The Capture of the Golden Fleece
Jason and Medea steal the Golden Fleece from the sleeping dragon. Public domain. Credit: The Capture of the Golden Fleece by Jean-François de Troy. The National Gallery of London. Public domain.

The Golden Fleece

The object of the hero’s quest

The Golden Fleece was a magical, woolen garment that featured prominently in Greek mythology and has inspired many works of art, literature, and film over the centuries. The Golden Fleece comes from the hide of the Golden Ram. According to the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, the fleece was guarded by a dragon in the kingdom of Colchis, which was located in what is now modern-day Georgia. The hero, Jason, set out on a quest to retrieve the fleece to prove himself worthy to wear the crown as king of Iolcus, a city in ancient Greece. He enlisted the Argonauts to help, and they had to overcome many challenges and dangers, including navigating through treacherous waters and facing formidable monsters. Ultimately, they were able to retrieve the fleece and bring it back to Iolcus to claim the throne.

Below I will discuss the literal story and the symbolic meaning of the Golden Fleece.

Aries and Musca Borealis
The Golden Ram also known as the constellation Aries. “Aries and Musca Borealis”, plate 16 in Urania’s Mirror. 1824.

The story of the Golden Fleece

If you have read or watched the story of Jason and the Argonauts, you still may not know the colorful backstory of the Golden Fleece itself. As with all ancient Greek myths, there are many variations of the story. In essence, here is what happened:

Athamas, the founder of Thessaly and king of Orchomenus in Boeotia (a region of southeastern Greece), took the goddess Nephele as his first wife. They had two children, the boy Phrixus (whose name means “curly,” as in the texture of the ram’s fleece) and the girl Helle. Later Athamas became enamored of and married Ino, the daughter of Cadmus. When Nephele left in anger, drought came upon the land.

Ovid Metamorphoses illustrated by Johann Wilhelm Baur. Book 7, Plate 63.
Sometimes, Jason is depicted as winning the Golden Fleece by slaying the dragon. In this version of the story, Jason lulls the dragon to sleep with song and herbs. Credit: Ovid Metamorphoses illustrated by Johann Wilhelm Baur. Book 7, Plate 63.

Ino was jealous of her stepchildren and plotted their deaths; in some versions, she persuaded Athamas that sacrificing Phrixus was the only way to end the drought. Nephele, or her spirit, appeared to the children with a winged ram whose fleece was of gold. The ram had been sired by Poseidon in his primitive ram form upon Theophane, a nymph and the granddaughter of Helios, the sun god. According to Hyginus, Poseidon carried Theophane to an island where he made her into a ewe so that he could have his way with her among the flocks. There Theophane’s other suitors could not distinguish the ram-god and his consort.

Nephele’s children escaped on the yellow ram over the sea, but Helle fell off and drowned in the strait now named after her, the Hellespont. The ram spoke to Phrixus, encouraging him, and took the boy safely to Colchis (modern-day Georgia), on the easternmost shore of the Euxine (Black) Sea. There the ram was sacrificed to gods. This act returned the ram to the god Poseidon and became the constellation Aries.

Phrixus settled in the house of Aeëtes, son of Helios the sun god. He hung the Golden Fleece preserved from the ram on an oak in a grove sacred to Ares, the god of war and one of the Twelve Olympians. The fleece was guarded by a never-sleeping dragon with teeth that could become soldiers when planted in the ground. The dragon was at the foot of the tree on which the fleece was placed.

After a long series of adventures, The hero Jason arrives to claim the Golden Fleece. King Aeëtes promises Jason the fleece if he can complete three dangerous tasks, including yoking fire-breathing bulls, plowing and sowing a field with dragons’ teeth, and then fighting the monsters that arose. Jason succeeds, but Aeëtes refuses to give him the fleece. So, Jason, with the help of Medea, puts the dragon to sleep and steals the fleece. 

What is the symbolism of the Golden Fleece?

The Golden Fleece is a symbol that has been interpreted in a number of different ways over the centuries.

A skeptic may think of the Golden Fleece as a MacGuffin, which is an object that keeps the characters motivated and the story moving forward but is unimportant. A MacGuffin could be money or fame or a ticking bomb; however, it wouldn’t make any difference to the story. But if you ask me, the Golden Fleece is much more. Jason’s quest is an archetypal journey that reflects our own journey through life and battles with inner demons, which makes the Golden Fleece a symbol of awakening to the golden truths of the universe. I believe the best rewards aren’t objects but what I call moments of enlightenment, new understandings that increase our appreciation of everyday life. Furthermore, a moment of enlightenment doesn’t just benefit the hero. When the adventurer returns home with the prize, in this case, a way of seeing the world differently, it makes everyone’s life better.

I expand on the symbolism of the Golden Fleece in this article: What is the hero’s prize?

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Scott Stoll

My claim to fame is that I rode a bicycle around the world and wrote some books. More about me.
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