THE ORPHIC ARGONAUTICA
A MODERN PARAPHRASE AND SUMMARY
translated by Mrs. Angus W. Hall (1885)
The Orphic Argonautica tells the story of Jason's quest from the point of view of Orpheus himself, who narrates the epic. (Read a full English translation of the Orphic Argonautica here.)
Until the end of the nineteenth century, it was believed that the Orphic Argonautica was the oldest account of Jason's journey, predating, they though, even the Homeric epics themselves. Though this was later proven wrong (the epic dates from the fourth century CE or later), in creating his German-language handbook of mythology in the 1820s, FRIEDRICH NÖSSELT (1781-1850) followed this in preferring the Orphic version to all others in telling the story of Jason. His account of the Argonauts' voyage is a very close paraphrase of the Orphic Argonautica (with some additions from other versions), so much so that when Mrs. Angus W. Hall translated Nössert's handbook in 1885, she inadvertantly produced the only reasonably close translation of the Orphic Argonautica published in English until the twenty-first century.
XIII.—THE ARGONAUTIC EXPEDITION
In Iolcus, in Thessaly, the northern boundary of Greece, reigned King Aeson. But the cares of the kingdom hung heavy on him, and at length he retired, giving up the throne to his son Jason. The lad was still very young, therefore Pelias, the half-brother of Aeson, governed for him; but so much did he like the power he held that he determined, if possible, to retain it.
Jason, meanwhile, had been entrusted to the care of the wise and clever Centaur, Chiron, and he did full honour to his master. Among all the old Greek heroes the son of Aeson was one of the greatest.
One day Pelias offered a solemn sacrifice to Poseidon, to which he invited all his relations, and among them came Jason. On his way the young man reached a river. Here stood an old dame who entreated him to take her across. Without hesitation he raised her in his arms, and carried her safely to the opposite side, but one of his sandals remained sticking in the mud, so that he was obliged to continue his journey without it. The old woman was really no other than Hera, who in this disguise had come to prove Jason.
When Jason arrived at Iolcus he presented himself before Pelias as his nephew, and demanded his father's kingdom. Pelias had not seen him since he was a child, and had entirely forgotten him. Now his sudden appearance startled him, still more so as an oracle had foretold that he who should attend the sacrifice wearing only one shoe would deprive him of the crown. Quickly recovering himself, however, he arranged a scheme by which to rid himself of the hated nephew.
"So be it," he said, "thou shalt have the throne of Iolcus, but first must thou go forth and win a name worthy of a king. Go to Colchis, where, carefully guarded, lies the Golden Fleece of Phrixus. When thou returnest with it to Iolcus, then shalt thou ascend the throne of thy father." Jason did not perceive the artifice, and dazzled by the glory of so great an enterprise, he swore by the gods to go forth and accomplish it.
The history of the Golden Fleece was as follows. Not far from Iolchus, lay the small kingdom of Alus, of which Athamas was king. By his first wife Nephele he had a son Phrixus and a daughter Helle; but after a time he put aside Nephele and married Ino, who hated her stepchildren, treated them harshly and cruelly, and at length persuaded her husband to offer them both up as a sacrifice to the gods. Influenced by Ino, Athamas prepared willingly to accede to her wishes; but Nephele appeared to her children in a dream and commanded them instantly to fly, sending to aid them a beautiful strong ram, a present to her from Hermes. The ram was a creation of Poseidon, and a marvel of his kind. He had more than human understanding, could speak, and fly through the air, or swim across the sea, and his fleece was golden.
Phrixus and Helle seated themselves on the back of the animal, and were carried by him to the sea-shore. There he sprang into the water intending to swim with them to the other shore, but as he was crossing the narrow strait, now called the Dardanelles, Helle lost her hold, slipped off, and was drowned. Hence the Greeks gave the strait the name of Hellespont or Sea of Helle. Phrixus feared he too might fall off, but the ram reassured him.
"Fear not," he said, "thy fate is otherwise decreed." And he hurried on, across the Black Sea to Colchis, a town at the foot of Mt. Caucasus, where Phrixus was kindly welcomed by King Aeetes, a son of Helios, the sun-god. After remaining there some time he married the daughter of the king, and then the ram, having finished his work, desired Phrixus to sacrifice him, and to hang up his golden fleece in a grove, sacred either to Ares or Artemis.
Phrixus did as he was desired, and the immortal part of the ram ascended to heaven, where it is still visible among the constellations, while the fleece was hung up, and afterwards became so celebrated.
Jason called upon all the Greek heroes to come and take part in the expedition to Colchis. And to this call they all responded. Among them were Herakles, Castor and Pollux, Theseus, Peirithoos, Pelius (the father of Achilles), Meleager, the singer Orpheus, Amphion, the lad Hylas, and Calais and Zetes (two sons of Boreas) all of whom were sons either of gods or kings.
