Greek Argonaut mythology and its Indo-European themes

The eastern extent of ancient Greece’s mythical imagining must surely lie within the Kingdom of Colchis on the western coast of the Black Sea, now modern Georgia. This was depicted in the famous mythic hero-tale of Jason and the Argonauts, whose most famous literary rendering was in the poem Argonautica of Apollonios of Rhodes from the 3rdC BCE, itself borrowing somewhat from Homer’s Odyssey, and older traditions.

The 'Douris Cup' from the Vatican museum. Jason is devoured/regurgitated by the snake in the sanctuary of Ares ...

The ‘Douris Cup’ from the Vatican museum. Jason is devoured/regurgitated by the serpent in the sanctuary of Ares. The fleece hangs upon a mystical tree in the background … It appears more like the Scandinavian myth of Thor or Beowulf’s serpentine battles than the depiction given by Apollonius’ Argonautica.

“… And they two by the pathway came to the sacred grove, seeking the huge oak tree on which was hung the fleece, like to a cloud that blushes red with the fiery beams of the rising sun. But right in front the serpent with his keen sleepless eyes saw them coming, and stretched out his long neck and hissed in awful wise; and all round the long banks of the river echoed and the boundless grove. Those heard it who dwelt in the Colchian land very far from Titanian Aea, near the outfall of Lycus, the river which parts from loud-roaring Araxes and blends his sacred stream with Phasis, and they twain flow on together in one and pour their waters into the Caucasian Sea. And through fear young mothers awoke, and round their new-born babes, who were sleeping in their arms, threw their hands in agony, for the small limbs started at that hiss. And as when above a pile of smouldering wood countless eddies of smoke roll up mingled with soot, and one ever springs up quickly after another, rising aloft from beneath in wavering wreaths; so at that time did that monster roll his countless coils covered with hard dry scales. And as he writhed, the maiden came before his eyes, with sweet voice calling to her aid sleep, highest of gods, to charm the monster; and she cried to the queen of the underworld, the night-wanderer, to be propitious to her enterprise. And Aeson’s son followed in fear, but the serpent, already charmed by her song, was relaxing the long ridge of his giant spine, and lengthening out his myriad coils, like a dark wave, dumb and noiseless, rolling over a sluggish sea; but still he raised aloft his grisly head, eager to enclose them both in his murderous jaws. But she with a newly cut spray of juniper, dipping and drawing untempered charms from her mystic brew, sprinkled his eyes, while she chanted her song; and all around the potent scent of the charm cast sleep; and on the very spot he let his jaw sink down; and far behind through the wood with its many trees were those countless coils stretched out…” Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes (3rdC bC) trans. R.C. Seaton.

Colchis and Magic:

Mythical Colchis was the home of King Aeëtes, in some traditions a Greek mortal sired by a Titan and a nymph. His beguiling and magically-skilled daughter, Medea, agrees to help the hero Jason to win the Golden Fleece of the magical ram Chrysomallus, guarded by a fierce dragon who Jason slays. In some of the traditions, the sorceress Circe (also a character from Homer’s Odyssey) is the sister of Aeëtes.

Colchis represented the extent of the Greeks’ nautical explorations in the East, being reached by traversing the Hellespont/Dardanelles into the Black Sea before turning east across the coast of Pontus. Ionian Milesians had formed a colony there c.7thC BC. In mythology, it provided a convenient and familiar far shore on which Greeks might interact with eastern exoticism and magic. The towering Caucasus mountains north of Colchis were the torture-ground of the mysterious Titan, Prometheus, chained to a mountain by Zeus for the crime of stealing fire for humanity. It was a ‘fantasy land’ of giants, dragons, fair magical maidens, and fabulous treasures – the perfect Indo-European mythological setting.

The Argonautica’s story-tradition illustrates that the Greeks considered the ‘Caucasian’ peoples of this region as relatives of the Iranian tribe of the Medes. ‘Medea’, daughter of Aeëtes is portrayed as an ancestress of the West-Iranian Medes, a fact her ‘magical’ inclinations seem an attempt to reinforce. Aeetes’ parents were portrayed in myths (i.e – Odyssey) as the deified sun, Helios, and the Okeanid nymph, Perseis. His brother was Perses, and they were both portrayed as wizard-kings.

Themes of destruction, warfare and violence:

The Titan Perses (‘Destroyer’) was said in Hesiod’s theogony to have wedded Asteria (‘Starry One’) and fathered Hekate (‘the night-wanderer’), whom the Argonaut myths relate as a goddess served by Medea and/or Circe. The ‘Perseid’ names (including that of the other epic hero Perseus) have a convenient linguistic similarity to that of the nations of Persians, whose lands bordered Colchis and Armenia. For Greeks of the (Hellenistic) era of Apollonius of Rhodes, the connection between Persians and destruction would have still been a painful and fairly recent memory of the Greco-Persian Wars. The Caucasus however, is also the scene of the Persian myths of the world’s destructive creation, as I shall go on to examine!

