Episode 39: Medea and the Argonauts

Apollonius’ Jason and the Argonauts, Books 3-4. Mesmerizing Medea takes center stage at the Argonautica’s end, dominating the epic’s events.

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Apollonius’ Argonautica, Books 3-4

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 39, Medea and the Argonauts. This is the second of two episodes we’re doing on the later Ancient Greek epic Jason and the Argonauts, written by the poet Apollonius of Rhodes in the mid-200s BCE in the city of Alexandria, Egypt. If you’re just jumping in, it’ll be a lot clearer if you start in Episode 38, so you can hear the back story of how and why the Jason and the Argonauts made their eastern journey into the far reaches of the Black Sea. In this show, we’ll cover Books 3-4 of this great epic, books dominated by the legendary sorceress, Medea. [music]

Review: The Story So Far

Let’s start with a quick recap. Handsome young Jason is the rightful heir to a kingdom called Iolcus, a city on the Greek mainland about a hundred miles north northeast of Athens. Jason’s father’s throne was usurped by a half divine king named Pelias, and Pelias, because he was convinced by a prophecy that Jason would kill him, sent Jason on a quest so dangerous, and so impossible, that wicked King Pelias assumed that it would be the end of Jason.

Kintrishi river at village kobuleti

The Kintrishi River at the coastal village of Kobuleti in modern day Georgia, with the Caucasus range in the background. In the unlikely event that the Argonautica has any basis in fact, Jason and his crew might have sailed inland on one of the forks of this river. The countryside here is the setting of much of the second half of Apollonius’ poem.

The problem for Pelias was that a large and formidable crew enlisted with Jason, and Jason also got hold of a peerless ship called the Argo, after which the Argonauts are named. In the previous episode, we joined Jason and the Argonauts for the first thousand miles of their quest to the northeast. They slept with women on the all female island of Lemnos. They accidentally killed a promising young king on the island of the Doliones. They helped a poor old prophet named Phineas, who was plagued by harpies. The Argonauts were nearly crushed to death between a pair of clashing rocks. And that takes us to more recent history – history that you need to know about for the sake of today’s episode.

The Argonauts, just a few pages ago, have landed in an exotic eastern territory called Colchis. Colchis, the southwestern part of modern day Georgia, is where the easternmost waters of the Black Sea meet the slopes of the Caucasus Mountains. As I said last time, to the Hellenistic Greek imagination, the lush stream valleys, river lands and forests of Colchis were a place of legend – a place where the sun slept before coming up in the morning. So the Argonauts have just landed in Colchis. And they’ve brought with them four brothers – brothers whom they’ve recently picked up.

These brothers were the four sons of a man named Phrixus. Phrixus was the hero who’d originally found the Golden Fleece. Phrixus was the man who’d taken the Fleece to Colchis. Why would Phrixus bring the precious Golden Fleece to Colchis and leave it there? Phrixus did so because he fell in love with one of the daughters of the King of Colchis. This King was called Aeëtes, and we’ll be hearing a lot about him today. King Aeëtes had two daughters. One of them was Medea. The other was called Chalcioppe. Phrixus married the princess Chalcioppe, and with her had four sons – the same four sons Jason and his Argonauts picked up near the end of the previous show. So if that sounds just a bit confusing, don’t worry – because we’ll be in Colchis, in the court of King Aeëtes, for a while today. The main thing I want you to remember upfront is that as the Argonauts landed in Colchis last time, they had with them four brothers – the grandsons of King Aeëtes, and sons of Phrixus, the hero who’d found the Golden Fleece in the first place. Jason, who was trying to find the Golden Fleece, thought that these four brothers would be useful assets when negotiating with the foreign monarch, and trying to convince him to relinquish the precious artifact.

Just two things before we begin. First, let’s talk about the main idea of today’s program. The main idea of this episode is in its title: Episode 39: Medea and the Argonauts. Medea is so unique within ancient literature that throughout the latter two books of Jason and the Argonauts, she steals the show – to such an extent that she might as well be the hero of the epic. She’s a dark priestess as well as an virginal maiden; a killer who can command hell as well as a damsel in distress, a peculiar combination of characteristics who has her own square on the literary periodic table of the elements. If you’ve ever read the Argonautica yourself, you know just what I mean.

Speaking of reading Jason and the Argonauts, if you ever do want to check it out for yourself, the edition I’ll be occasionally quoting from was published by Penguin Classics in 2014. It was translated by Aaron Poochigian, and it has an introduction and notes by Benjamin Acosta-Hughes – and I highly recommend it. Other editions of Jason and the Argonauts are often abridged, or make the deplorable mistake of trying to squelch Apollonius into rhymed couplets. This Penguin Classics edition, published in 2014 is nice, rich, lucid free verse – easy to read and beautifully translated.

So imagine the sound of water lapping on the sides of a ship. Imagine giant mountains looming over you and your companions as you sit warily on benches, your boat bobbing ever so slightly in a riverside cove. You’ve already made a thousand mile journey to get here, but what lies ahead is obscure and uncertain. You’re an Argonaut, and midway through Jason and the Argonauts, this is your story.

Hera and Athena Recruit Aphrodite

Jason and the Argonauts, Book 3

Anonymous Three goddesses

Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite in a painting from the 1630s, usually attributed to Giovanni Andrea Sirani. From the story of the Apple of Discord onward, you know that when these three get together, trouble is brewing.

The morning broke over the Argonauts in the strange land of Colchis, the dawn light falling on the green lagoon where they’d moored their ship. Hidden behind a thick escarpment of reeds, the heroes were as of yet invisible to the citizens of Aea, the chief city of Colchis. But two goddesses, Athena and Hera, spotted the Argonauts there. Athena and Hera wanted Jason to take the Golden Fleece westward with him, back to his homeland of Iolcus. If you remember, it had been King Pelias of Iolcus who’d sent Jason, intentionally, to his death in far off Colchis. Hera and Athena, who had never been properly honored by the fierce King Pelias, wanted the king’s murderous plot to fail. The two goddesses discussed a strategy. Aeëtes, they agreed – this was the King of Aea – King Aeëtes was stern, violent, and impervious to any form of persuasion. They had to find a strategy. Hera was the one who came up with it. They would first need to find Aphrodite.

The goddesses went to the palace of Aphrodite. Aphrodite’s husband Hephaestus was away, having left in the morning twilight to go to his forge and metalwork. They found Aphrodite combing her hair on a couch. The goddess of love welcomed the other two and tied her lush hair into a bun. Hera first explained how the western king who’d dispatched Jason on his eastward journey – again this was King Pelias of Iolcus – Hera explained how this western king had incurred her disfavor, and how Jason had earned her gratitude by helping her cross a river when she was disguised as an old woman.

Hera and Athena told Aphrodite what they had in mind. They needed the help of Aphrodite’s son, Eros (later known as Cupid). Specifically, they needed Eros to shoot an arrow into the daughter of King Aeëtes, and make this woman fall in love with Jason. The daughter of King Aeëtes was intelligent. She had great facility with herbs and potions. She was a priestess of the goddess Hecate, the queen of magic, and ghosts; crossroads and the raising of the dead. And her name was Medea. [music]

Medea Becomes Lovestruck

Aphrodite, hearing Hera and Athena’s request, found her baby son Eros in a leafy garden, engaged in a game of golden dice. Aphrodite promised the youngster a special golden ball that left a trail like a comet if he’d only shoot Medea and make her fall in love with Jason. Eros couldn’t resist the sparkling prize, and hurried off through the garden. He flew over busy villages and rivers, and razorbacked spines of mountains and green swirling seawater, until he came to Colchis, and the town of Aea.

