O amiable reader, I wish to bring back before your eyes a work that has long lain hidden and forgotten in the mists of obscurity. Here is the title page from its first publication in 1647:
It announces itself as Johannes Bisselius’ Argonauticon Americanorum (in fifteen books), or, as one might say, “The Argonautica of The Americas, or, The History of The Dangers of Peter De Victoria and of His Companions.”
First the author. Johannes Bissel probably never went to sea! He was born in Babenhausen on 20 August, 1601. He attended the Jesuit University in Dilligen and officially joined the Jesuit Order on 15 July, 1621. He spent his life as a university teacher, priest, and preacher, but most of all, as a prolific writer of works in Latin, both prose and poetry. Apart from his Argonauticon, notable works are his poem Deliciae Veris (1638), a diverse collection of elegiac poems in three books (Book I contains 23, Book II 18, Book III 24 elegies) and Icaria (1637), a humorous prose account of his flight, in the face of the advancing Swedish army, from Regensburg, an important Jesuit centre, where he had been in charge of the Academia Oratoria.
His work as a preacher seems to have been very important to him. He spent time in Munich, Dillingen and Amberg and wrote three collections of example sermons. All of this makes Bissel sound like a very serious man but perhaps there was something about the story of the Argonauts that awakened a sense of adventure in the Jesuit soul. This was certainly true of the member of the order at the College in Limoges who was fortunate enough to own a copy of Aldus Manutius’ 1521 edition of Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica:
Abbé Le Saige, for such was the name of the owner (see the subscription in the right-hand picture), obviously saw something significant in the story of the Golden Fleece. There are notes throughout and he has even annotated the scholia! Perhaps Bissel was of the same mind. The existence of organisations such as the Accademia deli Argonauti in Bologna in the 17th century seem to hint that the voyage of the Argo resonated with members of the Society:
Second the story. Bissel’s Argonautica Americanorum is a broad and very free reworking in Latin of a story that was already it had been told in Spanish years ago in Naufragio y peregrinación by Pedro Govea de Vitoria (Seville, Clemente Hidalgo, 1610). The author and protagonist of this book was a native of Seville, Latinised in Bissel’s version as Petrus de Victoria. The work is the story of the author’s journey from Seville to Peru on a bizarre journey full of adventures and misfortunes. Bissel did not know the original Spanish edition of Govea de Vitoria’s work, but the German translation printed in 1622 in Ingolstadt. Despite the formal and stylistic deficiencies of the rather pedestrian and disjointed German version, Govea’s text aroused Bissel’s interest for various reasons, as the author confesses in the prologue to Argonautica Americanorum. In the first place, it was easier to rewrite a well-known story, but one that had been poorly told, than to invent a new one. Second, that story provided him with enough material for a more elaborate piece of writing (it also consists of fifteen books) to enhance the drama of the story and compose a work of distinctive character.
Govea introduces himself at the beginning of his story. He is a very young man (perhaps in his early teens), living with his parents in Seville but hungering for a life of adventure:
… paternum mihi solum, Hispalis: nomen, Petrus Govea, Victoriarum clara de familia: domus avita paternaque, tum et auctores vitae; sicut utrimque genere fortunisque conspicui, sic indulgentia pia filii notabiles.
…I come from Hispalis and my name is Pedro Govea from the famous family of Victoria: my paternal and ancestral house, and, as it were, founders of life; just as on both sides of the family they were conspicuous through their origin and fortune, so their sons were notable for their pious generosity.
He is very young, so his parents try to keep him at home, but he is already exhibiting an independent frame of mind, with his thoughts full of the Classical voyagers of the ancient myths:
Detestabar itaque segnis otii desidiam inexpertam et, trans cognitum Solem exporrectis desideriis; Vlyssis, Iasonis, et ARGONAUTARUM, labores cursusque, cum eorum Erroribus, animo volutabam.
Therefore, I detested the unaccustomed idleness of sluggish leisure and I constantly thought about the labours and journeys of Ulysses, and Jason and the ARGONAUTS with their Wanderings across the known World in a desire for more.
