Jason and the Legendary Golden Fleece
One of the most fascinating stories of ancient Greek mythology is the story of the Argonauts and the Quest for the Golden Fleece. The story takes place in the era before the Trojan War, when Hercules and Theseus were alive and active in ancient Greece. Jason was the son of Aeson, descendant of god Aeolus, and rightful heir of the throne of Iolcus. His wife would later on be the famous sorceress Medea, daughter of King Aeetes of Colchis – where the Golden Fleece resided.
The story begins like this: Pelias, half-brother of Aeson (Jason’s father), son of Poseidon, took the throne of Iolcus, bypassing his brother Aeson and locking him in the dungeons of Iolcus. Because of his wrongful actions, he received a warning from an Oracle that a descendant of Aeson would seek revenge. Aeson, while still in the dungeon, got married and had children, Jason was one of them. Pelias believed that Jason was the one the Oracle spoke about who would seek revenge against him, so he commanded Jason to undertake an impossible mission on which he believed and hoped that Jason would be slain. The mission was to bring back the Golden Fleece from the land of Colchis.
The Golden Fleece, was the skin of a winged ram, a holy ram of the God Zeus, on which the children of King Athamas, Phrixus and Helle , were saved thanks to Zeus’ intervention. According to the story, the two children were to be sacrificed after their step-mother convinced their father it was necessary. But seeing this injustice, Zeus intervened and before the sacrifice took place his holy ram flew down and took the children away, travelling a long distance through the air. However, unfortunately Helle fell from the ram during the flight and was killed. The ocean where she was said to have dropped still bears her name today – Hellespontus.
Phrixus continued his journey and arrived in Colchis, an area in the southern Caucasus on the eastern coast of the Black Sea, and the boy was welcomed by the King Aeetes of Colchis. The ram was sacrificed to Zeus and the Golden Fleece was kept at the temple of the God of War Ares (Mars) and a dragon was put to guard it at all times. The dragon was so large that it could surround a ship with its body.
So Jason, following the commands of King Pelias, began his voyage, known as Argonautica. For the voyage to be successful, Jason had to recruit the best warriors of the time, and so he did. Fifty of the most important heroes of Greece, including Hercules and Orpheus, accompanied Jason on the Argonautica.
A special boat was made called Argos, which was named after the creator, Argus, son of Phrixus. The boat had 50 oars and on the bow of the ship Goddess Athena had placed a branch from her holy ‘speaking’ oak tree from the city of Dodoni, where another famous Oracle resided. Jason had the support of Goddess Hera who wanted revenge for King Pelias not worshipping her.
After an adventurous journey they arrived at Colchis where Jason asked King Aeetes to give him the Golden Fleece, explaining how this was also the wish of the Goddess Hera. Aeetes on the surface agreed but he set a trial that he was sure Jason would fail. He asked Jason to plough the land by using two bulls with metallic legs which threw flames from their nostrils, and then sow the teeth of the dragon that the king gave to him. Aeetes did not tell Jason that by sowing the teeth a large army of warriors would come out of the soil to attack him.
Fortunately Medea, daughter of Aeetes, gave Jason an ointment that would make him invincible to fire and iron for one day and she also told him about her father’s plan. Medea instructed Jason to throw a stone at the warriors, telling him that by doing so, the warriors would turn on each other, launch into battle, and eventually kill each other.
With the help of Medea, Jason succeeded in the task, so King Aeetes told Jason he could retrieve the Golden Fleece, believing that the dragon would kill him. At the same time, he ordered his army to burn his ship, Argos, and kill the Argonauts. However, Medea again helped Jason and, as a sorceress, she put a spell on the dragon so that Jason could get the Golden Fleece from the tree were it was hanging. Jason retrieved the Golden Fleece and both Jason and Medea left together with Argos and the Argonauts. Knowing her father and that he would follow them, Medea captured her brother and killed him, spreading his pieces across the ocean so that her father would have to search for all the pieces of his son, providing them with the necessary time to escape.
The journey back wasn’t easy, Zeus was angry with the killing of Medea’s brother and so he threw many challenges at Jason and the Argonauts. These included the Sirens – beautiful but dangerous mythological beings that would lure the sailors with their enchanting music so that their ship would become destroyed on the rocky coast of their island, the Skylla and Charybdis – mythical sea monsters that would attack and destroy ships, the giant metallic ‘robot’ Talos in Crete, and many more. By overcoming the challenges and obstacles they faced on their journey, Jason and the Argonauts were redeemed for their sin of killing Medea’s brother and finally, with the help of the God Apollo, they arrived back home, where Jason gave the Golden Fleece to King Pelias.
Most people believe that the story of Jason and the Argonauts is a work of fiction born out of the imagination of the ancient people. However, the word ‘ myth’ originates from the Greek word mythos, meaning ‘word’ or ‘tale’ or ‘true narrative’, referring not only to the means by which it was transmitted but also to it being rooted in truth. Mythos was also closely related to the word myo, meaning ‘to teach’, or ‘to initiate into the mysteries’.
Based on this background, some scholars believe that the ancient Greek myths have their root in reality. A famous example is the city Troy, which is central to Homer’s The Iliad. Long considered to be a city of Myth, Heinrich Schliemann’s discovery of the actual site in 1868 elevated it to a place in history. Likewise, Dr Marcus Vaxevanopoulos of the Geology department of the University of Thessaloniki in Greece believes that there is some reality behind the story of Jason and the Argonauts. He suggests that that ‘myth’ describes a quest of the Greeks to bring gold from the area of Colchis , an area rich in gold and other metals. This is not to say that ‘sea monsters’ and enchanting Sirens really existed, but that these descriptions were, in fact, a way for people to explain real—and perhaps perplexing—events using the knowledge and beliefs of their time. After all, research and historical records have shown that stories of sea monsters were simply a way for people to describe whales, walruses, and giant squid, which were rarely seen in ancient times and which were quite terrifying to the people that saw them.
If Dr Vaxevanopoulos is right, and the story of Jason and the Argonauts has its basis in reality, the next logical question is – how much of the story is real? Who were the ‘gods’ that intervened in the lives of the mortals? What did the dragon represent? And was the golden fleece merely a symbol for real gold?
By John Black