Connections: merimna, the Argo, Jason, and More
Classical Inquiries has published an article by Gregory Nagy asking, “What is on Homer’s mind?” In that posting, Nagy argues that “all humans have on their minds both the ship Argo and the hero Odysseus.” A key word for Nagy’s argument is merimna, which he defines as a ‘care, concern, a troubled thought’, or even ‘a song that is on one’s mind’.
We are happy to share a curated selection of passages designed to help readers make new connections while exploring these and related themes in greater detail.
Bacchylides 19, Io for the Athenians
There are countless [muria] paths [keleuthos] of divine song for one who has received gifts from the Pierian Muses,  and upon whose songs the violet-eyed maidens, the garland-bearing Graces, cast honor. Now, much-praised Cean ingenuity [merimna], weave something new, in lovely,  prosperous Athens. It is fitting for you to travel the greatest road, since you have received an outstanding honor from Calliope.  … when the golden heifer, the rose-fingered daughter of Inachus, left Argos, land of horses, by the counsels of widely powerful, greatest Zeus? When Argus,  who could see all around with untiring eyes, was bidden by golden-robed Hera, the greatest queen, to guard the lovely-horned heifer, unresting and unsleeping;  and the son of Maia could not evade him, neither by shining day nor by sacred night. Did it then happen that …  the swift-footed messenger <of Zeus> then killed <the son of Earth> with mighty offspring … Argus? Or was it that … unutterable [aspetoi, better translation = ceaseless] cares [merimna]?  Or did the Pierian Muses bring about … rest from troubles … ? For me, the most secure [asphalēs] <path?> is the one which … when she arrived at the flowery banks  of the Nile, <gadfly-driven> Io, bearing the child … Epaphus. There <she bore him?> … ruler over linen-robed … teeming with majestic …  and greatest … mortal … from this race Cadmus, son of Agenor, begat Semele in seven-gated Thebes, and she bore the rouser of Bacchants,  Dionysus, the … and <lord of> garland-<bearing> choruses.
Bacchylides 19, Io for the Athenians. (trans. Diane Arnson Svarlien, text via Perseus)
and she [= Hera] set upon her [= Io] as a guard Argus, strong and great, who watched with four eyes, on this side and on that, and the goddess gave him tireless [akamaton] strength [menos], nor did sleep fall upon his eyes, and he kept watch steadfast [empedon] forever
Hesiod Fragment 230 (trans. Glenn W. Most)
On the cares of a mother
(the mother of Eteocles and Polyneikes responds to a prophecy made by Teiresias)
do not pile cruel cares [merimnas] upon our present griefs,
do not reveal to me a future
filled with heavy dread!
After all, the gods do not make strife [neikos]
a fixed and changeless thing [empedon] for men
upon this sacred earth,
nor is friendship [philotēs] firm, for gods set
men’s minds [noos] but for a single day.
Your prophecies, my lord, may Apollo of wide deeds
not fulfill in their entirety!
Stesichorus, fragment from the Lille Papyrus, lines 201–210, (trans. Anne Burnett based upon the text of Peter Parsons)
On the death of Eteokles and Polyneikes as a merimna for the city
(spoken by the chorus)
O black, fulfilled curse of the family and of Oedipus! A terrible chill descends about my heart. In maenad-like frenzy I fashion a song for their tomb, having heard about these blood-dripping corpses that die so wretchedly: truly ill-omened was this spear-duet!
It took full effect, it did not fail, the father’s cursing word; the disobedient decision of Laius has been a lasting force. There is lamentation [merimna] throughout the city: oracles do not lose their edge. O much-mourned pair, this thing you have done is <atrocious>! Sufferings have come that cannot be talked about, only bewailed.
Aeschylus, Seven Against Thebes 832–847 (trans. Alan H. Sommerstein)
On the Argo
As for the ship [= the Argo], the songs of former bards still tell how Argus built it according to Athena’s instructions. But now I wish to relate the lineage and names of the heroes, their journeys on the vast sea, and all they did as they wandered; and may the Muses be inspirers of my song.
