts, and explained that they were bound to try and recover the Golden Fleece from the court of King Aeëtes. The brothers from Colchis looked at one another uncertainly. The oldest of them explained the situation.
My friends, [said the oldest brother from Colchis,] whatever strength we have to help you
shall never fail to serve your cause. We shall assist you
whenever need arrives. Aeëtes, though,
has fortified himself in dreadful fashion
with savage cruelty, so I greatly doubt
your quest will be successful. . .
countless tribes of Colchians support him. . .
Nor would it be easy
to steal the fleece without Aeëtes’ knowledge.
The dragon standing sentinel before it
is of the worst sort – deathless, never-sleeping.
Mother Earth begot it on the slopes
Of the Caucasus. (96)
The brothers from Colchis told the Argonauts more about the violent king in the lands where they were headed, and the bloodthirsty dragon, and although most of the Argonauts paled in fear, one restored their confidence. They weren’t pushovers, he said. They were no strangers to war, or monsters. Hearing their comrade’s steely determination, the rest of the Argonauts found their courage again. They would go to Colchis, and, though they might die trying, they would deal with King Aeëtes and recover the Golden Fleece. [music]

The Final Leg of the Journey to Colchis

The next morning, now joined by the four brothers from Colchis, the Argonauts sailed eastward told Colchis once more, their ship’s sails tight in the rush of morning wind. Pushed along for several days by favorable winds, the heroes finally came to the eastern edge of the Black Sea, and saw the Caucasus Mountains rising up above the dark blue water. A black eagle flew by overhead, and the heroes reached the mouth of a river that led inland.

There, they stowed their sail and began rowing upriver, the brackish water foaming at the ship’s prow. Before long, they could discern on their left Aea – the city of the cruel King Aeëtes, whom they’d soon meet. On their right was a broad plain where somewhere, amidst the sacred orchard of the war god Ares, the sleepless dragon coiled around an oak tree, guarding the Golden Fleece.

The ship came to an eddy and then a still green lagoon, and the Argonauts looked resolutely toward the citadel of Aea. It was time to make a plan, the Argonauts knew. The adventurers needed to decide how to deal with the brutal Aeëtes. Would they use diplomacy to appease the dangerous king, or adopt a more forceful strategy? They had with them four young men familiar to Aeëtes, who might help. But they also, paddling up the dark and wooded river in the shadow of the mountains, had the element of surprise. We’ll find out what happens next time. For now, let’s take a break from the narrative of Jason and the Argonauts, and talk about the time, place, and person who wrote and compiled this marvelous epic. [music]

Apollonius, Alexandria, and Ptolemaic Egypt

The author of Jason and the Argonauts was a man called Apollonius of Rhodes. We don’t have much reliable information about him, but a few facts are generally agreed on. Apollonius was born in the recently founded city of Alexandria, Egypt, in about 270 BCE. Apollonius was an enormously learned scholar, a specialist on Homer who also wrote on Hesiod and the lyric poet Archilochus. He likely served a term as the head of ancient history’s most legendary library – the library of Alexandria, which reportedly had over 500,000 papyrus scrolls. And also, some ancient sources suggest, Apollonius of Rhodes was so wise and educated that he was selected to tutor the king himself – specifically, Ptolemy III, the third Greek king to rule in Egypt after it was conquered by Alexander the Great in the 330s BCE. I want to tell you a bit about the city of Alexandria in the mid-200s BCE, because I think that in order to understand the vast world of Jason and the Argonauts, and its hero, or anti-hero, Jason – to understand this epic poem it helps to know what was going on in the city of Alexandria when it was written.

A simplified map of the warring Diadochi states after Alexander’s death. Graphic by Hidro.

