The strange thing about Jason

The strange thing about Jason

The strange thing about Jason is how very, very bad he looks. He doesn’t do anything except captain a ship. The other heroes of the Argonauts are real heroes

I. Jason’s easy undoing

A. The strange thing about Jason is how very, very bad he looks
1. He doesn’t do anything except captain a ship
2. The other heroes of the Argonauts are real heroes
a) in fact, Heracles has to be off-loaded so that he won’t
make Jason look bad
3. When they get to Colchis, he’s absolutely helpless without Medea
4. Once they get back to Iolcus, Medea’s antics force him out
5. Once they get to Corinth, Medea triumphs over him in a very
awful way
6. When the bards of the Odyssey use his adventures as the basis for
Odysseus’ own (cf. the “Nostos problem” video-lecture), they say that
his story is old-hat, and write him out of it
B. In Euripides’ Medea, the chorus of Corinthian Women sing “Flow
backward to your sources sacred rivers. . . it is the thoughts of men that
are deceitful. . . . Cease now, ye muses of the ancient singers to tell the
tale of my unfaithfulness.”
1. They sympathize with Medea, because Medea is pointing out that
the heroic myths are sung by men, and that men are frequently
unworthy jerks
2. And Jason, for some reason, is the perfect example
C. Movies about Jason, e.g. Ray Harryhausen’s famous “Jason and the
Argonauts” demonstrate the same problem
1. Jason is reduced to a dude walking back and forth on a ship

II. The answer to the riddle: heroic myth of geography

A. Clue: the Golden Fleece
1. various golden fleeces figure in Greek myth: the two most
prominent, here and in the myth of the House of Atreus, are connected
to Asia Minor, in a region that was very rich in gold in the Bronze Age
2. We read of the river flowing down from Mount Tmolus in Lydia,
full of gold dust
3. prospecting with fleece—dipping the fleece in the water and
bringing it up full of gold-dust—is attested in the Caucasus
4. The Golden Fleece is a way of talking about the riches of
Northern Asia Minor—the same region as Colchis
B. Clue: the shape of the voyage of the Argo
1. the voyage is a series of stops, until after the Fleece, when it
suddenly becomes fantastic
2. The most famous incident, the Symplegades, is pretty clearly a
memory of how hard it is to get through the Hellespont, where the
tides can very easily wreck your boat.
3. The old way of getting through the Hellespont must have been to
row like heck—the same way the Argonauts get through the
Symplegades
4. The various return voyages, e.g. the river of Ocean, are all
impossible, and are clearly a way of avoiding just saying “So they came
back the same way they went.”
C. Clue: non-literate culture
1. As we’ve seen in talking about the homeric bards, you need
verse—poetry—to remember stuff when there’s no writing around.

2. An early way to remember a captain’s log would certainly have
been to put it in the same kind of poetry bards were using to tell
stories.
3. The transition from log to story would have been very, very easy
D. Answer: a heroic myth of geography
1. Jason is a place-holder in a story that’s really just a story about
how to get to the Black Sea and bring back it’s riches.
2. This theory also explains why the Argo is remembered as the first
sea-going vessel—trade in those days was rare, and very, very
dangerous.
3. Jason’s weakness arises from his having been plugged into a story
that really didn’t have any need for a hero except as a dude who keeps
things together.

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