Meanwhile, not far from the walls of the city of Aea, Jason and the Argonauts were discussing a plan. They would try diplomacy first, they’d decided, and Jason himself would go as an emissary to gauge the king’s openness to negotiation. Jason and a select few companions made their way through the reeds at the edge of the lagoon, climbed up an embankment and reached a flatland filled with trees. The foliage of the trees, they saw, was filled with corpses – endless dead bodies dangling from canopies and wrapped in leather. Willow and tamarisk trees creaked under the weight of the dead. It was the custom of the Colchians, the heroes would soon learn, to hang their male dead in trees, although their female dead were buried beneath the earth.

After taking in the creepy sight of the corpses in the trees, Jason and the others pressed onward. Hera enveloped the plain around the Colchian city of Aea with fog so that Jason and his companions could get into the city unseen.

When the Argonauts came to the palace, they paused for a moment to gaze at the wonders near the threshold. Tall columns held up a tympanum of marble and bronze. Vines, weighted heavily with flowers, filled the air with color. At their feet were four magic springs – one of milk, one of wine, one of oil, and one of fresh, clear water. The palace itself was a vast affair with iron doors, covered passageways and living quarters. King Aeëtes’ whole family inhabited this castle, but before meeting any of them, Jason saw Medea.

At the same time, Phrixus’ wife – the mother of the four brothers who’d recently joined the Argonauts’ expedition – saw that her sons had returned. She expressed joy that they’d come home and incredulity that they’d left in the first place. Soon King Aeëtes himself emerged from his inner quarters with his wife to see what the commotion was all about.

At this moment – just as the Argonauts were making the acquaintance of the Colchians in King Aeëtes’ court, Eros shot an arrow into Medea as she looked at Jason. Thereafter, Apollonius writes,
The god, then, fluttered from the high-roofed hall,
Cackling, and the arrow burned like fire
deep, deep down beneath the maiden’s heart.
She fired scintillating glances over
and over at [Jason]. Anguish
quickened her heart and panted in her breast,
and she could think of him, him only, nothing
but him, as sweet affliction drained her soul.1
While Medea became overcome with longing for Jason, King Aeëtes asked the sons of Phrixus why they’d returned from their voyage. They told the king the circumstances of their return home, and also what the Argonauts were doing so far to the east. Soon, King Aeëtes learned that Jason was in pursuit of the Golden Fleece, and that Jason would do whatever King Aeëtes desired in order to earn the great treasure. King Aeëtes learned the names and lineages of some of the more prominent the Argonauts.

How would the reputedly fierce and cruel King Aeëtes react to this diplomatic overture and Jason’s request for the kingdom’s great treasure? “Oh,” said King Aeëtes, “you want the Golden Fleece? Why sure, you can have it immediately – I’ll just summon some servants to fetch – ” Just kidding. King Aeëtes was livid. He viciously cursed the sons of Phrixus for – as he saw it – leading a pack of opportunistic strangers to his shore. They didn’t want the Fleece, King Aeëtes said – they wanted his kingdom, and his scepter! King Aeëtes said they were lucky he hadn’t cut out their tongues and chopped off their hands.

Then Jason urged Aeëtes to be lenient. They hadn’t come for the crown or kingdom, he said, honestly, they’d just come for the Fleece. Then Jason voiced a particularly interesting line. Explaining why they were after the Fleece, and Jason said, “Fate. . .and an abominable tyrant’s / heartless insistence have compelled this visit” (114). It’s an odd line, because you wonder – if Jason knows that the whole quest is a fool’s errand commanded by an angry dictator, why does he so badly want to accomplish it? Why not just paddle off to a peaceful place and forget the cruel mainland of the Greek King Pelias of Iolcus? Why not go have a barbecue down in Athens with Orestes? Or go skimboarding with Oedipus’ surviving daughter Ismene at Thebes? Or find Heracles, take him somewhere safe, and teach him how to read? There must have been so many better things to do in the legendary era of Greek history. Well, this didn’t occur to Jason, anyway, and so he explained to the cruel eastern Black Sea King Aeëtes that he had to get that Golden Fleece, and he didn’t have a choice in the matter.

King Aeëtes considered killing Jason immediately. But then he had a different idea. He would give Jason a dire and difficult task to complete. I guess there was just something about Jason that made kings want to give him challenging and nearly impossible undertakings to perform. King Aëtes said Jason needed to plow a plain using fire breathing oxen with brass feet. Even if Jason managed to plow the field, Jason wouldn’t be done – the most difficult part would still be ahead. Because as Jason plowed, the hero had to plant dragon’s teeth in the furrows, and from these furrows, armored soldiers would spring up to attack Jason. Jason would have to fight them all off if he wanted the Golden Fleece. King Aeëtes, maybe polishing his fingernails on his lapel, said that he did this every day. He plowed a plain with firebreathing oxen and planted dragon’s teeth and then fought off magical warriors. Every day. Like – uh – all kings.

Jokes aside, the speech Jason offers King Aeëtes in return is a poignant and typical example of Jason’s very human uncertainty and humility. Apollonius writes that
Jason fixed his eyes
before his feet in silence and remained
speechless and lost in the predicament.
He sat a long time wondering what to do,
but there was no way to accept the labor
with confidence – it seemed impossible.
He came out, in the end, with wary words:

“Aeëtes, your demand, though justified,
leaves me no choice, it seems. Therefore I, too,
shall risk the contest, daunting though it may be,
and though it be my doom to die of it. (116)
And that again is the Aaron Poochigian translation, published by Penguin in 2014. King Aeëtes sensed the lack of resolution in Jason’s voice and mocked him for it, and the Argonauts left the palace. And Medea’s eyes longingly followed their leader, Jason. [music]

The Heroes Learn of Medea

In Jason’s absence, Medea thought about him – his face, his clothing, everything he’d said – even his posture and his voice. She knew that if Jason tried to yoke the fire breathing oxen and fight the spawn of the dragon’s teeth, Jason would fail. Medea prayed to her goddess Hecate to help her divine a way of getting Jason home safely.

Meanwhile, the oldest son of Phrixus, who’d left his younger brothers at King Aeëtes’ palace, addressed Jason with a plan. This man’s name was Argus, and again he was one of the men who had only recently joined Jason’s expedition and returned with Jason to his homeland of Colchis. Argus the recently appointed Argonaut knew how things worked around the palace, and he knew Medea. In fact, Medea was his aunt. Argus told Jason they needed Medea’s help. Jason said he’d try anything, and Argus promised to soon head back to the palace of King Aeëtes to try and recruit the priestess.

When Jason got back to his ship, he told the other Argonauts the bad news – the news of King Aeëtes’ refusal to help and the daunting task that King Aeëtes had given Jason. The Argonauts gawked and blustered – several volunteered to complete the labor for Jason, but the general feeling was one of futility. Then Argus spoke up and told them about his aunt Medea.
There is a girl, [Argus said,] a maiden. King Aeëtes
raised her here at court, and Hecate
has taught her to prepare with perfect skill
all the magic herbs that earth and water
nurture to growth. Armed with these tinctures, she
can blunt the fury of a relentless fire,
check suddenly a roaring river’s spate,
pause stars, and halt the moon’s advance. (120)
Everyone agreed that Medea sounded interesting and useful, and the ship’s oracle approved of the decision to make overtures to the young sorceress. Despite some grumbling from a misogynistic Argonaut, the plan was soon set in motion. [music]

Medea’s Private Ruminations

Jason and Medea - John William Waterhouse

John William Waterhouse’s Jason and Medea (1907). Apollonius’ Medea is a younger woman than Euripides’, and a slightly milder one.

Meanwhile, the brutal King Aeëtes was planning Jason’s imminent death and its aftermath. Of course Jason would die plowing the field, Aeëtes reasoned – the next step was felling some oaks onto the deck of the Argo and then setting it on fire. As far as King Aeëtes was concerned, anyone who showed up in his kingdom was a danger to his sovereignty, and better off dead.

