Golden Fleece

Golden Fleece
Jason returns with the Golden Fleece on an Apulian red-figure calyx krater, ca. 340–330 BCE

In Greek mythology, the Golden Fleece (Greek: Χρυσόμαλλον Δέρας; Georgian: ოქროს საწმისი) is the fleece of the gold-haired[1] winged ram, which can be procured in Colchis. It figures in the tale of Jason and his band of Argonauts, who set out on a quest by order of King Pelias for the fleece in order to place Jason rightfully on the throne of Iolcus in Thessaly. The story is of great antiquity – it was current in the time of Homer (eighth century BC) – and consequently it survives in various forms, among which details vary. Thus, in later versions of the story, the ram is said to have been the offspring of the sea god Poseidon and Themisto (less often, Nephele or Theophane). The classic telling is the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes, composed in mid-third century BC Alexandria, recasting early sources that have not survived. Another, much less-known Argonautica, using the same body of myth, was composed in Latin by Valerius Flaccus during the time of Vespasian.


Synthesised plot synopsis

Topics in Greek mythology

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Athamas the Minyan, a founder of Halos in Thessaly[2] but also king of the city of Orchomenus in Boeotia (a region of southeastern Greece), took as his first wife the cloud goddess Nephele, by whom he had two children, the boy Phrixus and the girl Helle. Later he became enamored of and married Ino, the daughter of Cadmus, bringing drought upon his land when Nephele removed herself. Ino was jealous of her stepchildren and plotted their deaths: in some versions, she persuaded Athamas that sacrificing Phrixus was the only way to end the drought. Nephele, or her spirit, appeared to the children with a winged ram whose fleece was of gold.[3] The ram had been sired by Poseidon in his primitive ram-form upon a nymph, Theophane,[4] the granddaughter of Helios, the sun-god. According to Hyginus,[5] he carried her away to an island where he made her into an ewe so that he could have his way with her among the flocks, where Theophane's other suitors could not distinguish the ram-god and his consort.[6]

On the ram the children escaped over the sea, but Helle fell off and drowned in the strait now named after her, the Hellespont. The ram spoke to Phrixus, giving him heart,[7] and took Phrixus, whose name means "curly"—as ram's fleece—safely on to Colchis (modern-day Georgia), on the easternmost shore of the Euxine (Black) Sea. Phrixus then sacrificed the ram to Poseidon[8] and settled in the house of Aietes, son of Helios the sun-Titan, and lived to a ripe old age. He hung the Golden Fleece reserved from the sacrifice on an oak in a grove sacred to Ares, where it was guarded by a dragon. There it remained until taken by Jason. The ram became the constellation Aries.

Evolution of plot

The very early origin of the myth in preliterate times means that during the more than a millennium during which it was to some degree or other part of the fabric of culture its perceived significance can be expected to have passed through numerous developments.

Pindar employed the quest for the Golden Fleece in his Fourth Pythian Ode (written in 462 BC), though the fleece itself is not in the foreground; when Aeetes challenges Jason to yoke the fire-breathing bulls, the fleece is the prize: "Let the King do this, the captain of the ship! Let him do this, I say, and have for his own the immortal coverlet, the fleece, glowing with matted skeins of gold".[9]

Where the written sources fail, through accidents of history, sometimes the vase-painters preserve the continuity of a mythic tradition. It seems that the story of the Golden Fleece had little resonance for Athenians of the Classic age, for only two representations on Attic painted wares of the fifth century have been identified, a krater at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a kylix in the Vatican collections.[10] In the kylix painted by Douris, ca 480-470, Jason is being disgorged from the mouth of the dragon, a detail that does not fit easily into the literary sources; behind the dragon, the fleece hangs from an apple tree. Jason's helper in the Athenian vase-paintings is not Medea— who had an untoward history in Athens as the opponent of Theseus— but Athena.


Euhemeristic attempts on the part of readers whose own cultural background dismisses the mythic fleece as a fanciful object have interpreted the Golden Fleece "realistically" as reflecting some actual cultural object or alleged historical practice grounded in economics: for example, in the twentieth century it was suggested that the story of the Golden Fleece signified the bringing of sheep husbandry to Greece from the east;[11] in other readings more schooled in mythology it would refer to golden grain,[12] or to the sun.[13]

A sluice box used in placer mining.

