The Argonaut Epos and Bronze Age Economic History


E. At Lemnos: Was it free trade or free love?

In the Argonaut myth the island of Lemnos is ruled by women who had “murdered” all the men.18 It is possible, however, to link the “murderesses” with the production of woolen cloth. Specifically, there are elements in the myth indicating that the Lemnian women participated in the finishing of Greek (“Minyan”) cloth destined for sale in Kolchis. More specifically, they purple-dyed either the wool or the garments themselves. Both practices are attested in the Bronze Age (see 1).

The primary indicator of an industrial role is the bad odor attributed to the Lemnian women. Apollodorus (1.9.7) speaks of the “foul smell” (dysosmia) that drove away the husbands of the Lemniads. The “foul smell” (dyso_dia) of the Lemnian women is also mentioned by Myrsilos of Lesbos, a historian of the third century BCE (cited by Burkert 1970: 7). Apollodorus says Aphrodite inflicted the smell on the women; Myrsilos blames Medea (Burkert 1970: 7). Apollonius Rhodius (1.610ff) only mentions Aphrodite in connection with the fact that the Lemnian men conceived a “loathing” for their wives (Seaton 1912). However, Fränkel (1950: 116) states that verse 1.614 should read apuzen notopazen, hence “Aphrodite’s wrath reeked off them.” The “foul smell” of the Lemnian women is, I submit, a mythological translation of the repulsive smell of murex-dye factories. A smell described by Jensen (1963: 107) as “a mixture of a whiff of garlic and dilate bromine gas.” We may think in this context of a Lemnian cult of Aphrodite Purple or Medea Purple corresponding to Corinth’s Athena Purple, who may well have been the patroness of craftsmen engaged in the purple industry (Kardara 1970: 97).19

The hypothesis that the “foul smell” is a coded reference to murex factories finds support in the fact that not only the women were so afflicted on Lemnos. On the way to Troy the Greek expeditionary force abandoned Philoktetes on Lemnos because of the “foul smell” (dyso_de_s) from a snakebite on his foot.20 Apparently, to fall victim to foul smells was an occupational hazard at Lemnos. It is therefore not surprising that this Philoktetes ruled Meliboea (Il. 2.716-18), a coastal city of Magnesia in Thessaly noted for its purple, at least in late antiquity. Our sources for this specialization are two Latin writers of the first century BCE, Lucretius and Virgil. First Lucretius (2.499-500): “Your Meliboean crimsons deeply dyed with color from the shells of Thessaly” (Humphries 1968). In the Aeneid (5.250) Virgil refers to “a golden cloak [chlamyden] with border of Meliboean purple with double wavy lines” (Mantinband 1964). Recall that Jason first appeared at Iolkos wearing “native Magnesian cloth” (Pi. P. 4.80ff).

Yet, Apollonius Rhodius (1.592-93), in a sentence not without difficulties, explicitly notes that the Argonauts sailed past Meliboea when they began their journey to Kolchis. This constitutes a weakness in my interpretation of the role of the Lemnian women in the expedition of the Argonauts. Perhaps there were differences in the types of dyes or in extraction costs or perhaps the Thessalians had not yet mastered the purple extraction and dyeing technologies when the Argonaut epos originated. This line of explanation is at least consistent with the evidence for Lemnian emigration to Greece in the second millennium (see further Part II). It must be reported, however, that there is some archaeological evidence for the production of purple in eastern Crete that has been dated to c. 1800-1600 BCE (Reese 1987: 204; Stieglitz 1994).

Upon the arrival of the Argonauts at Lemnos, the women sponsored an ago_n with prizes of woolen garments. As clarified by the scholiast who refers to Simonides and other writers (see Burkert 1970: 8; Farnell 1932: 147, 165), the sense of P. 4.253, a most convoluted verse, seems to be: “There in athletic contests [contests of limbs] they won garments [displayed a judging over a garment] and syneunasthen.” For the time being I leave syneunasthen untranslated.

First note that in the ancient world generally and in Greece specifically, festivals were also commercial and cultural ventures (Silver 1995: 4, 22). LSJ (s.v) renders ago_n as “a gathering, an assembly – especially to see games, a place of contest.” However, Fraenkel (1950, II: 260), in discussing verse 513 of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, explains that in the title of some magistrates ago_n means, “market, a place where business is transacted.” Evidently prizes of woolen garments were characteristic of the ago_n for, in discussing the Ago_a_lia, a Roman festival honoring the commercially oriented god Janus (Silver 1995: 22), Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE?) speculated that

It may be … that the day took a Greek name from the games (agones) which were wont to be held in olden time. In the ancient tongue too, agonia meant a sheep, and my judgment is the true reason of the name. (FastiI.330f; Frazer 1931; emphasis added).

