Jason and the Golden Fleece

The legend in brief

Jason was the son of King Aeson, whose throne was usurped by his brother. To saveJason, he sent him for fostering to another King. He was to return when he was old enough to be able to retrieve a special sword and sandals from under a heavy rock. When he did return to claim his inheritance from his uncle,, the uncle agreed to hand over the kingdom, but only if he could successfully retrieve a Golden Fleece that was guarded by a fire-breathing dragon in Colchis (modern Georgia, at the eastern end of the Black Sea). Jason accepted the challenge. He built a large boat called the Argo, and collected a crew of about 50, among whom Theseus is sometimes mentioned, as are some of the Greek heroes of the Trojan War including Nestor. After many adventures, the Argonauts arrived at Colchis.

One of the en route adventures is particularly interesting, as we shall discuss later. In the Dardanelles, there were two floating islands called the Blue Rocks, which clashed together when a ship tried to pass between them. Jason was advised to send a dove between them. When they clashed together, catching the dove's tail feathers, Jason steered the Argo through on the rebound, just making it between the two islands before they crashed together again.

When they reached Colchis, Jason asked the King for the Golden Fleece. The King did not refuse, but imposed some conditions. Jason had to yoke a pair of fire-breathing bulls with brass feet, and use them to plough a field which he would then sow with dragon's teeth. Everyone knew that these teeth would immediately grow into warriors that would turn on whoever seeded them. So there was a dual challenge, a triple one if one includes the guardian dragon.

Jason had attracted the attention of Medea, the daughter of King Aeëtes of Colchis. She helped him by magic, having made him promise to marry her and take her to Greece. With the help of her magic, he was able to tame the bulls and plough the field. When the dragon's teeth grew into hostile warriors, he threw a magic stone among them, so that they turned against each other and fought until they were all dead. Then Medea fed the dragon a sleeping potion so that Jason could retrieve the fleece.

When the Argonauts fled from Colchis, Medea took along her young brother, but murdered him to slow the pursuit by throwing his body parts into the sea for her father to find. This evil deed caused the gods to send the Argonauts on a geographically confusing trip around Italy and various other places. One of the adventures happened off Crete, where they were prevented from landing by Talos, a robot created by Hephaestus--the god of fire and the forge. Talos went around the island and threw enormous rocks at approaching ships, but Medea was able magically to kill him, allowing the Argonauts to disembark for the night. But after setting sail the next day, they were enveloped by a thick cloud. Appollo heard Jason's prayer and sent a flash of lightning, which revealed a small island on which they could beach the ship, after which the Argonauts were allowed to sail home to Iolkos. They called the island Anafi (meaning Revelation). Anafi is about 20 kilometers east of Thera.

Archaeo-historical background

Much of this legend is explicable if we assume the usual transformations of natural phenomena into the acts of gods or other magical figures. There is a problem, however, in the crew of the ship. If Theseus was an Athenian leader around the time of the Theran explosion. he could not have crewed along with a young Nestor, who fought in the Trojan War perhaps 400 years later. Several elements of the story seem to be linked with the Theran explosion, so it seems natural to link the tale to that time, rather than to the tempting later time of a generation or so before the Trojan war. Perhaps the legend is a conflation of stories from different time, as other legends of Classical Greece seem to be, including the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Mycenean Trade

Minoan and Byblos trading areas. The red star indicates the location of Thera. Mycenae is approximately at the top-left corner of this map.

Before the Theran explosion of 1650 BC, most of the trade in the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean was dominated by the two great trading powers of Byblos and Minoan Crete. But their area of dominance extended only to the southern coast of Anatolia and the southern Aegean. In the northern Aegean and the Black sea, recent evidence suggests that there was Mycenean trade (Toronto Star, 28 July 2001). Mycenean sea trade, however, developed largely after the abrupt end of the Minoan empire. I do not know whether there is evidence of Minoan trade to the Black Sea while the Minoans were active

The nature of the legend suggests that the trip to Colchis was something special, not one expedition among many to that area. . Here is a map of the Black Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean. The trading distance from even northern Greeece to Colchis at the east end of the Black Sea is considerably longer than from even Byblos to Athens. It would have taken well practied seamen to plan and execute such a voyage. Could the Myceneans before 1650 BC have done it? Other seafaring nations certainly could, so perhaps they could as well.

The Argo is described as being a particularly large ship, with a crew of 50. By Minoan standards, this was not a large ship. The so-called "Marine Festival" fresco from Akrotiri shows several ships with 50 and 60 oars, which look as if they were going from Thera to Knossos. The Argo may have been unusually big for a Mycenean ship, the Myceneans not being great sea traders in the Minoan-dominated area, but at 50 oars, it was a match for the smaller of the big Minoan ships. But it was a long voyage, longer than any of the normal Minoan trading routes, and perhaps it was a voyage to get gold from a region not normally visited by Mycenean ships, and known to them only by runour.

