Apollonius of Rhodes' Argonautica

Skipping sleep

Time and again, as the Argo sails the seas, day turns into night and night into day. Apollonius meticulously records the movement of the sun that accompanies the movement of the Argo, matching the progress of the journey with the course of the day more precisely than the Odyssey. Here is a typical sequence:

They ran past Meliboea […] at dawn they at once saw Homole leaning on the sea and passed it by […] and all night they ran with the blowing wind. And at dawn Athos, the Thracian mountain, appeared to the travellers […] On that day, until darkness came, a very strong wind blew for them, and the sails of the ship were spread. But the wind dropped with the setting of the sun.

(1. 592–5; 600–7)

Sleep, however, does not normally break up the journey as it does in the Odyssey.1 Though Apollonius assumes that the Argonauts rest – in narrating a pause towards the middle of their return journey, he notes that they ‘slept as before’ (4. 884) – he is not interested in marking routine episodes of nightly sleep. The Argo likes to sail swiftly and continuously, as in the passage quoted above.2 In another instance, Apollonius pairs the ship's swift travel with an image that suggests stopping for the night and sleeping, creating recherché dissonance. After two days of fast-paced sailing,

When the sun sank and the star rose that bids the shepherds fold and brings rest to the weary ploughmen, then the wind dropped in the black night, and they furled the sails and took down the long mast, and applied their strength to the well-polished oars, all night and through the day, and another night following that day.

(4. 1629–35)

The time notation ‘when the sun sank and the star rose […] that brings rest to the weary ploughmen’ does not introduce a cessation of activity, as readers might expect, but the dropping of the wind and thus more wearying activity, effort at the oars. The wind rests like the shepherds and the ploughmen, but not so the Argonauts, who keep travelling and exerting themselves, that night and another day and night.

Even when the Argo stops, activity continues and often replaces sleep where Homeric narrative would record it. This happens, for example, in the episode of Hylas' disappearance. At the end of another stretch of swift navigation following the movement of the sun (1. 1151: ‘at dawn’; 1160: ‘toward evening’), the Argonauts reach Cius at the time when a ploughman ‘gladly goes to his hut, longing for a meal’ (l. 1173). The local inhabitants offer them sheep and wine in plenty, and they get ready to eat:

Some brought firewood, others collected and brought leaves in abundance to spread beds; others were twirling around sticks to make fire, and others still were mixing wine in bowls and preparing a feast after sacrificing to Apollo of Disembarkation in the night.

(1. 1182–6)

This sequence is geared to create the expectation of a description of feasting followed by sleep. Yet there is no mention of either. Instead, the night is full of activity, with Heracles seeking wood to make an oar, Hylas leaving to fetch water and disappearing in the spring, and then Heracles despairing. We are repeatedly reminded that it is night while all this is happening: around the spring to which Hylas comes, nymphs are celebrating Artemis in dance and song ‘at night’ (1. 1225); Hylas' beauty is enhanced by the moonlight (1231–2); Heracles is returning to the ship ‘through the darkness’ (1255) when he finds out that Hylas has vanished. The characters' movements fill the nocturnal scene. There is no break from action all the way till dawn, when the Argonauts depart (1273–5) and soon realize, enlightened by the spreading brightness of the new day, that they have left Heracles behind.3

How would Homer have narrated the beginning of this sequence? How would he have switched from the group's preparations for feasting to Heracles' departure? I imagine with something like this: ‘The heroes collected leaves for beds, made ready a meal and ate, then lay down. But Heracles left’. The narrator would have had the other Argonauts finish their meal and go to sleep before moving on to Heracles' activity. This manner of shifting concentration from one set of characters to another by putting the first to sleep is recurrent in the Odyssey.4 Apollonius instead leaves the preparations for the meal behind without drawing the curtain on the scene, and seamlessly moves the narrative focus from one active theatre to another (Heracles' departure), to yet another (Hylas' disappearance) and back again (Heracles' return and despair), until dawn ‘quickly’ comes (1. 1273), and with it more activity.

To be sure, the recurrence of sleep in Homeric narrative transitions is consistent with an arrangement of actions in chronological succession rather than in synchrony: ‘Penelope went to sleep, and then Telemachus…’ Unlike Homer, Apollonius seeks to convey the simultaneity of actions. So in the Hylas episode, the Argonauts' preparations for dinner, Heracles' departure to seek wood and Hylas' to seek water are imagined to happen at more or less the same time. There is no narrative need to close one episode in order to introduce another. Sleep in one theatre, however, could also be happening simultaneously with activity in another: ‘They went to lie down, and while they were resting, Heracles left’. This is not what Apollonius writes.

The un-Homeric scarcity of breaks for sleep is related to Apollonius' avoidance of ‘typical scenes’.5 Sleep scenes are left out more systematically than others, perhaps because even in Homer they tend to be brief (except for a few retiring scenes). In the formulaic sequence ‘meal, sleep’, the narrative of meal-making and even meal-taking is always the longer element. Accordingly, Apollonius shortens accounts of feasting and sacrificing and leaves out references to sleep. For instance, the meal and the conversation that the Argonauts enjoy with king Lycus are immediately followed by the coming of dawn: ‘Thus all day long they amused themselves at the feast, but at dawn they went down to the ship’ (2. 811–2). In Homer we would read: ‘They prepared a meal, ate and drank to their hearts’ content, and when darkness came they slept. But at dawn they went down to the ship'.

Apollonius even seems to advertise his rejection of sleep scenes by turning a sequence that, in Homer, would typically include sleep into one that emphatically excludes it. After their victory over the brute Amycus and his people, the Argonauts ‘remained there through the night, healed the cuts of the wounded men and offered sacrifice to the immortals, making ready a big meal. And slumber did not seize (εἷλε) anyone by the mixing bowls and the burning victims’ (2. 155–8). Instead of resting, the members of the crew put on wreaths and sing to the lyre of Orpheus until dawn, when they depart.

The aftermath of the Cyclops episode is the main subtext for this narrative: both scenes include a sacrifice and in both the victors sail off at dawn. The Argonauts, though, stay up all night, while Odysseus and his comrades get some rest (Od. 9. 559).6 This difference has a thematic rationale, for Odysseus, unlike the Argonauts, had previously spent two sleepless nights, and the Argonauts, unlike Odysseus, have plenty of reasons to celebrate. But the difference is also one of narrative technique. Apollonius seems to be playing against the formulaic sequence ‘evening meal, sleep’, by changing it into ‘evening meal, no sleep’. Given its context, the phrase ‘slumber did not seize anyone’ might surprise the reader, whose literary horizon of expectations rather calls for ‘they all slumbered’. Though in Homer song and conversation can replace the nightly rest at the end of a meal, when this happens there is no mention of sleep in the negative, only a transition to those activities. Apollonius' manipulation of Homer goes further, for he chooses a verb, εἷλε (‘seized’), which his predecessor never uses for sleep.7

By cutting out the formulaic repetitions of Homeric epic, and sleep scenes in particular, Apollonius tightens the pace of the journey and its narrative. Mentions of sleep would slow them down, as happens, for instance, in the Homeric account of Telemachus' journey to and from Sparta. Though fast paced, this journey also contains a leisurely pause:

Telemachus mounted the car, took the reins in his hands and whipped [the horses] to start them, and they [he and Pisistratus] eagerly sped through the plain, and left the steep citadel of Pylus. All day long they shook the yoke they held around the horses' neck. And the sun sank and all the ways grew dark. They went to Pheres, to the house of Diocles […] There they spent the night, and he gave them gifts of hospitality. But when early-born, rosy-fingered Dawn appeared, they yoked the horses and mounted the inlaid chariot.

(Od. 3. 483–92)

The audience relaxes along with the travellers when the sun goes down and they stop for the night. (I imagine that during longer narratives of sleep taking, such as retiring scenes, audience members could get up and fetch a cup of wine.)8 In contrast, as one critic puts it, ‘the reader may never relax with Apollonius at the helm’,9 just as his characters are not regularly said to stop and rest. Sleep does not give rhythm to either activity or the narration of it, but is confined to slow-paced sections of the epic, to major episodes. And in those episodes, as we shall see presently, sleep does not mark endings but momentous beginnings.

Sleep and beginnings

On the eve of their departure from Iolcus the Argonauts sacrifice to Apollo, and Idmon prophesies the happy outcome of the expedition. The heavy drinking that accompanies the feast causes a quarrel to break out between Idmon and the godless Idas. Orpheus sings to pacify the heroes, and there follows a scene in which sleep plays a role:

He ended, and checked his lyre and his divine voice. But though he had ceased, they still were bending their heads forward, insatiably, with intent ears, quieted by the charm (κηληθμῷ) of the music. Such was the magic of the song he had left in them. Not long afterwards they mixed libations for Zeus, as is customary, poured them in a holy fashion upon the burning tongues, and took thought of sleep in the darkness. But when shining Dawn saw the steep peaks of Pelion with her bright eyes, and the quiet headlands were washed as the sea was ruffled by the wind, then Tiphys awoke. Straightaway he roused his comrades to go onboard and make ready the oars. And the harbour of Pagasae and the Pelian Argo itself uttered a loud cry, eager to leave.

