You are here

Ethnographic excursus as narrative device in Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica

Emily Allen-Hornblower

When the Argonauts head to Colchis in book II of Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica, a significant portion of the narrative describes the Argo’s progression as it travels along the Pontic coast and past various lands and peoples. Several of these places are presented in some detail, including regarding the customs of the peoples that inhabit them — despite the fact that none of these lands are ever actually explored by the Argonauts, and none of these peoples (the Mossynoeci excepted) ever actually interacted with. The very presence of such descriptions is puzzling. They seem to the naked eye to form an entertaining if somewhat gratuitous backdrop to the Argo’s journey — a list of roads not taken and peoples not actually met. Is this a playful Hellenistic touch, a wandering of the narrative on the side of intriguing though irrelevant detail for its own sake, or is there more to it?

To try to answer this question, the present paper deals with a specific portion of the narrative, in which Apollonius briefly focuses on the social mores of three different peoples: the Chalybes, the Tibareni, and the Mossynoeci (II.1000-1029). Some scholars explain these (brief) ethnographic excursuses by positing that they are simply intended to anchor the Argonauts’ journey in realia typical of historiographic writings (Beye 1993). Others (Lawall 1966, Fusillo 1985, Hunter 1993) note that each of these peoples exemplify an inversion of implicit hellenocentric models, in Herodotean fashion. It is not my contention that either one of these points is wrong. There is, however, more at hand in these miniature ethnographies than has been suggested so far.  

In the case of two of these three peoples, Apollonius is drawing on ethnographic topoi that pre-existed him: like Xenophon’s, his Chalybes produce iron (not crops); and as they do in earlier sources, his Mossynoeci have intercourse in public. But in the case of the Tibareni, earlier and later sources (Ephorus, Scymnus of Chios, Pomponius Mela) point to an unusual trait — their addiction to laughter — which Apollonius deliberately replaces with the peculiar practice of couvade: when their women give birth, the narrator states, the Tibareni men show signs of pain: ἔνθ’ ἐπεὶ ἄρ κε τέκωνται ὑπ’ ἀνδράσι τέκνα γυναῖκες,|αὐτοὶ μὲν στενάχουσιν ἐνὶ λεχέεσσι πεσόντες, | κράατα δησάμενοι (“There, whenever women bear children to their husbands, the men groan, falling on their beds, binding their heads” [II.1011-3]). Why does the Hellenistic poet choose to innovate by attributing the custom of couvade to the Tibareni?

My paper argues that the allusion to couvade does more than illustrate a barbarian inversion of Greek practices: it also produces an exemplary instance of a reversal of gender roles, in keeping with the references to the Amazons that frame and surround it (II.962-1001 and II.1173). The practice underlines women’s hardiness at men’s expense, as is the case in other sources as well (Strabo, III.4.17; Diodorus Siculus, V.14.2; and Plutarch, Life of Theseus XX.5-7). Such emphasis on the transgression of gender boundaries provides an ironic foreshadowing of the gender and power reversals characteristic of the love story of Medea and Jason that awaits the reader in the following book. I thus propose to explain the passage — its place as well as its literary and thematic function — by examining its relationship to the wider narrative context, especially that immediately preceding and following it, and to bring to light some overlooked connections between it and broader, essential themes (pertaining to heroics and gender dynamics in particular) that underlie the Apollonian epic as a whole.

Session/Panel Title

Poetry and Place

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy