2010-10-06

Bible and the Argonauts: Chapter 4 (Book 3)

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by Neil Godfrey

Jason and Medea by John William Waterhouse.
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Continuing my little series of posts reading the Bible with popular ancient fiction in mind, or the other way around, with the Argonautica as the case study.

Book 3 — Seaton’s translation of the third of the four books of the Argonautica. (Ignore the chapter numbering in the title.)

Change of pace in the story flow

Book three of the Argonautica illustrates the one of the distinctive features found in all four gospel narratives, a feature that is found in much other popular literature of the day, too. Here the adventure of Jason and his Argonauts shifts gears. Up till now the story has been a travelogue. One adventure after the other as the heroes move from one place to the next. But with book 3 the pace settles down into a very detailed and lengthy narrative in a single setting, covering a short period of time, and that relates the climax to which the previous itinerary has been leading us.

After Jesus and his disciples experience many mini-adventures as they travel this side and the other side of the lake, to this town and that region, they come to Jerusalem — the place where they have been destined to meet their destiny, to accomplish what has been planned from the beginning. And it is from this point that the gospels settle into a detailed narrative of all that is related to this climactic adventure. It all happens in the one region, and is told in much more detail than the earlier brief episodes.

Scholars have in the past attempted to explain this difference in pace by suggesting the Passion Narrative was originally an independent story that was later extended with the earlier episodes. But a little more familiarity with the popular epics and novels of the day would point to a simpler explanation.

Renewed beginning at the climax

The change in pace is also marked by a repeated call by the author for inspiration from the Muse Erato to help express this part of the tale. And before we return to the action on the ground, the poet takes us into the heavens to see how the deities are planning on fixing the outcome of all that happens to Jason down below. One of the goddesses, Hera, expresses her concern to care for Jason because he had passed a test of hers earlier to show what a decent righteous person he was. Hera had visited earth in the disguise of an old woman who was trapped by a flooding stream, and it was Jason who took pity on her and carried her to safety on his shoulders.

The second half of the synoptic gospels begins with a prophecy (the Olivet Prophecy) and an etiological tale of the origin of the sacral meal of the church. It’s just my own musings, but I wonder if we should see here the author of the first gospel who established this pattern repeating or echoing the beginning of the gospel in which the Prophets were quoted, and John the Baptist extended the prophecy, with this being followed by a description of the “other” sacrament of the church, the baptism.

Mysterious movements and glorious palaces

Once the divinities have worked out their plan they descend to earth (down from Mount Olympus) and make their way unseen (in a mist) to the palace of Aeetes. There follows a detailed description of the palace, the inner court, walls, gardens, statues and nearby buildings for the servants. All most impressive.

I am reminded of the way in Luke’s gospel Jesus mysteriously walked through the mob who had been intent on throwing him off a cliff, and in Acts the way Philip just appears out of nowhere, and how Jesus can appear out of the air in the midst of a room.

The Bible loves to describe the glorious details of the palaces and related buildings, too, of its famous king Solomon. There is also an interest in the minute details of the tabernacle and Ezekiel’s temple.

Before the ruler, the judgment, the women, the anger of his followers

The earthly story resumes where Jason finally reaches the palace of King Aeetes who has the power to allow him to obtain the golden fleece. He decides to appear before the king himself and risk the outcome of a direct request. The King requires him to pass a test of his courage and prove he is “in truth of heavenly race”: to yoke two fire-breathing bronze hoofed bulls, plough a field with them and plant dragon teeth that will sprout as bronze-armoured men intent on killing him. This was Jason’s Gethsemane moment:

Thus he spake, and Jason, fixing his eyes on the ground, sat just as he was, speechless, helpless in his evil plight. For a long time he turned the matter this way and that, and could in no way take on him the task with courage, . . . .

His lover, Medea, mourns for him as if he is already dead. Jason returns to his companions, and has all the appearance of a god as he passes the onlookers struck by his beauty and grace in his hour of testing. Five of his followers volunteered to go with him to support him in the moment of his test, but the rest silently held back for fear.