(1. 512–25)

This episode is rich in Homeric allusions. The closest parallel is the narrative of the evening that ends with sleep in Nestor's palace.10 In both episodes the night's rest is preceded by a ritual libation on the tongues of the sacrificial victims (see Od. 3. 332), and one character is singled out as he rises at dawn the next day (Nestor at Od. 3. 405). Apollonius reworks the Homeric narrative into a much more condensed account: seven lines from the mixing of the wine to Tiphys' awakening, as opposed to the 73 that cover the same sequence in the Odyssey. The shorter narrative de-emphasizes sleep. In Homer, Athena's pronouncement that it is time to go to bed (Od. 3. 334) initiates an exchange of speeches, which continues after her departure and ends with a full-scale retiring scene, but Apollonius takes no time to describe the preparations for the night's rest. And sleep happens quickly, ‘not long’ after Orpheus' song.

This almost instant slumber plays against another Homeric episode: Odysseus' nocturnal storytelling in Scheria. Orpheus' song and Odysseus' narrative have identical effects on their audiences, for both performances, and they alone in extant Greek literature, exert the magical charm called κηληθμός.11 The Phaeacians, though, cannot get enough of Odysseus' bewitching narrative, and stay up all night to hear it. Apollonius replaces their wakefulness with the Argonauts' immediate sleep.

The replacement is not just a playful move in Apollonius' dialogue with his illustrious predecessor; it is also crafted to highlight the pacifying power of Orpheus' song, whose soothing effects call to mind those of the song that fosters the gods' rest at the end of Iliad 1. In Homer, though, sleep does not come to the human leaders.12 The mention of collective slumber at the opening of Iliad 2 is not designed to reflect any harmony achieved in the camp, but to underscore Zeus' isolated sleeplessness, which qualifies even the pacification with which the divine feast ends. By contrast, the music in the Argonautica works out a definitive and general appeasement.

Apollonius might be further playing against Homer by replacing the wakeful planning of one individual, which begins the core action in both the Iliad and the Odyssey, with the sleep of a group. While Zeus' or Telemachus' sleeplessness brings out the secretive nature of their actions as well as the existence of tensions among main parties, the shared slumber that precedes the departure of the Argo reflects the crew's esprit de corps, stronger than any clash of personalities.13 In this respect the eve of the Argo's departure contrasts also with the eve of the return journey from Troy, as narrated by Nestor in the Odyssey. For that night contains a quarrel but no sleep. A dispute breaks out between Agamemnon and Menelaus, the host is divided and they ‘spent the night pondering harsh thoughts against each other’ (3. 151). In Apollonius' episode, serene repose occupies the place of this angry brooding.

The end of the scene rather recalls another Homeric feast that also includes musical accompaniment and winds down in sleep: the sacrifice and song with which the Achaean envoys to Chryses appease Apollo after returning Chryseis in Iliad 1. This narrative is yet another probable subtext for Apollonius'. The prayer and the sacrifice take place a similar number of lines from the beginning of each poem and honour the same god, Apollo;14 in both episodes, sleep follows the celebration (see Il. 1. 475–9) and the Achaean envoys are united in their mission and rest together before leaving, just like the Argonauts.

The two episodes, however, differ in the narrative function of sleep: while in Homer it ends an enterprise, in Apollonius it prepares for one. In both, to be sure, sleep builds a transition between feasting on one day and leaving on the next. But in Homer it is strongly closural, for it puts the seal on the successful outcome of the expedition. The return journey is brief and uneventful, and it meets with no welcome upon arrival (the envoys do not report but disperse to their tents: Il. 1. 487). In stark contrast, sleep in the Argonautica introduces the climactic departure for which the narrative has long been whetting the readers' appetites.

As one critic notes, Apollonius' epic keeps postponing its beginning: ‘The entire book [1], and especially its first half, has the rhythm of a wild repetition compulsion that asks insistently, “have we begun yet?” and answers with the same insistence, “just one more thing before we can begin”.’15 Readers have been tricked into expecting the Argo to take off a day and at least 200 lines earlier, when Jason announces that everything is ready for departure and urges the crew to leave (1. 332–5).16 But instead of setting sails right then, he goes on to ask who the leader should be – a surprising question, since we have assumed all along that it would be Jason.17 After he is elected, he instantly renews his exhortation to leave: ‘Let our paths no longer be hindered, as before’ (1. 352), but in the same breath he also says he has to wait for his servants, and asks his comrades to build an altar and sacrifice to Apollo, again pushing off the departure. The Argonauts do give their action a forward-looking movement before building the altar, by dragging the ship to sea and assigning rowers to each bench, but that movement is soon stopped by the dispute that breaks out after Idmon's prophecy. Sleep at last wipes away those hindrances to the launching of the ship, preparing for the long-awaited departure.

The scholiasts inform us that in an earlier version of the epic18 Apollonius did not end the celebrations prior to the departure with evening and rest. The feast was entirely diurnal and consisted solely of a sacrifice to Apollo.19 The additions of the ritual ‘night cap’ (the libation on the tongues of the victims) and of sleep function as a rallentando, from which the departure receives added impetus. The musical vocabulary is warranted by the narrative, for the launching of the Argo has not only a dazzling gleam (1. 544–6), but also a ringing echo. The harbour and the ship cry loudly, urging the crew to go. The combination of light and sounds gives the Argo a vigorous thrust forward.20

The other occurrences of sleep are governed by a similar pattern: rather than ending a leg of the journey, the night's rest propels travellers and readers towards the resumption of it. In this respect the Argonautica differs greatly from Homeric epic, especially the Odyssey, where sleep marks endings at least as much as beginnings. To be sure, it is never entirely final in Homer either. Though sleep can have the last word in a work of literature (as it cannot in life), the only Greek narrative that exploits this possibility is Plato's Symposium.21 In all the others sleep looks ahead, to the awakening that is narrated next. But in the Odyssey a sweet slumber rewards Odysseus' superhuman efforts, such as the slaughter or his journey to Scheria. In those episodes sleep is (also) closural, as it is when Odysseus and his comrades escape from the Cyclops' cave, reunite with their fellows, feast and rest. In several other instances, it is closural at least in the sense that it takes place upon arrival, as soon as the travellers touch the shore. Conversely, in the Argonautica this happens only for one leg of the journey.22 But four others begin shortly or immediately after a night's rest. Apollonius engages with Homer not only by dramatically reducing the instances of sleep but also by changing its function in the narrative sequence.

Another stretch of swift navigation comes to a halt at night. The Argonauts land on an island (1. 953), where they receive hospitality from the local inhabitants, the Doliones (1. 968–9). They share food, drink and conversation in the manner of the Odyssey: except that there is no mention of sleep but only of the rising of dawn (1. 985). The Argonauts depart, but contrary winds drive them back to the island, where they are detained for twelve days by fierce winds. Sleep moves to the foreground in the account of the last night of the storm:

And the following night all the other leaders, overcome by sleep, were taking their rest during the last part of the night. But Acastus and Mopsus […] were watching over their deep slumber. And over the blond head of Aeson's son flew a halcyon prophesying with high-pitched voice the ceasing of the stormy winds. And Mopsus understood […] He shook Jason who slept wrapped in soft fleeces, and awoke him straightaway.

(1. 1080–91)

The emphasis on the heavy slumber that engulfs the Argonauts rings true to life, for after twelve days of forced detention under the sway of blasting winds, depression and fatigue quite naturally set in.23 Odysseus' nap on Trinacria might likewise have been caused by idleness and tiring winds (he withdraws to a protected area before dozing off). As far as narrative function, however, the Apollonian sleep episode recalls the one on the night before the initial departure: it restarts the journey at a critical juncture. This time the Argonauts' slumber allows the forced inactivity to end by carrying an omen that provides guidance. At dawn the next day (1. 1151) the wind ceases and they row onwards.

This sleep scene shares another feature with the one that precedes the launching of the Argo: in both, a character rouses the others from slumber. Just as Tiphys awakes all the Argonauts, Mopsus shakes Jason, who then rouses his companions (1. 1114). This slow, progressive awakening builds momentum towards the beginning of the new day. And the wakeful character is never Jason. To start the Argo on its way is the helmsman: the one in charge of the ship, whose orders everyone, including Jason, follows. And to deliver the Argonauts from their imprisonment on the island of the Doliones is a seer, who watches over the head of sleeping Jason. Though the scene singles Jason out as the privileged dedicatee of the omen, he is an unconscious beneficiary of the heavens' favours, which would come to naught if the vigilant seer did not mark them and read them. While the halcyon flies and sings, Jason slumbers in comfort. His inclusion among the sleepers and the emphasis, unique in the epic, on the soft bedding on which he lies point up his gentle and non-martial nature but also his weak presence as leader.24

In a third scene Jason is again one of the sleepers, and is not even cast in a privileged role. The episode occurs the second evening of the Argonauts' stay with the seer Phineus. On the previous night he delivers his guiding prophecy, almost until dawn. And the next day, when the sun goes down,

Quickly they invoked Apollo lord of prophecy and sacrificed by the hearth as the day was just sinking. And the younger fellows prepared a pleasant meal. Having feasted well, they went to sleep, some by the ship's hawsers, others gathered there in the house. And at dawn the Etesian winds were blasting, which blow equally over every land by the command of Zeus.

