The Argonautica, Book I

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The Argonauts Set Sail

Taking his inspiration from Apollo and the Muses, Apollonius states his intent to tell the story of the journey of the Argonauts to Colchis to bring back the Golden Fleece.

It all began when Pelias, king of Iolchus, received a prophecy that he would be murdered by a man wearing only one sandal. Shortly afterwards, Jason arrived at the palace for a feast in honour of Poseidon, wearing only one sandal, having lost the other as he crossed a river. Pelias immediately decided to rid himself of this threat to the throne by sending Jason, the legitimate heir, on a dangerous voyage from which he hoped Jason would never return: Colchis was a distant land ruled over by Aeetes, son of the Sun God, the fleece was sacred to Ares and was guarded day and night by a dragon that never slept.

Pelias, king of Iolcos, stops on the steps of a temple as he recognises young Jason by his missing sandal. Roman fresco from Pompeii.

With Athena’s help Argus built a ship, the Argo, named after its builder, inserting a plank of wood which could talk, given to him by Athena. Jason invited fifty men to join the voyage: some were already heroes through their exploits, others would be, and all would make a contribution through their strength, courage or specific skill: Polyphemus, Ademetus, Coronus, Eurydamas, Eurytion, Eurybotes, Oileus, Clytius, Iphitus, Telamon, Peleus, father of Achilles, Boutes, Phalerus, Talaus, Areios, Leodocus, Heracles, the most famous and strongest of them, who had just killed the Erymanthian boar, Hylas, Heracles’ squire, Lynceus, Idas, Periclymenus, who had the ability to change shape, Cepheus, Amphidamus, Euphemus, said to be the fastest man alive, Meleager and his protector, Laocoon, Iphiclus, Palaemonius, although lame like his father, Hephaistus, Menoetius, Canthus, Ancaeus, Augeas, owner of the stables Heracles had to clean as one of his Twelve Labours, Asterius, Amphion, Iphitus who had hosted Jason when he consulted the Delphic oracle about the voyage, and Acastus, Pelias’ son who did not wish to miss the adventure, Echion, Erytus, Aethalides, Orpheus, who had the ability to soothe with his music, Asterion, Pleias, Castor and Polydeuces also known as The Dioscuri, Erginus, Zetes, Calais, Iphiclus, Jason’s uncle, Mopsus, who could foresee the future, Idmon with the ability to read sacred signs, Tiphys, the best helmsman, Nauplius, the most skilled in sailing, and Argus, the ship’s builder. We are told Theseus and Peirithoos would have joined the expedition had they not been detained in Tartarus. Atalanta also wanted to join them but Jason refused her, thinking a woman might be a distraction.

Gathering of the Argonauts, Attic red-figure krater, 460–450 BC. Louvre. (c) Bibi Saint-Pol

Collectively, the Argonauts were also known as Minyans, as many, including Jason, were descended from the daughters of Minyas. As the Argonauts gathered on the beach, Jason walking proudly with the bearing of the god, Apollo, the townspeople of Iolchus came to see them off, sympathising with Jason’s parents, Alcimede and Aeson; these grieved as they said their farewell to their son and and regretted the journey of Phrixus and Helle on the Golden Ram. When Jason asked the Argonauts to choose a leader, they initially looked to Heracles, as he was a great hero, but he insisted it should be Jason who then organised the digging of a trench, the attachment of rollers under the beached ship to drag it into the sea, the fitting of the oars and the allocation of the rowers to each rowing bench.

Jason them oversaw the sacrifice of two bulls to Apollo to secure good auspices for their journey. Idmon predicted that Jason would return safely to Greece with the fleece, knowing that he himself would not return. When Idas and Idmon began to quarrel, Orpheus soothed them by playing his lyre and singing of the origins of the world. They set sail the next morning, watched by the gods from above. That afternoon a strong wind forced them to land on the coast of Magnesia and they were unable to sail until three days later, but then they made good progress until a gale forced them to land on Lemnos.

The island was ruled by Hypsipyle and inhabited only by women as, in the previous year, the women had killed all the men for being unfaithful, saving only Hypsipyle’s father, Thoas, hidden in a chest and cast out to sea. At the approach of the Argonauts, the women armed themselves, assuming they were Thracians coming for revenge, but when Aethalides, sent as a messenger, informed them who they were, Hypsipyle sent them gifts and was advised by her nurse, Polyxo, in a council meeting to welcome the Argonauts into their homes and beds so that their race did not become extinct.