So, we talked about this last time, but let’s go over the basic facts of Hellenistic Greece’s beginning. Alexander of Macedon lived from 356 until 323 BCE. In his wars with the Achaemenid Persians, Alexander conquered the territories of modern day Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, along with fringes of India, Armenia, and Jordan. When Alexander died, his empire was divided into three major regions and a few minor ones. Two of the three of these major regions ganged up on the other one. The Kingdom of the Seleucids – essentially modern day Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan and part of Pakistan, along with the Kingdom of the Ptolemies – essentially the north of modern day Egypt and a coastal stretch of Libya, these two post-Alexandrian satrapies ganged up on the third – the shorter lived Kingdom of Antigonus. Antigonus fell in 301 BCE, and the Seleucid Empire gobbled up stretches of Turkey while the Ptolemaic empire spread to include Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Cyprus. So when Apollonius was born – again around 270 BCE, Alexandria, Egypt, was the capital of the sizable Ptolemaic empire. Ptolemaic is an adjective I will use a lot in the next few minutes, and so at the risk of being repetitious or patronizing, let me just explain what Ptolemaic means again. Ptolemaic is a period of Egyptian history that lasted from 304 until 31 BCE, when a dynasty of Greek kings, called the Ptolemies, ruled in Egypt. So Ptolemaic – and all the Ptolemies – these mean the period of Egyptian history dominated by Greek rulers.

The center of the Greco-Egyptian Ptolemaic world was the city of Alexandria. And Alexandria, throughout the 200s BCE, was neck and neck with Rome as the largest and most important city in the western world. As historian Peter Green writes, “None of the other Hellenistic [cities] ever quite equalled Alexandria’s unique mixture of commercial success and intellectual panache.”2 The recently founded city of Alexandria, by the early 200s, was certainly the intellectual and literary center of the ancient western world, and Apollonius himself was right at the heart of the city’s famous think tank, the Library of Alexandria. As a scholar, linguist and librarian, Apollonius may have influenced the creation of monolithic trilingual inscriptions like the emperor Ptolemy III’s Decree of Canopus, written in Hieroglyphs, Demotic, and Greek, a stone inscription like the later Memphis Stela of 218, and the much more famous Rosetta Stone of 196. These trilingual monoliths proved the keys to unlocking the three thousand year history of Ancient Egypt, a history much older than the Greek speaking empires of Alexander or Athens.

These trilingual stone inscriptions – the Canopus and Memphis stele, and then the Rosetta Stone – these inscriptions are a condensed record of the internal tensions and cultures of Egypt under the reign of the Greek Ptolemies. Egypt was culturally divided between enfranchised Greek operations centers and the disenfranchised Egyptian countryside, where Greek tax collectors squeezed every penny they could out of native farmers and overseers. The Rosetta Stone, you know if you’ve ever seen it, or a picture of it, has hieroglyphs at the top, Demotic Egyptian script in the middle – or everyday Egyptian, in the middle, and Greek at the bottom. The order of these languages was probably no coincidence. The Ptolemies – again the Greek kings who ruled Egypt after the conquests of Alexander the Great – the Ptolemies saw ancient Egypt’s religion had been supplanted by an everyday mercantile culture of later Egyptian history, which they themselves were replacing with Greek culture. All fine and well if you were a Greek, but to the Egyptians who were pushed into their own country’s periphery and overtaxed, the Greeks were greedy, sacrilegious thugs who belonged elsewhere.

So we’ve talked about the very high altitude stuff. The poet Apollonius of Rhodes was a librarian in the newly founded Greco-Egyptian city of Alexandria. He tutored King Ptolemy III, a king who, like all the Ptolemaic kings, tried to wring agricultural resources out of the Egyptian countryside and simultaneously pay lip service to Egypt’s native culture and traditions. But let’s talk a little bit more about Alexandria itself. Because like Classical Athens, or medieval Baghdad, or eighteenth-century Paris, Alexandria during the 200s BCE was an intellectual volcano. We don’t have nearly as much as we’d like from this period of Alexandrian history, but what we do have suggests that a grand cultural renaissance was occurring there, and that Apollonius was part of this renaissance.

