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Thursday 16 April 2020


The front cover of the issue of Fate Magazine (vol. 42, no. 9, issue #474, September 1989) containing my original article on the possible reality behind the classic Greek legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece (© Fate Magazine – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational and review purposes only)

One of my very first articles published by Fate Magazine concerned the exciting possibility that the classic Greek legend of the hero Jason and his epic quest aboard his ship the Argo for the magical Golden Fleece at Colchis may have been based at least to a degree upon reality, especially with regard to the Fleece itself. It appeared in the September 1989 issue of Fate, whose front cover, depicting this famous story, opens the present ShukerNature article. Eight years later, my article was republished in my compendium book From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997), containing an extensive selection of my Fate articles. Now, 23 years on again, and this time expanded and partly rewritten, my investigation of Jason and the Golden Fleece finally makes its long-awaited debut on ShukerNature.

The grim shadow of a raised sword fell across the pale, tensed body of Prince Phryxus as he lay upon the sacrificial slab, awaiting certain death at the hand of his own father, King Athamas of Orchomenus. This city in ancient Greece had once been rich and prosperous, but that year its crop of corn had failed, and its people were starving. Due to a false prophecy originating from Queen Ino, Phryxus's wicked stepmother who hated him, Athamas mistakenly believed that his city's crop failure was a curse inflicted by the gods and could only be lifted by the sacrifice to them of his beloved son, Phryxus. Happily, however, Ino's evil plan was known to the gods, who chose to thwart it in a most spectacular manner.

Phryxus striving to hold on to Helle as she falls from Chrysomallus's back into the sea - depicted in an ancient Roman fresco, 45-79 AD, Pompeii (© Stefano Bolognini/Wikipedia, copyright-free for private or commercial use when copyright owner is attributed)

Suddenly, as Athamas's sword was poised to strike the fatal blow that would slay Phryxus, a golden stream of light poured forth from the clouds directly overhead. The king and the gathered congregation of spectators stared up in surprise, and as they did so the clouds parted and a magnificent winged ram with a shimmering fleece of pure gold appeared. The ram was Chrysomallus, sent by the messenger god Hermes to rescue the boy prince. As soon as Chrysomallus alighted on the ground, Phryxus ran to him and sat astride his broad woolly back. So too did Phryxus's young sister, Helle, whom Ino also hated.

Moments later, like a brilliant golden meteor, Chrysomallus was soaring speedily through the sky, journeying eastwards. Just as they were flying over the narrow stretch of sea dividing Europe and Asia, however, Helle looked down, and became so giddy that she fell off Chrysomallus's back, plummeting into the waves where she drowned. From then on, this sea was called the Hellespont. Chrysomallus, meanwhile, flew onwards with Phryxus until they reached the land of Colchis, in what is today the republic of Georgia. There, Phryxus was welcomed by Aeëtes, king of Colchis, but Chrysomallus died, and his glorious golden fleece was hung in a sacred grove, guarded by a dragon. Many years later, the fleece would be the focus of an epic quest by a Greek prince called Jason and his bold crew, the Argonauts, sailing from Iolcus to Colchis via the Black Sea aboard their famous ship the Argo, and assisted by Aeëtes's own daughter Medea in their successful bid to steal the fleece, sailing back to Iolcus with it afterwards.

Children's book illustration from 1902 or earlier, depicting Phryxus and Helle, based upon the above-reproduced Pompeii fresco (public domain)

Down through the ages, many ideas have been aired with regard to the Golden Fleece not having been a literal, physical sheep fleece of any kind, but rather a metaphor or a figurative description for something else entirely. Suggestions have included such diverse options as royal power, a book on alchemy, a technique of writing in gold on parchment, the forgiveness of the Gods, a rain cloud, a land of golden corn, the spring-hero, the sea reflecting the sun, the gilded prow of Phryxus's ship, the riches imported from the East, the wealth of technology of Colchis (see later here), a covering for a cult image of Zeus in the form of a ram, a fabric woven from sea silk, and a symbol representing the trading of fleeces dyed with the valuable, highly-prized pigment Tyrian purple (procured from the purple dye murex Bolinus brandaris, and various related species) for Georgian gold. Each of these, and more, has its own supporters, but none has achieved a consensus of scholarly acceptance.

