In the Homeric poems, epithets provide an index to the personality of a hero. When the poet invokes a particular epithet, a particular attribute or set of attributes is summoned to the performance. According to Theodore Klein, critics of Apollonius single out the pallid and ineffectual personality of Jason as the primary reason for the “aesthetic failure” of the Argonautica. He obtains the object of his quest, the golden fleece, in the end, but only via the help of a witch. He does finally return home to Greece, but only after having dishonorably slain Apsyrtus. Jason’s weakness is epitomized by the epithet amechanos, which may be translated “embarrass” or “incertitude.” The table below presents a few epithets of Homeric heroes:
- “Son of Peleus”
- “Breaking through men”
- “Like to the gods”
- “Son of Anchises”
- “Counselor of the Trojans”
- “Lord of the Trojans”
- “Son of Atreus”
- “The Lord Marshal”
- “Shepherd of the People”
The unprepossessing figure of Jason is further sunk in relief against the more dominating personalities of the heroes in his crew. The timorous captain often finds himself deferring to the decisions of Heracles and other great heroes of classical lore. Whither Jason?
Some have argued that the kind of heroism which the Argonautica highlights is collective heroism; that a more democratic conception lends to a group-centered rather than individual notion of arete, or virtue. During last Thursday’s lecture for the Sunoikisis Greek Literature course, Norman Sandridge led a lively discussion on the topic of Jason’s leadership. Many in our class were attracted to the implications of the “collective heroism” thesis. Does Jason sacrifice his own honor for the good of the group? Jason’s speech upon finally grasping the fleece reveals his solidarity with the Argonauts as a group:
“”No longer now, my friends, forbear to return to your fatherland. For now the task for which we dared this grievous voyage, toiling with bitter sorrow of heart, has been lightly fulfilled by the maiden’s counsels. Her–for such is her will–I will bring home to be my wedded wife; do ye preserve her, the glorious saviour of all Achaea and of yourselves. For of a surety, I ween, will Aeetes come with his host to bar our passage from the river into the sea. But do some of you toil at the oars in turn, sitting man by man; and half of you raise your shields of oxhide, a ready defence against the darts of the enemy, and guard our return. And now in our hands we hold the fate of our children and dear country and of our aged parents; and on our venture all Hellas depends, to reap either the shame of failure or great renown.”
Notice the preponderance of plural first-person pronouns: “we dared” and “our venture.” The “shame of failure” or “great renown” belongs to the group, not to any particular individual in the group. No other epic from antiquity presents traditional heroes quite like the Argonautica does. We assume Jason to be the protagonist of the Argonautica perhaps because of our familiarity with the modern formulation of the myth’s title, “Jason and the Argonauts,” or because other versions of the tail, such as Euripides’ Medea, focus upon his romance rather than heroic exploits. Reading the epic on its own terms does not, however, necessitate this interpretation. The Argonauts, as a unit, are the protagonist of the Argonautica. This reading demands that Jason is less of a hero in the traditional sense and more of a device or conduit for the construction of the group’s identity. Every group has a leader, and when so many overweening personalities are pitted in competition with one another, as they are in Argonautica, a leader need not exemplify many traits other than simple commitment to the group’s unity.