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The Golden Fleece in Greek mythology

Updated on August 27, 2016
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

The prize that was the Golden Fleece is a central element of the quest of Jason and the other Argonauts; the story of the Golden Fleece though is one which acts as a thread through many other stories. Indeed, there was more to the Golden Fleece than simply being a treasure to be taken.

A Golden Ram is Born

The Golden Fleece was the coat of a golden ram; a ram which was the offspring of Poseidon.

Along the northern coast of the Aegean, between Thrace and Macedon, lived a people called the Bisaltae. The people were named for their ruler, Bisaltes, the son of Helios and Gaia. Bisaltes had a beautiful daughter named Theophane, and suitors came from far and wide for the chance to marry her.

It was though not just mortals who were taken by the beauty of Theophane, and Poseidon so desired her, that he abducted her, and took her to the island of Crumissa. The ditched suitors though quickly followed, and in order to confuse them, Poseidon transformed himself into a ram and Theophane into a ewe. The other inhabitants of the island were transformed into sheep and cattle.

When the suitors found no humans on the island they were at a loss, and to feed themselves they started to eat the animals. At that point Poseidon changed the suitors into wolves. Left in relative peace, Poseidon then mated with Theophane, and from that brief relationship a golden ram was born, the Crius Chrysomallus.

Phrixus and Helle

Ancient roman fresco found in Pompeii, now in the Archaeological Museum in Naples; book illustration of 1902 or earlier
Ancient roman fresco found in Pompeii, now in the Archaeological Museum in Naples; book illustration of 1902 or earlier | Source

The Golden Ram to the Rescue

In Boeotia King Athamas was ruler, and he was wed to the cloud nymph Nephele. The pair would become parents to a boy, Phrixus, and a girl, Helle. Eventually though Athamas would tire of Nephele, and would fall in love with Ino.

Nephele would leave Boeotia, leaving behind a drought, and her children. When Ino wed Athamas she felt no love for her stepchildren, and planned to have Phrixus killed; Ino hoping that Athamas would agree to sacrifice his son to rid his land of the drought.

Nephele came to the rescue of Phrixus and Helle though, and sent the Golden Ram to fly her children to safety. The ram sought to put as much distance between Ino and the children, and headed away from Boeotia towards Colchis. Colchis was at the edge of the known world, laying as it did on the furthest coast of the Black Sea.

During the flight though Helle struggled to hold onto the fleece of the ram, and halfway on the journey, she fell to her death at a point that was the entrance to the Black Sea. This point became known as the Hellespont, a strait now known as the Dardanelles. The Ram continued on its flight though, and eventually Phrixus was transported safely to Colchis.

Once in Colchis, it was the Golden Ram itself who told Phrixus what to do next; Phrixus was to sacrifice the ram to the god Poseidon. So Phrixus sacrificed the Golden Ram, and removed its Golden Fleece. Upon its death Crius Chrysomallus was transformed into the constellation Aries.

Phrixus, with Golden Fleece in hand, then walked into the court of Aeetes, the king of Colchis, and presented him with the Golden Fleece as a gift.

The Golden Fleece in Colchis

King Aeetes was so enamoured with the gift that he married Phrixus off to one of his own daughters, Chalciope, and so Phrixus was now safe from his stepmother.

Aeetes placed the Golden Fleece upon an oak tree in the sacred grove of Ares. Up until this point Aeetes had been welcoming to visitors to his kingdom, but now he was advised by an oracle that he would only remain king as long as the Golden Fleece remained in the grove. Subsequently strangers only visited Colchis if they were willing to face the real possibility of being put to death.

Jason and the Golden Fleece

Jason comes to Colchis

Back on mainland Greece, Jason had arrived in Iolcus to reclaim the throne from his uncle Pelias. Pelias wasn’t simply going to hand over the crown and so Jason was set the seemingly impossible task of bringing back the Golden Fleece.

The Argo was built and the Argonauts assembled, and after many adventures, Jason arrived in Colchis. The strength of the Argonauts meant that Aeetes could not simply kill them, but at the same time he had no wish to give up his prized possession, and potentially lose his throne.

So Jason was set further impossible tasks. First Jason had to yoke the Colchis Bulls, two fire breathing automations, then he had to sow dragon’s teeth, and deal with the Spartoi warriors who grew from the sown teeth. Jason though was aided by the goddess Hera, and Aeetes’ own daughter Medea, and so he successfully completed the tasks.

Medea then warned Jason that her father was planning on killing the Argonauts whilst they slept, and so taking Jason to the grove, Medea put the guarding serpent, the Colchis Dragon, to sleep. Jason and Medea then returned to the Argo, and with the remaining Argonauts fled from Colchis.

The Golden Fleece on the Argo

Herbert James Draper (1863–1920)  PD-art-100
Herbert James Draper (1863–1920) PD-art-100 | Source

Jason with the Golden Fleece

Erasmus Quellinus II (1607–1678) PD-art-100
Erasmus Quellinus II (1607–1678) PD-art-100 | Source

The Golden Fleece arrives in Iolcus

The Argo and its crew had further adventures on the way back to Greece, but eventually Jason, with the Golden Fleece, arrived back in Iolcus. The Golden Fleece was then handed over the Pelias, although of course his uncle did not simply give up the throne, even though Jason had successfully completed the impossible quest. For his treachery Pelias would be killed, and for a short time it seemed that Jason would live happily ever after with Medea, although of course few heroes lived out their lives happily.

The story of the Golden Fleece normally ends at this point, disappearing from stories and history; modern interpretations of the story though, have adapted the story of the Golden Fleece, and the fleece now is often perceived as having restorative powers. In the stories of Ancient Greece though, the Golden Fleece possessed no magical powers.

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