The story of Jason sounds like an over-excited pitch to a Hollywood producer, a tale full of sex and violence with a doomed romance at its heart and plenty of opportunity for exotic locations and special FX. A wicked usurper sends his nephew to Colchis on the far side of the Black Sea, a mysterious kingdom in the former Soviet Union famous for its pheasants and autumn crocus. His mission impossible is to steal a golden fleece from under the watchful gaze of a giant snake. He gathers together a band of useful heroes to help him and invents the boat, even persuading Hercules to come aboard the new-fangled contraption. Their route is full of hazards: six-armed giants, deadly feather-shooting birds, rocks that crash like cymbals, and women – the man-starved women of Lemnos who milk the Argonauts for sperm like lily-sucking bees, and the water-nymphs who like the look of Hylas, Hercules’ boyfriend, and reach out from beyond his reflection to make sure he is never seen again. By the time they get to Colchis, the Argonauts are in need of a bit of luck, and luckily the King’s daughter, Medea, forms an unsuitable attachment with Jason, betraying her father and her fatherland for the sake of a crush. Jason and his crew are pursued all the way up the Danube and into the Adriatic, but Medea comes to the rescue again, at last finding a use for Apsyrtus, the baby brother with whom she embarked just in case. By the time the Colchians have picked up his pieces, the Argonauts are well away.
Fast forward to Corinth ten years later and Medea is looking at her children in a funny way. There has not been a happy ending. She and Jason are now exiles and arguing over more than the washing up. For one thing there was that business when she boiled his uncle to death in a cooking-pot, having lured him in with the promise of eternal youth. She thought Jason would be grateful; he thought she had gone too far. And now he’s been seen with another woman and Medea is cooking up revenge. She sharpens her knife, and calls the children inside.
It is a very ancient tale, already much talked about when Odysseus met Circe in Homer, and has provided the material for numerous treatments in paint, poetry, opera and film. The ancients loved the gory details – a spit-logged Jason spewed from a dragon’s maw, men standing ridiculously in cauldrons wondering whether they would emerge as youthful beauties or human stew. Euripides focused on the tragedy of Medea, the enchantress enchanted by Jason’s je ne sais quoi, and now murderously disillusioned. Pasolini’s version turned Colchis into a piece of cinema antropologico with tribal costumes and strange rites and Maria Callas in the title role. Hollywood felt safer with Honor Blackman, a fantastic voyage and Harryhausen’s stop-motion effects. It is often seen as a classic rite-of-passage tale. It certainly was for me, since its screening on television was the first occasion I was allowed to stay up after half-past ten.
Given such material it is something of a paradox that the fullest ancient account of the expedition remains largely unread, only recently finding its way onto syllabuses and out of the stock kept in reserve for setting unseens. There are, however, excellent reasons for the obscurity of Apollonius of Rhodes, a poet from the age of Alexander’s successors, one of the first to be born in an Egypt conquered by Greeks. For translators he is a nightmare: Homeric morphology, long sentences writhing with syntactical convolutions and a vocabulary full of archaisms, neologisms and a fair sprinkling of words found nowhere else. Hellenistic poetry is often considered decadent, baroque and obscure and for some students of literature Apollonius is a joke; starting at the beginning and working his way, episode by episode, until he comes bumpingly to the end, he has none of the narrative finesse of Homer. He seems, moreover, to have no taste, sometimes so prolix you wish he would shut up, at other times so abbreviated you have no idea what he is going on about. A few hundred lines, for instance, take the Argonauts up the Danube, around the Adriatic, up the Po, down the Rhone, past Marseille and along the coast of Italy. One minute the Argonauts are with Circe not far from Rome, next thing we know they are stranded in the Sahara, flung out of the Mediterranean on the back of a tidal wave. The poet is like the leader of a Magical Mystery Tour, anxious only to get us from place to place, with a lunatic itinerary that allows no time for questions.
The tale of Hylas, for instance, is one of the better-known episodes, thanks to John William Waterhouse’s painting with its loved-up, spaced-out nymphs. Casually, Apollonius drops a bombshell: Hercules had adopted the boy, he says, after killing his father. He alludes to some dispute over an ox, but has no time to explain: ‘these tales would draw my song far from its path.’ At each stopover we are given only a little time to soak up the atmosphere and take in the extraordinary events before the poet wants us back on the bus, moving on. When we finally reach the last line he abruptly leaves us, abandoned on the beach. The poem doesn’t finish so much as run aground. The last ‘adventure’, some kind of water-carrying relay race, happens on the island of Aegina: ‘Now I have arrived at the glorious conclusion of your labours since no further adventures befell you …’ Somewhere in the deserts of Egypt the original manuscript is waiting to be discovered, THE END inscribed triumphantly at the bottom of the final scroll.
