The Man with One Sandal

The legend of Jason and the Argonauts contains a number of elements that suggest it may preserve information about early beliefs, rituals and social organisation. Quite possibly some aspects of the story date back to the Bronze Age, to Mycenaean Greece and Minoan Crete. One such element relates to the Oracle at Dodona and its Doves, which I have discussed earlier. There is also the generally egalitarian feeling of the story, with all the members of the Argo’s crew being important to the success of the voyage. The crew even included a woman, Atalanta the huntress.

Another point of interest is the relationship between Jason and Hera. Unlike most Greek Heroes Jason is not usually claimed to be the son of a God. He father was Aeson, a King of Iolcus in Thessaly, whose throne had been usurped by his half-brother. The name of Jason’s mother, however, is variously given as Perimede (‘very cunning’), Alcimede (‘mighty cunning’), Polymede (‘many cunnings’) , Polypheme (‘famous’), Amphinome (‘grazing all about’), Polymele (‘many songs’) Scarphe (‘black hellebore’) or Arne (‘ewe-lamb’). Many of these names sound like epithets or titles of the Mother Goddess and, while that doesn’t prevent them also being personal names, their very multiplicity suggests to me a cover up. In the original story was Jason considered a son or foster-son of the Mother Goddess, Hera herself?

Jason carries Hera across the river Public Domain Image

Jason carries Hera across the river
Public Domain Image

The myth certainly, and unusually, shows Jason as favoured by Hera. He is smuggled out of the palace at Iolcus as a child, for fear of his wicked uncle, and raised by the centaur Cheiron. He returns home as a young man to reclaim his birthright but on the way has to ford a river. An old woman waits on the bank, begging to be helped across, but is ignored by all the travellers until Jason arrives. He courteously offers to carry the crone across on his back and, arriving the other side, she reveals that she is the Goddess Hera in disguise and blesses him and promises him good fortune. However in crossing the river Jason has lost a sandal and so limps on to Iolcus wearing only one.

When his uncle Pelias sees Jason arrive he is struck with horror because of an oracle which had told him to ‘beware of the man with one sandal‘. However he hides his concern and, when Jason reveals his identity and claims the throne as the son of Aeson, pretends to be quite willing to retire in his old age and let Jason rule the kingdom. Provided, that is, that Jason proves his worthiness by fetching the Golden Fleece from the land of Colchis.

Now the detail of the man with one sandal seems a small thing to hang a story on. People must have lost sandals all the time, but surely most of them would have walked barefoot rather than wear just one? It begins to gain more significance however when we remember that the priestesses of Dodona were never permitted to to wear sandals. It was considered necessary to their powers that their feet remain in contact with Mother Earth at all times. By wearing one sandal was Jason both affirming a connection with Dodona and invoking the aid of Hera as Mother Earth?

Thus if, as I suggested before, the Oracle at Dodona was connected with a religious guild or cult of sea-farers, the secret sign by which one claimed access to the information network or aid  from other members, may well have been the wearing of one sandal. The comparison with the Freemasons and the rolled-up trouser leg is obvious. I would even suggest that the initiation into the guild may have involved a ceremonial ‘fording of the river with Hera’.

In other words the original story may have gone something like this.

“Pelias of Iolcus, was an enemy of Jason’s, but Jason had forded the river with Hera and was a initiate of the Sea-farer’s cult. Thus he was able to show the Sign of One Sandal and claim the protection of Hera and the Oracle of Dodona. Pelias was therefore obliged to aid him in preparing for his voyage to fetch the Golden Fleece.”

The Jealousy of Hera

“Unfortunately, Zeus was feeling horny…”

That, it has been claimed, is all of Greek Mythology in a nutshell.

(Many thanks to digger666 for bringing the phrase to my attention. He reckons it is now a internet meme, but if anyone knows an original author, let me know and I will be happy to credit them.)

I first got interested in Greek Mythology as a child, by way of Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tales of Greek Heroes. He explained that the many tales of Zeus fathering gods and heroes on different wives arose as the Greeks attempted to integrate all the different cults of the Greek world into one coherent narrative. Indeed we know that this work was done, or at any rate given its greatest expression, by one particular poet, Hesiod.