Alexandria in the Mid-200s BCE

When Apollonius was about ten years old, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world had been constructed in Alexandria. It was built of limestone in three stages, and rose to a height of around 110 meters, or 360 feet. At its crown, a mirror shone during the day, and at night, a vast fire roared, visible to all local shipping traffic in the southeastern Mediterranean. It was called the Pharos, or the Lighthouse of Alexandria. And when Apollonius grew up, and assumed the position of librarian at the Great Library of Alexandria, he would have been able to look out across the great harbor, over the masts of ships from all over the known world, and see the lighthouse blazing bright over the western Nile delta and the grid based architecture of Alexandria’s streets, symbolizing everything that his city stood for – commerce, technology, intellectual progressivism, cosmopolitanism, collaboration, and hope for the future. It’s not impossible that as he worked on the long books of Jason and the Argonauts, Apollonius took walks around Alexandria’s streets, looking fondly at this world famous landmark, arranging and rearranging lines from his epic in his head.

Pharos Alexandria (Fischer von Erlach)

A 1721 illustration of Alexandria with the Pharos lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, in the foreground. In Apollonius’ time, Alexandria wasn’t exactly a backwater.

Apollonius wasn’t the only artist and intellectual in the city of Alexandria during this period. Far from it. The great mathematician Archimedes of Syracuse, just a few years older than Apollonius, probably studied in Alexandria during his youth, laying some of the foundations of calculus eighteen hundred years before Leibniz and Newton, and maybe incurring the curious stares of Apollonius and others with his sketches of screw pumps and compound pulleys before going home and actually building them on his native island of Syracuse. The astronomer Aristarchus, also alive and working in Alexandria during Apollonius’ lifetime, generated a heliocentric theory of the universe 1600 years before Copernicus. The polymath Eratosthenes, born three or four years before Apollonius, also served as chief librarian in Alexandria. Eratosthenes was able to calculate the circumference of the Earth, along with the tilt of Earth’s axis. Eratosthenes was also a famous geographer, using a homegrown system of latitudes and longitudes to synthesize everything about the known world into monolithic maps. Alongside the mathematician Archimedes, the astronomer Aristarchus, and the renaissance man Eratosthenes, a historian named Manetho was probably at work in Alexandria in the first half of the 200s BCE. Manetho, commissioned by one of the first three Ptolemies, was a Greek speaking native Egyptian scholar who wrote an expansive history of Ancient Egypt. Manetho’s division of pharaohs into dynasties and many of his names are still used by Egyptologists today, and throughout the past two centuries Manetho’s work has been one keys to unlocking the long and often cryptic history of Ancient Egypt.

Alongside these scientists and scholars, in Alexandria in the 200s, something else was being written – something that would explode through the Ancient World, and Middle Ages, and influence almost every work of Western literature. The northeastern corner of the city of Alexandria was, in this same century, home to a thriving Jewish community. While this community’s ancestral language was, of course, Hebrew, the main language of the eastern Mediterranean world was Greek, and many young Jews growing up in Alexandria were far more accustomed to speaking, writing, and reading Greek than Hebrew. According to the Babylonian Talmud, Ptolemy II, the king who reigned when Apollonius was born, commissioned 72 bilingual Alexandrian Jews to sit separately in 72 rooms and create translations of the Old Testament into Greek. And sure enough, according to the Talmud, the Old Testament god made these 72 scholars create 72 perfectly identical translations. Thus, the Latin name for the Greek Old Testament is the Septuagint, after the Latin word septuaginta, or “seventy,” for the number of identical translations produced. So, whether or not we believe that dozens and dozens of letter perfect translations were spontaneously created, we can be fairly sure that it was in the city of Alexandria, during the lifetime of Apollonius that the massively influential Greek Old Testament was born – the book that would influence and be quoted in the New Testament and remain the most authoritative Old Testament in circulation for over 600 years, until the polyglot genius we call Saint Jerome began creating an authoritative Latin bible.3

So, beneath the endlessly blazing crown of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, Apollonius would have known some or all of these brilliant people, Greeks, Egyptians, and Jews, together with others doubtless lost to modern history. He might have seen drafts of the beginnings of calculus, and the first heliocentric theory of the universe, and the supremely important Septuagint. Alexandria during the mid-200s was the center of the Ptolemaic empire at its greatest reach, and the king Apollonius tutored – again Ptolemy III, led a systematic effort to collect all of the world’s written information.