It is only in the third book that the poet shifts down a gear, devoting a quarter of the whole epic to events in Georgian Colchis and the getting of the Fleece. In some ways, however, Apollonius’ prolixity in this section is even more frustrating than his compression everywhere else. When he compares the King of Colchis in his chariot to Poseidon in his, for instance, he cannot resist listing four possible destinations the figurative sea-god might have had in mind, ‘Taenarum, or the waters of Lerna, or the grove of Hyantian Onchestus, or to the Isthmian games’, but just in case our appetite for topography is still unsatisfied he continues with three more places he might be driving on to afterwards, ‘Calaureia, the Rock of Haemonia, or woody Geraestus’. Perhaps this is what you would expect from a poet who held the post of chief librarian at the great Museum in Alexandria, and even his most enthusiastic supporters concede that Apollonius was never easy to read. Sometimes you find yourself watching him unpick the best he has achieved. A famous simile compares Medea’s flickering passion for Jason to the light ‘glancing off the surface of just-poured water in a sunlit cauldron, or alternatively’, Apollonius adds, ‘in a bucket’.
When one reads passages such as these, it is hard to understand why he was held in such high regard by the ancients. ‘Longinus’, an astute critic, considered him faultless, though not quite achieving the standards of ‘height’ set by Homer. Virgil so admired the simile of dancing light he used it himself, keeping the pot but ditching the bucket, and Virgil’s commentators thought Dido was nothing more than a slavish copy of Apollonius’ Colchian witch. Moreover, judging from the papyri, there were plenty of manuscripts of the Argonautica circulating in Egypt well into the Roman period. It seems, amazingly, as if Apollonius was popular as well as highly esteemed.
We can at least try to meet the ancient critics halfway. Medea is certainly an interesting creation, well-equipped with monologues and soliloquies and a complex inner life. The sorceress found in Euripides and in painting is here a naive young girl, who finds herself tongue-tied in Jason’s presence and stares at the ground. A barbarian woman with knowledge of hexes and potions, she ought to be monstrous, other and not very nice, but Apollonius makes her sympathetic, a victim more than a victimiser, who gradually comes to terms with the fact that she is being used and hardens her heart accordingly. The object of her affections is unworthy of them, a rather ordinary man eclipsed by a crew of fantastic heroes with supernatural powers: Orpheus who can out-sing the Sirens, the Boread brothers who can out-wing the Harpies with feathers discreetly attached to their hands and feet, Euphemus who can walk on water, Lynceus who can see underground. They take one look at Jason and elect Hercules to lead them instead, until Hercules turns them down.
Jason’s only talent is his looks. He is a himbo hero who uses the ordinary magic of sexual attraction to keep the expedition afloat. Medea is one in a line of women who fall victim to his charms and Apollonius is not sentimental about their relationship. In his version, Apsyrtus is only her half-brother and not a baby but the leader of the pursuit. She suggests his murder in a desperate attempt to avoid being traded for the Fleece, and it is Jason who traps and kills him, cutting off his extremities like a bullfighter, and spitting out mouthfuls of his blood to ward off vengeful ghosts. Later Medea agrees to a hasty consummation of their ‘marriage’ so she won’t be forced to return. They try to make the best of it. The Fleece is laid out for them, nymphs do the flower-arranging and Orpheus leads the hymns. But even while they are making love, the lovers are elsewhere, dwelling on the bitterness of contingency and how it might have been.
Apollonius repays a little faith. In his Penguin translation, E.V. Rieu tries to improve the image of water-reflected light by omitting one of the vessels, the cauldron, apparently in a fit of pique. But in the story of Medea, cooking-pots resonate impressively, a resonance which in Rieu (and Virgil) is lost. The sunlight will soon be eclipsed by darkness and the fresh cold water will start to seethe. As for the lack of ‘height’ that ‘Longinus’ bewailed, it is true the effect is sometimes unwittingly humorous: the Moon fed up with being conjured out of the sky again so that Medea can work in the dark, a centaur wading out to wave the Argo off with his fore-hoof, Hercules dropping the pine-tree he’s just uprooted when he’s told that Hylas is gone – magic may lend grandeur to realism, but fantasy gains nothing from being made too real. On the other hand, the scenes on Olympus work well: Athena and Hera pay a visit to Aphrodite to ask her to make Medea fall in love. She is sitting on her verandah; she calls them in and finds them chairs. ‘You visit me so rarely. To what do I owe the honour?’ she says, while putting up her hair. ‘Have a word with Cupid,’ says Hera, ‘and don’t be so sarcastic.’ ‘That boy, as you know,’ says Aphrodite, ‘never listens to a word I say.’ She finds him eventually playing jacks with Ganymede, and cheating. Zeus’ pretty favourite is clearly not very bright. Cupid hugs his mother and she bribes him with the promise of a toy. The goddess of love knows little of parenthood; it’s obvious why he’s such a difficult child.