(2. 493–9)

Apollonius has written this sequence with the Circe episode in mind: like the seer, the sorceress provides guidance to the travellers,25 and both revelations last all night, with the sun rising as soon as the telling is over in Homer (Od. 10. 541; 12. 142) and shortly thereafter in Apollonius (2. 449–50). Circe, though, both times instructs Odysseus alone while his comrades are resting. At dawn he awakens them and shares her commands – but not every detail, for he withholds information that would dampen their courage (Od. 12. 223–5). Phineus, on the other hand, delivers his prophecy to all the Argonauts, who stay up all night together (2. 308) and learn the same things. Jason does not know more than his men. This configuration is once again in keeping with the nature of his leadership, weaker than Odysseus', and with the more strongly communal, democratic ethos of the Argonautic enterprise.26

A second difference in the treatment of sleep concerns its place in the narrative sequence. On both visits to Circe Odysseus and his crew rest upon arriving on her island (Od. 10. 142–3; 12. 7), but the Argonauts do so not on their first night at Phineus', only on their second. While Odysseus departs as soon as the night in which he is given instructions is over, the Argonauts wait one more day, in which not much happens, and go to sleep at the end of that day. As the result of this lingering, sleep looks to their departure, the re-launching of the journey that will put an end to the delay and mark a new beginning. All the more so because Phineus' prophecy harks back to Idmon's, though it guides the Argonauts on their journey in far more detail than Idmon's had done. For readers sensitized to this reference, the Argonauts' sleep naturally conjures up their slumber on the night that precedes the ship's initial launching.

But this time the Argo cannot leave because of the Etesian winds. Apollonius deflates the expectations created by his own narrative use of sleep before a climactic departure. And he deflates those expectations slowly, keeping the readers in suspense as to what will happen. He does not say straightaway ‘the winds detained the heroes’ but only ‘the winds were blasting’; he goes on to tell the story of Cyrene, and only then does he make it explicit that the Argonauts are detained (2. 528–9). The effect of this unexpected and anticlimactic detention is to build up momentum towards the upcoming high point of the journey to Colchis: the passage through the Clashing Rocks.

The last sleep scene on the outward journey occurs at yet another crucial juncture, on the island of Ares, which Phineus marks as an important station, where the Argonauts will meet with ‘unspeakable help’ (2. 388–9, recalled at 2. 1091–2, upon their landing on the island). The help turns out to come from the band of Phrixus' sons, who have been driven to the island by a storm. At sunrise the rain stops and the two groups meet. Jason explains the purpose of his journey and secures the band's assistance.

Thus they were speaking to each other in turn until, satisfied again with a feast, they went to sleep. And at dawn, when they awoke, a gentle breeze was blowing. They raised the sails, which billowed in the wind's gusts. And quickly they left behind the island of Ares.

(2. 1226–30)

Sleep again occurs before a departure, not upon landing. Though realistically motivated by the pouring rain and presumably by a lack of shelter,27 the absence of sleep upon arrival might catch the attention of the reader who is following the narrative with two Homeric subtexts in mind: the episodes of the Cyclops and of Circe.28 Like Odysseus' landing on those two occasions, the arrival of the sons of Phrixus on Ares' island has an uncanny aura. They are the victims of a storm that darkens the sky at night (2. 1102–5; 2. 1120): Zeus' doing (2. 1098), just as their idea to hold on to a beam when their ship collapses is the gods' doing (2. 1110). Zeus is again behind the stopping of the rain at sunrise (2. 1120–1). This emphasis on the divine hand directing the journey has counterparts in the two Homeric episodes. Both times Odysseus lands ‘guided by a god’ (Od. 9. 142; 10. 141), the first during a black, moonless night (9. 143–5), as gloomy as the night that forces the sons of Phrixus ashore. Odysseus and his crew, though, rest as soon as they touch soil (9. 150–1; 10. 142–3). By contrast, in Apollonius sleep does not come until the second evening, after the encounter that provides the Argonauts with guides for the last leg of their crossing to Colchis.

‘Sleep before departure’ is a signature of the outward journey, for it occurs only once on the way back to Greece.29 This difference seems connected to the rhythm of the narrative. In the account of the journey out, fast-paced stretches of narrative, coinciding with legs of the navigation, alternate with slow-paced ones, coinciding with stops30 – and sleep, as we have seen, restarts the engine – whereas the account of the return has a generally fast pace. This concentration of sleep scenes along the journey to Colchis could also be related to its orderly trajectory, its directionality,31 which differentiates it from the chaotic, unpredictable course of the navigation back to Greece. Sleep is a narrative pointer to some major advancement along the mapped route.

Dawn at endings

Consonant with Apollonius' use of sleep to mark beginnings is his use of dawn as an ending. Dawn rises to close each of the two books that narrate the journey to Colchis. Thus, Book 1: ‘A strong wind blew, bearing the ship all day and all night. But the wind had dropped completely when dawn rose. They noticed a coastline jutting out into a gulf, very wide to look at, and by rowing they put in at sunrise’ (1358–fin.). And thus Book 2: ‘And on Argus’ advice Jason ordered them to draw the ship onshore for anchorage, into a shady marsh. It was near their course, and there they camped in the darkness. And not long thereafter they were pleased to see dawn appear' (1281–fin.).32

Like sleep before departure, dawn at book endings looks ahead, to the continuation of the journey and of its narrative. Dawn and ending are at odds, and this would be so especially for readers contemporaneous with Apollonius, who would have regulated their lives according to the course of the sun and among whose literary references Homeric epic would have featured prominently. For in Homer dawn is a marker of beginnings. There are only two books that conclude with sunrise, and even in those the morning light is dimmed, as it were. The first is Odyssey 2, with the last line following Telemachus' ship as it makes its way ‘all night and through dawn’.33 But the sun does not quite rise until the opening of the next book, when ‘leaving the beautiful mere, [it] sprang up to the brazen sky, to shine for the immortals and for mortal men’. The new day brightens with the new book.34 In the second instance the light of the day that rises as the book draws to a close likewise remains subdued. Dawn appears when Telemachus lands on Ithaca towards the end of Odyssey 15 (495–6). The book, though, is not over yet. Its final lines recount Telemachus' arrival at Eumaeus' sty, where the swineherd ‘used to sleep’. The reference to sleep, even as a habit, not actual fact, turns off the sunlight. So much so that dawn is mentioned again in the second line of the following book. The repetition is both a narrative tag (‘dawn as beginning’) and a way of restarting the day that did not quite start at the end of the previous book.

For Apollonius to be reworking formal Homeric book endings, the book divisions must be earlier than Aristarchus (c.217–145). This cannot be proven,35 but we can at least say that in Books 1 and 2 Apollonius reworks Homeric endings at large, whether of books or of major portions of narrative, by replacing nightfall with dawn. The pattern could be meant to point up the orientation of the journey, eastbound. For the Argo sails towards Apollo, moving closer and closer to sunrise.36 When the travellers reach their most important stops – that is, at the end of each book – they would be looking eastward and the readers would be reminded of the direction of the journey by the presence of dawn.

Whatever the case, the rising of the sun gives the narrative a forward impulse by eliding the break between books. Like chapter endings, book endings are ‘a kind of white space’,37 offering readers an opportunity to pause. Sleep is a natural punctuating device because it invites readers to put the book aside and rest along with the characters.38 Dawn has the opposite effect: it invites readers to stay awake with the characters and turn the page.

The forward thrust is particularly vigorous at the end of Book 2, where the quickness with which dawn comes and the Argonauts' desire for it supersede the sketched movement towards closure initiated when they moor the ship and make camp. This time they reach their destination at night (see also 2. 1260) and perhaps even set out to sleep. But the rising of the sun looks ahead. We think of Iliad 8, which ends stretching towards the next day and the next book: ‘the horses […] standing by the chariots, were waiting for Dawn of the beautiful throne’ (564–fin.). The Homeric ending, though, is nocturnal, and dawn remains in the future, while in Apollonius it materializes before the travellers' expectant eyes in the last line, a line full of light, starting as it does with ‘dawn’ and closing with its appearing (ἐφαάνθη). The light that shines upon their arrival turns the end of their outward journey into the beginning of their Colchian adventure, towards which they and the readers have been sailing. Dawn rises to conclude the first two books perhaps because the journey they narrate is eastbound, but certainly because the emotional energy of all the participants in them, characters and readers alike, has constantly been projected onward, towards the central and culminating section of the epic, Jason's contest. As we shall see, night falls at the end of the next book, when the contest is over.

Sleepless Medea

Dawn rises again to mark the resolution of the quandary that tortures Medea after she promises to help her sister's sons and betray her father, for love of Jason (3. 823–4). As her love and her urgency to act on it take clearer and clearer shape in her mind, her intensifying anguish is reflected in increasing sleep disorders, which culminate in the fateful night in which she decides to meet Jason and save him. The simile that describes the flaring up of her passion as an ‘awakening’ (ἀνεγρόμενον) flame that grows ‘wondrously great’ (3. 294–5) pointedly foreshadows her sleep troubles.

