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Compare and Contrast the Character Traits of Jason and Medea in the Argonautica

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The Voyage of Argo was written in the middle of the third century BC by Apollonius of Rhodes who was the pupil of Callimachus, another great poet. There are many reasons why an epic is written, as a history like Homer’s Iliad tells of the Trojan War or as a way a poet can demonstrate his intricate literary abilities. The reason why Apollonius of Rhodes wrote the Argonautica is not clearly known but many scholars say it was closely associated with Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad. As a librarian Apollonius may have come across works by other epic poets and picked up some elements of epic which he used as a guide for his poem. Such elements include the use of similes, digression, epithets and exceptional characters. The importance of these characters is reflected in the roles and traits that are assigned to them. This is because the plot is developed by the distinctive character traits displayed. In the poem Jason and Medea turn out to be the main characters whose roles are very crucial to the development of the plot. This write-up would therefore try to bring out the distinctive similarities and differences in character traits of Jason and Medea both in deeds and words of Apollonius Voyage of Argo.
Typical of all mythical heroes, both Jason and Medea are of royal blood. Jason is a prince whose father, Aeson is the rightful king of Iolcus until the usurpation of his power by Pelias, Aeson’s half-brother a very power-hungry man who wishes to gain dominion over all of Thessaly. Jason is trained by a powerful master, Centaur far from home for the fear that Pelias might kill him and Jason only returns to Iolcus now to reclaim what is rightfully his, thus as a prince he did not get to enjoy a luxurious life. Medea however is a lady who enjoys the joys and luxury of being brought up by her father, Aeetes and therefore has no problems to worry over till Jason arrives in Colchis. Medea has her personal attendants with her everywhere she goes and as a princess she lives under the protection of her father. Although Jason he is a prince has to find for his right to succession of the throne.
In book 1, Jason is described by Apollonius as “Warlike” a distinctive character trait of all classical princes (Argonautica, line 349). Jason’s first act of war that vindicates Apollonius is seen when they fought the Doliones, it was Jason himself who killed Cyzicus, the king of the Doliones, (Argonautica, line1033-1034).We also see Jason display courage throughout at very crucial points in the course of the poem. His acceptance of the quest to fetch the Golden Fleece is a typical instance. He also accepts to take up King Aeetes challenge with the hope of securing the Golding Fleece. In book 3 his utterance of the following words gives the impression that he is ready to defy all odds to achieve his goal thus “Your Majesty, right is on your side and you leave me no escape whatever. Therefore I will take up your challenge, in spite of its preposterous terms, and though I may be courting death. Men serve no harsher mistress than Necessity, who drives me now and forced me to come here at another king’s behest” (Argonautica, line 398ff) As a Greek, Jason knows the importance offering pleasing sacrifices to their gods and we see this in Book І. Immediately Jason is given the mandate by the Argonauts to be their leader he says, “The time has come for us to offer a pleasing sacrifice to Phoebus; we will prepare the feast at once” (Argonautica, lines 340-345) This act of being religious is demonstrated by Jason throughout their journey to Colchis. After the unprecedented encounter between the Argonauts and the Doliones, Jason quickly leads anther religious act of propitiation to Rhea in order to have a clear weather for a safe voyage. His religious nature is also portrayed in an act of kindness when he helps an old woman in crossing the Anaurus River and this old woman turns out to be Here whose eternal love and protection Jason earns through this act. In book 2 at Bithynia, Jason demonstrates another kind nature of his when they encounter the pitiful, blind seer, Phineus, who was being punished by Zeus and Helios by having his food eaten and defiled by the she-birds, the Harpies. Jason’s freeing of Phineus from the Harpies leads to Phineus’ revelation concerning the Argonauts on how they were to continue the rest of the journey through the Cyanean Rocks (Argonautica, lines 314ff).
He is tactful, lovable, and urbane in his dealings with his comrades, and is slow to wrath even when provoked by the taunting words of the Colchian king Jason shows his skill as a good orator and uses his speeches as a tool of manipulation when king Pelias becomes angry and calls the Argonauts “scoundrels”. Jason states the purpose of the voyage but on a milder tone Jason tells him to “overlook” their show of “arms” for they have not come to Colchis with any “predatory aims”. Jason the leader of the Argonauts even goes ahead to pledge their readiness to raid the entire area of Colchis of the Sauromatae and any other tribe the Colchian regard as enemies. Apollonius describes this act of Jason however as “obsequious” (BK III lines 397ff). Like a woman using sexuality to lure a man, Jason uses persuasive words to entwine Medea, ‘Nothing shall part us in our love, till death at his appointed hour removes us from the light of day (Argonautica, pg. 139)
Medea is the daughter of king Aeetes of Colchis, the land of the Golden Fleece. Even though she is also a royal like Jason and shares some of the royal character traits with him she however takes hers to the extreme in various instances thereby resulting in many flaws in her life as well as helping Apollonius in enriching his choice of imagery. We get to know her supernatural abilities through Augus description of her as “a young woman who practices witchcraft under the tutelage of the goddess Hecate’’. Augurs goes on to further describe her to the Argonauts in the following words, “There is a girl living in Aeetes’ palace whom the goddess Hecate has taught to handle with extraordinary skill all the magic herbs that grow on dry land or in running water. With these she can put out a raging fire, she can stop rivers as they roar in spate, arrest a star, and check the move- ment of the sacred moon”(BK III lines 520ff).
