A New Epic for a New Age
The Argonautica is one of my favorite epics. This epic has five things going for it. Two of these things it has in common with traditional Greek epics. First, it's full of gods, magic, adventure and fighting. Second, it offers us a window into the world that produced it.
Yet three of my favorite things are completely unique to The Argonautica. The Argonautica has incredibly human characters who respond to the world in a very relatable way. The Argonautica is also blessedly short; it's about a third of the size of The Iliad. But the thing that really sets The Argonautica apart from its predecessors is that The Argonautica is a love story.
Apollonius of Rhodes
Have you ever noticed that in every movie - be it about aliens, zombies, World War II or boxing - there's always a love interest involved? Well, that pattern really starts to take off in the West during the Hellenistic Period. And in the third century BCE, there was no better place for a new literary form to arise than at the Library of Alexandria, the greatest collection of writing in the world. And at the top of that library was Apollonius of Rhodes, the head librarian. From this lofty perch atop the collected works of Western Civilization, Apollonius aspired to match the great Homer and compose an epic for his age.
Pelias's Quest for Jason
Meet Pelias, king of Iolcus. Pelias is in a bad position. As an illegitimate son of Poseidon and the former queen, Pelias's reign is on shaky ground. To secure his throne, Pelias has killed, imprisoned or exiled most of his family. This has angered most of the gods, except, of course, Poseidon. Hera decides Pelias must die! Athena agrees, and the two goddesses set about plotting Pelias's doom. They will use Pelias's cousin, Jason, to destroy the evil king. But rather than just giving Jason a knife and distracting the king, the goddesses plan this whole contrived, roundabout way to kill Pelias. Hera doesn't just want Pelias to die; she wants him to die horribly.
The Argonauts Prepare for Their Journey
Jason will go to Colchis, pick up a sorceress named Medea and bring her home with him, and she will kill the king in an inventive and awful manner. This may seem crazy to you or I, but Apollonius is simply retelling part of a story that is very, very old - the tale of Jason and Medea.
In that tale, Jason retrieves the Golden Fleece from the faraway land of Colchis with the help of the foreign sorceress, Medea. The two marry and make babies. Upon their return, Medea's magical powers attract the attention of King Pelias. Medea tells the king that she can use her magic to restore his youth. This is totally within her power, which she demonstrates by restoring an old goat to youth by submerging it in her magic cauldron. In a particularly sick twist, Medea convinces Pelias's beloved daughters that they must be the ones to perform the magical rite on their father. Yet she gives the girls the wrong potion, and Pelias ends up getting cooked alive by his own daughters.
That is the fate that awaits poor King Pelias - cooked alive by his own children. You and I know this. The goddesses know this. In the Hellenistic age, every child knows this. But Pelias doesn't know it. So when a prophet tells Pelias that a man with one sandal will bring about his downfall, Pelias thinks 'Well, I'll just kill anyone who comes up to me with one sandal.' But the gods throw Pelias a curveball. The prophesied one-sandaled man is none other than the King's cousin, Jason.
Now, as I mentioned, Pelias has a nasty habit of killing off relatives, but fortunately for Jason, instead of the showing up with one sandal at a nice private dining room where he could be disposed of quietly, Jason shows up in public - at the Olympics no less! Pelias can hardly sentence his cousin to death for a missing sandal in the middle of the Olympics with the greatest heroes of the Greek world standing on as witnesses. The people wouldn't like it, and the gods are already furious with Pelias. In short, Pelias cannot kill Jason.
Orpheus, Harakles, and Hylas join Jason on his mission
So instead of killing Jason, Pelias sets Jason an impossible task. Jason must sail to the far-off land of Colchis to retrieve the mythical Golden Fleece. And thus the goddess' plan is set into motion.
Hearing Pelias's challenge, over 50 heroes offer to help Jason in his quest, including Orpheus, the bard whose song could charm even the hounds of Hell; and the mighty Herakles, who is well-practiced at fulfilling impossible tasks; and even Hylas, Herakles'... uh… let's call him his squire. With this mighty crew of heroes assembled, the goddess Athena helps them build a magical singing boat called the Argo. So decked out, the heroes of the Argo - or Argonauts - set off to Colchis to retrieve the Golden Fleece, with two bloodthirsty goddesses to guide them along their way.
On their way there, the Argonauts get into adventures. They impregnate an entire island of women. They lose Herakles when a nymph kidnaps his squire, Hylas, and Herakles abandons them to find him. They rescue a prophet named Phineus from a gang of harpies that keep stealing his dinner. Phineus repays them with instructions for their journey. Taking Phineus's advice, the Argonauts stop on the island of Ares, where the birds of Ares shoot their arrow-like feathers at them. On that terrible island, the Argonauts discover a group of shipwrecked sailors from Colchis. Their leader is none other than prince Argus, grandson of the King of Colchis, Aietes. Their rescued friends guide the Argonauts to Colchis and get Jason an audience with the king.