The first of the three monologues in which Medea's love makes itself heard occurs while she is unremarkably awake during the daytime, but her mind is not in a full state of wakefulness. She has dreamlike impressions – of Jason's appearance, his movements, his voice – (3. 453–8) and has run after him ‘creeping like a dream’ (3. 446–7): following him unsteadily, trying to seize him as dreamers try to seize a vision.39 Her words run ahead of her awareness of her state. The stranger, she says, could be ‘the most prominent’ of heroes or ‘the worst’ (in this telling order); she sends him to his doom yet wishes he could escape and return to his home, and she wants him to know that she would not rejoice in his calamity (3. 464–70).

When Medea speaks to herself again, both the intensity of her passion and her awareness of it have increased.40 The double escalation is conveyed by the volume of her voice: ‘mournful’ in the first monologue (3. 463),41 it is now ‘thick’ or ‘packed’ (ἀδινὴ φωνή, 3. 635). In that louder voice she admits to the emotion mounting in her heart (3. 638), though the stirring does not yet have a name, and she decides to banish shame (3. 641) and approach her sister. Sleep disturbances have developed along with her passion and her realization of its force. For the second monologue does not follow the dreamlike fantasies of a waking mind but an actual dream, in which she chooses the stranger over her parents, causing their scream and her own frightened awakening. The vision, fashioned by her love, breaks with sudden force (3. 617) into a bout of daytime sleep: ‘But a deep slumber relieved the maiden from her distress, as she leaned back (ἀνακλινθεῖσαν) on the couch’ (3. 616–7).

The description of Medea's nap contains a direct allusion to the Homeric episode in which ‘Athena had another thought and poured sweet slumber over Icarius’ daughter. She leaned back (ἀνακλινθεῖσα) and slept' (Od. 18. 187–9), allowing the goddess to beautify her unawares.42 Apollonius has taken pains to make sure that the reader does not miss the reference, not only by repeating ‘she leaned back’ but also by reproducing the exact rhythm of the Homeric verse that contains the verb: a sequence of dactyl-spondee-dactyl-dactyl-dactyl-trochee, with a pause in the middle of the third foot, after ‘leaning back’ – right at the moment when the character has adopted a sleeping position.43

Apollonius, however, reworks the Homeric episode in two significant respects. First, he makes his scene the theatre of a purely human drama. While Penelope's slumber is forced on her by Athena and serves to advance her plan, Medea's comes from her own love-induced exhaustion. Sleep, as thick (ἀδινός, 3. 616) as the voice that breaks it (ἀδινή, 3. 635), signals the intensification of her passion and breeds a dream that reveals its intensity to her and pushes her, if not to admit her true motives, at least to act on them.44

Second, Apollonius changes the quality of the heroine's sleep and of her experience of it. Penelope's ‘sweet slumber’, the ‘soft κῶμα’ that she regrets to relinquish (Od. 18. 201), is turned into a much troubled sleep, the carrier of a dream that shakes Medea awake with its loud voice. Apollonius intends the reader to appreciate his reworking of Homer also in this detail, because he moulds the phrase ‘and with their scream sleep left her’ (τὴν δ’ ὕπνος ἅμα κλαγγῇ μεθέηκεν, 3. 632) on the corresponding Homeric phrase ‘and sweet sleep left her’ (τὴν δὲ γλυκὺς ὕπνος ἀνῆκε, Od. 18. 199), which describes Penelope's awakening when her maids come and speak. Penelope is roused by an external noise, Medea by an aggressive voice from within.

This episode opens the book's central section, which ends with Medea's momentous decision.45 The narrator gives the sleep scene the force of a beginning by leaving Medea behind after her first monologue, ‘her mind anguished with cares’ (3. 471), and switching to the Argonauts' actions. When he comes back to her, she is napping. Her deep slumber soothes the same cares she was displaying in her first monologue; but the break between the two episodes isolates her sleep from that speech, casting the scene as the beginning of a new act, during which she never leaves the stage.

The second, climactic part of this act begins in reverse, not with Medea's sleep but with her sleeplessness. ‘Shame’ and ‘terrible fear’ seize her after her sister departs with her promise of help. The light falls entirely on her, as she is left alone on stage (742) to fight her psychomachy. Her struggle is set off against the deepening quiet of the surroundings:

Νὺξ μὲν ἔπειτ’ ἐπὶ γαῖαν ἄγεν κνέφας, οἱ δ’ ἐνὶ πόντῳ

ναυτίλοι εἰς Ἑλίκην τε καὶ ἀστέρας Ὠρίωνος

ἔδρακον ἐκ νηῶν, ὕπνοιο δὲ καί τις ὁδίτης

ἤδη καὶ πυλαωρὸς ἐέλδετο, καί τινα παίδων

μητέρα τεθνεώτων ἀδινὸν περὶ κῶμ’ ἐκάλυπτεν,

οὐδὲ κυνῶν ὑλακὴ ἔτ’ ἀνὰ πτόλιν, οὐ θρόος ἦεν

ἠχήεις, σιγὴ δὲ μελαινομένην ἔχεν ὄρφνην·

ἀλλὰ μάλ’ οὐ Μήδειαν ἐπὶ γλυκερὸς λάβεν ὕπνος.

πολλὰ γὰρ Αἰσονίδαο πόθῳ μελεδήματ’ ἔγειρεν.

(3. 744–52)

Then night was drawing darkness over the earth. At sea the sailors looked toward Helice and the stars of Orion from their ships. Now the traveller and the doorkeeper longed for sleep, and a deep slumber engulfed the mother whose children were dead. There was no more barking of dogs in the city, no sound of voices. Silence held the blackening darkness. But sweet slumber did not seize Medea at all, for many cares kept her awake in her longing for Jason.

Nightfall marks the beginning of the new episode, un-Homerically. In Homer the coming of darkness does not restart the action but slows it down, preparing for sleep or the interruption of activity.46 The Homeric episodes parallel in content to Apollonius', the lonely vigils of Zeus, Agamemnon, Achilles and Hermes in the Iliad, are not framed by nightfall, which, if mentioned, occurs earlier (Il. 1. 605), but by a background of sleepers. By adding the temporal notation, Apollonius further isolates the sleepless character from the general nocturnal quiet.

Poetry other than Homeric epic might have provided Apollonius with models. A picture of cosmic peace opens a celebrated poem by Alcman: ‘They sleep, mountain peaks and ravines, headlands and brooks, and all the races of walking creatures that the black earth breeds, the beasts of the mountains and the tribes of bees, and the monsters in the depths of the seething sea, they sleep, too, the races of long-winged birds’.47 We do not know, however, how the poem continued: with a desperate cry of love, set against the calmness of nature? With the narrative of a nocturnal ritual? With a description of more calmness?48 In extant poetry, a contrast between the quiet of night and the disquiet of an individual appears for the first time in another much admired fragment, by Sappho: ‘The moon has set, and the Pleiades. It is midnight, the hour goes by, and I lie alone’.49 Two more instances of the motif are the incipit of Iphigenia in Aulis50 and of Theocritus' Idyll 2, where the forlorn Simaetha laments that sea and winds are hushed, but not her heart (37–8). Apollonius, however, paints night and sleep descending with original strokes: he does not produce a static picture, like those in the other poems, but a dynamic description, which captures the deepening darkness and with it the spreading of sleep.51

The sky is getting darker when the sailors look up to the stars: it is dusk and they are awake and still at sea. It must be later when the traveller and the doorkeeper long for rest, later still when the deepest slumber enwraps the grieving mother and finally the dead of night when not even dogs bark, no sound is heard. Sleep's increasing hold, along with the advance of night, is conveyed by metrical patterns. While the introductory verse has an entirely dactylic rhythm, which renders the regular and continuous descent of darkness, the first mention of slumber coincides with two spondees (ἐκ νηῶν, ὕπν-), suggesting its weight.52 Its overpowering force is tangibly felt in line 750, when it has fully spread. For the line not only begins with a double spondee (ἠχήεις, σι-) but also has a soothing, monotonous dominance of e-sounds.53

To this dynamic description of sleep and silence gradually taking hold of the city, Medea's mounting restlessness responds, in counterpoint.54 While the nap in which she plunged earlier ‘relieved her from her distress’ (ἐξ ἀχέων […] κατελώφεεν, 3, 616), now she would not find ‘relief from distress’ (οὐ […] λωφήσειν ἀχέων, 3. 783–4), even if Jason should die. While her daytime nap was ἀδινός (3. 616), the adjective now describes the deep slumber that seizes the bereaved mother, whereas Medea herself cannot sleep. She is worse off than she was a few hours earlier, worse too than a woman whose children are dead. This reference to the grieving mother, in addition to being ominously suggestive of Medea's tragic future,55 foregrounds her solitude by implying that no god is by her side to help her and lull her to sleep. The mother's heavy slumber might be of divine origin, for κῶμα normally denotes an unnatural loss of consciousness, and in Homer, Apollonius' inspiration here (κῶμ’ ἐκάλυπτεν at 3. 748 is Homeric), it always comes from a deity.56 The gods have deserted Medea and left her alone to wrestle with her sleep-depriving love.57

Apollonius adds depth to the traditional motif of love-induced insomnia not only by making Medea's the culmination of a series of gradually worsening sleep disturbances but also by devoting to her condition an extended narrative that allows him to follow the mounting of her passion with great detail. As the hours advance from dusk to black darkness and the living beings go from wakeful to drowsy, from drowsy to dead asleep, so does Medea's anguish develop but it follows a reverse course, causing her to express her despair more and more loudly as the night goes on. At first her suffering is soundless. It has strong physical manifestations – she is shaken, her heart whirls around, tears fall, pain courses through her head – but it remains inside (3. 761), wordless. Soon, though, it takes a voice: ‘Then sitting down she was of two minds and spoke’ (3. 770). ‘Speaking’ here is φωνέω, which puts forward the sonorous substance of words. Their volume increases later in the monologue, when Medea imagines out loud, in a string of alliterations that convey her screaming, that ‘every city […] will cry out (πόλις περὶ πᾶσα βοήσει) my doom’ (3. 792–3),58 and, in another phrase packed with sound duplications, that the Colchian women will revile her everywhere (3. 794). Along with the volume of her voice grows her realization of the cause and nature of her suffering. Her readiness to give up her modesty (3. 785) spells out her awareness of her love, which she now calls ‘raging passion’ (3. 797): she has come a long way from suffering inside from a condition with no name.

