Aetês, sometimes written Æetès (Ancient Greek: Αἰήτης, Aiêtês), is a figure from Greek mythology, known primarily as the king of Colchis whom Jason and the Argonauts must confront before stealing the Golden Fleece. He is the son of Helios; the identity of his mother (as well as his wife) varies among ancient authors, but she is generally accepted to be a nymph. In the literal sense, Aeetes is a demigod, brother of the magician Circe, Pasiphae, wife of King Minos of Crete, and Perses.
His father Hélios made him the first king of Corinth but Éétès preferred to abandon Greece to join Colchide. He creates there a rich and powerful kingdom and reigns from its capital Aïa (identified by some with Koutaïssi). He is a ruthless ruler, practicing human sacrifices; he is also the friend of some gods, such as Hephaestus and Ares.
Aeetes welcomes Phrixos and takes possession of the golden fleece. Years later, Jason and the Argonauts land in Colchis to obtain the fleece. The king agrees to give it to them only at the price of trials that Jason must accomplish. The betrayal of the king’s daughter, Medea, allows the Argonauts to steal the golden fleece and flee. Other versions of the myth have added two confrontations between Aeetes and his brother Perseus, the king of Scythia: a first one where Perseus is defeated by a Greek-Colchidian alliance and a second one that leads to the overthrow of Aeetes. In this second version, it is Medea (and possibly Jason) who returns to Colchis and helps her father regain his crown.
Aeetes first appears in Homer’s Odyssey as a magician king. Many authors, such as Hesiod, Eumelos, Mimnerme and Sophocles, developed the myths surrounding the king of Colchis. With Apollonius of Rhodes and his Argonautics, Aeetes became a popular theme in Greek mythology. The Romans added to the myth with, among other things, the conflict between Aeetes and his brother. Only Diodorus of Sicily, in the first century BC, mentions the death of the king, at the hands of the Argonauts.
Gradually, Aeetes evolved from a mythical figure, ruthless, cruel and enemy of the Greeks, to a semi-legendary king. Roman and Byzantine historians and geographers considered him a historical figure. Modern Georgian historiographers identify in Aeetes the symbol of a king (or dynasty) who led Colchis to prosperity before the Greek colonization of the Euxin Bridge, thus constituting an empire stretching from Anatolia to the Crimea and including numerous colonies across the Mediterranean Sea.
Homer is the first known author to quote Aeetes in the Odyssey (song X, 137, etc.): “Aeetes with perfidious thoughts”.
There are several hypotheses about the etymology of the name Aiêtês (Ancient Greek: Αἰήτης):
In the first century, the geographer Strabo, on a visit to Colchis, notes the popularity of the name Aeetes throughout the region, but there is no indication of whether this name spread before or after the popularization of the myth of the king. The name remained popular until the sixth century when Prince Aetas distinguished himself in the Lazic War.
The myth of Aeetes is linked to the epic of the Argonauts.
Homer makes of him a “magician”, brother of Circe. Homer also mentions the voyage of the Argonauts in his Iliad, which indicates a legend prior to the 8th century BC.
Hesiod describes in his Theogony not only the genealogy of the Colchidian king, but also the arrival of Phrixos and the golden fleece of Chrysomallos in Colchis and the mission of Jason. Hesiod, however, makes the abduction of Medea the main mission of Jason in Colchis.
In the 8th and 7th centuries B.C., at the beginning of the Hellenic period, the myth of Aeetes underwent many variations.
The Naupacties, an anonymous work from the sixth century, directly influenced Pindar and Apollonius of Rhodes, but makes the king a more violent character than the earlier works.
In 462, Pindar wrote his IVth Pythic, an ode in honor of the victory of king Arcésilas IV of Cyrene. It is the first detailed account of the voyage of the Argonauts. This poem would have inspired Apollonius of Rhodes for his Argonautics. Apollonius was also inspired by the Homeric style: Aeetes and Medea are compared to Minos and Ariadne, and the description of Aeetes and his armor are reminiscent of the heroes of the Iliad.
Herodotus also mentioned the king of Colchis and the abduction of Medea by Jason.
There are also two lost plays by Sophocles, Colchis and The Women of Colchis, whose fragments reveal the laments of Medea who betrayed her father.
In the 3rd century B.C., the Argonautics of Apollonius of Rhodes are at the origin of the popularity of the myth. It had already spread during the Hellenistic period before.
Callimachus of Cyrene, a contemporary of Apollonius, wrote several poems in opposition to Apollonius; he makes Eetes an angry king in his Aitia. It is not known whether this work was published before or after the Argonautics.
Pausanias the Periegete, in a scholia to Apollonius of Rhodes, quotes the semi-legendary poet Eumelos of Corinth who is said to have written about the Corinthian origin of Aeetes around 750 BCE.
The Roman authors have taken up the myth of Aeetes. New facts are given about the life of the king. Thus, Strabo, Tacitus, Justin, the pseudo-Apollodorus, Caius Julius Hyginus and Cicero mentioned his reign and his overthrow by his brother.
In the first century BC, Diodorus of Sicily, in his Geography, is the only author to relate the death of the king, killed by the Argonauts.
The Oxyrhynchus Papyrus is a set of papyri discovered in Egypt; no. 4712 dates to the first century: “116 fragments of a papyrus scroll written at the beginning of the first century appear to be a Hellenistic epic poem on an Argonautic theme. Fragments 1 and 2 seem to deal with a dream, in which Medea sees Jason being slaughtered by the bulls of Aetheus (a scene very similar to Medea’s famous dream in Ap. Rhod. 3.616-6362).”
Caius Valerius Flaccus (1st century) described the political situation in Colchis during the arrival of the Argonauts, including the invasion of the Scythians.
Genealogy and family
The genealogy of King Aetas has evolved and changed over the centuries, and each of the ancient Greco-Roman authors who have dealt with his myth has modified the composition of the family of the king of Colchis. Throughout the development of mythology, the only constant character is Helios, the god and personification of the sun, making Aeetes a demi-god. Homer is the first poet to quote part of Aeetes’ genealogy. According to him, he is the son of Helios and Perse, one of the 3,000 Oceanides, daughter of the Ocean, and is the only brother mentioned of Circe, herself considered as a goddess living on the island of Eea. Hesiod writes
“The glorious daughter of the Ocean, Perse gave to the tireless Sun Circe and the monarch Eetes. Eetes, son of the Sun who enlightens the mortals, married, according to the advice of the gods, Idyie with beautiful cheeks, this daughter of the superb river Ocean, Idyie, who, tamed by her loving caresses, thanks to Venus with her golden finery, gave birth to Medea with charming feet.”
Hesiod thus confirms Homer’s version and adds Idyie, the youngest of the Oceanides (and thus the aunt of Aeetes), as wife of the king and mother of Medea, the first mention of her as daughter of Aeetes. In fragments of another work of Hesiod quoted in the scholia of Apollonius of Rhodes, the latter adds Iophossa as the daughter of Aeetes and wife of Phrixos, with whom she gives birth to four children. However, Iophossa does not appear in later versions. The Naupactia mention the princess Medea of Colchis, without making her the daughter of the king. In the fragments of this text, one finds a certain Eurilite as wife of Aetès and mother of Absyrte. According to W. Preston, this name is only an archaic version of Astérodie, the queen of Colchis and Caucasian nymph quoted by Apollonius of Rhodes. Epiminedes names Ephyra as the mother of Aetheres: she is either an Oceanid (according to Simonides of Céos), or a Nereid who marries Epimetheus at first marriage. Another version, also found in the scholia of the Argonautics, gives Thetis (the Nereid mother of Achilles) as the wife of Aeetes.
Sophocles partially addresses the genealogy of Aeetes in the discovered fragments of his play The Scythians. In this text, he makes Circe, Medea and Absyrte the children of Aeetes. Circe has traditionally been included not as the daughter but as the sister of the king, but this version is nevertheless repeated by Denys of Miletus in the fifth century BCE. Sophocles assigns two wives to the king of Colchis: the Nereid Neera as the mother of Absyrte and Idyie (or Eydouia) as the mother of Medea. Dionysius of Miletus replaces Absyrte by Aegilus, often considered as a synonym, and names Hecate as queen of Colchis. This Hecate is the niece of Eetes, daughter of Perses, but she is often associated with the goddess of magic and protector of Colchis.