A more widespread interpretation relates it to a method of washing gold from streams that is well attested (but only from c. 5th century BC) in the region of Georgia to the east of the Black Sea. Sheep fleeces, sometimes stretched over a wood frame, would be submerged in the stream, and gold flecks borne down from upstream placer deposits would collect in them. The fleeces would then be hung in trees to dry before the gold was shaken or combed out. Alternatively, the fleeces would be used on washing tables in alluvial mining of gold or on washing tables at deep gold mines.[14] Judging by the very early gold objects from a range of cultures, washing for gold is a very old human activity. Thus Strabo describes the way in which gold could be washed:

  • It is said that in their country gold is carried down by the mountain torrents, and that the barbarians obtain it by means of perforated troughs and fleecy skins, and that this is the origin of the myth of the golden fleece—unless they call them Iberians, by the same name as the western Iberians, from the gold mines in both countries.

Another interpretation rests on references in some versions to purple or purple-dyed cloth. The purple dye extracted from snails of the Murex and related species was highly prized in ancient times, and clothing made of cloth dyed with Tyrian purple was a mark of great wealth and high station (hence the phrase “royal purple”). The association of gold with purple is thus natural and occurs frequently in the literature.[15]

However, archeologists have rejected these interpretations as ahistorical. An attempt to construct a most plausible explanation by locating it in what is known of the culture in which the story arose points to the interpretation that the Golden Fleece represents the ideas of kingship and legitimacy; hence the journey of Jason to find it, in order to restore legitimate rule to Iolcos.[16]

Main theories

Medea statue holding the Golden Fleece in the center of Batumi (One of the major cities of Colchis), Georgia.

The following are the chief among the various explanations that have been offered, with notes on sources and major critical discussions:

  1. It represents royal power.
    1. Marcus Porcius Cato and Marcus Terentius Varro, Roman Farm Management (“A Virginia Farmer” (1918), Roman Farm Management, The Treatises of Cato and Varro, Done into English, with Notes of Modern Instances on-line text)
    2. Braund, David (1994), Georgia In Antiquity, Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 21-23
    3. Popko, M. (1974) “Kult Swietego runa w hetyckiej Anatolii” [“The Cult of the Golden Fleece in Hittite Anatolia”], Preglad Orientalistyczuy 91, pp. 225-30 [In Russian]
    4. Newman, John Kevin (2001) “The Golden Fleece. Imperial Dream” (Theodore Papanghelis and Antonios Rengakos (eds.). A Companion to Apollonius Rhodius. Leiden: Brill (Mnemosyne Supplement 217), 309-40)
    5. Otar Lordkipanidze (2001), “The Golden Fleece: Myth, Euhemeristic Explanation and Archaeology”, Oxford Journal of Archaeology 20, pp. 1-38 [1]
  2. It represents the flayed skin of Krios (‘Ram’), companion of Phrixus.
    1. Diodorus Siculus 4. 47; cf. scholia on Apollonius Rhodius 2. 1144; 4. 119, citing Dionysus’ Argonautica
  3. It represents a book on alchemy.
    1. Palaephatus (fourth century BC) ‘On the Incredible’ (Festa, N. (ed.) (1902) Mythographi Graeca III, 2, Lipsiae, p. 89
  4. It represents a technique of writing in gold on parchment.
    1. Haraxes of Pergamum (c. first to sixth century) (Jacoby, F. (1923) Die Fragmente der griechischen Historiker I (Berlin), IIA, 490, fr. 37)
  5. It represents a form of placer mining practiced in Georgia, for example.
    1. Strabo (first century BC) Geography I, 2, 39 (Jones, H.L. (ed.) (1969) The Geography of Strabo (in eight volumes) London on-line text)
    2. Tran, T (1992) "The Hydrometallurgy of Gold Processing", Interdisciplinary Science Reviews (UK), 17, pp. 356-365
    3. "Gold During the Classical Period" [2]
    4. Shuker, Karl P. N. (1997), From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings, LLewellyn
    5. Renault, Mary (2004), The Bull from the Sea, Arrow (Rand)
    6. refuted in: Braund, David (1994), op. cit., p. 24 and Otar Lordkipanidze (2001), op. cit.
  6. It represents the forgiveness of God
    1. Müller, Karl Otfried (1844), Orchomenos und die Minyer, Breslau
    2. refuted in: Bacon, Janet Ruth (1925), The Voyage of the Argonauts, London: Methuen, p. 64 ff, 163 ff
  7. It represents a rain cloud.
    1. Forchhammer, P. W. (1857) Hellenica Berlin p. 205 ff, 330 ff
    2. refuted in: Janet Ruth Bacon|Bacon, Janet Ruth (1925), op. cit.
  8. It represents a land of golden grain.
    1. Faust, Adolf (1898), Einige deutsche und griechische Sagen im Lichte ihrer ursprünglichen Bedeutung. Mulhausen
    2. refuted in: Bacon, Janet Ruth (1925), op. cit.
  9. It represents the spring-hero.
    1. Schroder, R. (1899), Argonautensage und Verwandtes, Poznań
    2. refuted in: Bacon, Janet Ruth (1925), op. cit.
  10. It represents the sea reflecting the sun.
    1. Vurthiem, V (1902), “De Argonautarum Vellere aureo”, Mnemosyne, New Series, XXX, pp. 54-67; XXXI, p. 116
    2. Mannhardt, in Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, VII, p. 241 ff, 281 ff
    3. refuted in: Bacon, Janet Ruth (1925), op. cit.
  11. It represents the gilded prow of Phrixus’ ship.
    1. Svoronos, M. (1914), in Journal International d’Archéologie Numismatique, XVI, pp. 81-152
    2. refuted in: Bacon, Janet Ruth (1925), op. cit.
  12. It represents a breed of sheep in ancient Georgia.
    1. Ninck, M. (1921), “Die Bedeutung des Wassers im Kult und Leben der Alten,” Philologus Suppl 14.2, Leipzig
    2. Ryder, M.L. (1991) "The last word on the Golden Fleece legend?" Oxford Journal of Archaeology 10, pp. 57-60
    3. Smith, G.J. and Smith, A.J. (1992) “Jason's Golden Fleece,” Oxford Journal of Archaeology 11, pp. 119–20
  13. It represents the riches imported from the East.
    1. Bacon, Janet Ruth (1925), op. cit.
  14. It represents the wealth or technology of Colchis.
    1. Akaki Urushadze (1984), The Country of the Enchantress Medea, Tbilisi
    2. Colchis [3]
    3. Colchis, Land of the Golden Fleece [4]
  15. It was a covering for a cult image of Zeus in the form of a ram.
    1. Robert Graves (1944/1945), The Golden Fleece/Hercules, My Shipmate, New York: Grosset & Dunlap
  16. It represents a fabric woven from sea silk.
    1. Verrill, A. Hyatt (1950), Shell Collector’s Handbook, New York: Putnam, p. 77
    2. Abbott, R. Tucker (1972), Kingdom of the Seashell, New York: Crown Publishers, p. 184
    3. History of Sea Byssus Cloth [5]
    4. Mussel Byssus Facts [6]
    5. refuted in:
      1. Barber, Elizabeth J. W. (1991), Prehistoric textiles : the development of cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages with special reference to the Aegean, Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press
      2. McKinley, Daniel (1999), “Pinna And Her Silken Beard: A Foray Into Historical Misappropriations,” Ars Textrina 29, pp. 9-29
  17. It is about a voyage from Greece, through the Mediterranean, across the Atlantic to the Americas.
    1. Bailey, James R. (1973), The God Kings and the Titans; The New World Ascendancy in Ancient Times, St. Martin's Press
  18. It represents trading fleece dyed murex-purple for Georgian gold.
    1. Silver, Morris (1992), Taking Ancient Mythology Economically, Leiden: Brill [7]

