Greek Craftsman

Argus (son of Arestor)

Argus and Tiphys building the Argo with the help of Athena

Roman terracotta relief showing Argus (right) working on the Argo while Tiphys (center) adjusts the mast with the aid of Athena (left) (probably first century CE)

JastrowCC BY 2.5

Overview

Argus was the name of a craftsman, usually called the son of Arestor; he was renowned as a master carpenter, builder, and woodcarver. When Jason put together a band of heroes to sail with him to Colchis to steal the Golden Fleece, it was Argus who was tasked with building a ship worthy of its famous crew.

With the help of Athena, Argus created the Argo (named, according to most sources, for its builder). He then voyaged to Colchis with the other heroes, who were dubbed “Argonauts” in honor of the ship.

Etymology

The name “Argus” (Greek Ἄργος, translit. Árgos) seems to be derived from the word ἀργός (argós), which means “shining, brilliant” as well as “quick, agile.” This word in turn comes from the Indo-European *h₂rǵ-, meaning “white.”[1] There were several mythological figures with this name, many of them (unsurprisingly) associated with the city of Argos in the Peloponnese.

Pronunciation

  • English
    Greek
    ArgusἌργος (Árgos)
  • Phonetic
    IPA
    [AHR-guhs]/ˈɑr gəs/

Attributes

General

Argus was an important mortal craftsman of Greek mythology. His origins, however, are obscure. Most sources say nothing about his homeland, though the Roman poet Valerius Flaccus reported that he was from Thespiae, a city in the central Greek region of Boeotia.[2]

Argus was most famous for building the Argo, the ship in which Jason and the Argonauts sailed to Colchis on their quest for the Golden Fleece. But he was also regarded as a skilled woodcarver, creating a wooden image of the goddess Rhea that the Argonauts consecrated at Cyzicus during their voyage.[3]

According to one tradition, Argus also fashioned the oldest image of Hera, which was dedicated at Tiryns by the Argive ruler Piras.[4]

Aside from his ability as a craftsman, Argus did not have many distinctive attributes. According to Apollonius of Rhodes, he wore a bull’s hide—perhaps imitating the other Argonauts’ attire, such as Heracles with his lion skin, Ancaeus with his bearskin, or Jason with his leopard skin.[5]

Iconography

Argus sometimes appeared in ancient art, especially on Italian terracotta reliefs and engraved gemstones. He was typically represented with tools in hand, working on the Argo. Sometimes Athena was shown in the background, instructing or helping him.[6]

Family

According to the best-known tradition, Argus was the son of a man named Arestor (or Alector).[7] But other traditions made him the son of Polybus and Argea, or of Danaus.[8] The Argus who built the Argo was sometimes identified with the Argus who was the son of Phrixus and Chalciope, though in the usual account these seem to have been two distinct individuals.[9]

Mythology

When Peleus sent his nephew Jason on a perilous quest to steal the Golden Fleece—held in Colchis by the cruel king Aeetes—Jason gathered a crew of mighty heroes to sail across the Aegean and Black Seas. The builder Argus was commissioned to craft them a ship worthy of this journey.

The vessel that Argus constructed for Jason and his crew was probably the most famous ship of Greek mythology. It would be called the Argo, either after its builder (as in the standard tradition)[10] or because of its speed (ἀργός/argós means “speedy” in Greek).[11]

The Argo was a large warship, usually likened to a type of vessel called a penteconter, which had space for fifty oarsmen.[12] Some said that the Argo was the first ever ship to be built, thus making Argus the inventor of shipbuilding.[13]

In the standard account, Argus seems to have built the Argo in Thessaly, close to the kingdom of Jason’s uncle Pelias, using timber from the woods of Mount Pelion.[14] But others said that Argus built the ship further south, in Argos,[15] Corinth,[16] or Thespiae.[17]