Book III: Jason and Medea Fall in Love
Meanwhile, on Mount Olympus, Hera and Athena are hatching plans of their own. The goddesses know there is no way Jason can possibly hope to succeed on his own. Jason isn't exactly what one would call hero material. He's not invincible like Achilles, nor clever like Odysseus. Jason's heroic qualities are that he's good-looking and easy to get along with. This has served him well so far; after all, he's attracted a bunch of heroes to help him. But the only person powerful enough to handle what is to come is Herakles, and he's off looking for his boyfriend. Fortunately for the Argonauts, there is a sorceress in Colchis who can help them. Her name is Medea; she is King Aietes's daughter, Princess of Colchis, granddaughter of the sun. Her powers are vast and terrifying. Unfortunately, her loyalties lie elsewhere, and she is unlikely to help the Argonauts of her own will.
The two goddesses hatch a plot to get Medea to help Jason with his quest. They visit Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Athena and Hera beg Aphrodite to have her son, Eros (whom we call Cupid), make Medea fall in love with Jason.
At this point you may be wondering - why didn't the goddesses just help Jason themselves? Well, then they couldn't bring back Medea to kill King Pelias. This, of course, raises the question 'why don't they just kill king Pelias themselves?' All I can say is that Greek gods have a sick sense of humor, and they really enjoy watching people unwittingly destroy themselves through their own actions - in this case, sending his cousin Jason on an impossible quest, where he'll pick up a woman who will eventually kill Pelias.
Back in Colchis, Jason's meeting with King Aietes is not going well. Something about Jason just makes kings want to kill him in incredibly convoluted ways. Like Pelias, Aietes wants to kill Jason. But instead of just killing Jason, Aietes gives him an impossible task. Jason must harness a team of giant, fire-breathing super-bulls to a plough. He then must sow the field of Ares with dragon's teeth. These dragon's teeth will then sprout into full-grown warriors, whom Jason must kill singlehandedly.
As Jason pales at this incredible demand, Medea has just spotted him across a crowded room. Struck by Cupid's arrow, she falls helplessly in love with him. As a dumbfounded Jason disconsolately returns to his ship, Medea hurries to her bed chamber, full of concern for the beautiful Jason.
Jason and his men travel aboard the magical Argo
It is striking that Medea is not portrayed as the monstrous sorceress who will murder King Pelias. Instead, Medea comes across as a love-struck girl torn between the honor of her family and her powerful love for Jason. There's this beautiful scene where she weighs these two warring passions; in one hand she holds a potion that will protect Jason during his trial; in the other hand she holds a potion that will take her own life. Seeing all her intricate plans on the verge of ruin, Hera fills Medea with a fear of death and love of life, and the maiden finally resolves to help Jason.
Using the prince Argus as an intermediary, Jason and Medea arrange a meeting. Medea meets with Jason in the Shrine of Hekate, the goddess of magic. At first sight, Jason realizes that Medea is in love with him and he pours on the charm, complimenting her, beseeching her aide. Medea is overcome with love for the beautiful Jason. She hands Jason a potion of invincibility and advises him on how to best defeat the warriors born of the dragon's teeth. Her only request is that Jason remembers her fondly when he returns to his home. Now it is Jason's turn to be overcome. He sees Medea's selflessness and beauty and falls in love with her himself. He asks her to return to Greece with him as his bride.
The next day, Jason uses Medea's potion, sprinkling it on himself and on his weapons, and an indomitable power enters his limbs. He hurries to the field of Ares to meet Aietes's challenge. There, the huge bulls charge him, their brazen hooves tearing at the Earth, their nostrils breathing fire. Jason manhandles the fearsome bulls easily, forcing them to the ground and yoking them to the massive plow. Goading the terrible bulls with his spear, Jason plows the field, planting the dragon's teeth behind him. Releasing the bulls, Jason waits for the warriors to spring up from the Earth. He does not have long to wait; soon hundreds of warriors burst from the ground. Heeding Medea's advice, Jason throws a huge boulder into the midst of the warriors. The Earth-born warriors are not very smart, being newly born, and at this shock, they begin killing each other. Jason waits for their numbers to thin a bit, then throws himself into the fray. Soon, Jason is the only one standing on the field of Ares. He has succeeded in his impossible quest. He turns to King Aietes to claim his prize, only to find the king is not there.
