Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Monday, May 1, 2017

Ekphrasis in Apollonius: Jason's Cloak

Jason, the hero of Apollonius of Rhodes’ Hellenistic epic the Argonautica, may surprise the first-time reader with his failures of resolve and fits of depression. He is repeatedly described as améchanos, which in his case means he simply does not know what to do. This apparently unheroic attribute is thrown into high relief by the fact that the same word was used of Achilles and Hector in the Iliad with a diametrically opposed meaning, something like “irresistible” or “undefeatable.” [1] Just as the Marvel comic superheroes of the sixties appealed to their audience by being more vulnerable than the old-style Superman and Batman, this new sort of compromised protagonist seemed appropriate in the belated Alexandrian world. Yet the poet never abandons the grand old encyclopedic reach of epic, and there are moments when Apollonius strives to present an orderly symbolic pattern that ambitiously aims at representing everything.

Perhaps the most dramatic compressed example of such an image is Jason’s marvelous cloak. Jason pauses at Lemnos on his way to capture the Golden Fleece. Invited to an audience with the local queen Hypsipyle (and unaware that the island’s women have slaughtered all the males), Jason dons his grandest cloak, a magnificent garment covered with embroidered scenes described in an ekphrasis of nearly fifty lines. [2] The seven scenes ornamenting the garment, which outshone the rising sun (725) include a variety of mythological scenes. Such a work of art resembles the symbolic ambitions of a coat of arms or a Baroque title page and tends toward encyclopedic images like mandalas, magic diagrams, or a bank of stained glass windows in a Gothic cathedral. Parallels include the Shield of Achilles in the Iliad (or the pseudo-Hesiodic “Shield of Heracles”), the similarly shining cloak the incognito Odysseus wore, or, in a different medium, the song of Orpheus that follows in Apollonius.

Critics have read the cloak as an overture-like anticipation of the themes of the epic, but epic itself seeks to be all-inclusive, so its themes tend to epitomize all themes. The ekphrasis is neatly tied to the specifics of the poem in its end, but its center is surely an attempt to symbolically capture the most significant terms of human reality as though in a miraculously wide-angle lens.

The first scene, of the Cyclopes forging Zeus thunderbolts, provides an image of technical expertise heightened by its setting in the divine realm. Just as the Argonautica itself is a work of art, the production of metal, clearly an astonishing transformation to early peoples witnessed by the role of gods like Hephaistos and Egyptian Ptah, the Germanic Wayland, the Yoruba Ogun, and others. [3] The poet thus associates his own art with this heavenly production.

The marvel of the cloak is represented by its luminescence, a characteristic on prominent display in this representation of the spurting flames and shining lights of the god’s thunderbolts. The brilliance of the work parallels the dazzling images of poetry and reinforces the identity of humans as art-producing, symbol-making creatures. The human connection becomes more explicit with the following image, the construction of Thebes by the sons of Antiope, Amphion and Zethus, who lived as humans in spite of their divine parentage. [4] The garment, a tour de force of embroidery, serves as an example of the development of the technical skills, including art and poetry, that distinguish human beings. These initial scenes portray technical skill in the service of the divine, serving the ends of fate, one might say.

The next panel of the cloak portrays Aphrodite with the shield of Ares, neatly combining the strongest instinctual passions of sex and violence, eros and aggression. In an ingeniously clever image, the lovely goddess’ tunic is said to have slipped below her breast and, the poet reports, her body was reflected in the shield. (746) Thus the primary psychic preoccupations of our species (and, to a large extent, the rest of the animal kingdom) are reflected in a single compressed code, adding these elemental drives to the construction of culture implied in the first two pictures.

The violent portion of this complementary pair is then foregrounded in the picture of the defeat of the herdsmen sons of Elektryon by their relatives, the Taphian raiders. This incident, like most mythic episodes, only a single term in a lengthy and interwoven series of events extending backward and forward in time, emphasizes the role of brute force in the world. The scene is also linked to the present narrative through Elektryon’s descent from Perseus whose myth parallels that of Theseus in many details.

The following image again emphasizes the complementarity of love and aggression in a representation of Pelops’ winning of Hippodamia through his victory in a chariot race with Oenomaus, her father, who had killed the eighteen earlier suitors who had proved slower. Without tracing the many links backward and forward to Tantalus, Perseus, Agamemnon, and others, it is sufficient here to note the preeminence of eros and Todestrieb.

A new element enters with the sixth image, that of Apollo shooting at Tityos as he attempts to abduct Leto. Here is the inverse of the dutiful Titans of the first image, as the giant impiously seeks to dispossess Apollo of his love object. Once more, love and aggression are impossibly intertwined, the complementary dynamos that motivate action, yet here it is Tityos’ impiety, his deviation from the Olympian script, that causes Apollo to act.

The final image refastens the chain of pictures to the current tale. Phrixos is yet another babe threatened by a hostile maternal figure. While his double falls to his death, Phrixos is protected by an established city on the margin of the known world. His sons in fact join the crew of the Argo after being rescued. His fleece is the object of the quest.

The whole series, then, defines humanity as artists and technologists, motivated by powerful forces of love and death, suspended between divine and human realms, constantly threatened by untamable forces, making a way forward in life like the hero Jason who is undertaking an all-nut-impossible task. The generic images of human passions are clearly linked to the main plot line in a myriad of ways. Yet the plot of the Argonautica, the endlessly branching related myths, and the images, and the stories depicted on Jason’s cloak, all these do not provide conclusions as much as they suggest bipolar oppositions that organize the tensions and problems of human experience.

1. See Iliad, XIII, 726 and XVI, 29. The Homeric heroes do, of course, have their moments of confusion, hesitation and despondence. The difference is a matter of degree.

2. I, 721-767.

3. These include the the Vedic Tvastarpre-Islamic Qaynan, the Sumerian Gibil, the Hungarian Hadúr, the Finnish Ilmarinen, the Gallo-Roman Gobannos, the Slavic Svarog, and the Celtic Creidhne, Goibniu, and Gofannon.

4. Of these two, the first is associated with art, poetry, and music, and the second with hunting and livestock raising, though both are described as participating in the building of Thebes’ walls and both are sufficiently human to die.

5. See Daniel Odgen’s Perseus for a catalogue of similarities.

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