Thus we may surmise that the ago_n was a trade-fair in which wool and cloth played a central role.

Let us now return to Pindar’s word syneunasthen. As syn means “together” (LSJ s.v.) and eune_ means “bed” the word is usually translated “had sexual intercourse”. The sexual innuendo is well taken. However, eunasthen also means simply “laid down” and “slept” (LSJ s.v. eunazo_/eunadzo_). At the risk of being thought naive or a spoilsport I would suggest that “to lay down (rest) together” after strenuous foot races (“contests of limbs”) is intrinsically more likely than “to lay down together in a sex orgy”!

Beyond this a deeper and more significant reference may perhaps be discerned. Besides meaning “bed” eune_ means “place, abode” (LSJ s.v), a usage familiar to Homer (Il. 1.757) and to Pindar (N. 9.41) for that matter. I am not inclined to dismiss as merely coincidental that Apollonius Rhodius (4.116) describes a “grassy area” in Kolchis called kriou eunai “place (abode) of the ram” or “house of the ram” (see LSJ s.v. eune_). This was the place “where it [the ram] first bent its wearied knees in rest, bearing on its back the Minyan son of Athamas [Phrixos]” (Ap.R. 4.117-18; Seaton 1912). I would identify Kolchis’ “house of the ram” with Sparta’s karneios oiketas (Pa. 3.13.3) and even with the Hittite “house of fleeces” (see Part II). Thus it is possible to conclude that Pindar brilliantly used syneunasthen to draw his audience through the meanings of sexual activity and rest after strenuous activity to the central role of fleece in the Lemnian ago_n.

Pindar was not alone in spicing the Argonaut myth with sexual innuendoes. A fragment of Aeschylus’ Hypsipyle reveals that the Lemnian women required the Argonauts by “oath” to have “intercourse” (syggenesthai/syngenesthaiwith them.21 It is taken as a given by contemporary scholarship that the “intercourse” demanded by the Lemnian women was of a sexual rather than, say, of a commercial nature. However, Aeschylus’ insistence on the term “oath” provides the necessary tool for his ancient audience (and for us) to discriminate among the alternative modes of “intercourse”. Obviously the Argonauts and Lemnian women were in a face-to-face relationship and therefore had no need of promises to deliver sexual favors — either the Argonauts would partake of sex with the Lemniads or they wouldn’t. As in the economist’s “spot market”, the quid-pro-quo would be immediate and explicit. Promises are meaningful instruments of personal interaction only in the case of intertemporal relationships such, as are commonplace in commercial intercourse. More concretely, given slow communications and limited public enforcement of contracts, especially in international transactions, business persons in antiquity very much relied on promises witnessed by gods that were, by reason of this witness, largely self-enforcing (Silver 1995: 10-18).22 These promises were and still are called “oaths”. Beneath the good joke, Aeschylus is telling us that Argonauts and Lemniads entered into some sort of relatively long-term relationship, possibly of a commercial nature.23

To digress only slightly, a parallel sexual innuendo may be found in Xenophon’s report that the queen of Cilicia gave Cyrus of Persia a large sum of money, which he used to pay his troops. Xenophon’s next sentence is the following: “The Cilician queen was attended by a body guard of Cilicians and Aspendians; and people said that Cyrus had intimate relations [syggenesthai] with the queen” (An. 1.2.11-12; Brownson 1932). And what people said is true! The “intercourse” consists of a loan! Again, Strabo (11.5.4) says that Alexander had “intercourse for the sake of (making) offspring” (syggenesthai teknopoiias) with Thalestria, queen of the Amazons (H.L. Jones 1932). This report, we may be sure, does not refer to an ancient exercise in eugenics. Note the meanings of poieo_ “make, produce, manufacture, conceive, conceive children, procure for oneself, gain, get (money) (LSJ s.v.) Strabo’s “history” is really a play on borrowing at interest, for which intercourse for the purpose of making children is not only an apt metaphor, but also an well-attested one. It should suffice to mention Greek tokos “childbirth, parturition (of women), offspring (of men and animals), (metaphor) produce of money (lent) hence interest, interest” (LSJ s.v.; cf. Silver 1992: 218-21). I believe that the ancient Greek writers would be amazed that twentieth century scholarship is inclined to take such stories literally.

