Golden Fleece

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For the chivalric order, see Order of the Golden Fleece. For the award established by the late U.S. Senator William Proxmire, see Golden Fleece Award.
Image:Jason Pelias Louvre K127.jpg
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) is that of the winged ram Chrysomallos (Χρυσόμαλλος). It figures in the tale of Jason and his band of Argonauts, who set out on a quest 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 BCE) – 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). The classic telling is the Argonauta of Apollonius of Rhodes.

Athamas, 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. Ino was jealous of her stepchildren and plotted their deaths. (In some versions, she persuades Athamas that sacrificing Phrixus is the only way to end a famine.) Nephele, or her spirit, appeared to the children with a winged ram whose fleece was of gold. On the ram the children escaped over the sea, but Helle fell off and drowned in the strait now called after her the Hellespont. The ram took Phrixus safely on to Colchis, on the far (eastern) shore of the Euxine (Black) Sea. Phrixus then sacrificed the ram and hung its fleece on a tree (sometimes an oak tree) 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.

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[edit] Interpretations

Attempts have been made to interpret the Golden Fleece not just as a fanciful object in a myth but as reflecting some actual cultural object or practice. Thus, for example, it has at various times been suggested that the story of the Golden Fleece signified the bringing of sheep husbandry to Greece from the east, or that it refers to golden grain, or to the sun.

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 it 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.

A more widespread interpretation relates it to a method of capturing 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.

The very early origin of the myth in preliterate times means that all extant interpretations are greatly post facto and in greater or lesser degree rationalizations that suffer from very incomplete knowledge of the culture in which it arose. Most have been effectively criticized in the archaeological literature. An attempt to construct a most plausible explanation by locating it in what is known of that culture points, interestingly, to one of the earliest proposals, namely 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.

[edit] Sources

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 [1])
    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 & Antonios Rengakos (edd.). 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 [2]
  2. It represents the flayed skin of Krios (‘Ram’), companion of Phrixus.
    1. Diod. (?) Sic. 4. 47; cf. schol. Ap. Rhod. 2. 1144; 4. 119, citing Dionysus’ Argonautica
  3. It represents a book on alchemy.
    1. Palaephatus (fourth century BCE) ‘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 first practiced in Georgia.
    1. Strabo (first century BCE) Geography I, 2, 39 (Jones, H.L. (ed.) (1969) The Geography of Strabo (in eight volumes) London [3])
    2. Tran, T (1992) "The Hydrometallurgy of Gold Processing", Interdisciplinary Science Reviews (UK), 17, pp. 356-365
    3. Gold During the Classical Period [4]
    4. refuted in: Braund, David (1994), Georgia In Antiquity, Oxford: Clarendon Press, p. 24
  6. It represents the forgiveness of God
    1. Muller, Karl Ottfried (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: Bacon, Janet Ruth (1925), The Voyage of the Argonauts, London: Methuen, p. 64 ff, 163 ff
  8. It represents golden corn land.
    1. Faust (1898), “Einige deutsche und griechische Sagen im Liche ihrer ursprünglichen Bedeutung”. Mulhausen
    2. refuted in: Bacon, Janet Ruth (1925), The Voyage of the Argonauts, London: Methuen, p. 64 ff, 163 ff
  9. It represents the spring-hero.
    1. Schroder, R. (1899), Argonautensage und Verwandtes, Posen
    2. refuted in: Bacon, Janet Ruth (1925), The Voyage of the Argonauts, London: Methuen, p. 64 ff, 163 ff
  10. It represents the sea reflecting the sun.
    1. Vurthiem, V (1902), “De Argonautarum Vellere aureo”, Mnemosyne, N. S., XXX, pp. 54-67; XXXI, p. 116
    2. Mannhardt, Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, VII, p. 241 ff, 281 ff
    3. refuted in: Bacon, Janet Ruth (1925), The Voyage of the Argonauts, London: Methuen, p. 64 ff, 163 ff
  11. It represents the gilded prow of Phrixus’ ship.
    1. Svoronos, M. (1914), Journal International d’Archéologie Numismatique, XVI, pp. 81-152
    2. refuted in: Bacon, Janet Ruth (1925), The Voyage of the Argonauts, London: Methuen, p. 64 ff, 163 ff
  12. It represents a sheep bred in ancient Georgia.
    1. Ninck, M. (1921), “Die Bedeutung des Wassers im Kult u.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), The Voyage of the Argonauts, London: Methuen, p. 64 ff, 163 ff
  14. It represents the wealth or technology of Colchis.
    1. Akaki Urushadze (1984), The Country of the Enchantress Medea, Tbilisi
    2. Colchis [5]
    3. Colchis, Land of the Golden Fleece [6]
  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 [7]
    4. Mussel Byssus Facts [8]
    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 represents trading fleece dyed murex-purple for Georgian gold.
    1. Silver, Morris (1992), Taking Ancient Mythology Economically, Leiden: Brill [9]


[edit] Modern Connections

In Donald Barthelme's The Dead Father, the group is on a pilgrimage to seek what the Dead Father thinks is the Golden Fleece. However, they are really just taking the Dead Father to be buried.

[edit] See also

Wikimedia Commons has media related to:
bg:Златно руно

cs:Zlaté rouno de:Goldenes Vlies et:Kuldvillak es:Vellocino de oro fr:Toison d'or it:Vello d'oro he:גיזת הזהב ka:ოქროს საწმისი lb:Chrysomeles nl:Gulden vlies (mythologie) pl:Złote runo pt:Velo de ouro ru:Золотое руно fi:Kultainen talja sv:Gyllene skinnet zh:金羊毛

Golden Fleece

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