The full acknowledgement of her passion instantly pushes Medea to think of death. But suddenly fear prevents her from swallowing the drug, and with her resolve to live begins the scene's last movement. The transition is emphatically marked, by a ‘but’ (3. 809), the abruptness of Medea's turnaround (ibid.) and the silence into which she plunges after feeling the horror of death: ‘Speechlessness held her for a long time, and around her appeared all the sweet cares of life’ (3. 811–2). Medea's silence introduces the new development, which takes her back to light and life. She now wants the night, which culminated in her resolution to die ‘this very night’, as she said (3. 799), to be over.59 To see the sun seems to her sweeter than ever (3. 815–6):

She longed for the rising dawn to appear quickly, so that she could give him the charms as she had agreed, and meet him face to face. Often she loosened the bolts of her door, watching for the gleam, and welcome to her did the Early-Born shed her light, and everyone began to stir through the city.

(3. 819–24)

The scene that begins with the falling of darkness and sleep ends with the return of light and activity. The new day sets in gradually, as did night and slumber. The eyes that watch dawn's coming, however, are not the poet's but Medea's, who yearns for it and cannot wait. Her emotions and movements are the lenses through which the reader sees the first rays of the sun. By adopting Medea's perspective, Apollonius points up the strong synergy between her desire for dawn and its rising. While the sleep that takes hold of the city contrasts with her unsleeping heart, the return of light matches her return to life.

In the dressing scene that follows, where Medea prepares herself to meet Jason, her recovered taste for life gives rise to a luminosity contest between the new day and her apparel: ‘As soon as the maiden saw dawn appearing, she bound her blond tresses with her hands […] She made her skin shine with nectar-sweet ointment […] and threw over her divinely beautiful head a veil with a silver gleam’ (3. 828–35). Of course, radiance is the goal of every beauty treatment, for light is beauty. But light is also life. Medea continues her rebirth by adding the shimmer of adornment to the light of day she so longed for.

The protracted wakeful night thus ends in a strong movement forward, from darkness to light, from the thought of death to an impulse towards life, from the bedroom to the threshold60 and finally to the road that will take Medea to Jason. The sleeplessness scene provides an impetus to action that makes it crucial to the development of the plot, for it decides no less than the outcome of the epic's climax.

Medea's restlessness is not just caused by the conflict between her passion and her honour and modesty. She is facing an even harder struggle, since love is forcing her to betray her family to help the man she loves. In terms of plot development her decision is as consequential as those made by sleepless characters in Homeric epic. Though prey to love, Medea is pondering in her heart, like the Homeric Zeus, Agamemnon and Hermes.

The style and diction of this scene indeed demonstrate that Apollonius has the wakeful Agamemnon in mind.61 Compare, in Homer, ‘But sweet slumber was not holding Atreus’ son Agamemnon […] who was pondering many things in his heart' (ἀλλ’ οὐκ Ἀτρεΐδην Ἀγαμέμνονα […]/ ὕπνος ἔχε γλυκερὸς πολλὰ φρεσὶν ὁρμαίνοντα, Il. 10. 3–4) and, in Apollonius, ‘But sweet slumber did not seize Medea at all, for many cares kept her awake in her longing for Jason’ (ἀλλὰ μάλ’ οὐ Μήδειαν ἐπὶ γλυκερὸς λάβεν ὕπνος./ πολλὰ γὰρ Αἰσονίδαο πόθῳ μελεδήματ’ ἔγειρεν, 3. 751–2).

Both descriptions begin with the same contrasting particle (‘but’), followed by a negative (‘not’), then with a mention of the sleepless character in the accusative and of ‘sweet slumber’ in the nominative, with a verb separating noun and adjective (though in reversed order), and finally with ‘many’ things or cares as the content of both characters' worrying. Among these correspondences, Apollonius' choice of γλυκερός (‘sweet’) to modify sleep is particularly telling, for it is not his normal practice to borrow Homeric epithets for sleep.62 In addition, the throbbing of Medea's heart prompts a light simile (3. 756–8), as does the groaning of Agamemnon's (Il. 10. 5–10), and both hearts are stirred ‘often’ (Il. 10. 9; Ap. Rhod. 3. 755). Though this kind of transposition of epic language, imagery and motifs from the domain of war to that of love is characteristic of amatory poetry in general,63 the reference to Agamemnon here has more specific implications: it brings to the fore the deliberative quality of Medea's distress, the outcome of which will be as decisive as the pondering of the epic leader. While Apollonius does not imitate Homer in breaking up the narrative with sleep, he does follow his predecessor in enhancing the momentousness of a development by prefacing it with a sleepless night.

Medea's insomnia is far more consequential than Agamemnon's, for it determines who will win the contest. In this respect it rather recalls Zeus'. Though Medea is forced by Hera to fall in love in order to become instrumental to Jason's victory, she is the one who decides to be cast in that role, choosing as she does to follow the demands of passion.64 In this respect she is, like the sleepless Zeus, the main deviser of the epic's plot. The comparison between the lovesick heroine and the omnipotent god is not as counterintuitive as it might seem, for the sorceress Medea has powers that allow her to control events in an almost godlike fashion.65 The plot-devising function of Medea's sleepless night is emphasized by its placement in the epic: almost exactly at the centre of the central book (darkness descends at line 744 in a book of 1,407 lines). The script Medea conceives in that night includes a night without sleep for Jason, to which I now turn.

Wakeful Jason

After Medea and Jason part in the afternoon (3. 1143), the narrative dwells on her elation as she returns to the palace and then on her tearful and speechless anguish (3. 1152–62); afterwards, it leaves her behind to follow him. It is evening when he reaches his comrades. Activity stops: ‘rejoicing, they peacefully took it easy66 at the time when the darkness of night stayed them, but at dawn they sent two men […] to Aeetes’ (3. 1171–4). Apollonius once again refuses to offer a strong caesura, choosing not to break up the narrative by means of sleep; instead, he sketches a scene of meaningless inactivity and instantly replaces the unremarkable night with the resumption of activity along with the rising of the new day.

The day dawns suddenly in the last word of a line (3. 1172), in an un-Homeric fashion.67 In Homer references to sunrise can end a line, but when this happens the description is more leisurely (it can even fill the entire verse, as in ‘but when early-born, rosy-fingered Dawn appeared’).68 I have found only one instance vaguely comparable to the Apollonian line: ‘I [Odysseus] lay down content, and there appeared […] Dawn’ (Od. 14. 502). As in the Argonautica, some kind of rest is followed by the abrupt coming of sunrise at the end of the verse. But in the Homeric passage dawn, exceptionally, does not look to the next day but ends Odysseus' story of a night's activity. After ‘Dawn’ we put a period. In Apollonius dawn ends a line but begins a new sentence along with a new day, and it introduces a new action that begins in the next line. In that it marks multiple beginnings, it builds momentum after the meaningless night.69

This uneventful night after which dawn quickly rises looks to the future, to the eve of the contest, the crucial night which Jason spends performing the ritual that Medea prescribes to him. She instructs him to wait until midnight and bathe in the river ‘apart from the others’ (3. 1029–31) before proceeding. This time the coming of darkness is in the forefront of the narrative:

The sun was setting far under the black earth, beyond the furthest mountains of the western Ethiopians, and Night was putting the yoke on her horses. And the heroes made ready their beds by the hawsers. But Jason, as soon as the bright stars of Helice, the Bear, went down, and the sky grew perfectly still (πανεύκηλος) down from the heavens, went to a deserted spot, like a stealthy thief, with everything he needed.

(3. 1191–8)

The description of night falling, and the contrast between the wakeful individual and the world around him, which is growing quiet and preparing for sleep, hark back to the scene of Medea's sleeplessness. The world's deepening calmness is again felt in the rhythm, for the moment when the air becomes completely still, πανεύκηλος, coincides with a spondee in an otherwise dactylic line (1196). The sleeping counterpart to Jason, however, is not an entire city (animals included) as in Medea's case, but the other Argonauts.70 This difference is related not only to the location of the Argonauts' camp outside the city but also to the nature and purpose of Jason's wakefulness. Whereas the all-inclusive background to Medea's points up the intensity of her pain and passion – everyone is enwrapped in slumber and everything is quiet but her – the frame of Jason's singles him out as the leader who prepares for his mission while his comrades prepare for rest. In other words, the background to Jason's night-time action puts him in the spotlight and underscores his emergence as the main protagonist of the Argonautic enterprise. For the first time he separates himself from his comrades by staying awake.

