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…


Divine triads and the two faces of Roman Mars.

(For context, I advise you to also look at my post: ‘Gods of war and agriculture’)

Rome’s ancient god Mars represents a curious religious dialectic: On the one hand, he is perhaps best known as a god of war, and on the other he has an older more mysterious incarnation as a god of agriculture and earth’s riches. He remained one the most popular gods of the state religion up until its conversion to christianity.

” … Mars enim cum saevit Gradivus dicitur, cum tranquillus est Quirinus … “

” … When furious, Mars is called Gradivus, when peaceful he is Quirinus …”

Maurus Servius Honoratus – Commentary on the Aeneid of Vergil (early 5thC CE) 

This dual nature was illustrated by the Romans in the god’s twin symbols of the shield (the passive or protective) and the spear (the active), represented in his (astrological) symbol, comprising of a circle and an arrow:

In Livy’s great 1stC BCE/CE euhemerist (for which we might read ‘fictive’) account of Rome’s history and founding myth (Ab Urbe Condita), the culture-hero twins Romulus and Remus were said to have been born to a mother called Rhea Silvia. She was the daughter of the rightful king of the legendary founder-kingdom of Alba Longa who supposedly sired the twins with the god Mars, while being forced to serve as Vestal Virgin by the usurper, Amulius. Rhea Silvia’s identity seems to very consciously evoke the great mother-goddess of Greek myth – Rhea – whose name appears to be a metathesis of that of the other arch-goddess: Hera. In the theme-story probably borrowed into that of Rome’s legendary founding twins, Rhea gives birth to Zeus while hiding in a cave on Crete’s Mount Ida, lest her consort Kronos find and devour him. Likewise, Livy says that Romulus and Remus were rescued from destruction by the jealous Amulius who throws the twins into the Tiber, only to be thwarted when they wash ashore and are rescued by a she-wolf. A similar Greek/Cretan myth dealing parturative peril tells of the birth of Dionysus to Demeter/Persephone under similar circumstances. The other myth of that god’s birth to Semele also has the same elements, although both portray Dionysus as being destroyed and reborn. These share elements with the older Egyptian myths of Osiris and Isis, the death and dismemberment of Osiris, his reconstruction and the birth of Heru/Horus. The narrative seems to be a continuity of the idea of life coming from death – an idea at the heart of ancient paganism, one pertinent to understanding Mars. The ‘two faces’ of Mars: Mars-Gradivas and Mars-Quirinus as mentioned by the Christian author Servius, seem to have been united to Old Jupiter in the original ‘Archaic Triad’ of Rome’s principle gods: Jupiter, Mara and Quirinus. This ‘Archaic Triad’ supposedly had its own triad of Flamines Maiores said to have been appointed by legendary king, Numa Pompilus, who was supposed to have ruled in the 8th/7thC BCE. However, it was supposedly supplanted by Hellenised Etruscan influence – either of the Tarquinian kings, just before the dawn of the Roman Republic in the 6thC BCE or by a more gradual process of adoption of state cults from conquered cities. Livy, for instance, states that Juno was adopted when Rome conquered Etruscan Veii in 396BCE, although such a statement does not preclude her already being a god to whom the Romans gave Cult. This ‘Capitoline Triad’ of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, copied the Etruscan triad of Tinia, Uni and Menerva, respectively. Mars was replaced with the similarly spear and shield-wielding goddess, Minerva, known to the Greeks as Athena – a principle protectoress (as Athena Polias/Pallas) of the city-state in the archaic and classical eras – Athens, in particular. Juno (Hera to the Greeks) was also a feminine representation of a vengeful force who in mythology often attempts to protect (with varying degrees of success) the bonds of her marriage to Jupiter/Zeus. Both female replacements for Mars and Quirinus represent feminine aspects of the male gods. It was noted by Macrobius in his 5thC CE book Saturnalia – that Juno was (etymologically) a female counterpart of Janus, another uniquely Latin god who was depicted with two faces. As god of beginnings and endings, he also played an important role in warfare, it being a custom (according to Plutarch and others) to keep the doors of his temple open in times of war. Janus is an interesting god to introduce to the narrative of ‘two-headed’ Mars: In the time of Augustus this god was actually referred to (by Festus and Livy) as ‘Janus-Quirinus’, implying some kind of link to Rome’s ‘Cthonic Mars’. In the case of Livy (History I.32.6-14), Janus Quirinus was supposedly invoked in the act of formally declaring war. Livy’s account of the words are probably a fanciful concoction of his own typically grandiose style, but the details still count:

