2010-10-11

Bible and the Argonautica. ch. 6 [Book 4]

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by Neil Godfrey

Jason bringing Pelias the Golden Fleece; a win...
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Concluding my little series of posts

Book 4 — Seaton’s translation of the fourth and final book of the Argonautica. (Ignore the chapter numbering in the title.)

The tricks of verisimilitude

Modern readers are not fooled by into thinking that the tale of the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece is based on historical traditions simply because it happens to contain lines like:

. . . from that time the altar which the heroes raised on the beach to the goddess remains till now, a sight to men of a later day.

From this land, it is said, a king made his way all round through the whole of Europe and Asia, trusting in the might and strength and courage of his people; and countless cities did he found wherever he came, whereof some are still inhabited . . .

And the clammy corpse he hid in the ground where even now those bones lie among the Apsyrtians.

Some set foot on those very islands where the heroes had stayed, and they still dwell there, bearing a name derived from Apsyrtus; and others built a fenced city by the dark deep Illyrian river, where is the tomb of Harmonia and Cadmus, dwelling among the Encheleans; and others live amid the mountains which are called the Thunderers, from the day when the thunders of Zeus, son of Cronos, prevented them from crossing over to the island opposite.

Therefore even now this tripod is hidden in that land near the pleasant city of Hyllus, far beneath the earth, that it may ever be unseen by mortals.

. . . . where once, smitten on the breast by the blazing bolt, Phaethon half-consumed fell from the chariot of Helios into the opening of that deep lake; and even now it belcheth up heavy steam clouds from the smouldering wound.

And still the altars which Medea built on the spot sacred to Apollo, god of shepherds, receive yearly sacrifices . . . .

We easily recognize such tricks for what they are when we identify them in tales we know to be fiction. For some reason our critical apparatus become dormant when we read similar tricks in the Bible stories.

Joshua set up the twelve stones that had been in the middle of the Jordan at the spot where the priests who carried the ark of the covenant had stood. And they are there to this day.

Jonadab son of Recab ordered his sons not to drink wine and this command has been kept. To this day they do not drink wine, because they obey their forefather’s command.

As for the other events of Jotham’s reign, and what he did, are they not written in the book of the annals of the kings of Judah*?

* “Without referential data that is external to [the text], the existence of such sources as anything but a figment of [the author’s] mind cannot be validated.” p. 94 of The Relationship Between Herodotus’ History and Primary History by Sara Mandell and David Noel Freedman, 1993.

Homecoming delayed

True to Medea’s expectation, the army sent to capture her dispersed after the death of their leader, and this dispersal was encouraged also by their king’s threat to punish them if they failed in their mission.

But because of Jason’s crime in treacherously murdering Apsyrtus, God, or Zeus, ordained that they should cleanse themselves from blood guilt (pollution) through the rites of the goddess Circe, and sister of King Aeetes who had attempted to destroy them, but even then they must

suffer countless woes before their return.

This is the way of stories of human drama and frailty. Israel also had sinned against God and were likewise punished by being sentenced to wander through even worse woes till their children reached their homeland:

And your children shall wander in the wilderness forty years, and bear your whoredoms, until your carcases be wasted in the wilderness. After the number of the days in which ye searched the land, even forty days, each day for a year, shall ye bear your iniquities, even forty years, and ye shall know my breach of promise. I the LORD have said, I will surely do it unto all this evil congregation, that are gathered together against me: in this wilderness they shall be consumed, and there they shall die. (Numbers 14:33-35)

The sacred vessel

The ship carrying Jason and his crew, the Argo, had been fitted with a piece of timber from sacred Dodona through which spoke the prophetic voice of Zeus himself. The above sentence was pronounced as a human voice through this beam in the Argo.

This is not very unlike the sacred power in the Ark of the Covenant. God came down this Ark when he communicated directly, “face to face”, with Moses. Priests carrying the Ark would have the waters of Jordan roll back to allow them to cross on foot. Philistines who captured the Ark found that their stone idols fell down before it. Unsanctified people touching it would drop dead. Later legends spoke of voices coming from the temple where the Ark had once been.

All under divine control

A well-known commonplace, but listed here for completeness of the record, is that in both Greek tragedy and epic stories — even Herodotus’ Histories — depicts all human fates as under the control of the deities, and the same theme of course runs through the Biblical stories.

