One of the wonderful legacies that our ancestors left us is the rich tapestry of myths. Like most words of value, “Myth” derives from the Greek word “ΜΥΘΟΣ,” referring to a fantastic story told of events, deeds, and even history, embellished for the wonder and fascination of the listeners. The same word is also used in the common term “ParaMYTHI” (Greek: Παραμύθι), stories told to children.
Almost all ancient Greek myths revolve around gods and heroes, and deeds of good or evil, usually teaching a moral issue to bear to the listeners’ minds. But these are not just stories, created out of the imagination of some sage, and revised through the centuries; there is usually a certain basic fact associated with them, which helps modern archaeologists and historians learn more about our culture.
One fine example of this combination of “reality-creating mythology” is the “Myth of the Golden Fleece,” (Greek: ΧΡΥΣΟΜΑΛΛΟ ΔΕΡΑΣ) which we’ll now examine. The myth starts “….a long, long time ago, in a land far, far away…” A jealous stepmother convinces her husband to sacrifice the two kids by the previous, dead one, in order to bring back the poor wheat crop. But the real mother, named Nefele (Greek: Νεφέλη, or Cloud) sends – from up there – a “Golden Ram” and the children, boy and girl, somehow got onto the back of this ram which could fly – well, they could, in myths – and it took them far away from Greece, to the East, across the Black Sea.
Sadly, along the Ram’s flight path, there must have been turbulence, and the girl, Helle (Greek: Έλλη) who apparently did not have her seatbelt on, fell off the Golden Ram into the sea at the narrows, which took her name: Hellespont (Greek: Ελλήσποντος.) It’s also known as the Dardanelles, but that’s another story, and it involves Winston Churchill and World War I.
Anyway, the surviving boy was taken far East, (where he grows up, marries the boss’s (King’s) daughter, and lives happily ever after, disappearing from mythology – so I won’t even bother mentioning his name, which was Frixos by the way.) Except that this turkey sacrificed the ram, but kept its fleece and gave it to the King, who hung it on a tree limb – which tells us something about the rewards for doing a good deed to humans.
So, that was the beginning of the story of the Golden Fleece (the “fleece” being, of course, the skin of lambs, with the thick hair – the wool – still on, used for clothes, bedding, carpets, and other purposes.) But the fleece of the Golden Ram, whose fame had spread far and wide, was, of course, made of …gold!
It did not take long for adventurers to be attracted by this fabulous prize, so a hero (Read: soldier of fortune) named Jason (Greek: Ιάσων) decided to have a crack at it. It was rumored then that the Golden Fleece – the one from the Golden Ram – was kept in a land on the far side of the Black Sea named Colchis, (Greek: Κολχίδα) which could be reached by sea from Greece, although it required crossing the mostly unknown and feared the Black Sea. So Jason organized an expedition, got or built a boat he named “Argo” (Greek: Αργώ) and manned it with his friends (as rowers and bandits) which the myth naturally named “Argonauts” by combining the name of the boat and the word for sailors.
One can plainly see that the modern term “Astronauts” is a direct derivation from the ancient Greek myth. Parenthetically, modern Greeks have built a replica of the “Argo,” and it is based in the modern port city of Volos, below the mountain Pelion (which took its name from the ancient king Peleas – that’s the guy that bankrolled Jason, by the way.)
So Jason and the Argonauts, off they went to Colchis, rowing through the Hellespont on their way, and there they were met by a friendly king with the unwieldy name of Aietes (Greek: Αιήτης) which was even difficult for Greeks to pronounce – and at any rate after some adventures and chicanery involving sorceresses, snakes, bulls etc. that we won’t go into here, he did get hold of the Golden Fleece and brought it back to Greece, meantime providing material for several more myths along the way.
So, how does this mythological adventure of the Golden Fleece size up to any real facts?
