1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Argonauts

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ARGONAUTS (Άργοναῦται, the sailors of the “Argo”), in Greek legend a band of heroes who took part in the Argonautic expedition under the command of Jason, to fetch the golden fleece. This task had been imposed on Jason by his uncle Pelias (q.v.), who had usurped the throne of Iolcus in Thessaly, which rightfully belonged to Jason’s father Aeson. The story of the fleece was as follows. Jason’s uncle Athamas had two children, Phrixus and Helle, by his wife Nephele, the cloud goddess. But after a time he became enamoured of Ino, the daughter of Cadmus, and neglected Nephele, who disappeared in anger. Ino, who hated the children of Nephele, persuaded Athamas, by means of a false oracle, to offer Phrixus as a sacrifice, as the only means of alleviating a famine which she herself had caused by ordering the grain to be secretly roasted before it was sown. But before the sacrifice the shade of Nephele appeared to Phrixus, bringing a ram with a golden fleece on which he and his sister Helle endeavoured to escape over the sea. Helle fell off and was drowned in the strait, which after her was called the Hellespont. Phrixus, however, reached the other side in safety, and proceeding by land to Aea in Colchis on the farther shore of the Euxine Sea, sacrificed the ram, and hung up its fleece in the grove of Ares, where it was guarded by a sleepless dragon.

Jason, having undertaken the quest of the fleece, called upon the noblest heroes of Greece to take part in the expedition. According to the original story, the crew consisted of the chief members of Jason’s own race, the Minyae. But when the legend became common property, other and better-known heroes were added to their number—Orpheus, Castor and Polydeuces (Pollux), Zetes and Calaīs, the winged sons of Boreas, Meleager, Theseus, Heracles. The crew was supposed to consist of fifty, agreeing in number with the fifty oars of the “Argo,” so called from its builder Argos, the son of Phrixus, or from ἀργός (swift). It was a larger vessel than had ever been seen before, built of pine-wood that never rotted from Mount Pelion. The goddess Athena herself superintended its construction, and inserted in the prow a piece of oak from Dodona, which was endowed with the power of speaking and delivering oracles. The outward course of the “Argo” was the same as that of the Greek traders, whose settlements as early as the 6th century B.C. dotted the southern shores of the Euxine. The first landing-place was the island of Lemnos, which was occupied only by women, who had put to death their fathers, husbands and brothers. Here the Argonauts remained some months, until they were persuaded by Heracles to leave. It is known from Herodotus (iv. 145) that the Minyae had formed settlements at Lemnos at a very early date. Proceeding up the Hellespont, they sailed to the country of the Doliones, by whose king, Cyzicus, they were hospitably received. After their departure, being driven back to the same place by a storm, they were attacked by the Doliones, who did not recognize them, and in a battle which took place Cyzicus was killed by Jason. After Cyzicus had been duly mourned and buried, the Argonauts proceeded along the coast of Mysia, where occurred the incident of Heracles and Hylas (q.v.). On reaching the country of the Bebryces, they again landed to get water, and were challenged by the king, Amycus, to match him with a boxer. Polydeuces came forward, and in the end overpowered his adversary, and bound him to a tree, or according to others, slew him. At the entrance to the Euxine, at Salmydessus on the coast of Thrace, they met Phineus, the blind and aged king whose food was being constantly polluted by the Harpies. He knew the course to Colchis, and offered to tell it, if the Argonauts would free him from the Harpies. This was done by the winged sons of Boreas, and Phineus now told them their course, and that the way to pass through the Symplegades or Cyanean rocks—two cliffs which moved on their bases and crushed whatever sought to pass—was first to fly a pigeon through, and when the cliffs, having closed on the pigeon, began to retire to each side, to row the “Argo” swiftly through. His advice was successfully followed, and the “Argo” made the passage unscathed, except for trifling damage to the stern. From that time the rocks became fixed and never closed again. The next halting-places were the country of the Maryandini, where the helmsman Tiphys died, and the land of the Amazons on the banks of the Thermodon. At the island of Aretias they drove away the Stymphalian birds, who used their feathers of brass as arrows. Here they found and took on board the four sons of Phrixus who, after their father’s death, had been sent by Aeetes, king of Colchis, to fetch the treasures of Orchomenus, but had been driven by a storm upon the island. Passing near Mount Caucasus, they heard the groans of Prometheus and the flapping of the wings of the eagle which gnawed his liver. They now reached their goal, the river Phasis, and the following morning Jason repaired to the palace of Aeetes, and demanded the golden fleece. Aeetes required of Jason that he should first yoke to a plough his bulls, given him by Hephaestus, which snorted fire and had hoofs of brass, and with them plough the field of Ares. That done, the field was to be sown with the dragons’ teeth brought by Phrixus, from which armed men were to spring. Successful so far by means of the mixture which Medea, daughter of Aeetes, had given him as proof against fire and sword, Jason was next allowed to approach the dragon which watched the fleece; Medea soothed the monster with another mixture, and Jason became master of the fleece. Then the voyage homeward began, Medea accompanying Jason, and Aeetes pursuing them. To delay him and obtain escape, Medea dismembered her young brother Absyrtus, whom she had taken with her, and cast his limbs about in the sea for his father to pick up. Her plan succeeded, and while Aeetes was burying the remains of his son at Tomi, Jason and Medea escaped. In another account Absyrtus had grown to manhood then, and met his death in an encounter with Jason, in pursuit of whom he had been sent. Of the homeward course various accounts are given. In the oldest (Pindar) the “Argo” sailed along the river Phasis into the eastern Oceanus, round Asia to the south coast of Libya, thence to the mythical lake Tritonis, after being carried twelve days over land through Libya, and thence again to Iolcus. Hecataeus of Miletus (Schol. Apollon. Rhod. iv. 259) suggested that from the Oceanus it may have sailed into the Nile, and so to the Mediterranean. Others, like Sophocles, described the return voyage as differing from the outward course only in taking the northern instead of the southern shore of the Euxine. Some (pseudo-Orpheus) supposed that the Argonauts had sailed up the river Tanaïs, passed into another river, and by it reached the North Sea, returning to the Mediterranean by the Pillars of Hercules. Again, others (Apollonius Rhodius) laid down the course as up the Danube (Ister), from it into the Adriatic by a supposed mouth of that river, and on to Corcyra, where a storm overtook them. Next they sailed up the Eridanus into the Rhodanus, passing through the country of the Celts and Ligurians to the Stoechades, then to the island of Aethalia (Elba), finally reaching the Tyrrhenian Sea and the island of Circe, who absolved them from the murder of Absyrtus. Then they passed safely through Scylla and Charybdis, past the Sirens, through the Planctae, over the island of the Sun, Trinacria and on to Corcyra again, the land of the Phaeacians, where Jason and Medea held their nuptials. They had sighted the coast of Peloponnesus when a storm overtook them and drove them to the coast of Libya, where they were saved from a quicksand by the local nymphs. The “Argo” was now carried twelve days and twelve nights to the Hesperides, and thence to lake Tritonis (where the seer Mopsus died), whence Triton conducted them to the Mediterranean. At Crete the brazen Talos, who would not permit them to land, was killed by the Dioscuri. At Anaphe, one of the Sporades, they were saved from a storm by Apollo. Finally, they reached Iolcus, and the “Argo” was placed in a groove sacred to Poseidon on the isthmus of Corinth. Jason’s death, it is said, was afterwards caused by part of the stern giving way and falling upon him.