A divine son to become greater than his father

A curious tale associated with Achilles has fascinated me given that Achilles was among ancient Greeks something of the ideal hero and model of excellence just as Jesus Christ might be seen as such among other peoples. Zeus had pursued the nymph Thetis until he heard a prophecy that the son she was to bear was destined to be greater than, and to replace, his father. Had this been Zeus, his Son would have assumed the throne ruling all gods and mankind. That was enough to freeze his passion and he had her destined thenceforth to be married to a mortal. The son she bore, Achilles, was thus born of a divine and a mortal parent. (It was only the ignorance of his father, Peleus, that led to Achilles not achieving fully divine immortality. He interrupted and disrupted his mother’s attempt to put him through fire to burn out his mortal parts.) Achilles lived his exemplary life heroically despite knowing his destiny was to die tragically young. The little memes here that overlap with the Christ idea are noteworthily illustrative of the matrix from which Christianity was born, I think.

Resist the temptresses

There are many commands in the Bible, along with a narrative or two (e.g. Israel taking the Moabite women) to demonstrate the consequences of failure to heed the command, for men to avoid women who worship other gods. The many gods were part of Greek religion, but the problem of feminine temptations is still present in their narratives. One of the best known is the difficulty heroic adventurers had in sailing past the Sirens whose enchanting songs would lead sailors to their doom. Jason, with the help of his musician Orpheus, passes the Sirens test.

Another wise judgment

Epics, novels, even tragic plays, very often contained at least one dramatic scene of a plot-turning judgement on the part of a ruler, leader, or council of notables called by a leader. The idea seems to have been as popular as TV court-room dramas are today. Another one of these in the Argonautica occurred at the moment King Alcinous took the Argonauts in as his guests, and felt bound to issue a judgement on the fate of Medea. Was she to be returned to her father or remain with Jason? The drama intensifies when he discloses to his wife that if Medea is a virgin she must return to her father, and the reader knows that she and Jason have behaved honourably pending their arrival in Greece. His wife saves the day by secretly informing Jason and Medea of their need to marry in haste — that very night.

The Bible contains the same popular scenes. Moses is suffering under the weight of attempting to rule too many people alone, and a little drama is played out when his father-in-law advises him to appoint assistant judges. Solomon’s wisdom is proverbial for its propensity to solve disputes by cutting babies in half. The central scene in Acts is a council of elders and leaders who must decide the future of the church.

Desert wanderings

The Argo is carried by a super-flood-tidal wave into Libya where it is dumped and left stranded in the desert. The dejected crew immediately collapse into complaining and can do nothing more than lie down and wait to die.

Three goddesses, however, come at night to Jason, tell him to rise up, and deliver to him a hopeful message in the form of a riddle. They tell Jason to have his crew recompense their mother for all her travail in carrying them so long in their womb. A bit of divine help enables them all to decipher this instruction to mean that they are now to carry the sacred vessel Argo (containing the holy timber through which the god would speak to them in human voice) across the Libyan desert as she has carried them till now across the seas. They heroically carry the Argo for twelve days and nights across the desert to the Tritonian lake.

We are reminded of an angel coming to Elijah when he is in despair of his life in the desert, telling him to rise up and journey across the wilderness to reach his appointed destiny. Also, of course, of the wanderings of Israel through the desert for an appointed time, carrying their holy ark of the covenant from which God himself spoke to Moses.

Serpent and tree

Once again we encounter this motif.

. . . they came to the sacred plain where Ladon, the serpent of the land, till yesterday kept watch over the golden apples in the garden of Atlas ; and all around the nymphs, the Hesperides, were busied, chanting their lovely song.

By this time, however, Heracles had passed by and slain that serpent.

After the serpent tricks Eve into taking the fruit of the tree, God places angels around the tree of life:

he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim

God also promised that the serpent’s head would be crushed by (a) descendent(s) of Eve.

Women turning to dust

When the nymphs saw Jason and his followers approaching they hid by turning themselves into dust and earth.

Think of Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt.

Symbolic numbers of trees at oases

The argonauts were in dire need of water, and the divinities heard their prayers and had compassion on them. They made to appear an oases with three trees, one for each nymph, to give them shelter.

First of all they caused grass to spring from the earth; and above the grass rose up tall shoots, and then flourishing saplings grew standing upright far above the earth. Hespere became a poplar and Eretheis an elm, and Aegle a willow’s sacred trunk. And forth from these trees their forms looked out . . . .