Book IV: Aietes, Medea & the Journey Home
Aietes is back in his palace plotting with the Colchian nobility. He knows his daughter has betrayed him, and he plans on including her in his vengeance. Medea is certain her father is on to her. She flees the palace to find Jason and his friends celebrating their victory. Medea warns them that Aietes has no intention of fulfilling his end of the bargain. She begs the Argonauts to flee and take her with them. In exchange, she will help them retrieve the Golden Fleece. Jason once again promises to marry her, and the two set off for the grove of Ares. There they find the fleece draped over an oak and guarded by a massive dragon. Medea casts a spell that puts the dragon to sleep, while Jason snatches the Golden Fleece from the oak. The two race back to the Argo, leaving the fearsome dragon slumbering behind them.
As the Argonauts cast off, Aietes appears on the crest of a bank at the head of a mighty host. The Argonauts beat out to sea, and the Colchians take to their boats in pursuit. Their flight is cut short by Medea's brother, Apsyrtus. They only escape him through treachery and murder. Medea convinces her brother that all is well, while Jason stabs him in the back.
Leaving the Colchians behind, the Argonauts take a very circuitous route. They even leave the Mediterranean briefly to cut across the rivers of Europe. Many aspects of this return journey echo the trials of Odysseus in The Odyssey. The Argonauts visit the island of Circe, who held Odysseus captive. They pass by the Sirens, whose song draws sailors to a watery grave. They avoid this dark fate by having Orpheus out-sing the sirens. They next pass through Scylla and Charybdis, who cost Odysseus so many men. They even make friends with the Phaeacians, the people who carried Odysseus home. At Phaeacia, they are once again confronted by a gang of vengeful Colchians demanding the return of Medea. However, the King of Phaeacia intervenes. He refuses to separate a man from his wife so long as the marriage has been consummated. Jason and Medea quickly find a cave and get to consummating, using the Golden Fleece as their marriage bed, while Orpheus plays them some Barry White.
King Pelias is eventually cooked alive by his daughters
However, the Argonauts aren't just following in Odysseus's footsteps in their homeward journey. They also end up having some original adventures of their very own. They get trapped on the coast of Libya and nearly end up dying of thirst until a set of local nymphs point them in the right direction. The nymphs give the Argonauts a riddle: 'you must repay your mother her labor in carrying you in her belly.' The Argonauts realize that the 'mother' the nymphs are referring to is none other than their ship, the Argo. They end up carrying the Argo across the desert to a remote lake, but their fate is no better. They wander the lake futilely until finally they are rescued by the god Triton, Poseidon's son, who carries them back to the Mediterranean.
Following Triton's directions, they pass Crete. There they face Talos, the man of bronze, whose only delight is throwing boulders at ships that come too near his island. Medea uses her magic to dispatch Talos with a powerful curse. The last thing the Argonauts do is accidentally create the island of Thera, modern day Santorini, by throwing a clod of dirt off the prow of the Argo.
And just like that, they're home. Suddenly The Argonautica is over. I guess Apollonius just got tired of writing. This ending is admittedly unsatisfying. But remember, this isn't the end of the story of Jason and Medea; it's only the beginning.
We know Jason is going to introduce Medea to King Pelias. We know that Medea is going ensure that Pelias dies horribly at the hands of his own daughters. The goddesses get their vengeance, and Pelias gets his just desserts.
But what happens to our star-crossed lovers? Does Jason become king? Do they live happily ever after? No!
It turns out that killing a king is not a great way to endear yourself to that king's people. Jason and Medea flee Iolcus with their children in hand and an angry mob at their heels. They finally find sanctuary in the city of Corinth. Upon their arrival, Jason, realizing that he's married to a murderous madwoman, starts looking for another wife. He finds a potential bride in the Princess of Corinth. When Medea finds out that Jason is shopping around, she does not take it well. Jason took her from everyone and everything she loved, only to leave her alone among hostile strangers. Medea decides to return the favor. She kills the Princess, making Jason unwelcome in Corinth. But to drive the point home, she also kills her own children just to deny Jason any comfort in life - not exactly what one would call a fairy tale ending.
Perhaps this is why Apollonius ends his tale so abruptly - before they ever get back to Iolcus. Maybe he wanted to give his readers a happy ending. On the other hand, Apollonius just spent an entire book portraying the monstrous Medea as a lovesick girl and the unfaithful Jason as a well-meaning, but inept, hero. Maybe he just wanted to leave his heroic couple heroic, at the height of their glory. So Apollonius brings his account of Jason and Medea to a close in the last moment of their happiness, with their goal in sight, when all seemed won and when 'happily ever after' seemed like a real possibility.
After watching this lesson you should be able to describe the plot of The Argonautica and compare the Argonauts experiences to Odysseus's journey in The Odyssey