Argonautica I and II

I.

Men and women standing on the beach of Aulis/Colchis. The men see the ship and begin watching it, speculating. The women gather on the opposite, inland side of the stage, and express their own worries and memories of visitors from overseas.

MEN: King Aeëtes, Lord of Colchis: come see
The foreign ship with foreign sails approach!
Someone comes to us from over the sea;
A ship has crossed over the wine dark sea
From countries unknown. Who are these strangers
Who know how to cross the storm-tumbled sea
To lonely Colchis? But rarely do we
Have visitors come to our distant shores,
Trusting their lives to hull and sail and oars
Against the storm-wracked and frightful Black Sea.
Do traders or pirates approach our land?
Do they come with gifts? Or with swords in hand?

Women: Ages ago, Diana lent her hand
To a maiden of Greece, across the sea.
Her father was a great king in that land,
But Artemis made a dreadful demand
That no vessel would depart the king’s beach
Until a sacrifice from the king’s hand
Spilled the blood of his daughter to the sand.
Easily do a goddess’s angers
Rise againt mortals; their fury lingers
When hunters kill their creatures out of hand,
And the king had slain Artemis’s does,
Leaving their bodies for ravens and crows.

Men: We can see her hull now; how fast she goes!
Soon the strangers will arrive in our land.
Who are they? What do they want? No one knows.
The ship’s stern looks crushed; the mystery grows.
They must be sailing from a distant sea;
The crew is all dressed in strange-looking clothes.
Did they come from beyond where the sea flows
Between crashing rocks? They turn to our beach.
Watch how swiftly the foreigners approach,
How skillfully and smoothly they pull oars!
Prepare to welcome the unknown strangers,
Either with war, or gifts and singers.

Women: The men have little to fear from strangers;
Sailors won’t look at them as slaves and whores,
But something in a stranger’s eye hungers
To touch a girl with their calloused fingers
And steal her virtue in a foreign land.
For us, Iphegenia’s tale lingers:
Her father’s priests, shamans and scare-mongers
Offered her up so they could put to sea,
So they could fight at Troy, over the sea!
Lust, gold and glory prick them with singers,
And drives them like cattle to every beach
In search of treasure never quite in reach.

Men: The voyagers are coming to our beach!
Soon we’ll meet the mysterious strangers.
They might have some new religion to preach,
Or some strange new philosophy to teach.
Maybe they’re just looking for gold and whores;
We’ll have to keep our secrets out of reach
And hide the deep mysteries that we teach
Our sons and daughters. Keep your tongues in hand,
And speak not of the treasures of the land
To these stinking strangers on our beach.
Say nothing of the Fleece, nor let them see
The skin that brought maiden over the sea.

All: Silence! Here come the sailors from the sea;
They stand at their prow, make ready to land.
The water ripples from their flashing oars.
Let us prepare to welcome the strangers
As they bring their hollow ships to our beach.

II.

While Jason and Medea are off killing the dragon and collecting its teeth, the men and women of Colchis dialogue with one another about their knowledge of the Fleece, their hopes and fears for the future, and the roles of guests and hosts in the world of mortals and gods.

Men: Jason came in a hollow ship, from Greece,
Seeking treasure from our land and king,
A token of Diane, the Golden Fleece
That brought Agamemnon’s daughter from Greece –
Who thus released from sacrifice and pain
Vowed never again to return to Greece
But stayed in Colchis. Now the sacred fleece
Hangs in an oak grove where it shall abide
‘til the world’s ending. Its jaws gaping wide,
a fire-breathing dragon guards the fleece.
Our king, Aeëtes, heard Jason’s demand
And gave his own impossible command.

Women: Jason must slay the wyrm with his own hand,
Before he dares to touch the Golden Fleece;
And then he must plant each tooth in the sand.
So the power inherent in the land
Will rouse the dragon teeth and make them sing:
Each tooth will grow an armed and armored man,
Each a warrior with spear close to hand;
And each shall have but one thought in his brain:
To visit death on his planter, and pain.
Thus does Aeëtes, to ill purpose bend
The sailor’s visit. Custom far and wide
Permits no harm to a visitor’s hide –

Men:By deliberate act. Yet the gods let slide
Cases where travelers make their own end.
Even a minor gift may be denied
To unwelcome guests. So Aeëtes tried
To ruin Jason who comes for the Fleece.
None comes to Colchis from the farther side
Of the Black Sea to get an easy ride.
Aeëtes is a wise and cunning king:
Since Jason landed, he has been plotting.
Thus in public he grinned and smiled wide,
While scheming that he might the Fleece retain,
So Jason died – and the king’s hands stayed clean.

