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Jason and the Argonauts (Penguin Classics)

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Jason and the Argonauts (Penguin Classics)



  APOLLONIUS OF RHODES (third century BCE) was a citizen of Alexandria in the time of the Ptolemies. Though little is known of his life, his fame rests solely on the Argonautica, a poem that was from the start unfairly compared with Homer’s Odyssey, but from which Virgil was not ashamed to borrow. Unlike Callimachus, a fellow Alexandrian poet with whom he had a long and complex history of mutual artistic emulation and innovation, Apollonius developed the classical traditions of the Homeric epic, expanding them to include a flair for romance and realistic psychological insight that was entirely his own. Some ancient sources suggest that Apollonius composed an earlier, less successful version of the poem. These sources posit that the poet retired to Rhodes and possibly there composed a more successful version. On his later return to Alexandria, Apollonius became a tutor to the future Ptolemy III Euergetes and the director of the Alexandrian Library, a principal storehouse of the literature and learning of antiquity.

  AARON POOCHIGIAN earned a Ph.D. in classics from the University of Minnesota in 2006 and now lives and writes in New York City. His book of translations from Sappho, Stung with Love, was published by Penguin Classics in 2009. For his work in translation he was awarded a 2010–2011 grant in translation by the National Endowment for the Arts. His first book of original poetry, The Cosmic Purr, was published in 2012, and several of the poems in it collectively won the New England Poetry Club’s Daniel Varoujan Award. His work has appeared in such newspapers and journals as the Financial Times, Poems Out Loud, and Poetry.

  BENJAMIN ACOSTA-HUGHES is a professor of Greek and Latin at Ohio State University. He is the author of Polyeideia: The Iambi of Callimachus and the Archaic Iambic Tradition (2002) and Arion’s Lyre: Archaic Lyric into Hellenistic Poetry (2010) and a coeditor, with Manuel Baumbach and Elizabeth Kosmetatou, of Labored in Papyrus Leaves: Perspectives on an Epigram Collection Attributed to Posidippus (P.Mil.Vogl. VIII 309). He is also a coeditor, with Luigi Lehnus and Susan Stephens, of Brill’s Companion to Callimachus (2011).


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  This translation first published in Penguin Books 2014

  Translation copyright © 2014 by Aaron Poochigian

  Introduction and notes copyright © 2014 by Benjamin Acosta-Hughes

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  Apollonius, Rhodius, author.

  [Argonautica. English]

  Jason and the Argonauts / Apollonius of Rhodes ; translated by Aaron Poochigian ; with an introduction and notes by Benjamin Acosta-Hughes.

  pages cm—(Penguin classics)

  ISBN 978-1-101-61680-2

  I. Poochigian, Aaron, 1973– II. Acosta-Hughes, Benjamin, 1960– III. Title. IV. Series: Penguin classics.

  PA3872.E5 2014





  About the Author

  Title Page



  References Cited

  A Note on the Text and Translation by AARON POOCHIGIAN


  Book 1

  Book 2

  Book 3

  Book 4




  Apollonius of Rhodes was a poet and scholar who lived under the rule of the early Ptolemies in Alexandria, Egypt, in the third century BCE. Alexandria was a new city; founded by Alexander in the course of his Egyptian conquest (331 BCE), the city was drawn up on one of the mouths of the river Nile near Naucratis, an early Greek emporion, or trading post, on the Mediterranean. Thus, unlike Pharaonic cities such as Thebes (Luxor) or Memphis, Alexandria looked to the north, and the history of this city under Ptolemaic rule was one of engagement with the Mediterranean world. The Macedonian general, now king, Ptolemy I Soter made Alexandria his capital around 300 BCE, transferring there the body of Alexander the Great from Memphis, capital of the Pharaonic New Kingdom. The movement both toward Europe and from Egypt is representative of the mixed cultural heritage that quickly characterized the new city, and that has recently been confirmed by a series of spectacular maritime archaeological discoveries in the Mediterranean off the Egyptian coast. To Alexandria came settlers from many parts of the ancient Mediterranean world, the larger groups being from Macedon, home of Ptolemy I and much of his soldiery; Cyrene, an old Greek city-state some five hundred miles to the west (in modern Libya); the Aegean islands; the Peloponnese; and Athens. Unlike earlier Greek poleis, or city-states, this new, post-Alexander capital consisted from its instantiation of people from a variety of backgrounds, bringing with them the cultural memory of their own dialects, religious festivals, and local heroes. Much like a modern metropolis, Alexandria was something of a melting pot of a variety of ethnic groups and a blending of disparate traditions. One exemplary product of this new world, a world of a new kind of multicultural syncretism and new geopolitical spaces, is Apollonius’ modern “take” on an age-old saga, the Argonautica.