This description also implies that Medea is a sorceress, a lady well versed in magical acts. It is the fact that she is knowledgeable of the roots that possess the magical invulnerability properties and her wisdom of it that makes her create the ointment for Jason which he uses in plough the plain of Ares and yoke the two “bronze-footed and fire-breathing bulls” (BK III lines1330ff). We also see this character trait of Medea in play when she prophecy to Euphemus, the Argo's helmsman, that one day he would rule Cyrene. This comes true through Battus, a descendant of Euphemus. In another instance, Medea uses her magical powers to save the Argo from certain destruction. She invokes the Death-Spirits to befuddle Talos and, in a fit of confusion, Talos stumbles on the rocky shore and tears the thin membrane at his heel allowing the fluid of life, ichor, to drain from his otherwise impervious body.
In addition to the above, Medea, a religious, loyal, kind, sincere, devoted, loving, faithful priestess of Hecate and daughter of Pelias becomes dishonest, disloyal, unkind, greedy, cruel, unmerciful, wicked, malicious and selfish the moment she sets her eye on Jason. This however is the result of her undying love for Jason. Even though both Medea and Jason fall in love for each other, that of Medea is beyond bounds and leaves every reader aghast as to the length she is ready to go to defend, protect and preserve this love and it is not surprising when in Euripides’ Medea she punishes Jason with such horrific cruelty beyond every imagination for Jason’s betrayal. In book 3 we see how with the help of the immortal gods, Here, Athene and Aphrodite, Medea falls heads over hill in love at first sight with Jason after being shot by Eros, son of Aphrodite with his erotic arrows initiating Medea’s erotic passion for Jason. At this moment Apollonius, master of the act of imagery tell us that to Medea, “All else was forgotten” and time without number she steals glances at Jason. “Her heart, brimful of this new agony, throbbed within her and overflowed with the sweetness of the pain”. Medea remains speechless (284) and fixes her ‘darting’ eyes on Jason (287–8); her heart leaps ( 288–9), her soul melts with a sweet distress ( 290), and her complexion alternates between red and pale (296–7). While Jason is departing from the palace, she peeps at him, trying to conceal her glances behind her headdress ( lines 290ff). This same love makes Medea devise a treacherous plan with Jason where she fakes surrender while Jason waits in ambush and murders Apsyrtus, Medea’s own brother. The intensity of Medea's love is only equaled by the intensity of her hate as depicted in Euripides Medea.
With the introduction of Medea and the abilities she possess Jason seems to have died out. His next move is rendered impossible unless Medea helps him. When face with a challenge Medea is apt to it unlike Jason who exhibit some form of delay. On the outward voyage the only prominent part he plays is in the love-adventures with Hypsipyle on the island of Lemnos. At the opening of the second book it is Polydeuces who flings back the haughty challenge of Amycus, while Jason takes but little part even in the slaughter of the Bebrycians which follows the downfall of their champion. Again and again when a crisis arises we find him sorely perplexed. When Idmon and Tiphys are stricken by death, Jason, like the rest, throws himself down with muffled head on the seashore in the anguish of despair, until Ancaeus, ignoring him, declares to Peleus his willingness to take the helmsman's post. It is Amphidamas, not Jason, who bethinks himself how to ward off the birds of the brazen plumes on the isle of Ares. On that same isle the shipwrecked sons of Phrixus reveal to the heroes the implacable nature of the Colchian king and the dangers which lie before them. It is Peleus, not Jason, who revives their drooping spirits when dismayed at this recital. At last they reach the realms of Aeetes. Jason bears the petulant insults of the incensed monarch with forbearance, wise, perhaps, but with the wisdom of a later age. The ordeal of yoking the fire-breathing bulls and sowing the dragon's teeth is appointed. Gladly he has recourse to the magic drugs of Medea, and his achievements are shorn of half their greatness. To Medea, not to his own right hand, he owes the winning of the Golden Fleece. Now begins the flight from Colchis with the Colchians in close pursuit. When the Argonauts are sorely pressed, Jason makes a treacherous truce, and, with Medea's aid, compasses the murder of the Colchian chief, Medea's brother, Apsyrtus. Purified from this foul deed by Circe, later they reach Phaeacia. Thither come the Colchian forces demanding the surrender of Medea.
Now at length it seems as if a deadly contest must ensue, in which the heroes may prove their prowess in the face of fearful odds, but Jason avoids the struggle by putting himself and Medea under the protection of the Phaeacian king, Alcinous, and fulfilling the conditions which he prescribes. From this to the end of the poem we hear little of Jason save when the Libyan goddesses appear to him to deliver him and his comrades from death and when he sacrifices thanks-offering to Triton at Lake Tritonis and to Apollo at the Isle of the Appearance.

The ways in which he responds to certain situations are not typical of a hero, he does not mask his misery and distress but openly tells of his vulnerability therefore instead of being an optimistic leader who can give hope, he shy away and allows the goddesses, his comrades and a woman to fulfil the tasks. At times his articulation serves as an advantage and a leader is always well spoken but what good is this when his deceitfulness is portrayed as a woman’s quality therefore a picture of gender transgression is picked up on, Medea becomes the hero whereas Jason is a woman luring a man with a persuasive tongue and sexual attraction.

Apollonius of Rhodes Jason and the Golden Fleece (trans. Hunter, R.), Oxford Clarendon Press, London. 1993.
Apollonius of Rhodes. The Voyage of Argo. (trans. Rieu, E.V.) Middlesex: Penguin Books, Ltd. U.K. 1972.
Hooper, F. Greek Realities: Life and Though in Ancient Greece, Rupert hart- Davis Ltd. 1968.

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