In building the Argo, Argus was aided and instructed by Athena herself, the goddess of wisdom and craftsmanship.[18] Athena brought a piece of sacred oak from the shrine of Zeus in Dodona, which she set in the bow of the ship; this gave the Argo the ability to speak.[19]

The Argo—sometimes described as πασιμέλουσα (pasimélousa), “known by all”—was dedicated to Poseidon or Hera after Jason and the Argonauts returned to Greece.[20] Others said it was transformed into a constellation.[21]

The constellation Argo

Illustration of the constellation Argo

Johann Bayer, Uranometria (1603)Public Domain

Once the ship was complete, Argus joined the other crew members on their voyage to Colchis, wishing to be on hand to make repairs along the way.[22]

References

Notes

  1. See Robert S. P. Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 1:126.

  2. Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 1.92–93, 1.124, 1.477ff.

  3. Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 1.1119ff; Euphorion, frag. 146 Powell; Orphic Argonautica 606ff.

  4. Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Greeks 4.47.5; see also Pausanias, Description of Greece 2.17.5.

  5. Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 1.324–35. Argus’ bullskin cloak may be the result of confusion with another Argus, a many-eyed monster known for his role in the myth of Io; see Pherecydes, Fragmente der griechischen Historiker (FGrH) 3 frag. 66.

  6. Rolf Blatter, “Argos III,” in Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (Zurich: Artemis, 1984), 2:600–2.

  7. Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 1.112, 1.324–25; John Tzetzes on Lycophron’s Alexandra 883. Confusingly, the many-eyed monster named Argus was sometimes also called a son of Arestor (though presumably a different Arestor).

  8. Hyginus, Fabulae 14.

  9. Apollodorus, Library 1.9.16; cf. Pherecydes, FGrH 3 frag. 106.

  10. Apollodorus, Library 1.9.16; etc. Cf. Pherecydes, FGrH 3 frag. 106, where the ship is named after Argus the son of Phrixus, who may or may not be the same Argus who built the Argo (it is difficult to tell from the fragmentary reference). In one obscure account, the Argo was named after an Argus who was the son of Jason, and who was particularly dear to Heracles (Ptolemaeus Chennus, New History 2, from the epitome in Photius, Library 190).

  11. Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History 4.41.3; Hyginus, Astronomica 2.37.

  12. Pindar, Pythian Ode 4.245; Euripides, Hypsipyle frag. 1.2.21 Bond; Apollodorus, Library 1.9.16; Orphic Argonautica 300; etc. One dissenting source, however, described the Argo as τριακοντάζυγον (triakontázygon), “with thirty benches of oars,” meaning it held sixty oarsmen (Theocritus, Idylls 13.74).

  13. See, for example, Eratosthenes, Catasterisms 35; Catullus, Ode 64.11; Propertius, Elegies 3.22.14; Ovid, Amores 2.11.1, Metamorphoses 6.721, 8.302, Tristia 3.9.8; Seneca, Medea 363, 665; Lucan, Civil War 3.193ff, 6.400–1; Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 1.1ff, passim; Statius, Thebaid 5.335ff, Achilleid 1.64–65; Martial, Epigrams 7.19.2; Orphic Argonautica 69. See also Euripides, Andromache 864–65, which may be the origin of the myth that the Argo was the first ship, but which can also be interpreted as a reference to the Argo as the first ship to sail past the Symplegades. It has, in fact, been argued that the latter is the correct interpretation, and that the entire tradition of the Argo as the first ship is based on a misreading of the passage in Euripides; see Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Hellenistische Dichtung in der Zeit des Kallimachos, 2nd ed. (Berlin: Weidmann, 1962), 322 n. 1. According to Diodorus of Sicily, the Argo was not the first ship ever built but simply the first ship seaworthy enough to undertake a long-distance voyage (Library of History 4.41).

  14. Euripides, Medea 3–4; Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 1.525. See also Hyginus, Astronomica 2.37, who specifies the location as Magnesia—or even more precisely, the Magnesian town of Pagasae.

