Last week I signed a contract with McFarland Publishers for a new book, tentatively titled Jason and the Argonauts: The Epic History of a Greek Myth. To be published sometime in 2014, the book will examine the history of the Greek myth of Jason in its historical, cultural, and archaeological contexts using a wide range of the latest evidence. Weighing in at more than 170,000 words (before editing), it is the longest single piece of writing I have ever done. The manuscript is due to the publisher on October 1, and I am currently assembling the final set of images and captions to accompany the text.
The myth of Jason tells the story of a young man who sets out on an epic adventure in search of the Golden Fleece at the behest of the evil tyrant Pelias, his many trials, and his marriage to the sorceress Medea. The story includes such famous incidents from myth as the Clashing Rocks, the bronze giant Talos, the battle with the Sown Men (depicted as skeleton warriors in the 1963 movie), and the events of Euripides’ Medea.
Aside from one author’s self-published book in 2010, there has been very little work done on the character of Jason, despite the large number of books devoted to his wife, Medea. My book survey more than 2,500 years’ worth of literature on the myth of the Argonauts, and I place it in the context of new developments in the study of Greek mythology, including recent developments in the understanding of the Near Eastern and Indo-European contributions to Greek myth.
Traditionally, archaeologists have identified the Argonauts’ voyage a mythologized version of an actual Bronze Age voyage to the coast of Georgia, where, following Strabo, many have assumed the Golden Fleece was a cloth used in the panning of gold in the region. A survey of the surviving textual, iconographic, and archaeological evidence shows that this view cannot be correct and is in fact a longstanding rationalization of a story that originally had nothing to do with Georgia or with gold. Just what I found out about the Gold Fleece and the origins of the story of Jason you’ll have to wait to discover.
Superficially, my book approaches some of the same territory as alternative history—looking into ancient myths and legends, seeking out their origins, and trying to explain what ancient people were thinking. I’ll also be frank: This book contains speculation. By definition it must, since there is little direct evidence prior to the time of Homer, and therefore inferences are necessary to craft a narrative. I also step just a small bit beyond current scholarly ideas to suggest a new explanation for the Golden Fleece—but one that simply synthesizes and builds upon current scholarly ideas. I also, importantly, label speculation as such and emphasize where ideas are uncertain or where information is inconclusive.
I also differ from alternative history in two other ways: First, I utilized the very best scholarly material on the subject, including nearly 1,000 end notes referencing both primary sources (actual ancient texts) as well as current scholarship in the field, including material as recent as this past spring. Where ancient texts had not been translated, I translated them myself, and I consulted the original language of each where possible. Second, I discussed the story of the Argonauts with leading scholars like C. J. Mackie and M. L. West, who offered additional insights into the history of the Argonaut myth and suggested essential research materials. And where current scholarship suggested that one of my ideas was wrong, I double checked to confirm the error. I had to abandon what I thought was one promising line of research when it turned out that the book where I read about one idea had no facts to support it. Rodney Castleden somehow manages to get Routledge to keep publishing his books on ancient history despite including material based on little more than speculation.
For example, in his Knossos Labyrinth (1990), he wantonly conflates Greek myths, Mycenaean Linear B tablets, and Minoan art to claim (without explanation) that the Minoans worshiped a god named Poseidon in the form of a bull who operated beneath the earth, on the earth, and as the sun in the sky. To do this, he must apply the Mycenaean god Poseidon to the Minoans, and he then purposely conflates the bull of Poseidon that fathered the Minotaur with the bull who raped Europa—a bull who was Zeus, not Poseidon. Castleden claims that Poseidon’s bull had a silver circle on its forehead and horns like the crescent moon—therefore a “sky” symbol that had risen up from the sea. He does not acknowledge his source, almost certainly Frazer’s Golden Bough (3rd ed., Pt. III, Ch. 2), where a footnote to a long-outdated discussion of the identification of these myths as celestial symbols so summarizes Moschus’ Hellenistic Europa (c. 150 BCE), whose actual text runs thus:
Nay, but all his body was of a yellow hue, save that a ring of gleaming white shined in the midst of his forehead and the eyes beneath it were grey and made lightnings of desire; and the horns of his head rose equal one against the other even as if one should cleave in two rounded cantles the rim of the hornèd moon.
Weirdly, Castleden correctly cited the myth on page 8 as applying to Zeus and then, thinking we had forgotten the truth, twisted it on page 139 into a symbol of Poseidon. Zeus didn’t rise from the sea; Poseidon’s bull did. Poseidon’s bull lacks the sky markings appropriate to the sky god Zeus.
From Zeus’ golden bull, correctly cited by Frazer, Castleden adopted the entire Victorian school of weather-magic interpretation of myth and wrongly made this bull Poseidon’s to fill in a gap in Minoan religion. Never mind that Moschus wrote more than a thousand years after the Mycenaeans conquered the Minoans. Since Castleden provided no citations, it fooled me until I was able to pick it apart. Castleden simply repeats his claim about the Minoan bull god without elaboration in several subsequent books as though it were established fact.
Anyway, my Jason and the Argonauts book should be a fun, if complicated, read. While you wait for publication, you can check out the dedicated website for the book by clicking the logo below. The site is a work in progress and will need a complete update and overhaul before the book is released.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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