Already the Argonautic theme, pervasive throughout Bissel’s novel makes itself felt. Eventually, despite impassioned and rhetorical appeals, showing perhaps a Livian influence, from his parents…
Caeterum huic obstabat consilio primum omnium, communis parentum reverentia, paeneque terror quidam; Filii votum, quotidie jactatum, aut amaro cum risu discutientium; aut, ob oculos posita roboris et annorum immaturitate, detestantium: nec enim duodecennio (sicut eram) tunc primum excedentem Navigationibus et periculorum incertis, fore parem: quae res duae non pueros duntaxat, sub Hylae fabulosa nomine; nec solas Ariadnas, sub iisdem figmentis: sed prorsus Hercules ac Theseos, virilis audaciae nomina, fregissent. Ducum, et Heroum esse tales animos, tales spes: et ideo Duces, et Heroum vires quaerere; non Puerum, adhuc bulla nitentem, et, nisi pudor audacis postulati deterreret crepitacula crepundiaque quassaturum.
But the chief obstacle to this was a shared reverence for my parents and on their part a certain kind of terror as they either discussed with a bitter smile the wish of their son declared on a daily basis or, placing his immaturity of years and strength before his eyes, totally opposed it: “With your barely twelve years you are not capable of voyages with their uncertain dangers, whose hard knocks would break not only boys, such as the mythical Hylas of the fables or abandoned Ariadne of a similar tale, but even Hercules and Theseus, examples of courage and daring. Such are the minds and hopes of heroes and leaders: and for that reason, the strength of heroes and leaders is sought, not a boy shining with his ‘bulla’, unless the shame of an audacious claim deters him, about to shake his rattles and playthings…”
… the young Sevillian finally sets sail, after the death of his father. The first part of the voyage is filled with familiar sights:
Nos autem, lasone firmiores et Theseo, Baeti nostro supremum decurrimus, flumine gentilitio; quod prisci Tartessum quoque, recentiores autem, Arabica barbarie, Guadalquivirium nuncuparunt: quasi dicas, Fluvium Magnum. Hic alicubi vadosior, plerumque tamen justissimo profundo (quod et ideo nautae sequuntur) in Atlanticum se Mare provolvit: ostio, leucae nostratis spatium in latitudinem aequante. Laeva, Gades jacebant: ac paullo semotius, Fretum strepitabat Herculeum, compressis littoribus arctatum. At ex obliquo litore, provectis in altum, Africae celsiora, primaque montium dorsa, renidebant: et Mauritaniae citerioris vestibula. Dextra vero Lusitaniae supremus ad Occidentem angulus; Sacrumque, quod appellant, Promontorium remicabat.
But we, more determined than Jason or Theseus, sailed down our native river Baetis for the last time, which people of ancient times also called Tartessus, but recent generations use the barbarian Arab word Guadalquivir. You could call it the Great River. In some places, it was shallower, but more often, however, with a reasonable draught of water (that was the course followed by sailors), it flows into the Atlantic Ocean; its mouth being a league wide according to our way of measuring. On the left lay Gades and at a short distance from there the Straits of Heracles were sounding, a narrow gap with close-lying shores. but as we sailed into the deep, on the other side, the higher mountain ridges of Africa and the entrance to farther Mauretania gleamed. On the right-hand side, the extreme point of Lusitania which they call the Sacred Promontory twinkled…
Their first sight of the open sea is a dramatic moment: Oceanus erat Atlanticus and calls forth a fine piece of descriptive writing from Bissel:
Arridebat, in immensa diffusum spatia, pelagus; et, in unum collecta visus compendium (immaniter alioqui distantia) Pontus atque coelum, influebatque blando miraculo, non assuetis intutibus, aquarum sine fine campus; et vibrantium fluctuum, quoties vento sinuarentur, crispati sulci. Tantaque spectandi dulcedo viscavit intentum animum; ut me neque sueta novitiis vectoribus nautea, multum avocaret: et insuper juvaret stantis malaciae blandus viror, caerula subopacus umbra; subindeque solaribus etiam radiis gratiosus.
The ocean, diffused over an immense space, was smiling upon us, and both sea and sky were merged, at an otherwise far distant point, into a single vision. The endless expanse of water flowed like a charming miracle rather than after its usual appearance, and the furrows of the quivering waves, whenever these were billowed by the wind, were brought into rippling motion. Such a great pleasure of looking caught hold of my intent mind that not even the seasickness common to novice travellers much distracted me. The soft green of the steady calm delighted me, now half opaque in caerulean shadow, now joyful under the rays of the sun.”
What a wonderful piece of Latin Prose this is! The first word sets the tone of happy, silent wonderment that pervades the whole. The intricate and balanced word order leads the reader through the passage. The choice of refined and rare vocabulary adds sophistication and richness. While the mention of ‘sea-sickness’ brings a note of reality, a precise counterbalance, to the almost voluptuous description.
