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Golden Fleece

Golden Fleece

One of the best-known stories in Greek mythology concerns the hero Jason and his quest for the Golden Fleece. The fleece, which came from a magic ram, hung in a sacred grove of trees in the distant land of Colchis. Jason's adventure, however, was only one part of the story of the Golden Fleece, which began years earlier.

According to legend, King Athamas of Boeotia in Greece had two children by his wife Nephele: a son, Phrixus, and a daughter,


* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.

Helle. After a time, Athamas grew tired of Nephele and took a new wife, Ino, with whom he had two sons. Jealous of Phrixus and Helle, Ino plotted against them. First, she cunningly had seeds destroyed so that crops would not grow, resulting in a famine. She then arranged to have blame for the famine placed on her stepchildren and convinced Athamas that he must sacrifice Phrixus to Zeus* to restore the kingdom's prosperity.

Fearful for her children's lives, Nephele sought help from the god Hermes*, and he sent a winged ram with a fleece of gold to carry Phrixus and Helle to safety. While flying over the water on the ram, Helle fell off and drowned. But Phrixus reached the land of Colchis and was welcomed by its ruler, King Aeëtes. Phrixus sacrificed the ram to Zeus and gave the Golden Fleece to the king, who placed it in an oak tree in a sacred grove. It was guarded by a dragon that never slept.

The story of the Golden Fleece resumes some time later when Jason and the Argonauts, a band of Greek heroes, set out in search of the fleece aboard a ship called the Argo. Jason undertook this quest in order to gain his rightful place as king of Iolcus in Thessaly. The country had been ruled for a number of years by his uncle Pelias.

After many adventures, Jason and the Argonauts finally reached Colchis. However, King Aeëtes refused to give up the Golden Fleece unless Jason could harness two fire-breathing bulls to a plow, plant dragons' teeth in the ground, and defeat the warriors that sprang up from the teeth. Aeëtes had a daughter, Medea, who was a sorceress. She fell in love with Jason and helped him accomplish these tasks. Medea also helped Jason steal the Golden Fleece by charming the serpent that guarded it and putting the creature to sleep. Jason, Medea, and the Argonauts then set sail for Iolcus with the fleece.

See also Animals in Mythology; Argonauts; Jason; Medea.

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Golden Fleece

Golden Fleece, in Greek mythology, the magic fleece of the winged ram that saved Phrixus and Helle, the children of Nephele and Athamas, from the jealousy of Ino, Athamas' second wife. The ram flew to Colchis, but Helle fell into the sea, which was thereafter known as the Hellespont. Phrixus arrived safely, sacrificed the ram, and hung its fleece in a wood guarded by a dragon. The ram became the constellation Aries. Phrixus married a daughter of King Aeëtes of Colchis and begot Argus and three other sons. The quest of Jason and the Argonauts was for this fleece. The legend of the Golden Fleece may have some basis in reality. Ancient Colchis is the modern Georgian region of Mingrelia, and in neighboring Svanetia, inland in the Caucasus, miners have for centuries used sheepskins to collect gold grains and flakes from mountain streams.

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Golden Fleece

Golden Fleece In Greek mythology, fleece of the ram that saved Helle and Phrixus from their stepmother Ino. On arrival in Colchis, Phrixus sacrificed the ram and hung the fleece in a wood guarded by a dragon. Jason and the Argonauts seized the fleece.

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Golden Fleece

Gold·en Fleece Greek Mythol. the fleece of a golden ram, guarded by an unsleeping dragon, that was sought and won by Jason with the help of Medea. ∎  a goal that is highly desirable but difficult to achieve.

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Golden Fleece

Golden Fleece

Nationality/Culture

Greek

Alternate Names

None

Appears In

Pindar's Pythian Ode, Apollonius Rhodius's Argonautica, Euripides' Medea

Myth Overview

One of the best-known stories in Greek mythology concerns the hero Jason and his quest for the Golden Fleece. The fleece, which came from a magic ram, hung in a sacred grove of trees in the distant land of Colchis (pronounced KOL-kis). Jason's adventure, however, was only one part of the story of the Golden Fleece, which began years earlier.