See also


  1. ^ χρυσόμαλλος, chrysomallos.
  2. ^ Strabo, ix.5.8.
  3. ^ That the ram was sent by Zeus was the version heard by Pausanias in the second century CE (Pausanias, ix.34.5).
  4. ^ Theophane may equally be construed as "appearing as a goddess" or as "causing a god to appear" (Karl Kerenyi, The Heroes of the Greeks).
  5. ^ Hyginus, Fabulae, 163
  6. ^ Karl Kerenyi The Gods of the Greeks, (1951) 1980:182f
  7. ^ Upon the shield of Jason, as it was described in Apollonius' Argonautica, "was Phrixos the Minyan, depicted as though really listening to the ram, and the ram seemed to be speaking. As you looked on this pair, you would be struck dumb with amazement and deceived, for you would expect to hear some wise utterance from them with this hope you would gaze long upon them." (Richard Hunter, tr. Apollonius of Rhodes: Jason and the Golden Fleece, (Oxford University Press) 1993:21)
  8. ^ In essence this act returned the ram to the god, though in the surviving literary source, Apollonius' Argonautica ii, the ram was sacrificed to Zeus, rescuer of fugitives.
  9. ^ Translation in Nigel Nicholson, "Polysemy and Ideology in Pindar 'Pythian' 4.229-230" Phoenix 54.3/4 (Autumn-Winter 2000:191-202) p. 192.
  10. ^ Vatican 16545. Gisela Richter published the Metropolitan Museum's krater in "Jason and the Golden Fleece", American Journal of Archaeology 39 (1935); Cynthia King, "Who Is That Cloaked Man? Observations on Early Fifth Century B. C. Pictures of the Golden Fleece", American Journal of Archaeology 87.3 (July 1983:385-387).
  11. ^ Interpretation #12
  12. ^ Interpretation #8
  13. ^ Interpretation #10
  14. ^ Interpretation #5
  15. ^ Interpretation #17
  16. ^ Interpretation #1

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