Now only a vessel was needed to carry the warriors to Colchis; and Hera, the protectress of Jason, here came to his aid. The Queen of Heaven commanded Athene to provide a ship, and she at once directed Argus, the son of Phrixus, a very clever architect, to construct one. During its building she put in a piece of the speaking oak of Dodona; thus it was that the vessel was able to talk. The ship was named the Argo, and those who sailed in her received the name of Argonauts or sailors of the Argo.
At length the vessel was finished; and all the heroes, ready to start on the expedition, went down to the shore at Iolcus to embark, when lo! the Argo was found to be immovable! Casting aside their arms, all fastened strong ropes round their chests and endeavoured to move her by main force, but in vain. She still remained firmly embedded in the shingle. Then Jason's brave heart failed him for an instant, but not for long. Bethinking him of Orpheus, the sweet singer of Thracia, he called
"Me unto him, that I by the power of my music
Might with fresh courage inspire their long and wearisome labours,
Quickly my harp I uplifted, and as I sent forth the cadence,
Taught by my mother divine, in the days of my innocent childhood
Stirred I the hearts of the heroes." *
[* This and the following stanzas are from an ancient Greek poem, the "Argonautica," supposed to have been written by Orpheus himself.]
With renewed ardour they set to work, for the song of Orpheus put fresh vigour into their hearts. Then the oak, out of which part of the ship's keel was built, was heard to murmur, and suddenly the vessel began to move:
"Bright glanced her sides as she sped the length of the flatshingly margin,
Gaining the small sheltered bay. Then as her prow kissed the waters
Quickly they parted asunder, rejoicing the heart of brave Jason."
At once Argus sprang on board the vessel, followed by Tiphys, the steersman, the mast and sails were put in, and all else that was needed, and then the oars were brought down, and the helm fastened to the rudder. Now all was ready, and Jason reminded them that a leader of the expedition should be chosen, proposing that their choice should fall on Herakles. To this the others agreed, but the hero himself refused the honour. He knew that the mighty Queen of Heaven was his enemy, but the protectress of Jason, therefore he begged the Argonauts to select the son of Aeson as leader, and the request was gladly agreed to.
Jason demanded that his companions should all take the oath of obedience to him, and Orpheus prepared a solemn sacrifice, which he thus describes:--
"Now to the low sandy shore, we brought the strong limbs of the oak tree,
Placing thereon for the gods, gifts gathered with pious devotion;
Next I the mighty steer slew, whose crest o'er his fellows high towered.
And with one powerful thrust, I severed his head from his body,
Only the heart I cut up, and placed on the flat baken wheat cakes,
Pouring some rich golden oil, and the milk of the sheep o'e the offering."
Then he bade his comrades gather round the sacrifice, and thrust their spears and swords into it, and
"On the ground in their midst, I placed a huge earthen vessel,
Holding the sacred drink which with many a prayer I had mingled Demeter's all precious gift, the flour that mankind sustaineth
Next the blood of the steer, and lastly the brine of the ocean.
Wreaths of the olive green, I bade them bind round their foreheads,
Which with the sacred draught, I filled a rich golden goblet,
And handed the mixture round, for each in turn to partake of.
Jason commanded I then, with a torch to fire the offering."
Speedily the sacrifice was reduced to ashes by the flames, and then turning to the white-crested waves, the bard stretched forth his hands, crying:
"Powers of the great sounding deep—ye gods of the mighty oceans,
Spirits who guard the lone shores, and furthermost waters of Tethys;
Nereus, thee too, I invoke, the ancient and father of all,
Thee, and thy fifty daughters, all gifted with beauty supernal;
Glaucus surrounded by dolphins, and fair foam-bom Amphitrite;
Proteus also and Phorcus, and the all-powerful Triton! R
estless swift-coursing winds, and golden-hued dawn of the morning,
Star-spangled ether above, and dark shrouded daughter of evening.
Daemons of watery depths, who unite with the heroes in power;
Naiads and nymphs of the rivers, who rush to the boundless ocean!
Come from your surging home, and list to the oath we have taken.
So long as we faithfully keep, the oath we have given to Jason,
Ever to be at his side, to aid him in all his hard contests,
So shall we safely return, each to his own native country.
But if unmindful of this, we faithlessly break this, our promise,
May the all-judging Dice, against us, ever be witness,
And the dreaded Erinnyes follow our footsteps for ever."
When the oath had been administered to all, the Argonauts stepped on board the vessel, and after laying their arms under the seats, grasped the oars. Hera sent a favourable wind, and the Argo flew on her way
"Through the deep endless flood,
Scattering the white-crested foam, as her sharp prow clave through the waters."
By morning they were in sight of the lofty peak of Mount Pelion. Tiphys steered towards the shore, and they all landed. "See ye, my friends," said Peleus, "that wooded rock in the distance. There is the cave of Chiron, the best and wisest of all Centaurs. Wisely did silver-footed Thetis bring Achilles hither, when yet a babe, that he might be educated by him. My heart longs to embrace my son, let us go therefore to the cave, that mine eyes may once more behold him."
