THE VOYAGE OF THE ARGO

 

The essential elements of the Argonautica’s plot are simple: Iason was ordered by King Pelias to find and bring back the Golden Fleece. He fitted a ship called the Argo and sailed from his land with a band of heroes, the Argonauts, drawn from all over the Greek territory. The Golden Fleece was kept in the land of Aia at the mouth of the river Phasis, the easternmost point of the Caucasus. Aia was conceived as the end of the earth. Beyond it the river Phasis empties into the Oceanus.

All our sources are less than sketchy about the movements of the Argo in the east. After touching Mariandyne, which probably is in the Mariandic Gulf described by ancient geographers as the easternmost point of the Mediterranean, and which is designated as an entrance to Hades (as all important transition points are), the expedition continues toward the land of Aia. The Odyssey, which presents similar adventures, ascribing them to Odysseus, places them in the west. According to the Odyssey the city of Aia is in the west. In the Argonautica the Black Sea is entered by passing the dangerous point of the Clashing Rocks at the Bosphoros; but in the Odyssey the Clashing Rocks are in the west. Once the voyage of the Argo was made to pass through the Black Sea, the idea was conceived of going to the extreme east of the Black Sea, and hence the easternmost point of the maritime area composed of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. The exact point where the Golden Fleece was kept is a city called Aia, “Earth.” It is on the right bank of the Phasis near its mouth. Perhaps Aia indicated the exact geodetic point 4212N, 4138E. According to Pherekydes, Aia was located on an island of the river Phasis. The land of Aia was called Colchis.
The geodetic data permit to solve the mystery of the location of the island of Circe. The texts clearly indicate that the island of Circe is the duplication of the Aia on the river Phasis. Circe and Aietes, who lives at Aia, are both children of Helios. According to Hesiod (Theog. 1016, fr. ) and to Apollonios, Circe, accompanied by her brother Aietes, was taken from Colchis to Tyrrhenia on the Chariot of the Sun. Apollonios gives the name of Aiaie to the residence of Circe in order to distinguish it from the original Aia. In the Odyssey, when Odysseus is about to leave Circe, she mentions to him the route followed by the Argonauts.

The Periplus of Skylax, Theophrastos, and Aristotle identify the island of Circe with Mons Circeus or Capo Circeo on the coast of Latium. Apollonios accepts this identification.

The position of Monte Circeo, 4112N, 1304E, explains the importance of the island of Circe: it is a geodetic point on the latitude of the river Phasis. In longitude it is as distant from Tarifa (526W) as it is distant from Aia.1 According to Hesiod the Argonauts, having reached the land of Aietas, return by way of the Oceanus, Libya (carrying their ship overland) and the Mediterranean (fr. 63, 64).

The meaning of the myth of Argonautica is best revealed by fragments of the poem Nanno of the lyric poet Mimnermos, who lived in the second half of the sixth century B.C.

Nor would even Iason himself have ever brought the great fleece from Aia, accomplishing the grievous journey, fulfilling the harsh task imposed by the hybris of Pelias, nor would he have reached the fair stream of Oceanus.

Another fragment mentions “the city of Aietes, where the beams of swift Sun lie in a golden bed near the edges of Oceanus, whither the divine Iason went and was gone.” The text clearly indicates that Aia is the place of the rising sun. The Golden Fleece could represent the rays of the rising sun, but it appears more likely that it is not different from the Aegis of Athena, which is a goatskin. At the end of their trip, at the western limit of the earth, the Argonauts come to the land where the Aegis originally was.

The poem Nanno continues:

For the Suns portion is labor every day, nor is there any rest for him and his horses, once rosy-fingered Dawn has ascended the sky leaving Oceanus. But a lovely hollow bed, forged of precious gold by the hands of Hephaistos, carries him on wings over the waves on the surface of the water while he sleeps pleasantly, from the country of the Hesperides to the land of Ethiopia, where his swift chariot and horses hold still until early-begotten Dawn arrives; then the son of Hyperion mounts his chariot.

This symbolism may be understood when we consider that the Sun was usually conceived as being carried across the sky on a chariot from east to west during the day; sometimes this chariot was thought of as being drawn by a team of horses gallopping over the waters. At the point Atlas at the extreme west, near the Garden of the Hesperides, these horses were unyoked. During the night the Sun was carried back on a boat, because the area below the Equator was conceived as immersed in water, whereas the world above the equator is dry land. The ship Argo goes from west to east, to the land of the rising sun, and then follows the suns nocturnal course in the opposite direction.