  Our knowledge of Apollonius’ biography comes primarily from two much later Lives that are included in the manuscript tradition of scholia (learned notes) to the Argonautica, circumstantial evidence, and a good deal of speculation, some of which has (unfortunately, in some regards) passed into conventional scholarship and is easily accessible to the modern student. What we know more or less for certain is that Apollonius was a tutor to Ptolemy III Euergetes, who succeeded to the Egyptian throne on the death of his father, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, in 246 BCE. According to the ancient testimony, he also served as the second royal appointed head of the Alexandrian Library, although we have no way of knowing exactly what the title (“figure in charge of the library”) may actually have entailed, and recently some of the ancient evidence has been contested. Apollonius is thought to have been born in Alexandria. Why he acquired the epithet “the Rhodian” is a matter of speculation. The ancient lives reference a close relationship to his fellow Alexandrian poet Callimachus (he is said to be the latter’s μαθητής or “student”), with whom he certainly has a much intertwined artistic rapport (see further below).

  Only one of Apollonius’ poetical works, his Argonautica, has survived intact (it has come to us in a manuscript tradition, i.e., a heritage of texts that were copied for many hundreds of years by hand, that includes the Homeric Hymns, Callimachus’ Hymns, and the much later Orphic Argonautica). Of his other poetic output, we know of a Canopus. This presumably dealt with the legend of Canobus, helmsman of Menelaus, and the foundation of a city with his name east of Alexandria, which now lies underwater (the Bay of Aboukir). Apollonius also authored several foundation poems, one of Alexandria, one of Naucratis, and one of Rhodes (this may have had to do with the epithet “of Rhodes,” which conveniently now differentiates our poet from a later “librarian,” Apollonius the Eidographer (
“compiler of forms”). There are extensive scholia that have survived with the Argonautica (originally these were written on separate papyrus rolls, but with the appearance of the codex, more like the modern book in form, they came to be included in the margins of the text). These scholia reference, for several lines in the first book of the four-book poem, a proekdosis, or “previous version,” of at least this first book, and give alternate readings. We don’t, in fact, know enough about the circumstances of publication in third-century Alexandria to be able to say that we are talking about an earlier “edition,” only that there was some sort of “previous version” of the poem’s first book.

  The knowledge of an earlier version of the Argonautica, and of some sort of close relationship with his near (if somewhat older) contemporary Callimachus, gave rise early on to a narrative of rival artists and rival art forms. In fact, the two poets show a remarkable awareness of each other’s work, apparently over a considerable period of time. It may be more helpful for the modern reader to consider their similarities rather than their differences, particularly in the case of Apollonius’ extant four-book hexameter poem, his Argonautica, and Callimachus’ fragmentary four-book elegiac poem, the Aetia (“Origins” or “Causes”). Both poems transform a vast amount of earlier material, from both poetry and prose, into a new or different use of a traditional poetic form (whether hexameter or elegy). Both poems are interested in aetia, in the limits of Ptolemaic geography, and in divine retribution of human transgression. In terms of their poetic forms, both poems recast a traditional relationship of poet and source(s) of divine inspiration, markedly eschew a purely linear narrative, and close with the type of hymnlike language that is traditionally characteristic of hymn. The points of contact between the two poems, whether shared subject, shared source of allusion, or cross-reference between the works, are legion. It is clear that the two poets knew each other’s work in the course of composition and over a period of time, though many details of how this dynamic worked remain unknown. In some respects the association of contemporary artists today in other media, whether painting or music, provides a helpful model for thinking of the interrelationship of these contemporary Alexandrian court artists: at issue is contemporaneity rather than chronology.

  We find a similar situation with another contemporary poet, Theocritus, who is of Sicilian origin but spent much of his artistic career in Alexandria. Theocritus clearly paid great attention to Apollonius’ poem. Two of Theocritus’ Idylls, 13 and 22, respond to episodes that occur at the end of Argonautica 1 and the beginning of Argonautica 2, respectively. I would argue that the relationship is closer than has been previously understood. Theocritus’ Idyll 2 is another instance of this close response (here to Medea’s infatuation with Jason, and specifically to Apollonius’ use of the lyric poet Sappho), and also there is a close relationship between the narrative frame of exchange and the ecphrasis (description of an art object) in Idyll 1 and the opening of Argonautica 3. Again thinking in terms of tight chronology here, albeit a traditional approach to these artists, may not be the right paradigm. At issue seems to be a close association and awareness of each other’s creative activities over time, which, given the context of a royal court with extensive royal patronage, is perhaps unsurprising.


  The saga of the Argo and its heroic voyage is of great antiquity, and may go back to an earlier period than even the Homeric poems, to ancient Near Eastern narratives of sea voyages around the Black Sea. At the heart of the saga, as the German scholar Karl Meuli observed in his 1921 study of the Odyssey and the Argonautica, is a simple folk-tale motif, the young prince sent on a dangerous journey to the land of the Sun (i.e., to the farthest east) to achieve a heroic end, which he can only do through the aid of a local princess. The Odyssey is the earliest Greek text that is aware of this legend: in the opening of the twelfth book, as the magical enchantress Circe recounts Odysseus’ future journey to him, she tells him of the Clashing Rocks (lines 69–72) through which only one ship has ever passed before, the Argo, “subject of care for all,” because of Hera’s love for Jason. Yet although the saga itself, with its motif of a hero aided by a goddess sent on a daunting quest, would seem an ideal theme for heroic epic, no known epic Argonautica has survived, and, given the silence on earlier epic poems in the rich Apollonius scholia, it is possible that none had survived to the time of Apollonius. It is not inconceivable that, for Apollonius, the composition of an Argonautica in hexameter may have been more of an innovation than a gesture toward established tradition, thus making the poem as an artistic composition, like Virgil’s Aeneid, something quite new.

