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Jason & the Golden fleece

The Ancient Greek myth of the Golden Fleece is known worldwide: Jason, a prince of Thessaly, responded to his uncle Pelias’ challenge to go to the land of Colchis, on the eastern shores of the Black Sea, to find the Golden Fleece. Few realise that the myth relates to real places and events. Colchis was a historical kingdom occupying most of western Georgia in antiquity. The Greeks set up trading colonies at places like Phasis (now Poti) and Dioskuria (Sukhumi) in the 6th and 5th centuries BC.

The legend tells that Jason had a special ship, the Argo, built to carry him and 49 other adventurous young Greek rowers, thenceforth known as the Argonauts. After various tribulations, they reached the kingdom of Colchis and sailed up the Phasis River (the present-day Rioni), where they were received by King Aeetes in his capital (possibly Vani or Kutaisi). Aeetes agreed to give up the fleece if Jason could yoke two fire-breathing bulls to a plough, and then sow the teeth of a dragon from which a crop of armed men would spring. Jason accepted the challenge but secretly promised marriage to Aeetes’ daughter Medea, who had conceived a violent passion for him, if she would agree to help him. Medea, who was skilled with magic and potions, gave Jason a charm which enabled him to survive Aeetes’ tests and to take the fleece from the dragon that guarded it.

During the spring in northern Georgia, the upper reaches of many rivers flow fast and high with meltwater from mountain snows. At least until well into the 20th century,'miners'from the area fixed sheepskins in stream beds to form a series of traps for particles of gold washed down by these torrents. The particles got caught up in the fleeces, and could be brushed out later to obtain useable quantities of gold. It is said that the fleece placed highest up such a stream course could become so laden with gold particles that it would come out looking as if it were indeed a real Golden Fleece.

As early as Roman times, commentators such as Strabo speculated that this was the source of the legend of the Golden Fleece. More recently, the adventurer and explorer Tim Severin describes seeing this method demonstrated to him at the end of his voyage to Georgia in a reconstruction of a 20-oared Greek galley, Argo. In his book The Jason Voyage he claims that most, if not all, of the basic features of the Argo's voyage, as related by Appolonius of Rhodes and others, have been confirmed by modern archaeological discoveries along the probable route.

The Golden Fleece itself is related to real mountain traditions: in Svaneti and Racha people sifted for gold in mountain rivers by placing a sheepskin across the rocks, in which tiny nuggets of gold would collect. Amazingly, this technique still exists today in the Caucasus.

If the Golden Fleece story grabs your fancy, dig out Tim Severin’s The Jason Voyage (1986), about a modern-day row from Greece to Georgia in a smaller replica of the Argo.

The Argonauts (Ancient Greek: Ἀργοναῦται, Argonautai; Georgian: არგონავტები, Argonavtebi) were a band of heroes in Greek mythology who, in the years before the Trojan War, accompanied Jason to Colchis (ancient Georgian Kingdom) in his quest to find the Golden Fleece. Their name comes from their ship, the Argo, which was named after its builder, Argus. "Argonauts", therefore, literally means "Argo sailors". They were sometimes called Minyans, after a prehistoric tribe of the area.


After the death of King Cretheus, the Aeolian Pelias usurped the Iolcan throne from his half-brother Aeson and became king of Iolcus in Thessaly (near the modern city of Volos). Because of this unlawful act, an oracle warned him that a descendant of Aeolus would seek revenge. Pelias put to death every prominent descendant of Aeolus he could, but spared Aeson because of the pleas of their mother Tyro. Instead, Pelias kept Aeson prisoner and forced him to renounce his inheritance. Aeson married Alcimede, who bore him a son named Diomedes. Pelias intended to kill the baby at once, but Alcimede summoned her kinswomen to weep over him as if he were stillborn. She faked a burial and smuggled the baby to Mount Pelion. He was raised by the centaur Chiron, who changed the boy's name to Jason.

When Jason was 20 years old, an oracle ordered him to dress as a Magnesian and head to the Iolcan court. While traveling Jason lost his sandal crossing the muddy Anavros river while helping an old woman (Hera in disguise). The goddess was angry with King Pelias for killing his stepmother Sidero after she had sought refuge in Hera's temple.

Another oracle warned Pelias to be on his guard against a man with one shoe. Pelias was presiding over a sacrifice to Poseidon with several neighboring kings in attendance. Among the crowd stood a tall youth in leopard skin with only one sandal. Pelias recognized that Jason was his cousin. He could not kill him because prominent kings of the Aeolian family were present. Instead, he asked Jason: "What would you do if an oracle announced that one of your fellow-citizens were destined to kill you?". Jason replied that he would send him to go and fetch the Golden Fleece, not knowing that Hera had put those words in his mouth.

Jason learned later that Pelias was being haunted by the ghost of Phrixus. Phrixus had fled from Orchomenus riding on a divine ram to avoid being sacrificed and took refuge in Colchis where he was later denied proper burial. According to an oracle, Iolcus would never prosper unless his ghost was taken back in a ship, together with the golden ram's fleece. This fleece now hung from a tree in the grove of the Colchian Ares, guarded night and day by a dragon that never slept. Pelias swore before Zeus that he would give up the throne at Jason's return while expecting that Jason's attempt to steal the Golden Fleece would be a fatal enterprise. However, Hera acted in Jason's favour during the perilous journey.

Jason was accompanied by some of the principal heroes of ancient Greece. The number of Argonauts varies, but usually totals between 40 and 55; traditional versions of the story place their number at 50.

Some have hypothesized that the legend of the Golden Fleece was based on a practice of the Black Sea tribes; they would place a lamb's fleece at the bottom of a stream to entrap gold dust being washed down from upstream. This practice is still in use, particularly in the Svaneti region of Georgia. See Golden Fleece for other, more speculative interpretations.

The crew of the Argo

There is no definite list of the Argonauts. The following list is collated from several lists given in ancient sources.

2.Actor (son of Hippas)
7.Amphion (son of Hyperasius)
10.Argus (builder of Argo)
11.Argus (son of Phrixus)
14.Asterion (son of Cometes)
15.Asterius (brother of Amphion)
18.Autolycus, son of Deimachus
21.Calaïs (son of Boreas)
22.Caeneus (son of Coronus)
24.Castor (son of Zeus)
25.Cepheus, King of Tegea
26.Clytius (son of Eurytus)
27.Coronus (son of Caeneus)
29.Deucalion of Crete
32.Erginus (son of Poseidon)
33.Erytus (brother of Echion)
37.Eurymedon (son of Dionysus)
39.Heracles (son of Zeus)
44.Iolaus (nephew of Heracles)
48.Laocoön (half-brother of Oeneus and tutor of Meleager)
58.Neleus (son of Poseidon)
63.Palaimonius (son of Hephaestus)
69.Phanus (brother of Staphylus and Eurymedon)
71.Phlias (son of Dionysus)
75.Prias (brother of Phocus)
76.Pollux (son of Zeus)
81.Thersanon (son of Helios and Leucothoe)
84.Zetes (son of Boreas)