While Aeëtes was planning the Argonauts’ destruction, Argus, the recently appointed Argonaut and former citizen of Colchis, was returning to the palace in which he’d been raised. Medea, as Argus returned to the palace, was dreaming of plowing the field for Jason – of course it would be no challenge to her – but if she did this Jason wouldn’t get the credit. She awakened, distraught and unable to keep her mind off Jason. She didn’t yet know what she’d do, and paced around her chambers in bare feet and a nightgown.

Medea’s sister was again named Chalciope, and Chalciope was the mother of the four brothers who’d recently joined the Argonauts. Chalciope heard her sister Medea crying, and both women admitted to the other that they were worried about Chalciope’s four sons. King Aeëtes’ blood was up, and once Jason was killed plowing with the deadly oxen, King Aeëtes would go after Chalciope’s four sons. Thus, Chalciope asked Medea to use her sorcery to make sure Jason survived the plowing, and dragon’s teeth, and also the fight with the supernatural warriors.

Now, Medea, who was at that moment smitten with passion for Jason, did not hesitate to agree. She suddenly had a legitimate, moral reason to help the hunky foreign stranger. She would totally take care of those brass hoofed bulls and dragon’s teeth men. She just needed one thing – a weapon that no mythological creature, and no great hero could triumph over. Drugs. Medea fell asleep thinking about preparing some drugs to help subdue the volatile fire breathing bulls. As she slept, she fretted constantly on Jason. As Apollonius tells it,
Her heart was fitful, restless in the [same] way
a sunbeam, when reflected off the water
swirling out of a pail or pitcher, dances
upon the walls – yes, that was how her heart
was quivering. (128)
When she really thought about it, Medea saw that helping Jason would alienate her from her kingdom and everyone she knew. She felt that her obsession with him was unnatural, and she’d be maligned as a traitor who had fallen prey to her own lusts. Medea’s nightgown damp with tears, she opened her case of drugs. She was on the verge of poisoning herself, but she idn’t want to die. Traces of dawn broke into the room and she recollected her childhood friends and the things she loved in life. As the flush of daybreak filled Medea’s chambers, she resolved to help Jason, whatever the costs to herself and her reputation. It was the most consequential decision she’d ever make. [music]

Medea and Jason Meet

That morning, Medea put on her best clothes, a shimmering robe and bright brooches. She wore a silver veil, and asked her handmaidens to prepare a cart to drive her to Hecate’s temple. Before she left, Medea filled a container with a drug that made one impervious to both brass and fire. Soon, Medea and her twelve handmaidens, all dressed in gauze and gossamer, were headed down a wide cart road to the Temple of Hecate, objects of the eager gazes of the Colchian townspeople.

When Medea and her maidens arrived at the temple, she offered them a short speech justifying her plan to help Jason, and then, to the to the maidens’ surprise (and to the reader’s surprise, actually) explained that Jason himself was coming to the temple to meet with her. Apollonius – sort of – failed to write a scene in which Medea was made aware that Jason was coming to her temple, but anyway, Jason was headed to the Temple of Hecate, and Medea asked her handmaidens to stand apart a ways when he arrived so that she could speak privately with him.

Medea could scarcely keep herself composed as she waited for Jason’s arrival, and he was even handsomer than she remembered when he appeared. Apollonius compares Jason’s beauty to a summertime star reflecting on the ocean – a mesmerizing beauty, but also a terrible one, since it signified the coming of the dry season.

Medea, seeing the object of her desires, couldn’t move, and Jason went up to her. The two stood motionlessly studying one another, like trees faintly stirred by a breeze. She had lost her composure to such an extent that “Jason could tell the gods had sunk the girl in madness” (135). Jason spoke first, telling her he wasn’t like other men – he wasn’t a braggart and wouldn’t do her any harm. He said he desperately needed her help. If she helped him, he’d speak grandly of her, as a powerful, virtuous woman who deserved the glory of the world’s praises.

Girolamo Macchietti 002

Girolamo Macchietti’s Medea and Jason c. 1570-3. I’m not sure which scene in the Argonautica Macchietti is illustrating here. Perhaps an imagined moment at which the leading couple partakes a bit too excessively in Medea’s legendary pharmaceuticals?

Wordlessly, Medea brought out her vial of protective ointment and gave it to Jason. She gave him very specific instructions for the ritual of how to use the ointment – it involved bathing in a river, wearing all black, digging a hole, cutting a sheep’s throat, calling the spirit of Hecate, after which he needed to leave the scene of the sacred rite without looking back. He would be invulnerable if he did all of this, Medea promised. She told him also to throw a stone amidst the dragon’s teeth men when they arose – this way they’d run for the stone and kill each other, and he’d be able to pretend that he himself slaughtered them.

Having given her gift, Medea became sad. She asked him to please remember her, and asked about his homeland. Jason assured her he’d never forget her, and told her of Iolcus. And he added something else. She’d see Iolcus for herself, Jason said. Because once he passed Aeëtes’ challenge, the king would unite Jason and Medea in marriage.

You kind of wonder what Jason was thinking when he said this. “Hmm, thanks for the magic protective potion and indispensible advice. By the way, now that you’ve assured my success we’re going to get married, too.” Medea, hearing these words, was apprehensive. She wasn’t opposed to being with Jason, of course – the arrow from Eros had taken care of that – it was something else. Aeëtes, she said, would not let them be together. He wasn’t a kind man, or a man who kept promises. And, crying again, Medea asked him to please remember her.

Jason said not to be ridiculous. Medea would be esteemed in Greece. He promised her that “In our wedding chamber you shall enjoy the marriage bed with me” (141). Not at all presumptuous. It’s a good thing hapless Jason was good looking, and that he had romantic help from Aphrodite. Jason and Medea talked and talked, but they didn’t come to a resolution. As powerful as Eros’ arrow had been, Medea was no pushover, and she felt that it would be deeply dishonest to betray her countrymen and leave them just for the sake of a sudden rush of love. So as evening came on they parted company, Medea simultaneously passionate and indecisive. [music]

Jason Prepares for Battle

Later that night, Jason snuck off in the darkness and completed the rituals Medea had asked him to, sacrificing a sheep to Hecate. The description of the aftermath of this sacrifice is particularly memorable – it’s one of the few long descriptions we have of Hecate, queen of magic, ghosts, necromancy and crossroads.
After the prayer, [Apollonius writes,] he backed up without turning.
The awesome goddess heard him and ascended
through deep moist caverns to accept his gifts,
and horrid serpents crowned her head, with oak leaves
mixed in among them, and the glow of torches
gleamed far and wide, and hellhounds howled keenly
around her, and the swampy meadow trembled
beneath her footsteps. All the moorland nymphs,
the ones who traipse in rings around the flats. . .
trilled and shrieked.
Though awe instantly gripped [Jason],
He never once turned round and looked behind him. (144)
And again, this beautiful free verse translation of Apollonius is Aaron Poochigian’s, published by Penguin in 2014.

So, Jason was no fully prepared for the challenge given to him by King Aeëtes. At dawn, then, King Aeëtes armored himself and drove his formidable chariot out onto the plain. Jason coated his weapons and armor in Medea’s potion, rendering them invincible. He felt like a young warhorse, or lightning against a black sky. He came to the field armed with a spear and shield, and wearing a helmet and nothing else. Yes, he planned – uh – to plow the perilous field in the nude, with a helmet on.

At any rate, the glistening and naked hero goaded the bulls forth and they charged him. He raised his shield, and various beautiful similes illustrate how Jason stood against them – he was a stone headland and they were waves shattering against him – they were sparks from a bellows colliding into him and stopping. And Jason yoked the oxen.

