Georgia and the Golden Fleece

Georgia and the Golden Fleece

Georgia and the Golden Fleece

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The modern country of Georgia, standing at the intersection of Europe and Asia, may seem remote, geographically and otherwise, from ancient Greece. But the two are in fact curiously connected. To see how, we must make use of that powerful tool for investigating the early history of the Greeks, namely their mythology..


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The modern country of Georgia, standing at the intersection of Europe and Asia, may seem remote, geographically and otherwise, from ancient Greece. But the two are in fact curiously connected. To see how, we must make use of that powerful tool for investigating the early history of the Greeks, namely their mythology.
In doing so, we will be entering on a well-trodden path.  Even the ancient Greeks themselves recognised that their myths had a significance beyond their ability to charm, to frighten and to entertain.  Plato used myths to make philosophical points, for example.  Often myths had the power to explain the workings of the natural world.  Persephone, daughter of the corn goddess Demeter, was forced to live six out of every twelve months in the underworld: that is why the crops undergo an eternal cycle of life and death.  Again, myths could represent and comment on human relationships.  When young Icarus, flying on the wings constructed by his inventive father Daedalus, fell to his death in the sea, his wings in tatters, he was a victim of his own false confidence.   His father had warned him: he had failed to take heed.  Greek mythology, it would seem, was a source of almost all knowledge.
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DO YOU WANT TO LEARN RUSSIAN?
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So where does Georgia come in?  The answer, in a word, is Jason.  And everyone knows the story of Jason: that he was a Greek hero; that he sailed in a ship, the Argo, with a band of heroic companions, the Argonauts; that he travelled to the eastern coast of the Black Sea, where he found and carried off a ram’s fleece made of gold.  He also carried away a princess, Medea: their elopement had tragic consequences.  But that is another story.

Crossing the Black Sea, so the myth goes, the Argonauts came to Colchis.  Historically, Colchis survived as a kingdom as late as the second century BC.  At that point it became a Roman province known as Lazicum, which in due course was absorbed into the province of Pontus, and later into that of Cappodocia.  This region is now in the west of Georgia, which is why Georgia, through the myth of the Argonautic expedition, has a surprising connection with the ancient Greeks.

However, this is not the end of the matter.  Recalling the fact that Greek mythology so often has the power to explain and so often fulfils the role of later disciplines—of history and science and social science and philosophy and psychology—we are tempted to ask what reality lay behind the myth of Greeks crossing the Black Sea in search of a golden fleece.

Theories abound.  For example, the Greek writer Strabo was convinced that the voyage actually happened, so much so that he believed that the Homeric poems were also based on fact, as Homer alludes to the story of the Argonauts.  As for the golden fleece, it represented the gold of Colchis.  As Strabo points out, gold was washed down by the “mountain torrents” of the Phasis—now the Rioni, the main river of western Georgia—and collected by the Colchians “by means of perforated troughs and fleecy skins”, in other words, by panning.  The particle of gold left clinging to the skins are the sieving process were, in a sense, real golden fleeces.  Another writer, Diodorus, interpreted the dangers facing the Argonauts in Colchis with the belief, to which he evidently subscribed, that the historical Colchians practised human sacrifice.  There could be no clearer—or gruesome—example of mythology as anthropology.

Other ancient writers came up with rationalisations even more bizarre than these.  The lexicographer Suidas claimed that the fleece was in fact a book written on parchment—parchment being manufactured from animal skins—explaining how gold might be obtained by alchemy.  The historian Charax of Pergamon went one stage further, suggesting that the mythical fleece referred to a roll of parchment containing the secret, not of alchemy, but of illuminating manuscripts in gold.

So much for the ancients and their interpretations.  Later centuries were equally imaginative.  One nineteenth-century scholar, for example, identified the golden fleece, which a triumphant Jason took back across the Black Sea, with the sun-tinted clouds that are driven westwards to fertilise the fields of Greece in the autumn and spring.  It is a charming idea, but it cannot be right, because the ancient Greeks had no notion of rain coming from drifting clouds: rain falls from the sky above.  We know this from the rain-making rituals which “work” by putting on watery performances in the hope of prompting the sky to produce water in its turn.  The great anthropologist James Frazer knew of peasants in Thessaly and Macedonia “making” rain by dressing girls in flowers and greenery and sending them in procession to wells and springs, where they sprinkled themselves with water, and in Kursk Oblast by seizing a passing stranger and throwing him into a river.

And so the rationalising interpretations—the euhemerisms—go on.  The golden fleece was an ancient symbol for the sun rising in the east, for royal power, for the importance of sheep to an ancient economy.  Which do we settle for?  Maybe, in the end, the most likely reference is to Colchian gold.  And there is a reason why.

In 2014 it was reported that evidence of an ancient Colchis rich in gold had finally been found.  The discovery was made by Dr Avtandil Okrostsvaridze, a Georgian geologist, as a result of field work in Svaneti, a region in the north of the country.  Okrostsvaridze used remote sensing techniques to show that the rivers and streams would have had rich deposits of gold flakes in ancient times.  The early Colchians would have mined this gold, giving rise to stories that reached Greek explorers, luring them eastwards in search of immeasurable riches.

And today?  Okrostsvarizde discovered that over time the gold deposits, brought downstream from the Caucasus mountains, have built up again.  The people of Svaneti are once again panning the streams for gold.  Remarkably, they are using sheepskin to catch the precious particles.  Remarkably, they are creating in the process what we might call the modern counterparts of the golden fleece.  The mythical golden fleece may not be so mythical after all.

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