The Scythians of the Caucasus also enjoyed a reputation for warfare (and ferocity), and were something of a historic byword for the practice of war. One must not forget that the Caucasus and Asia Minor was a historic homeland of metalcraft and weapon-crafting, as well as horsemanship. To the mythographers of the Jason legends, it is perhaps unsurprising that the god Ares (in whose grove the fleece resides) is referenced so overtly – after all it was in his sacred fields and precincts that Jason was to fight the magical bronze bulls and defeat the dragon to obtain the fleece. We shouldn’t be surprised either that the smith-god Hephaistos is also linked to the region: it was he who taught the fatal Prometheus the qualities and secrets of fire, and manufactured the fierce bronze bulls of Aeëtes (the Khalkotauroi) with whom Jason is required to yoke and plough the sacred field of Ares, and sow the teeth of the Hydra, creating and army of ‘earthborn men’ who will attack him.

Bulls and the Argonaut myth:

“…And close by garden vines covered with green foliage were in full bloom, lifted high in air. And beneath them ran four fountains, ever-flowing, which Hephaestus had delved out. One was gushing with milk, one with wine, while the third flowed with fragrant oil; and the fourth ran with water, which grew warm at the setting of the Pleiads, and in turn at their rising bubbled forth from the hollow rock, cold as crystal. Such then were the wondrous works that the craftsman-god Hephaestus had fashioned in the palace of Cytaean Aeetes. And he wrought for him bulls with feet of bronze, and their mouths were of bronze, and from them they breathed out a terrible flame of fire; moreover he forged a plough of unbending adamant, all in one piece, in payment of thanks to Helios, who had taken the god up in his chariot when faint from the Phlegraean fight…”

The Bull is a constant motif of Indo-European religious imagery. The ancient Persian creation legend related in the Zoroastrian Bundahisihn, tells that the modern generations of humankind and all plants and animals were created from the body of the Celestial Ox, Goshorun, who dies in the first assault upon creation by the contrary spirit who opposes the omniscient creator-god Ahuramazda/Ormahzd. The Ox in the myth belongs the prototypical ‘first man’ Gayomard who is portrayed as the primal ‘king of the mountains’ (the Caucasus mountains) in some myths and folklore – something of a Hercules-like figure. Aeëtes and his Khalkotauroi in the Argonaut myths certainly appear to offer a model for or of the prototypic Indo-Iranian king.

The connection in Greek myth of the Colchian legends with bulls does not stop here, however. The god Helios, father of Aeetes, is also father of Pasiphae, whose legend depicts her conceiving the Minotaur of Crete (‘Asterion’) by having sexual intercourse with a cosmic white bull. This makes Aeetes and Pasiphae mythological brother and sister, and links the Cretan-Minoan and wider Asia-Minor mythos with its prominent bull-imagery, with the upland ‘middle earth’ of the Caucasus and Colchis.

The other important sacred cow of Greek myth who connects definitely with Argonautic ideas is Io – a priestess of Hera from the Argolid (homeland of Jason) transformed into a cow by Zeus, so that he could mate with her. Jealous Hera sets the titan Argus Panoptes to look over her, but Zeus encourages his son Hermes to kill Argus enabling pregnant Io to escape. In an Argolid tale echoing the Ionian myth of Leto, Hera then sends a gadfly to harass Io so that she must wonder from place to place without rest. She finally gives birth in Egypt to . The theme of sacred cow + watcher/shepherd + pursuit + generation of races of men is strongly reflected in the Bundahishin myth of the Persians, which has its origin-territories set in the Caucasus. This is made more explicit by Aeschylus (4th BCE) whose play Prometheus Bound, includes Io in the plot and has her visiting and conversing with the chained Titan, who prophecies of her wandering and eventual lodging in Egypt.

Prometheus, Hephaistos and Mount Elbrus:

“…As the evil spirit rushed in, the earth shook, and the substance of mountains was created in the earth. First, Mount Alburz arose; afterwards, the other ranges of mountains of the middle of the earth; for as Alburz grew forth all the mountains remained in motion, for they have all grown forth from the root of Alburz…” Bundahishin, Chapter 8.

Mount Elbrus - the Omphalos of Indo-European myth. Photo: Jialiang Gao

Mount Elbrus – the Omphalos of Indo-European myth. Photo: Jialiang Gao

Mount Elbrus (Alburz) is the massive volcanic peak towering over the western Caucasus range to the north of Colchis. In Greek myth, this was the place where Zeus chained Prometheus to have his liver daily torn out. For the Persians, it was the mythical mountain from which all others grew in the creation of the earth. The forge of Hephaistos (where Prometheus learned the secrets of fire) was believed to be either here or in Etna by the Greeks. Again we can see the convergence of aspects of Greek and Indo-Iranian mythology in the ‘Indo-European’ corridor: The nidus of metalworking, smith-gods, creative fire and mountain kings is a mytheme which extended from India to Iron Age Ireland, and continued in the myths of the Scandinavians until they christianised in the middle ages of the ‘Common Era’. Add to this the importance in Indo-European mythology to the birth of fresh water on mountain peaks and its downhill progress to the ocean, and the importance of Colchis and the Caucasus to the Greeks becomes clearer. ‘Olympus’ and the Omphalos of ‘Delphi’ seem like mere Pelasgian transfers of an older Caucasian creation myth, which the Argonautic mythology maintained a distinct connection to…

These considerations also transfer directly into the Irish mythology of the Tain Bo Culainge, which I will go on to discuss in another article…

 

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