Hesiod composed his Theogony, ‘the geneology of the Gods’ around 700 B.C.E. This was also the period in which the Iliad was composed and when the Greeks emerged from the obscurity that followed the Bronze Age Collapse, to once again play a role in the wider Mediterranean world. The poetry of this period gave the Greeks their sense of cultural identity and a narrative that influenced many other peoples of the Mediterranean.

By this period also they were firmly in the Iron Age, with a mature technology of agriculture and crafts. Therefore, to discover the ‘magic that works’, the technological aspects of the cults in Greek religion, we need to look at the oldest stories, in their oldest versions. One possible  way to identify the oldest elements is to look at the role of Hera, The Greeks of Hesiod’s time were thoroughly patriarchal, both in the sense of reckoning descent through the father’s line and in valuing the male over female. They cast Hera in the likeness of their own wives, as a wronged woman, insulted by her husband’s dalliance with others, jealous and nagging.

Yet there is evidence that this was not always the way Hera was understood, that at one time the Queen of Heaven was more accepting of the God-born heroes. This seems to hark back to an earlier time when the Goddess, and possibly mortal women, were more powerful and prominent. We see elements of this in the conflicting stories of Hera and Herakles. Herakles may have been considered a son of Zeus, yet his very name means ‘glory of Hera’, surely evidence for the importance of the Goddess when the stories arose.

The infant Herakles strangles a snake Public Domain Image

The infant Herakles strangles a snake
                                Public Domain Image

Hera is said to have been so outraged by the birth of Herakles that she sent twin snakes to kill him in his cradle, snakes that Herakles himself managed to strangle when he was only eight months old.  Yet there is also the story that Hera was tricked by Athene into suckling the infant Herakles whom she found apparently abandoned by the wayside. Herakles was said to have suckled so hard that a jet of milk from the Goddess’s ever bountiful breasts spurted across the sky – just one of the stories of the origin of the Milky Way.

Despite this pseudo-adoption however, Hera’s feud with  Herakles continued. It was Hera who drove him mad so that he killed his children. Hera who created the obligation to perform his Labours, As the tale is usually told, the feud only ended with the apotheosis of Herakles. When all his mortal parts burned away on the funeral pyre he ascended to Mt. Olympus and welcomed by all the Gods and Goddesses. He was and given Hera’s own daughter, Hebe, as a wife.

The Etruscans were deeply influenced by the Greek myths and recognised a correspondence between their native Gods and Goddesses and those of Greece. They also, however, preserved many variations and traditions of their own. The illustration below was inscribed on the back of an Etruscan mirror. It shows the Uni, their name for Hera/Juno, suckling the adult Herakles and seems to signify a much more nurturing relationship, a true foster-motherhood.

Uni suckles Hercules Illustration on an Etruscan mirror from Volterra Public Domain Image

Uni/Hera suckles Hercules /Herakles                            Illustration on an Etruscan mirror from Volterra
                                                Public Domain Image

Do we see in this picture evidence that once, perhaps throughout the Mediterranean and the Near East, the Great Mother Goddess was believed to have a very different relationship with mortal Heroes?

We have texts from Ugarit that recount myths of the Canaanite/Phoenician people. They tell how the father god El meets two Goddesses by the sea. After inviting them to share a roasted fowl he asks if they will choose to be his wives or his daughters. This suggest to me that the Phoenicians had a far more fluid, metaphorical understanding of the relationships  of the Gods and Goddesses than the literal-minded Greeks. One of the Goddesses in the the story is Athirat, the mother goddess of the Ugaritic pantheon, the other may be named Rahmaya. Both choose to be El’s wives. The story continues that Athirat goes on to have seventy children, to whom she is said to be both mother and nursemaid.

In this view of the cosmos, mortal heroes could be seen as engendered by the Father God, as he engenders all things but also as raised up, nurtured and suckled by the Mother Goddess. Such mortal heroes would be recognised by their achievements, whether in defeating enemies and monsters, founding peoples or in discovering new crops, technologies or ‘magics that worked’. In a very meaningful sense such favoured individuals would have been seen as the beloved foster children of the Gods and Goddesses.

