The Myth of the Argonauts

The myth of the Argonauts is one of the most important cycles of Greek mythology. It's a unity of stories about the reasons, progression and outcomes of the legendary journey of the Argonauts in Colchis (modern Western Georgia).

In ancient literature, almost every prominent author directly or indirectly depicted the myth of the Argonauts in their works. These sources can be divided into several groups: A) Fictional works that contain fragmented or indirect information about the story of the Argonauts: The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer (8th century BC), Theogony by Hesiod (8th–7th centuries BC) and many other works that have been preserved in full or in fragments; B) Fictional works that deal directly with the story of the Argonauts. Such examples in Greek literature: Corinthiaca by Eumelus of Corinth (8th–7th centuries BC), possibly a poem by Epimenides of Knossos (7th century BC), which did not reach us, Pindar's Fourth Pythian Ode, Lyde by Antimachus (400 BC), Dithyramb Argo by Telestes (400 BC). The story of the Argonauts is extensively elaborated in Greek classical drama. The authors are: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides; Tragedies under the title Medea were written by Neophron (4th century BC), Dicaearchus (5th–4th centuries BC), Melanthius (5th century BC), Diogenes (4th century BC), Carcinus (4th century BC); Comedies under the title The Women of Lemnos by Aristophanes, Nicochares (5th–4th centuries BC), Antiphanes (4th–3rd centuries BC), Alexis (4th–3rd centuries BC), Diphilus (4th–3rd centuries BC); The comedy Medea was written by Strattis (5th–4th centuries BC), Cantharus (4th century BC), Eubulus (4th century BC), and Jason by Antiphanes and Alexis. In the Hellenistic period, the interest towards retelling the myth of the Argonauts was revived. Poems called Argonautica were written by Cleon (3rd century BC), Theolytus (3rd century BC), Apollonius of Rhodes. Callimachus (4th–3rd centuries BC) conveyed the myth of the Argonauts extensively in the Aetia. Orphic Argonautica and others must have been created in the 2nd century AD.

Roman literature also showed great interest in the myth of the Argonauts. Tragedies about Medea were created (mainly the receptions or translations of Medea by Euripides) by Ennius (3rd–2nd centuries BC), Accius (2nd century BC), Ovid, Lucan (1st century), Curiatius Maternus (1st century), Biotus (1st century), Seneca; The comedy Medea was written by Turpilius (2nd century BC). Other episodes of the myth of the Argonauts are incorporated in the Roman drama. Publius Terentius Varro Atacinus (1st century BC), Valerius Flaccus (Argonautica), Dracontius (Medea) created epic recounts of the myth of the Argonauts. The legend was also widely reflected in Roman lyrics, Ovid's poem Metamorphoses; C) Non-fiction, so-called scientific works, which also convey or interpret the myth of the Argonauts. Numerous commentaries, logographic, mythographic or historiographic writings (Hecataeus of Miletus, Hellanicus of Lesbos, Acusilaus of Argos, Pherecydes of Syros, Herodotus, Strabo) are worth mentioning.

The works of the authors who fully convey the myth of the Argonauts deserve special attention. Such are Herodorus, Dionysius Scytobrachion, author of the Bibliotheca (attributed to Apollodorus), Diodorus Siculus, Hyginus, Vatican Mythographers, Byzantine Photios, the Suda and others.

