Argonautica – Part III – Love and the Forging of a Hero

The ArgoIt’s been a while since Part II of the Argonautica series, and this is the first on the new website. If you have not already done so, you may wish to read Part I and Part II first.

Today, we have an epic post.

Jason and the Argonauts have almost reached Colchis after their visit to the blind seer, Phineus. They have successfully navigated the Cyanean Rocks, using a white dove as Phineus suggested.

But the journey is far from over and the gods are watching.

They come to a desert island called Thynias, where Apollo appears to them, but does not speak. It is as though the Argonauts are being reminded of their place. They are awed by Apollo and keep their heads bowed. When he is gone, they build an altar to him.

Then they sail on to the land of the Mariandyni where they recount their tale to the king, Lycus, who is pleased that they defeated his enemies the Bebrycians. Lycus adds his son, Dascylus, to Jason’s crew. Lycus says that he will build a temple to Castor and Polydeuces for defeating the Bebrycian king, Amycus.

This is all well and good, but there is an odd episode before they leave the Mariandyni. Idmon, the son of Abas, one of Jason’s soothsayers, is killed by a huge white-tusked boar and promptly dies in his comrades’ arms. The Argonauts mourn for three days, during which Tiphys, son of Hagnias, dies of sickness. All of this sudden loss sends the Argonauts into despair.

The goddess Hera steps in to inspire the men once more and they finally set out after twelve days. They then reach the river Thermodon in the land of the Amazons.

There is reference to Herakles’ labour there but they do not wish to linger as they do not want battle with the fierce Amazons, those war-loving daughters of Ares.

They row on past the land of the iron people known as the Chalybes, and then past the lands of the Mossynocci who, Apollonius tells us, have an odd habit of performing private acts in public, and what are normally public acts in private.

Apollonius enjoys telling us about all of these peoples, places and regional traditions, but the Argo presses on.

Then they come to the Island of Ares where deadly bronze birds are said to attack anyone who approaches. The Argonauts remember Herakles’ labour in the Stymphalian swamps and how he defeated similar birds, not with bow and arrows, but by making a loud clamour. So, they don their crested helmets and shake their heads and spears and yell so that they can land on the island.

But why would they land there? Phineus had told them they should, and this is why…

Origins of the Fleece

On this island are stranded the four sons of Phrixus – Cytissorus, Phrontis, Melas, and Argus.

Phrixus, of course, is the one who had come to Colchis on the golden ram in order to escape the murder of himself and his sister, Helle, in Orchomenos in Greece. The ram, sent by their divine mother to save them, flew over the sea with the two of them on its back. Along the way, Helle fell into the sea and drowned. That is where the ‘Hellespont’ gets its name.

Phrixus, Golden Ram, Helle drowning

Phrixus, Helle, and the Ram

Aeetes received Phrixus and treated him kindly, giving his daughter, Chalciope, in marriage to Phrixus. In thanks for his finding a safe exile, Phrixus sacrificed the golden ram to Zeus, the protector of strangers, and gave the Golden Fleece to Aeetes in thanks.

Phrixus and Chalciope’s sons were returning to Orchomenos in Greece to reclaim their father’s birthright when their ship was wrecked on the island of Ares.

The Argonauts see the gods’ hand in this and the truth of Phineus’ words, and the sons of Phrixus become part of the crew. They sacrifice to Ares in a roofless temple where the Amazons used to pray.

Jason tells the sons of Phrixus what they plan to do and the latter express their fear of Aeetes.

“My friends, our strength, so far as it avails, shall never cease to help you, not one whit, when need shall come. But Aeetes is terribly armed with deadly ruthlessness; wherefore exceedingly do I dread this voyage… Nay to seize the Fleece in spite of Aeetes is no easy task; so huge a serpent keeps guard round and about it, deathless and sleepless, which Earth herself brought forth on the sides of the Caucasus…” (Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica)

In reading this, and meeting the sons of Phrixus, I found it strange that in all the retellings of The Argonautica that I’ve watched or read, there was never any mention or hint of the actual origins of the Golden Fleece. I think the story of Phrixus is fascinating and tragic. It makes a fantastic story.