The Doves of Dodona

Dodona, in the mountains of central Greece is the site of an Oracle, even more ancient and venerable than that at Delphi. According to myth it was established by a priestess from Egypt who was brought. perhaps by Phoenician slavers, to the oak grove of Dodona. In classical times the oracle was held to be sacred to ‘Zeus and Mother Dion’. Dion was sometimes said to be the mother, by Zeus, of Aphrodite. The name, however, simply means Goddess and it is clear that the association with the Mother Goddess is the most ancient. The oracular priestesses at Dodona were themselves known as ‘the Doves’ and were said to interpret the cooing of the doves in the branches of the sacred oak.

The Theatre at Dodona with view of Mount Tomaros Onno Zweers CC by 3,0

The Theatre at Dodona with view of Mount Tomaros
Onno Zweers CC by 3,0


Looking for the “magic that works” here I conclude that the sacred doves were in fact homing pigeons, capable of carrying messages from a distance to keep the Oracle mysteriously well-informed. Good information allows a much better quality of educated guesswork in a prediction. The origins of homing pigeons are somewhat obscure, but it has been suggested that they were first used in Ancient Egypt. Religious sites would be likely places for discovering, as well as breeding to improve, the innate homing tendency of pigeons. They would have often bred pigeons as convenient and cheap, sacrificial livestock. You have only to read Leviticus to see how often a ‘dove’ was considered an appropriate sacrifice in the ancient Near East.

A cross-confirmation of this idea may come from the story of Jason and the Argonauts. The prow of the ship Argo, in which Jason sailed, was said to be carved from a branch of sacred oak from Dodona and hence be able to prophecy and give advice to the Argonauts. This seems to suggest that the Argonauts had access to on-going information.  In addition, the list of the crew members of the Argo  contains two “the Sons of the North Wind”who are  said to be able to “understand the language of birds”. This seems an unusually peaceable attribute for  Greek heroes and, moreover, one that is never made use of in the extant stories of the Argonauts’ adventures. Does it perhaps preserve a memory of  interpreting the messages sent through homing pigeons?

Jason boarding the Argo with Zetes and Calais, the sons of the North Wind Public Domain Image

Jason boarding the Argo with Zetes and Calais, the sons of the North Wind
Public Domain Image

Of course, it would be impossible for pigeons to home to a moving target like a ship, For this interpretation to work we have to assume the Argonauts were, in fact, accessing information from a network of shore-based cult sites, communicating by homing pigeon. We need not suppose that the messages sent were necessarily in writing. Simple codes, perhaps involving coloured threads tied to a birds leg, or even the arrival of a bird from a particular place or group could convey useful information.

Take for example the myth of the Clashing Rocks. This relates that. in sailing into the Black Sea, the Argo was in danger from the Clashing Rocks which are found by the headlands, on either side of the narrows of the Bosphorus. These Rocks could move and would dash out from shore, crushing ships between them. The Argonauts, following the advice from the prophetic prow, evaded this hazard by releasing a bird which flew between the rocks and aroused their malevolence, causing them to dash out in an attempt to crush it. The rocks only succeeded in trapping a few tail feathers of the bird and were then inevitably drawn back to shore.  The Argo was able to sail on, in the track of the bird, before the Rocks were ready to clash again.

Other commentators have supposed that the Clashing Rocks represent icebergs which appear in the Black Sea in spring, following the break-up of ice on the Russian rivers. These sometimes get as far as the Bosphorus, where the narrowness of the passage makes them especially hazardous to shipping. Nobody appears to account for the presence of the bird in the story. But ” the Bosphorus is now clear of ice” is exactly the sort of message that could usefully be conveyed by homing pigeon, from a site overlooking the Bosphorus to a site further down the coast. All that is required would be for the Bosphorus site to collect a pigeon from the lower site when the ice started arriving, with the agreement that they would release it to return home when the passage was clear.

It is generally agreed that while the story of the Argonauts focuses on a journey from Greece to the far end of the Black Sea it also contains elements from many other voyages around the Mediterranean. Indeed, it may be possible that the entire cycle of stories that became the myth, originated as sailing directions that emphasised the benefits of being a member or initiate of the cult of Dodona and thus gaining access to their information network.