Pindar only mentions Medea as the daughter of Aeetes in his IVth Pythics. A scholia to his Olympic Odes, later taken up by Diophantus of Alexandria in a commentary to the Argonautics of Apollonius, names Antiope as the wife of Helios and the mother of Aeetes and Aloe. The latter later inherits the kingdom of Asopia and gives birth to Epic of Sicyone. Apollonius of Rhodes is the first to establish a concrete genealogy: according to him, Aetestes is the son of Helios and Perseus, the brother of Circe and Pasiphae and the father of Absyrte, Medea and Chalciope. Absyrte, the eldest of the royal sons, is the son of Asterodida, the Caucasian nymph and first queen of Colchis. When Asterody disappears, Aetestes marries Idyia, the youngest of the nymphs, who becomes the mother of the two daughters Medea and Chalciope. The historian Nestan Egetashvili finds a connection between the names “Asterodys” and “Asterion,” a derivative of the ancient Greek ἀστέριος (“starry”) and notes the fact that Nonnos of Panopolis in the fifth century names the inhabitants of the Caucasus “Asterians,” indicating a connection between Colchis and star worship.
The myth of Aeetes continues to develop in Roman authors, who demonstrate a greater knowledge of the Caucasus and give more details on the political situation of Colchis under his reign. In Roman mythology, Helios is replaced by Sol, the personification of the sun often associated with the Roman emperors, and is thus cited as the father of Aether by, among others, Caius Julius Hyginus, Caius Valerius Flaccus, Diodorus Siculus and the pseudo-Apollodorus, who follow the tradition of Hesiod and name Perse as his mother. Cicero also gives a Sol as the father of the king, but differentiates him from the solar deity and theorizes the existence of five Sol in mythology. In his History of Pontus, Diophantus of Alexandria makes Antiope the mother of Eetes and Aloe. The Orphic Argonautics cite a certain Asterope as the mother of the king of Colchis, but her origin is unknown. Hyginus is the only one to name the Oceanid Clytie as queen of Colchis.
Pasiphae, Circe, Perseus and Aloe are all mentioned as brothers and sisters of Aeetes in the numerous Roman sources, but only Pausanias the Periegete and Diophantus recognize Aloe. Cicero gives two children to Aeetes (Medea and Absyrte) and ignores Chalciope, adding that the Aegeus mentioned in certain texts is only an error of Pacuvius in the transmission of the name of Absyrte in the Roman literature. With the development of the Roman culture, the authors become more and more precise on the political and historical role of the members of the royal family and it is thus that Diodorus makes of Circé (sister of the king) the creator of the herbalism and of Hécate, wife of Éétès, the queen of Chersonèse Taurique. Strabo considers the Medes to be descendants of Aeetes via his grandson Medos. In the 6th century, Stephen of Byzantium theorized that the city of Panticapaeum (in present-day Crimea) was founded by an unnamed son of Aetas, who would have received these lands from the Scythian king.
Although the myth of Aetas takes place in ancient Georgia and the kingdom of Colchis is now considered a Georgian state, no reference to either of these two lands is found in the Georgian Chronicles, one of the main historical resources of medieval Georgia that links the kingdom of Georgia to the myths of antiquity. This may seem curious, considering that the authors of these chronicles were probably well aware of the existence of such an important myth. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the historians Mosé Djanachvili and Mikheïl Tamarachvili tried to find a direct link between the myth of Aeetes and the Judeo-Christian mythology present in the chronicles.
In 1903, Djanashvili published his “genealogy of the Phasianides”, the name he attributes to the dynasty of the mythical rulers of Colchis. Ignoring the version of Eumelos according to which Aeetes comes from Corinth, he makes of the king a native of Colchis and a son of Helios II, himself a king of Colchis, basing himself on the theory of Cicero making of the father of Aeetes a homonymous character to the god of the Sun. Djanashvili also bases himself on the assertion by Cicero that Aetas and Circe are natives of Colchis. Helios II would be, according to Djanashvili, a descendant of the Sun and a son of Colkhos, son of the god of the river Phase and founder of the kingdom of Colchis, assimilated to Egros, a figure of the Georgian mythology present in the Georgian Chronicles as ancestor of the Colchidians.
The version of the Phasianides also adds Circe II as the daughter of Aeetes and niece of the magician of Aea, and differentiates Absyrte and Aegil. Cyril Toumanoff, a genealogist of the royal families of the Caucasus, found in the name of Aegil (in ancient Greek: Αἰγιαλεύς) a derivative of αἰγιαλός (“beach”) and a root similar to Argveti, an ancient province marking the border between Colchis and Iberia, or Engouri, a river in Mingrelia (ancient Colchis) flowing into the Black Sea. Djanashvili also noted that the name Absyrte bears a close resemblance to Absars, the name given to the Abkhazians in the Georgian Chronicles.
Historian Irina Tatišvili has pointed out that there is a link between Georgian mythology and the myth of Aetas, dating back to before the fourth century BC. A Bronze Age inscription found during archaeological excavations in Vani, one of the largest cities in Colchis, cites “Earth, Sun and Stars” as the main deities of the Georgian pantheon, a link to the kingdom of Aia, Helios and Asteroid.
The life of Aeetes before his arrival in Colchis is little documented. A version adopted by Cicero refutes the traditional idea that he was born in Thessaly and later emigrated to Colchis, and makes Aeetes and his sister Circe Colchidians by birth. Half-god, he is described as a powerful man who “shines on mortals” and has a resounding voice. Philostratus the Younger makes of Aeetes a giant who exceeds the human stature. His forehead is charged with a deep reflection and an ineffable brightness, like the other descendants of Helios.
He is not only a magician, according to Homer, but also a formidable warrior who has no equal but Heracles.
Aeetes is distinguished from humans by his personal relationship with the gods of Olympus. In his youth, he travels in the chariot of his father Helios in order to bring Circe to the shores of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Helios offers him horses “as fast as the wind” and Ares, god of the war, a rigid corselet to celebrate his victory on the giant Mimas. It is also during his youth that Helios tells him a prophecy about the golden fleece and its possible betrayal by his descendants.
According to Phecydes of Syros, he is close to Cadmus who kills the dragon of Thebes, and Athena shares the teeth of this dragon between the two men : these will be the teeth that Jason will plant during one of his ordeals (another version affirms that it is Phrixos who offers these teeth to Aeetes when he lands in Colchis)
When Hélios divides his lands between his sons, Éétès receives the province of Ephyra, eponym of his mother, and founds the city of Corinth. His brother Aloée (of) receives the lands of Asopie. The two kingdoms are separated by the Asopos. However, Éétès does not appreciate his own kingdom. Iamze Gagua interprets this feeling to the lack of good agricultural land at the end of the Bronze Age, which eventually leads to the colonization of the Black Sea by the Greeks, an interpretation also indicated by Stephen of Byzantium, Pausanias and Eudocie Makrembolitissa. He entrusts Corinth to Bounos, son of Hermes, with the condition to preserve the kingdom for his descendants. This condition is interpreted by Gagua as an indication of the preserved bonds between the first Greek colonists and the cities of Thessaly. He leaves towards Colchis. Following the death of Bounos, Epopee, son of Aloe, annexed Corinth but Medea, the own daughter of Aeetes, took possession of the kingdom of her father when a great famine was declared there.
Arrival in Colchis
When Éétès disembarked in Colchide, the region was under Scythian domination, with a great influence of the Egyptian culture. Become king, it forms a powerful and rich State. Apollonius of Rhodes confirms it by describing Colchis as a “country without rival”, while the region became rich by developing a prosperous gold market. This is consistent with archaeological findings in western Georgia, such as the village of Chulaberi (Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti), which would have contained the royal treasury of Colchis around the thirteenth century BC. The kingdom of Aeetes is a confederation of violent tribes that are often used by the king in his military campaigns. Despite the fact that Colchis is located on the Black Sea, the weakness of the kingdom is the lack of a powerful navy, partly due to the desire of Aetes to isolate itself, leading to a total lack of economic ties between Colchis and Greece.
Its capital is Aïa, a rich city built by the king, whose exact location remains subject to controversy. The majority of modern historians identify it with Koutaïssi (formerly Koutaïa), a version possibly accepted by Stephen of Byzantium who writes that Aeetes built his capital at 300 stadia from the Euxin Bridge. However, Apollonius and those influenced by him place Aia at the mouth of the Phase, on the shores of the Euxine Bridge, leading some historians to compare the ancient city to Nokalakevi, an ancient fortress near Senaki. Justin calls it Colchos. Besides the descriptions of the royal palace and the religious places, the city is little described in the ancient texts, but we know that the king often uses the public baths of Aïa.