"Soon we arrived at the cave, and there in the darkened entrance
Lay outstretched on the ground, the powerful form of the Centaur,
While with his lyre in his hand, stood the son of Peleus and Thetis,
Bringing forth sweet dreamy strains, to please the ear of the master."
When Chiron beheld the princes, he rose joyfully, and received them with great gladness. Then he prepared a couch of dried leaves, made them sit down, and placed wine and venison before them. After they had partaken of the food, the heroes begged Orpheus to sing to the accompaniment of Chiron's lyre. But the singer at first refused, saying he dared not compete with one so renowned and famous as the Centaur. Chiron himself, however, begged him to join in a contest, and taking the lyre from Achilles, sang the battle of the Centaurs and Lapithae, and their fight with Herakles.
Then Orpheus sang in his turn about Chaos, the skies, and the heavens, the creation of earth and sea, of Eros and Kronos, and the birth of all the lesser gods:
"And the narrow cave rang with the sound,
It rose to the mountain tops, and the wooded valleys of Pelion,
Bending the trees that had stood for a thousand years in the pine woods.
Splitting the rocks that they fell, and taming the beasts of the forest.
Drawing them all to the cave by the wond'rous power of its music.
While e'en the eagles and vultures that circled the stables of Chiron,
Paused in their greedy flight, and forgot both their nests and their natures."
Chiron was lost in wonder at the beauty of the song, and now, as Orpheus concluded, Tiphys came in and exhorted them to depart, so they hastily took up their weapons. But before he left, brave Peleus raised his son in his arms, and with tears in his eyes, pressed a kiss on his brow, and bade him farewell.
Chiron bestowed on the singer Orpheus a beautiful skin as a parting gift, and when the heroes went back to their ships, the Centaur accompanied them to the shore, and raising his hands towards heaven, prayed to the gods for their safe return.
Then the Argonauts took up their oars once more, and soon the vessel was cleaving the blue waters, swiftly bearing them on their way. Thus they journeyed till they came to the isle of Lemnos. Here they were so hospitably received by King Thoas and his daughter Hypsipyle, that they felt no inclination to go away from the island; even Jason was so captivated by the beauty of the princess, that he wished also to remain. But Orpheus reminded them of the object of the expedition, and ashamed of the weakness they had shown, they returned to their vessel, and continued the voyage.
Next they passed through the Hellespont, where Athene sent them favouring winds, and having landed there, and erected a huge stone in her honour, they went on till they came into the Sea of Marmora, and reached an island, of which Cyzicus was king. He gave them a hearty welcome, prepared a magnificent banquet for them, and presented them with food, wine, and beautiful garments and carpets for their journey. But when night approached, and the heroes had lain down to rest, a number of wild men who lived in the mountain fastnesses of the island sent by Hera came down to slay Herakles. They were of enormous size, and had six arms and hands, and as soon as they beheld the Argonauts, who had hurriedly seized their weapons, they fell on them, brandishing large fir trees, which they had torn up by the roots. Fearful was the combat which ensued, but Herakles succeeded in completely vanquishing his foes; unfortunately, however, in so doing he accidentally killed King Cyzicus, who had hurried down to try and separate the combatants.
When the heroes prepared to depart, they found to their surprise that all their united efforts would not enable them to loosen the cable that held the ship: the more they tried, the closer the knots became twisted; Tiphys was unable to explain the mystery, for he did not know that Rhea, angry at the death of Cyzicus, was hindering their departure. But at midnight, whilst he was asleep, Athene appeared to him, and commanded him and his companions to go on shore, and offer up a death sacrifice in honour of their dead host, as well as other offerings to the gods of the Underworld. Then would Rhea, the mother of all, pardon them; "and when ye have finished these sacrifices, hasten to the hill yonder, which is sacred to Rhea, and offer up to her a special sacrifice."
So saying, the goddess departed, and flew like an arrow back to heaven. Then Tiphys hurriedly sprang from his couch, awoke the others, related his dream, and they all hastened to the shore. There, as dawn crept slowly across the sky, they caught sight of the body of Cyzicus covered with dust and blood, and surrounded by the tall forms of the wild men he had slain. The Argonauts were filled with sadness when they saw this, and they buried the body, and raised a tomb to the memory of their host. Also gathering dry boughs, they offered an oblation to the goddess Rhea, while Orpheus poured over it oil mixed with milk, water, and honey, and hallowed the offering with prayer and sweet songs.
Then Jason arranged some funeral games, with prizes for the winners: the best wrestler received the beautiful golden goblet that Hypsipyle had given to Jason; Peleus was the swiftest runner, and got a purple mantle, worked by Athene; Herakles, who could throw the furthest, a silver jug of exquisite workmanship; Castor, the best rider, a set of golden horse trappings; and Pollux, a magnificent carpet. Jason himself surpassed them all in archery, and the victor's laurel wreath was therefore given to him, whilst Orpheus received a pair of golden winged sandals as a reward for his music.