Between them, Medea, these moments and Virgil’s appropriations ensured that Apollonius had not been forgotten when a literary critical cavalry, raising the standards of Context, Irony and Deconstruction, rode up in the Eighties. Chief among the leaders of this mission are the Cambridge classicists Simon Goldhill and Richard Hunter, who has written a book on Apollonius (The ‘Argonautica’ of Apollonius: Literary Studies, 1993) as well as producing a scholarly edition of Book Three and a translation of the whole thing (which is already, ominously, out of print). This ought to be a golden age for Hellenistic poetry, Hunter suggests uncertainly, now that self-consciousness is once again à la mode. Apollonius’ post as head of the Library, once used to dismiss his poetry as hermetic and bibliothecal, allows Hunter to sound the tally-ho in pursuit of intertextuality. The debt to Homer is no longer seen as reactionary but as an opportunity for ironic, even humorous commentary on epic itself: Jason seduces Medea by recounting the tale of Theseus and Ariadne, herself famously abandoned auf Naxos, and Goldhill notes that the poem, as well as the Argo, is delayed by a long digresson on the origin of the Etesian winds. Peter Green, meanwhile, a historian of the Hellenistic world, has spent the best part of a decade producing his annotated translation and uses his excellent Introduction to zoom in on Apollonius’ use of the fantastic. All of them challenge the notion of the Argonautika as a throwback by situating the poet in his place and time.
An interest in aetiology emerges as a characteristic feature of the period, an obsession even. Many far-flung cities in the Mediterranean looked back to the Argo, the first ship, as the earliest opportunity to moor their origins, rituals and practices in the heroic age of Greece. It was Apollonius’ ambition, it seems, to accommodate as many of these local traditions as he could. The boat’s extraordinary travelogue, which reduces the Argonautika to a series of episodes and destroys any sense of a whole, is the main point. The subject is not Jason or the Argonauts, but their route. And when the foundation myths run out so does the poem.
The world the Argo sails through is freakish and strange but as she passes and the Argonauts found cities, build tombs and altars, name islands, destroy monsters and immobilise errant rocks, it grows a little more familiar. Where Orpheus left his lyre was a place called Lyre; the water-carrying relay-race was being acted out in Aegina many centuries later; if you’ve been to Elba you’ll have seen the dark sweat the Argonauts wiped on its pebbles and stones; on Corfu you can still see the cave where Medea and Jason made love; Poseidon’s seven destinations form part of a cult-crawl to ancient festivals in his honour.
The search for Hylas continued into Apollonius’ time. The people of Cius on the southern shore of the Sea of Marmara used to go up into the mountains and call out his name, ‘Hula, Hula, Hula,’ as part of some echoing rite. Some had linked Hylas not with Hercules but with someone else; Apollonius manages to get both on board. Hercules is the boy’s lover, but it is the someone else who hears the cry as the nymphs grab him, who shouts for him repeatedly until he can shout no more; his name itself has aetiological significance: Polyphemus, ‘many-voiced’. The strangest of these aetiologies accounts for the Argonauts’ desert sojourn. They are there to pick up a piece of African soil which will turn into the island of Santorini when they toss it into the Aegean Sea. Centuries later, the islanders will colonise Libya, but really, you see, they are going home. Apollonius is a writer of just-so stories, closer to the Ovid of the Metamorphoses than to Homer. He writes not of men transformed into animals, but of utterances petrified in names and actions crystallised in cult. His irritating urgency is a function of the anxiety of the prequel, a back-to-the-future mission to make sure the present is ready on time.