The oxen fumed fire as he forced them along, pricked by his spear. As the furrows behind him opened Jason scattered dragon’s teeth into them, wary that the supernatural soldiers might spontaneously spring up. He plowed and plowed, and planted and planted, and finally stopped to fill his helmet with river water and quench his thirst. And suddenly, just as Jason came back to the furrows, the ground exploded and soldiers appeared, sparkling like snow under starlight.

Jason followed Medea’s advice. He flung a large rock into their midst and the newly risen men rushed for it, stabbing and slicing at one another in order to reach it. While they fought one another, Jason attacked. He cut them down like a new harvest, and their blood drizzled and filled the furrows. Jason was untouched.

King Aeëtes looked on, distraught. He headed back to the city, brainstorming to try and think of a way to cast doubt on Jason’s victory. And thus closes Book 3 of the Argonautica. [music]

Medea Joins the Argonauts

Jason and the Argonauts, Book 4

After Jason made short work of King Aëtes’ challenge, the furious king, back in his palace, tried to think of a way to get revenge on Jason and his companions. Medea, at this time, was terribly afraid. She knew her father King Aeëtes knew that she’d helped Jason, and that she would pay for it. Again Medea considered poisoning herself, but the goddess Hera instead compelled Medea to flee – to abscond from the kingdom with her nephews. So Medea kissed her bed frame, bid farewell to her familiar bedroom walls, and left a lock of her hair for her mother.

Medea then snuck out of the castle and into the countryside, and overhead the moon mused on her, for the moon knew that Medea had worked magic on many others during starless nights, and now Medea herself was lovesick. The priestess of Hecate passed through the countryside and came to the river where the Argonauts were. They were celebrating Jason’s victory aboard their ship, but she still managed to get their attention. She told them she needed to escape – the King knew of her betrayal. Jason and several others jumped to the shore. Let’s hope he – maybe put on some underpants on or something for this touching nocturnal scene, because he again told her he would bring her back to Greece to be his wife, and he took her hand. He knew, and we know, that Medea was a really good catch – she was beautiful, and smart, and had a clear sense of personal accountability, and was friends with a goddess, and even had access to all kinds of cool drugs. What’s not to like?

Medea, once aboard the Argo, directed the men to begin rowing. It was time now, under cover of darkness – to get that Golden Fleece, and get out of Colchis for good. [music]

The Argonauts Seize the Fleece and Escape

Jason and Medea disembarked and went through a grassy meadow, past a crop of stones, and along a footpath, until they came to an enormous oak tree. There, the Golden Fleece shone brightly through the pre-dawn darkness, “brilliant as a cloud that glows / red in the rays of fiery dawn” (155). The serpent that guarded the fleece saw them immediately, uncoiling endlessly like spirals of smoke above greenwood. Medea, however, was not afraid. She prayed to the god sleep, and asked the Queen of the Underworld to help her. Jason, heroically, cowered behind Medea and looked over her shoulder.

After Salvator Rosa - Jason Poisoning the Dragon

Jason Poisoning the Dragon c. 1665-70 by Salvator Rosa. In this picture, Jason seems to be pouring some sort of can of soup onto the dragon’s head and threatening it with a mace. In the Apollonius version, Medea takes care of the dragon and Jason tiptoes in and nabs the treasure.

Drowsiness gradually overtook the serpent, and yet it resisted, pushing itself forward toward them. Medea mixed juniper into a magic concoction and poured it into the serpent’s eyes, and the thing finally slumped down, unconscious. And then, under the direction of his powerful fiancé, Jason tremblingly snuck past the sleeping serpent, plucked the Golden Fleece down from the bows of the great tree, and completed the most difficult part of his great quest.

The lovers left the dark grove and went back to the Argo, the gold from the magic fleece igniting the grass and pathways with a warm, molten glow. When they reached the Argo, Jason gave Medea full credit for recovering the fleece. He said she would be his wife, and must be kept safe at all costs, for a fierce battle lay ahead. King Aeëtes, Jason told them, would undoubtedly blockade them in the river.

This time, since he wasn’t covered in Medea’s magic ointment, Jason put on his armor. The men tore their oars through the water, and managed – just barely – to make it back out into the Black Sea before the Colchians could block their egress. But the heroes hadn’t made it to safety yet. Aeëtes proclaimed throughout his citadel that if Medea weren’t returned to him, a series of summary beheadings would begin. And so Colchian sailors rushed to their ships, and an armada hurried in pursuit of Jason and the Argonauts.

The Argonauts sailed for three days, backed by powerful winds sent by Hera. And instead of heading to the southwest, toward the Hellespont, they went to the northwest, to the mouth of the Danube, and sailed along this river through modern day Ukraine, Romania, the Balkans, and into the northern reaches of the Adriatic Sea. The Colchian pursuers were relentless, though, and after numerous evasions, they caught up with the Argonauts. Rather than fighting, they made a pact with Jason and his men. Jason and his men would get to keep the Golden Fleece. As for Medea, she would be sent to a nearby temple of Artemis, where local rulers would decide whether she would return to King Aeëtes, or continue on with Jason to Greece. Notice, by the way, that evidently Jason is willing to part with his fiancé before his magic golden hide, and will not fight for her. None of this was lost on Medea.
It was because of me [, she said,] that you survived
the trial of the bulls and earthborn men,
and then, when our misdeeds were widely known,
I foolishly procured the fleece for you
and called down horrid shame upon my sex.
Now. . .I say that I shall sail with you to Greece.

Kindly protect me, then, in every way.
Stand at my side, no matter what transpires,
and, when you meet the [judges of my case], do not
desert me, but be faithful to my cause.
Either let Justice and the Vow we sealed
between us stick steadfast within your breast
or draw your sword and slit my throat to pay me
fit retribution for my lust. . .You wretch! (164)
That wasn’t the end of it. Medea wasn’t some blushing young milkmaid, after all, not an exotic foreign blossom to be conveniently discarded. She was the priestess of the dark goddess of magic. Would Jason, or the Argonauts, for that matter, really like to find out what would happen if they sold her out? Because, Medea indicated, that would be a very, very dangerous path to take.

And then Jason explained himself. The whole thing with handing her over to the local kings, he said, was just a ploy. They had arranged a parley with their Colchian pursuers. And at this parley, the Argonauts would kill the leader of the Colchians – Aeëtes’ son and Medea’s brother. Following this murder, Jason reasoned, the local kings who were going to judge Medea’s case would be much more likely to choose the side of the Argonauts. So – I guess Jason thought that if you killed the prosecuting attorney in front of the jury, the jury would say, “Hmm, the defense just murdered the prosecution – the defendant must be entirely innocent.” That seems to have been his reasoning, anyway.

Medea, surprisingly, agreed to this logically unintelligible plan. She’d even help isolate her brother, she said. So Medea sent false word to her brother that she had the Golden Fleece and would return it to him. And in a clever plot involving narcotics and the darkest cover of night, Medea lured her brother, alone, to a spot near a temple and Jason killed him, the poor man’s blood splattering all over his sister. It was an awful murder, and needed to be atoned for. In order to atone for the killing, Jason cut all the arms and legs off of his would-be brother-in-law, and drank the corpse’s blood three times, spitting it out three times – which, as I’m sure you know, is the preferred way to cleanse yourself from guilt when you slaughter and dismember your innocent and patriotic future brother-in-law.

