Pleased to meet you
hope you guess my name.
And what’s bothering you
is the nature of my game.
For all his worldly fame Odysseus is but a latter-day hero and one with a happy ending at that! His epic stands on the shoulders of another, the proto-hero Jason. The blue prowed ship of Odysseus sails in the wake of the first ship, the Argo and rehearses the first voyage of discovery in search of the Golden Fleece, an epic adventure that stands metaphorically for the three thousand year colonisation of the Black Sea coast by the Pontic Greeks.
But through the telling and retelling they have merged to become Doppelgängers. Jason a raw adventurer with no special charms, the prototype and armature upon which to sculpt the complex character of Odysseus.
Jason’s was no ordinary crew either, heroes and gallants all, quite unlike the disposable oarsmen under the command of Odysseus. One amongst them, the father of poetry, Orpheus, who’s sweet song saved the day when the Argo sailed past Sirenum scopuli the island of the Sirens. As soon as Orpheus heard their enticing song he plucked up his lyre and played music so beautiful and so vibrant that the crew paid no heed to the bewitched chanting – such a handy tip to pass down to Odysseus.
The Argo was like all sailing vessels, animate, but this one was extra special, the first ship, built under the watchful eye of Athena, with a figurehead carved from the oak timbers of the oracle at Dodona, endowing the Argo with the powers of speech and prophesy.
In their mind’s eye they see the promised fleece of Phrixus
and Argo returning triumphant with gilded figure-heads.
Lights are seen dotted here and there along the winding coast,
but as yet there are no sailors to observe the land
whereof they give warning.
Coming from the Sea of Marmara the Argo noses against the current into the mouth of the Bosphorus straits. Jason instructs the Argonauts to prepare a large wicker basket and fill it with ballast stones then lower it over the bow on fifteen fathoms of cable. The crew, as crews are apt, jostle each other, roll their eyes and look on bemused, Jason grins back at his crew of heroes resting on their oars. “Not only does our hero leader seek a sheep with a Golden Fleece but he now goes fishing with stones for bait,” comes the jest, causing general mirth.
But he who laughs last, laughs the longest and the crew look in amazement as deep in the clear water the basket can be seen to pull ahead of the vessel, tugging her Eastward against the current towards the Pontus Axeinos. Jason finally relents to let out the secret that he has learnt from old fishermen. These straits have two currents, a brackish surface water current that runs Westwards from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and onto the Mediterranean, that overlays a sub-surface counter-current of salt water that flows eastwards from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea.
The crew whistle and cheer and they ship their oars, time to rest crackling sinews, time to break out the wine skins and relax for a while.
But eventually a danger to tackle, the entrance to the Pontus Axeinos, as the old blind prophet Phineus warned, is guarded by the Clashing Rocks that rush together to crush any passing vessel. The old man suggested releasing a dove. If the bird could make it through he declared then so too the Argo.
Orpheus, brings a wicker cage to the prow of the splendid Argo, and eyes Jason who gives the nod. The bird takes to the air with a clatter of flight feathers and heads directly east toward the vast expanse of water. Immediately the rocks that bound the strait close to crush the speeding dove just catching a couple of its tail feathers that twirl to the waters surface. As the rocks rebound the crew bend to the oars with all their might, the Argo fairly leaps through the water and enters the maw of the rocks that hurtle inward to destroy them. The Argo is a lucky ship and she loses but a few splinters of her stern post and a banner; the spell broken, the Clashing Rocks part for the last time to remain, to this day inanimate.
I am back on the Southern promontory, with its ruined Genovese castle and rows of tourist restaurants. Will these clashing rocks that once guarded the entrance to the Black Sea locking away riches and mysteries ever deign to move again?
It is said that in their country gold is carried down by the mountain torrents, and that the barbarians obtain it by means of perforated troughs and fleecy skins, and that this is the origin of the myth of the golden fleece—unless they call them Iberians, by the same name as the western Iberians, from the gold mines in both countries.
Under the guidance of the prophetic figurehead the Argo sails into the mouth of the River Phasis, where Aea, the capital of Colchis ruled over by King Aetes lay. The poets sing of Jason’s meeting with Aetes to demand the Golden Fleece, of his alliance with the witch Medea, Aetes daughter, who bewitched by Eros falls madly in love with Jason and of the many trials set by Aetes to dissuade and prevent Jason from his quest. Well that’s the official version passed down since well before Homer.
