We continue with my series about gold in pre-history today with one of the earliest and most enduring of the golden myths: Jason and the Golden Fleece. This story, which took place about a generation before the Trojan War, starts out as a hero’s quest, but develops into a story of betrayal and vengeance with, like many a Greek myth, a tragic ending.
In Iolcos, Pelias usurped his brother Aeson, the rightful king, to take the throne. He then had all Aeson’s descendents killed. People were ruthless in those days.
Aeson’s son Jason, however, survived the massacre, saved by a wheeze: when he was born, his mother had all her servants cry to fool Pelias into thinking he was still-born. She then smuggled Jason away to be reared by Chiron, “the wisest and justest of all the centaurs.” Chiron was the son of Cronos and would count among his high-achieving students Achilles, Odysseus, Hercules, Theseus and Perseus.
Meanwhile, an oracle warned Aeson “to fear the man with one sandal”. No doubt feeling guilty about his ill-gotten kingship, he lived in dread of that prophecy.
When Jason was fully grown, he set off to Iolcos to claim his throne. On his way, he chanced upon an old lady trying to cross a river and helped her across. In doing so he lost his sandal. Little did he know, that old lady was Hera, wife of Zeus, Queen of the Gods. She would become his ally.
In Iolcos, Jason was announced as a man in one sandal. He came before King Pelias, revealed who he was and claimed the kingdom. Pelias agreed to cede the kingdom, but only on one condition: that Jason brought him the fleece of the golden ram. He had set Jason an impossible task, a task that would take him beyond the known world (which at this point was about as far as the Black Sea), to the barbarian kingdom of Colchis. But Jason agreed.
The fleece, so the story went, was of a magical ram that had once belonged to Zeus. It hung from a tree in a sacred grove, guarded by bulls with hooves of brass and breath of fire, and a dragon that never slept, whose teeth became soldiers when planted in the ground. The fleece belonged to Aietes, King of Colchis, son of the sun god, Helios, no less. Another oracle had foretold that Aietes would lose his kingdom, if he lost his fleece.
I love how legends and myths are born out of truths and here is a case in point. East of the Black Sea in what today is Georgia - in Colchis in other words - sheepskins were used to pan gold from rivers. The fleeces were stretched over a wooden frame and then submerged in rivers, where the tight curls of the sheep’s coat would catch nuggets and specks of gold carried down in the rushing water from placer deposits upstream. The fleeces were then hung in trees to dry, after which the gold was combed out. If you have a wet fleece full of alluvial gold hanging to dry in a tree, you are going to make sure it is well guarded - by bulls and dragons, if necessary. It’s quite easy to see how this practice had evolved into the myth of a golden fleece as the story spread east from the other side of the Black Sea.
Three Impossible Tasks
Jason had a ship, the Argo, built. He assembled a crew - the Argonauts - a band of heroes which included such luminaries as Hercules, the twins Castor and Pollux, Peleus (father of Achilles), Orpheus (the musician) and Atlanta (the virgin huntress who would never marry).
They set off on what is seen by some as the first long-distance voyage ever undertaken, perhaps the first time a Greek had successfully navigated the hostile currents of the Bosphorus. En route, the Argonauts stopped on the Isle of Lemnos, inhabited by a band of women who had killed their husbands. There they fathered a new people with them, the Minyae. Sounds like a good holiday. They fought giants with six arms, they killed harpies, they navigated the clashing rocks of the Bosphorus and eventually arrived in Colchis.
There King Aietes set Jason an impossible task - actually three - if he wanted to claim the fleece as his own. He had to harness the fire-breathing oxen and plough a field with them. He had to sow a field with dragon’s teeth and fight the army of phantom soldiers that resulted. And, finally, he had to overcome the dragon.
Needless to say, Jason was discouraged, but Hera, Jason’s ally, leant on Aphrodite, goddess of love, to lend a hand. She sent her son, Eros, to shoot one of his arrows and it struck Aietes’ daughter, Medea, who fell in love with Jason. Medea gave Jason an ointment to protect him from the oxen’s fire. She showed him how to defeat the phantom soldiers with a rock that would confuse them into fighting each other. She gave him a potion to send the dragon to sleep, so that he could take the fleece.
With the fleece in hand, Jason and his Argonauts attempted their escape. To help them, Medea murdered her brother and threw pieces of his body into the sea. Grief-stricken, Aietes stopped to collect the pieces of body, allowing Jason, Medea and the Argonauts to get away.
There were as many adventures on the way home. They passed the infamous Sirens, whose songs enticed sailors, only for their ships to wreck on the rocks. But Orpheus played his lyre and drowned their songs with music that was more beautiful. They could not pass Crete, for the rocks that the bronze man Talos threw at them, but again they were saved by Medea, who cast a spell on Talos and then killed him.
Back at Iolcos, Jason’s father, Aeson, was too old to participate in the celebrations, but Medea used her witchcraft to rejuvenate him. Pelias’ daughters asked her to do the same for the ageing Pelias. Medea advised them to chop him up and put him in a cauldron to boil, which they duly did. It was a trick, of course, and Pelias was no more. But Jason and Medea were exiled for the murder and they fled to city of Corinth. There Jason betrayed Medea by marrying the king’s daughter.
Medea confronted Jason, heartbroken, but Jason blamed Aphrodite for having made Medea fall in love with him. Medea would have her revenge, a revenge which has become the subject of many a drama since, not least at the National Rheatre.
She gave Jason’s newly betrothed a dress that stuck to her body and burned her to death. The king died with his daughter as he tried to save her. Then Medea killed her own two sons, born by Jason, and fled to Athens in a chariot of dragons sent by her grandfather, the sun-god Helios.
Jason returned to Iolcus to claim his kingdom, but as a result of breaking his vow to love Medea forever, he lost the favour of Hera. He died lonely and unhappy, asleep on the rotting Argo.
It’s a buccaneering adventure story, full of the human psychological flaws that the Ancient Greeks seemed so cognizant of, with a typically Greek tragic end. The formula of hero, dark power and female helper has become the backbone of numerous plots since, not least in Hollywood, while the premise - a young man setting off in search of his fortune, made of gold - is the premise of every youngster setting off on his or her life’s adventure.
My show on gold at the Edinburgh Fringe this August will take place at Panmure House, the room in which Adam Smith wrote Wealth of Nations. You can get tickets here.
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