The story of the expedition of the Argonauts is very old. Homer was acquainted with it and speaks of the “Argo” as well known to all men; the wanderings of Odysseus may have been partly founded on its voyage. Pindar, in the fourth Pythian ode, gives the oldest detailed account of it. In Greek, there are also extant the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius and the pseudo-Orpheus (4th century A.D.), and the account in Apollodorus (i. 9), based on the best extant authorities; in Latin, the imitation of Apollonius (a free translation or adaptation of whose Argonautica was made by Terentius Varro Atacinus in the time of Cicero) by Valerius Flaccus. In ancient times the expedition was regarded as a historical fact, an incident in the opening up of the Euxine to Greek commerce and colonization. Its object was the acquisition of gold, which was caught by the inhabitants of Colchis in fleeces as it was washed down the rivers. Suidas says that the fleece was a book written on parchment, which taught how to make gold by chemical processes. The rationalists explained the ram on which Phrixus crossed the sea as the name or ornament of the ship on which he escaped. Several interpretations of the legend have been put forward by modern scholars. According to C. O. Müller, it had its origin in the worship of Zeus Laphystius; the fleece is the pledge of reconciliation; Jason is a propitiating god of health, Medea a goddess akin to Hera; Aeetes is connected with the Colchian sun-worship. Forchhammer saw in it an old nature symbolism; Jason, the god of healing and fruitfulness, brought the fleece—the fertilizing rain-cloud—to the western land that was parched by the heat of the sun. Others treat it as a solar myth; the ram is the light of the sun, the flight of Phrixus and the death of Helle signify its setting, the recovery of the fleece its rising again.

There are numerous treatises on the subject: F. Vater, Der Argonautenzug (1845); J. Stender, De Argonautarum Expeditione (1874); D. Kennerknecht, De Argonautarum Fabula (1886); M. Groeger, De Argonautarum Fabularum Historia (1889); see also Grote, History of Greece, part i. ch. 13; Preller, Griechische Mythologie; articles in Pauly-Wissowa’s Realencyclopädie, Roscher’s Lexikon der Mythologie, and Daremberg and Saglio’s Dictionnaire des Antiquités.