The largest religious building in the city is, according to Flaccus, the Temple of Sol, which contains a box with the sunbeams. Located at the edge of the Phase, the temple has heavy doors which represent historical scenes combining the origin of Aeetes with the past of Colchis: the war of Sésostris against the Gètes, the colonization of the Phase by the Egyptians, the evolution of the Colchidian culture between Egyptian and Scythian influences, the rape of the nymph Aéa by the god Phase and the lamentations of Circé and Pasiphaé at the time of the death of Phaéton. Aeetes also built a sanctuary to Zeus Phixios, the god of fugitives, and to Hecate, the goddess of magic promoted by the royal princess Medea. The gardens of Ares are dedicated out of Aia in the honor of its friendship with the god of the war. The cult of Phase is also well developed under Aeetes, who makes the priest Aquitès, the priest of Phase, the most powerful religious figure of the country, often organizing large ceremonies before the war. In the kingdom of Aeetes live many nymphs in the valleys of the Phase, all of whom fear Hecate.
Aeetes has a complicated relationship with the gods of Mount Olympus. Hera characterizes him as a “terribly disproportionate” man and he often competes with the gods. However, he remains close to Ares, a symbol of the violent and warlike personality of the king of Colchis. Hephaestus, god of forging and metallurgy, contributes greatly to the wealth of Aeetes: he builds him a solid steel plow, an adamantine plow and bulls with copper hooves that spit fire to pull it, and many parts of the royal palace, including the bronze colonnades and the four fountains of the court. Apollonius says that these presents are made to thank Helios for his help during the battle of Phlegra against the Giants.
The palace of Aeetes is distinctly described by Apollonius. It includes sumptuous colonnades made of stone and copper battlements. The four fountains of Hephaestus are filled with water, wine, milk and flavored oils. At the top of the palace there is a stone cope placed on brass triglyphs. The historian Nodar Shoshitashvili, who led numerous archaeological expeditions in search of the Aeetes palace, theorized that it was built of eklare, a pinkish stone often used in construction and which was found in ancient times in large mines around Kutaisi. The courtyard is open air but is filled with vines, an indication of the viticulture developed in Colchis, confirmed by archaeological findings. Within the palace are many rooms, but the rooms of the royal couple are in a separate building, as well as the residence of Absyrte, while Medea, Chalciope and their maids live in the main part. The palace, which amazes all those who visit it, is widely compared to that of Alcinoos, but some essential differences exist: the palace of Alcinoos is rich in gold and silver and the palace of Aeetes is poor in greenery, symbolizing the less nourishing nature of Colchis.
Greek sources make Aetas a ruthless king, distinguished by his ability to instill fear in his enemies. He is powerful and wealthy and maintains strong control over his kingdom, but also dangerous and “extremely cruel.” He thus earns the epithet of ολοόφρων – also borne by King Minos of Crete – which is often translated as “brutal,” and less often as “the wise.” In order to preserve his kingdom, he committed himself to isolation and encouraged, under the influence of his wife Hecate, the human sacrifice of visitors arriving in Colchis. Diodorus makes the king a cruel tyrant against his own family, imprisoning his daughter Medea when she denounces the human sacrifice and exiling her other daughter Circe to Italy when she kills her husband, the violent king of the Sarmatians.
His wealth is famous in Thessaly and it is by interest for this wealth that Augias joins the Argonauts thereafter. The violence and power of Aeetes are known even in Alcinoos. However, his violence is directly linked to the fact that he is surrounded by a multitude of warlike tribes, enumerated by Apollonius: the Amazons, the wild Chalybes, the Tibarenes, the Mossinians, the Philirians, the Macrons, the Béchères and the Byzères. It has practically no contact with Greece, but is richer than the Thessalians. The Sarmatians are its first enemies, while it maintains formal relations with the Hénioques and the Alains, as the service of the general Anausis of Alanie at the court of the king shows it.
The extent of the kingdom of Etes is not clear, but it contains a great part of the Western Caucasus. Denys of Miletus makes him reign until the Palus meotide (the sea of Azov today), where his kingdom borders the Chersonese of his brother Perses. While Roman authors agree that tensions exist between the two brothers, only Diodorus adopts the version according to which Hecate, daughter of Perses, poisons her father, takes control of his throne and marries Aeetes, unifying the two crowns and forming an empire from Anatolia to the Crimea.
The Golden Fleece
It is in the Colchis of Aeetes that Phrixos arrives on the back of Chrysomallos, the ram with the golden fleece summoned by Hermes to save the children of Nephele from their father’s hands. Before their departure, Nephele orders the ram to take Phrixos and his sister Hellé to Aeetes, but the latter dies on the road (she falls into the sea, precisely in the strait of Hellespont) and Phrixos arrives alone in Aïa. Arrived in Caucasus, Phrixos sacrifices Chrysomallos to Zeus Phixios, purifies his fleece and enters the palace of Aeetes without intermediary, under the protection of Hermes. In thanks and as a token of hospitality, Aeetes offers to Phrixos his daughter Chalciope in marriage. However, years later, when the Argonauts arrive, Aeetes admits that he would never have welcomed Phrixos if it were not for the intervention of Zeus and Hermes, and for the wealth accompanying the golden fleece.
The king consecrates the golden fleece on an oak tree in the gardens of Ares, 70 stades west of Aia. According to one version, Aeetes protects the fleece with many immortal serpents, born from the blood of Typhon, which flows over the mountains of the Caucasus after being slaughtered by Zeus. Mary Williams sees in this myth a comparison between Aeetes and Typhon (Typhon has a “terrible mouth”, Aeetes has a “terrible voice” and the snakes have “terrible heads”). The most common version, however, replaces these serpents with a dragon “bigger than a great ship”, with grey eyes, who knows neither death nor sleep. This one is the son of Gaia and Typhon, or of Echidna and Typhon. According to Flaccus, the dragon is fed and cared for by Medea, who is the only one able to give him orders. Colchis becomes known as the guardian of the golden fleece, a symbol of power for Aeetes. The fleece allows the king to exercise absolute power over his kingdom, a fact appreciated by Sol. Some even see the fleece as a symbol of the sun, capable of controlling time.
The fate of Phrixos varies according to the different versions of the myth. According to Apollonius, he dies in the palace of Aeetes at an advanced age, leaving four sons with Chalciope. Another version says that Phrixos sacrifices himself to save Colchis from a terrible famine. According to Hyginus, Aeetes orders himself the murder of Phrixos after a prophecy predicting the treason of a descendant of Aeolus (the grandfather of Phrixos). According to Flaccus, Aeetes nevertheless buries him in a large tomb at the mouth of the Phase. Still fearing his own death at the hands of the sons of Phrixos, he agrees to send them to Orchomene to avenge the attempt of Athamas to kill their father, and offers them a small fleet of ships.
Phrixos appears one night in a dream to Aeetes: he thanks him for having taken him in, but predicts the loss of his throne once the fleece has left the gardens of Ares, and advises him to marry Medea quickly in order to keep her away from Colchis. The dream ends with an image of Phrixos giving Aeetes the “fatal fleece” (fatalia visus). At the same time, a Colchidian priest informs the king that the fleece must be brought back to Thessaly if he wants to prevent a series of devastations in his kingdom. These events take place during a series of bad signs through Colchis. It is as a result of these prophecies that Aeetes accepts an alliance with neighboring Aghbania and promises Medea in marriage to an Aghbanian prince, but he nevertheless ignores the advice about the fleece and prays to Ares for her protection. He then doubles his efforts with human sacrifices, fearing the theft of the fleece by foreigners.
Diodorus tried to explain the story of the Golden Fleece by removing the mythological elements. According to his version, Phrixos arrives in Colchis on a ship carrying a ram on its prow. Arriving at the king’s court, he meets the king of the Scythians, who spends the night with his associate Crios (resembling χρυσός, “gold”). The next day, the two kings sacrifice Crios and flay his skin, according to an ancient Scythian tradition, giving rise to the tradition of a golden fleece. According to Diodorus, the dragon is a symbol of the Chersonesian military bastion placed in front of the temple of Ares to protect the relic.
