The Epic Similes of Apollonius

Having drunk deep from the wells of epigrammatic Hellenistic poetry from the tradition of Callimachus, our Hellenistic Literature class was glad to satisfy our thirst for a much more familiar spring, heroic epic. Apollonius’ Argonautica, which tells the story of Jason’s quest to retrieve the golden fleece, happens to be the only surviving epic from this period. Sylistically, the poem has much in common with its Homeric predecessors. Although heavily indebted to the conventions of past masters, Apollonius always leaves room for his own unique perspective. One of the most recognizable conventions of Homeric epic is the use of similes. Ranging from just a few lines to as many as twenty, these digressions enhance descriptions of characters or situations, often by making reference to some divinity, natural phenomenon, or pastoral scene.

In Argonautica, Apollonius too uses similes extensively. Quite unlike Homer, Apollonius frequently uses scenes of everyday life as comparands for scenes very typical of the epic genre. Observe, for example, the following quotation from book 1, lines 261-277 of Argonautica (Seaton translation):

“And now many thralls, men and women, were gathered together, and his mother,
smitten with grief for Jason. And a bitter pang seized every woman’s heart; and
with them groaned the father in baleful old age, lying on his bed, closely
wrapped round. But the hero straightway soothed their pain, encouraging them,
and bade the thralls take up his weapons for war; and they in silence with
downcast looks took them up. And even as the mother had thrown her arms about
her son, so she clung, weeping without stint, as a maiden all alone weeps,
falling fondly on the neck of her hoary nurse, a maid who has now no others to
care for her, but she drags on a weary life under a stepmother, who maltreats
her continually with ever fresh insults, and as she weeps, her heart within her
is bound fast with misery, nor can she sob forth all the groans that struggle
for utterance; so without stint wept Alcimede straining her son in her arms, and
in her yearning grief spake as follows…”

We are presented with the familiar scene of a mother mourning her son who is about to go on a dangerous adventure. She is compared to “a maiden all alone”–with her husband Aeson locked in jail and her only son about to embark on the ancient idiomatic equivalent of “a wild goose chase”, with the added element of mortal danger, odds are in favor of her being bereaved of both husband and son in the very near future. The  “stepmother, who maltreats her continually with ever fresh insults” is a metaphor for Fate; first her husband’s loss of his birthright, now her son’s banishment from the land, and thus the elimination of the only force (as per the oracle) that could have toppled Pelias’ reign and restored the kingdom to its rightful king.

In addition to presenting a very un-Homeric “slice of life,” this passage reveals an emotional depth that is never touched upon in the Archaic epics. As the maiden weeps, “her heart within her is bound fast with misery, nor can she sob forth all the groans that struggle for utterance.” Experience of inner emotional states, feelings so strong that the tongue is paralyzed and cannot give shape to them, is unknown in Homer. This is but one of the many ways in which Argonautica probes more deeply into the feelings of its characters than prior epic poems.