If we believe Jason, this is not true, for he claims he has been losing sleep since the beginning of the journey. After passing through the Clashing Rocks, the helmsman Tiphys reassures him that the rest of the navigation to Colchis will be easy. Jason objects that danger still lurks. And

When the day is over, I always spend the night groaning, considering all things, ever since first you gathered for my sake. You talk with ease, being concerned only about your life. I do not have the slightest worry about mine, but fear for this one and that one alike, and for you and the other fellows.

(2. 631–6)

Jason casts himself as a concerned and wakeful leader, following in the footsteps of Agamemnon in Iliad 10 and of figures of drama such as Aristophanes' Lysistrata, Aeschylus' Eteocles and Sophocles' Oedipus. The last of these speaks words very similar to Jason's: ‘Your suffering touches yourself alone and no one else, whereas my heart groans for the city, myself and you alike. You are not awakening one caught by sleep. Know it well, I have wept much and tried many paths in the wanderings of my mind’ (OT 62–6).71

But is Jason's account of his sleep-deprived nights credible? The speech in which he mentions them presents a notorious critical problem. Its introduction, ‘he replied with honeyed words’ (2. 621), suggests that it is designed to be effective, not truthful.72 And the comment that rounds it off, ‘thus he said, making trial of the leaders’ (2. 638), spells out its goal, which is not to tell the truth but to test the heroes' disposition. Readers will instantly think of Agamemnon's deceptive speech in Iliad 2, in which he feigns discouragement in order to test the morale of the army.73 Both Agamemnon and Jason have been heartened, and both publicly reject or ignore the heartening message. Since Agamemnon is in fact filled with self-confidence, readers might attribute the same quality to Jason and call him a liar.

Further to suggest that Jason is lying is his quick turnaround. When he finishes his speech, his comrades ‘shouted with heartening words. And his heart rejoiced at their calling, and he spoke straight among them: “my friends, my courage grows from your valour”’ (2. 638–41). As soon as he obtains the crew's support, Jason recovers his good spirits. In retrospect his speech seems geared to elicit confirmation of his leadership from his comrades, to reinforce their solidarity with him and his goals.74

It might be objected that Jason's speech is in keeping with his characterization, for depression is very natural to him. What he says about himself is consistent with what we know of him.75 In fact, the authorial narrative backs his self-presentation by portraying him as anxious and dejected even before the departure: ‘Aeson's son was brooding over everything, looking depressed’ (1. 460–1). Yet, Jason's self-styling as a wakeful leader worn out by cares finds no backing in the authorial narrative; on the contrary, it is jarringly at odds with what we know of his sleep patterns.

In sharp contrast with Odysseus, Jason is consistently asleep along with his companions, until the night before the contest. During the journey to Colchis he sleeps as soundly as, or even more soundly than his fellows. To begin with, Tiphys, Jason's direct addressee, rouses him and the other Argonauts on the morning of their departure. Their allegedly over-worried leader is not the first to see the sun, and Tiphys must play Odysseus' leading role in comparable scenes of awakening.76 And again, after twelve days of forced detention on the island of the Doliones, two Argonauts shake Jason out of the cosy bed on which he slumbers under their watchful eye (1. 1080–91, above). This episode blatantly disproves Jason's claim to sleepless worrying. A leader as concerned with everyone's welfare as he claims to be would be expected to show at least some signs of distress under those circumstances! Apollonius writes the scene as a lonely vigil in the Homeric mould: ‘All the other leaders, overcome by sleep (δεδμημένοι ὕπνῳ), were taking their rest […] but Acastus and Mopsus […] were watching over their deep slumber’. The phrase ‘overcome by sleep’ suggests that Apollonius is alluding specifically to the lonely vigils of Agamemnon and Hermes (see Il. 10. 2 and 24. 678), two exceedingly concerned personages. By drawing attention to those scenes, Apollonius invites the reader to contrast the placidly slumbering Jason with those wakeful Homeric figures.

On the eve of the contest Jason comes closer to the wakeful characters of Homeric epic. He is engaged in a vigilia in armis,77 which connects him with Odysseus and especially Telemachus. Like him, Jason leaves home and mother behind to go through a test of manhood.78 By comparing him to a thief, Apollonius evokes coming-of-age rituals, which prescribed stealing and wakefulness.79

The parallel with Telemachus and Odysseus, however, brings out the peculiar nature of Jason's vigilia in armis – and of his heroism. Telemachus thinks of his journey and of his father, who spends his own sleepless night pondering how to pursue his revenge. Neither of them is acting out a script written by an all-knowing helper. Though Telemachus does follow Athena's recommendations in his decision to leave home, the goddess does not tell him how exactly he has to go about every detail of his journey, but only that he has to leave and where and with what purpose he must go. When she again appears to him to speed up his return, he is already awake and absorbed in thought. In contrast, Jason forsakes sleep to implement the detailed instructions given him by an almost divine figure and he knows that they will guarantee his success. His wakeful night is not, like Telemachus', characterized by a growing awareness of his responsibilities, nor is it, like Odysseus', filled with efforts to make decisions and cope with adversity. Instead, it is devoted to a ritual of anointment, of consecration to the goddess of magic under the supervision of Medea the plot deviser, who has herself spent the previous night sleeplessly, in excruciating deliberation. Though Jason's wakefulness singles him out from the other Argonauts, the rationale for it spells out his dependency on Medea for his success.80

The appearance of dawn is yet another feature that recalls the scene of Medea's sleeplessness, on account of both its narrative function (in both cases sunrise coincides with the end not only of night but also of nightlong activity) and the manner of its description. Compare: ‘welcome to her did the Early-Born shed her light (βάλε φέγγος Ἠριγενής)’ (3. 823–4) and ‘already Dawn, the early-born (ἠριγενής), rose and shed light (φόως […] βάλεν) over the snowy Caucasus’ (3. 1223–4).81

The echo, however, underscores the different ways Jason and Medea relate to the rising of dawn. For Medea it is a return to life, a rebirth. Hence, the sunlight is seen through her eyes and the description of its coming, ‘welcome to her’, stresses her emotional involvement in it. Medea remains at the centre of the following scene, where dawn shines in her features and garments as she prepares to meet the man she loves. Conversely, dawn does not rise for Jason or through his eyes but ‘over the snowy Caucasus’. It marks a switch in narrative focus from Jason's night to Aeetes' morning, as he prepares to watch the contest.

Aeetes dons his armour in a scene that corresponds to Medea's dressing scene. Both take place at sunrise after a night filled with activity, and both put the dazzling shine of the characters' apparel front stage. Aeetes wears a golden helmet ‘that gleams like the round light of the sun when it first rises from Ocean’ (3. 1229–30). His entrance at dawn and the brightness of his armour, rivalling the sunlight, match not only his solar ancestry,82 but also the pomp and circumstance of his appearance, like a god (Poseidon) who is going to watch rites in his honour (3. 1240–5). The sun shines for him and through him, whereas Jason disappears with the darkness to which his victory belongs. His stealthy action, like that of a thief clad ‘in a dark robe’ (3. 1204–5), is incompatible with light. Thus, he exits when night turns into day.

Nessun dorma

The course of the sun measures the progression of Jason's contest: its second half (the killing of the warriors born of the dragon's teeth) begins when three parts of the day have elapsed and ‘tired labourers’ long to unyoke the oxen (3. 1341–2). The time notation, couched in imagery that fits Jason's work as ploughman and also sets off his heroic tirelessness (3. 1343) against the labourers' fatigue,83 creates the expectation that his labour will be completed. And in fact it is finished at nightfall, and with nightfall ends the epic's culminating book: ‘The day set, and Jason's contest (ἄεθλος) was completed.’ The nocturnal ending builds the first strong caesura in the epic and suggests closure. While the first two books conclude with dawn because they look to the contest, the third concludes with night because the contest is over and Jason has won it.

This night, though, brings no rest. Its restlessness should come as no surprise, given that Apollonius generally uses sleep to signpost beginnings rather than endings. The sleepless mood of the night also fits the state of affairs, for it is only technically true that Jason's contest is finished: ‘heavy anguish came upon the heart of Aeetes. He went back to the city among the Colchians, pondering how he might quickly oppose them [the Argonauts]’ (3. 1404–6). Aeetes' angry brooding qualifies the appeasing quality of nightfall in a manner that conjures up the scene in which Zeus was ‘devising evil all night’ for the feasting and subsequently sleeping armies at the end of Iliad 7.84 Or: Aeetes' brooding qualifies the closure that sundown brings by intimating future action. While he had promised to surrender the fleece ‘on the same day’ as the contest (3. 419), the transition from day to night marks neither a happy ending nor any ending at all. Jason does not know this yet. But he is not entitled to rest, because the reader knows it.

