Colchian Prince

Apsyrtus

The Golden Fleece by Herbert James Draper

The Golden Fleece by Herbert James Draper (1904)

Bradford Museums and GalleriesCC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Overview

Apsyrtus was the son of King Aeetes of Colchis and the brother of the witch Medea. He met his end when the Argonauts, led by the hero Jason, came to Colchis to carry away the Golden Fleece. 

After Medea helped Jason and the Argonauts flee Colchis with the fleece, she killed Apsyrtus to distract her father from pursuing them—either by ambushing him on a remote island or by cutting him up into pieces and throwing them into the sea.

Etymology

The etymology of the name “Apsyrtus” (Greek Ἄψυρτος, translit. Ápsyrtos) is unknown. In antiquity, the name was often linked to the Apsyrtides Islands, located just off the Illyrian coast of the Adriatic Sea; it was often said that these islands got their name from the mythical Apsyrtus.[1]

Other etymologies have also been proposed, including one that links Apsyrtus’ name to Abchasia in the Caucasus (the region where the mythical Apsyrtus was said to have come from).[2]

Pronunciation

  • English
    Greek
    ApsyrtusἌψυρτος (Ápsyrtos)
  • Phonetic
    IPA
    [ap-SUR-tuhs]/æpˈsɜr təs/

Alternate Names and Epithets

According to some sources, Aeetes’ son was named Aegialeus[3] or Metapontius[4] rather than Apsyrtus. Roman authors generally agreed with the standard name, Apsyrtus, but spelled it “Absyrtus” in Latin.

Apollonius of Rhodes reported that Apsyrtus was also called Phaethon, “the shining one,” because “he outshone all the youths.”[5]

Attributes

Apsyrtus was the prince and heir apparent of Colchis, a region on the eastern coast of the Black Sea. He lived in the palace of his father, King Aeetes, whose city was called Aea.

Accounts of Apsyrtus’ mythology differed widely in antiquity. According to some traditions, Apsyrtus was still a child when he was killed by Medea and Jason (see below). But in other traditions, Apsyrtus had already grown into a strong young man when the Argonauts came to Colchis.

Apollonius of Rhodes says that Apsyrtus was a warrior and the charioteer of his father Aeetes,[6] while Valerius Flaccus depicts him as a strong fighter who inspired fear when he entered battle against the forces of his father’s enemy, Perses:

Absyrtus, amid the effulgence of his flashing shield and of the chariot of his grandsire the Sun (whose quivering spear and threatening helm the folk could not look on close at hand, but in fear gave ground and turning their backs were stricken, while their loud cries enhance the panic)—he with the impact of galloping steeds lays warriors low, and tramples the groans of the living mass.[7]

Apsyrtus was not a popular subject among ancient artists. In fact, there are no known representations of him in Greek or Roman art.[8]

Family

Apsyrtus’ father was Aeetes, the son of Helios. His mother’s identity is less certain. In one tradition, she was the Oceanid Idyia, said in most sources to have been Aeetes’ wife.[9] But according to Apollonius of Rhodes, Apsyrtus was the son of Asterodia, Aeetes’ previous wife before he married Idyia.[10]

Others said that Apsyrtus’ mother was a Nereid (possibly named Neaera);[11] Hecate (a mortal witch, not the more familiar Underworld goddess);[12] or Hypsea.[13] In another important early source, Aeetes’ wife—and thus possibly Apsyrtus’ mother—was called Eurylyte.[14]

Medea by William Wetmore Story

Medea by William Wetmore Story (1866)

High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA / WmpearlCC0

Apsyrtus had at least two sisters (or half-sisters). In the common tradition, these were Calchiope, who married Phrixus (a prince who arrived in Colchis on the back of a golden ram); and the witch Medea, who ran off with Jason when he came to Colchis for the Golden Fleece.[15] One author added another sister named Circe.[16]

Mythology

Apsyrtus and the Argonauts

In most accounts, Apsyrtus’ only mythical role was as a casualty in Jason’s expedition for the Golden Fleece (though in one source, he also helped his father Aeetes defeat Perses—Aeetes’ brother—when he tried to steal the throne of Colchis).[17]

Jason had been sent by his uncle Pelias to fetch the famous Golden Fleece, which was owned by Aeetes. Jason fitted an impressive ship, assembled a team of heroes (known as the Argonauts), and sailed to Colchis to fulfill his mission.