The Argonants now proceeded to Rhea's mountain. Argos having cut down a vine, carved a figure of Rhea, and placed it in a grotto, which they cut in the rock, while Jason erected an altar. On this last they sprinkled blood and wine, and the goddess was completely propitiated when Orpheus, as the sacrifice was burning, sang some songs in her honour.
At last Tiphys hurried them away; they descended the mountain, and having embarked, once again took up their oars. This time the cable loosed itself, and Rhea favoured their departure. Soon, however, the wind became so strong that they had to keep close in to the shore, and at length took shelter in a small creek on the Asiatic coast. Herakles went on shore to try and kill some game in the woods, and Hylas, following him, stopped at a spring to get some water. But the Naiads, thinking the beautiful boy must be the son of a god, drew him down into the spring, and he was seen no more. The wind having now calmed, Tiphys urged a speedy departure, and they called and shouted to Herakles. All was in vain, and as they could obtain no answer, they departed without him.
The winds drove the Argo to the coast of the Bebryces, where dwelt King Amycus, who used to make all travellers wrestle with him. In ancient days they used the caestus in these wrestling matches; this was a strong leather band with iron, wound round the hand and arm to make the blows more effectual. When the Argonauts were summoned to wresde with Amycus, Pollux at once accepted the challenge, and killed the king almost at the first blow, while the rest of the Bebryces were soon vanquished by the heroes.
Next they landed in Bithynia, a district of Asia Minor, where Phineus, son of Agenor and brother of Cadmus and Europa, reigned as king. The gods had afflicted him with blindness, as a punishment for foretelling the future. He was also plagued by the Harpies, who, as soon as his table was spread, flew down, snatched the food from his mouth, and so completely destroyed what was left, that no one could touch it. The Argonauts wished to consult Phineus as to their journey, and he promised to satisfy them if they would free him from these monsters. Accordingly, as soon as the Harpies flew down to snatch the food, Calais and Zetes, the sons of Boreas, drew their swords, and overcoming them, made them take an oath that they would leave Phineus alone for the future. Very grateful for this act, the king not only told the Argonauts about their journey, but also gave them much other good advice.
At last the wayfarers reached the Bosphorus, where floated about in the sea the Cyancae Insulae, or floating islands (also known as the Symplegades), which constantly came together and as constantly separated again. They crashed together and parted asunder, only to meet with'another crash, till the sound echoed through the high vault of heaven, and the angry billows rushed round them with a terrific roar.
When Tiphys saw these rocks his heart fairly failed him, but just then an eagle flew down between them, and settled on the mast of the Argo, only just escaping being crushed, by the loss of his tail feathers. Again the rocks separated, and ere they had time to close, the heroes seized the oars and rowed with all their might. Even then the vessel must have been crushed had not Orpheus grasped his lyre, and, held by the power of his song, the rocks stood still and the sea calmed down, while the Argo passed through in safety. No sooner had this taken place, than the Symplegades became stationary, and remained fixed in the sea as the Moirae had decreed.
After escaping this danger, the Argonauts kept to the right side of the Black Sea, and while passing up it, Tiphys, the steersman died, and Ancaeus took his place. No incident occurred now until they reached the harbour of Colchis. Then Jason,
"Called together the heroes, and with them in haste took council,
Whether alone by himself, he should go to Aeetes' palace,
Speaking him fair with soft words, and entreating his help and his friendship,
Or boldly confess our design, and demand the prize we had come for."
They determined that they would not all go thither, for now that they had reached the wished-for goal, fear had taken possession of them, and their hearts began to fail.
Aeetes meanwhile had been troubled by a dream in which he saw his daughter Medea being carried away across the river and the Black Sea, and, seized with fear, he sprang from his couch, quickly harnessed his golden steeds, and calling to his daughters, commanded them to offer sacrifices to the river-god, in order to avert any coming danger:
"Then in his golden chariot, his beauteous daughters beside him,
Rode King Aeetes the great, all through the glistening meadows.
Down to the banks of the stream, where 'mid the tall flowering rushes
Erst had it been their wont, to come with their vows and petitions."
Now close to the shore floated a strange vessel, the stately Argo, and the forms of the heroes could be plainly seen:
"God-like they seemed in stature, bright shone their arms in the sunlight,
And glorious above his fellows, was Jason the mighty leader.”
At sight of Aeetes Jason and his companions trembled, for,
"There in the sunlight gleaming, rolled the bright car of Aeetes,
Flashed the golden rays of the crown encircling his forehead,
And in his hand he held the sceptre glancing like lightning.
With fatherly pride he gazed on the stately daughters beside him;
But his eye grew stern and dark, as he saw the vessel approaching."
Rising in the chariot he called fiercely across the water to the strangers:
“Say of what nation are ye, and what is the errand that brings ye?
Truly not even my fame hath stayed you from coming hither.