Jason is informed that Medea might be persuaded to prepare a magic potion to enable him to pass the test, and no sooner does he hear of this hope than the gods send a sign — a dove swoops low fleeing a hawk, and escapes when the hawk impales itself on an ornament on the stern of the ship. The prophet Mopsus interprets this as a good omen for Jason. But one of Jason’s close companions, Idas, is furious and vents his anger with Jason and the others. What weakling girls they are, he retorts, for placing their hopes in women and doves. They should trust to Ares, the god of war. The other followers were silenced by the wrath of Idas, but Jason protested that he would follow the plan that sought the help of Medea.

The gospels are replete with the same dramatic motifs. On the eve of the supreme trial, Jesus is succoured by a woman who anoints him in preparation for his death. His close disciples are furious at this liaison and find fault with him. But Jesus rebukes them. He will trust in God, even though he, too, hopes to avoid his fate, and prays in distress on the eve of his critical moment. When he does come before the rulers he is sentenced to death.

Preparations for the trial

Medea decides to forsake her parents for her love for Jason, and put herself at risk by coming to his aid. She arranges to meet him, and discovers that the whole city is in mourning for the fate of Jason. She passes him the potions and instructions he needs. Jason proposes to take Medea away as his wife after his ordeal.

The young female servants of Medea mourn in silence, but the followers of Jason are encouraged by the help Medea has given him — except for Idas is is still wrathful that they should rely on a young woman for help.

When the hour comes, two of Jason’s followers are sent ahead to prepare him for the test by collecting the dragon teeth from Aeetes.

Meanwhile, Jason goes off alone at night to prepare himself for the test the following morning.

But Jason, as soon as the stars of Helice, the bright gleaming bear, had set, and the air had all grown silent under heaven, went to a desert spot, like some stealthy thief, . . . . [W]hen the hero saw a place which was far away from the tread of men, in a clear meadow beneath the open sky, there first of all he bathed his tender body reverently in the sacred river . . . . calling on Hecate Brimo to aid him in the contests. And when he had called on her he drew back; and she heard him, the dread goddess, from the uttermost depths and came to the sacrifice of [Jason] . . . . All the meadows trembled at her step . . . . And fear seized Aeson’s son [Jason], . . .  till he came back to his comrades . . . .

The same themes of the need to forsake one’s family for love of the saving hero are central to the gospel narratives. So also in the gospels do we read of women mourners especially. There is no need to see in these references some politically correct pro-feminist bias in the gospels, but simply conformity to the standard tropes at hours of trials in popular fiction of the day. Messengers are sent, in twos, to assist in the preparation in the gospels, too. Note, too, the dramatic tension with the knowledge that at least one follower is expressing his anger in opposition to what his leader is doing. And of course, there is the moving moment when Jesus at night goes off alone to pray for strength to face the test to come upon him the following day.

Overcoming the enemy

King Aeetes arrives first, impressing the crowd with his god-like appearance. Then Jason appears from the sea, also looking like a god, a mix between Ares and Apollo. The two fire-breathing bulls rise through the earth and charge at him, terrifying his heroic companions, but not Jason. Jason has been sprinkled with the magic potion from Medea and is able to withstand their charge, and not only to withstand that, but to take each one by its horns, lower their necks, and yoke them to the plough. Everything goes according to plan — just as Medea had warned him to expect —  even slaying the giant “earthborn men” from the planted dragon teeth.

So ended a long day, and Aeetes was left fuming and plotting some other way to kill Jason rather than allow him to leave with the golden fleece.

The Christian myth reversed the heroic ideal. The godlike qualities are no longer in external appearances, but in the spiritual power within. But everything goes according to plan nonetheless, and the audience knows that Jesus is the conqueror of death. The Argonautica belongs more to the era of the Old Testament tales of heroes overcoming kings and giants.

In both tales one finds the same attack on the vanity of unrighteous kings. They look grand to their audiences, as King Herod did in Acts when the crowds chanted that he had the voice of a god. But the irony of the undeserved glory is not lost on the readers in either tale.

Next: Book 4

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Neil Godfrey

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