Apollonius Rhodes, Argonautica, 1.18–22, (trans. William H. Race)
On the creation and decoration of the Argo
There she [= Juno] sees all astir with the throng of men, and at the same moment the forest felled on every side and the shores ringing with the deft blows of the axe; already Thespian Argus is cleaving pines with the thin saw, and lo! the side is being made and the planks are being softened into pliancy over a slow flame; the oars are ready, and Pallas is seeking a yard for the sail-bearing mast. When the ship stood firm in its huge bulk, proof against long tracts of sea, and when fine wax had filled the lurking holes, Argus adds paintings of varied grace. On one side Thetis, whom a god had hoped to win, is being borne upon the back of a Tyrrhene fish to the bridal chamber of Peleus; the dolphin is speeding over the sea; she herself is sitting with her veil drawn down over her eyes, and is sorrowing that Achilles shall not be born greater than Jupiter. Panope and her sister Doto and Galatea with bare shoulders, revelling in the waves, escort her toward the caverns; Cyclops from the Sicilian shore calls Galatea back. Opposite to this is a fire and a bed of green leaves, a banquet and wines, and in the midst of the sea-gods the son of Aeacus with his wife; they have drunk, and now Chiron is touching the lyre. On the other side is Pholoe and Rhoetus mad with much wine, and the strife that broke out over the Atracian maid. Bowls and tables are flying, altars of the gods and cups, the marvellous work of ancient craftsmen. Here may one recognise Peleus, lord of the spear, and here Aeson raging with his sword. Monychus is toiling beneath the weight of his conqueror Nestor, mounted on his unwilling back; Clanis is dealing death to Actor with a blazing oak tree; Nessus the black centaur is fleeing, and in the midst of all Hippasus leaning against the coverlets is burying his head in an empty golden goblet.
Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica, 1.121–148 (trans. J. H. Mozley)
What is on the mind of the Argo?
Soon, when their eyelids had sunk overcome with deep sleep, the shining guardian [= the prophetic Dodonian oak that was built into the Argo] of the wreath-bound vessel seemed to exhort the leader with these words: “An oak from Dodona, the servant of Chaonian Jupiter, thou seest here. With thee I launch upon the ocean, and the Saturnian goddess could not have torn me from the prophetic woods had not heaven been promised to me. The hour is at hand; up, an end to delay! and even though while we roam over all the ocean the uncertain sky be veiled in cloud, trust even now in heaven and in me, and banish your fears.” She ceased. He in fear, favourable though the omen from heaven was, sprang from his couch. Straightway Tithonus’ bounteous wife, ruffling the sea with the new-born sunlight, brought all the Minyae before him. They hasten to and fro on the decks; these make ready the yard on the high mast, others try the oars for the first time on the glassy surface, Argus from the lofty prow draws in the cable.
Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica, 1.300–314 (trans. J. H. Mozley)
The mind and cares of Odysseus
 That man, tell me O Muse the song of that man, that versatile [polu-tropos] man, who in very many ways 2 veered from his path and wandered off far and wide, after he had destroyed the sacred citadel of Troy. 3 Many different cities of many different people did he see, getting to know different ways of thinking [noos]. 4 Many were the pains [algea] he suffered in his heart [thūmos] while crossing the sea
 struggling to merit [arnusthai] the saving of his own life [psūkhē] and his own homecoming [nostos] as well as the homecoming of his comrades [hetairoi]. 6 But do what he might he could not save his comrades [hetairoi], even though he very much wanted to.
Odyssey 1.1–6 (trans. Gregory Nagy)
‘Mother,’ said I [= Odysseus],  ‘I was forced to come here to consult the spirit [psūkhē] of the Theban prophet Teiresias. I have never yet been near the Achaean land nor set foot on my native country, and I have had nothing but one long series of misfortunes from the very first day that I set out with Agamemnon for Ilion, the land of noble steeds, to fight the Trojans.
 But tell me, and tell me true, in what way did you die? Did you have a long illness, or did the gods grant you a gentle easy passage to eternity? Tell me also about my father, and the son whom I left behind me; is  my property still in their hands, or has some one else got hold of it, who thinks that I shall not return to claim it? Tell me again what my wife intends doing, and in what mind [noos] she is; does she live with my son and guard my estate securely [empeda], or has she made the best match she could and married again?’
Odyssey 11.164–179 (trans. Butler, revised by Gregory Nagy)
On the Mind of Jason
Tiphys was the first to begin speaking:
“I believe that it is thanks to the ship itself that we safely [empedon] made this escape, but no one is as responsible as Athena, who breathed divine strength [menos] into it when Argus fastened it with pegs; and it is not right for it to be destroyed. Jason, for your part, no longer be so fearful of your king’s command, now that a god has allowed us to escape through the rocks, since Agenor’s son Phineus said that afterwards our tasks would be easily accomplished.”
He said this as he was speeding the ship forward along the Bithynian coast through the open water. But Jason addressed him with gentle words in reply:
“Tiphys, why are you saying these consoling words to me in my distress? I made a mistake and committed a terrible and irreversible error. For when Pelias gave his order, I should have immediately refused this expedition outright, even if I was bound to die, cruelly torn limb from limb. But now I am given over to excessive fear and unbearable worries, dreading to sail over the chilling paths of the sea in a ship, and dreading the time when we set foot on land, for everywhere are hostile men. And always, day after day, ever since you first gathered together for my sake, I spend the dreary night thinking about every detail. You speak easily, since you are concerned with your own life [psūkhē] alone, whereas I am not in the slightest distraught about mine, but fear for this man and that man, and equally for you and the other comrades, if I do not bring you back safe and sound [plural apēmōn] to the land of Hellas.”