In these terms, it is not hard to connect Apollonius to his age. He is an etymological poet of the here and now, celebrating its epic genealogies. But even Apollonius could not reconcile all the variants of the Argonaut myth. By placing the death of Apsyrtus in the Apsyrtides, the islands dismembered along the Croatian coast, he disallowed the claim of Tomis (tomé = ‘incision’) on the Black Sea. There were choices to be made, and since myths were so central to civic ideology, those choices might be political. Read closely, the story of Hylas seems full of slights. Cius boasted mighty Hercules on its coins, but Apollonius gave its foundation to ignominious Polyphemus. Its neighbour, mighty Heraclea, has an Argonaut buried within its walls, says Apollonius, but its inhabitants ignore all the oracles and stupidly worship someone else. This Heraclea seems the most obvious destination for the hostages taken from Cius by Hercules to ensure the search for Hylas would be continued, but Apollonius puts them miles away in another Heraclea in mainland Greece, a city named and founded much later by the Spartans in the course of the Peloponnesian War. Can the head of the Library be so ignorant of his Thucydides or is it a transparent lie? Could these possible affronts have been influenced by the friendly relations, revealed by an inscription, between the Ptolemies, Apollonius’ sponsors, and the Kings of Bithynia, Cius’ and Heraclea’s bêtes noires? And is it relevant that Amastris, ruler of Heraclea, had been second wife to Lysimachus, first husband of Arsinoë, the greatest Ptolemaic queen?
Students tend to find Hellenistic politics complicated and Hellenistic history hard, but the complexity of alliances through marriage and blood itself provides a link to the heroic age, as Green acknowledges, explaining why his thorough Glossary took him so long. Thanks to Alexander and the Macedonians, the classical concern with citizenship and soil had reverted to a system of power based on lineage and descent.
In fact, it is not hard to historicise the Argonautika. The Greeks of Egypt loved their Homer and both realism and epic were in vogue at the time. Medea’s flickering psychology has parallels in sculpture, in a contemporary head of Arsinoë, for instance, full of a smoky, sfumato inner life. On a grander scale, Hunter sees the desert episode as an allegory for the condition of the Greek colonists in Egypt, citizens of the Mediterranean lost inland, and for Green, the Hellenistic concern with aetiology is an antidote for the pervasive sense of deracination characteristic of the age. Indeed, one sometimes gets the feeling that critics are trying too hard, crashing through more obvious layers to get at recondite allusions underneath. At the end of the poem, Medea turns the evil eye on Talos, a giant rock-putting, animated bronze. Talos trips and falls like a half-hewn pine-tree prematurely broken by the wind. It’s nice to know that there are Homeric parallels for the rock-throwing and the pine, but what about the Colossus of Rhodes, a giant bronze which no resident on the island could possibly have missed? It was funded from the sale of rock-tossing catapults left behind after a siege and, like Talos, was associated with the sun. Apollonius may even have witnessed its accidental ruin, toppled, like his similative tree, at the knee. And why not mention the tottering pine that opens Euripides’ Medea, the timber that made the Argo, that took the Colchian witch from Colchis, that has led to an ominous domestic row, a tree full of nostalgia for its happy launching, and full of foreboding for tragedies to come?
Far from struggling to bridge the gap, the heroic age must sometimes have seemed to Apollonius too close to home. Homer’s shield of Achilles was like nothing anyone had ever seen, but in the third century it was rather more difficult to get an audience to go ‘Wow!’ After all, this was the age of Seven Wonders. Could the palaces of Colchis compete with the one Apollonius lived and worked in, taking up a quarter of Alexandria’s urban space? Could Jason’s cloak possibly be a match for the famous cloak of Demetrius, the Besieger of Rhodes? Apollo appears suddenly to the Argonauts and they stare at the ground in awe, but inscriptions insist that both Apollo and Artemis appeared to a priestess in Hellenistic Magnesia. If the scenes on Olympus are realistic perhaps it’s because for Apollonius gods were real – he worked for one after all. As a courtier he must have seen them often at the end of a corridor or through an open door, prickly about their status, worrying about their children, putting up their hair. And when it came to grisly details, the present could compete only too well. Hellenistic history is littered with the corpses of murdered princes, with wicked uncles and disappointed heirs. The Queen of Heraclea was murdered by her own sons and Arsinoë saw her second husband, Ptolemy Thunderbolt, murder the children by her first. Many a Hellenistic princess must have approached her bridal bed like Medea, thinking more of realpolitik than of the delights of love.