We might contrast this state of affairs with Odysseus' unqualified victory, crowned by closural sleep. Odysseus prefaces the beginning of the slaughter by calling attention to his success at stringing the bow: ‘Now this decisive contest (ἄεθλος) has been completed’ (Od. 22. 5). At the end of the slaughter, the second contest,85 he sleeps at last. Though he has more ἄεθλα to face (23. 248), the one he has just fought is over. Jason also will have more ἄεθλοι to face (1. 442), but the one he has just fought is not quite over. He is not allowed to rest because his victory brings no peace to him – or to anyone. This is highlighted by the general sleeplessness that characterizes the night with which Book 3 ends and Book 4 begins.

The Colchian section of the epic as a whole has a wakeful atmosphere, which both conveys the tensions that oppose the characters and builds up suspense as the final act, the capture of the fleece, draws near. The insomniac mood creates a contrast between Jason's experience and Odysseus' in Scheria, filled with his desire to sleep. As is often noted,86 Jason's stay in Colchis adapts Odysseus' Phaeacian episode by reversing it in a number of features: the stranger does not meet a good king but a cruel one, does not obtain his help but is set to deadly tasks, and departs not with an official escort and a public blessing but in secrecy. Furthermore, while Alcinous offers a bed to Odysseus after promising his return, Aeetes dismisses Jason after challenging him in anger.87 The contrasting treatment of the two heroes is mirrored in their contrasting dispositions towards sleep. Odysseus longs for it because he is tired and relaxed. Sweet slumber is welcome to him. Jason does not rest, or, if he does, his sleep goes unmarked. Of the three nights he passes in Colchis before the contest, one is skipped (Medea's sleeplessness is in the foreground), one is spent doing nothing and instantly replaced by dawn, and one is a vigilia in armis. The night after the contest likewise turns out to be wakeful for Jason, as for all the other main players.

The beginning of Book 4 could be titled Nessun dorma (None shall sleep) after Puccini's famous aria. While Aeetes ‘all night long, with the best leaders of his people, was devising utter treachery’ against the Argonauts (4. 6–7), Medea, after contemplating suicide, flees to their camp, where they are celebrating and keeping fires lit ‘all night long’ (4. 68–9). Her second sleepless night is a doublet of her first. Both times she thinks of death and takes out lethal drugs, and both times when she resolves to live she also resolves to leave. The structural and thematic echoing brings out her growing despair and foreshadows her tragedy. On the first night she is still in control of her life and destiny: it is she who shrinks away from the prospect of death, while Hera intervenes only to strengthen her resolve. She longs for dawn, for life, and leaves reborn, bathing in the light of the sun and of her own beauty. The second time Hera writes the entire script by instilling fear in her (4. 11) and causing her to live and flee (4. 22) – in the darkness of night, without any renewal of hope.

Future trouble is vividly portended in the narrative of Medea's arrival at the Argonauts' bivouac. Apollonius is probably alluding again to the end of Iliad 7, which features two parties engaged in the same activities as in his episode: the armies, feasting ‘all night’ like the Argonauts, and Zeus, thundering ‘all night [and] devising ills’ like Aeetes.88 Apollonius' language strongly suggests that he is consciously referring to that scene. Compare, in Homer, ‘all night long Zeus the planner was planning ills against them’ (παννύχιος δέ σφιν κακὰ μήδετο μητίετα Ζεύς) and, in Apollonius, ‘all night long he [Aeetes] was planning utter treachery against them’ (παννύχιος δόλον αἰπὺν ἐπὶ σφίσι μητιάασκεν). Over the Argonauts' joyful celebrations there looms the ominous thunder of Zeus-Aeetes, who will re-launch the fighting.

The comparison with the end of Iliad 7 also emphasizes how consistently Apollonius avoids using sleep as caesura. The Homeric scene, in spite of the threatening developments it portends, winds down in slumber, but Apollonius has Medea break into the theatre of the Argonauts' feast and restart the action with pressing urgency. She cuts their party short with a ‘sharp cry’ (4. 70), urges them to flee with her ‘before he [Aeetes] mounts his swift horses’ (4. 86), and hurries with Jason to capture the fleece ‘while it is still night’ (4. 101). The Argonauts' celebrations end with a sudden awakening to new emergencies.

It is indeed still dark when Medea and Jason arrive at the grove where the fleece is guarded. The description of the hour emphasizes their wakefulness. They reach the spot at the time ‘when hunters cast sleep from their eyes, hunters who […] never slumber all through the night to avoid the light of dawn’, lest it efface tracks and scents (4. 109–13).89 The reference to the hunters' early rising highlights the unsleeping activity of the couple, for neither one has dozed off even a little. It is as if they have awoken again, but from an already wakeful night. Their advance meets the dragon's likewise wakeful watch, the ‘sleepless eyes’ with which it sees them come (4. 128), and for which both Jason and the readers have long been prepared (2. 406–7; 2. 1209).90 The monster's awful hissing in turn causes young mothers to get up from fear and to hold their sleeping babies, whose limbs shake at the hiss (4. 136–8).

But the dragon will eventually be plunged into a fatal slumber. Its enduring wakefulness, filled with more fearful movements (4. 141–4), enhances the hypnotic potency of Medea's art. She begins by invoking the god of sleep: ‘with a sweet voice she called Hypnos, the highest of the gods, as helper, to charm the monster’ (4. 146–7). Medea's invocation recalls Hera's in Iliad 14. Both attribute supreme powers to Hypnos91 and enlist him to extinguish the unsleeping vision of another god or immortal being (Ap. Rhod. 4. 128; Il. 14. 236). And just as Zeus, enwrapped in his κῶμα, ‘dies’,92 the dragon, in losing its wakefulness, loses the complement to its immortality (2. 1209).93

Unlike Hera, however, Medea has in herself the power to lull her victim to sleep. Hera applies lovemaking, for which purpose she borrows Aphrodite's girdle with its ‘charms’ (Il. 14. 215: θελκτήρια); but even so she seeks the extra help of Hypnos. Medea needs no such help because she has charms in her voice and her drugs. In her invocation, the prayer to Hypnos merges with the actual sleep-inducing magic she works on the dragon. The phrase that describes the ‘sweet voice’ with which she charms (θέλξαι) the monster, ἡδείῃ ἐνοπῇ, has a hypnotizing ring, suggested by the monotonous prevalence of e-sounds.94 Medea applies her lulling song (4. 150) before the added drug completes the job with its soporific scent (4. 157–9). The ever-wakeful monster falls asleep slowly, step by step. Though made mellow by Medea's voice, it still lifts its head to swallow the pair, until the drug's smell causes its jaws to drop and its coils to stretch out (4. 159–61). Medea's powers elevate her to the status of a semi-divine figure, for they imitate Hermes' when he lulls Argus, another ‘ever-wakeful’ monster, to sleep by means of a ‘hypnotic tune’.95

The extended description of slumber taking hold of the dragon functions as counterpoint to both the repeated emphasis on its unremitting watchfulness and the general sleeplessness that pervades this part of the epic. At last, the dragon has closed its eyes, the fleece is in Jason's hands and the readers and characters should be able to rest, at least a little, before the journey home begins. But no: the day dawns as the couple returns to the camp with the fleece (4. 183–4). The rising of the sun at the end of this hectic night connects it to the sleepless nights of Medea and of Jason in Book 3, both of which are likewise followed by the spreading of daylight and the renewal of activity.

The three main nocturnal sequences in Colchis thus share structural and thematic features: one or more characters spend the entire night in either a quandary or an anxious pursuit; as soon as the quandary is resolved or the pursuit successfully completed, dawn brightens, and with its coming, objects take on a shimmer that rivals its light. In the last episode the gleaming object is the fleece, which shines even in the night, like a moonbeam (4. 167–3; see also 125–6), but more dazzlingly at sunrise: ‘Dawn was spreading over the earth and they reached the group. And the young men marvelled, seeing the great fleece that shone like the lightning of Zeus’ (4. 183–5).

This time, however, luminosity carries danger. Jason hastens the Argonauts' departure, preventing them from celebrating or even lingering. He stops them from touching the fleece, covers it and urges them to leave instantly (4. 190). Even after obtaining the object of their quest, they cannot relax. The lack of a pause is consonant with the prediction, early in the poem, that the return journey would be difficult (1. 441–2). The hastiness of the departure also sets the beginning of the nostos in contrast with the long-drawn launching of the outward journey, delayed from one day to the next. In both cases, the ship takes off at dawn, but there it was after a nightlong sleep, while here it is after a night of frenetic activity. The contrasting pace matches the opposite modes of the departure: with glamour on the way out, on the sly on the way back. The night-time hunters seek to avoid the bright light of day for fear of becoming prey.96

Revisiting Homeric episodes of sleep

The return journey is geographically haphazard and generally fast paced. As I have suggested, these features combined might explain why it is not punctuated by occurrences of sleep like the ones distributed along the outward journey, which serve to restart it at crucial junctures. There is one exception: after Peleus tells his comrades about Thetis' order to leave the island of Circe and sail to the Wandering Rocks, through which she and her sisters will draw the ship, they all ‘stopped their games straightaway, made ready a meal and beds, on which, after dining, they slumbered through the night, as before. But when light-bringing dawn hit the edge of heaven’ (4. 882–5), they leave. As on the outward journey, sleep here marks the momentousness of the subsequent departure, this time because of its literary pedigree: the Argonauts are about to follow in the footsteps of Odysseus, with Thetis replacing the Homeric Circe in the role of guide. Their sleep corresponds to that of Odysseus' companions on both nights before leaving Circe's island (though Jason, unlike Odysseus, once again rests like everyone else).