  15. Hegesippus, Etymologicum Magnum, s.v. “Ἀργώ” (Argṓ); John Tzetzes on Lycophron’s Alexandra 883 (citing Hegesander); scholia on Theocritus’ Idyll 13.21.

  16. Aelius Aristides, Orations 3.24.

  17. Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 1.93, 1.124, 1.477.

  18. Pherecydes, FGrH 3 frag. 106; Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 1.18ff, 1.109ff; Apollodorus, Library 1.9.1; Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 1.91ff; Hyginus, Fabulae 14; etc.

  19. Pherecydes, FGrH 3 frag. 111a; Aeschylus, Argo frags. 20, 20a Radt; Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 1.526–27; Apollodorus, Library 1.9.16.

  20. Apollodorus, Library 1.9.27; scholia on Euripides’ Medea 1386.

  21. Hyginus, Astronomica 2.37, Fabulae 14.

  22. Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 1.226, 1.1117; Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History 4.41.3; Apollodorus, Library 1.9.16; John Tzetzes on Lycophron’s Alexandra 175; etc.

Primary Sources

Greek

A figure named Argus appears in nearly every literary account of the voyage of the Argonauts, though his identity sometimes fluctuates. According to the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes (third century BCE)—probably the most authoritative surviving account of the myth of Jason and the Argonauts—the builder of the Argo was Argus, son of Arestor. The same is true in the much later Orphic Argonautica (fifth/sixth century CE). 

Other sources are less clear about the identity of the Argus who built the Argo. Diodorus of Sicily (before 90–after 30 BCE) stated in his Library of History (4.41.3) that the Argo was built by a man named Argus, but did not give any other identifying details. 

Apollodorus or “Pseudo-Apollodorus” (first century BCE or later), the author of the mythological handbook known as the Library, claimed that the Argo was built by Argus, son of Phrixus, usually thought to be a different person than Argus, son of Arestor (1.9.16).

Roman

Argus is named as the architect of the Argo in Roman literature as well. In the Fabulae, a mythological handbook by Hyginus or “Pseudo-Hyginus” (first century CE or later), Argus is identified as the son of Polybus or Danaus (14). Argus is also listed as the builder of the Argo in the Argonautica of Valerius Flaccus (first century CE).

Other

Additional information on Argus, including his role in works that are now lost, can be found in texts, reference works, and commentaries produced during the Byzantine and medieval periods. For further references, see the notes.

Secondary Sources

  • Blatter, Rolf. “Argos III.” In Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, vol. 2, 600–2. Zurich: Artemis, 1984.

  • Dowden, Kenneth. “Argus (3).” In The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 4th ed., edited by Simon Hornblower, Antony Spawforth, and Esther Eidinow, 150. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

  • Engelmann, R. “Argos (4).” In Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie, edited by W. H. Roscher, vol. 1, 539. Leipzig: Teubner, 1884–90.

  • 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.

  • Graf, Fritz. “Argos (I.2).” 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_e134630.

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

  • Smith, William. “Argus (3).” In A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Spottiswoode and Company, 1873. Perseus Digital Library. Accessed May 12, 2021. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0104%3Aentry%3Dargus-bio-3.

  • Wernicke, Konrad. “Argos (20).” In Paulys Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, edited by Georg Wissowa and August Friedrich Pauly, vol. 2.1, 795–96. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1895.

Citation

Kapach, Avi. “Argus (son of Arestor).” Mythopedia, September 14, 2023. https://mythopedia.com/topics/argus-son-of-arestor.

Kapach, Avi. “Argus (son of Arestor).” Mythopedia, 14 Sep. 2023. https://mythopedia.com/topics/argus-son-of-arestor. Accessed on 17 Jul. 2024.

Kapach, A. (2023, September 14). Argus (son of Arestor). Mythopedia. https://mythopedia.com/topics/argus-son-of-arestor

Authors

  • Avi Kapach

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

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