“Hear thou, Jupiter, and thou, Janus Quirinus, and all ye heavenly gods, and ye terrestrial gods, and ye infernal gods, hear! I call you to witness this people – naming whatever people it is – are unjust and do not render just reparation. But regarding these matters, we will consult the elders of our fatherland, how we may aquire our due.”

In other words: ‘I’m going to go home and tell my dad, and then you’ll be sorry!’

This and the custom of opening the temple doors equates Janus resolutely to the Archaic triad of Jupiter-Mars-Quirinus under a military aspect. Why, then did Rome adopt the Capitoline triad in its place? It certainly was not averse to war – indeed, the doors of the temple of Janus were probably more often open than closed! The key to understanding the answer to this question is to be found by looking at the females behind the Capitoline triad.

Minerva was the feminine counterpart to Mars in his role as war-god, and was depicted with the same attributes: the spear and shield. However, she was also the goddess of intellect and wisdom – those crucial characteristics which avert war or guide it to its successful conclusion. It is perhaps the fundamental incompatibility between Roman Mars (who was also a chthonic agriculture-fertility deity) and the Greek conception of the war-god – Ares – who represented simply the idea of aggression and violence, devoid of the regenerative qualities implicit in Mars. Minerva herself was a ‘virgin’ goddess – an idea which did not necessarily imply chastity (in the sense so lauded by early Christians), but rather maximum fertile potential.

Juno (Uni to the Etruscans, and Hera to the Greeks) represented the maternal protective force – jealous and fiercely protective, much like the wolf who adopted Romulus and Remus as her ‘pups’ in the old Roman foundation myth. She was the ‘Capitoline’ replacement for Quirinus, who is sometimes portrayed as a deification of Romulus, Mars – like Minerva – being the younger more active version of the god. Jupiter is Juno’s husband in conventional mythology, and Jupiter was the principle god to which warfare was dedicated. Greek and Roman legends are full of the conflict with Hera/Juno caused by Zeus/Jupiter’s constant seeking for mistresses by which conceive the other gods and demi-gods who people Mediterranean myth. In these, her jealousy seeks to protect the older order – their own union. She is thus a more mature aspect of Minerva, her daughter. In Greek and Etruscan myth, she is the nurse-maid of the ‘culture-hero’ Hercules/Herakles (who bears her Greek name), allowing him access to Olympus as a divine – much like the later myth of the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus, allowing them to found Rome. Again, we can see how syncresis with Greek myths informed a change in the focus of Roman religion. Greeks tended to see their Roman cousins as closer to barbarians, and Romans were typically conscious of this in attempting to follow Greek religion.

Gods of War and Agriculture

The identity of Mars in Roman culture shows a curious transition over the six or so centuries from its establishment as a regional power until its turbulent yet glorious Imperial era. Formed from a synthesis of native Latin, Etruscan, Sabine and Umbrian subcultures under a continuous stream of influence from their Greek and ‘barbarian’ neighbours it was a protean and ever-changing hotbed of innovation in both secular and religious matters. Its gods were therefore just as prone to change, and Mars makes an interesting case study:

Unlike the Greek god Ares, who tended to appear in myths (as befitted Greek warrior culture) as a dangerous quarrelsome outsider, Mars was treated more as an ancestral father-figure for the Romans. Livy (Ab Urbe Condita) recounted his role in Rome’s foundation-myth as father of Romulus and Remus by Rhea Silvia – a priestess of Vesta, identifiable with Vesta herself, otherwise cognate with the ancestral mother deity: Larunda, the Mater Larum. Indeed, Rome’s Etruscan forebears called their god of war Laran, which has similar connotations of the spirits of the departed, known as ‘Lares’. His consort was Turan whose entourage included the Lasas – another archaic name for Lares. Turan was also seemingly associated with birds – a common archetype for souls. She became identified in the Republican era with Venus – Mars’ complementary feminine aspect.