Moreover, most people assume that this entire story is nothing more than a fanciful Greek myth anyway, dating back 3000 years but with no basis in fact. Quite apart from the ostensible fairytale aspect of a golden-fleeced ram, there was no firm evidence to suggest that Greek ships could even have reached the Black Sea prior to the 7th Century BC, when they are known to have colonised this region. However, not everyone has dismissed the legend quite so readily.

Purple dye murex Bolinus brandaris (public domain)

In May 1984, a classics scholar called Tim Severin and a team of modern-day Argonauts set out aboard their own Argo, sailing from Volos (site of Iolcus) in Thessaly, Greece, to Vani (site of Colchis) in western Georgia. Their goal was to recreate Jason's alleged voyage - and thus prove that such a journey could truly have taken place in those far-off days. In order to achieve as intimate a degree of verisimilitude as possible, Severin's specially-designed Argo was patterned on ancient Aegean vessels by naval architect Colin Mudie. It was then built by Greek shipwright Vasilis Delimitros, who crafted it from the same Aleppo pine used by Bronze Age Greek seafarers. When complete, it measured 54 ft in length.

Spanning 1500 nautical miles from the Aegean Sea through the Dardanelles (Hellespont), the Sea of Marmara, the Bosporus, and thence along the Black Sea's Turkish perimeter to his Georgian destination at its eastern limit, Severin's voyage in this new Argo took three months. It was often arduous, but it was also successful - thereby indicating that Jason and the Argonauts' epic journey aboard the Argo was indeed possible even back in those bygone times of ancient Greece. Moreover, as revealed in his fascinating book The Jason Voyage (1986), Severin also learned some interesting items of information relevant to the Golden Fleece.

Tim Severin (© Aaron D Linderman/Wikipedia - GNU Free Documentation Licence)

This legend is very popular in Georgia even today - where it is taught in schools, and even commemorated in product names, such as a 'Golden Fleece' brand of cigarettes. In addition, western Georgia once harboured a thriving cult of ram worshippers that lasted from the middle Bronze Age into the modern era - as confirmed by such archaeological finds as a bronze ram's head totem dating from the 18th Century BC, and ram's head bracelets moulded from gold that date from the 4th Century BC. There is even an old Georgian folktale of a golden ram tethered by a golden chain in a mountain cave filled with golden treasure.

Severin also learned that the traditional method of prospecting for gold in Georgia, a method dating back countless centuries, is to anchor in a gold-rich stream bed the fleece of a sheep - because the fleece's wool is very effective at trapping particles of gold. After it has been left in the stream for a time, the result will be a fleece impregnated with gold - in other words, a golden fleece! True, it will hardly compare to its magnificent legendary counterpart, but it may have been sufficient to inspire such a legend long ago.

Two Georgian gold coins commemorating the Golden Fleece legend (public domain)

The possibility that this activity is the origin of the Golden Fleece account is certainly intriguing, but it is not a recent revelation. As far back in time as the 1st Century BC, the Greek geographer/historian Strabo had made the same suggestion. He suggested that it may have been an ordinary fleece that had been used to trap gold washed down the River Phasis. Particles of gold would have remained ensnared among its fibres, resulting in a fleece that at least upon casual observation might well have appeared to be composed of gold-bearing wool. Although a most ingenious idea, it is surely unlikely that such a superficially deceptive artefact could not only have retained its illusion intact during inevitable closer examination but also have become sufficiently famous to engender one of Greek mythology's most enduring legends.

Dr George Hartwig mentioned in The Subterranean World (1875) that modern-day gold prospectors still use sheep fleeces for this purpose in several different gold-bearing countries. However, he also noted that this was not taken by many authorities as proof that the Golden Fleece was itself a fleece with gold-ensnared fibres. On the contrary, many felt that the quest by Jason and his Argonauts to Colchis was not for a Golden Fleece at all, but for this wealthy city's gold itself, with the fleece being nothing more than a means of obtaining such gold and having no significance of its own. In short, the Golden Fleece's present-day prominence in mythology might be due to erroneous telling and retelling of the ancient myths down through the ages, with the object of Jason's quest (the gold of Colchis) becoming confused with the means of obtaining it (an ordinary sheep fleece).