The Argonauts sail past the Sirens and the Wandering Rocks (in lieu of Scylla), and finally come within sight of Trinacria. They approach it when the oxen of the Sun are still at pasture (4. 970–6), and quickly move on (4. 964–5): ‘They passed by them in the daytime; and at nightfall they were crossing a great sea gulf, rejoicing, until again Dawn the early-born shed light on them as they fared on’ (4. 979–81). In the Odyssey it is evening when the island appears to the weary travellers. The cattle are not at pasture but are entering their folds for the night (12. 265). Apollonius marks his engagement with the Homeric episode by repeating several surrounding words. Homer's ‘I heard the bellowing of oxen settling in their quarters and the bleating of sheep’ (Od. 12. 265–6) is echoed in ‘at once the bleating of sheep came to them through the air and the bellowing of oxen nearby reached their ears’ (Ap. Rhod. 4. 968–9).97

The emphatic replacement of evening with day underscores the luckiness of the Argonauts' passage. Odysseus' comrades get in trouble by ‘obeying the night’ (Od. 12. 291), that is, by landing, eating and going to sleep. Apollonius' substitution of uninterrupted sailing for rest, while consistent with the scarcity of sleep breaks in his epic, brings to the fore the ease with which the Argonauts ‘repeat’ the most difficult portion of Odysseus' wanderings. They avoid Trinacria not because they force themselves to forgo sleep with Odysseus-like stamina (see Od. 12. 279–82) but because they reach the island at a time when they do not need to rest, just as they meet with favourable winds and are lifted across the Wandering Rocks. Unlike Odysseus, they enjoy divine protection in the part of their journey contiguous with his, which Hera and her helpers the nymphs stage-manage, steering them away from the dangers faced by Odysseus.98 The Argo's swift sailing past Trinacria seems to take place under the aegis of the nymphs, who plunge back into the sea right after the passage (4. 966–7).

Again unlike Odysseus, the Argonauts reach the island of the Phaeacians with ease and swiftness. But, yet again unlike Odysseus, they face renewed trouble there. Though Alcinous and his people welcome them with sacrifices, as if they were their children coming home (4. 994–7), the celebrations instantly turn into a call to arms, because the Colchians have pursued them to claim Medea back. As a result, the Argonauts cannot find the tranquility that Odysseus eventually enjoys, and which increases his desire for sleep. Instead of indulging in sweet slumber, Jason and Medea spend another sleepless night while Alcinous and Arete are comfortably ensconced in their marital chamber.

Even after beseeching Arete and the Argonauts (4. 1011–53), Medea fears that she might be surrendered to the Colchians. Darkness descends and with it sleep, but not for her:

And while she was suffering, upon the host night came, which brings men rest (εὐνήτειρα) from labours, and it lulled (κατευκήλησε) the whole earth. But sleep did not bring the slightest rest to her (τὴν δ’ οὔτι μίνυνθά περ εὔνασεν ὕπνος). The heart in her breast was whirling in anguish as when a hard-working woman whirls the spindle at night, and her orphaned children cry all around her. She is a widow, and a tear falls along her cheeks as she considers what dreadful destiny has seized her. In the same way her cheeks were wet. And her heart was oppressed, pierced by sharp pangs.

(4. 1058–67)

Medea is as sleepless as when she fell in love. The world is slumbering all around her, as it was then. Rhythmic features again convey the stilling of the earth: a spondee in εὐνήτειρα, ‘rest-bringing’, and another in κατευκήλησε, ‘lulled’. The recurrence of patterns reminiscent of the previous sleeplessness scene brings Medea's helplessness and despair into bold relief, harking back as it does to the night on which she chose to follow her love and start on the journey that has taken her to the present dreadful predicament. On that earlier night Medea's passion dictates her decision, but the decision is still her own; this time, though, she is not deciding anything. Her sleeplessness has no content except the upheaval of her heart and the flowing of her tears. She is no longer in control of her destiny and that of others, but others are in control of hers. She is not torn between love and home, but is homeless because of her choice to follow her love, a love that she cannot count on. She makes this clear by addressing her supplication first to a ‘foreign queen’, as she says reproachfully to the Argonauts (4. 1048), then to ‘each man in turn’ (4. 1030): not to Jason first, or only.99 Her betrothed is one of the strangers with whom she is wretchedly wandering (4. 1041). The unspecified theatre of her restless suffering (she seems to be with the heroes, but we are not told) points up her homelessness – she is nowhere – as opposed to the homey setting of the first episode: her room. Her present despair is the consequence of her decision to cross the threshold of her room at the end of that fateful night.

Medea's homeless sleeplessness is further emphasized by the contrast with the cosy marital scene to which the narrator turns his attention right after leaving her anguished heart behind: ‘And the pair (τώ) was inside the palace in the city as before, lordly Alcinous and much-revered Arete, his wife, and lying in their bed in the darkness, they were making plans about the maiden’ (4. 1068–71).

Alcinous and Arete, united by the dual that begins the narrative, are living according to the routine (‘as before’) of a married couple, now in bed like every night. Their togetherness and regulated life, with its nightly ritual, underscores Medea's solitude and unregulated life, the life of a wanderer. She is now awake in anguish while the royal couple discusses her fate in a pillow talk. Alcinous pronounces that Medea and Jason will stay together if they have consummated their marriage, then dozes off: ‘Thus he spoke, and at once sleep brought him rest (εὔνασεν ὕπνος)’ (4. 1110). Apollonius highlights the contrast between Alcinous' serenity and Medea's distress with one of his carefully measured repetitions: the same phrase, εὔνασεν ὕπνος, is used to describe sleep coming to Alcinous and not coming to Medea (4. 1060). Alcinous does not let his tranquility be troubled.100

The sequence of these two scenes reworks the Homeric narrative of Odysseus' first night in Scheria.101 The phrase ‘as before’ not only highlights the routine of the Phaeacian couple but also hints at the Homeric model, substituting literary for narrative time.102 At the end of Odyssey 7, we might recall, Odysseus is sent to sleep on the porch of Alcinous' palace. The narrative lingers over the pleasure he finds in going to bed, then describes his hosts retiring inside and lying down for the night. Apollonius replaces Odysseus' rest with Medea's sleeplessness, thus building an un-Homeric background for the bedroom scene that ends with Alcinous dozing off. In Homer retiring scenes provide the frame for episodes of individual sleeplessness, but it does not happen the other way around, and the individual who is awake against a background of sleepers normally makes a decision.103 By reversing the order (the wakeful figure is described first) and the roles of the characters (the one soon-to-sleep makes the decision), Apollonius further brings out the helplessness of Medea, whose unproductive insomnia is superseded by the plot-devising tranquility of the Phaeacian couple that decides her case.

Alcinous and Arete, however, are not in unison, for as soon as he pronounces and dozes off, ‘she put the wise word in her heart and straightaway rose’ (4. 1111) to send a herald to Jason, urging him to consummate the marriage. While in the Odyssey the couple's joint sleep ends the evening action, in the Argonautica the wakeful Arete leaves her husband's side to carry out her plan. This spur to further activity that replaces sleep fits with Apollonius' tendency to fill the night with movement and avoid breaks. But Arete's secret action also fosters her wishes, unbeknownst to her husband, and determines the outcome of his judgement. Her choice to take advantage of his sleep qualifies their togetherness or, as Homer would say, their like-mindedness. Marital bliss is so alien to Apollonius' epic104 that even a harmonious relationship like that of the young Phaeacian couple has its shadows. Alcinous' sudden slumber is a worrying sign in itself, for it seems to substitute for the expected lovemaking.105

Alcinous is the only one sleeping. When the herald dispatched by Arete reaches the Argonauts, he finds them ‘by the ships, awake with their arms’ (4. 1124). This sketched vigilia in armis corresponds to Jason's in Book 3; but he does not stand out now. In response to the herald's message we hear the voice of ‘each man’, whose heart rejoices at the words (4. 1126–7). In Book 3 Jason was the only one awake, but here, the blending of his presence with his comrades' suggests that he has stepped back from his prominent role as leader, and the blending of his voice with theirs puts forward his solidarity with them rather than his passion for his bride-to-be. He is awake with the other Argonauts while she is sleepless alone. The two episodes combined foreshadow Medea's abandonment by Jason, which is also encrypted in the simile that equates her – even before he becomes her husband – with a widow losing sleep to work and sorrow (4. 1062–6 above).

The rising of the new day further stresses Medea's helplessness. The structure and motifs of its narration again hark back to her first sleepless night. Again dawn appears, and with it the streets are filled with noise and the city with movement (4. 1170–4).106 In the earlier episode, however, dawn rises through and for Medea's eyes, at the end of the night in which she makes her momentous decision, while here the light of day illumines not her movements but Alcinous', as he advances with the Phaeacian chiefs to issue the verdict that will decide her future (4. 1176–81).

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