Women: Alas, then! The king’s heart must surely keen!
Medea might have been his ally’s bride,
Since he kept his daughter free from all stain;
Still the sight of Jason twisted her brain.
Now she has magic and knowledge to lend
To make the dragon sleep, and send the rain
So dragon-fire will not even stain
The brazen arms of the sailor from Greece.
With her help, he might seize the Golden Fleece!
No storied future shall Colchis attain
Without the luckiness the Fleece must bring.
Medea’s betrayal must shame our king.

Men: Yet if King Aeëtes did any thing
He would blacken the land with dreadful stain,
And Colchis would linger when poets sing
As the home of beasts, with a wicked king.
The Cyclops were ruined when Homer lied:
Poseidon’s son became cannibal-king.
As Ariadne with her magic string
Led Theseus to the Labyrinth’s end,
We wait to learn what the Goddess intend.
The Argonaut may yet outwit our king,
Slaying the dragon, and seizing the Fleece;
And Medea, too, will leave us for Greece.

ALL: Look – Jason comes from the field of the Fleece,
With a bag of dragon-teeth in his hand,
And Medea the princess at his side.
Thus do triumphant heroes always gain
Honors from battle, and hate from the king.

16 comments

  1. See, this is why I need editors. 🙂

    Thanks for the commentary. Clearly I need it, and I need someone harping on both my writing and my mythological framework. Easy to get lost in this stuff.

    I’ll work on and edit the bits you mention, and see if I can get them fixed up. For now, I want to work on the text of the songs for the Argonauts themselves, and perhaps some of the dialogue between King Aeëtes, Jason, Medea, and … and … damn it, I need a fourth character. Greek tragedies always have a fourth character! Maybe an Argonaut, to balance Aeëtes and Medea. It might be better to have a third Colchian, though; I’m not sure yet.

  2. Wooo! I can hear a rhythm underneath it that reminds me of some of your other poetry. I’m also looking forward to hearing it from the two choruses – got a feeling there’s another layer of back-and-forth slant rhymes to appreciate.

    I’ve read this out loud a few times. I have a few nit-picky things, and a few points of confusion.

    Women: Ages ago, Diana lent her hand
    To a maiden of Greece, across the sea.
    Her father was a great king in that land,
    But Artemis made a dreadful demand

    I had to reread the myth. When you say “lent her hand” are you referring to her whisking Iphigenia away before the knife fell? I had a hard time understanding this, because I interpreted the sequence as first she lent a hand, and then she made a dreadful demand. It seemed like first she did a favor for an unknown Greek maiden, and then she’s totally ripped at Agamemnon.
    “Artemis had made a dreadful demand”? I don’t know.

    Did the Greeks call her Diana too, or was that only the Romans?

    Lust, gold and glory prick them with singers,
    Stingers?

    Easily do a goddess’s angers
    Rise againt mortals; their fury lingers
    When hunters kill their creatures out of hand,

    It’s one goddess in the first line, then plural in the subsequent ones.

    Say nothing of the Fleece, nor let them see
    The skin that brought maiden over the sea.

    Which maiden?

    [I find out later in part 2:]
    A token of Diane, the Golden Fleece
    That brought Agamemnon’s daughter from Greece –
    Who thus released from sacrifice and pain
    Vowed never again to return to Greece
    But stayed in Colchis.

    Iphigenia came to Colchis? I can only find references to Tauris.

    I will enjoy hearing this performed. This verse ought not to be pinned down in print, lines neatly broken mid-sentence.

  3. Wooo! I can hear a rhythm underneath it that reminds me of some of your other poetry. I’m also looking forward to hearing it from the two choruses – got a feeling there’s another layer of back-and-forth slant rhymes to appreciate.

    I’ve read this out loud a few times. I have a few nit-picky things, and a few points of confusion.

    Women: Ages ago, Diana lent her hand
    To a maiden of Greece, across the sea.
    Her father was a great king in that land,
    But Artemis made a dreadful demand

    I had to reread the myth. When you say “lent her hand” are you referring to her whisking Iphigenia away before the knife fell? I had a hard time understanding this, because I interpreted the sequence as first she lent a hand, and then she made a dreadful demand. It seemed like first she did a favor for an unknown Greek maiden, and then she’s totally ripped at Agamemnon.
    “Artemis had made a dreadful demand”? I don’t know.

    Did the Greeks call her Diana too, or was that only the Romans?

    Lust, gold and glory prick them with singers,
    Stingers?

    Easily do a goddess’s angers
    Rise againt mortals; their fury lingers
    When hunters kill their creatures out of hand,

    It’s one goddess in the first line, then plural in the subsequent ones.

    Say nothing of the Fleece, nor let them see
    The skin that brought maiden over the sea.

    Which maiden?