Soon the Argonauts had killed a whole ship full of Colchians, and it no longer seemed necessary to leave Medea to a local court to decide her fate. There were more Colchian ships out there, though, and even though they’d be fragmented after their leader’s death, the Argonauts still needed to continue eluding them. And so the Argonauts pushed onward, passing a chain of islands as dawn broke over the Adriatic. [music]

The Heroes Emerge in the Central Mediterranean

Though the Colchians tried to pursue the Argonauts, flashes of lightning from the goddess Hera made them reconsider. After some time, the Colchians decided they’d give up their pursuit of Jason and avoid their murderous king by simply settling in the local lands around them.

MS-Argonautai-route

A map of the Argonauts’ travels. The trip to Colchis, as you can see, is merely the beginning. The remainder of the Argonautica is, like the Odyssey, about a cursed captain and crew trying to get home. Map by Maris Stella.

But unbeknownst to the Argonauts, a curse had been leveraged against them. They had incurred the wrath of Zeus. They had incurred this wrath because of Jason’s grisly murder of Medea’s brother. I guess the dismemberment and blood gargling didn’t actually acquit Jason of homicide. And Zeus had decided that due to Jason’s murder, and Medea’s betrayal of her brother, the Argonauts would have a long and brutally difficult journey home.

The heroes made their way south through the Adriatic sea, skirting the west coast of the Greek mainland, only they were borne backward in the direction from which they’d come, into a thick, stinking, brackish fen, where hidden maidens voiced endless lamentations and cried tears of amber. A river called the Eridanus gave them passage to the Rhone, leading them into a network of windy northern lakes inhabited by a people called the Celts. Thousands of these Celts inhabited the flatlands around the Rhone, but Hera kept the Argo enshrouded in mist as they made their way along the river. Soon, following their river journeys through modern day Italy and France, the Argonauts emerged in the central Mediterranean, west of the island of Corsica. After taking a rest, the heroes sailed east around the north of Corsica and Sardinia with the Italian Peninsula to the east of them. They had been told to seek out a certain someone to help them get home. They did have with them Medea, priestess of Hecate, a woman not unskilled in sorcery and herbal concoctions. But in order to get them home, they needed some serious, industrial grade magic and witchcraft. And these could only come from a famous witch named Circe, who would later help Odysseus himself.[music]

The Argonauts Meet Circe and the Phaecians

The golden fleece and the heroes who lived before Achilles (1921) (14580271559)

“I’ve got this,” Medea says when the Argonauts arrive at Circe’s island. Circe, after all, is a Colchian witch, just like Medea, and Medea is thus quite confident that Circe will help her.

That night, the witch Circe had a foreboding dream. She rose early, and strange creatures – her familiars – followed her out to the beach, where she washed her clothes and hair. When she looked up from her washing, she saw that the Argonauts had arrived. Circe, we learn at this point, was King Aeëtes’ sister, and thus Medea’s aunt. This was sort of a good thing, because Circe would be more liable to help a crew that arrived with both a Golden Fleece, and also, Circe’s niece. And it was sort of a bad thing, because the reason the Argonauts were in trouble was that Jason had butchered Medea’s brother, and thus Circe’s nephew.

With very few words, Jason and Medea followed Circe to her palace and made clear the nature of their crime. Circe then began an elaborate ritual to cleanse Jason and Medea of their guilt. It involved cutting a piglet’s throat, splattering blood on their hands, and tossing some cakes into a fire. Then Circe asked Medea about their quest. In fact, Jason was left out of the conversation entirely, because the two women talked business in their native language of Colchis. Circe told Medea that even with the blood guilt of killing her brother purged, Medea would still have King Aeëtes after her – and Aeëtes would attack Greece itself to get to her. Circe told Medea that Medea’s schemes were “reckless” (177) and her sudden elopement “impudent” (177), but that she wouldn’t harm the irresponsible young woman.

Meanwhile, Hera prepared for the Argonauts’ continuing voyage, making sure the sea would be calm and winds favorable. She asked a powerful sea nymph for help in getting the Argonauts through some particularly treacherous waters. The nymph came to the Argonauts and told them it was time to disembark. The heroes did so, continuing along the Italian coast, until they came to the island of the Sirens. They would have perished there, were it not for the intervention of Orpheus. As the Sirens, with languid voices, soft as lilies, lulled the Argonauts toward them, Orpheus heard the sound and brought forth his lyre. I imagine him saying something like, “Do you call that music, ladies?” because soon enough he began his own song, which drowned out their efforts to seduce the Argonauts.

As the Argo voyaged onward, they came to a nearly impassible stretch of ocean where breakers burst on rocks and cliff walls rendered maneuvering nearly impossible. Fortunately, the sea nymph Hera had appointed to guide them, along with a small population of Nereids – other sea nymphs, stood on the rocks and passed the ship between one another like a maidens playing a game of ball.

With this trial behind them, the Argonauts continued onward to the island of Helios, where sacred cattle gazed, shepherded by a young goddess – all white cattle with golden horns, bright in the dewy flatlands along the river. Then, a third time tracing the journey Odysseus would one day make, they came to the land of the Phaecians, where they were welcomed by Alcinous, the king who would one day welcome the stranded Odysseus.

Ill fortune struck them there, however. A large force of Colchians landed in Phaecia, and prepared for battle. The Phaecian king moved to negotiate, and Medea knew this was bad news for her. She pleaded with the Phaecian queen, explaining her situation. And she pleaded with the Argonauts. She reminded them again that she’d helped Jason beat the dire bulls, and lull the dragon to sleep, and recover the Golden Fleece. Would they really consider, again, handing her over for prolonged torture? What was wrong with them? Were they Argo-nuts? Hearing these words, the Argonauts gripped their swords and realized they would have to defend her.

Yet the decision was out of their hands. They were in Phaecia, after all, and it would be up to the Phaecians to decide what happened. In the Phaecian palace, King Alcinous heard the queen’s plea on behalf of long-suffering Medea. Medea deserved better, he agreed. But also, it was a terrible idea to go to war, particularly with the powerful King Aeëtes, over a family squabble that had started half a world away. So King Alcinous of the Phaecians came up with an idea. The King of the Phaecians said that if Medea were found to be a virgin, she would be given back to the Colchians. If Medea were not a virgin, however, she would stay with Jason – that would mean they had already consummated their love, and she might even be pregnant with his baby – and this baby wouldn’t deserve a cruel fate at the hands of its bloodthirsty grandfather.

Pause for a moment here, folks. This is one of the few times in canonical literature where a girl will be punished for being a virgin, and rewarded for not being a virgin. We’re not going to see a whole lot of that for another two thousand years. [music]

A “Mighty Mattress” and a Journey to Libya

So the Queen of the Phaecians, having heard that Medea absolutely had to not be a virgin, “whispered for a herald and sent a message, prudently advising the son of Aeson to deflower the girl” (190). That’s one of the few times you hear the words “prudent” and “deflower” in the same sentence. The queen also explained why this deflowering would be prudent, and her herald delivered the message to the Argonauts.

The Argonauts were ecstatic. Jason and Medea loved one another, after all, notwithstanding Jason’s occasional attempts to leave her behind, the couple were a good match, and Medea was certainly an integral part of their crew. The Argonauts made her a special bridal bed in a sacred cave, described as a “mighty mattress” (191), and spread the Golden Fleece itself over it. Wood nymphs appeared at Hera’s behest and married the young couple. Orpheus himself performed the sacred wedding songs. Now, Jason and Medea had both hoped to wait and consummate their relationship only once they’d returned to Greece. But, Apollonius writes, “Necessity, however, had compelled them / to make love then and there” (192). Oh, darn.

Herbert James Draper, The Golden Fleece

Herbert James Draper’s The Golden Fleece (1904) captures the tumult and chaos of the Argonauts’ circumnavigation of the Eastern Mediterranean.

