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The Voyage of the Argo

The Voyage of the Argo

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.

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December 15, 2023

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Apollonius of Rhodes fleshed out the story of Jason and Medea in The Voyage of the Argo. It describes a love story within a tale already full of adventure. More than a few things strike me as interesting about this work, such as the ship itself which creates a safe space for this rowdy band of heroes. On a number of occasions, the text notes that all were safe on board the ship and that the Argo herself was safe. Perhaps due to the skill of the famous shipwright Argus, but also (and more likely), due to the blessings of Hera, the ship weathers many trials and turns into a sort of character in itself. It’s a floating world, albeit an unnatural one with men hand-selected by Jason, which traverses deserts and squeaks through clashing rocks. This miniature Greek world then travels through many cultures and foreign places. It sees things never seen before. With Hera’s guiding hand, it becomes a spectacle of world culture.

While the ship fascinates me, I must also discuss Jason and Medea. In order to regain the throne, Jason is tasked with retrieving the golden fleece held by Aeëtes on Colchis. Hera knows that Jason will need help to steal the fleece, so she recruits fellow gods Aphrodite and Eros. Medea, of course succumbs to Eros’ arrow and falls madly in love with Jason. Being divine herself, the audience already knows that Medea is superior to Jason in many ways. Yet, the way that Apollonius of Rhodes handles her story fascinates me beyond all else. It raises the question – once again – as to the nature of a hero. (I have written about this question before and you can find that story here: hmu.edu)

Like other Greek myths, Jason provides a full-fleshed, problematic example of heroism. For example, in the following crucial scene, Medea helps Jason snatch the golden fleece by taming Aeëtes’ giant snake. Here is the text as translated by E. V. Rieu:

“The monster in his sheath of horny scales rolled forward his interminable coils, like the eddies of black smoke that spring from smouldering logs and chase each other from below in endless convolutions. But as he writhed he saw the maiden [Medea] taking her stand, and heard in her sweet voice invoking Sleep, the conqueror of the gods, to charm him. She also called on the night-wandering Queen of the world below to countenance her efforts. Jason from behind looked on in terror. But the giant snake, enchanted by her song, was soon relaxing the whole length of his serrated spine and smoothing out his multitudinous undulations, like a dark and silent swell rolling across a sluggish sea. Yet his grim head still hovered over them and the cruel jaws threatened to snap them up. But Medea, chanting a spell, dipped a fresh sprig of Juniper in her brew and sprinkled his eyes with her most potent drug; and as the all-pervading magic scent spread round his head, sleep fell on him. Stirring no more, he let his jaw sink to the ground, and his innumerable coils lay stretched out far behind, spanning the deep wood. Medea called to Jason and he snatched the golden fleece from the oak. But she herself stayed where she was, smearing the wild one’s head with a magic salve, still Jason urged her to come back to the ship and she left the sombre grove of Ares.

Lord Jason held up the great fleece in his arms. The shimmering wool threw a fiery glow on his fair cheeks and forehead; and he rejoiced in it, glad as a girl who catches on her silken gown the lovely light of the full moon as it climbs the sky and looks into her attic room.”

At times, Apollonius of Rhodes’s descriptions will knock you off your feet. Beautiful and enticing, he draws the listener in with rich details. More than this, however, he characterizes Medea with such grace and strength in this passage. Throughout this section she acts quickly, decisively, knowingly. She does not tremble. She stands tall and takes action. She speaks to monsters and is not frightened by them, behavior in stark contrast with Jason who is meant to be our hero. Rather, we find Jason cowering behind her. Would this have made him weak in the Greek world? Was Apollonius of Rhodes trying to emasculate him, or simply demonstrating Medea’s strength?

In fact, Medea does all the planning. She uses sorcery and magic to tame the serpent and she also gives Jason herbs for strength to plow the field with golden bulls and then slaughter the earthborn men. Throughout challenges in the field, though, Jason stands tall, takes action and remembers her wise advice. It is not until the final challenge, in taming the giant serpent, that Jason cowers. His reaction thus aims the full spotlight on Medea.

Even more striking, not only does Jason cower under the serpent’s glare, but Apollonius of Rhodes then compares him with a lovely maiden. The image unmistakably alters Jason, though I’m not sure how. The Greek world was used to such descriptions and alterations. They also would have appreciated the metaphor and poetry of this moment. Is Jason’s emasculation meant to demonstrate that Medea is the true hero of this tale? If so, what type of hero is she? Or does their role reversal simply underscore the rather unnatural circumstances of their relationship? Does it foreshadow future problems for their relationship?

I struggle to see Jason’s heroic efforts demonstrated, not just in this small excerpt, but throughout the story. Jason often requires advice and motivation from his crew. Rather than demonstrating the attributes that I associate with a leader, he frequently gives up and laments the Argonauts’ sorry fate. To me, their successful voyage depended more upon the crew and Medea than Jason himself. I am left wondering why we attribute the tale to Jason at all? Perhaps the title is our best clue and the Argo is the likeliest hero in the end.

Photo credit: Shutterstock/mark higgins

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