The Greeks seem never to have doubted that the voyage of the Argo took place, but some, as Green shows, were not happy with the supernatural elements and long before Pasolini tried to bring it down to earth. Hylas wasn’t a nympholeptic: he fell into the spring because he was drunk. There never was a magical, golden, talking ram, just some guy called Ramon. He got skinned when he arrived in Colchis and, thanks to an oracle, was hung up on display. He was gilded so the sentinel would take his job more seriously, a guard who wasn’t of course a dragon, but a guy called Dragan. Apollonius himself, however, resists the temptation to rationalise and balks only at the dicing of baby Apsyrtus, a symptom, perhaps, of Hellenistic pudeur. When it comes to myth and magic he believes with the best of them. Like many of his contemporaries, he doesn’t doubt the power of love-charms and potions. He shows real sympathy for Talos as a victim of the evil eye.
Instead of contrasting the physics of heaven and earth, he juxtaposes the labours of heroes with the labour of everyday life. Rowing all day, the Argonauts remind Apollonius of oxen, sweating and heaving and rolling their eyes as they plant their hooves one after another in the sod. When night falls in Georgia, he thinks of sailors still at sea, dogs no longer barking and nightwatchmen struggling to stay awake. The passion inflamed in Medea, daughter of a king, is like the light kindled by a working woman who has to be up before dawn. Later, her tears and sleeplessness are like those of a single mother who has to work at night to feed her fatherless children. We are reminded of the ration-list for lamp-oil left by a fellow courtier of Apollonius, to enable his slaves to polish silver in the dark. There is a social imagination at work here, the witch’s magic cauldron starkly juxtaposed with the bucket of household chores. When Apollonius describes a sunset in terms of rocks casting shadows over a field, we think of the poor farmer who owns such a stony plot of land and the difficulty he must have in cultivating it.
Given faith and close reading, Apollonius improves immensely, but nothing will ever make us fall in love. He is a faultless poet, I am afraid, only in the Greek. Reading the Argonautika in the original is like watching a penguin take to water. If the syntax is strained it is because it has been bent and twisted to make space for prettier combinations of sound. In its native element the poem is musical and rich in assonance; the problems apparent in English fade away. It is full of vocalic concatenations and flies along, the consonants like punctuation marks, barely touching the ground. It trips off the tongue, when it’s not twisting it, with a fluidity faster than sense. Its fans must have learnt to relax in the scintillating surfaces, following events at a distance.
Perhaps it was the sounds that attracted so musical a poet to the story in the first place. How could he resist a man called Iéson son of Aison of the Aiolidai and his enemy, Aiétés, son of Éelios? And how could he resist a land called Aia or an island called Aiaia? The Homeric dialect, with its genitive in –ao and –oio and all its extra epsilons, seems simply an excuse for more vowels. The feather-shooting birds are from an island described as ‘Enualioio’ and Jason is introduced as ‘hoio … kleious’ Aisonos huion Iésona Crétheïdao.’ Only in Greek do you get the full sense of interconnectedness of words and people and gods and things. The barking of dogs (hulaké) that falls silent at nightfall recalls Polyphemus shouting ‘Hula!’ for Hylas. The flash of light (aiglé) on the cauldron reappears as Flash, a nymph who tends the Apples of the Hesperides, and in the epiphany of Apollo Aiglétés, ‘The Glinting One’, to whom the Argonauts offer cult. Medea’s deep inward-looking personality seems to grow out of an etymology (from médéa, ‘machinations’) of her name. Translators don’t stand a chance.
Only Gerard Manley Hopkins, perhaps, could do Apollonius justice and E.V. Rieu doesn’t even try. He shatters the poem and remakes it as a fantastic voyage. Peter Green is more ambitious, preserving more of the sense and the sentence structure, while making some attempt at the sounds. He is never less than lucid and occasionally musical, too. On his mother’s mission, thinking of the promised toy, Cupid is
invisible, an itch, a sting, like the gadfly that swarms up against grazing heifers, and that’s known by ox herds as the breese … he quickly strung his bow, and pulled from the quiver a shaft unhandselled, quick with trouble; then, stepping swiftly, he crossed the threshold unseen, glancing sharply around, and crouched, a tiny figure, at Jason’s very feet; settled his arrow’s notch to mid-bowstring, then with both arms drew the bow and let fly at Medeia, striking her heart speechless.
Green is one of our best translators and it is hard to imagine anyone doing better than this without taking liberties. But perhaps it is time for liberties to be taken. It would be interesting to see the Argonautika violated by a less brawny version of Christopher Logue. It is indeed a classic of European literature, a fabulous magical tale, but if you want to learn to love it you will have to take classes. It is a universal poem only in the Greek.