Jason walks the spine of the Argo between the polished benches and takes his position at the bow next to the oracular timber. Better than compass, radar and echo-sounder the Dodonic timber quietly advises Jason on the coastal position of the Colchian mines, the best course to a secure landfall and the best approach for an anchorage. The Argonauts check their weapons, honing shining bronze blades and javelins. They test the buckles and straps of their helms and cuirasses and polish the heavy shield bosses. They are ready for mayhem.
The Argo glides forward across the wine-dark sea, as if guided by a supernatural force and as dusk begins to fall the ship comes to rest in a craggy inlet, hidden well out of sight. The mooring cables are run out to gnarled olive trees on either side and the ship made ready. Leaving behind a small ship’s guard the main troop mounts the summit above the inlet to take in a landscape pock-marked with diggings, small fires, wooden ore stampers and sluices; they creep forward in silence.
At one hundred paces they let out a mighty roar and charge the mining camp, beating their blades against their shields. A sound worse than thunder splits the air, drowning out the screams of the unarmed miners, who are mown down like the magical warriors, who in the myth, spring from the Dragon’s teeth that Jason is bade by Aetes to sow. No-one is spared, the entire camp is slaughtered, with the exception of a young lad who races off in panic towards the capital – ‘let him go’ they laugh.
The bodies are thrown into an eroded gully, piled high and a brush fire set around them. The crew of heroes repairs to the miners camp and make themselves at home as night has fallen, there is plenty of time to labour tomorrow; a pity about the boy, he would have provided some sport this long night.
When young Dawn, with her rose-red fingers shines once more, the heroes take in the lay of the land. There are more than fifty ore sluices, each fitted with the fleece of a ram, heavily encrusted with alluvial gold, theirs for the taking. The crew set to work, lifting the heavy matted wool filters from the wooden sluice races, carefully packing them into bales, sewn from fabric torn from the miner’s tents and shade cloths. Tent poles are pulled down and lashed together to form travois and the morose donkeys tethered under the shade-trees are harnessed to haul the booty back to the Argo.
By evening the Argo has her hold packed with Golden Fleeces, a king’s ransom indeed. The crew make merry and sleep deeply. As Helio’s golden rays flicker across the inlet the Argo is made ready for the journey home. The mooring cables are slipped from the mooring trees and the crew bend their backs in unison to ease the Argo out into the azure waters. Once clear of the rocky coast the sail is set and the Argo sails lazily westward towards the clashing rocks and the Bosphorus.
Plain sailing for a while but as the Argo draws abreast of the River Phasis other sails appear on the horizon. The young lad who fled the camp had run all night to pant and splutter out his tale to king Aetes – wild Greek pirates with blood lust, with gold lust.
Aetes has summoned his son Apsyrus and daughter Medea commanding them to assemble a powerful fleet and to set out and hunt down the Greek pirates, one squadron is to blockade the mouth of the Bosporus and the other to patrol the mouth of the Danube.
Jason is at the prow again with his arm around the stem-post deep in conversation with the figurehead. Steer her northwest he cries back to the steersmen, who deftly lean on their huge sweeps to bring her up to the new heading that will take them to the mouth of the Danube, the sail is trimmed in harder and the Argo lists to port as she hisses through the glittering sea.
The wind is fair and constant, flying fish scatter and skip from the Argo and braces of Dolphin zig-zag across the bow-wave, somersaulting in endless infinity loops. All is going well until the coast hoves into sight, the Danube delta is ringed by Colchian masts – Jason is back chatting to the figurehead again.
With their Danube escape route blocked and discretion being the better part of valour the oracular timber whispers a subterfuge into Jason’s ear.
The Argo should sail towards a nearby island, sacred to the Goddess Artemis and take refuge, in the knowledge that the Colchians will be too respectful and too nervous to mount an offensive. The Argo wheels around, gybing her sail hoping that she has passed unnoticed by the blockade but en route they encounter and engage a straggling Colchian ship, not even a Man of War, rather a pleasure vessel, bedecked for nobles.