Nor fear of the Colchian folk, the nation which bends 'neath my sceptre,
And ever ready to fight, are impervious even to Ares."
The Argonauts had not even courage to answer a word to this speech of the king's, until at length Hera strengthened the heart of Jason, and he answered:
"We come not, Oh King Aeetes, to destroy thy land or to risk our own lives wantonly. Neither are we impelled by covetous greed. I was destined in time past for this service by Pelias, my father's uncle. I may not gain the throne of Iolchos until, after many dangers surmounted, I return thither bearing the golden fleece. These my companions are no nameless adventurers, but all true friends to me, descended from heroes and the immortal gods, and all acquainted with the art of warfare. If thou wilt so receive us we will come to thee as friends."
Then the eyes of Aeetes flashed with anger, but he suppressed his wrath, devising a scheme by which to destroy Jason, while he answered:
"Hearken, O stranger, had you come here armed and in great numbers to fight for the golden fleece no doubt you would have gained it. Now, however, it would be no honour for us to conquer so few of you. Choose therefore the noblest from among you, and if he shall be victorious, as I doubt not that he will be, in the combats that I will prepare for him, then shall you carry away with you the golden fleece," and he returned to his palace, leaving the Argonauts paralysed with fear.
How they regretted now that they had not waited for Herakles! At last they selected Jason to represent them, and soon after, Aeetes' grandson appeared, a stately youth, bringing the following message from the Colchian king: Jason must capture two wild fire-breathing oxen, with iron hoofs, harness them to a diamond plough, harrow four acres of a field dedicated to Ares, and sow in the furrows some poisonous dragon's teeth that Phrixus had once given to Aeetes. These teeth would quickly grow up into armed men, with whom he would have to fight, and when he had vanquished them, he would have to conquer the dragons that guarded the golden fleece.
Jason would have been completely lost, had not Medea, the king's daughter, come to his rescue. She had seen and fallen in love with the noble Grecian hero, and for some time hesitated whether to help him, or to remain faithful to her father. At last her better nature conquered, and she determined to put love on one side, "for," she said to herself, "there can be no evil greater than to betray one's father." So she hastened into the depths of a dark wood, there to place an offering on the altar of Hecate, for this maiden Medea was a sorceress and could weave spells and charms.
On her way she met Jason, and immediately all her good resolutions were forgotten. He spoke to her, entreated her to help him, and promised to make her his wife if she would assist him in the coming trials. Medea resisted no longer; she promised to aid him, and Jason swore by all the sacred gods, and by the father of Aeetes who sees everything, that he would never leave her. In return he obtained from her some wondrous herbs with which to anoint his body, so that nothing could wound him; also a magic stone to use against the armed men, and then she told him exactly what he would have to do.
The next morning the people thronged to the sacred field of Ares. Aeetes also appeared, dressed in purple robes, his sceptre in his hand, and when he bowed his head the fierce bulls rushed forth, their nostrils breathing flames of fire, the grass burning beneath their feet, and (thus Ovid relates it)
"As forges rumble with excessive fires,
And furnaces with fiercer fury glow,
When water on the pouting mass ye throw;
With such a noise from their convulsive breast,
Thro' bellowing throats the struggling vapour press'd."'
—Ovid, "Metam.," Book vii.
But bravely Jason went forth to meet them.
"While on th' advent'rous youth the monsters turn
Their glaring eyes, and eager to engage,
Brandish their steel-tipt horns in threat'ning rage:
With brazen hoofs they beat the ground, and choke
The ambient air, with clouds of dust and smoke.
Each gazing Grecian for his champion shakes,
While bold advances he securely makes
Through singing blasts; such wonders magic art
Can work, when love conspires, and plays his part.
The passive savages like statues stand,
While he their dewlaps strokes with soothing hand;
To unknown yokes their brawny necks they yield,
And, like tame oxen, plough the wond'ring field.
The Colchians stare; the Grecians shout, and raise
Their champion's courage with inspiring praise.
Embolden'd now, on fresh attempts he goes,
With serpents' teeth the fertile furrows sows;
The glebe, fermenting with enchanted juice,
Makes the snake's teeth a human crop produce."
—Ovid, "Metam.," Book vii.
The iron mass sprang up from the earth, and fiercely turned on Jason, and when the Argonauts saw these armed men levelling their spears at him, they covered their faces in anguish:
"And where such hardy warriors are afraid,
What must the tender and enamoured maid?
Her spirits sink, the blood her cheek forsook,
She fears, who for his safety undertook;
She knew the virtue of the spoils she gave,
She knew their force, and knew her lover brave;
But what's a single champion to a host?
Yet scorning thus to see him tamely lost;
Her strong reserve of secret arts she brings,
And last, her never-failing song she sings."
—Ovid, "Metam.," Book vii.
Jason now took the magic stone, and threw it in amongst the warriors, when, lo! they turned from him and began fighting with each other till not one was left.