Ptolemy III issued a decree that when certain books were unloaded in Alexandria’s harbors, the books were immediately seized by the state. I should say, “scrolls,” really. When scrolls were unloaded in Alexandria, Ptolemy III had them seized, and copied. The copies were given back to the tradesmen or collectors who’d brought them to Alexandria, and the actual scrolls were confiscated and kept in the library. Not exactly a laudable practice, although ancient kings are guilty of far worse things than the confiscation and warehousing of information.

Well, at the center of this aggregation of information, and more generally this intellectual whirlwind, flanked by mathematicians and astronomers and geographers and translators from all over the world, Apollonius must have handled thousands, and thousands of papyrus scrolls. Of all the scrolls he handled, however, his favorites were clearly the Homeric epics. While his contemporaries delved into geometry, and cartography, and technology as means of generating new understandings of the universe, Apollonius looked backward. He wrote detailed analyses of the Iliad and the Odyssey. He probably wrote a secondary epic about the travels of the Spartan King Menelaus after the Trojan War. And of course, he wrote Jason and the Argonauts, the longest and most famous piece of Hellenistic literature. It’s inevitable when talking about Jason and the Argonauts to compare Apollonius’ surviving epic with the older Homeric ones. So take a minute and do just that. [music]

Apollonius and Homer

Let’s put the Iliad and Odyssey on the left side of our desk. And let’s put Jason and the Argonauts to the right. I want to tell you about the main differences that scholars generally observe between these three great Ancient Greek epics. We’ll begin with the biggest and most important difference. All three of these epics are written in verse. But unlike the Homeric epics, which grew out of hundreds of years of oral traditions, Jason and the Argonauts was written by one person in one specific time and place. Now, Apollonius was drawing from old myths – he didn’t invent Jason or Medea or the journey east to Colchis.4 What Apollonius did to was take the catalog of legends about Jason, Medea, and the Golden Fleece and set the core of them down into a continuous narrative.

Homer British Museum

Apollonius, and every poet of his generation, lived beneath the shadow of Homer.

I think that one of the reasons the Iliad and Odyssey are so magnificent is that they were in all likelihood a long, multigenerational collaborative project. Many poets working on the same thing means each stanza of a poem goes through multiple iterations – when you’re testing a poem on audiences it means that performing bards get to see audience reactions, performance after performance, and alter the poetry accordingly. In the same way, the 1623 folio of Shakespeare that we have isn’t a line-by-line rendition of what he actually wrote. We don’t have anything that Shakespeare wrote at all, actually – the editions of Shakespeare that we have are the results of his actors getting together, remembering the lines from his plays, and compiling these lines into manuscripts. Anyone who has been in a play – been behind the scenes in the production of a play, I mean – understands that plays get better with each performance, lines are altered according to what’s funny or tragic or effective on an actual audience, and the play evolves in this fashion – so the Shakespeare that we have, just like the Homer that we have, is the result of writing going through a sort of foundry, or quality assurance process, performance after performance after performance. The fact that the poetry of Homer and the plays of Shakespeare were able to develop and evolve through live performance is, I think, one of the reasons we find them to be especially wonderful within literary history. To return to Apollonius, Apollonius did not have the advantage of being first orally performed and then, later, after extensive audience testing, being written down. Apollonius was just one guy. Early scholars berated Apollonius as inferior to Homer, and I think they would have done well to remember that.

So we’ve talked about how the Iliad and the Odyssey came from older traditions and formed slowly over generations, and Apollonius appeared on the page on the desk of a single person. Let’s keep Homer on the left, and Apollonius on the right, and make a few more comparisons. There are some aspects of Apollonius that, when you read him for the first time, definitely grab your attention. First, Homer lets his characters do the talking more often than he does – particularly in the Odyssey, but to a lesser extent in the Iliad, more than half of these epics are dialogue between characters, and not the poet himself. Apollonius, on the other hand, does the vast majority of the talking in Jason and the Argonauts. And fortunately he’s a terrific third person narrator. His scenic descriptions and the cultural tableaus he offers us during Jason’s journey, as I hope my summary and occasional quotes from Aaron Poochigian’s translation at least hinted at, are one of the most engaging parts of Jason and the Argonauts.

