The story of Jason and the Argonauts and their quest for the Golden Fleece is one of the oldest Greek myths, dating back to the 10th century B.C. or earlier. Homer’s epics Iliad and Odyssey refer to the story as part of their cultural heritage, making it a foundation myth of Greek seafaring and heroism. Its episodic structure allows it to combine elements of several popular myths—including tales of gods, magic, love and impossible feats—into one master story.
Writers and poets therefore turned to the myth of Jason and the Argonauts early on, though few of their works remain. The greatest surviving account was written by Apollonius of Rhodes in the third century B.C. Apollonius was born in Alexandria, Egypt, 20 years after the death of Alexander the Great, that city’s founder and namesake. As a young scholar, he composed an epic poem in the style of Homer on the subject of the Argonauts’ quest, but he left the city in disgrace after a disastrous public reading of that poem. Moving to the island of Rhodes, he rewrote his Argonautika to great acclaim, enabling him to return home in triumph.
Perhaps reflecting the waning power of Greece in his own time, Apollonius’ Argonautika takes a skeptical view of heroism and imperialism. The greatest champions of Greece set off after the greatest prize in the world and are able to achieve it only with the assistance of a teenage girl. Led by Jason, a tentative leader, they often wreak more destruction than benefit for the lands they visit. And they return in tatters, if they return at all. Apollonius also assails “Love the destroyer” with the story of Jason and Medea, the doomed couple at the center of the second half of the poem.
Three centuries later, in the 70s A.D., the Roman Gaius Valerius Flaccus began to write a new Latin version of Argonautika. Writing in the style of Virgil, the great Roman epic poet, Valerius brings Roman values to this quintessentially Greek story. He emphasizes a more natural development of the love story between Jason and Medea, and he foregrounds honor and nobility more than Apollonius does.
The acclaimed American director Mary Zimmerman often appropriates ancient myths and texts for source material, perhaps most famously in her Tony Award-winning adaptation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. For her latest adaptation, Zimmerman turned to the story of Jason and the Argonauts, using the accounts of Apollonius and Valerius as a basis. However, in bringing this myth to the stage in our time, Zimmerman writes in her own modern language and streamlines the episodic story to its essentials. Building on her sources, she gives particular emphasis to the story of Medea, who suffers torments and betrays her family for Jason’s love. Zimmerman uses music, puppetry and astonishing spectacle to create this rousing adventure. Combining humor and heart, Mary Zimmerman’s Argonautika brings a contemporary sensibility to a timeless myth.—Akiva Fox, Literary Associate