There was still the dragon to conquer; but Aeetes, angry that the hero had so successfully overcome the two first trials, would not allow him to go on. He said that enough had been done for that day, and that he wished to rest. On the morrow Jason might fight the dragon; his intention being to kill the strangers during the night.
Again Medea came to Jason's assistance. Her anxiety for him left her no peace. Hurrying down to the vessel at nightfall, she told him of her father's intention, and urged the hero to follow her at once and seize the golden fleece ere day should break. The poem of Orpheus thus describes the theft of the golden fleece--
"Near to the royal palace rose a wall of nine fathoms,
Guarded by mighty towers, and surrounded by bastions severe.
Pierced by three brazen gateways surmounted by pinnacles golden.
There aloft o'er the entrance, stands the far-seeing goddess:
Artemis, cold and proud; on whom the atoning Colchians
Call both in fear and terror,for none dare approach these precincts,
Except they first bring offerings, to lay at the feet of the goddess.
No mortal can ever here enter, be he native or stranger,
By dogs with fierce flaming eyes on every side it is guarded."
In the centre of the enclosure was a dark shady grove of laurels and cornel trees, with gracefully waving palms, while in the midst a giant oak reared its head, stretching its mightyarms almost into the clouds:
"And there 'neath the leafy boughs, hangs the golden fleece of Aeetes,
Watched with incessant care by the fearful, terrible dragon.
Golden-hued scales protect him, impervious to every weapon;
Impatient he lashes his tail, as his angry eye wanders incessant."
The Argonauts, having received this description of the garden from Medea, feared they would not be able to overcome the obstacles, and they begged Orpheus to offer sacrifices to Artemis for a propitious ending to their venture, and to try and tame the dragon by the sweet tones of his lyre. Thereupon the bard chose Jason, Castor and Pollux, and one other Argonaut to be at hand in case they were wanted. Medea accompanied them, and they made their way to the sacred wall of the grove. Then
"Quickly I stooped to the ground, and dug out a three-cornered trench,
Herein I placed with care, branches of sweet-scented cedar,
Elder,also, and black thorns, and the sorrowful weeping willow,
While Medea the sorceress added herbs of magical powers.''
Then Orpheus slew three young black dogs, mixed their blood with the magic herbs, and laid them on the pile. Then over all he poured oil and water, and wrapping himself in black garments, sacrificed to the gods of the Underworld.
Suddenly the ground opened, and Tisiphone, Alecto, and Megaera, the dread Erinyes, rose from the depths of Tartarus, and the sacrifice fiercely glowed and burned, while a thick black smoke ascended to heaven. Now in the midst of the flames appeared other beings from the Underworld, of fierce and terrible aspect. Iron Pandora, well known in Pluto's dark kingdom, and Hekate, stern and solemn, having three heads: on her left shoulder a thickly-maned horse's head, on her right a hind's, and in the centre a fierce wild lion, while in her hands she held two gleaming swords. Pandora passed slowly round and round the trench in which was the sacrifice, and Hekate joined the Furies in a magic ring.
Then, marvellous to relate, the figure of Artemis over the gateway dropped the torches she held in her hands, her watchful gaze turned to the sky. The dogs, before so fierce, now fawned upon them, back sprang the mighty bolts of the brazen gates, the portals opened wide, and there before the Grecian heroes lay the mysterious grove.
"I was the first to enter, close followed behind by brave Jason,
After us came Medea, and the noble sons of Tyndareus.
But as we neared the oak, and the steps of the altar of Zeus,
Lo! with a terrible roar, the mighty dragon espied us."
Raising his head he uncoiled his huge body, lashing the ground with his tail, and rending the air with his cries, while the very trees shook from their roots, and the earth trembled beneath the feet of the heroes.
Orpheus and his companions fell back, but Medea fearlessly advanced, bearing in her hands some of the magic herbs, and when the bard saw this, he raised his lyre, and softly and sweetly supplicated sleep:
"Ruler of gods and of men,
That 'neath his powerful spell, the dragon's great strength might vanish.
Slowly he came to my call, and gently wrapping in slumber
All who were weary and sad, all who had toiled long and sorely
Floated on golden wings, to the flowery meadows of Colchis."
As the God of Sleep approached, the eyes of the dragon suddenly began to close, almost as if death had come upon him, and at last his long neck sank down on to the shining scales of his body. Even Medea herself was surprised at the effect of the spells, but she urged Jason at once to secure the precious prize, which could be seen sparkling on the trunk of the oak-tree above the dragon.
Then the Argonaut hastened forward, unfastened the golden fleece, and they all returned at once to the ship, where their comrades received them with the utmost rejoicing, and offered up prayers and thanksgivings to the immortal gods.
Aeetes meanwhile had heard from his servants of Medea's departure, and sent his little son Absyrtos to go and find his sister. The boy came to the vessel of the heroes, and there found Medea in the midst of them, but fearing lest her flight might be made known to her father, the maiden laid hold on her brother, killed him, and threw his body into the sea. Then she hurried the Greeks in their departure, for the night was already half done, and she knew that at break of day Aeetes would discover the theft.
