Iliadic and Odyssean heroics : Apollonius' Argonautica and the epic tradition
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This report examines heroism in Apollonius’ Argonautica and argues that a different heroic model predominates in each of the first three books. Unlike Homer’s epics where Achilles with his superhuman might and Odysseus with his unparalleled cunning serve as the unifying forces for their respective poems, there is no single guiding influence in the Argonautica. Rather, each book establishes its own heroic type, distinct from the others. In Book 1, Heracles is the central figure, demonstrating his heroic worth through feats of strength and martial excellence. In Book 2, Polydeuces, the helmsmen, and—what I have called—the “Odyssean” Heracles use their mētis to guide and safeguard the expedition. And in Book 3, Jason takes center stage, a human character with human limitations tasked with an epic, impossible mission. This movement from Book 1 (Heracles and biē) to Book 2 (Polydeuces/helmsmen and mētis) to Book 3 (Jason and human realism) reflects the epic tradition: the Iliad (Achilles and biē) to the Odyssey (Odysseus and mētis) to the Argonautica (Apollonius’ epic and the Hellenistic age). Thus, the Argonautica is an epic about epic and its evolving classification of what it entails to be a hero. The final stage in this grand metaphor comes in Book 3 which mirrors the literary environment in Apollonius’ own day and age, a time invested in realism where epic had been deemed obsolete. Jason, as the representative of that Hellenistic world, is unable to successively use Iliadic or Odyssean heroics because he is as human and ordinary as Apollonius’ audience. Jason, like his readers, cannot connect to the archaic past. Medea, however, changes this when she saves Jason’s life by effectively rewriting him to become a superhuman, epic hero. She is a metaphor for Apollonius himself, a poet who wrote an epic in an unepic world. The final message of Book 3, therefore, is an affirmation not of the death of epic but its survival in the Hellenistic age.