First stop is the Canaries (ad eas, quas nos hodie Canarias, prisci Fortunatas etiam dixerunt, insulas adpellimur). From there he sails to America in the region of the Caribbean Islands and here he is on the edge of the New World:
Almost immediately, he is involved in a battle with Scottish pirates. Bissel’s narrative is both vivid and exciting. The passage describing the preliminaries to the encounter is particularly atmospheric:
Adhuc loquebantur, per foros atque transtra, nunc milites, nunc remiges, interdum singulos, saepius universos, obeundo stimulandoque: cum repente, dispulso noctis opaco, diluculum pariter et hostilis myoparo praegrandis , super Oceanum praesto fuerunt.
They were still speaking, generally talking, and encouraging each other, across the gangways and the benches, now soldiers, now rowers, sometimes one by one, more often altogether. When suddenly, the dark night put to flight, dawn and a very large enemy pirate-ship, were at hand atop the ocean…
Hostilis myoparo praegrandis is a splendidly grandiloquent phrase! A fierce encounter then ensues in which, after various vicissitudes, the Spaniards prevail.
The party continues onwards and crosses the Isthmus of Panama and embarks for Peru. The winds deflect the ship, and it makes a circuit of the Pacific, including the Philippines. During the subsequent attempt to reach Lima, quarrels break out between passengers and crew. The South American coast is once more sighted, but they are unable to fix their exact position. They are driven North by the wind. When they reach a promontory, half the passengers, among them a reluctant Govea, are persuaded to leave the ship to lighten its weight. These are to continue on foot to a city (Manta) which is assumed to be nearby. They have been misled by the captain, nor do they ever regain their ship. The difficult part of the journey begins in Book 4. A lack of equipment, the merciless climate, and, above all, the total strangeness of the environment ensure that the travellers suffer every imaginable hardship. They proceed in a state of perpetual uncertainty. Govea himself is almost killed (5.9) and suffers a near-fatal illness from the wound of a poisonous thorn (7.2). One of their greatest problems is in crossing the numerous rivers, and the attempt is sometimes paid for in lives (10.4).
Third the climax. A crucial moment in the story comes in Book 10. The Argonautic ‘pilgrims’ have been tramping for three days. The terrain has been difficult, and they are desperately short of food. The only thing that they can find in this barren wilderness is the decaying carcasses of some dead birds. Lacking the means to start a fire, they eat them raw. The ghastliness of this experience evokes some vivid turns of phrase from Bissel:
Itaque truculenta, vereque lupina, fuit illa gulae rabies; quae nos ad hanc necessitatis obscoenae deduxit ingluviem: cum, in tam absurdo pastu, mista pariter coirent, hinc edendi desiderium, illinc glutiendi nausea; cupidoque simul, et horror ciborum nos torquerent. (10.1)
Therefore, savage, and wolflike indeed was that madness of revolting appetite whose necessity drove us to such voraciousness, for in that absurd meal were joined in equal measure a desire to eat and nausea at swallowing. Both greed and horror of our food tormented us at once.
All this brings about a spiritual awakening in Govea and, when the expedition finally arrives in Lima, after some deep reflection, he decides to join the Jesuit Order.
Fourth (and finally), O patient reader, how does one sum up the nature and meaning of Johannes Bisselius’ Argonauticon Americanorum? First, it is a work shot through with Classicism and references to the legend of the Argonauts; the answer to the question implied at the beginning of this piece (What did Jason do next?) must surely be that he sailed off to South America. Open any page of the work’s fifteen books and one is almost certain to find a reference to Greek mythology and the Argonautic story.
Some more examples:
Discussing his fellow travellers, he has this to say about one of the more senior members of the crew, who, at an early stage, tries to answer the questions of the young Pedro Govea:
Sciscitantis sermonem excepit idem ille, qui saepius antehac: veteranus, inquam, Polyhistor, quem inter ARGONAUTAS Orpheum dixisses Nauplium: aut, inter Graecos ad Trojam, Nestora Neleium; ut, cujus ab ore (non minus quam Orpheo Nestoreoque) melle dulcior plerumque flueret oratio. (1.7)
The same man tried to answer my questions as he had often done before: I mean the veteran Polyhistor, who among the Argonauts you would have called Orpheus or Nauplius or among the Greeks of Troy, Nestor, the son of Neleus, since the words that flowed from his mouth (as well as from that of Orpheus or Nestor) were often sweeter than honey.