    [I find out later in part 2:]
    A token of Diane, the Golden Fleece
    That brought Agamemnon’s daughter from Greece –
    Who thus released from sacrifice and pain
    Vowed never again to return to Greece
    But stayed in Colchis.

    Iphigenia came to Colchis? I can only find references to Tauris.

    I will enjoy hearing this performed. This verse ought not to be pinned down in print, lines neatly broken mid-sentence.

    • See, this is why I need editors. 🙂

      Thanks for the commentary. Clearly I need it, and I need someone harping on both my writing and my mythological framework. Easy to get lost in this stuff.

      I’ll work on and edit the bits you mention, and see if I can get them fixed up. For now, I want to work on the text of the songs for the Argonauts themselves, and perhaps some of the dialogue between King Aeëtes, Jason, Medea, and … and … damn it, I need a fourth character. Greek tragedies always have a fourth character! Maybe an Argonaut, to balance Aeëtes and Medea. It might be better to have a third Colchian, though; I’m not sure yet.

  4. I have to admit, I’m thinking at the moment in terms of the three unities of Greek drama. I can change my thinking on this, but I think it’s a pretty neat idea.

    The Three Unities of Greek drama are these (I’m remembering, not looking them up):
    1) Unity of Time
    2) Unity of Place
    3) Unity of Action

    That is to say, 1) the action all occurs within a limited frame of time (i.e., there’s no fast-forward, the play’s action occurs in a 1-to-1 ratio with the audience’s sense of time. things happen in the play within the play’s alloted time and you can’t skip days, months or years); 2) the action in a Greek drama all occurs in one place (in this case, the beach before Colchis); and 3) there is a standard number of characters on stage, and you don’t just keep inventing characters whose job is to save the plot.

    In that light, part one of this pair of Choruses becomes the opening of the play — who are these guys? where do they come from? They then arrive. Jason banters with the king, his crew explain their previous deeds, Jason demands the Fleece, the King sets… codicils. Jason makes eyes at Medea, Medea follows him offstage. The Chorus of Colchians sings/says Part Two, wondering about the dragon, and the duties of hospitality. Jason and Medea return. Jason describes the fight with the dragon, Medea sows the teeth for him, and they use magic and wits to destroy the warriors. THe king reluctantly allows them to try to take the Fleece. Medea uses magic to claim it. The Chorus sings/says Part Three, a final canzone I’ve started writing but haven’t finished yet, mourning the Fleece’s departure as Jason and Medea and the Argonauts depart in the Argo, and the play ends.

    That’s the basic framework I’m currently working with. It has several disadvantages. The fight with the harpies and the dragon now become pantomimes acted out by the crew and Jason; the encounter with the clashing rocks becomes a rowing song they sing for the Colchians, and maybe a dance.

    On the other hand, it also has several advantages. We gloss over the long voyage from Icolus, the problems of having two kings on stage (and costuming two) and convincing the audience that this part of the tent is actually a different place and time than this other part of the tent. We also don’t have to build the Argo, and we can have a cast of chorus, chorus leaders, plus Jason, Medea, Aeëtes, and a few Argonauts, most of whom don’t have to have any solo lines. It becomes possible to imagine a largish audience watching a smallish cast — or a largish audience whose members sometimes join a smallish permanent cast.

    Does my framework work for you? Or do we need to design a different scaffolding for the play entirely?

  5. Oh yeah, this is good. I can definately work with this.

    OK, here’s the other half:

    You’ve got the men and women of Colchis standing there going “who the hell are these guys?”

    But at the beginning, you’ve got the men and women of Icolus going “look at all these heroes off to get the Golden Fleece”. The pieces can mirror image each other. And the men’s bits can be like “Yar! Go heroes of Greece! Kick Colchis ass and bring back the treasure! Battle through the storms!” and the women are like “There goes the flower of our youth on some stupid grudge quest the King gave Jason! I hope they come back.” And whatnot.

    later
    Tom

  6. Oh yeah, this is good. I can definately work with this.

    OK, here’s the other half:

    You’ve got the men and women of Colchis standing there going “who the hell are these guys?”

    But at the beginning, you’ve got the men and women of Icolus going “look at all these heroes off to get the Golden Fleece”. The pieces can mirror image each other. And the men’s bits can be like “Yar! Go heroes of Greece! Kick Colchis ass and bring back the treasure! Battle through the storms!” and the women are like “There goes the flower of our youth on some stupid grudge quest the King gave Jason! I hope they come back.” And whatnot.

    later
    Tom

    • I have to admit, I’m thinking at the moment in terms of the three unities of Greek drama. I can change my thinking on this, but I think it’s a pretty neat idea.