Exodus 15:27 addresses a mysterious response to Israel’s need for water in the desert:

Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees, and they camped there near the water.

Water from a struck rock

So he [Heracles] too came, as one traversing the land on foot, parched with thirst; and he rushed wildly through this spot, searching for water, but nowhere was he like to see it. Now here stood a rock near the Tritonian lake; and of his own device, or by the prompting of some god, he smote it below with his foot; and the water gushed out in full flow.

Heracles thus had gone ahead of his comrades and saved them by this act:

In very truth Heracles, though far away, has saved his comrades, fordone with thirst.

Moses is prompted by God to go on ahead of the people and strike a rock with his staff in order to save them from dying of thirst in the wilderness:

But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?” . . .

The LORD answered Moses, “Walk on ahead of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” (Exodus 17)

A vain search for their saviour

On learning that their former companion Heracles had been there only the day before, five of the Argonauts quickly go out in search of him, but in vain.

Likewise when the prophets of Elijah had learned that their saviour, Elijah, had left them, they went in vain for a search for him. The same motif appears in the New Testament (Mark 1:35-38) where people search in vain for Jesus after having seen him perform miracles the previous day.

Shepherd slays his enemy with a single stone

One of Jason’s heroic followers stole some sheep to supply the needs of his comrades, not realizing that their shepherd, Caphaurus, was not to be underestimated. He was in fact a son of Apollo, half divine. Caphaurus retaliated by casting a single stone at the Argonaut, killing him.

We all know the story of the divinely favoured shepherd David being underestimaed by Goliath, and how David heroically slew Goliath with a single stone.

Appointed deaths near their journey’s end

Another death at this juncture, nearing their homecoming, was that of the prophet Mopsus. Mopsus trod on the end of the spine of a serpent in the desert. The serpent struck back biting him, and causing his death.

In the Exodus wilderness there was also the killing off of all the first generation of Israelites, including heroes like Aaron and Moses himself, before they could reach their homecoming.

Deadly serpents also attacked the Israelites in the desert. We also have the famous image of the arch-serpent striking the heel of the one who would step on it.

Gods appear as men (again)

Once again the Argonauts are lost and unable to find their way out of the Tritonian lake. They went ashore to seek divine help by offering a sacrifice to Apollo when they were met by a young man who gave them a gift of a lump of dirt(! — but we later learn it was destined to grow into an island of renown) and gave them directions. After they left him they looked back to see this young man taking the gift they had left for Apollo and disappearing into the sea with it. So they knew that the youth they had spoken to was a god. Immediately they offered him a sacrifice (poor sheep!) from the stern of the Argo. The god, Triton, grabbed it and personally steered them out of the lake area so they could make their final leg of the journey home.

Overcoming a giant weak below the ankles

When the Argonauts attempted to anchor on Crete they were confronted by a bronze giant throwing rocks ripped from a cliff side at them. Medea came to the rescue by charming him to sleep. In his drowsiness he cut a blood vessel below his ankle that was covered merely with skin, and out gushed his ichor (godly blood) and life.

The Bible employs the same motifs of giants with weak spots being overcome by weaker opponents, and also the motif of death by the heel, or a giant falling apart because of feet of clay.

Pall of darkness

But straightway as they sped over the wide Cretan sea night scared them, that night which they name the Pall of Darkness; the stars pierced not that fatal night nor the beams of the moon, but black chaos descended from heaven, or haply some other darkness came, rising from the nethermost depths.

After prayer, Apollo came down and gave the Argonauts light by holding aloft his gleaming bow.

And the LORD said unto Moses, Stretch out thine hand toward heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, even darkness which may be felt. And Moses stretched forth his hand toward heaven; and there was a thick darkness in all the land of Egypt three days: They saw not one another, neither rose any from his place for three days: but all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings. (Exodus 10:21-23)

Compare darkness at the day of the Lord prophecies, and darkness at the crucifixion.

Abrupt end

Like a number of biblical narratives, and several other Greco-Roman stories (including Histories) the Argonautica comes to a sudden halt once the adventures are told. Modern audiences are anticipating a more rounded conclusion, a warm homecoming at least. But no, once they step on to the beach of their homeland the story ends. The illustration above depicting Jason delivering the golden fleece to Pelias who had sent him on the quest is not part of the narrative by Apollonius. Biblical scholars, I think, miss much when they discuss the abrupt endings of certain biblical narratives apart from the context of wider samplings of ancient literature.

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Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

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