Another aspect of Jason and the Argonauts that arrests your attention – particularly if you’re familiar with the work of Homer, is Apollonius’ fondness for something called aetiology, or the origins and causes of things. You can think of aetiological stories as foundation myths, like the one about Romulus and Remus founding Rome, or the eagle and snake over Tenochtitlan. So as Jason and the Argonauts zoom eastward over the Aegean and then Black Seas, Apollonius has them stop in all sorts of places in order to tell little aetiological stories, or foundation myths, about places. Now, I hopped over many of these because oftentimes they’re fruitless little excursions for us regular people who aren’t specialists in Hellenistic mythology or geography. But to give an example or two, the first aetiological story is when a beach from whence the Argonauts launch their expedition is forever after named “Argo’s Launching.” Later, the Argonauts sing a song to Apollo on an island called Thynias, and they build a shrine there, which forever after the island on which they build thier is a sacred island to Apollo. The Argonauts stop at a tomb to sing a song to a sacred hero there, Orpheus dedicates his lyre to a god there, and then, forever after, the region is called Lyra, after Orpheus’ lyre. Apollonius just loves this stuff. Now, again, for the in crowd of Hellenistic scholars who knew of these places and some of the obscurer deities of Ancient Greece, these little aetiological stories, or foundation myths, must have been delightful. But for those of us who don’t, the frequent breaks for foundation myths make, particularly, the first half of Jason and the Argonauts seem a bit choppy and irresolute. If these guys really need to go snag that Golden Fleece, the reader wonders from time to time, then why in the hell are they stopping on every single tiny little island and headland on the way there to set up a shrine, or sing a song, or sacrifice livestock? So, in summary, the aetiologial stories in Jason and the Argonauts have traditionally been a source of frustration to the non-specialist reader.

Of all the differences between the Homeric epics and Jason and the Argonauts, though, maybe the most striking is something we’ve already talked about. And that is the hero himself. When it comes to fighting, Homeric heroes like Achilles and Odysseus are always in the thick of it, neck deep in blood and guts. When it comes to ingenuity and tactics, Odysseus never comes up short. And when it comes to eloquent speeches, or growling, surly one liners, Homeric heroes rarely lack the grace and eloquence of great orators. Jason, on the other hand, speaks far, far less than Homeric protagonists. Jason almost never knows what to do, especially, as you’ll see in the next episode, after he meets his wife. His first two adventures in Jason and the Argonauts involve being talked into a brief halfhearted affair with a foreign queen and then accidentally murdering an innocent king. He’s not a buffoon. Nor is he insensitive or imperceptive. But one of the most common words used to describe Jason – throughout the whole epic – is amekanos, which means “at a loss” or “resourceless.”5 Jason’s resourcelessness – his position as an epic anti-hero, couldn’t have been an accident on Apollonius’ part. Apollonius, after all, carefully mimics Homeric diction and meter, even using archaic Homeric words. Apollonius crafts beautiful Homeric similes. If Apollonius had wanted an Achilles, or Odysseus, Apollonius could have constructed one. But instead, he built modest, young, amekanos – or resourceless – Jason. Let’s talk about why. [music]

Jason, Apollonius, and Ptolemy III

At the end of the 400s BCE, the Greek chronicler and poet Choerilus of Samos felt that the best things that could have been written had already been written. This poet wrote,
Lucky the man of those times who was skilled in song-making, the Muses’ servant, when the meadow was still untrodden: But now that it’s all shared out, when the arts have their boundaries, we’re the last left there on the road, and there’s nowhere for the poet, search as he may, to steer his fresh-yoked chariot.6
It’s a melancholy quote – a statement about a glorious past and an uncertain future, and about literature’s best works being in the rear view mirror, rather than up on the road ahead. The sentiment expressed by Choerilus of Samos is a perennial one in literary history – a sense that the greatness of the past puts the drab and humble present to shame, and it seems to have been one Apollonius knew well. As the chief librarian at Alexandria, it was Apollonius’ job to be the custodian of a glorious literary and intellectual past, as one of the library’s main purposes was to centralize and safeguard the achievements of Euripides, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Hesiod, and above all of them, Homer. This sense – this sense that the greatest heights of civilization and the most astounding artistic achievements are in the past, Hellenistic period scholars often notice, was intellectually widespread during the period after Alexander.