But Aeetes was unwilling to part with the Golden Fleece. Jason underwent several trials to try and win the fleece from Aeetes, but in the end he ultimately stole it with the help of Aeetes’ daughter Medea, who had fallen in love with him. Jason, Medea, and the Argonauts then fled from Colchis on their ship, the Argo.

Virtually all traditions seem to agree that Apsyrtus was killed at some point during Aeetes’ pursuit of the Argonauts, though there are several different versions of how, when, and where.

In what may have been the earliest version of the myth, Apsyrtus was killed in Aeetes’ palace, before Jason and the Argonauts had even left Colchis. Unfortunately, this version is known only from fragmentary sources, so the details of Apsyrtus’ death are hazy.[18]

In another early version of the myth, Medea abducted her brother Apsyrtus—still a child at the time—as she was escaping from Colchis with the Argonauts. When Aeetes sent his army after the Argo, Medea killed and dismembered the young Apsyrtus. She then threw the pieces of his body into the sea to distract their pursuers. The Colchians stopped to collect the pieces, thus buying the Argonauts time to get away.[19]

The Golden Fleece painting by Herbert James Draper, 1904

The Golden Fleece by Herbert James Draper (1904).

Bradford Museums and GalleriesCC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In yet another account, Apsyrtus was actually the one who led the Colchian army in pursuit of the Argonauts. According to Apollonius of Rhodes, Medea used her cunning to lure him to a remote island near the mouth of the Danube River: she sent him a message saying that she would meet him with the Golden Fleece, and that the two of them would then return to their father in Colchis.

But when Apsyrtus came, Jason—who was lying in ambush near a temple of Artemis—snuck up on him and killed him.[20] A later source, the Roman poet Valerius Flaccus, tells a similar story in which Jason killed Apsyrtus and his men in battle by the mouth of the Danube.[21]

Later sources knew of several other variations on the myth of Apsyrtus’ death. Hyginus, for instance, recounts a version in which the murder did not take place until the end of the Argonauts’ journey, after they had left the island of the Phaeacians. This would mean that Apsyrtus was killed off the coast of Illyria on the Adriatic Sea, not near the mouth of the Danube.[22]

The Tomb of Apsyrtus

Because there were different versions of Apsyrtus’ death, there were also different traditions regarding the location of his tomb. Some said that he was buried in Tomis, a city on the coast of the Black Sea, which supposedly derived its name from the Greek word meaning “to cut” (so named because Medea killed Apsyrtus by cutting him into pieces).[23]

But other authorities (presumably those who thought he died near Illyria) said that Apsyrtus’ body washed ashore on the Apsyrtides Islands, and that his tomb was located there.[24]

References

Notes

  1. E.g., Hyginus, Fabulae 23; Arrian, Periplus 7.

  2. Georges Charachidzé, Prométhée ou le Caucase: Essai de mythologie contrastive (Paris: Flammarion, 1986), 335 n. 3.

  3. Dionysius Scytobrachion, frag. 20 Rusten (from Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History 4.45.3).

  4. Dicaeogenes, Medea frag. 1a Snell.

  5. Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 3.246, trans. R. C. Seaton.

  6. Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 3.242ff.

  7. Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 6.517–23, trans. J. H. Mozley.

  8. Christoph W. Clairmont, “Apsyrtos,” in Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (Zurich: Artemis, 1984), 2:467.

  9. John Tzetzes on Lycophron’s Alexandra 798.

  10. Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 3.241ff.

  11. Sophocles, Scythians frag. 546 Radt. See also Sophocles, Colchian Women frag. 344 Radt.

  12. Dionysius Scytobrachion, frag. 20 Rusten (from Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History 4.45.3).

  13. Vatican Mythographers 1.204.

  14. Naupactia frag. 6 West.

  15. Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 3.248; Apollodorus, Library 1.9.1, 1.9.23; etc.

  16. Dionysius Scytobrachion, frag. 20 Rusten (from Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History 4.45.3).

  17. Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 6.

  18. Sophocles, Colchian Women frag. 343 Radt; Callimachus, frag. 8 Pfeiffer.

  19. Pherecydes, Fragmente der griechischen Historiker (FGrH) 3 frag. 32a; Apollodorus, Library 1.9.24; Ovid, Heroides 6.129–30, 12.113ff.