I would suggest that the Lemniads required the Argonauts to swear to return to them on Lemnos with a portion of the gold they would (later on) earn at Kolchis as their payment for dyeing the Argo’s cargo of fleeces (and/or making them into garments). This dry and even “trifling” interpretation of the “intercourse” offers the opportunity to resolve an apparent contradiction between different versions of the myth. In Myrsilos of Lesbos (cited by Burkert 1970: 7) and in Pindar (P. 4.250-51), the Argonauts came to Lemnos on the return voyage from Kolchis instead of on the way to Kolchis as in Apollonius Rhodius and Apollodorus. My analysis of the myth’s underlying meaning calls for the Argonauts to land twice at Lemnos: first on the way to Kolchis to have their fleeces finished; and second on the return voyage to settle accounts with the Lemniads. Both of the above versions would then be accurate but telescoped, possibly in the interest of variety or moving the action along.

Consistently with the thrust of this argument, Diodorus Sicilus (4.49.1-3) has the Argonauts, on their return journey from Kolchis, landing at the mouth of the Pontos to set up altars at the site of Byzantium and then sailing through the Propontis and Hellespont to the Troad. Then they “set forth from the Troad and arrived at Samothrace, an island northeast of Lemnos, where they again paid their vows to the great gods and dedicated in the sacred precincts the bowls which are preserved there even to this day” (D.S 4.49.3; Oldfather 1933; emphasis added). Note that the Kabeiroi, arguably representing a corporation of artisan-traders, had cults on Lemnos and the island of Samothrace. Apollonius Rhodius (1.913ff) has the Argonauts voyage from Lemnos to Samothrace to be initiated into the mysteries of the Kabeiroi prior to sailing on to Kolchis. Herodotus (2.51) claims that these mysteries were first introduced by the “Pelasgians” (see II.D). Interestingly, in historical times the initiated received a purple scarf to protect them on their travels (Lehmann 1960: 29).24

Consider further that Apollonius Rhodius (4.302) has the Argonauts set a complicated return course to avoid interception by the pursuing Kolchians. This course took them to the island of the Phaeacians, where Alkinoos ruled (see, for example, 4.769, 990-92, 113ff, 120ff). We are further informed that this island once was called Makridie_s (or Makris?) and now is called Drepane_ (“sickle”) (Ap.R. 4.990, 1175; 4.540). Homer (Od. 5.34-35; 6.1-12) calls the land (island?25) of Alkinoos and the Phaeacians “Scheria”. In Homer’s Scheria the women are concerned with weaving purple-dyed cloth: “The queen was sitting by the fireside with her attendant women, turning sea-purple yarn on a distaff” (Od. 6.53; cf. 6.305ff; Lattimore 1965). For their part, the men were expert mariners and navigators (Od. 6.255-73): In the Phaeacian palace

are fifty serving women and of these… there are those who weave the webs and who turn the distaffs, sitting restless as leaves of the tall black poplar, and from the cloths where it is sieved oozes limpid olive oil. As much as the Phaiakian men are expert beyond all others for driving a fast ship on the open sea, so their women are skilled in weaving and dowered with wisdom bestowed by Athene, to be expert in beautiful work… (7.103-11; Lattimore 1965)

Homer (Od. 6.1-10) explains that at one time the Phaeacians lived in “Hyperia next to the Kyklopes who were men too overbearing. … From here godlike Nasithoos had removed them and led a migration and settled in Scheria” (Lattimore 1965). It occurs to me that Homer’s Scheria whose women remained at home weaving purple while the men sailed away and Lemnos with its all-female society might be one and the same place.26 In support of this suggested identification, note Fraser’s (1929: 170) remark that

All readers of the Odyssey have been struck with the prominence given to the Phaeacian women. They possess, as one writer put it, something in the way of a monopoly of the brains on the island.

This observation would take on even greater significance if, as I suspect, Pindar’s (P. 4.252) androphono_n “man-killing” Lemnian women is a play on or originally read androphro_n or androphrono_n “man-minded, having men’s prudence” Lemnian women (LSJ s.vv. androphonos, androphro_n, phroneo_ IV) Another point of resemblance is that the uncertainty concerning the name of the land of the Phaeacians is paralleled by uncertainty concerning the origin of the Lemnians, who “were called Tyrsenoi by the Greeks and thus identified with the Etruscans, or alternatively with the [pre-Greek] Pelasgians …” (Burkert 1985: 281). Finally, Odysseus was given generous gifts at Scheria including numerous fine cloaks and a large quantity of gold (Od. 5.38-40, 8.390-3).