Strabo – 19th-Century engraving (public domain)

Although both of these theories are undoubtedly compelling in their simplicity, they are not the only explanations on offer for the origin of the Golden Fleece legend. Another solution, offered by several different researchers, is one that seeks to explain the Golden Fleece in a very different manner - as a misinterpreted and/or mythified reference to fine-wooled fleeces. There are three principal classes of wool:

1)  Carpet wool (very coarse, and hair-like; used for making carpets and rugs).
2) Cross-bred wool (familiar, weaving-quality; produced by the majority of British sheep breeds).
3) Fine wool (valuable and lustrous, with exceedingly fine fibres lacking a central medulla; generally obtained today from Merino sheep).

Vintage illustration of a Merino ram (public domain)

In a paper published by the British scientific journal Nature on 13 April 1973, Dr M.L. Ryder and Dr J.W. Hedges from the ARC Animal Breeding Research Organisation at Edinburgh, Scotland, noted that the legend of the Golden Fleece may actually refer to fine wool. Moreover, in their paper they documented a sample of cloth composed of fine wool that was obtained from a Scythian tomb in the Crimea, and which dated back to the 5th Century BC. If their reconciliation of the Golden Fleece legend with fine wool is correct, this Scythian sample is thus of particular significance. Its age and Crimean locality collectively confirm that fine wool was indeed associated with the Black Sea region, and at a time near that of the Golden Fleece's appearance and Jason's quest for it.

Nevertheless, in 1932 a paper had already appeared in the Proceedings of the Royal Society (of London) that was destined during the 1980s to suggest a much more literal solution to the Golden Fleece mystery than a gold-bearing artefact, a substitute for gold itself, or a mythification of early fine-woolled sheep.

Jason with the Golden Fleece, depicted upon a tin-glazed earthenware plate created in c.1540 AD (public domain)

The paper in question was written by Drs Claude Rimington and A.M. Stewart of the Wool Industries Research Association of Leeds, in West Yorkshire, England, and concerned itself with a previously uninvestigated pigment. Raw wool comprises the wool fibres and 'yolk'. This latter component in turn consists of ether-soluble grease (secreted by the sheep's sebaceous skin glands), and a water-soluble substance known as suint (secreted by the sheep's sweat glands). In their paper, Rimington and Stewart recorded that a golden-brown colouration existed in varying intensities within the suint of certain sheep, its intensity of colour depending upon the animals' diet and age, and also influenced by conditions stimulating sweat.

Following their analysis of the composition and secretion of this mysterious pigment (which they termed lanaurin - meaning 'golden wool'), Rimington and Stewart concluded that it was a pyrrolic complex. That is to say, a compound whose chemical structure is based upon a ring of four carbon atoms and one nitrogen atom. Moreover, they believed it to be related to the bile pigment bilirubin - a reddish substance originating via the breakdown of the well-known respiratory pigment haemoglobin, and normally secreted into the bile by the liver in many mammalian species.

Modern-day sculpture of the Golden Fleece hanging in its sacred grove and protected by a dragon, on display at Sochi in Russia (public domain)

Rimington and Stewart suggested that the appearance of lanaurin resulted from an enhanced destruction of haemoglobin within the sheep so afflicted; they also confirmed that it was conveyed through the skin of such sheep into their wool via the sweat glands. Furthermore, not only did this compound occur within the wool of golden-coloured sheep, it was also found within their urine, which in turn was excessively pigmented. Comparisons were drawn between golden-woolled sheep and inherited acholuric jaundice in humans, with the suggestion that as with this type of human jaundice, the golden-wool condition in sheep may be genetically based.

