A few days ago I wrote about the Hittite kursa and its claim to be the original of the Golden Fleece in an Argonaut story situated in Anatolia. Today I’d like to share with you an “alternative” history of the Argonauts advocated by Georgian scholars and Western supporters, primarily those who study the Caucasus for a living. Georgia, of course, sits atop the land that used to be the kingdom of Colchis. I don’t believe a word of it, but in Georgia it is as close to Official Fact as you will find, commemorated in a giant statue of Medea that the Georgian government erected in 2007 at great expense.
The mythic background is relatively simple. Jason, in the oldest text to mention a destination, that of Mimnermus of c. 630 BCE, travels to a land called “Aea” of no fixed geographic position (Strabo 1.2.40). Later, after Eumelus’ Corinthiaca (c. 450 BCE), this land is identified with Colchis (Pausanias 2.3.8), a territory on the eastern border of the Black Sea that archaeology says the Greeks first reached and colonized after 700 BCE. Still later writers made Aea either an island at Colchis or the capital of the same (Herodotus 1.2, Apollonius 2.417). In the Hellenistic period, Pompeius Trogus claimed that Jason conquered not just Colchis but all of Armenia during his second voyage to Colchis to apologize to Aeëtes for being mean (!) (Justin, Epitome 42.3), and Armenus the Argonaut was made namesake of the Armenians (Strabo 11.4.8, 11.14.12). Strabo, who was himself connected to Cochis—where his great uncle was governor (11.2.38)—had every reason to want to celebrate Greek connections to Colchis and therefore concluded that that Golden Fleece was nothing more than the fleeces used to pan for gold in the wondrous and wealthy kingdom his family ruled (1.2.40, 11.11.19).
This material is the warrant for the Georgian fundamentalist views which follow.
The Soviet Union under Georgian dictator Josef Stalin was quick to seize upon the propaganda value of the Jason myth. In the 1930s and 1940s, Soviet “scholars” asserted that Golden Fleece was really the fertile grain of Soviet Georgia and that the Argonaut myth proved that the West had learned superior agricultural techniques from the Georgians, whose collective farms carried on the proud tradition.
As silly as this propaganda claim was, it established Georgia’s claim to primacy in understanding the Argonaut story. In this same period, Soviet folklorists began to claim that Jason himself could be a survival of the Georgian hero Arimani, first attested in the Middle Ages but certainly older, since both slayed a dragon who swallowed him and married a princess.
By the 1960s, the magic wheat argument no longer held water, but that didn’t stop Soviet scientists from proposing new reasons why the West’s heritage was first inspired by Soviet-controlled areas of the East. The Armenians, though, rather than the Georgians were the next to assume control of the myth. At this point archaeology had established that the Kingdom of Colchis formed only in the 600s BCE, too late to have influenced a myth Homer already alluded to around 750 BCE. In the 1960s, therefore, Soviet scholars proposed that a different people lay behind the myth. Seizing on the older name of Aea, they identified Aea with the Hay or Hayk, the name the Armenians called themselves. This name, they asserted, derived from the Bronze Age kingdom of Hayasa, whose name must have inspired Aea. Western scholars who studied the Caucasus readily assented to this view, and until the early 2000s it was believed that Hayasa had in fact been located on the Black Sea coast right beside Colchis.
Today we know Hayasa was situated around Lake Van, in eastern Anatolia, far from the Black Sea coast. We also know that Hayasa fell around 1290 BCE. It’s a little too early for Jason and in the wrong place since the only thing we know for sure about Aea is that the Greeks thought it lay on the River Ocean with easy access to the sea.
The Hayasa connection found favor with scholars of the Caucasus and some Indo-Europeanists, but all of the original work on the question came from Georgian and Armenian sources. Armenians, of course, emphasized their own role, while Georgians suggested, against archaeology, that the Hayasa reigned as far north as Colchis, thus demonstrating why the Greeks called the same place by two names—it changed hands after 600 BCE and the Greeks followed the trends emanating from Colchis.
In support of this, the Soviets helped promote the idea that the Golden Fleece was the mining equipment described by Strabo, a rationalization that Edward Gibbon had already bought into two centuries earlier in the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. (By contrast, European scholars tended to follow Janet Ruth Bacon, who found the Fleece in amber routes that not coincidentally connected Western Europe to the Argonaut myth.)
After this came the linguistic claims. These are extraordinarily complex, so I will try to simplify a bit. The general thrust of the first claim is that Greek, Phrygian, and the early Georgian Kartvelian tongue share several traits. Western scholars attribute this to the three Indo-European languages cross-pollinating during the period of Greek colonization. By contrast, Georgian scholars propose a new branch of Indo-European languages that include all three (as well as a few others), with Kartvelian (naturally) the senior branch and the parent tongue of the others. In this manner, Kartvelian gives rise to Phrygian and then Greek as Colchians moved outward from Colchis to Greece. To this end Tblisi University professor Gia Kvashilava claims to have deciphered Linear A, which he claims is “really” a form of Kartvelian, thus proving that the Minoans were originally Colchian, thus agreeing with the mythological claim that Minos’ wife Pasiphaë was the sister of Aeëtes (Apollodorus 1.9.1) and thus Colchian—despite, of course, the Greek claim in the very same poem that makes Aea into Colchis, Eumelus’ Corinthiaca, that Aeëtes was first a Corinthian before he was Colchian (Pausanias 2.3.10)—that is, that he was a Greek. When you have an agenda, you conveniently get to pick and choose what to believe.
Kvashilava has sent me numerous documents about his decipherment of Linear A; so far I am unconvinced, and so far as I know, no non-Georgian scholars agree with his findings.
Nevertheless, Georgian scholars have used such claims as evidence for an otherwise unattested Bronze Age Kingdom of Colchis, the font of civilization for Mycenaean Greece.
But if this is a rather blunt assessment of Georgian scholarship, consider, too, the odd fact about Western views of the Jason story: Those who want to see the Jason story as being tied to Hittite mythology tend to be continental Europeans—Jan Bremmer (Dutch), Volkert Haas (German), Walter Burkert (German)—and the European power that sponsored much of the early research into the Hittites was Germany, with much of the original material on Hittite mythology being in German. By contrast, those who favor a Babylonian or Levantine influence on Greek myth tend to work in the English-speaking world, including M. L. West (British), Charles Penglase (Australian), and Michael C. Astour (a European who lived and taught in America for most of his life). Britain, of course, conducted the most important early work on Babylonian and Sumerian myths, including the first translations of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Unlike the Georgians, of course, these scholars are all much more careful and understand the competing and complementary layers that influenced Greek myth, as well as the obvious influences of each culture on the others—they are by no means dogmatists; it is a matter of emphasis and degree, not actual difference in kind, and certainly not the result of any conspiracy. Indeed, splitting the difference, the German-American (!) Hittite expert Hans Gustav Güterbock argued that the Phoenicians combined all the Near East sources and packaged them for Greece. Still, it does make one wonder how much culture influences our thinking without us necessarily even being aware of it.
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