The Argonauts are getting close now, the stage is set.

They sail from the Island of Ares until they see the Caucasian mountains rising into the sky where Prometheus is bound to the rocks and the eagle eats his liver anew every day. The Argonauts see the eagle flying high in the clouds and they can hear the “bitter cry of Prometheus as his liver was being torn away.”

The Caucasus of modern Georgia, land of Colchis

The Caucasus of modern Georgia, land of Colchis

This approach to Colchis, with the cries of the tortured Titan ringing over the land, sets a mood of danger as they approach their goal.

That night, they reach the river Phasis and they come near to the city of Aea and the Grove of Ares where the Fleece hangs on the oak tree, in the shadow of the Caucasus.

Jason pours libations of honey into the river and of wine onto the Earth, and offerings to the gods of Colchis, and the spirits of their fallen comrades.

Piety and gratitude, are ever important in this tale.

And this is something that the movies often ignore. In fact, movies and other modern adaptations of this tale show the heroes as defiant of the gods, but that is the complete opposite of how it is in these ancient stories.

It’s a little sad, in my opinion that modern interpretations feel the need to dismiss the gods, or make the heroes defiant of them, in order to make the tales more palatable to modern audiences.

The involvement and honouring of the gods, I think, makes these ancient stories richer and more interesting.

The Argonauts have finally landed and they discuss whether or not to approach Aeetes with kind words, or force. This is where Book II ends.

Enter the Goddesses

In Book III of The Argonautica, the theme changes to one of Love. This is what sets this epic apart from all others in the ancient world to that point.

Apollonius begins book three by calling on Erato now, the muse of lyric poetry, or love poetry.

“Come now, Erato, stand by my side, and say next how Jason brought back the Fleece to Iolcus aided by the love of Medea. For thou sharest the power of Cypris, and by thy love-cares dost charm unwedded maidens, wherefore to thee too is attached a name that tells of love.”

Erato, Muse of Love Poetry

Erato, Muse of Love Poetry

Jason and the Argonauts are waiting in ambush for the Colchians, but the goddesses Hera and Athena feel that they need to do something to help them. Aeetes will not be easily fooled or beaten.

However, even Athena, Goddess of Wisdom and Strategy, is at a loss as to what to do. So, Hera suggests they go to Aphrodite (Cypris) for help.

Their plan is to have Aphrodite ask her son, Eros, to cause Aeetes’ daughter, Medea, to fall in love with Jason. Hera believes Medea will help Jason, and so they go to Aphrodite’s palace, built for her by her husband, Hephaestus.

This episode provides the listener/reader with a rare and intimate glimpse of Goddess of Love.

Hera and Athena find Aphrodite sitting alone on a chair facing the door of her palace.

“…she all alone was sitting within, on an inlaid seat facing the door. And her white shoulders on each side were covered with the mantle of her hair and she was parting it with a golden comb and about to braid up the long tresses; but when she saw the goddesses before her, she stayed and called them within…”                                                                                                                                         

Aphrodite is suspicious of their visit, but Hera says that they are genuinely fearful for Jason and want to help him. Jason, of course, helped Hera across the river when she was disguised as an old crone.

Aphrodite is moved by Hera’s supplication and says she will help, but she says that her son, Eros, is disobedient and that he may not listen.

This is a stunningly human scene in which Aphrodite, one of the most revered goddesses, is now a mother fretting over her disobedient child.

Aphrodite and Eros

Aphrodite and Eros

Of course, one of the most appealing things of the gods of ancient Greece was that people could relate to them. They too struggled with emotions and other very human situations.

Aphrodite goes in search of Eros on Mount Olympus and finds him throwing dice with Ganymedes in the orchard of Zeus.

Eros comes across as very cheeky, feisty, and even quite naughty. He is in the middle of, erm…sorry, ‘fleecing’ Ganymedes at dice. In fact, when Ganymedes leaves upon Aphrodite’s arrival, the goddess chides her son for cheating!