Further researches into this intriguing area of biochemistry took place in the years to come. Chemical analyses became more precise, and chemical nomenclature diversified - substances inducing jaundice becoming known as icterogenic agents. By the early 1960s, examples of abnormal golden colouration had been reported and studied not only in sheep but also in rabbits (see the series of papers by Rimington and colleagues published during this period in the Royal Society's Proceedings), and it emerged that a number of natural and synthetic icterogenic agents belonged to a group of chemicals known as the pentacyclic triterpenoids. In other words, they are organic compounds produced in animals and also plants by combination into larger molecules of units each containing five carbon atoms arranged in the characteristic pattern present in isoprene (a simple-structured substance used in the manufacture of rubber).

'The Golden Fleece' by Herbert James Draper, 1904, oil on canvas (public domain)

By 1963 and in partnership with J.M.M. Brown and Barbara Sawyer, Rimington's continuing researches in this field had uncovered some important new information. They revealed that the golden-wool condition in sheep could also be induced by environmental means - namely, the ingestion by sheep of leaves from certain plants (especially shrubs of the genus Lantana). These plants contained pentacyclic triterpenoids that poisoned the liver of such sheep, thus preventing the normal excretion of bilirubin into the bile - resulting instead in its passage (together with that of various related pigments) into the skin and wool suint of those animals, thereby bestowing upon their wool the golden appearance reported in Rimington's earlier studies.

So here we have an environmentally-stimulated phenomenon that produces sheep (and rabbits!) with golden-coloured wool. Not surprisingly, therefore, it was only a matter of time before this circumstance was mooted as the solution to the fabled Golden Fleece itself. And in a letter to Nature published on 23 June 1987, this was indeed proposed in that context by Dr J. Smith, a researcher in physical chemistry at Melbourne University, Australia.

Jason bringing Pelias the Golden Fleece and a winged victory prepares to crown him with a wreath - Side A from an Apulian red-figure calyx crater, in the Louvre, Paris (public domain)

In his letter, Dr Smith recalled an earlier portion of the Golden Fleece legend. Namely, the section in which its ovine bearer appeared during a period of severe famine in Greece, having been sent by Hermes to rescue two children due to be sacrificed by their evil stepmother Ino, in an attempt to appease the gods and thereby end the famine. Smith noted that during modern-day periods of famine in New Zealand, sheep there were often fed upon leaves from trees by their distraught farmer owners. He then postulated that under similar conditions in Greece, farmers may well have fed their sheep upon leaves from the extensively cultivated olive tree Olea europea. And it just so happens that the olive tree's leaves contain great amounts of oleanolic acid, which is the basic substance from which the known icterogenic pentacyclic triterpenoids are derived.

Tests carried out with rabbits by Brown, Rimington and Sawyer in the 1960s had readily revealed that small amounts of oleanolic acid did not induce any icterogenic activity. Conversely, as argued by Smith, when present in much greater concentrations - as in the leaves of the olive tree (and particularly in those subjected to draught stress, as experienced in famine conditions) - oleanolic acid could exert a deleterious effect upon the liver of sheep, and in turn bring about abnormal golden discolouration of wool. In short, the Golden Fleece legend may have been based upon sightings of sheep that, during the famine periods experienced by Greece in earlier days, had been fed upon olive tree leaves, whose high triterpenoid content had ultimately caused their fleeces to be stained with golden bile pigments.

A 5,000-year-old European olive tree (© Mujaddara/Wikipedia - CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

Although, as Smith himself admitted, this is all speculative, there is no doubt that it offers an exceedingly beguiling solution to the legend - and one, moreover, that actually corresponds very closely not just with its principal but also with its more peripheral portions.

At the same time, however, some contrary evidence also exists – which was brought to attention via a follow-up letter published in Nature on 5 November 1987 and written by research chemists Drs Patrick Moyna and Horacio Heinzen from the Faculty of Chemistry in Uruguay's Universidad de la Republica. They reported that oleanolic acid is contained in even greater concentrations in certain other plant sources - for example, it accounts for up to 50% of the content of grapes' epicuticular wax. Yet this does not appear to have any toxic effect upon humans consuming the grapes - in contrast to the outcome that one would have predicted, judging from the arguments offered with sheep and olive leaves. However, Moyna and Heinzen did not provide any references in relation to sheep and grapes, and it is well known that the gastrointestinal tract and its associated organs in humans differ very considerably in morphology and physiology from those of sheep.