It is possible to restore the ancient model of the myth of the Argonauts (with its numerous variations) based on their work. Aeëtes, son of Helios, got Aea or in other words Colchis as his domain (according to Eumelus, he came here after leaving Ephyra, which was allocated to him). In Colchis, Aeëtes had two daughters, Chalciope and Medea, and a son, Apsyrtus. Athamas, the son of Aeolus, reigned in the Boeotian city of Orchomenus and had two children, Phrixus and Helle, with Nephele (cloud goddess). Ino, the second wife of Athamas, hated her step-children and decided to sacrifice them. Nephele sent a miraculous, flying golden-fleeced ram to her children, which rescued the siblings and flew them to Colchis. Helle fell off the ram into the strait (which was then named after her — Hellespont). Phrixus flew to Aeëtes in Colchis. Aeëtes welcomed the refugee and took him in. He wed Phrixus to his daughter, Chalciope. The ram was sacrificed to the gods, and its Golden Fleece (skin) was hung on an oak tree in the sacred grove of Ares. Phrixus died in Colchis and was survived by his sons: Argos, Melas, Phrontis, Cytisorus. Cretheus, Athamas's brother, was the king of Iolcus in Thessaly. He had three sons with Tyro — Aeson, Pheres, and Amythaon. Before that, Tyro had two sons from Poseidon — Pelias and Neleus.

After the death of Cretheus, Pelias seized the throne by force from Aeson and became the ruler of Iolcus. Pelias learned from an oracle that he would die at the hands of a descendant of Aeolus and warned him to beware of a man wearing only one sandal. Aeson had a son with Alcimede, who was sent away to be raised by the wise centaur Chiron out of fear of Pelias. Chiron called him Jason (healer). As an adolescent, Jason traveled to Iolcus. On the way, he lost a sandal in the river. Jason demanded the return of the royal throne from Pelias. The king told him that he had to go on a quest and return the Golden Fleece from Colchis for that. The hero Argos built a ship with the help of the goddess Athena, who put a piece of a sacred oak with the ability to speak on the prow of the ship.

50 heroes (sources give different numbers) gathered for the journey to Colchis. They were called Argonauts, i.e., Sailors of the Argo. Argonauts chose Jason as their leader. The perilous trip to Colchis comprised many episodes: a meeting with women of Lemnos, who had no men on the island; the Argonauts getting Cyzicus, the King of Doliones, killed as a result of a tragic mistake; losing Heracles' friend, the young Hylas, during the mission and Heracles parting ways with his comrades for that reason; encountering the impudent King Amycus, who used to challenge his guests to fights, on their way; barely escaping the terrible birds of Phineus, the Harpies; safely getting away from the clashing rocks, sirens and finally meeting the sons of Phrixus, who came from Colchis, on the island of Ares.

The vital episode of the myth of the Argonauts is the story of their stay in Colchis and the theft of the Golden Fleece. The Argonauts stopped in Phasis, and Jason went to Kutaia (modern Kutaisi), the city of the Aeëtes. Hera persuaded Aphrodite to convince her son Eros to make Medea, the daughter of Aeëtes, fall in love with Jason. With the help of Medea, Jason was able to fulfill the difficult tasks of Aeëtes — yoke fire-breathing bulls and use them to plow the field, sow the teeth of a dragon into the field and defeat the warriors that emerged from there; Thanks to the magical aid of Medea, Jason stole the Golden Fleece from the sacred grove of Ares, which was guarded by a dragon, and escaped from Colchis with Medea.

There are numerous versions of the Argonauts' pursuit and return to their homeland. Apsyrtus pursued them with a Colchis fleet. According to Apollonius of Rhodes, the Argonauts sailed to the Istros (now the Danube) and then to the Adriatic Sea. According to others, the Argonauts returned the same way they came to Colchis (Herodorus, Diodorus, Medea by Euripides and others). As per some versions, the Argonauts passed from Phasis to the ocean and from there reached the Libyan Desert through the Red Sea, from where they crossed the land first, and then found themselves in the Mediterranean Sea after crossing the Lake Tritonis or the Nile (Hecataeus, Hesiod, Pindar); Others placed the Argonauts even in the Arctic Ocean (Timaeus), etc.

There is also a difference of opinion about the killing of Apsyrtus. According to Apollonius of Rhodes, Jason killed Apsyrtus on one of the Adriatic islands on Medea's advice. Before the Argonauts reached their homeland, they faced many dangers. They sailed through the seas of Italy, found themselves on the island of the sorceress Circe, near the Phaeacians, in Libya, and finally returned to their homeland after all the troubles.

