An inventive reimagining of the story of Jason and the Argonauts, this novel by renowned poet and classicist Robert Graves brings heroic figures of Hellenistic myth to life. Graves’s Jason is belligerent, energetic, and full of life, and the society Graves builds for him is outlandish and deeply invested in ancient cults.
Against this primitive, religious backdrop, the charismatic Jason assembles a crew and sets out to retrieve the sacred gold-trimmed fleece that is sacred to Zeus, and that has been stolen by worshippers of the Triple Goddess. Accompanying him is Hercules, a brave warrior known more for his brawn, and his astonishingly good luck, than his brains. Robert Graves builds a compelling world that sets Hellenistic magic and mystery in a surprisingly gritty, realistic setting, a fascinating read for fans of Greek mythology.
“A witty historical novel with much insider’s lore on cult and ritual.” —The New York Review of Books
“Richly readable, thoroughly classical yet individually interpreted, this is a labor of love important to students, culture-seekers and readers.” —Library Journal
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THE PARCHING OF THE BARLEY
When the first body of invading Greeks, the Ionian tribe, moving down from the upper reaches of the Danube through Istria and lllyria, passed at last into Thessaly, all the natives, such as Satyrs, Lapiths, Aethics, Phlegyans and Centaurs, withdrew into their mountain fastnesses. The invaders, who were very numerous, brought their own gods with them and all the sacred instruments of worship. The Centaurs, the aboriginal inhabitants of Mount Pelion, watched them move slowly with their flocks and herds into the plain of Pagasae, far below to the west, where they remained for a few days; but then, lured by reports of yet richer pasturage to the southward, the Ionians resumed their journey towards the fortress of Phthia and passed out of sight. At Iolcos, near the foot of Pelion, stood an ancient college of Fish nymphs whose Chief Priestess legislated in sacred matters for the whole of Phthiotis. They did not run off at the approach of the Ionians but made Gorgon grimaces at them, sticking out their tongues and hissing; the Ionians prudently passed on into Boeotia.
The Ionians found a hospitable race living in Pelasgia, as Greece was then called: of native Pelasgians mixed with Henetian and Cretan and Egyptian settlers, all of whom worshipped the Triple Moon Goddess under one name or another. Envoys, sent out from Mycenae, Argos, Tiryns, and the other cities to the venerable shrine of the Goddess at Olympia, were instructed by her to make the Ionians welcome, but on the strict condition that they respected the religious customs prevailing in her dominions. The Ionians were impressed by the civility and firm bearing of the envoys and by the colossal walls of the cities from which they had been sent out. Loth to return to Thessaly, yet despairing of conquest, they prudently allowed their gods to make submission to the Goddess and to become her sons by adoption. The first Ionian chieftain to urge this submission was named Minyas, whom the Goddess thereafter favoured beyond all others; his father, Chryses, had founded the settlement of Aeaea, on the island of that name opposite to Pola, at the head of the Adriatic Sea. When Minyas died, the Goddess awarded him the title of hero and instructed fifty nymphs to tend his great white shrine at the Boeotian city of Orchomenos, beside Lake Copaïs, and to legislate in sacred matters for the whole countryside. These nymphs did not marry but took lovers on days of festival, in the Pelasgian style. Cecrops the Egyptian had already brought the institution of marriage into Attica, and the Goddess had condoned the innovation only so long as it should be practised without disrespect to herself or injury to her Pelasgian people; the Ionians practised marriage too, but finding that the most honourable of the natives considered the custom indecent, most of them discontinued it from shame.
Presently followed another Greek invasion, this time by the Aeolian tribe, who were more vigorous than the Ionians, and came by way of Thrace. They passed Iolcos by, as the Ionians had done, but seized the Boeotian city of Orchomenos, which they found unguarded at a time of festival. Their chieftains won the right to be considered the military guardians of the land by persuading the nymphs of the shrine of Minyas to accept them as husbands; and thereafter called themselves Minyans. They became the aristocracy of that part of eastern Greece, but were unable to press into Attica or the Peloponnese because the strong city of Cadmean Thebes barred their passage. Aeolus, their great ancestor, was also awarded the title of hero, and from the Thracian cave, or cleft in the earth, in which his bones were buried would graciously send out snake-tailed winds at the request of his visitants. This power over the winds was delegated to him by the Triple Goddess.
