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Quest: She says, he says….

June 16, 2011

The Golden Fleece Dream ~ William Prosser

In the Odyssey, Homer refers to ‘celebrated Argo‘ which managed to evade the Wandering Rocks when ‘homeward bound from Aeetes coast’. And in the Iliad he wrote of Euneos, Jason’s son by Queen Hypsipyle on Lemnos. As Homer is our oldest surviving source of Greek mythology, this means that the ancestry of the Argonaut story is established as far back as records exist. Quite how far back that ancestry goes, we have no way of knowing, but it is evident from Homer’s poetry that he expected his audience to be thoroughly familiar with at least the story of the Lemnian women, the visit to King Aeetes’ country, and of course the existence of Argo herself.

Homer’s near-contemporary, the Boeotian poet Hesiod who lived in the late 8th century BC, must have known the Argonaut story because in his writings he mentions Jason’s visit to King Aeetes, his meeting with Princess Medea, and his return to Iolcos with ‘the bright-eyed damsel whom he made his loving wife’. In a group of texts known as ‘Hesiodic’, once attributed to Hesiod himself but now believed to have been written by other authors, there are also references to Phrixus, to Jason’s youth, and to the adventure with Phineas and the Harpies.

Image Fleeced From: Gurney Journey

In the following century, the 7th BC, Minnermus, another Greek poet specifically mentions the Golden Fleece as the object of Jason’s voyage, and a Corinthian poet, Eumelos, claims that Jason went to live in Corinth, not Iolcos, after his return from Colchis. As more and more fragments of early Greek writing survive, so the extra details emerge, although not all of them are consistent with one another: Simonides in the 6th century BC confirms the passage of the Clashing Rocks but says that the Fleece was not gold but dyed with sea-purple.

Purple sheep graze next to the M8 motorway in Bathgate, Scotland.

Image Sourced: Telegraph.co.uk

In the 5th century BC there was a great flowering of the legend when Jason’s story became a favourite theme for poets and dramatists. Aeschylus wrote no less than six plays based on various Argonaut themes, and although most of the plays themselves have been lost, we know that there were a Phineas, a Lemnian Woman, a Hypsipyle, and a Kabeirii. Sophocles wrote plays on Phrixus’ father Athamas, on Phrixus, the Colchidians, Phineas, the fight with King Amycus, and three plays which touched on events during the return voyage of Argo.

Hypsipyle

Masks by Vasiliki Psarrou

In total, no less than eight tragic poets tackled various Argonautic themes, but the one to survive and most influence modern perception was Euripides’ Medea. As it was virtually impossible for any early historian or geographer to treat of the Black Sea without some reference to Argo, their writings are sprinkled with mentions of peoples and places visited by the Argonauts. The most famous of the early historians, Herodotus, put forward the interesting notion that Argo was blown down to the North African coast on the outward leg of her epic journey.

Thus, by the time Apollonius of Rhodes came to compose his epic, the main events of the Argonaut saga were well set. We do not know what sources Apollonius used for his major version of the tale, but his version of the attack on the Argonauts by the monsters of Bear Mountain is very similar to a passage in Homer’s Odyssey when Ulysses’ squadron is attacked by the Laestrygonians. It is possible that Apollonius also had other – now lost – Homeric material available to him because the geographer Strabo says that Homer wrote about ‘the places round Propontis and the Euxine as far as Colchis, the bourne of Jason’s expedition’.

Greek Mythology Stamp

Greek Mythology Stamps

From a very early stage, people were intrigued as to whether or not the story was true. Strabo was convinced it was. The saga of the Argonauts, he firmly stated, showed that ‘the ancients made longer journeys, both by land and by sea, than have men of later time’. It was Strabo who identified the possibility that the Colchian technique of gold-gathering, using sheepskins, could have some connection with the legend of the Golden Fleece. But the more commentators thought about the tale, the wilder and more far-fetched became their interpretations of the events.

The Golden Fleece became a parchment illuminated with golden writing, or even a document which contained the alchemists’ secret of how to turn dross into gold. By the nineteenth century folklorists were putting forward theories that the fleece was a symbol of the sun, or it was a raincloud, depending on your choice. If it was a sun symbol, the the sunlight came from King Aeetes who was a child of the sun according to mythology, the ram was the setting sun returning to the east, and Medea was the red glow of dawn and dusk.

For those who favoured the raincloud interpretation, the fleece was the purple of a thundercloud, and in Greece the clouds could be seen heading east in summer towards Colchis, and returning in spring and autumn, bearing rain. According to this idea, it was significant that many of the Argonauts were descended from watery spirits such as water nymphs, river gods, and Poseidon himself. Other ideas put forward to explain the Golden Fleece were that it symbolized the ripened corn of the Black Sea coastlands rippling in the wind or that it was a rough sea gilded by sunlight.

The Sting in the Tale

It was left to a Cambridge don, Janet Brown, to impose some discipline on all these ideas in her study The Voyage of the Argonauts (Methuen, 1925) which remains a standard word. After reviewing the evidence Janet Brown reached the conclusion that ‘long before Homer voyages were made to Colchis for gold; a voyage was made by Jason. Jason was a Minyan of Thessaly; by Minyan race he was connected to Phrixus who had been saved by a golden ram and fled eastward’. Jason’s voyalge, she felt, was ‘a real quest for real gold’.

Reference Material:

The Jason Voyage: The Quest for the Golden Fleece – Tim Severin, 1985

5th-6th Century C.E. From ancient Colchis (Georgia).

Dropping a Stone in the Pond

The Ancient Colchidians were renowned for their skill in metallurgy and the main reason for the arrival of the lonians (Greeks) in Colchis (Russian Georgia)  in the middle of the 6th century BC was the area’s richness in metals. The involvement of the Greeks in iron metallurgy is a matter of which, so far, we know nothing. Nevertheless, the Greeks, trying to adapt their art to the tastes of the local rulers, established in Colchis in the 5th century BC schools of gold- and silver-smiths, as well as the production of metal seals and engraved gems.

One of the methods of metal-working developed in Colchis, was the casting of bronze swords within a stone mold.  The sword-in-the-stone of Arthurian Legend.

Further Reading:

Bronze Age Craft ~ Bronze Sword Casting

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2 comments

  1. Prosser’s Golden Fleece Dream is magnificent! And Harpy Meals — LOL!


  2. Tastes just like chicken!



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