William Morris Archive

The Route of the Argonauts: Getting the Argo Home

Dr. Peter Wright

When the Argo legend was first developed the Greeks still had a simplified view of geography, in which the inhabited world consisted basically of a round disc with the Ocean, thought of as a river rather than a salt-water sea, flowing round the outside. Accordingly in the first continuous poetic account of the Argonauts, in Pindar’s Pythian Odes, no. 4, they apparently returned to Greece, having probably as in most later accounts including Morris’s been cut off from the Bosphorus by the Colchian fleet which had pursued them, by sailing up the river Phasis, which runs east from the Black Sea’s south-east end, presumably into that fabulous river Ocean.

They then went round the outside of the world, probably its south-east quadrant, past the Red Sea to the south side of Libya/Africa, returning to the Mediterranean either carried over the desert by helpful nymphs, or in another version, sailing down the Nile. (That theory was perhaps encouraged by a dim knowledge of the Caspian Sea, which some Greek geographers believed even later to be a gulf of the outer Ocean Sea.) The influence of that early version was still powerful enough to induce Apollonius to bring his storm-driven Argonauts to the north coast of the Libyan desert.

After it was learnt that Colchis and the Phasis were separated from any edge of the world by extensive mountains and deserts to their east, another route had to be found for Argo’s return. This new one, used by Apollonius, was based on a theory of the flow of the northern Balkan rivers, developed in the century before he wrote. The Greeks thought that somewhere in the Central Balkans the Istros or Danube divided into two streams, one of which, the actual one, flowed east to the Black Sea. Another supposedly ran westward towards the north end of the Adriatic. (That was probably derived from an uncertain knowledge of the river Save, running into the Danube a little west of Belgrade, which does rise east of Istria, quite close to the Adriatic’s north end.)

Apollonius therefore takes the Argo up the Danube and down its imagined western branch into the Adriatic, where Jason and Medea have her brother Absyrtus killed on an island apparently imagined to lie at its western mouth. To be purified from that killing they have then to go to her aunt Circe, in her by then traditional position on the west coast of Italy. (See below). To get Argo to Circe’s home, Apollonius indulges in more fanciful geography, taking it up the Po, identified with the mythical river Eridanus, and, ignoring the Alps, down the Rhone.

Morris would have learnt of the pre-classical condition of the lands around the northern Black Sea from the detailed account of the peoples and rivers of Scythia in Book IV of Herodotus’s History, one of his favourite books. He begins with the Argonauts being directed (X, lines 50-51) toward the Sarmatians who then lived around the river Tanais, now the Don, to the north, indeed almost the north-east, of the Black Sea. (Herodotus, Book IV, c. 110 seqq.) They then sail toward its northern side, reaching a great river, some of whose characteristics Morris has taken from those of the Dnieper, anciently the Borysthenes. That river does have, on the large-scale maps that Morris would most likely have seen, a peninsula running westwards across its southern mouth (if that is what X. 63-65 mean) and further upstream the notorious Rapids a little below Kiev which long obstructed navigation on it, for instance by the Varangians trading from the 9th century A. D. with Byzantium: cf. Gibbon, Decline and Fall, ch. V [pt. III]. Like them the Argonauts have to carry their ship around those Rapids by a portage. (X. 430 seqq.)

We usually suppose most of Southern Russia to have been occupied by bare steppe pastures such as are suggested in XI. 10-12, 150. It would seem, however, that at least near the mouth of the Dnieper it had once been relatively well wooded. Herodotus (IV, c. 18), describes the land east of that river’s mouth as Woody (Hylaea) Scythia, and Rawlinson in his notes to Herodotus (vol. III, p. 16) cites travellers who report forests there in modern times. Even the lions (Jason, X, 205-10), though one would not expect them nowadays in Russia, are not entirely implausible. Herodotus (VII, ch. 128-29) reports lions about 500 B. C. in Macedonia and northern Greece. (After all there are still -- a few -- tigers in Siberia.) Although Morris has presented the inhabitants of his river lands as thoroughly primitive, with at best a Stone Age technology, he may in describing their religion (X, 400-408), to which some Argonauts almost fall victim, be recalling the practice of the Taurians (in the modern Crimea) reported by Herodotus (Book IV, ch. 103) of sacrificing strangers, as they had done in the days of Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigeneia.

