The ways in which we read Orpheus in Apollonius’ Argonautica are many: he is an arbiter of religious ritual, a charmer of men, a champion of Olympic order (Clare 249–60), a Hellenistic Demodocus (Hunter 121), a wise advisor to Jason and his Argonauts (Cuypers 59), a symbol of Greco-Egyptian duality (Stephens 197–99), and an avatar of Apollonius himself (Knox 127), one given pride of place among the Argo’s crew in order to emphasize the importance of music in the poem (Carspecken 48) and to secure for the poet a place among the congeries of fleece-hunting heroes (Hunter 120–121). The last of these interpretations is perhaps the most important; it has also been the least explored. This paper will show that in creating Orpheus as a second self, Apollonius serves a critical purpose: he presents a poet, not a warrior or king, as a cultural foundation hero. For although Orpheus manages a number of extraordinary feats during the Argo’s voyage, in the course of the Argonautica he does but one truly remarkable thing: he brings life to North Africa with his words. The scene in which he does so stresses the importance of the Alexandrian poets in the Hellenistic world; moreover, it offers an intriguing perspective on Alexandria itself, for North Africa has become the site of a new Hippocrene.
When the Argonauts stumble across the garden of the Hesperides—surprisingly located in Libya, rather than in Iberian peninsula as it is in Stesichorus—the daughters of Atlas vanish from sight in plumes of dust. Desperate for their aid, the Argonauts supplicate them for their favor—and it is Orpheus, not Jason, who speaks on the Argonauts’ behalf. The fact that Orpheus serves as the spokesman here is startling, as Jason has already proven himself far more skilled than any of his companions in securing aid in times of trouble. He was, after all, initially chosen as the expedition’s leader precisely because of the honey he could drip from his tongue, and he has already managed to successfully supplicate a wide variety of women—one of them, like the Hesperides, immortal. The fact that Jason is not the one to speak here, in what is the most desperate situation the Argonauts have yet found themselves, is the first of several unexpected turns that draw the audience’s attention to the importance of this passage. Inquiry into what that importance suggests well repays the effort. For the Hesperides, moved by Orpheus’ plea, soon create a small oasis in the middle of the desert—and Orpheus’ speech to them, in a very real sense, therefore causes an otherwise desolate stretch of North Africa to bloom. If Orpheus is, as has long been noted, indeed a poetic representation of Apollonius himself, it is no particular stretch to see in this scene his assertion that the words of the Alexandrian poets have also created an oasis of sorts in the North African desert: their poems have given life to Alexandria, which would be otherwise desolate without them.
Nor is that all Apollonius has to say about North Africa and poetry. In describing the spring to which the Hesperides then direct the thirsty Argonauts, he makes an implicit comparison to the Hippocrene—though this spring was created not by Pegasus' footfall but that of Heracles. And he soon after implies that, for all their bravery and talent, and despite the many horrors they have so far survived in their quest, the Argonauts would most certainly have died had it not for the waters of that spring. In doing so he not only transfers the site of poetic inspiration from Greece to North Africa, but makes a more radical assertion still: poetic inspiration, born from a Greek hero in a decidedly non-Greek place, is what keeps Greeks in North Africa alive.
- Carspecken, J. (1952) ‘Apollonius Rhodius and the Homeric Epic,’ YCS 13: 33–143.
- Clare, R. (2002) The Path of the Argo. Cambridge.
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- Hunter, R. (1993) The Argonautica of Apollonius: Literary Studies. Cambridge.
- Knox, P.E. (1986) Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the Traditions of Augustan Poetry. Cambridge Philological Society Suppl. 11. Cambridge
- Stephens, S. (2003) Seeing Double: Intercultural Poetics in Ptolemaic Alexandria. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London.