She tells him what she wants him to do and in return promises him a magical ball that was Zeus’ when he was a child. The ball, which looks like a shooting star when it is thrown, seals the deal, and Eros rushes out of the gates of Olympus all the way to Colchis with his bow and arrows.

Aeetes, King of the Colchians

After further discussion, Jason has decided that he will go with Telamon, Augeias, and the sons of Phrixus to the palace of Aeetes to speak with the king.

Jason trusts in the ordinance of Zeus that protects strangers.

The route they take is very interesting. They cross the Plain of Circe where willows and osiers grow in lines. In the branches of the trees hang the corpses of dead Colchians. Apollonius tells us here of an unusual custom of the Colchians that they do not burn or bury their dead beneath mounds. Rather, they wrap their dead in ox hide and suspend them in trees far from the city.

It must have been a grisly site for the Jason as he made his way, no doubt his gut full of fear already, to the palace of Aeetes.

But Jason is loved by the Gods, and Hera covers him and his companions with a mist so that they arrive safely at the entrance to Aeetes’ palace. Apollonius’ description of the palace relates the wealth of Aeetes; there is even a court with four fountains spouting milk, wine, oil, and water.

Jason sees Medea for the first time as she is going from chamber to chamber looking for her sister, Chalciope.

Medea

Medea

Thus enters one of the most tragic and terrifying characters of the ancient Greek world.

Medea cries out when she sees the newcomers, and Chalciope and others come running to see the returned sons of Phrixus. There are joyful tears as Chalciope greets her sons.

Then Aeetes enters with his queen, Eidyia.

Among this confusion, Eros passes unseen into their midst and stands near Jason with is bow and arrow ready. He shoots Medea and “speechless amazement seized her soul.”

“…the bolt burnt deep down in the maiden’s heart like a flame; and ever she kept darting bright glances straight up at Aeson’s son, and within her breast her heart panted fast through anguish, all remembrance left her, and her soul melted with sweet pain.”

 A banquet is set and Aeetes questions the sons of Phrixus, asking them why they are back and who they bring with them. Argus answers before the gathering, telling of their shipwreck on the Island of Ares and how Jason saved them.

Argus then relates the task set for Jason by Pelias, and how the hero has come with the “mightiest heroes of all Achaea” to ask for the Fleece.

Aeetes is told that in return for the Fleece, Jason and his men will help him to defeat his bitter enemies, the Sauromatae (people of the Amazons and Scythians).

Argus tells Aeetes that the Argonauts are the “sons and grandsons of the immortals”!

But Aeetes is full of rage and wrath in his heart and accuses the sons of Phrixus and Chalciope of bringing the strangers there so that they might steel his throne. Argus’ own anger rises and before anything happens, Jason steps up to speak.

His words calm the situation but Aeetes is mulling over whether to kill them on the spot, or to set Jason a trial of strength, a task that he has completed himself.

An Impossible Task

Aeetes tells Jason that he must harness two fire-breathing bulls with bronze hooves, plow the field of Ares with an adamant plow, and then sow it with the teeth of a serpent which will then grow into armed, earthborn men whom Jason has to slay.

If Jason does this, Aeetes says he will give him the Fleece.

Chalciope is terrified for her sons, for she knows her father’s anger.

Medea herself feels immeasurable worry for Jason, her heart is wrenched on the one hand by her feelings for the stranger, and on the other by devotion to her father.

Argus tells Jason that he will go to his mother and ask her to ask Medea for help.

Jason agrees. He is definitely afraid, and returns to the Argo to tell the crew what is to happen. Despair ranges among the Argonauts, but Peleus (later father of Achilles) says that he will do the task for Jason. This causes others to rise to volunteer and the despair evaporates.

While they are on the deck of the Argo, a hawk falls from the sky and is impaled on the stern ornament. Mopsus, the soothsayer, says that they should seek the help of Medea, remembering Phineas’ words about obeying Aphrodite. The crew agrees, except Idas.

Idas shames the rest of the men for relying on women and Aphrodite. “Do ye look to doves and hawks to save yourselves from contests?” he says.

