In Greek mythology, the Golden Fleece (Greek: χρυσόμαλλον δέρας chrysómallon déras; Georgian: ოქროს საწმისი Oqros Satsmisi) is the fleece of the gold-hair winged ram, which was held in Colchis. It figures in the tale of the hero Jason and his band of Argonauts, who set out on a quest for the fleece by order of King Pelias, in order to place Jason rightfully on the throne of Iolcus in Thessaly. The story is of great antiquity and was current in the time of Homer (eighth century BC). It survives in various forms, among which details vary.
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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. They had two children, the boy Phrixus (whose name means "curly"—as in ram's fleece) and the girl Helle. Later Athamas became enamored of and married Ino, the daughter of Cadmus. When Nephele left in anger, drought came upon the land.
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 Theophane, a nymph and the granddaughter of Helios, the sun-god. According to Hyginus, Poseidon carried Theophane to an island where he made her into an ewe, so that he could have his way with her among the flocks. There Theophane's other suitors could not distinguish the ram-god and his consort.
Nepheles' children escaped on the winged ram over the sea, but Helle fell off and drowned in the strait now named after her, the Hellespont. The ram spoke to Phrixus, encouraging him, and took the boy safely to Colchis (modern-day Georgia), on the easternmost shore of the Euxine (Black) Sea.
Phrixus settled in the house of Aeetes, son of Helios the sun-Titan, where he lived to a ripe old age. He hung the Golden Fleece reserved from the sacrifice of the ram on an oak in a grove sacred to Ares, the god of war and one of the Twelve Olympians. There it was guarded by a dragon. It remained until Jason came and took it.
Evolution of plot
Pindar employed the quest for the Golden Fleece in his Fourth Pythian Ode (written in 462 BC), though the fleece 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".
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.
Where the written sources fail, through accidents of history, sometimes the continuity of a mythic tradition can be found among the vase-painters. The story of the Golden Fleece appeard to have little resonance for Athenians of the Classic age, for only two representations of it 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 a history in Athens as the opponent of Theseus— but Athena.
The very early origin of the myth in preliterate times means that during the more than a millennium when it was to some degree part of the fabric of culture, its perceived significance likely passed through numerous developments.
Readers whose own cultural background dismisses the mythic fleece as a fanciful object have made euhemeristic attempts to interpret the Golden Fleece "realistically" as reflecting some physical cultural object or alleged historical practice grounded in economics. For example, in the 20th century, some scholars 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, scholars theorized it referred to golden grain, or to the sun.
A more widespread interpretation relates the myth of the fleece to a method of washing gold from streams, which was 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 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.
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 is based on the 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. 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 natural and occurs frequently in literature.
But archeologists have rejected these interpretations as ahistorical. Trying to construct a most plausible explanation by locating it in what is known of the culture instead points to the interpretation that the golden fleece represents the ideas of kingship and legitimacy. Jason must journey to find it, in order to restore legitimate rule to Iolcos.
The following are the chief among the various interpretations of the fleece, with notes on sources and major critical discussions:
- It represents royal power.
- Marcus Porcius Cato and Marcus Terentius Varro, Roman Farm Management (“A Virginia Farmer” (1918), Roman Farm Management, The Treatises of Cato and Varro, in English, with Notes of Modern Instances
- Braund, David (1994), Georgia In Antiquity, Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 21-23
- 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]
- 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)
- Otar Lordkipanidze (2001), “The Golden Fleece: Myth, Euhemeristic Explanation and Archaeology”, Oxford Journal of Archaeology 20, pp. 1-38
- It represents the flayed skin of Krios (‘Ram’), companion of Phrixus.
- Diodorus Siculus 4. 47; cf. scholia on Apollonius Rhodius 2. 1144; 4. 119, citing Dionysus’ Argonautica
- It represents a book on alchemy.
- It represents a technique of writing in gold on parchment.
- Haraxes of Pergamum (c. first to sixth century) (Jacoby, F. (1923) Die Fragmente der griechischen Historiker I (Berlin), IIA, 490, fr. 37)
- It represents a form of placer mining practiced in Georgia, for example.
- Strabo (first century BC) Geography I, 2, 39 (Jones, H.L. (ed.) (1969) The Geography of Strabo (in eight volumes) London
- Tran, T (1992) "The Hydrometallurgy of Gold Processing", Interdisciplinary Science Reviews (UK), 17, pp. 356-365
- "Gold During the Classical Period"
- Shuker, Karl P. N. (1997), From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings, LLewellyn
- Renault, Mary (2004), The Bull from the Sea, Arrow (Rand)
- refuted in: Braund, David (1994), op. cit., p. 24 and Otar Lordkipanidze (2001), op. cit.