Medea's crime, however, was not to go unpunished. The Argonauts, instead of returning the way they had come, wandered about toward the north. They saw many kingdoms, and passed through the sea of Azov without knowing where they were.
At that time the Greeks believed that the sea of Azov joined the Arctic Ocean, and that where Russia and Poland lie there was nothing but water. Therefore the poet relates how the Argo sailed on and on without interruption, the shores peopled with nations were quickly passed, until at last on the tenth day after their departure they came to the great river Oceanos that encircles the earth. The steersman Ancaeus then turned the vessel to the left, that, crossing the North Sea, they might return to Greece by the pillars of Herakles.
Here in the Northern Ocean there was no wind, and the heroes had to take to their oars; after a time, however, their arms began to weary, for they were making hardly any way at all. Then Ancaeus spoke gently to his tired comrades, and persuaded them at last to get out on the marshy shore, and by fastening a strong rope to the prow endeavour to drag the vessel along. Imbued with fresh courage, they complied with his request, and leaping into the shallows proceeded to draw the Argo. The shores they passed now, consisted of sand and shingle, low and flat, and over all reigned a dreary silence:
"Death-like, and still, and eternal;
Here, neath the polar wain, and the furthermost waters of Tethys."
Now they came to the land of the Macrobii, or long-lived people, who, blessed with every good gift, live free from sorrow and pain. In the fields they gather all that they need for food, and nectar and the dew of heaven suffice them for beverage, while they have beauty more than is given to other mortal men:
"Peace and happiness, also, dwell in their bright cheerful faces;
Old men as well young, know how to speak from the heart,
Crowning their deeds of kindness, with thoughtful and loving accents."
Next the Argo reached the land of the Cimmerii, a people living in the far north, on whom Helios never sheds his rays. There perpetual darkness reigns, for high towering cliffs keep away the light of the sun. They also passed the rocky chasm through which Acheron dashes down into the Underworld. And then, far out beyond the plain, they beheld the town of Hermioneia, encircled by fair meadows. The city is surrounded by strong walls and towers, and the streets are wide and well built. In this splendid town dwells a wondrous nation, so upright and just that when they die they are exempt from paying toll to the ferryman of Acheron, and may pass at once through the portals of Hades to the land of shadows and dreams.
Now the Argonauts again entered their ship, for a zephyr gently ruffled the surface of the ocean. The mast was set up and the sails hoisted, when suddenly from the bottom of the vessel the sacred oak that formed part of the keel startled the heroes with the following words:
'"Woe! ah, woe! hapless vessel! would that mid sorrow and wailing,
Crushed 'gainst the cliffs of Axinos,* I lay 'neath its dark, sullen waters.
Then should I not have to hear the infamous crime of the heroes,
Lost to all honour and fame. Now ever behind stands Erinys
Seeking the murdered Absyrtus, while following close in our pathway,
Evils and mischiefs attend us.'"
[* In ancient times the Black Sea received the name of Axinus, i.e., "the inhospitable," which name, later on, when its shores were peopled by Greek colonists, was changed to that of Euxinus, "the hospitable."]
Then the oak became silent, but the Argonauts were filled with fear, that on account of Jason's love for Medea many evils were still to await them. They began to think whether it would not be better to throw Medea overboard, and let her become food for the monsters of the deep; but Jason, guessing their thoughts, entreated them to spare her life. Little did he dream how much pain and sorrow this wicked maiden was yet to bring upon him.
Now with renewed vigour the heroes again grasped their oars, the stormy wind filled the sails, and with arrow-like speed they flew over the Atlantic Ocean, not knowing whither they were going.
At length, having coasted the northern side of the earth, they reached the western shore, where lay the island of the sorceress Circe. Here Jason landed, and was about to send out spies to find what sort of people the inhabitants were, when he was met on the shore by the lady Circe. She was a sister of Aeetes, and possessed of wondrous beauty, far above that of ordinary mortals, and the Argonauts were lost in wonder at sight of her. Her beautiful golden hair flowed over her shoulders, giving a celestial halo to her face, and gleaming in the sunshine, as she looked upon the strangers:
"But when her keen searching glance fell on the sorceress Medea,
Wrapped in a close covering veil, to hide the pale shame on her features!
Pity softened her breast, and thus she spake to the maiden:
‘Ill-fated one! to what dire misfortune has Cypris condemned thee!
Surely ye cannot forget the crime that has brought you hither
Trying to land on our island. Hopeless the task is and useless.
For ye have both wronged your father, and cruelly murdered your brother.
Therefore ye shall not regain the shores of your own native country,
Till with the aid of Orpheus, on the shingly strand of Maleia,*
Ye sacrifice to the gods, thus purging away your transgression.
Here then ye may not enter, till from the ban ye are loosened.
