In his latest Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle considers Apollonius of Rhodes’ classic tale of Jason and the Golden Fleece
In the world of classical Greek epic poetry, two poems are universally renowned: The Iliad and The Odyssey. Both, of course, are attributed to Homer – whoever he may have been. But there is another classical epic poem, written a few centuries later, which has been largely forgotten – although the story it tells is one of the most celebrated tales from Greek mythology. This poem is The Argonautica, an epic poem about Jason and the Argonauts’ search for the Golden Fleece. Its author was a rather intriguing poet named Apollonius of Rhodes.
Well, he’s known as ‘Apollonius of Rhodes’, although here we come upon our first problem. He was more closely associated with Alexandria, it would seem, than Rhodes – and, indeed, rose to become the chief librarian at the famed Library of Alexandria. He also began his life in Alexandria. The story goes that Apollonius, while living at Alexandria rather than Rhodes, wrote a much longer epic poem about Jason and the Argonauts, for which he received a fair bit of flack. Later in life, when he had moved to Rhodes, he revised the poem – and, according to one theory, drastically cut it down to create the much shorter work we now have – and was hailed as a genius. He later returned to Alexandria, where, his reputation secure, he was made director of the great Library of Alexandria. In the realm of epic poetry, it would seem, Apollonius was the first great exemplar of the dictum Less is more.
What sort of poem did he write to win him such acclaim? In summary, The Argonautica tells the story of Jason’s search for the Golden Fleece, accompanied by his trusty crew aboard the Argo. Like Odysseus in Homer’s great epic poem, Jason gets distracted from his quest along the way, with all of his crew falling for the lures of the queen Hypsipyle and getting waylaid on the island of Lemnos. They also encounter the prophet Phineas, whom they rescue from the Harpies; Phineas repays their kindness by telling them how to get to Colchis (a city in what is modern-day Georgia, on the Black Sea). When Jason and his crew arrive in Colchis, King Aetes gives Jason a seemingly impossible task to complete, if he is to attain the Golden Fleece. But Medea, the king’s daughter, decides to help him, out of love – she has fallen in love with Jason. (Well, technically she’s been manipulated into loving him, but that’s the world of classical epic poetry for you.) To say any more would be to offer too many spoilers, so I’ll just say, if this brief summary has whetted your appetite for more, read The Argonautica. Oxford World’s Classics have a very accessible and readable English translation, Jason and the Golden Fleece (The Argonautica) (Oxford World’s Classics).
Why is The Argonautica not spoken of in the same breath as The Iliad or The Odyssey? It was influential on later writers, and Apollonius has been credited with pioneering a number of new literary techniques in his epic poem. It’s been suggested that Virgil was inspired by The Argonautica – specifically, the portrayal of Medea as a tragic female figure – when he wrote the fourth book of The Aeneid, which tells of Aeneas’ abandonment of Dido. Whether or not this is true (and the scholar and translator E. V. Rieu, for one, doubted it), Apollonius is credited with effectively being the first great writer to study ‘the pathology of love’, in A. W. Bulloch’s phrase.
But The Argonautica may also have drawn on what was, for the time, cutting-edge science and technology. E. V. Rieu, in his Introduction to the Penguin edition, speculated that Apollonius is referring to the newly built Pharos at Alexandria, that lighthouse that was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, when he refers to Phoebus (i.e. Apollo, god of the sun among other things) speeding down from heaven to light the way for Jason and the Argonauts when they find themselves sailing into a heavy fog. ‘If so,’ Rieu writes, ‘no poet has ever put the science of mechanics to more delightful use.’ This is one of a number of wonderful details in Apollonius’ poem – although readers will look in vain for that iconic scene from the 1963 Don Chaffey film when Jason and his crew fight an army of animated skeletons.
Indeed, even the story of the Golden Fleece itself may have some basis in scientific fact. Tim Severin followed the journey of Jason and the Argonauts in 1984, sailing on a replica of Jason’s Bronze Age ship on a journey of some 1,500 miles, from northern Greece, through the Dardanelles, and finally through the Straits of Bosphorus to the Black Sea and the likely location of Colchis, Jason’s destination in The Argonautica. Severin concluded, in his 1985 book The Jason Voyage: The Quest for the Golden Fleece, that the Golden Fleece may have been a mythic exaggeration of an actual Bronze Age practice, whereby sheep’s wool was used to filter out gold ore – a more effective method of finding gold than the more famous ‘panning’. Whether or not this is the true origin of the Golden Fleece myth, it’s a nice link between actual science and the famous myth.
For these and other reasons, The Argonautica is worth reading, even if its lacks the dramatic tension and sharp characterisation of Homer’s two great epic poems. It’s an important stepping stone between Homer and the later Roman epic of Virgil, The Aeneid, though it’s a work of western literature that has slipped into relative obscurity.
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Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.