- It represents the forgiveness of God
- It represents a rain cloud.
- Forchhammer, P. W. (1857) Hellenica Berlin p. 205 ff, 330 ff
- refuted in: Janet Ruth Bacon|Bacon, Janet Ruth (1925), op. cit.
- It represents a land of golden grain.
- Faust, Adolf (1898), Einige deutsche und griechische Sagen im Lichte ihrer ursprünglichen Bedeutung. Mulhausen
- refuted in: Bacon, Janet Ruth (1925), op. cit.
- It represents the spring-hero.
- Schroder, R. (1899), Argonautensage und Verwandtes, Poznań
- refuted in: Bacon, Janet Ruth (1925), op. cit.
- It represents the sea reflecting the sun.
- It represents the gilded prow of Phrixus’ ship.
- Svoronos, M. (1914), in Journal International d’Archéologie Numismatique, XVI, pp. 81-152
- refuted in: Bacon, Janet Ruth (1925), op. cit.
- It represents a breed of sheep in ancient Georgia.
- Ninck, M. (1921), “Die Bedeutung des Wassers im Kult und Leben der Alten,” Philologus Suppl 14.2, Leipzig
- Ryder, M.L. (1991) "The last word on the Golden Fleece legend?" Oxford Journal of Archaeology 10, pp. 57-60
- Smith, G.J. and Smith, A.J. (1992) “Jason's Golden Fleece,” Oxford Journal of Archaeology 11, pp. 119–20
- It represents the riches imported from the East.
- Bacon, Janet Ruth (1925), op. cit.
- It represents the wealth or technology of Colchis.
- It was a covering for a cult image of Zeus in the form of a ram.
- Robert Graves (1944/1945), The Golden Fleece/Hercules, My Shipmate, New York: Grosset & Dunlap
- It represents a fabric woven from sea silk.
- Verrill, A. Hyatt (1950), Shell Collector’s Handbook, New York: Putnam, p. 77
- Abbott, R. Tucker (1972), Kingdom of the Seashell, New York: Crown Publishers, p. 184
- History of Sea Byssus Cloth
- Mussel Byssus Facts
- refuted in:
- 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
- McKinley, Daniel (1999), “Pinna And Her Silken Beard: A Foray Into Historical Misappropriations,” Ars Textrina 29, pp. 9-29
- It is about a voyage from Greece, through the Mediterranean, across the Atlantic to the Americas.
- Bailey, James R. (1973), The God Kings and the Titans; The New World Ascendancy in Ancient Times, St. Martin's Press
- It represents trading fleece dyed murex-purple for Georgian gold.
- Silver, Morris (1992), Taking Ancient Mythology Economically, Leiden: Brill
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- χρυσόμαλλος, Chrysomallos' or 'Khrysomallus'.
- Strabo, ix.5.8.
- That the ram was sent by Zeus was the version heard by Pausanias in the second century CE (Pausanias, ix.34.5).
- Theophane may equally be construed as "appearing as a goddess" or as "causing a god to appear" (Karl Kerenyi, The Heroes of the Greeks).
- Hyginus, Fabulae, 163
- Karl Kerenyi The Gods of the Greeks, (1951) 1980:182f
- 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)
- 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.
- Translation in Nigel Nicholson, "Polysemy and Ideology in Pindar 'Pythian' 4.229-230", Phoenix 54.3/4 (Autumn-Winter 2000:191-202) p. 192.
- 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).
- Interpretation #12
- Interpretation #8
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- [dead link]
- "ingentaconnect The Golden Fleece: Myth, Euhemeristic Explanation and Archaeology". Ingentaconnect.com. 2001-02-01. Retrieved 2012-05-26.
- "Strabo, Geography, NOTICE". Perseus.tufts.edu. Retrieved 2012-05-26.
- "Gold - during the Classic Era". Minelinks.com. Retrieved 2012-05-26.
- http://www.lazuri.com/kolheti/en_index.php[dead link]
- "Colchis, The Land Of The Golden Fleece, Republic Of Georgia". Great-adventures.com. Retrieved 2012-05-26.
- "history of sea byssus cloth". Designboom.com. Retrieved 2012-05-26.
- [dead link]
- "Document Title". Members.tripod.com. Retrieved 2012-05-26.
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