And it is true, that this dependence on love, or women, is not common it ancient epics. Aphrodite rescues heroes from the battlefield in the Iliad, true, but she is an Olympian goddess. Medea is not.

But Idas is overruled.

Meanwhile, Aeetes plans treachery and regrets ever welcoming Phrixus into his home; he did so by the command of Zeus. Aeetes however, remembers his father Helios’ prophecy that he must avoid the secret treachery of his offspring who, in this case, he believes to be the sons of Phrixus and his daughter Chalciope. He vows that the Argonauts shall not escape.

Medea however, can’t stop thinking about Jason. She can’t sleep or think straight. She is a young woman overcome with love and confusion. She goes to speak with her sister, Chalciope.

Not a Monster…Yet

The common perception that most people have of Medea is that of the tragic, vengeful, barbarian sorceress of Eurpides’ play Medea (431 B.C.). When she discovered Jason has been unfaithful, she killed their children. It doesn’t get more monstrous than that!

However, the Medea of Apollonius’ Argonautica is nothing of the sort.

Medea is not a monster at all, but rather a young woman torn by anguish and love for Jason. She decides to help Jason by calling on “Hecate’s temple charms”, but she knows that the Colchians will heap disgrace on her for preferring a stranger to her father.

Jason and Medea

Jason and Medea

She even considers suicide but is dissuaded in her heart by Hera. With the light of the next day, her mind is made up. Medea prepares an ointment called the “Charm of Prometheus” which is made from a root that looks like flesh, and that has been fed by the blood of the Titan’s wound on the Caucasus.

That morning, Argus brings Jason to the shrine of Hecate where Medea is waiting for him. Jason goes on alone, at Hera’s bidding, and arrives at the shrine to meet Medea face-to-face. Apollonius says that they are at first silent “like oaks or lofty pines, which stand quietly side by side on the mountains when the wind is still.”

Jason asks her to speak and not be shy. He tells her that he comes to her a suppliant and a stranger for her help. He says that the returning heroes will spread word of her fame across all Greece. Jason even mentions Ariadne who helped another stranger, Theseus, against her father’s Minotaur and then left her homeland with the hero. He says the gods will thank her!

In our hindsight, we know the irony of this statement – Ariadne was left by Theseus on the island of Naxos, and Medea receives anything but thanks later in life. She becomes more infamous than famous for her deeds.

Medea tells him of the ceremony he must perform, which involves bathing in the river by night, digging a round pit, and sacrificing a ewe to Hecate. Then Jason must pour Hecate a libation of honey. At dawn he is then to strip down and anoint his body with the charm of Prometheus which will give him “boundless prowess and mighty strength” and protect him from the bulls’ fire and the earthborn warriors’ spears.

Medea also tells Jason how he can defeat the earthborn warriors that will grow from the dragon’s teeth by casting a stone among them. She knows that once he succeeds he will leave and she:

“…cast her eyes to her feet in silence, and her cheek, divinely fair, was wet with warm tears as she sorrowed for that he was about to wander far away from her side over the wide sea…”

Jason says that he will never forget her, day or night, but she is hurt when he speaks to her of ‘guest-love’ such as Ariadne had for Theseus, and that he wishes Aeetes was as kindly toward himself as Minos was to Theseus.

“In Hellas, I ween, this is fair to pay heed to covenants; but Aeetes is not such a man among men as thou sayest was Pasiphae’s husband, Minos; nor can I liken myself to Ariadne; wherefore speak not of guest-love. But only do thou, when thou hast reached Iolcus, remember me, and thee even in my parents’ despite, will I remember.”                                                                                                                               

Medea’s feelings run deeper than Jason knows. Indeed, Apollonius refers to “Love the destroyer”.

At this point, Apollonius gives over to a long conversation between Jason and Medea, developing the theme of romantic love further. There is hope, but there is also irony, and dread; listeners at the time would have known what happened in their story later on.

Jason speaks of how if she came to Hellas, Medea would be worshipped as a goddess for helping their sons return home. He also speaks of their bridal chamber.