When Theseus, King of Ionian Athens, had secretly built a fleet and sacked Cnossos in Crete, the Minyans also took to the sea. They fitted out a hundred ships or more, which they drew up near Aulis on the protected beaches of the Euboean Gulf. Theseus, rather than engage them in a naval war, made a treaty with them by which the two states peaceably shared the carrying trade that had been wrested from the Cretans and took joint action against pirates. The Athenians traded with the south and the east — with the cities of Egypt, Africa, Phoenicia and Asia Minor, and with Phrygian Troy, the prime market of the far east; the Minyans traded with Thessaly and Thrace in the north, and with Sicily, Corfu, Italy, and Gaul in the west. For convenience of their western trade the Minyans stationed a part of their fleet at Sandy Pylos, a possession of theirs on the western side of the Peloponnese, and by this means avoided the difficult circuit of Cape Malea. The winds supplied by Aeolus, which the nymphs who tended his shrine had the art of confining in pigs' bladders, were of great service to the masters of the Minyan ships.
The Minyans grew rich, and were not at first disturbed in the enjoyment of their kingdom, chiefly because they did as much as possible to please the Goddess. Their Sky God, Dios, whom they worshipped on Mount Laphystios in the form of a ram, they publicly acknowledged to be the son of the Mother Goddess. She therefore renamed him Zagreus, or Zeus, after the child whom, it was said, she used to bear every year, as a proof of her fertility, in the Dictean Cave of Crete, but who was yearly sacrificed for the good of the land. This sacrifice was now discontinued and Zeus enjoyed the privileges of adult godhead. Though in some matters he was granted precedence of the Nymph Goddess and the Maiden Goddess, her daughters, the Mother Goddess remained the sovereign Deity.
The next event in the history of the Minyans, as it concerns this Argonautic story, was that they extended their kingdom to the Pagasaean Gulf and as far northward as Larisa in Thessaly. A haughty Minyan King named Athamas invited Ino, the Chief Priestess of the college at Iolcos, to celebrate a marriage with him, and her nymphs a simultaneous marriage with his chieftains. Ino could not well refuse to marry Athamas, a tall, fine, yellow-haired man, because he brought great gifts for her and the other women, and because the Minyans were more numerous and better armed than her own people of Phthiotis. Yet if she consented to the marriage this would be an infringement of the rights of the Centaurs of Pelion: the Centaurs of the Horse fraternity had always been the chosen lovers of the Fish nymphs of Iolcos, just as the Centaur College of Wryneck nymphs who tended the shrine of the hero Ixion took lovers only from the Leopard fraternity of the Magnesians. Ino consulted the Goddess, asking whether she and her nymphs should destroy their husbands on the bridal night, as the Danaids of Argos had done long before in similar circumstances, or whether they should destroy themselves by leaping into the sea, as the Pallantids of Athens had done. Or what other orders had the Goddess to give? The Goddess answered in a dream: 'Pour unmixed wine to the Horse men and leave the rest to my contrivance.'
The marriage was celebrated with great splendour, and upon Ino's insistence the Horse men were invited down from their mountain caves to join in the festivities. When they arrived, brimming cups of Lemnian wine were dispensed to them. The Centaurs honour a Thessalian hero, named Sabazius, as the inventor of barley-ale, their ritual drink, which causes great jollity at first and then sends the worshippers fast asleep. They now assumed this unfamiliar liquor, wine, to be a sort of ale, seeing that it was of a pale golden colour, though of a sharper scent than ale and not needing to be drunk through straws, as they drank ale, since it had no mash floating thickly about in it. They tossed the wine off unsuspectingly, crying out 'Io Sabazius, Io, Io!'; found that it tasted sweet and called for more. But instead of sending them to sleep the wine presently inflamed them, so that they bucked about uncontrollably, rolling their eyes and whinnying for lust. The Fish nymphs felt the pangs of pity, and suddenly quitting the sober Minyans, who had mixed their wine with four parts of water, darted out into the woods and there companied with the Centaurs in love.
This capricious behaviour vexed the Minyan husbands, who pursued their wives and killed a dozen Centaurs with their bronze swords. The next day Athamas led an attack on the Centaurs' mountain fastness. They withstood him as best they could with their pine-wood spears and with boulders sent toppling down the mountain-side; but he defeated and drove them away to the northward. To discourage their return he removed from her shrine the mare-headed image of the White Goddess and, taking it down to Iolcos to the Fish College, daringly rededicated the shrine on Pelion to Zeus the Ram, or Rain-Making Zeus. For a time he broke the spirit of the Centaurs; but Ino, by the hand of one of her nymphs, secretly conveyed the mare-headed image to a cave in a wooded valley half-way to Mount Ossa, where the Centaurs reassembled and prayed to her for revenge.
