The Smelliest Women of Ancient Greece: Jason and the Argonauts Get Fragrant

The Smelliest Women of Ancient Greece: Jason and the Argonauts Get Fragrant

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We all know Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love and beauty, made sure that she was worshipped by punishing those who ignored her altars. One brief appearance of this wrath in the tale of Jason and the Argonauts turned into a particularly fragrant episode.

The Ladies of Lemnos

Jason and company were sailing on the Argo when they washed up on the shores of the Greek island of Lemnos at a time when that isle was in the grip of a harrowing problem. Aphrodite had decided to curse the women of Lemnos for neglecting her shrines. In punishment, the ladies were made to smell particularly foul. As a result, the men of Lemnos decided to repudiate their wives in favor of pretty and relatively odor-free slave-girls imported from Thrace. In revenge, the Lemnian women wrought havoc, killing every man they could get their hands on—not only those who’d broken their vows, but any and every male, presumably children too.

Portrait of Hypsipylé, first wife of Jason, from Octavien de Saint-Gelais

Portrait of Hypsipylé, first wife of Jason, from Octavien de Saint-Gelais ( Public Domain )

The only woman to flout this convention was the queen of Lemnos, Hypsipyle, who felt bad for her old father, King Thoas. She entombed him in a hollow chest and set him out to sea, sort of like a reverse Moses, so he could hopefully wash up to safety somewhere else. In the meantime, the Lemnian women became farmers and warriors, assuming men’s traditional roles, but cast a wary eye on the sea in case the people of Thrace sailed over to avenge their captured women.

Hypsipyle saves her father Thoas by Français

Hypsipyle saves her father Thoas by Français  ( Public Domain )

The Heroes Arrive

Instead of the feared Thracians’ arrival, the Argo docked, and Hypsipyle met the Greek heroes on the beach. To make sure the newcomers didn’t suddenly decide to attack, she proposed inviting them to a feast. At one point, Hypsipyle’s wise old nanny advised that the Lemnian women, in case the Thracians did eventually decide to pursue vengeance, get themselves some new warriors on the island—the Argonauts! These proven soldiers could father their future children and keep the people of Lemnos safe.

When Hypsipyle had to explain why every lady on Lemnos was single, she lied that the Lemnian women forced their guys out once they took up with the Thracians. Jason was quite taken with Hypsipyle, and Aphrodite made him fall for her pretty hard; soon, they were shacking up together. Within time, every man on the Argo but Heracles had found a lady love on Lemnos, and their journey—to recover the Golden Fleece—was ever-more delayed. They kept finding reasons to avoid sailing on and leaving their new paramours behind...

Jason and the Argonauts by Lorenzo Costa

Jason and the Argonauts by Lorenzo Costa ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

More Divine Intervention

That is, until finally Heracles got up the courage to yell at them. He was the only Argonaut who had not got caught up in the lovefest on Lemnos, as he had remained on the Argo lamenting the loss of his adopted son, Hylas. Heracles exclaimed scornfully that they wouldn’t win glory by bedding strange women and the gods wouldn’t drop the fleece, object of their quests, in their laps. Jason and his cohort were thus shamed into leaving. Hypsipyle started crying, but said Jason could come back to her once he got the Golden Fleece if he so desired. If he never returned and she discovered she was pregnant in the meantime, she requested that he tell her what to do with the baby. Jason replied that, if she was pregnant and the baby was a boy, to send the child to his hometown of Iolcus, so that the offspring could care for Jason’s parents, if they were still alive.

Ovid’s Letters

In Ovid’s Heroides—reconstructed love letters from the women of mythology to the men who’d done them wrong—Hypsipyle remonstrated with Jason for never returning to her. Why, she asked, did she have to hear of his exploits through the grapevine rather than from Jason himself? And Jason had slept with Medea, a “barbarian poisoner,” rather than marry Hypsipyle, a good Greek girl? Hypsipyle cried, “Alas! where is the faith that was promised me? Where the bonds of wedlock, and the marriage torch, more fit to set ablaze my funeral pile?” She declared herself better than Medea, who had abandoned her family; in fact, Hypsipyle had saved her own dad. After all, Jason had stayed with her for two whole summers; she had welcomed him into her home and into her heart and bed; and that was all she got? He told her he’d come back eventually…but he never delivered.

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