To close this discussion of a possible second call of the Argo at Lemnos for the purpose of settling accounts, let us take note of one more thing. Apollonius Rhodius (4.1141-42) says that “the [Argonauts and Phaeacians] spread a mighty couch; and thereon they laid [estoresan] the glittering fleece of gold” (Seaton 1912). The explanation for this display (of gold, I submit) is unconvincing: “So the marriage (of Jason and Medea) might be honored and the theme of songs” (Ap.R. 4.1142-43; Seaton 1912). I propose that Apollonius Rhodius changed the name of the island from Lemnos to Drepane_ (Scheria) and had the Argonauts spread out the gold earned at Kolchis for distribution among the cooperating parties, Argonauts and Lemnian women.


Morris Silver

Economics Department

City College of New York



18That the Lemniads murdered their men is stated by Hdt. (6.138); Ap.R. (1.610ff); and Ap. (1.9.17; 3.6.4).

19Graves (1960: 2.227) suggests that “Perhaps the Lemnian women were said to have stunk because they worked in woad–used by their Thracian neighbors for tattooing–which was so nauseous and lingering a smell that Norfolk woad-making families have always been obliged to intermarry.” Forsyth (1984: 14) surmises that “the foul smell connected not only with the Lemnian women but also with the wound of Philoctetes may be tied to the presence of sofataras once on the island.”

20For the abandonment on Lemnos, see Hom. (Il. 2.721ff); and S. (Ph. 1-14). The “foul smell” was noted by S. (Ph. 1031-34) and in various later sources cited by Grimal (1986: s.v. Philoctetes) and Kerényi (1959: n. 369: 410). Graves (1960: 2. index s.v.) renders Philoktetes as “love of possessions”.

21Radt (1985: 352) and Burkert 1970: 9) and personal correspondence from Burkert, dated July 26, 1987). For the various nuances of “intercourse,” see LSJ s.v. syggignomai/syngignomai.

22Indeed, the Latin word religio_ refers to the property of binding (Culham 1989: 119; OLD s.v.).

23Note that Pindar (e.g., N. 4.75) uses syntithe_mi “place or put together” with the meaning of binding oneself to a contract (Gold 1987: n. 69, 190; LSJ s.v. B.3).

24The Kabeiroi were associated with navigation and the artisan-god Hephaestus (Burkert 1985: 281-86; Grimal (1985: s.v. Cabiri).

25Most scholars believe that Scheria is an island, although Homer never applies the term ne_sos. It has been observed, however, that “the Homeric island is always one which can be seem at a glance to be such” (Shewan 1918: 324, citing Hayman). An island of large size is a gaia as in the case of Crete, which is never called ne_sos. In (Il. 6.204-5) Homer we find the residents of Scheria “live far apart … in the wash of the great sea” (Lattimore 1965). The reference to being “in the sea” sounds like an island, although P.V. Jones (1988: 56) says, “the description at 263-4, describing harbours on either side of a narrow causeway, suggests the town as a peninsula.

26We do have some concrete geographical information regarding the location of the supposed “never-never land” Scheria. The Scheria’s ruler considers that the island of Euboea, along the coasts of Attica, Boeotia, Locris, and southern Thessaly, is very far from Scheria (Od. 320-24). 26There is yet one more geographic name to take into account, In classical times Phaeacia was identified with Korcyra/Kercyra (current Corfu). This island which was rich in wine and oil but mainly important as a jumping-off place for voyages up the Adriatic or across to Italy was occupied by Corinth’s ruling oligarchy, the Bacchiads, in c. 733 BCE (see Cary 1949: 59-60). The difficulties of the account of Apollonius Rhodius (4.1206-16) which has Kolchians settling on Phaeacia or Korcyra (Corfu) are intensified by the fact hat Homer hints that his Scheria is located not to the west of Greece but to its east (see Fraser 1929: 160-63).



An. Anabasis of Xenophon

Ap.: Apollodorus

Ap.R.: Apollonius Rhodius

D.S.: Diodorus Siculus

Hdt.: Herodotus

Hes.: Hesiod

Hom.: Homer

Il.: Iliad of Homer

LSJ.: Liddell-Scott-Jones, Greek-English Lexicon

Med.: Medea of Euripides

N.: Nemean Ode of Pindar

NH.: Natural History of Pliny O.: Olympian Ode of Pindar

OCCC.: Hornblower and Spawforth, The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature Od.: Odyssey of Homer

OLD: P.G.W. Glare, Oxford Latin Dictionary

P.: Pythian Ode of Pindar

Pa.: Pausanias

Pi.: Pindar

Pr.: Prometheus Bound of Aeschylus

S.: Sophocles

Str.: Strabo

Th.: Theogony of Hesiod


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