The Golden Fleece, depicted upon an ancient Greek vase (public domain)

The concept of liver-damaged sheep with discoloured yellowish wool stained by bile pigments certainly fails to conjure forth the romantic image evoked by the stirring legend of the Golden Fleece. However, the prosaic practicality of science is rarely able to match the imaginative wonder of illusory fable and fairytale.

In March 1991, yet another theory was highlighted, again by Dr ML. Ryder. In an Oxford Journal of Archaeology paper, he discussed evidence not only for the two afore-chronicled theories concerning fine wool and the using of fleeces to collect gold from water, but also for the possibility that the legend stemmed at least in part from fleeces sporting genetically-induced tan-coloured fibres rather than white ones. Clearly, the allure and intrigue of the Golden Fleece is as much alive in modern times as it was 3000 years ago in ancient times. Not bad for a mere myth…?

The Colchis princess Medea, the Golden Fleece, and its dragon guardian – plate from an old Russian children's book (public domain)

A final scientific curiosity linking sheep and gold that is well worth mentioning here is the occurrence of reports from many parts of the world down through the years concerning sheep that supposedly possess teeth plated with gold! These still appear spasmodically in the media even today, yet as far back as 25 August 1920 in a paper published by the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of New South Wales, Thomas Steel revealed that the golden colour was due merely to the reflection of light from the overlapping of thin films of encrusting tartar, deposited on the teeth by the animals' own saliva. As for the tartar - far from being gold, or even iron pyrites ('fool's gold'), this had been conclusively shown to be nothing more exciting (or valuable!) than impure calcium phosphate and organic matter. In Crete, it is widely believed that sheep there sporting golden teeth have been eating the herb nevrida Polygonum ideaum over a lengthy period of time, as investigated in an online article here that contains photographs of gold-stained sheep teeth.

It was Shakespeare who said: "All that glisters is not gold", and judging from the subjects investigated in this article, he certainly had a point!

Erasmus Quellinus II – 'Jason with the Golden Fleece', 1630 (public domain)


  1. That was an interesting read. I'm rather skeptical of most attempts to find literal truths behind myths, because they quickly get rather far-fetched, but those guesses at the origin of "the golden fleece" you describe do turn out some interesting information that I did not know nonetheless!

  2. "Crop of corn had failed". It could not have been corn since this is a new world vegetable.

    1. The term 'corn' when used in the Americas and Australasia is used specifically for maize, but elsewhere (e.g. Europe and the Middle East) it is used to denote any cereal crop, not just maize.

  3. Several interesting possibilities! I once read another, suggesting the golden fleece was of a certain fowl which has a magnificent bright golden-coloured tail. I don't remember too much because it's been 25-30 years since I read it. I do remember the fowl was south-east Asian. For this fowl to make the Georgian connection, I suppose it would have had to have come by a route similar to the later Silk Road, but as far as I know, that route didn't open until Genghis Khan's conquests. Anyway, I prefer several of the possibilities presented in the article here.

    I have no problem with trying to find truth in ancient legend; the remains of the city of Troy were found that way. Well, I do have one problem with it: ancient legend can contain some unpleasant things, such as the attitudes of certain Greek deities toward women.

  4. Re. my earlier comment, the bird might have been Chrysolophus pictus, the golden pheasant, but I clearly remember an exceptionally large version of a rooster's arching tail, not like a pheasant's tail at all. I think the two species were depicted close together in the same book. I vaguely remember my 12-year-old self being surprised to find it applied to one bird and not the other, ;) perhaps because only the red form of the golden pheasant was depicted.

    1. Very interesting, I wasn't previously aware of this suggestion. Might the bird have been a male argus pheasant, whose tail feathers do arch (although in this species it is the male's expanded wing plumes that are most conspicuous)?