King Athamas was unaware that Ino had restored the image to the Centaurs; otherwise he would have addressed her even more insolently than he did. 'Wife,' he said, 'I have banished your horsey lovers from Mount Pelion, because they profaned our bridal night. If any of them, seeking out the image of the Goddess, dares to descend again into the meadows of Iolcos he will be destroyed without pity. Mount Pelion has now become the abode of our Aeolian God, Zeus; it is worthier of him than Mount Laphystios, which by comparison is inconsiderable in height.'
'Be careful what you say, husband,' replied Ino, 'if husband I must call you. How will the Goddess regard your driving her down from Pelion? And how do you suppose that the barley will grow, if the Horse men are not present at the sowing festival to company with me and my Fish women in the sight of the White Goddess?' Athamas laughed and replied: 'The Goddess will not grudge Pelion to her son. And now that each of your women has a husband from among my followers, and you have me, what more can you desire? We are all tall, sturdy men, immeasurably superior in every way to those mad and naked Centaurs; and we shall be pleased to company with you in the fields at the sowing festival if the itch customarily takes you at that season.'
Ino asked: 'Are you so ignorant as to believe that our Goddess will allow us to accept the embraces of your Ram men on so holy an occasion as that? She will never bless the barley if we do so. No, no! We are content to be your wives for the better part of the year, but if our affairs are to prosper we must company not only with the Centaurs in the sowing season, but with the visiting Satyr Goat men at the ceremony of caprification, when we ripen the figs by the stinging of the gall-insect; and with lovers from other fraternities upon such appropriate occasions as may from time to time be revealed to me by the Goddess.'
Athamas answered: 'Are you so ignorant as to believe that any right-minded Greek would allow his wife to enjoy the embraces of another man, either at the sowing festival or at any other? Your chatter is nonsensical. Figs ripen by themselves without artificial aid, as may be observed in deserted orchards where the ceremony has been omitted. And what need of women have we Minyans, even for the sowing of our barley? The hero Triptolemus demonstrated that men can sow barley as successfully as women.'
'He did so by gracious permission of the Goddess,' said Ino, 'whose luminary, the Moon, is the power that makes all seeds grow and all fruits ripen.'
'It was unnecessary to ask her permission,' said Athamas. 'The Goddess has no true power over grain or fruits of any sort. All that is necessary is that the barley-corns should be planted carefully while the strength of the sun is languishing, in the furrows of a well-ploughed field, and then harrowed over with a thorn-harrow, and then rained upon in due season. Zeus will supply the rain at my intercession and the revived Sun will genially ripen the ears. The Moon is cold and dead: she has no creative virtue at all.'
'And what of the holy dew?' asked Ino. 'I suppose that the dew is also a gift of the Sun?'
'At least it is no gift of the Moon,' he answered, 'who often does not rise before the grass is hoary with dew.'
'I wonder,' said Ino, 'that you dare speak in this way of the Goddess; as I wonder that without asking my leave you have removed her venerable white image from its shrine and replaced it with the image of her adopted son. A terrible fate is in store for you, Athamas, if you do not mend your ways before another day passes and do not approach the Goddess as a penitent. If the sowing of Triptolemus was rewarded with a good harvest, you may be sure that this was because he had first gained the Goddess's favour by his humility, and because he did not omit any of the usual love-ceremonies at the sowing. Besides, it is untrue that figs ripen in deserted orchards without caprification. There is a complete register of fig-trees in this country, and each tree is tended by one of my nymphs, however lonely or remote its place of growth may be.
'I am not accustomed to be ruled by women,' Athamas answered passionately. 'My Boeotian wife, Nephele, who waits for me at Orchomenos, has learned by experience to avoid my displeasure and to busy herself with her own affairs, leaving me to mine. I would be a fool indeed if I visited the shrine where you are Chief Priestess, and asked you (of all women) to intercede with her for my pardon.'
Ino pretended to be overawed by Athamas's male violence. Caressing his head and stroking his beard, she cried: 'Forgive me, husband, for confessing my religious scruples. I will obey you in all things. But grant me this, that your followers will themselves sow the barley, in the manner of Triptolemus, without the help of my women. We all fear the anger of our Goddess if we plant the barley without the customary fertility rites, for which the loving company of the Centaurs seems to us essential.'
