The Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes.

The Golden Fleece by Herbert James Draper (1904).
The Argonautica (Ἀργοναυτικά), also known as Jason and the Golden Fleece and The Voyage of Argo is a poem by Apollonius of Rhodes, composed in the 3rd Century B.C. I've been keen to read it for a while now - firstly because it is one of the few stories containing the myth of Hylas and the Nymphs (one of my favourite paintings by John William Waterhouse, pictured below), and also, most recently, I've read the Jason and Medea story in Ovid's Metamorphoses (Book VII), so I wanted to read a different interpretation. Before I go on I must note: I read the prose translation by E. V. Rieu - I know prose translations of poetry aren't ideal but it's all I had and I was eager to read it!

Apollonius of Rhodes account is a retelling of the myth of Jason's quest at the behest of King Pelias to retrieve the Golden Fleece (this is also mentioned in the Odes of Pindar: Pythian IV, 462 B.C. The earliest version is thought to be the one told by Eumelos in 700 B.C.). King Pelias was king of Iolcus: following the death of King Cretheus Pelias had usurped his half-brother Aeson and claimed the right to the throne. When king he heard a prophecy from the Oracle that his death would be brought about by a man wearing only one sandal; later, Pelias held a feast in honour of the god Poseidon and Jason, the son of Aeseon, arrived wearing only one sandal having lost the other in the River Anaurus whilst helping Hera. And so Pelias decided to send Jason on a perilous journey, hoping his rival will be lost or killed, never to return home.

The Map of the Voyage of the Argonaunts (1624).
The quest is to bring to Pelias the Golden Fleece (χρυσόμαλλον δέρας), that is the fleece of Zeus' golden ram, which was then in Colchis. The ship, the Argo, is built (directed by Argus) and the crew are gathered: names such as Orpheus, Caeneus, Hylas, Heracles, Theseus, Peleus, and a great many others are included. Sacrifices are made to Apollo, and soon the ship sets sail.

They journey around the Greek islands, first encountering the women of Lemnos, led by Queen Hypsipyle, who have recently murdered all the men of the island. Then in  Hellespont they meet King Cyzicus of the Doilones and see the giants intent on killing them. When they leave they get blown off course and return to the island, however this time are mistaken for a hostile army. Ultimately Cyzicus is killed by Jason. Following Doilones is Cius: this is where Hylas is lost, seduced by the water nymphs. Some say he has become a nymph himself, others claim they drowned him.

Hylas and the Nymphs by John William Waterhouse (1896).
After Cius, Bebryces, where Polydeuces (son of Zeus) is challenged to a fight with king Amycus. Polydeuces defeats Amycus. After the fight is over they leave and encounter further dangers including a battle with the Harpies, the problem of sailing through the Sympleglades (rocks), before it is eventually revealed that a dragon is protecting the Golden Fleece.

When they arrive in Colchis they meet the king, Aeëtes, who agrees to let Jason take the Golden Fleece but first he must perform three tasks: to plough the Plain of Ares with fire-breathing bulls, to sow the land with the teeth of dragons, and finally to defeat the dragon that guards the Fleece.

Jason and Medea
by John William Waterhouse (1907).
Here, the gods intervene: Hera, who Jason once helped, enlists Aphrodite to ask her son Cupid to make King Aeëtes' daughter Medea fall in love with Jason. It is she who will help Jason complete the tasks, betraying her father in the process. Finally the tasks are completed: Jason secures the Golden Fleece and they begins their return accompanied by Medea (who also helps them defeat the pursuing army send by Aeëtes: in this episode Medea kills her brother). Jason and Medea are then cleansed of their sins by Circe and they marry. They journey back is beset with dangers, for example they are nearly lured to their deaths by the sirens, but they do make it back to Iolcus where Jason prepares to seize the throne from Pelias.

The Argonautica is an epic, comparable I think, with Homer's The Odyssey and Virgil's later poem The Aeneid. It is exceptionally dense, so it is one I'd like to read again (next time a poetry translation) with a great many important characters all familiar to contemporary Greek readers. I adored it, it's beautiful and exciting, and I did learn a lot, though it was a little overwhelming due to my lack of familiarity. Those familiar with Greek myth will know the story doesn't end there, which is why I'm keen to read Euripides' Medea very soon! It's an excellent work, and I'm surprised it's not quite as celebrated as Virgil and Homer's poems.

Comments

  1. Of course, I don't think I'm ready to tackle these works of literature, but I always admire your choice of artwork. (Waterhouse is so romantic.)

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    1. Thank you! I love Waterhouse too, very much :) When you're ready for this one you'll manage it easily I bet! So many names to remember, that's the only tricky bit :)

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  2. i read this about a year ago and liked it. it had a different tone than most of the greeks; kind of more intimate in a way, like apollonius was not a stranger, but a convivial companion of some sort. and i liked the ending which had not the horror of the other versions...

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    1. Yes, there was a different tone - I agree Apollonius' presence could be felt in the poem (I couldn't put this into words in the post), he was like a companion. One of the reasons I loved it :)

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  3. I can't wait to read this one! Such adventure! If I could have a couple of lives, I would choose 10 years and just read Greek literature over and over. So many great tales!

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    1. That would be fun! I love the Greeks! Really enjoying reading through them :)

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