Jason and the Argonauts
The reputation of Aeetes in Thessaly is that of a rich, powerful and ruthless king, while the golden fleece is known as a symbol of great wealth. When the prince Jason asks for the throne of Iolcos as legitimate heir, it is precisely in Colchis that the usurper Pelias sends him to bring back the fleece in Greece, to prove his value. According to Flaccus, Pelias assures his people that he would have invaded Colchis and brought back the head of Aeetes himself, to avenge the supposed murder of Phrixos, if it were not for his advanced age. Pindar says that the oracle of the fountain of Castalie explains to Pelias the desire of Phrixos’ soul to return to Thessaly via the golden fleece. Jason gathers a band of heroes, including demigods, who, inspired by Hera, leave from Iolcos towards Colchis on the Argo river. Before their departure, the crowd cries out to the Argonauts, asking that “they ravage the palace of Aeetes with a fatal fire”.
On their way, the Argonauts hear about Aeetes as a terrifying king, anticipating a hostile encounter. When they meet the sons of Phrixos, stranded on an island of the Euxinian Bridge, they fear a conflict between the Greeks and the powerful Colchidian tribes. The Argonauts are themselves disoriented, between the reputation of Aeetes and the renowned welcome of Phrixos. Jason and his crew enter Colchis by the mouth of the Phase during the night and accost the Argo in the marshes of Ares’ gardens. According to Apollonius, Jason decides to use diplomacy to convince Aeetes to let him have the fleece and, accompanied by Telamon, Augias and the sons of Phrixos, they enter Aïa, camouflaged in a fog created by Hera. According to Diodorus, the cooperation between Jason and Medea begins as soon as they arrive: meeting the Colchidian princess on the beaches of the Temple of Hecate, where she lives, Jason agrees to use her help to steal the golden fleece in exchange for her hand in marriage.
According to Apollonius, once arrived at the royal palace, Chalciope recognizes his sons and welcomes them with joy, leading Eetes and queen Idyie to present themselves before the arrivals. The king organizes in their honor baths and a large banquet, during which he questions the Argonauts on their identity and their bonds with his grandsons. Argos explains to him the mission of the Argonauts, the political problems of Iolcos and the divine origins of these Greeks, while Jason offers his help to fight the Sarmatians (identified as the Scythians of Valerius Flaccus by Danelia) in exchange for the Golden Fleece. This request provokes the anger of the king, and he accuses the Argonauts of wanting to overthrow him, while condemning his grandsons of having guided them. Apollonius compares Éétès to Ares: in an inordinate anger, he threatens them with mutilations and accuses them of lying before the gods; he expresses anger and rage and his eyes are of a brilliant red. Preventing Télamon from engaging in a fight against the king, Jason certifies to the latter that he does not desire his throne and offers once again his military help, as well as the promise of a military alliance with the Hellenic world. It is then that Aeetes offers Jason two tasks in exchange for the fleece: to plant the dragon’s teeth using the dangerous fire-breathing bulls, and to defeat the dragon that protects the fleece. When Jason accepts the mission, the king expels them from his palace. According to D.N. Levin, an analyst of Greek mythology, the legend of the banquet presents evidence that Aeetes simply misunderstood the Argonauts’ request, while Williams sees Aeetes as a ruler who does not want to enter into conflict.
Caius Valerius Flaccus shares a different version of the arrival of the Argonauts in the capital of Aeetes. According to the Roman author, they are led to the temple of the Sun by Medea, where a great religious ceremony takes place. Once inside the establishment, the Greeks witness the entrance of the king and his son Absyrte, who are followed by Prince Stirus of Aghbania (Medea’s fiancé whose marriage is delayed by the conflict between Colchia and Scythia), then by Chalciope and his four sons, and finally, the many princes and senators of Colchia who gather to support the impending war against the Scythians. It is in the temple that Jason announces his mission to recover the golden fleece and emphasizes the peaceful nature of his journey, hoping to receive the same welcome received by Phrixos. The Argonauts offer the king of Colchis many gifts, including a blood-red cloak from a Taenarium cauldron, a bridle and a sword encrusted with precious stones, as well as the promise of massive fame throughout Thessaly. Aeetes is, again, angry at this request, mocking the Argonauts’ mission by asking, “What plan of folly is this, to ask for the serpent’s fleece?” Aeetes nevertheless agrees to give the fleece to the Greeks, in exchange for their help against his brother Perses of Scythia, who is then preparing to invade Colchis, an offer accepted by Jason. In the evening, the Argonauts are present at a royal banquet during which the king listens in silence to their exploits.
Valerius Flaccus underlines the geopolitical situation, as well as the view of the gods when the Argonauts arrived: Mars and Sol are the only deities to support the preservation of the golden fleece in Colchis, the one enjoying its worship throughout Colchis and the other favoring the absolute power held by his son. It is clear that Aeetes maintains good relations with many neighbors, as indicated by the seven generals present at the royal banquet and coming from seven unknown countries: Carmeïus, Aron, Campesus, Odroussa, Iaxartès, Latagus and Tchoaspès. At the time of the arrival of the Argonauts at the court of Aeetes is also present the ambassador Myracès of Parthia, arrived in Colchis from the Caspian Sea to negotiate a treaty of alliance between Parthia and Colchis. Herodotus underlines the fact that Aeetes has a constant fear to lose his kingdom.
Valerius Flaccus is the only author who describes in detail the conflict between Aeetes and his brother Perses, the mythical king of the Scythians. According to him, the tensions between the two kings are rooted in a disagreement about the golden fleece: Perses fears the fleece and asks his brother to send it back to Greece in order to save their kingdoms, but Aetes refuses to listen to his advice. Danelia sees in this conflict the rationality of Perses, who is ready to take radical measures to protect the interests of the domains of Helios.
When the Argonauts disembark in Colchis, the war seems already imminent. Perses and his great army of Hyrcania barbarians settle on the banks of the Phase, while an Aghbanian contingent crosses the “Aghbanian Gate” to join prince Stirus of Aghbania, promised son-in-law of Aetes. It is precisely this promised marriage between Medea and Stirus that pushes many pretenders to the hand of the Colchidian princess to ally themselves with the Scythians: Anaousis (general of the Heniacs and Alans), Cæastes (king of the Choatres), who is fascinated by the reputation of Medea as a magician, and the ambassador Myracès of Parthia who then asks the princess in marriage to confirm the alliance between Colchis and his empire. The choice of Éétès in Stirus is however directly related to the proximity between Colchis and Aghbania.
Flaccus describes the many legions which join Perses against Colchis. These include Colaxes (son of Jupiter), Auchus and his thousands of Cimmerians, the Indian Datis and his Gangaridians, the three brothers Anxour, Sidon and Rhadalus, Cyene and his Hyleans, Cyris and his Thracians, the legion of Sindi (descendants of Scythian slaves), Phalcès and its Corallians, Teutagonus and its Batarnéens, Dranges, the generals Otacès and Latris of Iberia, Iazyges, Thyssagètes, Exomates, Tauriens, Ballonites and Samartes. The army of Etes is less important, but includes nevertheless thousands of soldiers and many kings, an alliance between Colchidians, Aghbanians and Amazons, led by the royal prince Absyrte.
The gods are actively involved in the preparations. Mars anticipates a “vast encounter”, but Juno asks Minerva to try to negotiate a delay in the conflict to give time to the Argonauts to take the golden fleece and to leave Colchis without getting involved in the war. Jupiter initially supported Perses in order to punish the ruthless Aetheus but, when he changed his mind, Juno sent Minerva to convince the Argonauts to participate in the conflict. The alliance between Greeks and Aetheus worries the Scythians, and Perseus sends an embassy to Jason to convince the Argonauts of the future treason of the king of Colchis, but Mars prevents the embassy from reaching the Argo.
The night of the arrival of the Argonauts, Mars announces the beginning of the battle. Flaccus describes the confrontation thus:
“So then, when steel met steel and the howling ranks closed in conflict and the hero blew on the hero through clashing bars, there immediately followed the fall of the warriors and the breaking of bodies and weapons in carnage, the shedding of blood and the collapse of each side; the helmets rolled on the field, and from the corselets gushed the bloody rain; the barbarians swarmed, here shouting in triumph, there with groans, while the lives of the warriors mingled with the dust. “
The battle turns out to be bloody. The Colchidian general Monæsès is killed by the Scythian Caspius, the Scythian general Carésus kills the Colchidians Dipsas and Strimon, before being killed by Cremédon of Albania, who is in turn crushed by chariots, Mélas (son of Phrixos and grandson of Éétès) also falls during the battle. Stirus kills Anaoussis. On another front, the Colchidians are defeated by Rambelus and Otaxes, but are saved by the sons of Phrixos. The battle continues during 24 hours, during which the Colchidians fight bravely and without fear, quickly massacring the invaders, Absyrte leading the chariot of Helios. The Gètes and Iberians are the first defeated and flee. The Argonauts also demonstrate their courage: Argos kills three enemy generals, Calais defeats the mercenary Riphéus, Euryte wins over the Exomats, Nestor kills the Scythian Helix. The Argonauts Zétès, Canthos and Iphis are killed on the battlefield. When night falls, Perses admits his defeat and curses the Argonauts, before fleeing.
