Golden Fleece

Summary

In Greek mythology, the Golden Fleece (in ancient Greek: Χρυσόμαλλον Δέρας Khrysómallon Déras) is the fleece of Chrysomallos, a ram with large wings on which Phrixos and Hellé fled to escape their stepmother Ino. When Phrixos arrived in Colchis, he sacrificed the ram in honor of Zeus and gave the fleece to King Aetas, who hung it on an oak tree and had it guarded by a dragon and armed men. The quest for the golden fleece is the subject of the myth of the Argonauts led by Jason.

The ram with the golden fleece (Chrysomallos in ancient Greek), sometimes also represented as having large wings, is a marvelous animal sent by the gods to two children, Phrixos and Hellé, who ride it to escape their stepmother Ino. When they arrive in Colchis, Phrixos sacrifices the ram in honor of Zeus and gives the fleece to King Aetas, who hangs it on an oak tree and has it guarded by a dragon and armed men.

Pelias orders his nephew Jason to steal the Golden Fleece. Medea betrays her father Etes and helps Jason and the Argonauts to seize it. During their escape, she cuts her brother Absyrte into pieces and throws them into the water to slow down Éétès who stops to gather the pieces of Absyrte and to give him a funeral in a place called Tomis (“cut up”), which gives the Argonauts time to escape.

The golden fleece is a solar symbol. Its conquest allows to obtain the status of hero and, for some of them, the sovereignty.

Solar talisman for obtaining fortunes and hero status

Bringing the golden fleece closer to the Avestic myth of the hvarnah, which takes the form of a ram in the Persian legend of Ardešir in Ferdowsi’s Book of Kings, Jean Haudry, following in the footsteps of Henri de La Ville de Mirmont, considers that the image of the ram “which procures the sun” is that of the conquest of the sun, which means “to reach the beautiful season, to come out of winter”, and then “to obtain fortune and

Thus, the pretext invoked by Pélias is to satisfy a request of the deceased Phrixos, “to bring back the thick fleece of the ram.” Pélias wishes to make benefit his native country of the solar talisman which he gave up to foreigners. In archaic Greece, gold and royal fortune are linked.

This is also why Jason and Medea use the fleece as a cover during their first union, which Alain Moreau (1994: 149) considers “as a hieros gamos, a sacred marriage, reward for successful trials.”

She also has the gift of healing any person or living thing.

Initiatory test and royal rite

The interpretation of this Greek myth is to be sought first in the culture and beliefs of ancient Greece. The ordeal imposed on Jason consists first of all of a journey into a mysterious afterlife from which he must return transformed: the symbolism of such a journey is analogous to that of a descent into the dead and takes on the value of an initiation. The golden fleece of the marvelous ram that he must bring back represents a talisman of power, even of immortality, in the Achaean kingdoms, and is a guarantee of fecundity: one sees it with the lamb carrying a golden fleece which appeared in Argos and of which Euripides speaks: the herald of the city invites the Mycenaeans to come “to contemplate the appearance which announces a blessed reign”. This golden fleece is indeed the harbinger of the reign of Thyestes for the house of the Atreides. Such symbolism derives from the magical properties attributed to the skin of the sacrificed animal, particularly to the woolly skin. According to the authors who report this legend, this fleece has a golden or purple sheen: it is purple in Simonides of Céos; it is sometimes white, sometimes purple in Apollonius of Rhodes. In its golden or purple sheen, it is a symbol of immortality enveloping its owner with a living radiance.

The work of René Roux confirms that the Golden Fleece is indeed a royal rite. It is also in this sense that Pindar relates the episode of the Golden Fleece: Jason must return, at the end of a conquest carried out at the risk of his life, worthy of his father’s scepter. This is what his uncle Pelias asks of him:

“Consent to accomplish this feat, and I swear that I will yield the scepter and the kingship to you.”

– Pindar, Pythics, IV, verse 165.

But there is also an initiatory symbolism to this myth, since Jason’s exploit was depicted on the stucco of the Pythagorean basilica. The quest for the Golden Fleece would thus symbolize a rite of passage to a higher form of human life.