At the end of the sixth century B.C., Pindar, in relating the adventures of Iason sums up the mention of the return after the seizure of the Fleece in a single line (Pyth. IV, 447): “They penetrated the floods of Oceanus and the Red Sea.” In Greek usage the Red Sea refers to the waters east of Egypt and may be the Persian Gulf or the Indian Ocean. By reducing this part of the events to a single line Pindar reflects a tendency that appears in full in the tragic writers of the fifth century B.C., according to whom the Argonauts return to Greece by the route by which they went. This tendency eliminates from the myth the scientific mathematical element.

According to Diodorus (IV 56, 3) a number of ancient historians, among them Timaeus of Tauromenion, who was the first to gather traditions of the Italian area and of the Western Mediterranean, ascribed a northern route to the return of the ship Argo. From the Black Sea,

they sailed up the river Tanais (Don) as far as its sources, and having hauled the ship overland through some specified place, by following the course of another river that flows into Oceanus they sailed down into the sea. Then they traveled from the north to the west, keeping the land on their left, and having reached the neighborhood of Gadeira (Cadiz) they sailed into our sea.

According to the geographer Timogetos, the Argo ascends the Istros or Danube. The Danube has two branches: one that empties into the Black Sea and one that empties into the Celtic Sea (i.e., the Rhone). By following both branches the Argo reaches the Mediterranean.

In mythical language rivers that originate close to each other are described as merging into one; this was the practical way to convey vividly the information. For preliterate man, for whom rivers were the main means of communication and orientation, to imagine that rivers joined their sources was the way to establish a geographical point.

According to the geographer Hekataios of Miletos, the Argonauts return through the Phasis, the Oceanus, and the Nile. Herodotus mentions that “the Greeks navigated on a great ship to Aia of Colchis and to the river Phasis” (I 2). He relates the version later adopted by Apollonius; when the ship Argo was off Cape Malea it was caught by a northerly gust of wind that transported it to the lagoon Tritonis, characterized by shoal waters. Miraculously the Argonauts found a channel that took them out of there. Morass Tritonis is placed by Herodotus in the territory of the Madilyes. In the Morass Tritonis there flows a large river called Triton.

The Argonauts leave the island of the Phaecians or Corfu in a southerly direction. They had come in sight of the coast of the Peloponnese (about 37½°N) when a storm pushed them for 9 days and 9 nights “over the Libyan Sea and deep into Syrtis.” A similar story is told by Homer about Odysseus. The movement of 9 days and nights across the sea may be interpreted as 13½° of longitude. From the southern tip of Corfu (46N) to Lake Tritonis (about 33N) there are about 13½°. These data indicate that the Argo reached the Tropic.

The poem of Apollonius clearly indicates that the ship Argo was carried overland by the waves and it found itself in an area surrounded by sands. It is the area of Lake Tritonis which is connected with the Little Syrtis at the east by an area of low ground and shallow lakes, so that it could be imagined that the waves of the sea storm could carry a ship from the Mediterranean to Lake Tritonis. All the details of the story indicate that Lake Triton is on the meridian 638E, the limit of the earth in Africa. The Argonauts find themselves in the middle of “a desert spreading out before them from the margin of an empty continent.” It is an area which is neither land nor sea “with great breakers rolling over white sand.” Probably this represents the concept of chaos which was the state of the world before the waters separated from the land. Places at the margin of the world are always so conceived. Similarly the traveller Pytheas of Marseilles reported that in the area beyond (Strabo II 104) “there is neither land alone nor water nor air, but a mixture similar to a jellyfish . . . . earth and sea and everything swings through the air . . . . this is the bound of the universe through which it is not possible either to march or to navigate.”

The Argo had reached the Garden of Atlas, the position that Herodotus calls the Pillar of of the Sky, where there are the three nymphs who are the Hesperides, daughters of Oceanus, and their tree with the apple. The apple had just been stolen the day before, so that the knowledge about geography had been acquired and the Argonauts could leave. In his description of the point reached by the ship Argo, Apollonios confuses two points along the meridian 648E, the Garden of Atlas at the Tropic and the Tritonian Lagoon to the north. But these two places tended to be confused by tradition. He places the birthplace of Athena at the first point reached by the Argonauts, and places the Garden of Atlas at the second point, called by him Morass Tritonis. But he places three goddesses with goatskin capes at the first point and states that they are those who bathed Athena in the water of Trito when she was born. Thus he indicates that the Argo is on a Lake. The Hesperides, “Ladies of the West” and Athena who carries the goatskin aegis were originally one entity. This shift along meridian 648E is part of the tradition. The ideal place of the Hesperides or Gorgones is the island of Atlantis at the Equator. In my opinion Athena is the goddess of the Ecliptic and hence her birthplace is properly placed at the Tropic, where Apollonios places it, although Greek tradition prefers to place her birth in the more familiar area of Morass Tritonis to the north. But the place of the Garden of Atlas is also shifted to the Tropic, and continuing further north along the course of the Trito, it could be shifted to the Morass Tritonis.