During the battle, Juno devises a new plan to help the Argonauts. Using the help of Venus, she takes the form of Chalciope and shows Medea Jason’s courage, pushing her to marry him and follow him to Thessaly.
According to Flaccus, in spite of the help offered by the Argonauts during the battle against Perses, Aeetes refused to keep his promise. On his way to the royal palace, Jason is challenged by the king, who accuses him of piracy and of wanting to force the suzerainty of Pelias on Colchis, and refuses him the golden fleece. It is then that he proposes to Jason a new agreement: the fleece in exchange for a heroic test, to plant the teeth of the dragon killed by Cadmos using the bulls that breathe fire and the bronze hooves offered by Hephaestus to Colchis. Jason is perplexed by this new request and compares Aeetes to Pelias, accusing both of betraying their promises, but accepts nevertheless.
The versions of Flaccus and the earlier writers come together here. Jason and Argos return to the Argo and explain the new situation, while Argos promises to recruit the help of Medea’s magical powers. The Argonauts propose a night attack on the royal palace to defeat Aeetes, but Jason refuses to flee from the trials. During the night, the Argo withdraws from the Phase and is accosted on the Euxine Bridge, while Argos returns to the palace to confide in Chalciope. At the same time, the king of Colchis convened an assembly to discuss the situation. In his speech, he swears not to abandon the Golden Fleece and promises to burn the Argo with its crew if Jason wins the trials. He also vows to take revenge on the sons of Phrixos who led the Argonauts to his kingdom, still fearing his father’s prophecy about his fate. Richard L. Hunter, in his analysis of the Argonautics of Apollonius, compares the assembly of Aeetes, led by a tyrant, with the democratic assemblies of the Greek world. In the night, the king sends a sentry to keep an eye on the ship.
The majority of the gods do not support one side or the other during this episode, including Ares, who was however a close ally of Colchis before. However, according to Flaccus, Juno receives help from Venus when she notices that Medea hesitates before supporting the Argonauts: Venus descends to Colchis and assures the princess that her fate in Colchis would be to marry a Caucasian prince, but it is only through magic that the goddess guarantees Medea’s treachery. According to Apollonius, it is Chalciope, convinced by her son Argos, who mourns the fate of her children, at the hands of their father, to Medea and begs her sister to come to the aid of the Argonauts, a request quickly accepted by Medea, who has already fallen in love with Jason through the intervention of Eros. The princess prepares an ointment using essential oils and flowers of Colchis to protect Jason against the flames of the bulls, and meets him near the temple of Hecate. Pindare, Apollonius and Flaccus say that the two agree to marry that very evening, but Flaccus underlines the fear that Medea has towards her father.
In the morning, Éétès goes to the beaches to see if the Argo remained in the vicinity. The Argonauts Télamon and Éthalidès (Échion alone according to Flaccus) meet him to announce Jason’s haste and to collect the dragon’s teeth. In preparation, Éétès dresses himself with the corselet offered by Arès and a golden helmet decorated with four feathers. He is protected by many shields and carries a long spear, symbols of war. On a chariot led by Absyrte, he moves towards the field of the test, followed by a large crowd of his subjects. During the ordeal, the king remains distant, positioned on the banks of the Phase. Behind him, the armed tribes of Colchis look on from the hills of Aïa. According to Pindar, he cries when Jason defeats the bulls. Apollonius describes him as “amazed” by Jason’s strength. According to Flaccus, he prays to the gods for the hero’s defeat, but these prayers are useless: Jason manages to plant the dragon’s teeth. According to Pindar, Aeetes tells the story of the golden fleece to his subjects assembled during the trials.
Aeetes is surprised and silent when the Spartans, warriors who sow the dragon’s teeth, kill each other because of the stone thrown by Jason. According to Apollonius, he mourns the death of the Spartans “like a farmer who sees his shoots destroyed by Zeus”. At the end of the trials, Jason shows his own anger and accuses the king of wanting to start a war between Colchis and Thessaly. As for Aeetes, he gathers his assembly of Colchidians in the royal palace in order to find a new plan against the Argonauts and makes a violent speech, promising to destroy the gardens of Ares with the Argo. He addresses the Colchidians from his chariot carrying a shield, a spear and a pine torch. This speech leads the historian Alexander Couat to compare the tyranny of Aetas to the Athenian general Thucydides.
While Pindar claims that it is Aphrodite who is behind Medea’s decision to follow Jason, as a result of the trials, by stirring up in her a hatred of Aetae, Apollonius and Valerius Flaccus identify her fear of her father as the reason for her departure. Flaccus adds that she is more afraid of the king than of the Ocean and quotes her lamentations, wishing to receive last kisses from him, praying for a prosperous reign of Éétès in Colchis and hoping that her other children will bring her more joy. With Jason, she puts to sleep the snake in the gardens of Ares, much to his chagrin, using her magic (Pindar assures that Jason kills the snake), allowing Jason to take the golden fleece. Diodorus of Sicily, who tries to present a more realistic version of the myth, replaces the snake by Draco, general of the tauric guard in charge of protecting the relic; it is only when the only tauric survivors of the assault of the Argonauts reach Aïa that Éétès discovers the betrayal of his daughter and the theft of the golden fleece.
When he discovers the theft, Aeetes gathers an army of enraged Colchidians on the banks of the Phase. Himself on his son’s chariot, drawn by four horses whipped to the point of blood and wearing war clothes, he heads for the sea to confront the Greeks, but it is too late: helped by Hera and Hecate, the Argonauts and Medea have already fled. On the beach, Aeetes exclaims before Zeus and Helios, asking for their revenge. The queen of Colchis begs for the return of her daughter, promising all the wealth of Colchis to the Greeks in exchange. Chalciope, also on the beach, disappears thereafter, by fear of the anger of her father. Stirus of Aghbania, who appears only the Argonautics of Flaccus, considers himself insulted by the departure of Medea and sees in Éétès a king who lost the national respect. The Naupactia offer a different version, according to which the Argonauts flee while the king is distracted by his wife. Diodorus of Sicily is the only one to describe a possible battle between the Colchians and the Argonauts on the beach: Aeetes would have killed Iphitos himself, but the king is finally assassinated by Meleager, which authorizes the Greeks to leave Colchis.
Following the departure of the Argo, Aeetes launches a large fleet against the Argonauts, threatening his men with execution if they fail to recapture Medea. Like the rest of the Aeetes myth, many versions of the pursuit exist. According to Flaccus, Stirus of Aghbania and Absyrte lead the Colchidians, but Stirus is killed in a clash with the Greeks. According to the pseudo-Apollodorus, Éétès is himself in charge of the pursuit, but the majority of the authors keep the king in Aïa, even if his soldiers hope for his help. During the first days of the pursuit, the majority of the Colchidians disappear, either by exiling themselves by fear of their king, or massacred by the Argonauts. Prince Absyrte leads the last small contingent of Colchidian soldiers to the Brygian islands of the Adriatic Sea.
According to Apollonius, Medea devises a plan to get rid of her brother: she invites him on board the Argo to negotiate, with the promise to give him back the golden fleece, but as soon as they meet, Absyrte is murdered by the Argonauts and his sister, who massacre his crew. In this version, the place of his death is the Adriatic, hence the name of the Absyrtides islands. However, the other versions of the myth are largely different. Phecydes of Syros makes the prince a newborn, taken hostage by Medea at Jason’s request, killed during the pursuit and thrown into the Phase. According to Sophocles, he is a young child killed in the royal palace. Procopius and Arrien identify the city of Apsaros (Batoumi today) as the place of the murder. Seneca and Ovid see the dismembered body of Absyrte scattered across the fields of Colchis. The pseudo-Apollodorus offers a more detailed account, according to which a young Absyrte is killed near the western shores of the Euxine Bridge, forcing Aeetes to suspend his pursuit in order to retrieve his son’s body and bury it in a place he names Tomeus (modern Constanța), after which he returns to Colchis and sends the rest of his army to search for the fugitives.