  Earlier treatments of episodes, or more, of the Argonautica in other poetic forms certainly did exist, however. Jason figures in Hesiod’s fragmentary hexameter Catalogue of Women, and treatments of the legend in lyric poetry are remarkable. These include extensive fragments of the poets Ibycus and Simonides, and particularly Pindar, whose fourth Pythian Ode has a lengthy treatment of the myth at its center. As the one extant lyric treatment, the influence of this model on Apollonius’ poem can be traced in considerable detail. All three of the major tragedians treated material from the Argonautica narrative. Aeschylus composed a number of plays that treated themes from this narrative, among others an Argo, a Lemnian Women, a Phineus, and an Hypsipyle. Sophocles composed a Medea, a Lemnian Women, and a Phrixus. A lost play of particular interest for reading our poem would have been Sophocles’ Women of Colchis. Euripides composed a Hypsipyle, of which considerable fragments survive, and of course his fully extant Medea. This last often reflects back on the journey of the Argo, famously in the tragedy’s opening lines, but Apollonius was not composing his Argonautica with this play alone or particularly in mind. The long fame of Euripides’ Medea is another story—it is one of many possible tragic models for the Alexandrian poet.

  Among the many sources Apollonius interweaves into his epic poem are historical and philosophical ones. The former include Herodotus on Egypt (the second book of Herodotus’ Histories) and Xenophon’s description of Black Sea geography in Anabasis Book 5. Several images in Apollonius’ poem implicate the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles, and, like other Hellenistic poets, Apollonius appears to be particularly drawn to Plato’s erotic dialogues.

  Apollonius was not only a careful reader of Homer, but a Homeric scholar: his knowledge of and sensitivity to the Homeric epics is pervasive throughout the Argonautica, and this manifests itself in a variety of ways. His poetic language is replete with rare Homeric words, including those whose meaning was doubted by Apollonius’ contemporaries. His use of these Homeric words is frequently his own way of asserting their correct definition. Apollonius’ similes are his own elaborations or variations on Homeric ones. And Apollonius is acutely aware of Homeric narrative lines in constructing his own. Let us consider one example, the sixth book of Homer’s Odyssey. The narrative of this book is fairly linear. Odysseus arrives at Scheria (land of the Phaecians) and, at the end of Odyssey 5, burrows down, alone, like an animal (his lowest point before he begins his reintegration into human society), by the riverside. Book 6 opens with Athena appearing in a dream to the daughter of the local king and queen, Alcinous and Arete; the dream compels the princess Nausicaa to take the washing to the river. There the princess and her maids play with a ball and the

  poet compares the girl to Artemis amid her attendant nymphs. A ball thrown and then missed wakes Odysseus. He then supplicates the young princess, and compares her to a tree. She tells him that only on his kneeling as a suppliant to her mother, the queen, Arete, can he be safely accepted among the Phaecians. Apollonius reworks every moment of this episode into Argonautica 3–4. At the conclusion of Argonautica 2 the Argonauts wait among the reeds at the river Phasis. At the opening of Argonautica 3 the gift of a ball is the original cause that sets the erotic narrative in motion. Medea goes forth from town with her attendants, and the poet compares her to Artemis with her nymphs. Medea awaits her first meeting with Jason as
her maids play, and here there is no ball, as that figured earlier in this book of the poem. In their first meeting the poet compares the two to silent trees. Later in the poem they come to the island of Aia, where Circe (enchantress of the Odyssey, and Medea’s aunt), on having a nightmare, comes to the water to wash her clothing. On arrival at Scheria in flight from the Colchians, it is through Arete’s actions that Medea’s safety is ensured.

  One area where we repeatedly observe Apollonius’ own enhancement, or variation, on Homer is in his similes. Similes are a central feature of Homeric narrative. Plainly put, similes make the intangible tangible for the poem’s audience. For example, the military prowess of a mythohistorical hero, a figure distant in time and space, when compared to a ferocious beast that preys on flocks and terrifies shepherds, becomes more “vivid,” or “present,” for the narrative’s listener, who can, through the comparison to what he or she knows through experience, or through common knowledge, then better imagine what is going on in the narrative. Similes in Homeric poetry are of many kinds, among them human to nature, human to art object, human to divine, and human to human (Odysseus’ weeping in Odyssey 8 compared to the weeping of a woman widowed in war and about to be led off to slavery). Some are simple, and easily repeated (e.g., military hero to lion); others are rather more complex both in composition and in their meanings (the previously cited comparison at the end of Odyssey 8 would be a good example of the latter). In Apollonius’ poem, which, unlike the Homeric poems, is not the product of an oral poetic tradition, and lacks many of the features of that tradition (repeated epithets, formulaic lines, repeated short similes), similes are not only complex but also generally are implicated in multiple ways in the surrounding narrative.

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