The Argonauts make short shrift of the job and slaughter the entire crew, save for a beautiful woman who entrances them – smiling to herself she seems almost pleased at the bloodshed of her fellows. The men edge back from her as she steps aboard the Argo and walks directly to Jason, sinks to the ground and clasps his knees. There is something electric about her, an aura that draws in the light, Jason feels giddy and for once quite unprepared.
Eros and the prophetic timber from Dodona are conspiring to form a dark bond between Jason and this mysterious woman, the men look on quizzically but Jason has been at sea for quite a time and he knows how to conduct himself, especially with beautiful women.
The Argo moors in a small stone harbour on the island, her sleek hull dwarfing the local fishing boats and Jason is once again consulting the oracular timber who now extends the subterfuge by announcing that his new companion is none other than king Aetes daughter, and a sorceress at that. The darts of Eros are so powerful that Medea is in a blood rage to denounce her family and flee with the Argonauts.
This is the plan they arrive at. Medea will entrance one of the old local fishermen, promising him a night of love and the rejuvenation of his youth. In return he must sail to the Colchian fleet and find the commander and relay the story that she has been abducted by Greek pirates and that her brother must come unarmed to the island to parlay with Jason and offer a ransom.
Medea walks down to the fishing harbour that evening and finds the old man in his cabin, eating olives, bread and sardines, she is charming, joins in the meal and then blows out the candle, hitches her gown and mounts the old fellow like a cat in heat. The next morning a young man wakes, as if from a dream and like narcissus marvels at his smooth skinned features, reflected in the harbour – he smiles to himself as certainly he has the better end of the bargain!
So today no fishing but a little sail across to the coast. As he goes he inspects himself, all muscle and sinew, no scabs or scars and certainly no arthritic knuckles or creaking knee joints, praise to Zeus let this last forever. He hails the Colchian fleet and is directed to the admiral’s ship. His small fishing vessel is grappled alongside and he is welcomed onboard and taken to sit with Apsyrus who offers him ruby red wine with fresh bread and meats.
The young fisherman faithfully repeats the plea for rescue from Medea and hands over the ring he has been given as a token of authenticity. Apsyrus sinks his head into his strong hands and groans in despair but regains his composure, places his hand on the fisherman’s shoulder and thanks him for his efforts and lays a splendid short sword on his knees as a gift. Well pleased, the fisherman bids his farewell and sails home wondering what other riches his new life will bring.
Apsyrus orders a small supply boat to be equipped for the journey to the island and loads aboard sufficient supplies and a chest full of Colchian gold ingots for the ransom of the princess, his sister. He takes a small crew of capable men, all unarmed, or at least not conspicuously armed, and sets sail for the Island of Artemis, following the very detailed instructions of the young fisherman. As directed they moor alongside the stone harbour wall and send a messenger to the Argo which is anchored in a cove beyond the village. Word returns that Apsyrus and two sidemen should meet Jason and Medea that evening on the threshing ground between the village and the Argo.
Apsyrus loads the ransom chest onto a borrowed donkey cart and sets out in the late afternoon to meet and parlay the terms of his sister’s release, calculating the odds as he walks. He has a large and swift fleet at his disposal and after all and there is plenty of time to recover the ransom after his sister is safe with her kin.
The siblings are pierced through, Medea, star struck by the darts of Eros; unlucky Apsyrus, a victim of the arrows of Artemis, Goddess of the hunt. Not even a word of parlay offered, not even a chance to catch the eye of his sister, she who bent the bow, she who released the first shaft, flying through her brother’s throat. The rest fall instantly, the gold hauled off on the cart straight away to the Argo where it nestles alongside the cargo of gold-drenched fleece, the body of her brother dragging behind the cart in the dust.
At the same time in the early evening the small Colchian vessel is overrun by a group of heavily armed men, the crew dispatched and the craft rowed quietly round to the bay to where the Argo rides at anchor.
The following day, a following wind. The course from the island to the Danube delta is a perfect lay. The Argo is backed off the mooring and carefully turned seaward by the expert oarsmen. The Colchian vessel is now laden with bodies and brushwood and casks of olive oil and towed astern with one crewman aboard, clutching his tinderbox.