The journey of the Argonauts is long and perilous. Meeting Circe, the sister of Aeetes, she predicts that they will not escape the rage of the king and that he will be ready to invade Greece to capture Medea. When the Argonauts take refuge with Alcinoos in Drepanum, the latter fears an invasion by the king of Colchis, and when he offers to the Colchidians to give Medea back if she is a virgin, his wife Arété officiates her marriage to Jason, thus offering an asylum to the Argonauts. The pursuit is in vain and the Colchidians, fearing the ruthless Aetheus, scatter across the Mediterranean Sea; numerous Colchidian colonies thus appear in the Cerunian Mountains, on the Absyrtides islands and across Illyria.
Herodotus mentions that, years after the theft of the golden fleece, Aetas sends an embassy to Greece to demand the return of Medea, as well as financial reparations. This request was refused, however, as the Greeks wanted to take their revenge for the kidnapping of Io. The abandonment of Jason by Medea later on, as well as the murder of her children, is considered to be the final revenge of Aeetes.
While Greek authors are silent on the life of Aeetes after the flight of the Argonauts, their Roman counterparts have provided some details, without agreeing on a common version. We know that the disappearance of the golden fleece leads to a deep instability in the kingdom. Perseus, the brother of Aeetes, takes advantage of this to dethrone him and proclaim himself king of Colchis. In his Tusculanes, Cicero tells the sadness of the fallen sovereign and criticizes him for loving his power more than his family:
“Your evils, foolish prince, are of your own making. They did not lie in what happened to you, and time must have cushioned your pain. For, as I shall show, grief is the idea of a recent evil. But you mourn the loss of your kingdom, and not that of your daughter. You hated her, perhaps with reason. What puts you in despair is the deprivation of a crown. But to succumb to boredom, because one cannot reign over free men, is it not crossing all the bounds of modesty?”
In the Library of pseudo-Apollodorus, Medea returns to Colchis after learning of the overthrow of her father, kills Perses and restores Aeetes to the Colchian throne. According to Hyginus, Medus, the son of Medea and Aegeus, also participates in the campaign against Perses. Justin adds that Jason accompanies both of them and returns to Colchis, this time to help Aeetes and, after helping his father-in-law, embarks on a series of military campaigns to conquer the vast lands of Mesopotamia. In this same version, Medus continues Jason’s conquests and becomes the ancestor of the Medes. Another version ignores the fate of Aetas and assumes that Medus succeeds Perses when the latter is overthrown.
Some aspects of the myth of Aetas do not enter the traditional account, such as the unification of the kingdoms of Colchis and Chersonese following the marriage of Aetas and Hecate, when the latter poisons his father Perses. Stephen of Byzantium mentions an anonymous son, who would have founded the city of Panticapeum (in modern Crimea), as well as a grandson, Thetalos, the mythical ancestor of the Thessalians.
The kingdom of Aeetes is Colchis, an ancient state commonly located in present-day western Georgia.
Some historians doubt the Caucasian location of Colchis and prefer to locate it on the Anatolian coast, north of the Black Sea, or in Africa. Rimzag Gordeziani points out, however, that these theories do not agree with the links between myth and historical reality: the mention of the Hellespont indicates that the voyage of the Argonauts takes place in the Pont-Euxin; the etymology of the proper names, in the various versions of the myth, which are not directly linked to Greek, would have links with proto-Kartvelian, the ancestor of modern Georgian; the archaeological finds (dating from the Bronze Age) found in Iolcos would show similarities with artifacts from the same period found in western Georgia, suggesting trade links between the two regions, and the use of the terms ko-ki-da and ko-ki-de-jo in ancient Mycenaean texts in reference to the eastern coast of the Euxinian Bridge).
According to the historian Ivane Djavakhishvili, the name of Colchis derives from that of the province of Cola (northeast of modern Turkey, historically part of the Georgian Tao).
Over the centuries, Colchis became the general term used for all of Western Transcaucasia (named Egrissi by local Georgians), from Abkhazia and Trabzon to the Likhi range, a definition that would correspond to the political map of the years 1240-1220 BCE according to Nodar Chochotachvili.
It is precisely during this period that certain modern historians tried to place Aeetes, around the XIVth and XIIth centuries before our era (that is to say, according to Herodotus, one generation before the kidnapping of Helen by Alexander and one generation after the kidnapping of Io).
One of the oldest mentions of Colchis dates from the reign of Adad-nerari I of Assyria (early 13th century BC). A tablet mentions the Nairi, a confederation of forty Transcaucasian kingdoms of which Colchis is a part. This mention is contradictory to the version most often used by Georgian historiography which assures that Colchis appears as an independent state only in the 8th century BC with the fall of Diaokhi. According to Chota Badridze, Colchis and Diaokhi appear at the same time in the second half of the 2nd millennium BC and would share the same proto-Karto-Zanic language.
There is also a debate about the beginning of the economic development of Colchis and its relationship with the Greek colonization of the Euxin Bridge.
One interpretation of the myth of Aeetes links it directly to Greek colonization. Thus, the departure of the king of Corinth and his installation in Colchis would symbolize the first wave of the colonization of the Pont-Euxin. It would be followed by a second wave with Phrixos (who brings with him the golden fleece). The marriage of this last one with Chalciope would represent the alliance between Colchidians and Hellenes. According to Iamze Gagua, the children of Phrixos would represent the mixed heritage of the Colchidians. The third wave would correspond to the arrival of the Argonauts who seem to come more as conquerors than for commercial reasons.
For Gagua, Medea’s betrayal would symbolize the failure of Aeetes’ Colchis and a step towards the fall of his power.
According to Gordeziani, the development of the myth of Aeetes would date from the period from the eighth century to the sixth century BC, to justify the eastern expansion of Miletus.
The political state of the Colchis of Aeetes is also the subject of debate. Apollonius lists numerous warrior tribes living in the vicinity of Colchis, several of which are historically accurate. Several passages in the Argonautics indicate an alliance between the king and these tribes, making Colchis a possible confederation of tribes which, as in Diaokhi, unite in times of war. Gagua compares the soldiers born of the dragon’s teeth to the Caucasian tribes. The historian Guiorgui Melikichvili nevertheless identifies signs of political centralization in Colchis around the thirteenth century B.C., but Gouram Koranachvili associates these signs with the late date of the development of the myth, at a time when Colchis is already a unified kingdom. Thus Apollonius mentions a political assembly and Valerius Flaccus speaks of senators of the kingdom.
The Colchis of Aeetes is a prosperous kingdom, as shown by the wealth of the royal palace, while the Euxine Bridge where the Argonauts travel is made up of barbarian territories, making the kingdom a developed land among barbarian tribes. In comparison, Jason’s Iolcos is described as a poor city. Late Bronze Age Colchis does indeed seem to be the center of considerable economic development, as evidenced by agricultural technology, the domestication of the bee and the cultivation of honey, the existence of a fishing fleet and the advanced development of textiles. Paleobotanical research of the region also demonstrates a cultivation of plants that returned to the agricultural sector of Western Transcaucasia only in the 17th century. It is possible that the golden fleece itself has roots in Colchidian gold mining practices, including the use of fleeces to catch gold flakes in rivers, a practice still used in Svanetia. It is also possible that the Colchis of Aeetes developed an international trade network, as shown by Medea’s use of Caspian Sea shells, while the fact that Pasiphae, queen of Crete, is the sister of Aeetes possibly symbolizes links between the two kingdoms.
The capital of Aeetes is Aia, also known as Cytaea by Apollonius. This name is related to Koutaïa, the ancient form of Koutaïssi: kout- is a proto-Kartvelian prefix, while Koutaïa means “empty place between mountains”, a comparison to the Aïa of Greco-Roman mythology which is described as being located between several hills. Recent archaeological excavations have revealed a network of defensive walls around an ancient city beneath modern Kutaisi, as well as a palace identified as the residence of the Colchian kings dating from the 14th-13th centuries B.C. W.E.D. Allen, however, identifies Aia with Nokalakevi, an ancient Mingrelian fortress closer to the shores of the Black Sea, assuming that Kutaisi cannot be the near-coastal city of Aeetes. This version is denied by Chochitashvili, who bases himself on a network of estuaries and rivers linking Kutaisi directly to the sea, attested by archaeological finds.
Among the religious rites maintained by Aeetes in the texts of Apollonius, Flaccus and Diodorus, the practice of human sacrifice is the most underlined, not only before the arrival of the Argonauts, but also with the description of the murder of Absyrte by Medea. Gagua links the murder of the child Absyrte to the tradition of piercing children with a wooden punch in Svanetia during polytheistic rites. According to Apollonius, in order not to mix the dead with the agricultural ground, the Colchidians hang their ancestors on branches of willows, a tradition confirmed by Claudius Aelianus in the 3rd century.
