Greek mythology, while not a common subject of study today in the classroom, was for centuries foundational to a comprehensive education in the Western world. Shakespeare heavily made Hellenic references and allusions in his writing, to the extent that it is difficult to grasp the nuances of meaning in many of his plays without at least a rudimentary knowledge of classical myth.
One of the most well-known myths is that of Jason and his quest for the Golden Fleece aboard the ship Argo. A large retinue of heroes (all sons or grandsons of the gods) make up the crew, with Hercules himself at the center oar. Apollonius of Rhodes, a librarian and royal tutor in Alexandria in the third century B.C., wrote the famous Argonautica — an epic poem detailing his dramatic account of the voyage of the Argo. While it was originally written in 5,835 hexameter verses, divided into four books, this particular edition published by The Folio Society, The Voyage of the Argo, was translated into prose, which made it somewhat simpler to read.
The immense popularity of Argonautica is evident in the current existence of 52 surviving manuscripts. Interestingly, it was a self-consciously anachronistic work for its time with many deliberate Homeric parallels and allusions, saluting an earlier literary age.
“The Homeric similes settle the poem in a distant yet familiar literary context. The whole poem can be (and would have been) read as a respectful rewriting of its epic forerunners, most notably The Odyssey,” writes Lawrence Norfolk in his introduction.
This story is truly the ultimate adventure at sea as the Argonauts’ journey through the Mediterranean and into the foreign waters of the Black Sea toward Colchis is punctuated by storms, tasks such as driving off the Harpies from a prophet, outsmarting the lethal birds of Ares, a vicious boxing-match, attacks, and even passage through the Clashing Rocks with the aid of Hera, queen of the goddesses.
While the Argonauts endure their various adventures and misadventures along their way to Colchis, the mood and narrative focus change upon the introduction of the infamous character Medea. “Books One and Two tell how the Argo advances on Colchis,” writes Norfolk. “In Book Three the mood and narrative focus changes. Here, in the most celebrated (and annotated) section of the poem, the most powerful forces of the Argonautica converge on Medea, the youngest daughter of King Aeetes. Filial duty, sexual compulsion, divine retribution and her own powers of enchantment combine in an intense psychological portrait which shows the loyalties of the young sorceress pulled between her father, Jason and the wills of the gods.”
After an intense internal struggle, Medea famously helps Jason harness the bronze-footed, fire-breathing bulls, defeat the crop of warriors that spring up from the serpent’s teeth sown in the freshly plowed field and tame the never-sleeping snake guarding the golden fleece. However, as her brother, Apsyrtus, chases the fleeing Argo on behalf of his father to retrieve both the fleece and the princess, Medea shamelessly acts with Jason to commit fratricide and thus elude her father’s pursuit. While they escape temporarily from immediate consequences, the Alexandrian audience would have been familiar enough with the myth to know that tragedy and treachery pursue Jason and Medea. Apollonius, however, does not trouble himself to write the catastrophic conclusion to their lives, instead ending with the joyful, if rather abrupt, homecoming to Greece.
For those who, like me, have always been enamored with Greek myths, this was a delightful read. This Folio Society edition features numerous double-page, colored illustrations by Daniel Egnéus that add to the mystical aura of the book. For readers unfamiliar with the characters of Mount Olympus and their divine and mortal consorts, there is a very useful glossary in the back with basic information on nearly all of the names referenced throughout the story, which proved a most helpful resource.
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