Naples Archaeology Museum (5914749450)

Ptolemy III, the Greco-Egyptian king under whom Apollonius spent much of his career. Photo by Dave and Margie Hill.

There are generations that live under the shadow of previous generations. Apollonius, along with every Ancient Greek writer, lived in the long shadow of Homer. And Ptolemy III, the king Apollonius tutored, under whom Apollonius may have served as a court poet – Ptolemy III, and his father and grandfather lived beneath the gigantic and ominous shadow of Alexander the Great. While Alexander tore across the known world like a meteor, taking Persian territory in battle after battle, some time later throughout the 200s BCE the Ptolemies hunkered down in Egypt, facing peasant uprisings domestically and exhausting wars with other Greeks in foreign territories. The new generations had their heroes and geniuses, their innovators and artists. But over them hung legends of the past – the Homers, and the Alexanders – the titans whose scope and breadth could never be surpassed.

And while certain generations live in the shadow of other generations, we also know that what constitutes heroism in one generation might be quite silly or anachronistic in a subsequent generation. We love Achilles in the context of the Iliad, but imagining him alive today – an ultraviolent egomaniac with divine protection – might make us wince a little bit. We love Moses in the context of the Pentateuch, but if he were alive today, his ethnocentrism and orders for ethnic cleansing in Canaan and the Transjordan Plateau wouldn’t make him quite so valorous as he seems in the Old Testament. I think that when Apollonius looked into the past and saw these older heroes, at least some part of him realized that they were heroes of a bygone time – a time of epic war and indiscriminate killing, when heroes murdered freely and never apologized for their mistakes. This kind of a hero, to Apollonius, would not due for modern, educated, lavishly worldly Alexandria. Because in Alexandria, Greeks, and Egyptians, Mesopotamians and Jews, inhabitants of the upper Balkans and sub-Saharan Africa – these people were all living alongside one another. Seeing the acquisitions efforts of the Library of Alexandria, and in fact, being in the center of the western world’s greatest reservoir of information, what was heroic to Apollonius was very different than what was heroic to previous generations.

Apollonius’ hero lacks the brazen self-certainty of Homeric heroes. He fumbles, doubts himself, makes terrible mistakes, and he delegates responsibilities. As Benjamin Acosta-Hughes puts it,
Jason is also a different kind of leader, one whose diplomacy is called repeatedly into action. . . one reading of Jason would be not so much as a hero of traditional epic as a reflection of the needs, and realities, of a modern monarch. Apollonius is a court poet who composed his poetry at the court of one of the successor kings who followed Alexander’s campaigns, which transformed the ancient Mediterranean world into a series of competing dynastic monarchies. The Argonautica, and the figure of Jason himself, can be read against this immediate historical backdrop, and the relations of the male power figures in the poem can be understood in light of the political and military struggles of the Ptolemies, the Seleucids, the Antigonids, and other successor kings.7
So Apollonius’ king – Ptolemy III – was a monarch who, just like Jason himself, had a lot to balance. Ptolemy III had powerful resources, but also major challenges – a country with the most fruitful agricultural output in the ancient world, but also a country that had an inconvenient tendency to exhibit signs of independence and insubordination. Ptolemy III, again, just like Jason, had to navigate his way through a tangle of foreign lands and leaders, and there was no playbook for how to do so. Ptolemy III, like Jason, had to rely on the expertise of court counselors and generals. So if Jason, within the context of Apollonius’ poem, seems a bit bumbling, or irresolute, it’s at least partly because he comes from a period of history during which the mythos of the lone hero forging a singular path through a simple uncluttered world – a period when this mythos was becoming outdated by modernity. Thus, as an epic hero, Jason occasionally seems frustratingly resourceless, or amekanos. But as a character, his insecurities, hesitancies, and mistakes make him all the more human, and more modern. [music]