Aeetes in the Roman culture
Aeetes appears in Roman culture not as a mythical figure, but as a real ruler who reigned centuries before the founding of Rome.
One of the first authors to devote an analysis to the king of Colchis is Cicero. He criticizes him widely, in his Tusculanes, for having cried more for the loss of his kingdom than for the flight of his own daughter. The Roman philosopher makes of Aeetes an example not to follow for the leaders of the republic and one of the first tyrants of the Greco-Roman world, his reign being compared to those of Dionysius the Elder of Syracuse and Tarquin the Superb of Rome. In his De natura deorum, Cicero raises an ambiguity in the Greek myth of Aeetes: he is the son of a god and a nymph, and yet is not considered a deity. His daughter Medea has Helios and Ocean as grandparents, but she is seen as a human. On the other hand, Circe (sister of Aeetes) is considered a goddess in Italy. The author uses Aeetes to oppose the transfiguration of the mortal Ino of Boeotia.
Strabo finds the voyage of the Argonauts plausible: he cites Aïa as a contemporary city on the Phase, Eetes as a historical figure, and Colchis as a kingdom rich in gold, silver, iron and copper. According to Strabo, it is precisely this wealth that causes the voyage of Phrixos, then of the Argonauts to Transcaucasia.
Diodorus of Sicily, who tries to combine mythology with historical reality, writes that the city of Formia was founded by the Argonauts under the name of Caeëtes in honor of their enemy.
Arrien, who visited the region in the second century, said he had seen the anchor of the Argo in the city of Phase.
Caius Valerius Flaccus speaks of a Colchidian-Scythian war in his own version of the Argonautics in honor of the emperor Vespasian and his conquest of Britain. This opened the ocean to the Romans, just as the mission of the Argonauts opened the Euxine Bridge to the Greeks. Flaccus considers Aetas as a Scythian king and sees in the theft of the golden fleece a transition of historical power from the East to Greece. His work, which includes some historical aspects (such as the Caucasian tribes mentioned) and a detailed account of the war, is a reflection on the military and geographical expansion of the Romans of his time. In his Aeneid, Virgil draws on Aetas in his description of Queen Dido of Carthage.
With the eastern expansion of the Byzantine Empire, Aetas continues to appear in Byzantine texts. According to Procopius of Caesarea, the king really existed, and he built one of the fortresses of the Phase. The Byzantine encyclopedia Souda (10th century) mentions an “Epic on Aeetes”.
Aeetes, traditionally perceived as a legendary king of Colchis, is also considered by some as the ancestor of the line of rulers of the region:
According to Strabo, the name Aeetes was popularized throughout Colchis since the myth.
The modern Georgian historiography names “Aetid” the dynasty of the historical kings of Colchis and makes thus of the sovereigns Akes, Koudji, Saulaces and Aristarchus descendants of Aetes.
According to Nodar Chochitachvili, “Etes” would be the title of the kings of Aïa since the XIIIth century before our era.
The archaeologist Otar Lordkipanidze considers that if naming Aeetes the ancestor of the Colchidian rulers is not an invention of the classical authors, it is possible that the Colchidian rulers considered themselves as his descendants.
Aeetes is practically represented in post-Roman culture only in the context of the myth of the Argonauts and his daughter Medea. In the Argonauticorum, a play by the Hungarian András Dugonics from 1778, Aeetes is even replaced by the king “Almos”. However, it collects more interest in Georgia from the eighteenth century. The Georgian author Akaki Tsereteli wrote at the end of the nineteenth century Medea, a work in three volumes never completed, the last volume of which should have dealt with the overthrow of Aetas and the return of his daughter to Colchis. Georges Charachidzé, a specialist in Caucasian folklore, identifies many links between Caucasian mythology and the character of Aetas, while the archaeologist Akaki Tchanturia collected a series of folk tales in the early twentieth century across western Georgia, telling the story of a golden ram seen first as the protector of the region, then of the princely dynasty of Dadiani and a friend of the sun. In Christa Wolf’s novel Medea: Voices (1995), Aeetes is a ruthless ruler who allows mad women to dismember Absyrte, after which Medea flees. Otar Tchiladzé devotes a novel to Aetas in which he has a sister Kamar, a witch who educates Medea. In 1975, the Georgian novelist Valerian Kandelaki wrote his book Aieti about the life of the king. In Madeleine Miller’s Circé (2018), Éétès is a demigod, brother and possible lover of the witch Circé.
In the cinema, Aeetes appears mainly in works related to the Argonauts: he is played by Jack Gwillim in Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Frank Langella in the homonymous mini-series of 2000.
In the twenty-first century, Aeetes remains a subject of interest in Georgia. Many restaurants, hotels and businesses are named after him, as well as a district of the city of Khobi and an ecological association for the protection of the Black Sea beaches. The rugby stadium of the city of Kutaisi and its club are named “Aia”. During the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, the Russian government organized an event showing Aeetes welcoming the Argonauts to Sochi, a version widely criticized by Georgian and Greek historians. In 2020, an advertisement by the Tbilvino wine company shows Aeetes as one of the first men to drink wine.
Relevance of Aeetes in Greco-Roman mythology
The image of Aeetes is that of an antagonistic figure in a myth told from the perspective of Jason and the Argonauts. Apollonius of Rhodes made the king of Colchis a one-dimensional, villainous character and reinforced this description by associating him with the serpent that guards the golden fleece. He is resentful and has a difficult temperament. In the ancient texts, Aeetes prefers his power to the welfare of his subjects, refuses to consider the recommendations of his advisors, and is paranoid, seeing enemies everywhere, both inside and outside his kingdom. Flaccus makes of him a treacherous man, a deceitful traitor, who deserves to be deceived by his own daughter. Latin texts use terms like furor (“rage”), ira (“anger”), and impietas (“impiety”) to describe him. Gregory Hutchinson calls him an “Oriental tyrant” and Richard Hunter – a “barbarian villain”.
Aeetes symbolizes the divorce between prehistory and history. His association with Ares and Hephaestus, and his comparison with the heroes of the Iliad, make him the representation of the violent civilization of the Bronze Age, in contrast with the civilized and peaceful Greeks. Aeetes is chronologically one of the last demigods of Greek mythology, a symbol of the past defeated by the Argonauts. Aeetes also represents a decisive moment in the relations between East and West, as do the other members of his family, whose domains represent the journey of Helios: Circe is in the western Mediterranean, Pasiphae is in Crete, Perseus rules over Tauris, while Aeetes is within the boundaries of the East. The departure of Medea is also a symbol of the migration of science and culture from the East to Greece. The king’s kinship is directly linked to the sun cult in Colchis, a cult recounted by the Greeks and Romans and confirmed by archaeological excavations. Proposing an alternative geography, the Austrian philologist Albin Lesky compared Aia to the Elysian Fields and Aetas to the king of the dead, a theory taken up by Jacob Wackernagel who compares the name of Aetas to that of Hades, and by the Russian historian Askold Ivantchik who associates Colchis to the Underworld.
Professor Mary Williams, however, criticizes the simplification of such interpretations based on the “Hellenocentric” view of Jason and his companions. She sees in Aeetes not a barbarian, but a king of Corinthian origin who communicates in Greek with his guests, lives in a wealthy palace within a prosperous kingdom, and is powerful enough to be in touch with the gods. Many characteristics of the king make him a Homeric hero who has built a stable kingdom and has to face invaders: Herodotus describes the Argo as a warship, the king receives the Argonauts with hospitality and is described by Castor as “wise”, while Jason’s trials seem difficult for the Greeks, but testify to the role of Colchis in the development of metallurgy and agriculture in the region. According to the historian Rusudan Tsanava, Aeetes is also the model of a good father who asks Jason to prove his heroism, sends Absyrte to save his daughter Medea and bequeaths the kingdom of Corinth to her. According to Williams, too little attention has been paid to Aeetes in a complex story:
“Although Jason and Medea have each received their share of attention, little has been given to the other important characters of the epic, especially to Aeetes, whose character is wonderfully constructed and quite entertaining. Apollonius’s presentation of Aeetes in the “Argonautics” is of fundamental importance, though he is a figure to whom relatively few verses are devoted, for Aeetes is a major stumbling block to the success of Jason and his crew.”