Describing the difficulties that the group experience, when they have to continue their journey on foot, descriptive comparisons such as the following abound:
Amni nos sine mora committimus. Nullum est, ne Colchici quidem Phasidis, aut Scythici Borysthenis, vel Cydni Cilicis frigus; quod fluminis istius, per quod iter nobis erat, aequare gelu credam; omni nive glacieque rigidius. (5.1)
We get into the river without delay. There is no cold, not even that of the Phasis River in Colchis or the Boristenis in Scythia or the Cydnus in Cilicia, which I think can be compared to the ice of the river we were crossing.
The Argonautic imagery becomes especially rich as the story moves to towards its climax and the spiritual change that Pedro Govea experiences, as he decides to join the Jesuit Order:
Illic ego demum, post tot Marium, Insularum, ac Regionum lustrata miracula; post quattuor Orbis Partes, Europam, Africam, Asiam, Americam, oculis subjectas: Videre sum orsus et introspicere, quod inter profana negotia difficillimum fuit; id est, MEIPSUM. Ibi, per arma, per ensem, perque navales pugnas et omnis generis Argonauticam, diu quaesitum: non in balteo, nec in sago paludamentove; nec in velis atque carbasis; sed in Toga lanea VELLUS illud AUREUM, inveni, Coelistisque plane Militiae torquem; Consecutus, divino munere, compendium lucrumque, quod ex ORBE NOVO reportari summum poterat; exuto scilicet VETERE Petro, NOVUM et emendatiorem VICTORIAM. (15.7)
Then, finally, after having contemplated so many miracles in seas, islands and countries and after having gazed upon the four parts of the world, Europe, Africa, Asia, America, I began to see and to see within myself that which in the midst of worldly occupations had been the most difficult to see, that is, myself. And there, free of sword-belt, cape, cloak, sails and sheets, but dressed in a woollen toga, I found that Golden Fleece, long sought after with weapons, with the sword and in the midst of naval battles and all kinds of Argonautics, plainly a medal for divine military service and a culmination and prize of what the New World had brought me to the highest degree: stripping myself of the old Pedro to become a new and better Victoria.
Finally, is Bissel’s Argonauticon Americanorum worth reading, especially when one considers that it has dropped out of sight for several hundred years? The answer must be a definitive “Yes”. Pedro is the new Jason, the ship that takes him to America a new Argo, and the whole story, another Iter Argonauticum. It is not, however, a story about brutal Spanish Conquistadors but the tale of a young man’s journey to a degree of self-awareness through the very harsh reality of 17th-century South America, written in elegant and sophisticated Latin by an author, who, while steeped in the Classical world and its languages, was able to understand (and develop) the eternal relevance of the Argonautic story, as epitomising the struggle of human existence in the midst of constant adversity.
Post scriptum: this piece has only been able to touch on a few aspects of the rich material contained in the Pericula Petri (“Pedro’s perils”). If any reader has been intrigued enough to read more, or even to collaborate in translating or commentating on some of Bissel’s undeservedly neglected work, or wants to find out what happens when Pedro and his Socii meet some cannibals or how he escapes when he falls into a ravine please get in touch or perhaps simply, read on…
Peter Hulse is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham. He has made a special study of Apollonius of Rhodes but has a wide-ranging interest in all aspects of the Classical world. He has written previously for Antigone about a medieval Latin poem about chess, which is the first discussion of the game in Europe.
Harold C. Hill, “Johann Bissel’s Argonauticon Americanorum (1647): a reexamination,” Modern Language Notes 85 (1970) 652–62.
Raúl Manchón Gómez, “Los Argonautas De América En Una Novela Latina Del Siglo Xvii,” Nova Tellus 31 (2014) 199 –217.
Philipp Weiß and Alexander Winkler, “Der Dichter und historiker Johannes Bisselius SJ (1601–1682) – ein personalbibliographischer überblick,” Humanistica Lovaniensia 61 (2012) 483–510.
|⇧1||Bissel himself addresses his prospective reader as Lector benevolus in one of his introductory paragraphs.|
|⇧2||As with many works of Greco-Roman literature, the Latin title is often reported in the genitive case, understanding “The books of…”.|
|⇧3||The German remarks at the bottom of this page make one think that the Icaria might due a revival: “Für jeden Oberpfälzer ist Bissels amüsanter Reisebericht Icaria ein MUSS…”|
|⇧4||There is some excellent bibliographical detail about Bissel here.|