I’m sure you’re all getting tired of my posts about issues related to the Argonautica, but on the plus side, with the manuscript due in just over a week, there won’t be much more of it. I appreciated all of the comments I received on my earlier post about the Hittite kursa and about Georgian views of the Jason myth. In response to the latter post, Al West brought up the point that M. L. West has offered a range of explanations that have moved from Near Eastern to Indo-European in emphasis over time. This caused me to go back and do a little more fact checking, and of course I ended up with a massive headache thanks to West—M. L., not Al.
In fact checking my book—and there’s a thought: imagine an alternative author doing fact checking!—I found a small contradiction that I wasn’t able to immediately resolve. The Greek colonization of Colchis occurred in the 600s BCE according to archaeology, yet Hesiod mentioned the river Phasis in the Theogony (340) and in the Catalogue of Women (Apollonius scholia at 4.259), presumably in the years around 700 BCE. This leads to one of three conclusions: (a) the river was known before 700 BCE, (b) Hesiod wrote later than 650 BCE, or (c) Hesiod’s river is not the ancient river now known as the Rioni in Georgia.
In trying to research this to figure out which is the best answer, I found significant support for (a) and (c) in the work of other scholars, and one book had a footnote to “West (2007)” for (c). This is where things tie back to what Al West mentioned.
It turns out that M. L. West published an article called “Phasis and Aia” in a multilingual Swiss journal called Museum Helveticum, which is not indexed in any of the library databases I have access to, and of which I had consequently never heard. Since there is a two-year delay in online publication of its articles, when I started researching my book in 2009, I didn’t find it in general searches either—in fact, it still can’t be Googled. He reprinted the piece in his 2011 book Hellenica, vol. 1, which came out after I wrote the first draft of my book. So anyway, the point is that I just found the article in the open access part of the Swiss journal. Oh, boy, what a mess.
In 1997, in his book The East Face of Helicon, West argued that the land of Aea (or Aia), the first name for the land the Argonauts reach to find the Golden Fleece, was tied to the Akkadian dawn goddess Aya, with whom it shares a name, perhaps via a Hittite intermediary.
Specifically, in Helicon, he writes: “It seems impossible to separate this [Aea as solar kingdom] from the name of the Babylonian goddess Aya, who is the Sun-god’s wife and the goddess of sexual love” (p. 407).
He further described a number of parallels that implied a connection between the Akkadian myths and the Argonaut epic which are too detailed to discuss here. In this, he cited Walter Burkert, who had previously endorsed such a connection in a 1979 book, building on the suggestion of Volkert Haas that Hittite influences could be found in the Jason myth. West repeated this material in his 2005 article “Odyssey and Argonautica,” which sought to demonstrate that Homer borrowed from an oral Argonaut epic, which in turn had Near East influences, possibly through the a Greek or Hittite version of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Here again he connected Aya to Aea.
With all of those scholars—and more besides—endorsing the idea, I included the Aia-Aya connection in my book. But guess what—West has offered a separate, competing, and contradictory etymology of Aea that throws all this out! And he doesn’t explain the contradiction despite including both in his Hellenica.
In 2007, in the throes of his Indo-European period, which would culminate in Indo-European Poetry and Myth (2010) (incorporating ideas from the 2007 article), he reversed course and, working with Calvert Watkins, developed a new etymology for Aea as the land of dawn in the furthest east. Forgive me, but I am not able to reproduce all of the diacritical marks in the following, so please click the link to see them all as they should be written.
He claims that the Proto-Indo-European word for a “glowing flame,” *heus, which gave rise to Indo-European words for dawn such as aurora (Latin) and eos (Greek) from a form with an –ro suffix, also took on the feminine ending –ih as *heus-s-ih, which simplified in Mycenaean Greek as *haw-ya (u becoming the digamma, or w). When the Mycenaean digamma dropped out of later Greek, it became *hayyah and thus Aea. The asterisks indicate reconstructed words that have not been attested in any known written sources; therefore, the etymology is actually back-formed by starting at the most recent word and proposing earlier forms back to the required original. In cases like Zeus to *Dyeus, a wealth of cognates in other cultures (Jupiter, Tyr, Dyaus, etc.) help with the reconstruction; here, there is no similar term in other languages.
However, I’m not remotely qualified to assess the linguistic argument. But from a logical position, wouldn’t it be problematic to propose that the same Indo-European word divided into two competing words for dawn and/or dawn land at the very earliest level of Greek—which had to be before the digamma fell out and more likely back in Mycenaean times? This implies, since the two words diverged so markedly, that the Greeks had forgotten the origins of Aea as the dawn land, yet somehow correctly positioned it in myth as such—but only in a single myth, never to appear anywhere else. It also implies that the Jason myth was already developed at this early date (West feels it’s Sub-Mycenaean in date) yet the term never spread to other myths nor spawned any cycle of stories of others reaching Aea. (Nor, for that matter, did its successor, Colchis.)
Further, accepting this derivation throws out, or at least challenges, West’s derivation (East Face 408) of Circe’s name from kirkos (hawk) via the Semitic term ’ayyah (falcon), which he says would be an “uncanny coincidence” if it did not represent a direct translation of the dawn goddess Aya as the solar hawk of Egyptian and Near Eastern art. If Aea at the time was *haw-ya, it removes the impetus for assigning an unintentional intercultural pun to Aea and its derivative, Aeaea, seriously disrupting the argument.
West does not resolve the contradiction in “Phasis and Aia”; a footnote states that he “explored the possibility” of a non-Greek origin in East Face, but of many proposed etymologies “none [are] at all persuasive.” Thus a “seemingly impossible to separate” relationship is now simply a “possibility” that was no longer “persuasive.”
It’s a minor point that doesn’t significantly impact my book since there is plenty of other evidence for Near Eastern motifs, but I have to deal with it somehow.
As for the Phasis, West derives that from an Indo-European word for “radiant,” suggesting it was the mythic name for the edge of the world. That’s fine as far as it goes, but none of Hesiod’s other rivers are fictitious, so I’m thinking that even if the name originates there, Hesiod was probably incorporating early reports of Black Sea geography. This works well with another of M. L. West’s Hellenica pieces, which argues that Hesiod should be down-dated to c. 630 BCE or so, late enough that the question of the “mythic” origin of the Phasis becomes moot.
All of this would be so much easier if scholars agreed on even the basics of the Argonaut myth. Consider just the question of dating. There are so many opinions:
You begin to see why alternative authors don’t even bother with actual scholarship or evidence. Erich von Däniken simply accepts Apollonius of Rhodes as the literal truth, and Robert Temple didn’t even go back that far, taking Robert Graves’s 1950s-era Greek Myths as his only source for using the Argonaut myth to propose an extraterrestrial invasion of flying space frogs from Sirius. It’s so much easier when you don’t have to be aware of other peoples’ views, or even actual source material.
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter, The Skeptical Xenoarchaeologist, for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.