      The Three Unities of Greek drama are these (I’m remembering, not looking them up):
      1) Unity of Time
      2) Unity of Place
      3) Unity of Action

      That is to say, 1) the action all occurs within a limited frame of time (i.e., there’s no fast-forward, the play’s action occurs in a 1-to-1 ratio with the audience’s sense of time. things happen in the play within the play’s alloted time and you can’t skip days, months or years); 2) the action in a Greek drama all occurs in one place (in this case, the beach before Colchis); and 3) there is a standard number of characters on stage, and you don’t just keep inventing characters whose job is to save the plot.

      In that light, part one of this pair of Choruses becomes the opening of the play — who are these guys? where do they come from? They then arrive. Jason banters with the king, his crew explain their previous deeds, Jason demands the Fleece, the King sets… codicils. Jason makes eyes at Medea, Medea follows him offstage. The Chorus of Colchians sings/says Part Two, wondering about the dragon, and the duties of hospitality. Jason and Medea return. Jason describes the fight with the dragon, Medea sows the teeth for him, and they use magic and wits to destroy the warriors. THe king reluctantly allows them to try to take the Fleece. Medea uses magic to claim it. The Chorus sings/says Part Three, a final canzone I’ve started writing but haven’t finished yet, mourning the Fleece’s departure as Jason and Medea and the Argonauts depart in the Argo, and the play ends.

      That’s the basic framework I’m currently working with. It has several disadvantages. The fight with the harpies and the dragon now become pantomimes acted out by the crew and Jason; the encounter with the clashing rocks becomes a rowing song they sing for the Colchians, and maybe a dance.

      On the other hand, it also has several advantages. We gloss over the long voyage from Icolus, the problems of having two kings on stage (and costuming two) and convincing the audience that this part of the tent is actually a different place and time than this other part of the tent. We also don’t have to build the Argo, and we can have a cast of chorus, chorus leaders, plus Jason, Medea, Aeëtes, and a few Argonauts, most of whom don’t have to have any solo lines. It becomes possible to imagine a largish audience watching a smallish cast — or a largish audience whose members sometimes join a smallish permanent cast.

      Does my framework work for you? Or do we need to design a different scaffolding for the play entirely?

  7. Riveting! I haven’t had such a good read since Fitzgerald’s translation of Odyssey, and that I hold close to my heart and even keep a tattered copy in my desk at work for lunchtime diversion. Your Argonautica reminds me of a certain prose form novel retelling of Jason and the Argonauts that I read when in school, and it was interlaced with the retellings of other notable Greek myths.

    On further applause, your imagery, both narrative and thematic, are redolent of such romance in Greek myth and drama that I found myself painfully missed in the choruses of Sophocles, back when we had Oedipus Cycle as required reading. I especially liked the creeping apprehension amongst shoreside observers in the first canto, wherein the men and women each embody differing fears of what conquest the black ships may bring.

    Yours are by far the more lyrical, having much more structure and rhyme than Fitzgerald’s verses; on the other hand, I do recall he distinguished between mortals and Gods by giving Gods speech that rhymed, with tighter form. Anyways, I won’t belabor any more comparison, seeing as how your narratives are of two directions altogether. I remember you mentioned your friend wanted to stage a show or chorale to Argonautica? I would definitely attend if he pulls it off!

    In spite of all my profuse essaying, I’ve always regretted never being skilled in the least at versecraft. You have truly earned my admiration and friendly envy with newest masterpiece! I say thee yea Argonautica and I say thee yea Andrew Watt!

  8. Riveting! I haven’t had such a good read since Fitzgerald’s translation of Odyssey, and that I hold close to my heart and even keep a tattered copy in my desk at work for lunchtime diversion. Your Argonautica reminds me of a certain prose form novel retelling of Jason and the Argonauts that I read when in school, and it was interlaced with the retellings of other notable Greek myths.

    On further applause, your imagery, both narrative and thematic, are redolent of such romance in Greek myth and drama that I found myself painfully missed in the choruses of Sophocles, back when we had Oedipus Cycle as required reading. I especially liked the creeping apprehension amongst shoreside observers in the first canto, wherein the men and women each embody differing fears of what conquest the black ships may bring.

    Yours are by far the more lyrical, having much more structure and rhyme than Fitzgerald’s verses; on the other hand, I do recall he distinguished between mortals and Gods by giving Gods speech that rhymed, with tighter form. Anyways, I won’t belabor any more comparison, seeing as how your narratives are of two directions altogether. I remember you mentioned your friend wanted to stage a show or chorale to Argonautica? I would definitely attend if he pulls it off!

    In spite of all my profuse essaying, I’ve always regretted never being skilled in the least at versecraft. You have truly earned my admiration and friendly envy with newest masterpiece! I say thee yea Argonautica and I say thee yea Andrew Watt!

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