Thus he spoke to test the heroes. But they shouted back with words full of courage. His mind within was cheered at their outcry, and this time he addressed them straightforwardly:
“O my friends, thanks to your valor my courage grows. Now, therefore, not even if I should voyage through the chasms of Hades shall I any longer let fear fasten upon me, since you are steadfast [plural empedos] in terrible dangers. No, since we have sailed through the Clashing rocks, I believe that there will never be another such terror in the future, if indeed we follow Phineus’ advice on our journey.”
Apollonius Rhodes, Argonautica, ii 610–647 (trans. William H. Race)
On the mind of Medea
Then and there the outnumbered Minyans would have succumbed in a dreadful battle, but before that they made an agreement and avoided a great quarrel. It stipulated that they would rightfully retain the golden fleece for good [empedon], since Aeetes himself had promised it to them if they completed the contests—whether they acquired it by deception or just took it openly without permission—but that they would entrust Medea, since her case was in dispute, to Leto’s daughter, away from the crew, until some one of the kings with legal authority could judge whether she had to return to her father’s home or accompany the heroes to the land of Hellas.
Now when the girl took stock of all this in her mind, intense pains shook her heart without cease. She immediately summoned Jason alone, apart from his comrades, and led him elsewhere until they were far away, and spoke sorrowful words to his face:
“Jason, what is this pact that you all have devised concerning me? Have your successes driven you to complete forgetfulness? Do you care nothing about all you said when you were constrained by need? Where have your oaths to Zeus, Protector of Suppliants, gone? Where your honey-sweet promises? It was because of these that, contrary to decency and with shameless resolve, I abandoned my country, the glory of my home, and my very parents, the things which were dearest to me, and am borne far away, all alone on the sea with the mournful kingfishers, all because of your troubles, so that through me you could safely complete the contests with the oxen and earthborn men. And then finally, once that became known, it was by my folly that you also got the fleece, while I brought terrible disgrace upon womankind. Therefore, I declare that it is as your daughter, wife, and sister that I am following you to the land of Hellas. Be willing, then, to protect me in every way. Do not leave me all alone and far from you when you go off to the kings, but defend me no matter what. Hold fast [empedos] to justice [dikē] and that moral right to which we both consented. Otherwise, go on and at once run your sword straight through my throat, so that I may receive a fitting reward for my acts of lust. You heartless thing! For if that king to whom the two of you entrust this cruel agreement judges that I belong to my brother, how can I go face my father? A very fine reputation [eukleiēs] I shall have! What punishment or grievous torment shall I not endure in agony for the terrible things I have done, while you would win your longed-for homecoming [nostos] ? May Zeus’ wife, the all-ruling queen in whom you glory, never accomplish that! May you remember me some day when you are wracked by troubles, and may the fleece vanish like a dream into the lower darkness all for naught, and may my Furies immediately drive you from your homeland, given how I myself have suffered by your heartlessness. Moral right will not permit these curses to fall to the ground unfulfilled, for you have forsworn a great oath, pitiless one. But I can assure you that not for long hereafter will you all sit at ease and mock me—for all your agreements.”
Thus she spoke, seething with bitter rage [kholos]. She longed to burn up the ship, to destroy everything completely [empeda panta], and to throw herself into the raging fire.
Apollonius Rhodes, Argonautica, iv 338–393 (trans. William H. Race)
On why Heraclitus is crying?
But you, why do you cry? For I think it is much more becoming to talk with you.
Lucian, Philosophies for Sale, 14
Love and Strife on the Mind of Empedocles
Double is my account: for at one time it grew to be one alone
from many, at another in turn it grew apart to be many from one.
But double is the coming-into-being of mortals, double their passing away;
for the coming together of all things both begets and kills (life),
and as [all things] grow apart again [life] is nurtured, then disappears (lit. flies away).
And, continuously changing, they never cease,
at one time through Love [Philotēs] all of them coming together into one,
at another in turn each carried apart through the hatefulness of Strife [Neikos].
Thus, on the one hand, in that they have learnt to grow into one from many
And that from the one growing apart in turn they spring,
in this (regard) they come into being and their lifespan is not secure [empedos];
on the other hand, in that continuously changing they never cease,
in that (regard) they are forever immobile within the cycle [kuklon].
Empedocles Fragment 17 (trans. Simon Trepanier)