The Gorgones are also called Graiai, “Gray Ladies.” The mountains called Graiai are placed by Ptolemy at latitude 4512N and on the meridian that corresponds to the course of the river Trito in Africa, at the junction of the Alps with the Adulas. I have indicated that the entity Adulas seems to be the equivalent of the Atlas.

The departure from the birthplace of Athena takes place when Amphitrite unyokes the chariot of Poseidon. One of the unyoked horses runs across the waves, indicating the road back to the Mediterranean. From this the Argonauts conclude that they have to carry the ship Argo on their shoulders and follow the route indicated by the horse. The meaning of this passage may be understood on the basis of the ancient concept whereby the horses which draw the suns chariot over the waters are unyoked at the point Atlas at the extreme west. The course of the sun would continue by night by boat over the waters below the equator; but the Argonauts, who move in the direction opposite to that of the Sun, carry the Argo overland to the north. The Argonauts leave the area of chaos in which they were trapped by walking “across the desert dunes of Libya,” following the course indicated by the horse of the chariot of Poseidon.

The Argonauts escape by carrying the ship on their shoulders across the land for 9 days and 9 nights. Normally a day of march is reckoned as half a degree, assuming that one marches only during the day, but here by marching day and night the Argonauts advance 9 to the north and reach Morass Tritonis about 33N. After walking across this country, the Argonauts feel trapped again in the Morass Tritonis. But Trito points out to them a passage by which they can reach the sea. Lake Tritonis was assumed to be in communication with the sea, with which it is linked by a series of shallow salty lakes. In fact from the Morass Tritonis a series of lowlands and salty water flats leads to the Little Syrtis. The Argonauts follow that line in an easterly direction, carried by a breeze, and continue on the same line when in the Mediterranean, keeping the coast and the desert on the right, up to the point where the coast juts towards the norththat is, as far as Kyrenaika. At that point the wind begins to blow from the south. They advance all along the coast of Libya until the wind changes and pushes them north toward Crete.

Under this favorable wind the Argonauts continue to the north from sunrise to sunset; at sunset the wind stops and they row for a night, a day, and a night again, reaching the island of Carpathos. This implies that leaving Morass Tritonis the ship Argo moved along parallel 33N until it reached the most northern point of Kyrenaika (Ras el-Hillal, 3255N) and then went 2½° to the north, reaching the southern point of Carpathos.

Perhaps the original Argonautica concerned adventures along the meridian Atlantis-Thule. The version of Herodotus, according to which Iason, before going on his expedition, is pushed by a storm to the land of Atlas may have been the original one. As a second step there may have been introduced a version in which the meridian Atlantis-Thule was reached through the Danube. The identification of the Danube with Oceanus is a major element of the myth of the Argonauts.

Since the movements of the ship Argo are mainly along the meridian 0, I believe that the voyage to the geodetic point of the Golden Fleece, at the easternmost point of the Black Sea, was added later. The main movement is along the Danube to the meridian 0. The Golden Fleece = Aigis of Athena was originally on meridian 0.

The Odyssey differs from the Argonautica in that it knows only the movements along meridian 0. The places visited by Odysseus, before coming to the island of the Phaecians, are all along meridian 0.

The myth of the Argos voyage, far from being evidence of ancient foolishness, indicates how the form of mythos was employed to convey scientific information. The course of the ship Argo touches some of the geodetic points I have mentioned. The expedition stops at Sinope and reaches the River Phasis. The versions about the route followed for the return are a mine of geographical information. The Argo sails from the River Phasis into the Caspian Sea and then into the Indian Ocean. According to another version it moves in the opposite direction following the Danube and then the Sava, from which there is a passage into the Adriatic Sea. According to another version the Argo sails up the Danube as far as some eddying pools where the Danube is joined by the Rhone; this is the mythical way of imparting the information that the upper reaches of the Danube are near the sources of the Rhone. According to the historian Timaeus, the Argonauts rowed up to the source of the Tanais or Don and then dragged their ship overland to a river that took it to Oceanus, so that by sailing south-west, keeping land on the left, finally they reached Gadeira or Cadiz to enter the Mediterranean. Instead of laughing at such stories, scholars should bow in piety before these efforts of our ancestors towards science and knowledge, which may be as old as the Neolithic period.

References

  1. 526’W to 134’E = 1830’ ; 1304’ to 4134’ = 2830’ .