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Custom and Myth

Page: 37

To show how closely, all things considered, the Aryan and non-Aryan possessors of the tale agree, let us first examine the myth of Jason.

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The earliest literary reference to the myth of Jason is in the ‘Iliad’ (vii. 467, xxiii. 747). Here we read of Euneos, a son whom Hypsipyle bore to Jason in Lemnos. Already, even in the ‘Iliad,’ the legend of Argo’s voyage has been fitted into certain well-known geographical localities. A reference in the ‘Odyssey’ (xii. 72) has a more antique ring: we are told that of all barques Argo alone escaped the jaws of the Rocks Wandering, which clashed together and destroyed ships. Argo escaped, it is said, ‘because Jason was dear to Hera.’ It is plain, from various fragmentary notices, that Hesiod was familiar with several of the adventures in the legend of Jason. In the ‘Theogony’ (993-998) Hesiod mentions the essential facts of the legend: how Jason carried off from Æetes his daughter, ‘after achieving the adventures, many and grievous,’ which were laid upon him. At what period the home of Æetes was placed in Colchis, it is not easy to determine. Mimnermus, a contemporary of Solon, makes the home of Æetes lie ‘on the brink of ocean,’ a very vague description. {95} Pindar, on the other hand, in the splendid Fourth Pythian Ode, already knows Colchis as the scene of the loves and flight of Jason and Medea.

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‘Long were it for me to go by the beaten track,’ says Pindar, ‘and I know a certain short path.’ Like Pindar, we may abridge the tale of Jason. He seeks the golden fleece in Colchis: Æetes offers it to him as a prize for success in certain labours. By the aid of Medea, the daughter of Æetes, the wizard-king, Jason tames the fire-breathing oxen, yokes them to the plough, and drives a furrow. By Medea’s help he conquers the children of the teeth of the dragon, subdues the snake that guards the fleece of gold, and escapes, but is pursued by Æetes. To detain Æetes, Medea throws behind the mangled remains of her own brother, Apsyrtos, and the Colchians pursue no further than the scene of this bloody deed. The savagery of this act survives even in the work of a poet so late as Apollonius Rhodius (iv. 477), where we read how Jason performed a rite of savage magic, mutilating the body of Apsyrtos in a manner which was believed to appease the avenging ghost of the slain. ‘Thrice he tasted the blood, thrice spat it out between his teeth,’ a passage which the Scholiast says contains the description of an archaic custom popular among murderers.

Beyond Tomi, where a popular etymology fixed the ‘cutting up’ of Apsyrtos, we need not follow the fortunes of Jason and Medea. We have already seen the wooer come to the hostile being, win his daughter’s love, achieve the adventures by her aid, and flee in her company, delaying, by a horrible device, the advance of the pursuers. To these incidents in the tale we confine our attention.


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