In Greek mythology, the Golden Fleece is the fleece of the gold-haired 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
Athamas the Minyan, a founder of Halos in Thessaly 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.
The ram had been sired by Poseidon in his primitive ram-form upon a nymph, Theophane, the granddaughter of Helios, the sun-god. According to Hyginus, 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.
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, 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 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".
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. 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; in other readings more schooled in mythology it would refer to golden grain, or to the sun.
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.
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.
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.
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