For Alain Moreau (1994: 144) also, “the golden fleece is doubly linked to sovereignty: Jason will only obtain the kingdom of Iolcos if he brings it back to Pelias; Aietes loses the kingdom of Aia once Jason has taken possession of the talisman: he is dethroned by his brother Perses.”

Historical reconciliation

Calvert Watkins brought the golden fleece closer to the Hittite aegis KUŠkuršaš which is a skin as confirmed by the sumerogram. Its qualifier warhui- “hairy, velvety, shaggy” indicates a fleece which is similar to the Greek aegis which is a goat skin. Valérie Faranton and Michel Mazoyer take up this comparison which is based on three precise concordances: the Hittite aegis hangs from an evergreen tree like the fleece hangs from an oak tree; it represents the king’s fortune in the myth of Telipinu; but the king can lose it; finally, it is associated, like the golden fleece, with two displacements in opposite directions.

Alchemy

The Souda (10th century) offers the first formal evidence of an alchemical interpretation of the myth of the Golden Fleece:

“The Golden Fleece was not what the fable says it was, but a book written on a skin that taught how to make gold by alchemy.”

Eustathius, Pico della Mirandola, Robert Vallensis, Trismosin, Siebmacher, Augurelle, Pierre-Jean Fabre, Vigenère and Pernety, among others, go in the same direction.

The physician-philosopher Michael Maier, in his Most Secret Arcana, claims to apply the whole story of the Golden Fleece to “the most secret operations, peculiar to the philosophers, namely to the golden medicine, the effectiveness of which comes from the golden medicine of the mind and body”.

This type of explanation is found in the Library of Chemical Philosophers:

“The fable of the golden fleece that was in Colchos could be used as an experiment and proof of the great work, with more foundation and reason. All the circumstances in this story are so closely related to the operations and effects of the Philosopher’s Stone that it could not reasonably be explained otherwise.”

Other

In the myth of Love and Psyche, recounted by Apuleius in The Golden Ass or Metamorphoses, one of the tests imposed by Venus on Psyche consists in bringing back a sample of the Golden Fleece from ferocious sheep, which attack human beings during the day. A talking reed advises Psyche to collect, in the evening, bits of their golden fleece that have remained attached to the vegetation.

Much more pragmatic, Strabo gives in his Geography (volume 1, chapter 2, 39) a geopolitical interpretation of the myth: “(…) and the wealth that Colchis currently draws from its gold, silver and iron mines, let us guess what must have been the real motive of the Argonauts’ expedition, the same one that had, apparently, pushed Phrixus towards the shores of the Phase.

In modern times, commentators have made other connections. Thus, in Georgia, the Svanes (Georgian ethnic people living in the mountains of the Great Caucasus), mountain people of the north who practice gold panning in the rivers of the Caucasus, have always used sheep’s fleeces to collect the gold flakes that are in abundance. The legend of the Golden Fleece takes place in Colchis, which is a part of present-day Georgia.

These elements are part of the various contributions that have enriched the legend of the Argonauts in historical times, including in particular the golden fleece, which probably originates from the use of sheep skins to collect the flakes and its location in Colchis, a region that produced gold, silver and iron.

Sources

  1. Toison d’or
  2. Golden Fleece
  3. Simonide, fragment 21 (P.L.G.)
  4. ^ Greek: Χρυσόμαλλος, Khrusómallos.
  5. ^ That the ram was sent by Zeus was the version heard by Pausanias in the second century of the Christian era (Pausanias, ix.34.5).
  6. ^ Theophane may equally be construed as “appearing as a goddess” or as “causing a god to appear”.[1]
  7. HIGINO: Fábulas 188. OVIDIO: Metamorfosis vi, 117.
  8. Diodoro Sículo tem o costume de explicar vários mitos gregos de forma racional; nota-se, nesta passagem, a ausência da referência ao Dragão da Cólquida, presente em outras versões do mito.
  9. Nubes é a versão romana de Nefele, mãe de Frixo e Hele.
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