In a way, the gods are against Medea. She is a sort of casualty at the whim of Hera. The Queen of the Gods wishes only to help Jason, and it seems that Medea is just a pawn.

“…her soul melted within her to hear his words; nevertheless she shuddered to behold the deeds of destruction to come. Poor wretch! Not long was she destined to refuse a home in Hellas. For thus Hera devised it, that Aeaean Medea might come to Ioleus for a bane to Pelias, forsaking her native land.”

Calling on the Gods

Medea goes back to the palace distraught, and Jason returns to his comrades in good spirits.

That night, Jason undertakes the ritual to Hecate that Medea outlined so carefully. There is a detailed description of the ceremony and sacrifice carried out with great reverence. The ancients took these things seriously, so it is a little unfortunate that modern retellings never touch on these religious rituals.

The ceremony works and there is a particularly terrifying moment when Hecate appears to accept the offerings:

“And when he called on her he drew back; and she heard him, the dread goddess, from the uttermost depths and came to the sacrifice of Aeson’s son; and round her horrible serpents twined themselves among the oak boughs; and there was a gleam of countless torches; and sharply howled around her the hounds of hell. All the meadows trembled at her step; and the nymphs that haunt the marsh and the river shrieked, all who dance round that mead of Amarantian Phasis. And fear seized Aeson’s son, but not even did he turn round as his feet bore him forth…”

Morning comes and Jason finishes anointing himself and his weapons with the charm.

The trial is at hand. This is an episode that is shown in the retellings such as the Hallmark series but the details in the Argonautica are finer.

Jason goes onto the field where the adamant plow is and the bulls rush forth breathing their fire. But Jason is protected by his shield and charm as the bulls ram him and breath fire so that the “consuming heat played around him.”

Jason yoking the Bulls

Jason yoking the Bulls with Aeetes watching

With strength more fitting to Herakles, Jason wrestles the bulls into the yoke and makes them plow the field while goading them with his spear. Into the furrows he tosses the dragon’s teeth. It all takes the better part of a day, and after the bulls are unyoked, Jason returns to the field where the earthborn warriors are spring up all over the place, their armour and spears shining brilliantly.

Jason remembers Medea’s advice and heaves a bloody great boulder into their midst, causing the earthborn warriors to fight each other over it. Then:

“… did Aeson’s son rush upon the earthborn men, and he drew from the sheath his bare sword, and smote here and there, mowing them down, many on the belly and side, half risen to the air – and some that had risen as far as the shoulders – and some just standing upright, and others even now rushing to battle…and the furrows were filled with blood…”                                                                                 

Jason completes the impossible task that had been set for him and Aeetes returns to his palace in a rage, plotting how to defeat the heroes.

Book IV of the Argonautica begins with Aeetes’ wrath at Jason’s success, and Medea’s fear that her father will discover she has helped the heroes.

Hera puts so much fear into Medea’s heart that she flees to Jason and the sons of Phrixus who are at the Argo. There is a moving scene in which Medea touches the doors and walls of her room before fleeing her home, and she leaves a long tress of her hair behind for her mother.

Hera - Queen of the Gods

Hera – Queen of the Gods

A part of her wishes the sea had destroyed Jason before he had ever reached Colchis, for all the pain she is feeling.

She leaves the palace in the night, barefoot, and runs across the plain. The moonlight shines down on her and the goddess of that celestial orb warns Medea that “some god of affection has given thee Jason to be thy grievous woe.” But Medea keeps running.

I wonder if Shakespeare, prior to writing Romeo and Juliet, wasn’t inspired by this ancient tale of star-crossed lovers. Medea knows the dangers, and hears the warnings, but she carries on.

She arrives at the Argo where the heroes are gathered, and says that they must flee before Aeetes attacks. She says she will lead them to the grove where the Fleece is, and will lull the serpent guardian to sleep so that they can get the Fleece.

