- Heracles, Hylas, and the Homeric Hymn to Demeter in Apollonius's Argonautica
The last episode of Book 1 of Apollonius's Argonautica (1.1187–1357) tells the story of Heracles' loss of his beloved Hylas, snatched away by a spring nymph as he was fetching water to prepare dinner.1 The episode is a key component in the story of Jason and the Argonauts, because it explains why Heracles was not present when they reached Colchis and successfully (with Medea's help) captured the Golden Fleece. An outline of the story goes as follows. The Argonauts stop in Mysia for the night, and Heracles wanders off in search of a suitable tree to make a replacement oar, having just broken one in an overly exuberant display of rowing. Hylas goes to a spring to fetch water and is drawn into it by a nymph who is overcome by his beauty; he is never seen again. The Argonaut Polyphemus hears Hylas's cry and runs to tell Heracles what has happened. Heracles, mad with grief, searches frantically, but in vain. The next morning the Argonauts inadvertently set sail without them, leaving in haste to take advantage of a favorable wind. Only later do they notice that three members of their crew are missing.
Numerous details in this story suggest that Apollonius is deliberately linking the disappearance of Hylas with the rape of Persephone in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Richard Hunter (1993, 40–41) lists the following as parallels and contrasts: both rapes happen with Zeus's "'consent'"; Persephone is taken when her mother is not there, and Hylas is away from a father substitute, Heracles; Persephone bends to pick the flower, Hylas bends to fill his pitcher at the spring; both Persephone and Hylas cry out, and are heard by someone not their parent; Demeter tears her veil, Heracles throws away his tree (Hunter identifies this parallel as tentative and humorous); Demeter is described as a bird speeding over land and sea, Heracles is compared to a bull stung by a gadfly; Polyphemus and Hecate serve as messengers to tell the parent what has happened—in both cases the reaction is swift; the daughters of Celeus encounter Demeter at a well where they have come to fetch water (as Hylas was doing); they do not recognize Demeter whereas Polyphemus does recognize Heracles (, 1.1254); Demeter tells a story of [End Page 133] having been kidnapped by pirates (, 125) and Polyphemus fears that have carried off Hylas (1.1259).2 Hunter sees these links as evidence that Hylas's abduction, like Persephone's rape, represents a symbolic transition from childhood to adulthood. The various textual echoes, combined with a common theme, allow us to read the Hylas episode as a multiform (a story with the same structural elements) of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter.
But what does the maturation of Hylas have to do with the Argonautica? The answer is primarily connected with the narrative's need to remove Heracles from the expedition, inasmuch as he is a potential rival for Jason's leadership. Apollonius tells us that Heracles had just captured the Erymanthian boar when he heard that Jason was recruiting heroes (1.122–1131). Traditionally the capture of the boar is Heracles' fourth labor for Eurystheus, after the killing of the Nemean lion and the Lernaean hydra and after the capture of the Ceryneian hind of Artemis. In other words, Heracles arrives in the poem with his heroic status concretely established. This would explain why the Argonauts originally chose him as leader. But without hesitation Heracles tactfully cedes leadership to Jason (1.341–347). This moment makes Heracles a prominent foil for Jason, who is as yet an untested and unproven hero. Moreover, Heracles' relationship with Hylas, which most readers assume to be of the homoerotic erastês/erômenos type, sets him apart from both Jason and the other Argonauts.3 Heracles is one of the few who do not take advantage of the sexual opportunities offered by the Lemnian women, and it is he who scolds the crew and shames them into returning to their mission (1.854–878). Hylas's presence thus...