Morris in the route he gives for the Argo’s return has discarded almost all Apollonius's incorrect geography and apparently set out one across the river systems of Western Russia and round the north of the European mainland, plausible, except in one respect, in terms of the actual map of
Europe. He might have been guided toward this change, supposing he had known of them even indirectly, by two other Classical versions of the Argo’s travels: one, reported in the scholia on Apollonius, takes it up the Don into the Outer Ocean; the other, in an 'Argonautica' ascribed to Orpheus (part of the ‘scripture’ composed for the Orphic mystery cult) brings it up the Danube, then (?down the Rhine) to the northern seas and around Britain, Gaul, and Spain.

The details of Morris’s account of the lands that Argo passed through till it again reached the sea are largely his own invention, although they do roughly reflect, as the Argonauts go northward, the transition from the steppe zone to the forest zone of Eastern Europe. I will not, however, try to locate Morris’s range of mountains with the river running under them for four days of rowing. They may possibly be derived from the legendary Rhiphean mountains, which ancient geographers, perhaps misunderstanding the size and extent of the Carpathians, supposed to run east-west across most of Central and Eastern Europe. The Argonauts then draw their ship across from one river to another north-flowing one, --the headwaters of the Dnieper system are not far from those of such rivers as the Vistula, whose lower course (cf. XII, line 96) does at least run north-eastward, -- and after enduring a thoroughly Russian winter beside it are able to row down it into the Baltic Sea.

They probably then sail westward along the southern coast of the Baltic -- ‘the amber-bearing shore’ (XII, 166) -- from which amber was intermittently exported southward overland to the Mediterranean lands throughout ancient times, (cf. Tacitus, Germania, ch. 45) before turning north to pass the straits now dividing Denmark and Sweden (XII. 173-74). Survivors of the ‘Cimbrian folk’ named by Medea still occupied the northern part of Jutland in Denmark about 100 A. D. Others had emigrated southwards 200 years earlier, eventually to fight and be destroyed by the Romans, an event perhaps alluded to in House of the Wolfings, ch. VI. The fierce people whom the Argonauts meet are presumably ancestors of the Vikings, and the invulnerability of their red-haired chieftain possibly recalls characters in the Sagas (perhaps berserks) ‘upon whom iron would not bite’.

After apparently narrowly escaping being blown northwest towards the Arctic Ocean, the Argonauts pass westward through the Straits of Dover, seeing their White Cliffs with the French coast dimly visible on the other side (XII, 290-300), and sail for four days along the south coast of Britain, noticing as they do so the change from white chalk cliffs to red sandstone ones, as in Devon and Cornwall (XII, 301-304). Here Morris patriotically manages to smuggle his homeland into the poem. Then, after a trouble-free voyage out of sight of the coasts of Gaul and Spain -- one that a real ancient oared ship would not have attempted, preferring, for safety and drinking water, to keep in sight of land --they see the Pillars of Hercules with Iberia to the north and re-enter the Mediterranean (XII, 413 seqq.).

This enables Morris to bring them to several of the sites traditionally seen by his heroes in earlier versions. The Greeks, exploring the Western Mediterranean from the 8th century, had identified various places as those visited by Argo or by Odysseus in his fabulous wanderings: thus the Cyclops Polyphemus was placed in Sicily, and Scylla and Charybdis in the Straits of Messina. (Cf. Virgil, Aeneid, Book III). Circe was eventually located, as in Virgil, Aeneid, VI, 10-24, on an Italian promontory called Circeii, almost halfway between the Tiber and Naples. Accordingly the Argo, having sailed away from the north coast of Africa, the ‘lion-haunted land’ with its nomadic tribes (XIII. 1-14), also described by Herodotus (Book IV, chapter 168--196), finds the land where Circe dwells lying right across their way.

From her dreadful house they sail south again towards Sicily (XIV, 1 seqq.), whose three corners and capes (akroi) had led to the Greeks sometimes calling it Trinacria, after the legendary island where in Homer, Odyssey, Book XII, the Sun god kept his cattle. They apparently find the Sirens on the Sicilian coast, perhaps the southwest one. There Butes, enchanted by them, is rescued by Venus (XIV, 458-63), flying eastward from Cyprus, where she had an important shrine at Paphos, towards Lilybaeum, a city south of the west end of the island, near which a famous temple to her stood on Mount Eryx (XIV, 458-79).

Morris apparently here puts the Garden of the Hesperides, towards which Argo sails a little southward, on the north coast of Africa (? in Cyrenaica), rather further east than is suggested by his account of Hercules’ voyage to it in the “Golden Apples,” where it seems to be below the Atlas mountains. (In Apollonius the Argo reaches the Hesperides only after Hercules has killed their dragon). Then after passing north to Cape Malea, at the south-eastern tip of the Peloponnese, celebrated in ancient times for the contrary winds which made its passage difficult for sailing ships, Argo is back in home waters.