Of the ancient ships featured in Greek myth and legend, few were as famous as a vessel called the Argo. It was a fifty-oar ship designed by the goddess, Athena, built by Arestor’s son Argus, captained by Jason of Iolcos, steered by the skilled navigator Tiphys, and crewed by a famous cast of heroes called the Argonauts. The poet, Apollonius of Rhodes, described the development of the famed Argo in his epic poem, the Argonautica:
had packed him [the navigator Tiphys] off to join the expedition,
and his arrival cheered a crew in need
of naval knowledge. After she designed
the speedy ship, Argus, Arestor’s son,
had worked with her and built it to her order,
and that is why, of all the watercraft
that ever challenged Ocean with their oars,
the Argo was the most remarkable”
(Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica, book one, approximately between lines 104-114)
Along with designing the ship and providing a navigator, Athena also provided the builders of the craft with a special supply of wood chopped from a sacred oak located at the oracle site of Dodona. One particular piece of the Dodonan wood was not just special—it was supernatural. As the story goes, the odd woodwork was conscious and had the ability to talk and shout and cry. On this odd feature, Apollonius of Rhodes wrote:
“And, yes, the ship itself, Pelian Argo,
called to them also, since its hull contained
a talking plank. Athena had herself
cut it from a Dodonan oak to serve
beneath them as the keel.”
(Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica, book one, approximately between lines 519-531)
Besides the aforementioned ability of the magical plank to call out to the crew, Apollonius also claimed that in one instance it “emitted a human voice, a warning” (book 4, between lines 573-585), and on another occasion, “the Argo cried through the night” (book 4, between lines 585-598). If readers are curious why the talking plank was located in the hull or keel, other storytellers and mythographers questioned that decision, too. A scholar known as Pseudo-Apollodorus (c. 1st-2nd century) chose to follow a different tradition, instead relocating the talking woodwork to the prow of the ship and transforming the piece from a plank to a figurehead. Apollodorus wrote, “Argos [aka Argus], on the advice of Athene [or Athena], built a ship with fifty oars, which was named the Argo after its builder. To the prow of the ship, Athene fitted a piece of wood that came from the oak at Dodona and had the power of speech” (Apollodorus, Library, 1.9.16). Although the storytellers could not come to a consensus on where the talking Dodonan wood was located, and how the item was shaped, the leading authorities on the myth nevertheless agreed the Argo could indeed talk to its crew. On the question of if the crew found the ship’s talking and shouting and crying to be helpful or annoying, however, the ancient authorities on the myth were silent.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (The Building of the ‘Argo’, painted by Antoon Derkinderen (c. 1859-1925), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Rijksmuseum).
- Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.
- Jason and the Argonauts by Apollonius of Rhodes, translated by Aaron Poochigian. New York: Penguin Classics, 2014.