Well, it turns out that there actually is a real region named Colchis; it is a sizable section of the modern Republic of Georgia (ex: Soviet Georgia,) which is indeed on the far eastern shore of the Black Sea, just like the myth said. They even have a modern “Kolkheti National Park” in Georgia, which attests to the echoes of the ancient name. In addition, to further attest to the Myth, the design of a mid-1920’s postage stamp from the general Transcaucasia region, shows the winged Golden Ram unmistakably.
What about the gold? Well, there is indeed quite a bit of gold in Colchis/Georgia. Archaeologists believe that the most ancient gold mine in the world is located in that region, dating back to over 5000 BC. The area has been producing gold ever since, and today’s economy of Georgia – mostly agricultural – is supported by iron, manganese, and… gold! In fact, there is currently an ongoing controversy between archaeologists, who want to preserve a particular hill, because it is said to be an ancient gold-mine, (and is in still very rich in gold,) and the government, that wants to pulverize it for its content. I So much for the real Colchis and its abundant gold. But what about the genesis of the “(Golden) Fleece?” For this, we must touch briefly on a couple of quickie gold “factoids:”
Although gold prospectors have found some impressive size nuggets, these are rare; nearly all the gold found by pre-modern techniques are tiny, tiny flakes, the size of – at best – sesame seeds. (The author can boast some limited experience in California gold-panning.) The method of getting the gold out of the soil had not changed for thousands of years, and the California “49ers” did it the same way. To separate the “gold dust” (it’s so small, you see…) from the dirt and gravel, you take advantage of the property of gold that it is much, much heavier than soil and sand, in fact over 7 times heavier, so it tends to settle to the bottom quickly when the mixture is disturbed. So you build a simple wooden contraption of screens, through which you pass fast-flowing water (usually, a mountain stream.) You keep dumping bucketfuls of dirt on top, the screens hold the gravel (and maybe a nugget?) and the water washes away the much lighter dirt, and at the very bottom of this “sluicebox” there is a “trap” of sorts, where the gold – and some heavy black sand – settle down. The contrast between the black and the glinting gold is heart-thumping unmistakable!
“Eureka!” (Greek: ΕΥΡΗΚΑ) I found it (gold, that is), which is the official exclamation of the State of California – The Golden State. Of course, they borrowed the exclamation from Archimedes, who made it under a different context, while taking a bath.
So, after this techie note, we return again to the “Fleece” part of the Golden Fleece. Well, it turns out that one well-known ancient “trap” was to lay a fleece flat on the bottom of a shallow, fast running stream, and keep dumping shovelfuls of dirt on it. The dirt is carried away by the stream, but the heavy gold (if any) settles immediately to the bottom and gets trapped by the hair of the fleece, (which is slightly greasy and this adds to the entrapment.) After enough dirt has been sent through, the fleece is removed, dried, and either hung and the gold pounded out of it, like from a rug, or – depending on the method – the fleece is burned to ashes. At the bottom of the ashes will be… well, your gold! In a land and culture where flocks of sheep were plentiful, and the hills had gold, it was natural.
So, here we have the ancient Greek “Myth of the Golden Fleece,” and it turns out it’s actually about a real place (Colchis,) about real gold, and about real fleece(s) full of it; and, oh yes, probably about a real raid to steal some. But with all the wonderful mythological embellishments, it sure makes for an amazingly colorful story! Even Hollywood has made movies of it – of dubious quality.
As a side note, Spain still has the oldest surviving knightly order in the world: The Order of the Golden Fleece, created in 1430 by Philip the Good, King of Burgundy. It was apparently chosen because of the adventurous deeds of Jason (he did more things in his career than just “fleece” the king of Colchis.)Phillip’s selection was controversial even upon its creation because he had misunderstood the myth –he imagined that Jason was a clean-cut “knight errand” of high moral stature, which was not the case –but then, what did a barbarian winemaker know about Greek mythology anyway. But you don’t correct a King with impunity so that trivial matter was conveniently washed away by the Catholic church and the Order established nevertheless.