But there is nought to prevent my sending you all ye have need of,
Bread and refreshing wine, and of meat a plentiful storing.'"
[* Maleia or Malea was the most southern point of the Peloponnesus, and here it was that they were to be reconciled to the gods.]
Then she returned to her dwelling, and made her servants carry wine and food down to the ship, a soft breeze sprang up, the heroes loosened the cable, and the Argo, favoured by fortunate winds, entered the Mediterranean Sea by the pillars of Hercules, and came to Sardinia and Sicily:
"Now round the three-sided isle,* we bent to our oars with fresh vigour,
Trying to fly from Mount Etna, whose fires did hinder our voyage.
As with a mighty upheaving, the waves surged over the vessel,
And from the chasm beneath Charybdis her arms extended.
Here lay the vessel hemmed in, a barrier in either direction,
Backwards and forwards she circled, eddying around in the whirlpool.
Soon in the dark fearsome depths, the Argo had perished for ever,
But that the daughter of Nereus, Thetis, the bright silverfooted,
Wished to behold once again, her husband the far-seeing Peleus,
Then from the ocean she rose, and out of the wild seething waters
Rescued the Argo divine, from the dangers that would have engulphed her."
Thus delivered they next came to the isle of the Syrens:
"Here in a deep sheltered creek, the blue waters lap the white shingle,
While on the high rocks above, the Syrens with music celestial
Welcome the homeward bound traveller, leading him on to destruction
Charmed with their soul-thrilling song, the heroes now listened enraptured.
Gone was all wish to depart — the sweet witching lay had enthralled them.
And as their oars they rested, Ancaeus steered straight for the headland.
Now was my time for action. Quickly my harp I uplifted,
And as I struck the chords, I sang as my mother had taught me,
Sang in a voice loud and clear, to drown the lay so destructive:
How in the days of old, about swift coursing steeds rose a quarrel,
Twixt the old powerful Zeus, and Poseidon the ruler of Ocean,
And how the mighty sea-god, enraged at his Cronian* brother
Had with his golden trident parted his land of Lycaon,
Dashing it all asunder, right through the waters of Ocean,
Forming three islands sea girded, and well known to all as
Euboea, Sardo, and Cyprus, the home of the goddess of Love,
Amphitrite. Thus did I pour forth my lay, and from the snow-covered headland,
Mournful, and sadly despairing, the Sirens ceased their soft cadence.
One dropped the lute from her hand, the other her flute made
of Lotus, And with a heart-rending sigh, each covered her face and lamented,
Knowing their doom was fulfilled, and that Death would now be their master.
Then from the dizzy heights, they threw themselves into the waters.
Where, mid the wild foaming waves, they were changed into dangerous forelands."
[* The name given to Zeus from his being the son of Cronos.]
Now the Argo reached the island of Corcyra, inhabited by a race of sailors, whose king Alcinous was known as the wise and just, and the heroes landed to offer sacrifices to Zeus and Apollo.
Scarcely had they stepped on shore, when they beheld a mighty fleet filled with armed men approaching. These ships had been sent by King Aeetes, who, enraged at the flight of Medea and the murder of his youug son, had fitted out the force to follow the Argo and bring back his faithless daughter. The vessels having also anchored in the harbour, messengers were sent to the palace of Alcinous to demand the surrender of the fugitive. Then,
"Trembled Medea with fear, and terror distorted her visage
Lest the brave King of Phaeacia, on hearing her flagrant misconduct,
Might for her infamy send her, back to the home she had blighted."
When Alcinous heard the message he at once ordered that Medea should be handed over to the men of Aeetes, but the Queen Arete had compassion on the maiden, and persuaded her husband not thus to cast forth a stranger who had sought their protection. Therefore the king decided that if Medea were not already married to Jason she must be given up; if, however, she was married Jason might retain his wife.
Now the marriage had not taken place, so Hera, disguised as a servant, hurried down to the Argo to tell them of the decision of Alcinous. In great haste all the preparations for marriage were completed, and when the messenger from the palace arrived he found the heroes seated at the wedding banquet, upon which he returned again to Alcinous, reporting that the marriage had already taken place, and Medea was not given up.
After their departure from Corcyra the Argonauts had yet more dangers to encounter. A storm threatened them with destruction off the coast of Africa, and when they sought refuge on an island a brazen serpent prevented them from landing. These and many other perils they overcame with the help of the gods, till at last they came to the promontory of Malea on the shores of their native land. Here they landed, and as Circe had advised, offered sacrifices to the gods, Orpheus praying aloud to Neptune to grant them a safe return to Iolcus.
Then once again, and for the last time, the Argonauts stepped on board their vessel, and soon after dropped anchor in the harbour of Iolcus. They knew not what evils would follow the coming of the maiden Medea to their land.
Source: Friedrich August Nösselt, Mythology Greek and Roman, trans. Mrs. Angus W. Hall (London: Kearby & Endean, 1885), 309-335.