After they had finished reluctantly meeting the demands of necessity, on their “mighty mattress” Jason and Medea began to worry. What if the Phaecian King had lied? What if he was going to turn her in for not being a virgin? But fortunately, the next day, the Phaecian King issued his proclamation, the Colchians agreed to it, and Medea, it was found, was no longer a virgin. The Colchians were, at this point, in a bind. They had been ordered by their bloodthirsty king to bring home his wayward daughter. And at the same time the Colchians, far from home, found themselves dealing with a rational and just monarch who had given them a fair gamble. Then, surprisingly, and very conveniently for the Argonauts, the Colchians said they’d like to ally with the Phaecians. To hell with the violent king Aeëtes, they said, and the Phaecians welcomed them and installed them on a nearby island.

Soon, Jason, his wife, and the Argonauts departed from Phaecia. They were given a parting gift – twelve Phaecian handmaidens were provided to wait on Medea. The beginning of the last leg of their journey home saw favorable winds, but after a day or two the breezes shifted, and for nine nights a massive wall of air pushed them all the way down to Libya. A swell of ocean, once they reached the shore, heaved them far up onto a beach and left them grounded there. Apollonius vividly describes the stretch of countryside around them as totally empty except for sand, with no signs of life anywhere.

The helmsman despaired. Everyone, in fact, seemed to understand that they were utterly stranded. The Argonauts, teary eyed, wandered off separately and covered themselves with their cloaks. The twelve Phaecian maidens who’d been given to them wept, and the strange, empty plains on all sides promised death to everyone.

But fortunately, some local Libyan nymphs saw the stranded strangers and resolved to help. They told Jason they’d heard of him and his quest. They said they were there to help, and that Jason must rouse his men. Jason did so, and told the Argonauts of the strange goddesses, and just as the Argonauts and recently acquired handmaidens were musing on this new development, a colossal golden stallion exploded out of the sea onto the land and then ran off into the distance.

It was an omen, they agreed. They needed to hoist up the ship and carry it in the direction the horse had gone. And so for twelve days and twelve nights, the Argonauts, bearing their ship and all their goods on their shoulders, followed the tracks of the divine horse. On the twelfth day, they reached a lake that connected to the ocean and they installed their ship there before going in search of fresh water. From some other local deities they learned that only the day before, the great Heracles had been there. Heracles, too, had been badly in need of water, and he’d knocked loose a rock and freed up a spring. The Argonauts found it, and, drinking deeply, they marveled that even when he was not with them, Heracles could still help them. Some Argonauts went in search of the legendary strongman, but couldn’t find him.

One final misfortune struck the heroes in Libya. The ship’s prophet was bitten by an asp and died an excruciating death. The Argonauts buried him in the sand, and, feeling like little had come out of the unwanted southern expedition, set began searching for a route to the ocean. The heroes probed around a network of inland lakes, and an ocean deity gave them directions to a deep estuary, offering instructions on how to turn seaward at a crucial moment. This ocean deity was Triton, the merman and son of Poseidon, and after the Argonauts gave Triton two gifts, the god heaved the ship seaward. [music]

Medea Takes Down a Metal Giant

The Argonauts rowed through the night toward the island of Crete. A bronze giant called Talus prowled the shoreline there, endlessly circling and heaving boulders at travelers who tried to moor there. The giant was invulnerable, excepting a vein that ran along the tendon of his ankle. Seeing this giant, the exhausted Argonauts prepared to head out to sea once more, but Medea told them to hold on. “Listen,” she said. “I think I can kill that man / all by myself, whoever he might be, / yes, even if his body is entirely / made out of bronze, so long as he is not / invulnerable” (210).

Medea stood on the deck of the ship and sung. She sung lullabies, praying to the fates and the hounds of Hades. She stared at the brass giant, her eyes roiling with all the wickedness of hell and its minions, her teeth beginning to grind in fury. (Meanwhile, brave Jason courageously stood by and did absolutely nothing.) As the giant moved to throw a stone at the Argo, the giant slipped – and he cut his heel on a jag of rock. Blood gushed out of him, and he reeled and fell down with an immense crash. And so, thanks to the recently deflowered young bride slash giant killer Medea, the Argonauts beached their ship on Crete and were able to spend the night there. At this point, as is the main idea of this show, it feels like the epic could have been named Medea and the Argonauts, or Medea and that One Random Dude and the Argonauts.

They headed northward the next morning, continuing their journey home, but a sudden and thick gloom came over the ship, shrouding them from even the faintest light. A prayer to Apollo solved this problem, though, and after another day’s delay, they were off.

Some of the closing episodes of the Argonautica get a little weird. One of the heroes aboard the ship had a dream. In this dream, he was holding a clod of dirt to his chest, and milk began leaking out of it. This breast milk slash dirt milk then engendered a beautiful woman, and the Argonaut made ravishing love to her – only he felt guilty afterwards, because – and I wasn’t aware of this until I read the Argonautica – you can’t have sex with someone who has been born from a milky dirt clod that you’re clutching at your chest. Good to know. Fortunately, Jason was able to quell this man’s anxiety by interpreting his dream. The dream meant that the man was supposed to heave a clod of dirt into the sea. The worried Argonaut did just this, and a beautiful, sacred island sprung up called Callista.

Having defeated dragons, harpies, giants, and tyrants, having built countless shrines, escaped harrowing seas and parched deserts and most recently even creating an island, the Argonauts’ achievements were growing by the day. And they were almost home. They stopped at an island just offshore from Athens and had a water fetching contest. And the Argonautica closes with these words:
O heroes, offspring of the blessed gods,
look warmly on this work, and may my song
grow sweeter year by year for men to sing.
No further trials befell you once you sailed
from Aegina, no other gales opposed you,
so I have now arrived at your adventure’s
glorious conclusion. After gladly passing
the land of Cecrops, Aulis in Euboea,
and the Opuntian cities of the Locrians,
you landed on the beach of [Iolcus].
And that’s the end. [music]

The Argonautica‘s Ending

So the whole story of Jason and the Argonauts concludes with the heroes reaching Iolcus. And you might be thinking, “Wait a minute. What about the usurper King Pelias who sent Jason on his quest in the first place?” Or, “Uh, so, did Jason and Medea get set up as King and Queen of Iolcus?” Or, if you’ve read Medea, “Wait, what about the part when Jason tries to ditch her for some foreign woman and she does unspeakable things to get revenge on him?” These are rational questions, of course. And it does seem curious that Apollonius cuts the whole thing off just by telling us that the Argonauts made it home. What if Homer did the same thing in the Odyssey? “So Odysseus made it home to Ithaca, where a pack of over a hundred suitors were trying to seduce his wife. The end.” And you’d think, “Hmm. Uh. Did he – just get work in a parking garage there? Or maybe Odysseus got a job as a pool guy or something?” But the Odyssey doesn’t end this way, of course – instead the entire second half of the Odyssey is the grand and violent story of what happened when Odysseus got home. Apollonius, however, really does just snap off the story of Jason and the Argonauts with the news that Jason made it home – home to the still not-at-all safe mountains and bays of his ancestral homeland. I guess we’re to assume that Medea took care of everything for him. Maybe?

In fact, the tail end of the Argonautica – much of the fourth book, really, feels more like an uneven collection of disparate episodes paper clipped together than the rest of the Argonautica. Because Apollonius can’t seem to resist piling together those aetiologies, or origin stories that we talked about last time, the closing books of the Argonautica are a string of unevenly sized pearls. The heroes make very short stop offs in obscure places amidst more memorable episodes like the one involving Circe, and King Alcinous of the Phaecians, and being stranded in Libya. Unfortunately, the uneven durations and intensities of these later episodes slowly wear down into the book’s ultimate anticlimax. If the Iliad had ended not in the magnificent and heart wrenching scene of Achilles and Priam reconciling with one another, but instead with the weirdly drawn out and not particularly interesting funeral games of Patroclus, the Iliad would have ended with the same irresolution as Jason and the Argonauts does.

