Notebook, 1993-


[From: Kyriazis, Constantine D. Eternal Greece. Translated by Harry T. Hionides. A Chat Publication.]

Between History and
Legend - The Expedition of The Argonauts

The importance which the Greeks attached to the epic story of the Argonauts emerges from the fact that whereas only ten heroes took part in the earliest version of the tale, with the passage of time, the number grew until more than fifty of the foremost heroes of the Greeks joined the expedition. This was because no Greek city had wished to be omitted from the long list of chieftains and heroes who took part in the glorious venture, and each found an eponymous hero to Participate.

According to the legend, Pelias had commanded or, in another version, had requested Jason to bring back the golden fleece from distant Colchis. Jason accepted the task and the vessel for the voyage, the fifty-oared Argos which is said to have been named after its builder Argos, a son of Phrixus, was soon prepared. The ship was built of the pines of Pelion under the direction of Athena who inserted in the prow a piece of the speaking oak of Dodona which possessed the power of prophecy. Serving in the crew were the sons of the gods including Zeus's offspring Heracles, Castor and Polydeuces, those of Hermes, Echion, Eurypus, and Aethalides, of Poseidon, Angaeus and Euphemus, of Ares, Ascalephus and Ialmenos, the son of Apollo, Orpheus, the offspring of Dionysos, Phlias and Eumedon, and the sons of Boreas., Calais and Zetes. Among the mortals who joined the expedition were the seers Amphiaraos and Mopsus, Meleager, Periclymenos, Telamon, Idmon, Peleas, Tiphys, and Acastus. Jason took command of the vessel and Tiphys managed the helm. Setting forth from Pagasae the port of Iolcos the Argonauts made the island of Lemnos where only women dwelt, for they had slain their husbands, and when the heroes landed, the queen of the Lemnians Hypsipyle allowed the women to mate with the crew after she had selected Jason for herself. After some considerable stay there, they sailed past Samothrace, the plains of Troy, and entered the Hellespont to reach the country of the Doliones. They were hospitably received by Cyzicus, the king of the Doliones, but in attempting to proceed on the Argo were beaten back by a storm at night, and were taken by their late hosts for pirates. They were set upon and had the ill-fortune to kill the young king. As a result, they could not sail from the country of the late king until they had made propitiatory sacrifices to appease the mother of the gods. When they reached the coasts of Mysia, Hylas, the dearest companion of Heracles, set out to find drinking water but was bewitched by a nymph and did not return to the vessel. Thereupon Heracles set out in search of him. Following the advice of Glaucus [a sea divinity] the Argonauts left the two behind and proceeded on their journey. From Mysia the heroes reached the country of the Bebrycians where Polydeuces vanquished Amycus, [p. 93] king of the country, in a boxing match. The Bebrycian king had the habit of fighting to the finish any strangers who came to his shores. At Salymydessus, the next port, which was in Thrace, the sons of Boreas, Calais, and Zetes, rid the old man Phineus of the Harpies, his tormentors who would not allow him to eat his food either by seizing or sullying it. Phineus in turn instructed the Argonauts with regard to sailing through the Symplegades, two floating rocks that clashed together at the entrance to the Black Sea. By his advice Jason sent a dove before him, and as she had only her tail-feathers cut off by the colliding rocks, the heroes ventured the passage. They accomplished what no man had done before by passing through, the ship only suffering from damage to the rudder. The Symplegades thereupon were separated never again to come together. Skirting the southern shore of the Pontus, they met with a friendly reception from Lycus, king of the Maryandini, though there Idmon, one of their companions, was killed by a wild boar in the course of a hunt, and a little later when they had sailed on, their helmsman Tiphys was swept overboard by the waves, whereupon Angaeus took his place. The last stop before Colchis was the island of the god Ares where the Argonauts were attacked by birds that launched brazen arrows from their wings. They succeeded in escaping by creating a terrible din by striking their shields with their swords.

At length they arrived in the land of the Colchians without further mishap, to the city of Aeas, believed to be the easternmost city at the end of the world. There reigned Aeetes with his wife Idyia, daughter of Oceanus, and their three children, his daughters Medea and Chalciope, and a son Absyrtus. Aeetes did not receive Jason with any enthusiasm, and promised to give up the golden fleece only on the condition that Jason caught two brazen-hoofed, fire-breathing bulls, yoked them to a brazen plough, and ploughed with [p. 94] them the field of Ares, sowed the furrows with dragon's teeth, and overcame the mail-clad men who sprung out of them. The hero accepted the challenge with little hope of success, but thanks to the intervention of Medea who had fallen hopelessly in love with him, he performed the apparently impossible feats, and again with the able assistance of Medea escaped with the golden fleece in her company, and began the long homeward journey with the heroes. The legend regarding the return differ considerably depending upon the author. Some say that Jason sailed up the river Tanais, the modern Don, to the northern ocean, then sailed west to the pillars of Heracles and finally through the Mediterranean. Others, however, relate that they followed the course of the Ister [Danube] and up the Eridanus, ultimately reaching the Adriatic Sea.

Thence they sailed past the country of the Hylleyans by way of various islands and stopped at the island of Aia, in the Tyrrhenian Sea where they encountered Circe. From Aia they passed the island of the Sirens against whose magic the songs of Orpheus protected them. They passed in safety between Scylla and Charybdis with the help of the gods, and reached the isle of the Phaeacians, then within sight of the Peloponnese, a storm drove them into the Libyan Syrtes, whence they carried their ship overland on their shoulder for twelve days and nights to ultimately reach Lake Tritonis where they launched the Argo again. Thence they sailed through the Mediterranean by way of Crete and they succeeded in landing thanks to the magic of Medea in overcoming Talos. From Crete the heroes reached Aegina whence they arrived at Pegasae, the starting point of their long and adventurous journey.

Numerous ancient Greek geographers and historians have dealt with the expedition of the Argonauts. And many believed that the journey had in fact taken place. Strabo later wrote that the expedition did occur and that the tale relating the wanderings in the Tyrrhenian Sea was due to the fact that the ancient Greeks believed the Black Sea to be a vast body of water linking all the other seas, and that the Istrus had two mouths, one in the Adriatic and another in the Black Sea. Strabo even maintained that before the voyage of the Argo, Phrixus had undertaken an expedition the purpose of which was the wealth of Colchis in gold, silver and iron. Most students of Greek mythology today believe the agonautic expedition to have taken place and interpret it as the effort of the Greeks to establish new colonies in the Euxine. The golden fleece legend in the view of these scholars arose from the particles of gold brought down by the rushing torrents of Colchis which were collected by the inhabitants with the fleece of sheep.

Lastly, many believe, on the basis of the Hittite archives in which were found Greek names and which until then were treated as purely mythical, that Jason himself may easily have been a daring seafarer who defied the dangers of navigation and entered the Euxine in the search for new ports and people with whom he could trade. Finally, as in the case of all Greek myths, so in that of the Argonauts, there are certain scholars who support the contention that the myth has weather connotations, and that Jason was a sun hero who tamed the demons of the storm. [pp. 93-95]

[Kyriazis, Constantine D. Eternal Greece. Translated by Harry T. Hionides. A Chat Publication.]



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