This week Periklis Deligiannis, a Greek civil engineer and writer on historical themes, posted a two part article to his blog (here and here) in which he attempted to analyze the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, and in so doing borrowed one of the graphics from my Argonauts book’s webpage. Deligiannis, who has written several books on Greco-Roman history, concludes that the myth of the Argonauts represents a pre-Mycenaean social order and that it records a trade voyage launched from Iolkos in Greece to Colchis on the Black Sea coast, and that this particular mission remained in Greek memory because the rising power of Troy soon cut off the trade route, prompting the Trojan War. The trouble is that he’s wrong for a number of reasons.
Deligannis makes a number of errors, beginning with the fact that he takes the developed Argonaut myth of the Classical and Hellenistic period as representative of the state of the story in the Archaic period and earlier, including all of the people and places of the standard version of the myth. There is no evidence that the full complement of fifty some-odd Argonaut celebrities drawn from all over Greece were original to the myth. Homer knows nothing of them, nor does Hesiod’s Theogony. The Hesiodic fragments contain episodes with some of the famous Argonauts, such as the Boread twins’ encounter with Phineus, but there is no indication that they were part of a coherent Argonautic adventure at that time; some internal evidence suggests they were originally independent myths later folded together.
Deligannis also errs in assuming that the destination for Jason’s trip was always Colchis. This is not established firmly until the Corinthiaca attributed to Eumelus but probably written in the 600s or 500s BCE (Pausanias, Description 2.3.8). The other early reference to his destination referred only to Aea, a mythical land of the dawn in the furthest east (Mimnermus, quoted in Strabo, Geography 1.2.40). The only truly early connection to Colchis is from Hesiod, where the scholiast on Apollonius of Rhodes writes at Argonautica 4.284 that Hesiod had said the Argonauts sailed along the Phasis. However, while the Phasis does appear in the Theogony, it is not likely the river of Colchis, which was not so named until the Greeks had colonized the area and named its features after the Argonaut myth. In Hesiod’s day, Martin West concluded a few years ago, the Phasis was simply the great (and mythic) river of the east.
(By the way, if you are keeping score, the same scholiast writes that the Argonauts had adventures with pygmies, half-dog people, and people with giant heads, the same weirdos who end up in ancient and medieval wonder stories.)
Third, Deligannis errs in accepting euhemerized accounts of the Golden Fleece as accurate, apparently without entirely understanding the source of the claims. He attributes to nineteenth century authors the “conclusion” that the Golden Fleece was either a symbol of the treasure of Colchis, or the golden, ram-shaped prow of a trade ship.
It has been suggested that the legendary Golden Fleece represents the decorative statue on the prow of the Minyan flagship in the first expedition, which supposedly had the form of a gilded ram. I do not refuse this suggestion, but it is also very plausible that the Golden Fleece represents the wealth of Colchis in precious and other metals (gold, silver, iron and others) in which the Minyans were actually interested (this is another suggestion made by the 19th century scholars).
The claim that the Fleece was the treasure of Colchis goes back to Strabo in Geography 1.2.39 and 11.2.19, as enhanced by Pliny’s account in Natural History 33.15. That said, Victorian scholars did indeed abstract from these the claim that the Fleece was itself symbolic of wealth, not simply part of that wealth. The claim that the Fleece was really the prow of a ship appears in Diodorus Siculus, Library 4.47 and in Tacitus, Annals 4.34.4. All of these claims derive from euhemerist readings of the story, particularly the rationalization written by Dionysus Schytobrachion at the same time Apollonius wrote his famous Argonautica. There is no evidence, though, that the Golden Fleece was originally part of the Jason myth, belonging as it does to the originally separate story of Phrixus.
Beyond all of this, there isn’t another case of a trade mission serving as the foundation of an epic myth, nor should it since mythology deals almost entirely with the affairs of the political elite, not the merchant or trade classes. In order for that claim to work, especially Deligannis’s claim that the rising power of Troy prevented the development of a trade route, we must accept all of the uncertain and speculative points above at face value.
At any rate, Deligannis appears to have a Greek-nationalist agenda behind his analysis, one that takes Greek mythology as an accurate representation of Greek history and Greek glory, except, of course, where he has to jettison certain parts, like the appearance of Heracles in the myth, as late additions in order to make his scheme work. As always, the question arises: What rules govern the determination of which sections are accurate and ancient, and which are later corruptions? This is why understanding the oldest sources in chronological order is so important.
Ultimately, Deligannis’s version of the Argonauts myth is much like that of Judith Bacon, who assumed the story was an account of a trade mission in search of amber, and it suffers from the same flaw: assuming the late form of the myth is a guide to its Mycenaean form and assuming that the identifications later made between the mythic and real worlds originated in reality rather than in the mapping of a fantasy onto Greek territory. The long and short of it is that there is no evidence of Greeks in Colchis until at least a century after the oldest references to Jason. Deligannis has taken a grain of truth—that many Greek myths have Mycenaean origins and contain some socio-historical information of varying quality—and spun from it a political fantasy of an ancient period of Greek dominance of the eastern world.
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.
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