Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Sea Monster in Jonah and Jason Stories

[The AMAIC would give the priority to Jonah, instead]


There is no musically enchanted dolphin in the book of Jonah, but a large fish or ketos who swallows and then vomits up the hero. Neither is there a leviathan or dolphin in the extant textual variants of Jason’s odyssey. But Jason does fight a sea- or land-monster in several of the variants of the tale, often represented on vases, in actions similar to those of Heracles.**25** Or in scenes found widespread around the Mediterranean, Jason emerges from a coiled, upright serpent or monster.**26** It is in this context that earlier scholars briefly noted the connection with Jonah. In particular, a beautiful red-figured cup found at Cerveteri (Caere) in 1833 and dated from the beginning of the fifth century BCE (490-475) shows a scaly and wide-eyed monster vomiting a limp, naked, bearded, and long-haired Jason (see plate). To the right of the scene is Athena, with spear in her right hand, bird in her left, and perhaps looking into the eyes of the dragon, whom she has commanded to disgorge Jason.**27** Behind the dragon’s head, at left, the Golden Fleece hangs as limp as Jason, on a tree laden with fruit (apples?). It is most natural to conceive of this monster as a sea-monster, as did A. Flasch and other scholars,**28** given the position of Cerveteri, an Etruscan sea-port which would be understandably interested in Jason's Gesti as those of the first navigator. An abundance of maritime themes at the place is evidence of this interest. The Boreads themselves do not appear to be represented at Caere but they figure prominently in many other places, for instance, in Laconia.**29**

This cup has been widely commented upon in the past, but has remained unnoticed, as far as I am aware, by biblical commentators. Late XIXth and turn-of-the-century commentators offer varying interpretations of this scene. A. Flasch thinks that the dragon is alive, forced to disgorge a passive Jason, which is also my interpretation.**30** Flasch is followed by H. Schmidt and others, e.g. Pfuhl and Kerényi. Vian, in his recent edition of Apollonius' Argonautica, mentions the cup without comment. M. Lawrence, after E. Pfuhl and K. Kerényi, thinks it is a sea-monster "forced by Athena to disgorge Jason [....] a rare variant of the famous story."**31** The rest of Lawrence’s article deals with the iconography of Jonah's story. But the commentary of P.E. Arias and M. Hirmer on Athena is inexact. They think that Athena, with owl, is looking with surprise at Jason coming out of the dragon’s mouth.**32**

It is interesting to discover that a version of Jason's story had Athena as his helper, rescuing him from death, which is perhaps closer to the role of the Hebrew God in the book of Jonah. The bird she carries on her left hand, however, is not necessarily the usual owl, as all commentators seem to identify it,**33** but could actually be a dove (or a sea bird). Athena's owl is usually represented with its head turned outward, facing the viewer, at least in all images of her catalogued in the Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae.**34** On the Caere cup, the bird has a straight beak and a more sloping body. However, since ornithological details may not have been the concern of the vase painters, the idea of a dove can only remain a suggestion. The role played by doves in reporting prophecies and helping heroes has been mentioned above: in Apollonius’ Argonautica, the crew of the Argo takes along a dove in a cage. They also are featured in several illustrations of the episode of the capture of the fleece.**35**

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