12 October 2018

The Clashing Rocks

Word went out around Greece and its islands that a new kind of voyage was being organised, a quest of unprecedented ambition. A party of heroes was required to crew a ship, the Argo, and help win eternal glory. This extract picks up halfway through their journey east, to Colchis in modern-day Georgia, as the Argonauts - the sailors of the Argo - endeavour tobring the Golden Fleece home.

  The Argo sailed east and soon came to the narrow strait that connected the Propontis to the Euxine Sea. It was over this waterway that Io flew, after Zeus had turned her into a cow and Hera sent a gadfly to torment her. For that reason the narrow passage had been given the name ‘Cow-Crossing’, or Bosporus. It was one thing to fly over it, quite another to sail through.

    Two great rocks loomed up ahead. They faced each other like cliffs, massive and immobile. Jason saw that they were a marvellous blue in colour. It seemed impossible that they could move an inch. He stood on the foredeck and addressed the crew.

    ‘Orpheus, you have the dove?’

    ‘I have her.’ Orpheus, his hands tenderly cupped, stepped past Jason until he stood at the very tip of the prow.

    ‘The rest of you, take up your oars. Tiphys, bring us as near as you can without waking the rocks.’

    Every Argonaut went to their appointed rowing stations and waited.

    When they were as close as Tiphys dared take the Argo, Jason brought down his arm. Orpheus released the dove which shot from his hands, rose into the air and made for the channel.

    A great grinding sound filled the air and Jason saw the rocks tremble and shift on their bases. Gulls rose with startled cries from their ledges and nests on the rock face. The dove was already a quarter of its way through to the other side when the rocks began to move together with surprising speed. Halfway, and the passage was narrowing fast. The dove flew gamely on. Jason had to shade his eyes to see it battling towards the light and the open sea beyond.

    Phineus had told them that the speed of a dove over the distance of the strait matched the speed of a strongly rowed galley. If the bird was crushed therefore, the Argo would never be able to make it.

    The gap between the rocks left a mere slit of light and Jason could no longer see the dove. With a thunderous clash that set the Argo pitching and rolling the rocks slammed together. It was all Jason could do to stay upright on the foredeck.

    When it was quiet and stable enough, Orpheus took up his lyre and strummed. He sang as loudly as the crew had ever heard him, calling and calling to the dove he had been training ever since Phineus had told them the key to their safe passage through.

    The Argonauts rested on their oars and scanned the sky. Of the dove they saw no sign.

    The rocks had started to separate now, causing the water to suck back through the channel.

    ‘Hold!’ cried Tiphys. ‘Back oars.’

    They pushed hard with their oars against the current to keep the ship from being pulled towards the rocks, which had now returned to their original positions and stood tall, stately and still. It was hard to believe they had ever moved.

    Still the strains of Orpheus’s song filled the air. ‘There!’ shouted Pirithous stabbing a finger in the air.

    The dove flew towards Orpheus and the whole crew cheered as she landed on Orpheus’s outstretched palm and with rippling coos of triumph accepted her grains, strokes and congratulations.

    ‘Look!’ said Orpheus, holding the bird up, ‘her tail is gone.’

    It was true. Where there should have been a neat fan, Jason could see only a torn and ragged row of broken feathers. He turned to address the crew.

    ‘This tells us that it will be close,’ he said. ‘Very close indeed. Every man must row as if his life depends on it. For his life does. Picture this in your minds. What you most desire lies on the other side. Love, fame, riches, peace, glory. Whatever you have dreamt of is there. If you’re too slow, it will disappear for ever, but if you strain yourself you can reach it.’ He leapt down to take up the one remaining rowing station.

    ‘Oars!’ he cried, gripping and twisting the handle of his own to present its blade to the water. His fellow Argonauts followed suit.

    ‘Are we ready?’ ‘Aye!’

    ‘Are we ready?’ ‘Aye!’

    ‘Are we ready?’ ‘Aye! Aye! Aye!’

    ‘Then row, my friends, row!’

    With a great cheer they engaged oars and the Argo lurched forward. Never had a galley flown through the water with such speed. Every man pulled hard, sliding backwards and forwards on their leather cushions. Every man save Orpheus. As an artist, his strengths lay elsewhere. He was the only man bar the steersman facing the direction of the Argo’s travel and could urge the men on. He had two wooden chests either side of him and he began thumping them like drums to drive the beat of the oars.

    ‘Heave!’ he cried. ‘And heave, and heave, and heave!’

    They all heard the shuddering, grating roar of the rocks.

    This is it, thought Jason. They’re moving now. No turning back. Only hard rowing will get us through.

    A quarter of the way through and Orpheus felt that they were going to make it. He could see the open waters of the great sea ahead and the rocks, though closing, looked as though they would lose the race.

Heave, and heave, and heave!’

    But the rocks seemed to be moving faster. Jason and the oarsmen could see the cliffs rising and growing higher and higher and closer and closer. The clear view he had had of the Propontis was beginning to be cut off. Looking in their direction of travel, Orpheus was no longer so sure that they could make it. As they passed the halfway mark he increased the stroke of his pounding on the wooden chests until his fists felt they would catch fire.

    “Heave-and-heave-and-heave-and-heave!’

    The walls towered above them now. Were they going to be crushed like flies in the slapped hands of a child? All this effort. All this planning and praying. For nothing? Jason felt his lungs bursting, his back and thighs burning.

    ‘Yes!’ yelled Orpheus. ‘Yes, yes, yes! We’re going to make it! Faster, faster, faster. Put everything into it. Pull, pull, pull! Pull, you bastards, pull!’

    The rocks were on them now. Jason could even make out the green weeds growing in crevices. A chill darkness was closing in until . . . daylight flashed across him and the whole ship. They were through! The rocks crashed and still the Argonauts rowed as the aftershock of waves tossed them up and forward, further out of reach. Jason stood up and let out a barbaric hoot of triumph. All around him the others were doing the same. Euphemus pointed back at the rocks.

    ‘Look!’

    The left-hand rock was cracking. The crag opposite was sliding back to its original position as usual, but its neighbour – partner? lover? – crumbled and disintegrated, sending an avalanche of boulders into the water.

    The Symplegades never clashed again. Separating Asia from Europe, the Bosporus is still narrow today; but ever since that moment it has lain open to all shipping. The exhilaration of their triumph banished the crew’s exhaustion.

    ‘We did it!’

    ‘And without Heracles!’

    Meleager pointed to the rear of the ship. ‘Look! We lost our tail feather too!’ It was true. The final clash of the rocks had sheared off Argo’s sternpost as they pulled through. That is how close it had been.

    Meleager and Pirithous approached Orpheus.

    ‘Pull, you bastards, pull?

    Orpheus eyed the two warily. ‘I had to motivate you . . . Those rocks were closing in fast.’

Bastards? Let’s show him, Pirithous.’ Meleager took his arms and Pirithous his legs.

‘Let go, let go!’

    ‘Heave and heave and heave!’ Pirithous chanted, in a fair imitation of Orpheus’s lyric tenor, as they swung him back and forth.

    On the final ‘heave’ the protesting musician was hurled into the sea. The crew leaned over and cheered as he splashed below them.

‘You are bastards!’ he gasped.

    So began the tradition, which has lasted to the present day, of a victorious rowing crew throwing its cox into the water.

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