Phrixus (or Phrixos) and Helle, according to their traditional story from Greek mythology, were a brother and sister pair forced to flee their Greek homeland of Orchomenos after suffering from a classic evil step-mother situation. Their father, King Athamas, had been turned against his children due to the machinations of his new wife, Ino. The threatened siblings, thankfully, were saved by their scorned mother, the cloud goddess Nephele, who came to the rescue of her children. Being a goddess, Nephele’s assistance naturally came in supernatural form. She arranged for a giant flying ram with a golden fleece to carry Phrixus and Helle to safety across the Aegean Sea. Tragically, Helle did not survive the journey, for she fell off of the ram mid-flight 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 Phrixus and Helle. Yet, other peculiar variant stories existed, and one that comes to mind was that of Diodorus Siculus (c. 1st century BCE), who recorded an account of Phrixus and Helle that stripped the gods and flying rams from the tale.
Diodorus Siculus, a Greek-Sicilian historian from the 1st century BCE, took an interesting stance in his work by describing myths as true historical events, while also trying to siphon away the divine and fantastical elements from the ancient stories. Similarly, Diodorus often tried to explain away monsters and magical creatures, sometimes labeling them as real things, but stripping them of their supernatural shapes and powers. Diodorus used this tactic while describing the myth of Phrixus, Helle and their flying golden ram. According to the tale preserved by Diodorus, it was not a flying ram that allowed Phrixus and Helle to cross the sea, but instead a ship with a prow that was 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, Phrixus and the remaining crew on the ship, continued on their way and completed their journey to Colchis. In Diodorus’ mind, the flying golden ram of the predominant myth storyline may have evolved from the more mundane tale of a ship with a ram-head decoration. Diodorus Siculus wrote, “the account of Phrixus underwent a similar working into a myth. For, as some men say, he made his voyage upon a ship which bore the head of a ram upon its bow, and Helle, being troubled by seasickness, while leaning far over the side of the boat for this reason, fell into the sea” (Diodorus Siculus, Library, 4.47). Such is Diodorus Siculus’ alternate version of the Phrixus and Helle myth.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (“So they went down to the black-sailed ship”, by Maud Hunt Squire (c. 1873-1954), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and Artvee).
- The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).