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ESSAY THE SECOND.
Next to the siege of Troy, the Argonautic expedition is the event, of those early and fabulous times, which are commonly called, the heroic ages of Greece, that excites the most lively interest; and has employed the genius, and the pens, of the greatest number of writers among the ancients. It may even be doubted, whether the eventful narrative of the primeval daring, and marvellous adventures, of this matchless band of heroes, does not possess greater attractions, and more powerfully engage the attention, than The Tole of Troy divine. The conception of the Argonautic enterprise, was more bold and original; the dangers, to which it was exposed, were more imminent and dreadful in their form; the incidents, with which it was diversified, were, if possible, more grand; certainly, more romantic and extraordinary. Our curiosity is held more on the stretch, by the 'marvellous adventures, the hair-breadth escapes, the manners and customs of strange and remote nations, which are presented to us, in rapid succession, in the narrative of this expedition, than by the artful contexture, of any tale of fairy, or legend of romance. A band of heroes, and demigods, committing themselves to untried dangers, braving the menaces of & stormy and uncertain element, exploring unknown and far distant regions, conflicting with storms by sea, and savage beasts, and more savage men, by land; the prudence, the patience, and good conduct of the leader; the magnanimity and perseverance of his companionsaltogether present one of the most awful and magnificent spectacles, that can well be conceived. .
Such, as a narrative, are the general merits of this story, even at this day. On the attention of Greeks, while Greece remained, it had the strongest claims. All the most celebrated heroes of antiquity, the reputed offspring of all their deities, the progenitors of all their most illustrious dynasties, the destroyers of monsters, the avengers of guilt, the founders of states and kingdoms, the sages, the legislacors, and primeval bards of Greece, were collected together for this expedition, and leagued in the enterprise, by friendship, and virtuous emulation. The Argonautic assemblage may be considered, as a nursing seminary, whence issued all the illustrious spirits, of the romantic ages of Greece. The voyage of the Argonauts may be regarded, in some degree, as the poetical or traditional parent of the subsequent heroic or fabulous histories, the rape of Helen, the sieges of Thebes, and of Troy, the wanderings of Ulysses. It is highly probable, that the legendary relations, handed down by Orpheus, and other older bards, of the perils, and wonderful adventures, of these first of navigators, filled and enlarged the imagination of Homer, and, exciting his emulation, led him to pro. duce his immortal poems.
The occasion of the Argonautic voyage is thus represented, by ancient tradition, as we find it preserved in the Greek writers. Phryx!'s and Heilè were the chil. dren of Athamas, by a former wife, their stepmother
Ino, the daughter of Cadmus, had the art to persuade her husband, that it was necessary to sacrifice them. The destined victims escaped from her rage, and were borne over the sea by a ram, whose fleece was of gold; by which tradition it seems to be intimated, that they escaped from Greece, in a vessel, which bore the ensign of a golden ram. They steered their course to Colchis, a couptry which is now called Mingrelia, a part of Georgia: Hellè is said to have fallen from this miraculous conveyance, and was drowned by the way, in the narrow sea, which from her took the name of the Hellespont, now the strait of the Dardanelles. Phryxus arriving at Colchis, was entertained by Æetes, king of that region, and obtained his daughter Chalciope in marriage. He sacrificed the ram, which had borne him over the sea, and presented the fleece to the monarch, who deposited this fleece, which was all of gold, in a grove consecrated to Mars, where it was guarded, by a dragon, who never slept. To obtain this treasure, the fame of which had travelled into Greece, was the object of the dangerous and romantic expedition of the Argonauts.
Such is the ancient fabulous tradition. It has been variously expounded, by various writers.--Strabo and Arrian inform us, that it was a practice of the Colchians, to collect gold dust on mount Caucasus, by extending fleeces across the beds of the torrents, by which it was washed down; a process, which, I believe, is still employed, in some places. The Argonauts, being desirous of possessing themselves of the treasures of gold, which the Colchians thus amassed, the fable was formed, of their going in quest of the golden fleece; these fleeces, when they were replenished with gold dust, appearing as so many fleeces of goid. Varro and Pliny pretend, that this fable owes its origin, to the very fine and precious wool of the coantry, and that the voyages, which some merchants of Greece made, to purchase it, gave rise to the fiction. One may add, that as the Colchians carried on a considerable traffic, in the skins of the fox, the martin, and other valuable kinds of peltry, this might have been an additional motive, for the voyage of the Argonauts.-- Palephatus* imagined, one can scarce conjecture on what grounds, that, by the Golden Fleece, was designated a beautiful golden statue, which the mother of Pelops had caused to be made, and which Phryxus had carried away with him into Colchis. Suidas is of opinion, that the fleece of gold was a book in parchment, which contained the secret of making gold; an object, worthy of the ambition, or rather of the avarice, not of Greece only, but of the whole world; and his opinion has been adopted by all the alchymists The celebrated Bartholinus, in concurrence with Suidas, has endeavoured to give a mystic sense, to this story of the Golden Fleece, and the Argonautic expedition; and to find in it, a covert allusion to the art of transmuting metals into gold. He maintains, as had been asserted by Suidas before him, that the Golden Fleece was a parchment book, containing the grand secret; that the dragon or serpent was descriptive of mercury or quicksilver; and so on.-In the same manner, Tollius, and others, have endeavoured to explain the story of the Trojan horse; the change of Jupiter into a shower of gold; the adulterous intercourse of Mars and Venus; in short, the whole circle of fabulous metamorphosis, and Heathen mythology.
Sir Isaac Newton thinks, that the Argonautic expedition was really an embassy, sent by the Greeks, during the intestine divisions in Egypt, in the reign of Ameno
* De Incredibilibus.
tence to coveraining the goldenus career; a
phis, to persuade the nations on the coast of the Euxine and Mediterranean sea, to take that opportunity, of shaking off the yoke of Egypt, which had been imposed on them by Sesostris, in his victorious career; and that the design of obtaining the golden fleece, was only a pretence to cover their true object. In forming this opinion, though it is supported with much ingenuity and plausibility, the great philosopher, seems to have been not a little influenced, by the desire of maintaining a favourite system, and desirous of bending to meet it, the different relations of history and tradition.
The learned Mr. Bryant gives a very different explanation of this tradition, which, according to him, refers to the circumstance of Noah's ark. " The main plot, * (says he) as transmitted to us, is, certainly, a fable,
replete with inconsistencies and contradictions; yet " many writers, ancient and modern, have taken the ac" count in the gross, and without exception to any par“ ticular part, presumed to make use of it, for a stated “ æra.”*_Mr. Bryant contends, that this history, on which Sir Isaac Newton built so much, did not relate to Greece, though adopted by the people of that country.--He maintains, that Sir Isaac's calculation rests on a weak foundation; that it is doubtful, whether such persons as Chiron and Museus ever existed; and still more doubtful, whether they formed a sphere, for the use of the Argonauts. He offers many arguments, to show, that the expedition could not, at any rate, be a Grecian transaction; nor could the sphere, in question, be a Grecian work: and, if not, that it must, certainly, be the produce of Egypt; since the astronomy of Greece, confessedly, came from that country.He contends,
* As Sir Isaac Newton, who endeavours to make it a connecting point, between sacred and profane history.