But this is a harsh criticism. After all, Apollonius offers us a happy ending, and a nice, symmetrical story. The book begins with the heroes leaving Iolcus, and ends with them returning to Iolcus. And the title of the epic is Jason and the Argonauts, and not Jason and the Argonauts and Tons of Other Stuff that Later Happened to Jason. Apollonius wanted to write an enthralling epic that concerned an enormous nautical journey. As to what happened to Jason and Medea later, Apollonius knew that earlier writers like Euripides and Sophocles had already told this story. He took a segment of the Jason saga and presented it masterfully, with an obvious and contagious enthusiasm for the ever-expanding world of Ancient Greek geography.

Medea’s Many Dimensions

Before we part company today, let’s talk a bit more about the main idea of this show – again, Episode 39, Medea and the Argonauts. Medea in Jason and the Argonauts is one of the strongest female leads in literary history before the late nineteenth century. Unlike the Medea in Euripides’ play Medea, the Medea Apollonius created is far less of a problem heroine. Other than being an accomplice in the murder of her brother and conniving to escape the court of her (admittedly brutal and dishonest) father, Apollonius’ Medea ranks alongside the great Homeric heroes in sheer power, unabashed courage, and gritty one liners. And the killing of her brother, which is certainly her most egregious offense, is mostly pardonable, considering he is there to bring her back to King Aeëtes, where she will face torture and execution.

There are moments at which Medea seems like she’s half composed of a Diomedes or Ajax – the left and right fists of the Greek army in the Trojan War. Medea thinks of plowing the field with the fire breathing bulls and dragon’s teeth men as so easy that she doesn’t want to do it for Jason and thus embarrass him. Medea faces down a fearsome dragon without any challenge. Later, in a scene we just heard, she sees the fearsome bronze giant patrolling the shore of Crete, and says, “Listen,” she said. “I think I can kill that man / all by myself, whoever he might be, / yes, even if his body is entirely / made out of bronze, so long as he is not / invulnerable” (210). And maybe most memorably of all, the first time Medea is to be used as a bargaining chip with the Colchians, she makes a haunting speech to Jason. I quoted the first half of it earlier. Medea, hearing that she might be auctioned off in order to speed the Argonauts back to Greece, first pleads with Jason. She reminds Jason all she’s done for him, and emphasizes that she is in his power and the power of other Argonauts, and that they would be heartless to abandon her. After offering up the rhetoric of the damsel in distress, Medea shows a different side of her personality. She tells Jason,
“[You will] [r]emember me someday when agony
is squeezing you, and may the fleece then flutter,
dreamlike, into the depths of [the underworld]
and yield no good to you. Yes, may the Furies
drive you upon arrival from your homeland
because of all I suffered through your cruelty.

[The gods] will not allow my [curses]
to tumble unfulfilled onto the earth –
Not long. . .will you and your companions sit at ease
and laugh at me, no, not for all your treaties.”

So she threatened, and her bitter rage
boiled over – how she longed to torch the ship,
ignite the whole wide world. (164)
In other words, Medea says, “Dear sire, please, I am a helpless girl entirely under your care, please don’t betray my trust. And oh, by the way, if you do, I will make sure that you and your men are torn to pieces and burned down to bones.” In just this way, throughout Jason and the Argonauts Medea goes back and forth between being a trembling, barefoot princess in a tear stained nightgown, and being an avatar of hell on earth. And when the powerful side of Medea comes out, after reading so much other ancient and classical literature in which women are property, or slaves, or, at best, obedient wives – when the powerful side of Medea comes out, every time, it’s exhilarating. [music]

Early Psychological Realism in the Argonautica

Medea, as I said a second ago, goes back and forth between being a helpless love sick princess and a powerful sorceress. But when she’s between the two, she’s often at her most human. For instance, a huge amount of Book 3 of the epic deals with Medea analyzing and trying to resist the arrow of Eros, or Cupid. Apollonius’ Medea seems to understand that her sudden infatuation is an unjustified mania, unlike other victims of Aphrodite and her minions in Ancient Greek literature. And in the midst of her sudden perplexing obsession with Jason, Medea has the wherewithal to think of the political and familial implications of pursuing him.

All of Colchis, Medea knows, will derogate her for falling for the Greek pretty boy. She doesn’t want to, and yet the force of amorous and erotic attraction is so intense that she has trouble resisting it. It’s no wonder that the love story in the second half of Jason and the Argonauts is the central focus of medieval and renaissance marginal notes in the manuscripts. The ideology of courtly love, or of a couple being so lovestruck that they lose control of their other priorities, pervades hundreds of years of later European poetry. But interestingly, the infatuated lover who tries to resist, in for instance The Romance of the Rose, or the poems of Chretien de Troyes, or early Dante, or Petrarch, or Sidney – in all of these male writers, the poet or speaker is infatuated with a mostly wordless, usually blond bombshell with milky white skin and no discernible personality. Apollonius’ Medea is quite the opposite – a very distinct female character who can’t believe that all of her interests and loyalties have started to collapse due to an insuperable infatuation with a handsome idiot.

In one of Apollonius’ best moments as a poet, just before Medea makes the simultaneously supplicating and threatening speech that I quoted above, Apollonius imagines Medea’s experience as akin to the experience of a more powerless woman. The Argonauts fall asleep, confident that the possible horse trade they’ve arranged with the Colchians will get them what they need, even if it costs them Medea. At the same time,
Slumber, however, never reached [Medea],
but anguish churned her heart, as when a poor,
hardworking woman twirls and twirls her spindle
all night long, and all around her wail
the children orphaned since her husband died,
and tears drip down her cheeks as she considers
the miserable lot she has been given.
Like hers, Medea’s cheeks were wet with weeping
and her heart kept spinning, spinning, spun
by agonizing pangs. (189)
In Aaron Poochigian’s translation of this simile you can really see Apollonius thinking about the plight of the disenfranchised woman – whether she’s a weaver or a princess, her helplessness is the same. In this moment, and many others, by giving Medea vulnerabilities as well as semidivine powers; by making her susceptible to love but also resilient enough to resist it, Apollonius creates an especially rich, three dimensional character.

And really, when we put all four books of the Argonautica side by side on our desk we can see something thrilling starting to happen in literary history. In the previous episode, we saw how Jason, with his insecurities, his requests for counsel, his mistakes and tactical blunders, may be dissatisfying as a hero, but – as a result of his imperfections – is all the more satisfying as a character. The same is true with Medea, only perhaps threefold. In extensive third person omniscient scenes of the Colchian princess – scenes that take place in her bedroom, and in the hallways of palaces, and isolated spots on the deck of the Argonauts’ ship – we see the interior psychology of this great character with far more depth than is usual in classical literature. Medea, and to a lesser extent Jason, with their strengths and their weaknesses; with their triumphs and their fumbles; with their crimes and their almost divine flashes of glory, show some of the first signs of psychological realism in the history of literature. And in his marvelous set descriptions – his interests in local cultures and landforms, all of his resplendent illustrations of specific parts of the Aegean and Black Seas, Apollonius lays another important column of literary realism – and that is attention to specific places and civilizations, rather than generic or stock settings. Creating three dimensional characters with vibrant interior lives, and placing these characters in carefully delineated natural and urban landscapes – Apollonius may not have the grandeur or perfect rhythm of Homer. But as an innovator, and a synthesizer of traditions, Apollonius nonetheless wrote an epic that sits perfectly in the fold between ancient and modern literature, embodying some of the best qualities of both. [music]

Women and Hellenization: Family Edges Out the Polis

Apollonius’ character Medea is, in fact, so unusual that we should try and consider her in the midst of the historical climate out of which she comes. The next show that we’re going to do is called “Hellenism and the Birth of the Self.” It’ll be a pure history episode, and in it I’m going to tell you about what happened in the wake of the conquests of Alexander the Great. Apollonius was active during the mid-200s BCE in the city of Alexandria, writing when the first wars of the Diadochi – or the wars between Alexander’s successors started to abate. The successor kingdoms never really stopped fighting one another, and constantly had to campaign against insurrections within their own borders, and subsequently the Hellenistic period, or the years between 330 and 30 BCE or so, was a particularly violent time to live in the Aegean world or Eurasia more generally.