According to historian Mary Williams, Apollonius’ Aetestes is a king who agrees to offer the Golden Fleece, but only to a true hero, hence the difficulty of the tasks he assigns to Jason, while the latter violates his oath by secretly using Medea’s magic and killing Absyrte afterwards. Williams sees in Apollonius’ narrative not a conflict between good and evil, or between civilized and barbarians, but between the old world of Homeric values, represented by Aetheus, and the new reality of the Greek world. The historian Iamze Gagua, for his part, sees an allegory between the first contacts between Greek colonists and the Colchidian world, represented in three phases: the arrival of Aetas from Corinth in Colchis, the arrival of Phrixos and the voyage of the Argonauts.
Aeetes and Georgian historiography
In Georgian historiography, Aeetes is not only a mythical character, but a semi-legendary king of Colchis, who reigned at the end of the Bronze Age (around the 13th century BC). This assumption is based on Roman historians who treated him as a historical king (Arrien, Strabo, Zosimus), but also on certain similarities between myth and reality (in particular the invasion by the Scythians told by Flaccus and by medieval Georgian historians). The historicist version presents the reign of Aeetes as the independence of Colchis from the Egyptian sphere of influence. Using Greco-Roman accounts and archaeological finds from the late Bronze Age, the creation of the first Colchidian army and navy is attributed to Aeetes, as well as that of a centralized state, after the subjugation of the Georgian and Caucasian tribes living in the vicinity of Transcaucasia. By interpreting the late versions of the myth, Aeetes becomes a powerful king, who unifies the independent princes of Western Transcaucasia and becomes the suzerain of Tauride and Mitanni. The historian Roin Metreveli considers Aetas as one of the greatest diplomatic rulers in Georgian history.
According to Nodar Assatiani, the myth of Aeetes is an attempt by Greek authors to explain the progress of metallurgy and agriculture in Colchis, as well as the vast power of the region. It is also possible that Apollonius invented the links between Aeetes and Hephaestus to symbolize the importance of technology in Aia, while the bronze of his bulls represents the fact that the Colchis of Aeetes existed during the Bronze Age. These interpretations led Chochitashvili to find in Aetes a powerful monarch who encouraged an agricultural revolution in his country (including a massive cultivation of hemp), developed industrial fishing and encouraged the exploitation of gold, entrusted to the Svane tribe of the Missimians (renowned for its use of fleeces to harvest gold flakes in the rivers of Svanetia), then exporting this gold to Crete.
Like the myth of the Trojan War, it is possible that the Colchis of Aeetes has some historical elements, but the lack of archaeological excavations in modern western Georgia (as was done in Hisarlık for Troy) prevents this theory from being confirmed. The Georgian explanation of the myth sees Aeetes as a king trying to defend his kingdom against Greek invaders and, in the Argonauts’ demand for the Golden Fleece, a demand for tribute by the Greeks. According to Gagua, the story of the Spartans is an allegory to show how the Greeks used the division among the Caucasian tribes to subdue Colchis.
The archaeologist Akaki Tchantouria, a proponent of the historicity of the king of Colchis, found during an excavation in Imerethia a golden death mask that he named the “Mask of Aeetes”. Georgi Kalandia, director of the Museum of Cultural History in Tbilisi, follows this theory: while death masks are common in Colchis, this one contains symbols of the sun. The mask is now kept in the Museum of History and Architecture of the Dadiani Palace in Zugdidi.
The myth of the Argonauts and the question of the Colchidian colonies
While the myth of the Argonauts has long been seen as an allegory of Greek colonial and military expansion, a less often studied element is the Colchidian colonization, symbolized in many passages of the different versions of the story.
Pindar describes how the return journey of the Argonauts leads to the foundation of the kingdom of Cyrene.
According to Apollonius of Rhodes, the Colchidian troops sent by Aeetes to hunt the Argo decide to settle in certain places of their route to avoid returning to a ruthless and angry king. Thus, they found the Absyrtides in the Adriatic Sea, where the prince Absyrte is murdered. When other soldiers fail in their negotiations with Alcinoos, they settle in Drepanum with the Pheacians, until their expulsion by the Bacchiades, forcing them to live on a desert island. It is from this island that they colonize the Ceranian Mountains, Oricum and the Balkans. In the Argonautics, the Liburnian islands are already populated by Colchidians before the voyage of the Argonauts.
According to Callimachus of Cyrene, the Colchidian exiles settled across Illyria and built the city of Pola near the temple of Harmony. The Greeks named this city the “City of the Exiles” and Gordeziani finds a connection between Pola and Rbola (რბოლა, “run” in Proto-Kartvelian).
Strabo also confirms the presence of Colchidians as far as Crete and Italy, and Pliny the Elder mentions Colchidian cities in the Adriatic, including Colchinium (modern Ulcinj). Nadareishvili uses Strabo’s survey to justify the similarities between the Mycenaeans of Crete, the Etruscans of Italy and the Georgians of Colchis, and finds a direct link with Greek mythology: Aeetes reigns in Colchis, Pasiphae in Crete and Circe in Italy.
Stephen of Byzantium makes of Panticapaeum a colchidian colony built under Éétès.
There would be links between Colchis and the Adriatic cities, confirmed by archaeological findings showing Colchidian artifacts dating from the 15th-11th centuries B.C. in Italy as well as in the Danube valley (2nd millennium B.C.). Gordeziani identifies many similarities in the Colchidian and Macedonian vocabularies, indicating a possible Zane origin for both. Other evidence suggests close contact between Colchis and Crete during the Mycenaean period.
There is no agreement, among ancient authors, on the return journey of the Argonauts. However, each version would demonstrate a possible Colchidian presence outside the Transcaucasus, from the Caspian Sea to the Volga and from the Baltic Sea to Western Europe. Some believe that Apollonius of Rhodes rewrote his Argonautics after being exiled to Rhodes for his first work, in which he describes a powerful Colchis competing with the Phoenicians for dominance in the Mediterranean.
Gordeziani compares these versions to the theory of the Kartvelian emigration to the Aegean Sea at the end of the third millennium BC.
Aeetes, Hattusili, Ethiopia
A minority opinion refuses to make of Aeetes a monarch of Western Transcaucasia. The German philologist Paul Dräger places Aïa in Ethiopia, and criticizes the nationalism of Georgian scholars who assume, without doubt, that Colchis would indeed be in Georgia, a view however criticized by Gordeziani, who cites the numerous geographical marks used by Apollonius to locate the kingdom of Aetas on the Euxine Bridge.
The theory of Iuri Mosenkis identifies Aetas with King Hattusili III, a Hittite ruler who reigned from 1267 BC to 1232 BC. To support this hypothesis, Mosenkis finds many similarities between the myth and the reign of Hattusili, including:
Mikheïl Tamarachvili, who uses stellar descriptions in the numerous versions of the Argonauts myth, dates Jason’s voyage to Colchis to around 1292 BC. This date corresponds to the Hittite reign of Muwatalli II, the brother of Hattusili. During this period, Hattusili served as governor of the southern provinces of the Hittite kingdom.
Pindar, IV Pythics
Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautics
Cicero, De natura deorum
Caius Flavius Hyginus, Fabulæ
Caius Valerius Flaccus, Argonautics
Diodorus of Sicily, Historical Library
Philostratus the Younger, Paintings
Pausanias the Periegete, Description of Greece
Claude Élien, Varied History
Justin, Abridged Histories of Pompey
- Néère n’apparaît que chez Sophocle. Les listes traditionnelles des Néréides, suivant la version d’Hésiode, ne la listent pas parmi les filles de Nérée et Doris.
- Une scholie anonyme à Apollonios remplace Persé par Éphyra et Antiope.
- ^ Yarnall, Judith (Jan 1, 1994). Transformations of Circe: The History of an Enchantress. University of Illinois Press. p. 28. ISBN 0252063562. Retrieved 2015-06-30.
- ^ Hesiod, Theogony 960; Apollodorus, 1.9.23; Hyginus, Fabulae 25; Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 3.243–244; Cicero, De Natura Deorum 3.19
- Bartolomeo di Giovanni (Bartolomeo di Giovanni di Domenico, ca. 1458 – 1501; fl. 1480-1501): pintor italiano que trabajó en Florencia, y cuyas obras fueron identificadas como de su autoría por Bernard Berenson.
- Éfira (Ἐφύρα), que sería llamada después Corinto.
- Yarnall, Judith (Jan 1, 1994). Transformations of Circe: The History of an Enchantress. University of Illinois Press. σ. 28
- Hesiod, Theogony 960; Apollodorus, 1.9.23; Hyginus, Fabulae 25; Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 3.243–244; Cicero, De Natura Deorum 3.19