She thus placated Athamas. He had insufficient respect for the Goddess and trusted rather in the power of Zeus, who in his former name of Dios had been the chief deity of his tribe when first they came down into Thessaly. To the newly dedicated shrine of Rain-Making Zeus on Pelion he transferred a particularly holy object from Mount Laphystios. This was the figure of the Ram God, carved from an oak root, over which was hooked a great ram's fleece, dyed with sea-purple to match the colour of those rainclouds which it could magically conjure up even at the height of summer. Because of the saying 'rain is gold,' and also because of the golden pollen which colours the fleeces of the sheep on Ida, where Zeus is said to have been reared by shepherds, a precious fringe had been sewn along the edges of the fleece, of thinly drawn gold wire arranged in locks like wool, so that it became known as the Golden Fleece. Huge, curling golden horns were attached to the head of the Fleece, which fitted over the wooden stump of the image's head. This Golden Fleece was wonderful to look at, and never failed to draw down rain, whenever the appropriate sacrifice was made to the God. The priests declared that Zeus levitated the image on such occasions: it rose they said, on the smoke of the sacrifice through the smoke-hole in the roof of the shrine, and presently descended again, wringing wet with the first drops of rain.
At Iolcos the harvest was brought in and the season of autumn sowing approached. Ino waited for a sign from the White Goddess, who presently appeared again to her in a dream and said: 'Ino, you have done well, but you shall do better. Take all the seed-barley from the jars where it is stored in my sacred precinct, and secretly distribute it among the women of Phthiotis. Order them to parch it in front of their domestic fires, each of them two or three harvest-baskets full, but not to let any of the men know what is being done, under pain of my deathly displeasure.'
Ino in the dream trembled and asked: 'Mother, can you ask me to do this? Will not the fire destroy the life in the sacred seed?' The Goddess replied: 'Do it, nevertheless. At the same time poison the water of the Minyan sheep-troughs with agaric and spotted hemlock. My son Zeus has robbed me of my home on Pelion and I will punish him by destroying his herds.'
Ino obeyed the Goddess faithfully, though with some disquiet of heart. The women carried out the tasks assigned to them, and not unwillingly, because they hated their Minyan conquerors. The Minyans did not suspect, when their sheep died, that it was these women who had poisoned them, but complained among themselves against Athamas. Since their law forbade the eating of any beast that had died except by ritual slaughter, they were forced to eat more bread than was their custom, and whatever game they could hunt down in the forests; but they did not excel in hunting.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Hercules, My Shipmate"
Copyright © 1973 Robert Graves.
Excerpted by permission of RosettaBooks.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: The Parching of the Barley,
Chapter 2: The Loss of the Fleece,
Chapter 3: The Rise of the Olympians,
Chapter 4: Jason Claims His Kingdom,
Chapter 5: The White Goddess Approves the Voyage,
Chapter 6: Zeus Approves the Voyage,
Chapter 7: The Building of the Argo,
Chapter 8: The Arrival of Hercules,
Chapter 9: The Choosing of the Argonauts,
Chapter 10: The Argo Is Launched,
Chapter 11: The Argo Sails,
Chapter 12: The Camp-fires at Castanthaea,
Chapter 13: To Lemnos, By Way of Athos,
Chapter 14: The Women's Island,
Chapter 15: Farewell to Lemnos,
Chapter 16: Orpheus Sings of the Creation,
Chapter 17: The Great Mysteries of Samothrace,
Chapter 18: Through the Hellespont,
Chapter 19: The Wedding Feast of King Cyzicus,
Chapter 20: The Funeral of King Cyzicus,
Chapter 21: Hylas Is Lost,
Chapter 22: Pollux Boxes with King Amycus,
Chapter 23: Orpheus Tells of Daedalus,
Chapter 24: King Phineus and the Harpies,
Chapter 25: The Passage of the Bosporus,
Chapter 26: A Visit to the Mariandynians,
Chapter 27: The Minyans of Sinope,
Chapter 28: The Fat Mosynoechians and Others,
Chapter 29: The Argo Reaches Colchis,
Chapter 30: Up the Phasis River,
Chapter 31: King Aeëtes Receive the Argonauts,
Chapter 32: Jason Speaks with Medea,
Chapter 33: The Seizure of the Fleece,
Chapter 34: The Flight from Aea,
Chapter 35: Away from Colchis,
Chapter 36: The Pursuit,
Chapter 37: The Argo Is Trapped,
Chapter 38: The Parley,
Chapter 39: The Colchians are Outwitted,
Chapter 40: The Argo Dismisses Jason,
Chapter 41: Reunion at Aeaea,
Chapter 42: The Argo Is Again Overtaken,
Chapter 43: The Colchians Are Again Outwitted,
Chapter 44: To Sicily and Southward,
Chapter 45: The Argonauts Abandon Hope,
Chapter 46: The Argonauts Are Rescued,
Chapter 47: The Argo Comes Home,
Chapter 48: The Death of Pelias,
Chapter 49: The Fleece Is Restored to Zeus,
Chapter 50: What Became of the Argonauts,
The Stem of the Aeolians,