Ancient Greek myth and legend told of a Golden Fleece that was held by the people of Colchis, who lived along the eastern shores of the Black Sea. The special Fleece, so the traditional stories go, was said to have been linked to the tale of the royal runaway siblings, Phrixus (or Phrixos) and Helle. This brother and sister pair were forced to flee their Greek homeland of Orchomenos after suffering from a classic evil step-mother situation, in which their father, Athamas, was turned against his children due to the machinations of his new wife. Although Phrixus and Helle were estranged from their father, their mother was still watching over them, and she was not too shabby of an ally to have on their side. As was often the case in ancient Greek myths, a deity was intimately involved with the story, and in the case of Phrixus and Helle the divine personage was their mother, the cloud goddess Nephele. Sensing that her children were in danger, Nephele called in help from her godly kinsmen. A scholar known as Pseudo-Apollodorus (c. 1st-2nd century), wrote of Nephele’s role in helping her imperiled kids escape, stating, “Nephele snatched him [Phrixus] away together with her daughter Helle, and gave them a ram with a golden fleece which she had received from Hermes. Carried through the sky by this ram, they passed over land and sea alike” (Apollodorus, Library, 1.9.1). Tragically, Helle did not survive the journey, for she fell off of the ram as it flew and plummeted to a watery death in a strait that would be named the Hellespont in her memory. Phrixus, meanwhile, flew on toward Colchis, where he eventually sacrificed the flying ram, and from the sacrifice of the heavenly animal came the city’s legendary Golden Fleece. Such, then, is the usual and most common storyline involving the Golden Fleece and its origin. Yet, other peculiar variant stories existed about the curious Fleece. Of these alternate tales, the most odd and peculiar was recorded by the historian, Diodorus Siculus (c. 1st century BCE), who told of an account of the Phrixus and Helle story that stripped gods and flying rams from the tale.
According to the tale preserved by Diodorus Siculus, Phrixus and Helle did not cross the sea on a flying ram, but on a ship with a prow decorated with a Ram’s head ornament. In this second edition of the journey, Helle’s fate remained the same; this time, she fell overboard while struggling from sea sickness. After mourning her death, the ship continued on its way. Phrixus, and the remaining crew on the ship, completed their journey to Colchis. Phrixus faired well in the new land, but one of his attendants named Crius (a name that ominously meant ram) unfortunately was not so lucky. Quite the opposite, poor Crius was said to have been sacrificed and flayed by the locals. A prophecy soon emerged that foretold that the flayed hide would be stolen around the same time of the death of the local king. Therefore, the ruler spared no expense at guarding the macabre item. Diodorus Siculus described the peculiar episode, writing, “The attendant, however, whose name was Crius (ram), was sacrificed to the gods, and when his body had been flayed the skin was nailed up on the temple, in keeping with a certain custom…the king, they say, built a wall about the precinct and stationed a guard over it; furthermore, he gilded the skin in order that by reason of its brilliant appearance the soldiers should consider it worthy of the most careful guarding” (Diodorus Siculus, Library, 4.48). Therefore, according to this bizarre second version, when Jason and the seaborne Argonauts later arrived at Colchis to fetch the Golden Fleece, they might have been there for a gold-plated human hide instead of golden wool.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Jason Steals The Golden Fleece, by Giovanni Francesco Romanelli and Cornelis Bloemaert c. 17th century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Rijksmuseum.jpg).
- Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.
- The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).