According to legend, King Athamas (pronounced ATH-uh-mas) of Boeotia (pronounced bee-OH-shuh) in Greece had two children by his wife Nephele (pronounced NEF-uh-lee): a son, Phrixus (pronounced FRIK-suhs), and a daughter, Helle (pronounced HEL-ee). After a time, Athamas grew tired of Nephele and took a new wife, Ino (pronounced EYE-noh), with whom he had two sons. Jealous of Phrixus and Helle, Ino plotted against them. First, she cunningly had seeds destroyed so that crops would not grow, resulting in a famine. She then arranged to have blame for the famine placed on her stepchildren and convinced Athamas that he must sacrifice Phrixus to Zeus (pronounced ZOOS), the king of the gods, to restore the kingdom's prosperity.

Fearful for her children's lives, Nephele sought help from the god Hermes (pronounced HUR-meez), and he sent a winged ram with a fleece of gold to carry Phrixus and Helle to safety. While flying over the water on the ram, Helle fell off and drowned. But Phrixus reached the land of Colchis and was welcomed by its ruler, King Aeetes (pronounced ye-EE-teez). Phrixus sacrificed the ram to Zeus and gave the Golden Fleece to the king, who placed it in an oak tree in a sacred grove. It was guarded by a dragon that never slept.

The story of the Golden Fleece resumes some time later when Jason and the Argonauts (pronounced AHR-guh-nawts), a band of Greek heroes , set out in search of the fleece aboard a ship called the Argo. Jason undertook this quest in order to gain his rightful place as king of lolcus (pronounced ee-AHL-kuhs) in Thessaly (THESS-uh-lee). The country had been ruled for a number of years by his uncle Pelias (pronounced PEEL-ee-uhs).

After many adventures, Jason and the Argonauts finally reached Colchis. However, King Aeetes refused to give up the Golden Fleece unless Jason could harness two fire-breathing bulls to a plow, plant dragons' teeth in the ground, and defeat the warriors that sprang up from the teeth. Aeetes had a daughter, Medea (pronounced me-DEE-uh), who was a sorceress. She fell in love with Jason and helped him accomplish these tasks. Medea also helped Jason steal the Golden Fleece by charming the serpent that guarded it and putting the creature to sleep. Jason, Medea, and the Argonauts then set sail for lolcus with the fleece. Although Jason returned with the fleece, he did not become king and was punished by the gods for betraying Medea's love; however, Jason's son, Thessalus (pronounced THESS-uh-luhs), did eventually become king.

The Golden Fleece in Context

The myths of the Golden Fleece center on the passing of royal power from one generation to the next. These myths pre-date government rule by elected officials, and represent an older system of rule still common in many regions during the height of the Greek empire. Historical records suggest that plots and overthrows of rulers were all too common in ancient Greece and Rome. The myths of the Golden Fleece help to encourage the traditional passing of power from a king to his son; this is done by casting both Phrixus and Jason in sympathetic and heroic roles, prompting the audience to root for their success.

Key Themes and Symbols

In the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, the Golden Fleece is a symbol of that which is unattainable or cannot be possessed. Pelias only gives Jason the task because he believes it cannot be completed. Even after arriving in Colchis, the fleece seems impossible to take. And once Jason returns to Iolcus with the fleece, he is still unable to attain his rightful place as king. The Golden Fleece can also be seen as a symbol of rightful heirs to royal power, as both Phrixus and Jason possessed the fleece and both were rightful heirs to their fathers' thrones.

The Golden Fleece in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

Many writers have been inspired by the subject of Jason's quest for the Golden Fleece. Among the ancient Greek works concerning the subject are Pindar's Pythian Ode, ApoUonius Rhodius's Argonautica, and Euripides' play Medea. In the Middle Ages, Chaucer retold the story in the Legend of Good Women, and in the 1800s, William Morris wrote the long narrative poem Life and Death of Jason which centered on the quest. Robert Graves's novel about Jason, The Golden Fleece, was published in 1944, and John Gardner's Jason andMedeia was published in 1973. The story of the search for the Golden Fleece has also been adapted to film, most notably the 1963 movie Jason and the Argonauts.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

The notion of a “rightful heir” to a throne is common in modern fantasy, as it is in ancient myth. However, in most modern societies, people are not born into power but are chosen by the public to govern, and even then they may only rule for a short time instead of ruling for life. Why do you think so many modern works of fantasy focus on kings and their successive heirs instead of including types of government more common in modern times?

SEE ALSO Animals in Mythology; Argonauts; Jason; Medea

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