The Lemnians, painting by William Russell Flint.

Jason, approached Hypsipyle looking regal, carrying a spear given him by Atalanta and dressed in a purple cloak given to him by Athena, elaborately decorated with seven scenes from Greek mythology: the Cyclopes forging Zeus’ thunderbolt, the foundation of Thebes by Zethus and Amphion, Aphrodite carrying Ares’ shield, the stealing of Electryon’s cattle, the chariot race to win Hippodameia, the killing of Tityus by Apollo and Phrixus and the Golden Ram.

Hypsipyle lied in her explanation as to why there no men on the island, saying the women had driven them away to Thrace because they had abandoned their wives and set up home with captured slave women. She offered Jason sovereignty, which he refused, but he and the rest of the Argonauts, except for Heracles who stayed behind to guard the Argo, did stay on the island for some time until they were reminded by Heracles of their intended journey. Hypsipyle begged Jason to return in case she bore him a son but he replied that, if he did not return home, she should send any son, once he was a man, to Jason’s parents to ease their grief.

On the suggestion of Orpheus that evening they landed at Samothrace to celebrate the mysteries of Electra to ensure a safe voyage. Having crossed the Hellespont, a storm forced them to land on the island of the Doliones, ruled by Cyzicus, a young king and newly wed. He welcomed and prepared a feast for the Argonauts, having been instructed by a prophecy to do so, but the next morning Earthborn Giants who inhabited the island attacked the Argo and were killed by Heracles, who once again had stayed to guard the ship, later joined by more of the heroes.

The Argo, painting by Konstantinos Volanakis (1837–1907).

The Argo continued on its journey but was blown back to the island that night. The Doliones attacked them as they disembarked, thinking they were invaders, and the Argonauts did not realise on which island they had landed. Many of the Doliones were killed including Cyzicus at the hands of Jason. In the morning both sides realised their mistake too late. Cyzicus’ young bride, Cleite, hung herself, overcome by grief. It was thirteen days before the storm abated and allowed them to set sail once again after Mopsus was alerted by the omen of a halycon flying around the head of Jason and then landing on the top of the Argo. He instructed Jason to sacrifice to the Mother Goddess, Rhea, at her temple on top of Mount Didymium to put an end to the storm, which he did, and Argus carved an image of the goddess. Orpheus instructed the younger men in a dance in her honour, banging their swords on their shields to prevent any cries of grief from the Doliones being heard and bringing bad luck. The goddess responded favourably with signs from nature including a fountain sprouting from the top of the mountain and named after Jason.

To make up for lost time they rowed competitively to see who could row the longest and tire last. Unsurprisingly, it was Heracles but, when his oar broke, they put ashore to cut a new one and were welcomed by the Mysians who helped them to restock the ship. As Heracles cut down a pine tree, Hylas wandered off in search of water. As he drew water from the spring, Pegae, one of its water nymphs, falling in love with Hylas, pulled him into the water. Polyphemus heard Hylas’ cry but could find no trace of him. Heracles, grief stricken, joined the search, to no avail.

Hylas and the Nymphs, painting by John William Waterhouse 1896.

The rest of the Argonauts set sail, initially unaware they had left three crew members behind. When they discovered they had, Telamon argued strongly they must turn back to get them, accusing Jason of not wanting Heracles to eclipse his own glory, but they were persuaded by Zetes and Calais, the sons of Boreas, not to return, a decision later fatal for these two as Heracles killed them. The sea god, Glaucus, then appeared, waist deep in the sea, and reinforced this saying they should continue on their voyage as Heracles was fated to complete his Twelve Labours, Polyphemus was fated to found and rule the city of Cius until he died fighting the Chalybes while Hylas was fated to marry the nymph who snatched him. Before Heracles left he threatened to kill all of the Mysians if they did not tell him whether Hylas was dead or alive; they promised to keep searching and gave him some sons of their noblemen as hostages. After Telamon had apologised for what he had said, Jason forgave him. The next morning they spied land and put ashore in the land of the Bebrycians.

Overview Book II