The Argo surges ahead, aiming directly at the Colchian fleet who are riding at anchor on a lee shore in a smart breeze. As the Argo approaches they can see a scramble to run out the oars and pull up the stone anchors, but then astern a plume of oily black smoke, an offering to the Gods of the underworld, billows out. The crewman has set the small vessel piled with corpses, aflame and he now lunges for the tow rope cutting the fireship free of the Argo, then leaps from the bow, rope in hand into her wake to be hauled onboard.
Unfettered by the tow the Argo leaps like a hare in billowing grass and as she comes abreast of the still anchored Colchian fleet, over the side go the dismembered body parts of prince Apsyrus, with a great cry of ‘save him if you can.’
What dishonour to the fleet, to have lost its Prince and Princess, and now to be left wallowing to literally pick up the pieces.
The Argo sails unimpeded into the mouth of the Danube and on into the future.
The rest, one might say, is history. Jason soon discovers that the short term benefits of wedding a sorceress are heavily outweighed by her outrages, as she moves from fratricide to infanticide, slaughtering Jason’s beloved children in a jilted lover’s act of revenge.
And so the Doppelgänger begins to unravel, just as Odysseus sheds his heroic past to move towards a centre of family and comfortable old age, so Jason is propelled to the margins, condemned to wander alone.
The worn down fellow, dressed in soiled homespun, girt with a leather thong, pulls on his dusty sandals and shoulders the cotton sack containing his scant provisions; a few silver pieces and a short sword with a dull blade.
He is down on his luck, estranged from whatever family remain and with mythic friends and heroes long gone. He carries with him more tales than any man alive, but no-one will pay them any heed, so he keeps them to himself, a silent testament to the past. Jason is broken; heartbroken, not for the homicidal dark Medea, nor even for his subsequent wives. Neither does he mourn the souls of his murdered children, he longs instead for his first true love, the Argo.
Jason squeezes a silver coin into the leathery hand of an ancient fisherman and commissions him to sail out to a small rocky island just visible on the shimmering horizon. The old man smiles as Jason clambers aboard and the two set off over the breathless waters, swallows skimming around them in the late afternoon sun the old man has made a months’ earnings in one afternoon.
The painted fishing boat noses its wide-eyed bows into a narrow sandy bay hugged by jagged rocks and Jason slides into the water to steady the craft. The old man asks if he should wait but Jason smiles and tells the old fellow to head home before dark and that he may be some time on this island. Waiting until the fishing boat diminishes to a speck in the deepening blue, Jason then shoulders his sack and climbs the rocky outcrop at the southern end of the beach and follows a goat track through the low cliff-top scrub. As he walks he scans the crenellated rocks looking for a place lodged deep in his memory.
It was long ago that she was beached here, long and sad ago but at last Jason glimpses a broken spar wedged in a heather-sprouted crevice. He clambers down the rock strewn cliff face and there she lays, her back broken and timbers scattered willy nilly, but still recognisable as the Argo.
Jason runs his hand along the sun-bleached planking shedding the tears of an old man, two broken souls reunited. He lays down his sack and searches the undergrowth for kindling for his fire, avoiding anything that resembles timber from the Argo. He sets a neat circle of stone close by the cage of her ribs, now canted at forty-five degrees and partly buried in the sand and settles down for the night, supping on his meagre rations of dry bread, olives and hard goat cheese; staring into the flames.
He knows that he should perform a libation to Athena, to sacrifice a lamb, singe the carcass and cuts strips of flesh from each limb and wrap them in sleek fat, sprinkle barley over them and surrender them to the fire, sending the sweet aroma heavenward. But all Jason can offer is the sizzle of his white goat round and the aroma of burning bread, it will have to suffice.
Before sleep overtakes him Jason rises and walks silently in the moonlight through the broken ribs and sprung planking of the once supernatural vessel. He raises his arms up to the stem post with its weathered, disfigured carving, caressing it as oft times before when he would take advice and learn of the future.
Are you still with me Jason asks in a cracked voice, are you still to be my guide. Silence, profound silence, Jason reaches his arms around the oracular timber in a strong embrace and at last the Argo sounds, not with a word but with a brittle crack as the stem post shears from its fastenings and falls heavily onto Jason, crushing the breath of life from his body.