Mars’ agricultural aspect and his link to the ancestral spirits of the Etruscans and Romans is illustrated beautifully in the hymn of the priests known as the Arval Bretheren – the Carmen Arvale – preserved in a temple inscription, and invoking both Mars, the Lares and the fertilising spirits or Semones to bless the fields. The month of March (Martis – named after Mars) marked the sprouting of spring wheat and the beginning of the agricultural season as the weather warmed. Another Roman priesthood – the Salii – celebrated the rites of agricultural Mars, and had their origins back in the ancient Roman kingdom. They carried ancient shields called ancilia, which were kept in Mars’ temple. These were supposedly made by a legendary smith-armourer called Mamurius Veturius, possibly cognate with Mars in the Carmen Arvale under the name Marmor. The connection between the cthonic realm, food and metal seems obvious: the earth renders both. The annual re-forging of nature meant that it would not have been unusual for such a theological connection to have been made between smithcraft and the underworld.

Warfare and metal were likewise connected: War and death also. The annual death and rebirth of nature, and the fertility engendered in soil by dead matter (‘Putrefaction’) were likewise important parts of the same semantic field. In fact, the co-ordinated armies of people required for agricultural endeavours and the tendency for battle to be joined a campo in warfare added to this analogy. Rome and Etruria’s ancient wealth and power depended as much on agriculture as it did warfare, and Roman Mars expressed this idea.

Tied closely to Roman Mars’ semantic field-map are Janus, Mercury, Vulcan and Pluto. Pluto, because of the older connection to the cthonic otherworld and the Lares. Janus and Mercury because of the crossing of boundaries between the worlds, and Vulcan because of the active fiery, reforging aspect of Mars as an agricultural deity.

Elsewhere in Europe where hunting and transhumance and nomadic pastoralism were principle modes of food-production, one might imagine that the ‘herdsman’ aspect of cthonic gods was to the fore, and this indeed proved to be the case. The ‘wild hunt’ of Wotan, Velnias, Volundr, Herla are cases where battle-gods or smith-gods fulfill such roles. Thor was a battler-deity favoured for agricultural protection, as was Hercules.

The Greco-Roman mythological character who was the bestower of wealth was the ‘divine child’ Ploutos/Plutus, an aspect of Plouton/Pluto (related to the Roman gods Dis Pater and Orcus)who was at the heart of the Eleusinian Mysteries, and seems to have had a certain similarity to Cthonic Mars. Plutus was the child of Demeter and the Hero, Iasion, who made love to the goddess in a ‘thrice ploughed field’. The birth of Plutus might therefore have a parallel to the birth of the Etruscans’ ‘divine child’ Tages, who emerged from a ploughed field and gave knowledge of Augury and Haruspicy to the people. Knowledge of Sorcery or any form of Augury was to be found in the province of the dead… Mercury/Hermes was the ‘psychopomp’ responsible for conducting souls to this realm, as well as being the god of trade and pecuniary increase – the gift of Plutus transmitted in his hands back to this world from the Otherworld! Janus was also identified with the archaic member of the first Capitoline Triad, the Sabine god Quirinus, who was sometimes identified as a deified form of Mars’ divine son, Romulus. He ‘stood’ over the gates between the Otherworld and this world, and presumably allowed the two-way interaction between the spirit and elemental worlds to occur. Mars himself was therefore a conduit of masculine vital force from the spirit world which influenced the mundane world in a positive way. He was a keystone for the functions of a number of other gods, and was therefore one of the most important of Roman deities, and was venerated (under this wider identity) more than any other in the Romanised Celtic world…