Myths and Legends


The Origin of Pola in Greek Mythology

One of the most suggestive images of Medea on a fragment of a fresco from Herculianum. A Roman copy of the original from 280 B.C. Naples, Muzeo Nazionale.

 

Following in the footsteps of the humanistic tradition, we recall the legend associating Pola with the Greek mythological story about the Argonauts, the seafarers who stole the Golden Fleece from the Colchidians [Colchians], dwelling on the Black Sea, and who reached the northem Adriatic by sailing upstream on the Danube. Like any mythological story, the narrative of the Argonauts is not easily retold, especially because there are several variants of it concerning particular episodes.

However, one can tell how popular the myth must have been by the fact that many poets ventured to compose versions of the saga about Jason and his friends, Medea and Apsyrtos. The tradition about the Argonauts was especially alive Alexandrian poetry of the Hellenistic period (3rd century B.C.). Three poets from that period refer to a colony of Colchidians [Colchians] on the Adriatic in the context of the myth about the Argonauts: Lycophron, Callimachus, and Appolonius of Rhodes.

The core of the myth about the origin of Pula, as contained in the legend about Jason and the Argonauts, can be condensed in a few sentences: Jason and his comrades have succeeded in stealing the Golden Fleece for the Thessalian king Pelias; the Golden Fleece was the prize that Pelias demanded for letting Jason take over the throne. Medea, the daughter of the Colchidian king Aietos, the keeper of the fleece, helped them to succeed with their plan. According to one version of the myth, the Argonauts (which means "the seafarers of the ship Argo) sailed upstream along the Danube from the Black Sea until they reached the Adriatic. They were pursued by the Colchidians [Colchians], who were led by Medea's brother Apsyrtos. It is well known that the Greeks long believed that the Ister river (the Danube) had two mouths - one in the Black Sea, and the other in the Adriatic. We can only imagine the fascination that Greek seafarers felt with respect to the unknown parts of the European mainland, in whose dark spaces hardly anyone dared to travel. 

One must bear in mind that a large part of Greek mythology was formed precisely during the period when the Greeks still had very vague ideas about other countries apart from their homeland. When it was realized that Ister had no other Adriatic mouth, the story was still told, but another variant of it was invented, according to which, the Argonauts carried their ships by a land route to the Adriatic. Without any doubt, the Greeks had in mind the Amber Route which used to connect the northem Adriatic with the European mainland; the highly valued amber was transported to the Mediterranean from the Baltic Sea by this route.

Two reconstructions of Herodotus' conception of the known world, circa 450 B.C.

In the northem Adriatic, according to the legend, the Colchidians [Colchians] caught the Argonauts, but Medea trapped her brother Apsyrtos and helped Jason kill him. This incident allegedly happened on an island that was named after him; in Classical Antiquity, the Apsirtides were the islands of Cres (Cherso) and Losinj (Lussino). Following this, the legend says, the Colchidians [Colchians] did not dare to retum to their country, but they rather settled on the Adriatic coast. A very important passage from an elegy by Callimachus describes this:

"On the Illyrian river they rested their oars,
By the tombstone of the yellow-haired Harmonia - the Snake;
They founded a city; a Greek would call it 'the City of Fugitives',
But in their language it is called Pula"'.

In the same context, Lycophron mentions a city of the Colchidians [Colchians] which bears the same name, whereas Apollonius of Rhodes does not note how their settlement was called. That city - Polai - was identified as Pula in the classical tradition of Roman historiography and geography, i.e. in the works of Pliny the Elder and Strabo. Many scientific analyses of these and other written sources related to the sarne mythological and topographical data have proved beyond any doubt that the Polai of Callirnachus could not have been situated in the northem Adriatic. An entire set of arguments points to the conclusion that the city of Colchidian fugitives should be sought in the southern Adriatic, between the Bay of Kotor and northem Albania. Only the similarity of the names Polai and Pula remains - it was the Romans who first deduced a mythological origin of Pola from this similarity, although the name of Pola can be etymologically related to the root of the Greek word polis, which means "city-state", and has other similar meanings as well. Therefore, although the legendary tradition about the Colchidians [Colchians] is not historically exact, it is ancient enough to be considered as part of the history of Pola. Myths are not based, of course, on criteria of facts, but the legend about a Colchidian colony is trustworthy in terms of a connection between the Adriatic coast and Greece on the one hand, and the European mainland, on the other.

It is unimportant for Pola whether or not the city was actually established by the Colchidians under the name of Polai. The legend, as any legend, is possible but not unobjectionable; yet it is dear to us because it certainly indicates the antiquity of the city and its relations to the surrounding world prior to the classical period.

Colchis

Colchis was an  ancient region at the eastern end of the Black Sea south of the Caucasus, in the western part of modern Georgia. It consisted of the valley of the Phasis (modern Riuni) River. In Greek mythology Colchis was the home of Medea and the destination of the Argonauts, a land of fabulous wealth and the domain of sorcery. Historically, Colchis was colonized by Milesian Greeks to whom the native Colchians supplied gold, slaves, hides, linen cloth, agricultural produce, and such shipbuilding materials as timber, flax, pitch, and wax. The ethnic composition of the Colchians [Colchidians?], who were described by Herodotus as black Egyptians, is unclear. After the 6th century B.C. they lived under the nominal suzerainty of Achaemenidian Persia and passed into the kingdom of Mithradates VI (1st century B,C.) and, then, under the rule of Rome.

United with Lazica in the 4th c.entury A.D., Colchis constituted an important buffer state between the Sāsānian and Byzantine empires. In the late 8th century Colchis was attached to Abasgia, which in turn was incorporated into Russian Georgia.

Sources (with minor revisions):

  • Robert Matijašić and Klara Buršić-Matijašić (translated by Aldo Kliman), Classical Pula and Environs, ZN "Žakan Juri" (Pula, 1996), p. 15-21.
  • Herodotus map (darker) -
  • Colchis - Encyclopedia Britannica - http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/124997/Colchis
  • Photo (Jason) -

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Created: Wednesday, Februaryr 21, 2001; Last Updated: Tuesday, July 23, 2013
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