Skip to main content

Divine Anger at the Aiolids in Apollonius’ Argonautica

The purpose of this paper is to elucidate the thematic significance that connects the anger of Zeus and Hera to the frequent aitia of sacrificial rituals which the Argonauts establish along their journey in Apollonius’ Argonautica.

The narrator is coy about providing clear motivations for the plot of the epic (Feeney 1991). Only halfway through does the reader learn that Hera wants Jason to succeed to punish Pelias for leaving her unhonored in his sacrifices (3.56-75). Just before and after this point Jason (2.1192-5) and Argus (3.332-9) respectively report that they must bring the golden fleece back to Greece to appease the Zeus’ anger at the Aiolids. Stan Burgess has suggested that Zeus becomes angry at Athamas’ violation of “the divinely sanctioned order of the succession of kings” (2020, 11). Similarly, Vinciance Pirenne-Delforge and Gabriella Pironti have suggested that Hera’s anger at Pelias is ultimately about sovereignty (2022, 316). Yet these scholars base their assessments on what is known about the Argonautic myth from other sources beyond Apollonius. One must ask with Peter Green at this point, “how far did Ap[ollonius] not only expect his readers to know the portions (or variants) of the myth that he does not discuss directly, but also to take them into account as part of the dramatic impact?” (2007, 264).

This paper argues that in mentioning the anger of Zeus and Hera the narrator emphasizes not kingly succession but rather improperly performed sacrifices. The Argonauts in contrast to Athamas and Pelias appear as models of upright conduct as they establish sacrificial rituals along their journey. When viewed in a theogonic context, in which the epic stresses cosmogony and the establishment of Zeus’ cosmic reign (West 1966; Feeney 1991; Hunter 1993; Clauss 2000, 2016), the theme of attention to proper sacrificial ritual plays a significant role in the gradual separation of gods from human beings. As Jean-Pierre Vernant argues, sacrifice reveals the separation of gods and human beings by stressing the lower status of the latter who must honor the former in ritual (1989). From this view, by helping the gods seek retribution for improper sacrifice and by establishing new rituals, the Argonauts play an important cosmogonic role of defining limits of the human condition.

I begin by noting that Zeus’ anger was caused, according to Jason, by “the [at least attempted] sacrifice of Phrixus” (2.1192-5). I compare this to Hera’s explanation of her motivation, that Pelias dishonored her in sacrifices (3.61-5). Then, building on the work of Vernant (1989) and Tim Whitmarsh (2018), I argue that the foundation of the human practice of sacrifice is an integral step in the separation of gods and human beings, who once lived together in community. Finally, I discuss the Cyzicus episode as an example in which the Argonauts play an important role in the establishment of the world to come by instituting sacrifices to honor a goddess who had previously been angered by human action.