  20. Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 4.404ff.

  21. Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 8.259ff.

  22. Hyginus, Fabulae 23; see also Strabo, Geography 7.5.5; Pliny the Elder, Natural History 3.26.151; Orphic Argonautica 1022ff.

  23. Apollodorus, Library 1.9.24.

  24. Arrian, Periplus 7.

Primary Sources

Greek

Many important early sources on Apsyrtus no longer survive. We know that his myth would have featured in the Naupactia (sixth century BCE) and in the historical writings of Pherecydes of Athens (mid-fifth century BCE), but these works now exist only in fragments. Apsyrtus would have also been important in at least one play by the tragedian Sophocles (ca. 496–406/5 BCE)—the Colchian Women—but this play has likewise been lost.

The earliest detailed account of Apsyrtus that still survives comes from Apollonius of Rhodes (third century BCE), who tells of Apsyrtus’ fateful encounter with the Argonauts in Books 3 and 4 of his Argonautica. Apollonius’ Apsyrtus is ambushed and killed while pursuing the Argonauts—a version of the story that departs from earlier traditions, in which the Argonauts either killed Apsyrtus before leaving Colchis or kidnapped and dismembered him as they were escaping.

A summary of the myth of Apsyrtus’ death appears in the Library (1.9.24), a mythological handbook attributed to Apollodorus or “Pseudo-Apollodorus” (first century BCE or later). Meanwhile, Diodorus of Sicily (before 90–after 30 BCE)—who included a detailed summary of the Argonaut myth in Book 4 of his Library of History—recorded a tradition in which Aeetes’ son was named Aegialeus rather than Apsyrtus.

The story of Apsyrtus and his violent death also appears in the much later Orphic Argonautica (fifth/sixth century CE).

Roman

Ovid (43 BCE–17/18 CE) makes several references to the brutal death of Apsyrtus in his poetry—for instance, in the Heroides (6.129–30, 12.113ff). But a much more complete account comes from Valerius Flaccus (first century CE), who represents Apsyrtus as a powerful warrior in his Argonautica; the murder of Apsyrtus marks the end of Valerius’ epic (which may be unfinished). 

The myths of Apsyrtus and his death are also summarized by Hyginus or “Pseudo-Hyginus” (first century CE or later) in his mythological handbook the Fabulae (23). In this account, Apsyrtus’ death takes place later than in the standard tradition, occurring just before the Argonauts return to Greece.

Secondary Sources

  • Clairmont, Christoph W. “Apsyrtos.” In Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, vol. 2, 467. Zurich: Artemis, 1984.

  • Dräger, Paul, and Anne-Marie Doyen-Higuet. “Apsyrtus.” In Brill’s New Pauly, edited by Hubert Cancik, Helmuth Schneider, Christine F. Salazar, Manfred Landfester, and Francis G. Gentry. Published online 2006. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1574-9347_bnp_e129840.

  • Gantz, Timothy. “Iason and the Argo.” In Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources, 340–73. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

  • Hard, Robin. “Jason and the Argonauts.” In The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology, 8th ed., 392–417. New York: Routledge, 2020.

  • Seeliger, K., and W. H. Roscher. “Absyrtos.” In Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie, edited by W. H. Roscher, vol. 1, 3–4. Leipzig: Teubner, 1884–90.

  • Smith, William. “Absyrtus.” In A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Spottiswoode and Company, 1873. Perseus Digital Library. Accessed April 13, 2022. https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0104%3Aalphabetic+letter%3DA%3Aentry+group%3D1%3Aentry%3Dabsyrtus-bio-1.

  • Wernicke, Konrad. “Apsyrtos (1).” In Paulys Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, edited by Georg Wissowa and August Friedrich Pauly, vol. 2.1, 284–86. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1895.

Citation

Kapach, Avi. “Apsyrtus.” Mythopedia, September 13, 2023. https://mythopedia.com/topics/apsyrtus.

Kapach, Avi. “Apsyrtus.” Mythopedia, 13 Sep. 2023. https://mythopedia.com/topics/apsyrtus. Accessed on 17 Jul. 2024.

Kapach, A. (2023, September 13). Apsyrtus. Mythopedia. https://mythopedia.com/topics/apsyrtus

Authors

  • Avi Kapach

    Avi Kapach is a writer, scholar, and educator who received his PhD in Classics from Brown University

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