Thera and other volcanos

The relation of Thera, Crete, and Anafi. Anafi would not have been a good place to be during the ashfall, which went largely east to northeast from Thera.

If we suggest that this legend has some basis in fact, part of that fact must be the Theran explosion. The description of huge rocks being thrown at the ship when it was near Crete, followed the next day by a thick cloud, in which a lightning flash allowed them to see the island of Anafi, is too precise to correspond to any other event in Aegean history. That is exactly what mariners near Thera might have seen, though if they had done so, it is unlikely that they would have landed in Crete after the end of the rock shower and the very next day have been in the ash cloud at Anafi without having been swamped by the tsunami while the ship was beached.

What is more likely is that the volcano erupted with a rock shower that ceased some time before the final cataclysm, and that the Argonauts had been at sea for a couple of days when the lightning-filled ash cloud filled the air, at the same time as the tsunami passed on its way to devastate the Cretan palaces. A ship at sea is hardly affected by a even a very large tsunami, which only builds its height as it approaches shallow water, although one would guess that it would not have been very pleasant to be on a ship near the edge of the kilometer deep hole in the sea when the caldera collapsed!

The floating islands also suggest a volcanic explosion, though it does not seem reasonable that pumice from Thera would be floating in the mouth of the Dardanelles, so far to the north. Also, that adventure is said to have occurred near the start of the voyage, whereas the near encounter with the Theran explosion occurred at the end of the trip. There is, however, a possible explanation that does not require much forcing.

Archaeological evidence suggests that there was a series of eruptions of the Theran volcano before the final explosion, over a period of several years, and that these were sufficiently violent to cause most of the population to leave permanently before their island actually disappeared. At least one of these precursor eruptions involved a substantial ashfall, and such an explosion may well have created pumice islands that could have impeded shipping. Such islands would be unlikely to have been in the Dardanelles, but they could have drifted into the path of shipping between Mycenean ports and the Dardanelles. This seems to me to be a natural phenomenon that is reasonably likely to have happened, as well as being reasonably likely to have been incorporated into the legend--if we take the legend to be derived from any real events.

Volcanos may be relevant to the Colchis part of the story, as well. The translation of a fire-spewing volcano into a fire-breathing animal is very common as a story-telling device. If the "Golden Fleece" was indeed a representation of the way gold was panned from the rivers in Northern Anatolia and Colchis, the area has many volcanoes, some of which may have been active at the time. It could have been dangerous to go too high up the slopes, tempting the "sleeping dragon" to wake. Jason's harnessing of the fire-breathing bulls could be a representation of his having been able to acquire gold between eruptions.

Interpretation of the legend

There is nowhere near as much circumstantial detail in the Jason legend pointing to specific times and places as there is for some of the other legends. There are, however, elements in the story that are clearly factual, notably the accurate description of the state of affairs around the exploding Theran volcano. The legend suggests that there were some days of volcanism in which large rocks were ejected to considerable heights and distances, followed by some days of calm before the final cataclysmic explosion. This is a normal sequence for an exploding volcano. The fact that they landed on Anafi in the middle of the ash cloud also jibes with the basically easterly drift of the cloud from Thera. The clashing floating islands also suggest a factual basis for the story, becaues such islands are most unusual, but do occur after a volcano explodes in the sea.

If the legend has two probably factual elements, should we give credence to the other components of the story? It may well be that some other elements are factual, but that the story, like so many others based on oral tradition over a thousand year span, is formed of an amalgam of several disparate events. The sailors who were close to the exploding Thera might not be the ones that made the trip to Colchis for the Golden Fleece. If Theseus was on the boat, and was the Theseus who "slew the Minotaur" then Nestor who fought in the Trojan War could not have been there. Could we guess that Theseus was on the ship that was perilously close to Thera, but that Nestor was on a voyage with Jason to Colchis about 400 years later?

Whether the legend deals with one voyage or many confabulated by the storytellers is immaterial. We can treat the events in Colchis the same in either case. If the "Golden Fleece" represented the method of getting gold from the rivers, then it might represent not an actual fleece, but gold that the Argonauts were able to drag using fleeces from the rivers near one or more active volcanos that were streaming lava both before and after their extraction of the gold. The sowing of the dragon's teeth cannot be literal, but if the "dragon" was a volcano from which Jason "ploughed" gold, the hostile warriors might well represent local bandits or even official troops who attempted to take the gold for themselves, but who quarrelled among themselves, allowing the Argonauts to escape wiht the loot.

I do not have an explanation for the Medea part of the story, including her muder of her brother so that she could scatter his body parts on the sea to delay her father's pursuit.

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