Here Medea, thoroughly terrified, makes Jason swear to honour his promise to her in front of the crew:

“Lady, let Zeus of Olympus himself be witness to my oath, and Hera, queen of marriage, bride of Zeus, that I will set thee in my halls my own wedded wife, when we have reached the land of Hellas on our return.”                                                                                                                                                          

The Golden Fleece

They sail the Argo up the river near to the grove of Ares where the Fleece is, and they come to the altar of Zeus where Phrixus sacrificed the golden ram.

Nearby is the sacred oak tree “on which was hung the Fleece, like to a cloud that blushes red with the fiery beams of the rising sun.”

Medea shows Jason the Fleece

Medea shows Jason the Fleece

As soon as they arrive, the giant serpent rises and hisses at them, and the sound echoes over the grove and the land of Colchis, waking the people of the land with fear.

Here, it is not Jason who performs acrobatic antics about the serpent to obtain the Fleece, as happens in the movies. It is thanks to Medea and her charms, her voice, that Jason is able to grab the prize. As the serpent uncoils and rears, Medea approaches its eyes, speaking softly:

“And Aeson’s son followed in fear, but the serpent, already charmed by her song, was relaxing the long ridge of his giant spine, and lengthening out his myriad coils, like a dark wave, dumb and noiseless, rolling over a sluggish sea; but still he raised aloft his grisly head, eager to enclose them both in his murderous jaws. But she with newly cut spray of juniper dipping and drawing untempered charms from her mystic brew, sprinkled the eyes, while she chanted her song; and all around the potent scent of the charm cast sleep; and on the very spot he let his jaw sink down; and far behind through the wood with its many trees were those countless coils stretched out.”

Jason snatches the Fleece unceremoniously from the tree and they run back to the Argo. Once on board, he finally holds up the prize for all to see:

“Heavy it was, thickly clustered with flocks; and as he moved along, even beneath his feet the sheen rose up from the earth. And he strode on now with the fleece covering his left shoulder from the height of his neck to his feet, and now again he gathered it up in his hands; for he feared exceedingly, lest some god or man should meet him and deprive him thereof.”

The Fleece is divine, and Apollonius describes it as gleaming “like the lightning of Zeus.”

The quest seems complete, and Jason addresses the crew that has come with him this far:

“No longer now, my friends forbear to return to your fatherland. For now the task for which we dared this grievous voyage, toiling with bitter sorrow of heart, has been lightly fulfilled by the maiden’s counsels. Her – for such is her will – I will bring home to be my wedded wife; do ye preserve her, the glorious saviour of all Achaea and of yourselves.”

The Argonauts set sail, fully armed and ready for an attack, and Jason stands beside Medea on the deck.

The Hero, Jason

The Hero, Jason

It seems to me that Medea is an unsung hero in most retellings of the Argonautica. Could Jason have done this without the gods’ help, or without Medea’s? Probably not. To our modern view, Jason is not the shiny hero we often read about or perceive. He is standing on the shoulders of others.

But perhaps that is the lesson the ancients wanted taught? In the ancient world, the belief was that mortals needed the gods’ help in all things. The gods deserved their due reverence. It is only in modern retellings of these heroic epics that this message is watered down, showing heroes to be more like rebels when it comes to the gods who oversee their world.

Aeetes and his son, Apsyrtus, rush to the Colchian shore with their full army ready for battle only to find that the Argonauts, sons of Phrixus, and Medea, have already set sail. The king calls on Helios and Zeus to witness the Argonauts’ evil deeds. He also calls on all his people to seize Medea on land or sea and bring her back to him. Aeetes wants vengeance!

I know this post has been longer than the others, but it just goes to show how much this original story entails, and how much is usually left out in the retellings we are so familiar with.

Most often, the story is on a downward slope from here on. In the movies, Jason and the Argonauts return to Colchis, confront Pelias, and all ends happily ever after.

But that is not how things go in the Argonautica. We are only half way through the tale and the homeward journey is something more akin to the Odyssey than to a breezy Aegean pleasure cruise to victory.

In the next couple posts of this series, we’ll find out what trials await the Argonauts, and whether the gods are pleased or full of fury at what has transpired.

Thank you for reading.

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