Three centuries of wars in the Fertile Crescent and Eastern Mediterranean led to the successor kings growing increasingly feeble and the Roman Republic growing increasingly muscular. At a broad level, historians of these three centuries – again the Hellenistic period – see a gradual turn away from public life, and geographically anchored, public religious ceremonies, and toward private life, and cult religions. Now, we’ll talk about this sea change in detail next time, but for the purposes of understanding where Apollonius’ version of Medea comes from, consider this.

Cities, and local governments and their political institutions, became less stable in the Hellenistic period. When giant mercenary armies funded by imperial kings are being smashed together every five or ten years, your city, no matter how tough or historically rich, is vulnerable to rapid, violent change. Thus, earlier in history, in Athens in the 450s, aristocratic youths prepared for their world in public life from a young age – the rhetorical skills that Athenian blue bloods possessed back in the 450s had been all important, because these skills were used to influence specific pieces of legislation and governmental action that affected the whole city. But. Cut to two hundred years later, when Apollonius was writing the Argonautica. Even if your city had once been tremendously important, by the 250s, throwing yourself into public life at the civic level was a much more questionable expenditure of time. There were Ptolemaic Kings, and Seleucid Kings out there who ate cities for breakfast. All of a sudden, the world of the municipal legislative body, and the community religious ritual – these worlds were smaller, and more brittle. Because of the unprecedented scale of the instability of the Hellenistic period, citizens of the successor kings’ empires turned inward, following cult religions and focusing more on familial relationships than knitting together a useful web of civic relationships. As their cities seemed ready to burst into flames at any given moment, Hellenistic men and women hunkered in their households and stored up their personal fortunes as best they could.

One of the long reaching implications of these changes was a heightened emphasis on relationships between men and women. I’m going to quote Peter Green on this subject, a historian whose book From Alexander to Actium is a gold standard of Hellenistic history. Peter Green writes,
In Apollonius’. . .Argonautica, Jason’s involvement with Medea is symptomatic of the new emphasis on the inner psychology of erotic relationships. One odd result of the collapse of the polis ethos (and the weakening of the old aristocratic families) was the growing displacement of formalized pederasty among the upper classes by heterosexual passion leading to marriage (as mirrored in the plays of Menander): familial rather than civic masculine bonding was now becoming the norm. Here and there, as inscriptions tell us, the young men of a polis were still put through defensive training, still served in their local militia, but the overall trend is unmistakable. . . .Women, by and large. . .did well out of these changes. . .[Older] recommendations on a husband’s proper consideration for his wife’s feelings began to be taken seriously. Greater access to wealth and education (previously restricted, along with the inevitable accompanying social stigma, to courtesans) strengthened the status of respectable married women.2
And again, that’s from historian Peter Green. So, when we see Apollonius’ Medea, we may be witnessing a historical turn toward thinking of heterosexual marriage as something more than a social arrangement for the purposes of transmitting wealth through generations, which is just what it was two hundred years before in Athens. Suddenly, as civic institutions were robbed of their importance by the interruptions of larger empires, and as community religion began to fall away to the cults of Dionysus, Isis, and later Cybele and Mithras, as all of these atomizing forces took place, men began looking toward family, and marital relationships as a source of understanding and stability. By the 250s BCE, Jews weren’t all circled around the altar of the Jerusalem temple. They were all over the world. Athenians were no longer all together raising their voices at the Dionysian theater festival. Under the cruel governance of the successor kings, such public assemblies were dangerous, and Athenians were as likely to be marching in a mercenary army as they were munching raisins in their agora and talking local politics. The Hellenistic world was an outward spinning spiral, and local turned, dizzyingly, into global, and men and women, in a search for stability and mutual understanding, unable to find these in civic institutions and neighborhood affiliations, sought to find them by holding onto each other in their marriages. Apollonius’ Medea, a fully-formed, flawed female heroine, princess, damsel, atom bomb, but more than anything, human being, is an unforgettable product of these sweeping cultural changes. [music]

Moving on to Hellenistic History

Well, folks, we’ve moved through fourteen episodes on Classical and Hellenistic Greek literature – Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Menander, and Apollonius. We’ve met some towering figures – Clytemnestra, Orestes, Oedipus, Antigone, Medea, Lysistrata, and good old bumbling Jason. We learned about huge topics in ancient history – the Greco-Persian Wars, the expansion of the Athenian Empire, the intellectual history of Classical Athens, the Peloponnesian War, the conquests of Alexander the Great and the artistic and scientific flowering of Alexandria under the Ptolemies. It’s been a great journey, and we have just one more stop to make before moving on to Rome.

As I said a minute ago, our next show is going to be pure history. We’ll talk a bit about literature – a bit about the poetry of Theocritus and the book of 2 Maccabees, but our main focus will be the events of the Hellenistic period. In the carnage that followed Alexander the Great’s conquests, the whole world of Eurasian civilization changed. One of these changes gives us our name for this period of history. The Hellenistic era was a time of Greek culture and language permeating the present day Middle East and North Africa, even as far as present day Pakistan and India. But the permeation was not one sided. From the Hindu Kush to the dry hills of Libya, from the Middle Nile to the Central Balkans, the messy world that Alexander left behind him saw cultural influence moving omnidirectionally. Of the many important results of these centuries, the most important were the rise of Rome, and even more significantly and enduringly the growth and hybridization of a certain kind of religion – a religion that replaced community rituals of sacrifice with private rites of initiation, and public supplications for divine aid with private prayers for posthumous salvation. In the Hellenistic period, this religion had many variants – the Dionysian and Orphic cults, the older cult of Demeter; the Isis and Osiris cult from Egypt; the Anatolian rites of Cybele and the Indo-Iranian cult of Mithras; the sacraments of Zoroastrianism and the evolutions of Second Temple Judaism – but altogether these religions began to make the individual, and her private relationship with her deity, and her efforts to find a blessed afterlife, take precedence over community ritual. So join me next time, for a very fascinating and bloody period of history, a look at what was going on in the far east of Republican Rome, and, of course, some of the earliest stirrings of what would later be Christianity. Thanks for listening to Literature and History, and I’ve got one more comedy song for ancient Greece if you want to hear it. If not, see you next time, for Episode 40: Hellenism and the Birth of the Self.

Still here? Hey, so in my continued forward march to try and make literature fun and unpretentious by writing silly music, I’ve done a piece on Jason. I got to thinking about just how inconstant Jason is – really in Euripides’ earlier play, Medea, obviously, but also in Apollonius’ epic, too. Even in what we read today, Jason goes through a couple of bouts of trying to ditch his wife so that his getaway vehicle can keep cranking along at high speed. Jason is hardly, in short, a rock solid and constant significant other. I got to thinking about all that, and what it would sound like if Jason wrote Medea a power ballad. You know, like an eighties power ballad where you hold your lighter up and sway from side to side. So this one’s called “Jason’s Power Ballad.” Thanks again for listening to the show, and I’ve got some really cool history for you next time.



References
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. 111. Further references are noted parenthetically.

2.^ Green, Peter. The Hellenistic Age. Random House Publishing Group, 2008. Kindle Edition, locations 1676-81.