Moving On to Part 2 of the Argonautica

Before we go today I wanted to take a minute and point you toward another history podcast. As we took the journey with Jason and the Argonauts today, I hope I was able to convey the sense of adventure and discovery that fills every page of the Argonautica. And nautical adventure and discovery are at the core of a show called the Maritime History Podcast, done by a guy named Brandon Huebner. Maritime history, as I wrote in my review of the Maritime History Podcast on iTunes, often gets sidelined by the history of kings and queens, and land battles and agriculturally based economies. Most of us today, unless we’re in some kind of a navy, just don’t spend too much time thinking about what happens on the decks and in the holds of ships. But knowing the maritime history of any given period nonetheless helps one have a mature understanding of that period’s economics and cultural exchanges. Probably long before even the navy of Themistocles of Athens in the 480s BCE, the ancient world had begun to understand that control of the seas was the key to sovereignty over an entire region. So, Brandon Huebner’s Maritime History podcast covers the same periods and places we’ve covered in Literature and History, but, looking at Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, and Ancient Greece, and others the Maritime History Podcast focuses on rivers, oceans, estuaries and the history of ships and waterborne trade. Every episode of the Maritime History podcast, to me, feels a bit like setting out with Jason and the Argonauts over a choppy ocean, and never quite knowing what you’re going to find.

As far as Literature and History is concerned, next time, of course, we’re going to finish the story of Jason and the Argonauts. We’ll see good old humble Jason continue to make his way through his epic journey as best he can. And we’ll meet Apollonius’ version of Medea. In Euripides’ famous play Medea, we meet Medea in Greece, once she’s already been naturalized there and given birth to Jason’s children. But in Jason and the Argonauts, we meet Medea in her natural element – in the mysterious kingdom of Colchis, when she is a young priestess of Hecate, the goddess of magic, ghosts, and the raising of the dead. The tail end of Jason and the Argonauts is a gripping, and powerful story, and you’re going to love it. Thanks for listening to Literature and History, and I’ve got a comedy song coming at you if you want to hear it – otherwise, I’ll see you next time for the end of the Argonautica. Still here? Thanks for staying on. So, I’ve always loved the story we’ve covered half of today. But my real period of scholarly specialty, as I’ve probably told you before, is nineteenth-century American literature. And so when I think of a bunch of guys on a boat getting together to do something, I think, naturally, of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, a book which I love with all my heart – even the bits about ship construction and whales and whaling that people tend to complain about. So I got to thinking. What if Jason and the Argonauts met Ahab and the crew of the Pequod from Moby-Dick? What kind of a conversation would they have if one day, the crews of the two ships spotted each other, paddled up, and began a conversation? I got to thinking about the unlikely meeting between these two fictional boatloads of guys, and I wrote the following song, which is kind of a pirate tune, and it’s called “The Golden Moby-Dick Fleece.” Hope you like this musical number, and I look forward to finishing up the great epic of Jason and the Argonauts with you next time!

1.^ Apollonius of Rhodes. Jason and the Argonauts. Translated by Aaron Poochigian and with an Introduction and Notes by Benjamin Acosta-Hughes. New York: Penguin, 2014, p. 10. Further references are noted parenthetically.

2.^ Green, Peter. The Hellenistic Age. Random House Publishing Group, 2008. Kindle Edition. , Location 1189.

3.^ Jerome’s Vulgate began in 382 CE.

4.^ Jason is mentioned in Hesiod’s Catalog of Women, in fragments by the poets Ibycus and Simonides, in Pindar’s fourth Pythian Ode, Aeschylus’ Argo, Lemnian Women, Phineus, and Hypsipyle, Sophocles’ Medea, Lemnian Women, Phrixus, and Women of Colchis and Euripides’ Hypsipyle and Medea. See the introduction to Apollonius of Rhodes, n. 1.

5.^ Ibid, p. xv.

6.^ Quoted in Green, Peter. The Hellenistic Age. Random House Publishing Group, 2008. Kindle Edition, location 115.

7.^ See ibid, location 113. Green also observes that nineteenth-century Britain’s preoccupation with Periclean Athens as the main point of focus in the ancient world had its roots in the Hellenistic period. Even today in academia, our own often misconceived sense that civilization appeared on the Acropolis in a puff of smoke with democracy on the Acropolis in 508 BCE is still widespread, and obviously this misconception has an extremely long history.

8.^ See n. 1, p. xv.