There are different versions about the death of Pelias. According to Diodorus and Apollodorus, Pelias killed Jason's parents and his younger brother during the absence of the Argonauts. When Argonauts found out, they agreed to the vicious plan of killing Pelias; Medea convinced the daughters of Pelias to cut their father into pieces so that he could regain his youth with magic.

Medea and Jason settled in Corinth, they had children, but after ten years of happy life, Jason left Medea and decided to marry Creusa (or Glauce), the daughter of Creon, the king of Corinth. According to Euripides, Medea took revenge on Jason. She killed Creusa, Creon, and her own children. Although Medea did not kill her own children in early sources. The refugee Medea first went to Heracles in Thebes, then to Aegeus in Athens and had a son, Medus, from him. In the end, Medea returned to Asia with her son and helped Aeëtes to reclaim the throne, which had been taken from him by his brother Perseus; Medus gained so much power that he subjugated a large part of Asia; After death, Medea lived in Elysian Fields and became the wife of Achilles.

The myth of the Argonauts is a whole system of rather conventionally connected stories. It is now difficult to understand how this system was formed. Some consider it to be based on an agrarian myth about the annual rotation of the cloud from Greece (Lake Kopais) to the Hellespont, then to Libya, and finally to Lake Kopais. Some consider the myth of the setting and rising of the sun as the basis of the myth of the Argonauts, and others think it is based on the tales about the travelers. Since antiquity, there have been many supporters of the historical basis theory, according to which the myth of the Argonauts reflected real historical information about ancient sea expeditions. Evidently, some real historical events, countries, peoples, customs and ideas played an essential role in the emergence of this myth; And all these elements were united into one in accordance with the laws of myth-making. First of all, the myth of the Argonauts is a mythological system, which combines diverse elements. Focusing on a certain historical or pseudo-historical reality in it is mainly the result of the reinterpretation of the myth after the emergence of written literature and analytical thinking in Greece. This does not exclude the possibility of historically valuable information about the Argonaut’s expedition being preserved in the myth of the Argonauts, but this information should be sought only in individual elements and not in the whole system. It is not at all impossible that there were commercial or political expeditions to the eastern Black Sea coast in the Mycenaean era, active relations were opened with the peoples of the Adriatic, Italy, and Libya, and some of the characters of the myth of the Argonauts were true historical figures. But it is also evident that all this was combined into one story system and generalized in accordance with the laws of mythopoeic thought. The main element of the myth of the Argonauts, which ties this mythological cycle, is the Golden Fleece. It is presented to us with several purposes: a) a divine way of salvation, b) a symbol of prosperity, c) a stimulus for heroic deeds, d) basis for the oath of love, e) a source of misfortunes. The development of all the main stages of the myth is motivated by these purposes.

Georgian scientists carefully study the numerous versions of the myth of the Argonauts from the standpoint of analyzing the existing information about Georgia. In 1984, the expedition organized by the English scientist and traveler, Tim Severin, can be considered as a confirmation of the possibility of a distant expedition of the Argonauts in the Mycenaean era. Scientists confidently identify Aea of ancient Greek sources with Colchis. As a result of archeological research, it has been confirmed that there was a strong union of Georgian tribes in the Rioni valley in western Georgia in the 14th–13th centuries BC. Therefore, the powerful kingdom of Colchis described in the myth of the Argonauts seems quite real. The most important Colchian geographic names — Phasis (Poti) and Kutaia (Kutaisi), related to the myth of the Argonauts were incorporated into Greek of the 2nd millennium BC in a form characteristic of the Kartvelian languages. Two topics of the myth proved to be particularly popular for the artistic culture of the world: the fascinating, adventurous sea expedition and the tragic love story of Medea and Jason. In the first case, Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes was used as a model, and in the second case — Medea by Euripides.

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R. Gordeziani