I’m pleased to announce that my paperback edition of Murtada ibn al-‘Afif’s Prodigies of Egypt is now available! The 170-page volume came out pretty well, and will make a great addition to anyone’s library of the unusual and esoteric. The book description and purchase link follow:
Today, though, I’d like to return to a subject I discussed a few days ago, the analysis of the Argonauts myth offered by Greek writer Periklis Deligiannis. Deligiannis has taken issue with my analysis of his claims (calling them “arguments” complete with scare quotes to indicate their dubious value) and posted a lengthy rebuttal, which, paradoxically, only confirmed many of the criticisms I had of his original analysis.
Deligiannis’s problems with my analysis are based on a difference in our fundamental approach to mythology. This will become clear as we look at areas where he disagrees with me. My first criticism was that he took the developed form of the myth from the Hellenistic period and used that as a guide to how the myth appeared in the Archaic or even the Mycenaean periods. I explained that this was invalid since the extant early fragments show fundamental differences, but he says that “It is obvious that the writer of the above paragraph/argument does not have a picture in depth, of the topography, geography and settlement history of the Mediterranean region in Antiquity, which probably plays the most important role in dating the Argonautic myth and mostly the chronology of its approximately final form.” Deligiannis suggests that the mention of Mycenaean cities in the Argonautica betrays a Mycenaean origin. This is half true; these elements are almost certainly Mycenaean in origin, as Martin Nilsson showed back in the 1930s. But they imply nothing about Greek knowledge of the far shore of the Black Sea, confined as they are to the known Mycenaean world.
Having dispensed with that, we come to the meat of the argument. Deligiannis asserts that the elements of the Hellenistic story can be shown to be Archaic or earlier in origin because they are attached to toponyms that existed in prehistory and would otherwise be “empty” or meaningless:
I think it is very unlikely for the later and much later (Hellenistic) Greeks to attach the lesser legends of such ’empty’ place names, peoples and other to the ‘central’ myth of the Argonautica. After all, that central myth would be very reduced in its original form. I think that this evidence is enough to demonstrate that the Argonaut myth of the Classical and Hellenistic period is representative enough 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.
Here is where we come to the key disagreement: Deligiannis believes that proving individual elements of the final version of the story were known before the Hellenistic period proves that the myth as it is known today was thus known in that form. I dissent from this for reasons I outlined last time: There is no evidence that the individual episodes of the myth were originally a unified and coherent whole. The earliest notices, as I mentioned, of the Boread twins’ adventure with Phineus and the Harpies, in the Hesiod fragments, make no mention of the Argo or Jason. The story may well have been an independent one later woven into the Argonautica when storytellers placed famous heroes aboard the Argo. Hesiod has some version of a list of Argonauts, though the contents are unknown, but the lists used by later authors disagree in many ways. My book, Jason and the Argonauts through the Ages, analyzes these accretions and divergences in detail. But beyond this, we can see parallels in the way the Odyssey is constructed from once independent stories, or the way the Epic of Gilgamesh was constructed from formerly independent poems that still survive in their earlier forms.
And we know that the early Argonautica contained elements that were not in later versions. Images of the Argonautica found in Archaic pottery show Jason performing magical acts, including healing Phineus’ blindness and emerging from the mouth of the serpent. These do not appear in any surviving text. Similarly, scattered references to Hesiod’s Catalogue of Women imply that Jason may have had adventures with pygmies, half-dog people, and great-headed people (Philodemus, On Piety 10; Strabo, Geography 1.2.35). The dog-headed creatures appear on Greek vases in combination with Argonautic themes, which helps us connect these references back to the Argonauts, something not explicit in the surviving texts. These stories also do not appear in the Hellenistic version. Why should we privilege the Hellenistic text over Archaic art?
I could make mention of many more inconsistencies, but the key is this: The wild variations in the story across the fragments and early accounts mean that we cannot be confident that any element of the Hellenistic versions was present in the oral corpus known to Homer, much less to the Mycenaean or sub-Mycenaean poets, unless it appears consistently and in the oldest sources. As scholars have argued for more than 150 years, Homer borrowed elements from the oral Argonautica for the Odyssey, and then later writers back-filled the hole with new stories and re-borrowing back from Homer.
Deligiannis explicitly cites Judith Bacon as his guide to understanding the Argonautica, and her influence weighs heavily on his version. But Bacon made a key mistake that Deligiannis repeats: Both are right that there are two layers to the Argonaut myth, a travelogue of an adventure to the Black Sea and a fairy tale about a prince who tries to reclaim his birthright. “What I’m writing,” Deligiannis says, “is that the Minyans where searching for a land on the Black Sea, wealthy in minerals and other goods, for which they had possibly been informed by mariners or traders outside Greece (rather Anatolians), and which country [they] actually knew as Aea or as Colchis.” Or, as Judith Bacon more elegantly put it: “Though it is reasonable to doubt that the Argonauts really dashed between the Clashing Rocks or pursued malevolent spirits through the air, it does not therefore follow that they did not make the voyage at all.” These authors would like us to see the Argonaut myth as closer akin to the younger historicizing myths of the Trojan War than the older, more fantastical myths inherited from the Mycenaeans (rather than about the Mycenaeans), as Nilsson and others have categorized the various layers of Greek myth.
We cannot prove they never sailed, but we require more evidence than an assumption that would equally have us send the Mycenaeans across the Atlantic due to Heracles’ search for the apples of the Hesperides. Because archaeology, history, and even mythology all agree that Greek journeys to the Black Sea only began after 700 CE (or 800 at the earliest), there is no justification for claiming that the travelogue is the older half of the myth. Indeed, if we put the fragments and early poems in chronological order, we see that the Black Sea details grow over time, as Greek geographic knowledge gradually localized a vague story about “the east.” A similar process eventually localized Prometheus’ confinement to the Caucasus Mountains, for similar reasons. In other words, we see over time exactly what we would expect had a vague fairy tale about sailing to the land of the sun in the east been gradually applied to the real geography of the Black Sea, just as Heracles’ phantasmagoric westward progress to the land of sunset was gradually attached to the geography of Western Europe. No one goes looking for the real path of Heracles across Spain, or evidence of him in the Canary Islands.
Deligiannis works to save his claim with a circular argument based on a flawed assumption: He argues that archaeology has no evidence of Mycenaeans in Colchis because the Mycenaeans did not colonize Colchis but rather raided it for gold before going on their merry way. The evidence for this is the Argonautica, which is also the premise that prompted the conclusion. In other words, his argument is as follows:
If we do not assume a factual foundation for a story and instead demand evidence to show a factual foundation, we are left with nothing. Mycenaean allusions in the Jason story can show that some elements of the myth were known at the end of the Mycenaean period, particularly hero stories associated with various cities. But this alone is not evidence that the Argonautic voyage actually occurred, no more than Perseus’ association with Mycenae proves that Medusa really existed, or that Perseus sought out her island.
My view is that the Jason story started out as a serpent-slaying myth and gradually acquired additional adventures until it had expanded into an epic, much the way the giant-slaying story of Gilgamesh acquired new elements until it turned into an epic. This is not the only possible interpretation, and the rationalist view that the myth has a factual foundation has a long history, going back to at least Herodotus. But, then again, everyone believed the story was literally true right down to the Renaissance. People like Judith Bacon, Michael Wood, and Tim Severin have made the case that the voyage really occurred, but for the life of me I can’t see what foundation this rests upon other than personal preference and fancy.
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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