You may have heard the news last week that “new evidence” from “scientists” demonstrates that the myth of Jason and the Argonauts was based on a real treasure-seeking expedition to the Republic of Georgia during the Mycenaean period. The story ran on Science News and was later picked up by some other outlets. The Daily Mail, for example, ran a similar story under the headline “The Golden Fleece Was REAL.” It was based on a recent journal article in Quaternary International, building on earlier work published in the Bulletin of the Georgian National Academy of Science by the same lead author in 2010.
As the author of Jason and the Argonauts through the Ages, I read the articles with interest and dismay. This is all material I covered in my book. The media have been fleeced.
Geologist Avtandil Okrostsvaridze of Ilia State University in Tbilisi, Georgia, is the lead author for the two studies, which both seek to provide a rationalization for the Greek myth of the Golden Fleece and in so doing thus prove that (a) the Argonauts myth is true and (b) Georgia is therefore worthy of inclusion alongside Greece in the annals of history. The authors, of course, would deny (b), but given the leaps of logic involved in “proving” a myth true, there really isn’t another conclusion that makes sense. Every year there is another new claim out of Georgia seeking to “prove” the dependence of Greek mythology (and sometimes Greek language) on Georgia and portray Georgia as a font of European culture.
The Argonauts myth, in its received form, tells of the voyage of Jason and his fifty companions to the distant land of Colchis, in what is now Georgia, to retrieve the Golden Fleece, the skin of the divine ram that carried Phrixus from Greece to Colchis a generation earlier. Okrostsvaridze’s “investigations” claim to have determined that “the phenomena of the ‘Golden Fleece’ according to our research, is connected with the sheepskin technique of recovering placer gold.” In this technique, a sheep’s fleece is used to trap particles of gold dissolved in water. The result is a fleece that is impregnated with gold and then destroyed to recover the bits of metal.
Although the media present Okrostsvaridze et al. as having suddenly discovered this, the geologist and his team really contributed only one new thing to a very old claim: They used 1,000 ground penetrating radar readings to locate the largest source of placer gold in ancient Georgia, near Svaneti. Logically, the existence of gold does not imply a voyage from Mycenaean Greece to visit it. (The same trouble bedeviled Janet Ruth Bacon in her 1925 book The Voyage of the Argo, in which she tried to prove the Argonaut myth true but related to amber deposits rather than gold.)
The claim that the Golden Fleece was really a soggy sheepskin used in gold panning dates back to Strabo, a man who—to be kind—had no idea what he was talking about. In Geography 11.2, Strabo sets off two millennia of speculation when he writes: “In their country the winter torrents are said to bring down even gold, which the Barbarians collect in troughs pierced with holes, and lined with fleeces; and hence the fable of the golden fleece” (trans. Hamilton and Falconer). Okrostsvaridze et al., however, prefer the much later version of the same story given in Appian (Roman History 12.103) around 150 CE: “Many streams issue from Caucasus bearing gold-dust so fine as to be invisible. The inhabitants put sheepskins with shaggy fleece into the stream and thus collect the floating particles. Perhaps the golden fleece of Aetes was of this kind” (trans. Horace White). This version, though 150 years after Strabo, better fits with Okrostsvaridze’s ideas about modern Georgian gold panning, which does not use troughs.
Strabo, writing sometime between 20 BCE and 24 CE was 1500 years removed from the alleged events, 700 years removed from the first references to Jason in the Homeric poems, and 300 years removed from Apollonius of Rhodes’s Argonautica. Despite the widespread assumption among geologists and archaeologists (but not Classicists) that Strabo had special insight into mythology, his rationalization is no better supported than the rationalizing “explanation” of his rough contemporary, Diodorus Siculus (Library 4.47), who claimed that the Fleece was actually the skin of a man named Krios (“Mr. Ram”), sacrificed and gilded. It has just as much evidence in its favor.
The trouble is that Strabo is not an unbiased observer. At the time he wrote, his great-uncle was the governor of Colchis (Geography 11.2.38), and he had every reason to bolster Colchis’s profile by promoting its connection to the wonders of mythology. But Strabo also admitted that he was simply rationalizing a story whose basis in fact was primarily belief. Consider his words from Geography 1.2.39:
For, as all admit, the original voyage to Phasis [western Georgia] ordered by Pelias, the return voyage, and the occupation, however considerable, of islands on the coasting-voyage thither, contain an element of plausibility, as do also, I am sure, I am sure, the wanderings which carried Jason still further—just as there is an element of plausibility in the wanderings of both Odysseus and Menelaus—as evidenced by things still to this day pointed out and believed in, and by the words of Homer as well.
And what are the things pointed out and believed in? Some of the evidence comes in the form of later temples to Jason, themselves based on a misunderstanding of the Median word *yazona (“place of worship” = Persian ayadana) as Iasonion, or shrine to Jason. The most important, though, is that “the wealth of the regions about Colchis, which is derived from the mines of gold, silver, iron, and copper, suggests a reasonable motive for the expedition, a motive which induced Phrixus also to undertake this voyage at an earlier date” (1.2.39). In other words, Strabo here concedes that (a) the myth is not literal, (b) he is drawing conclusions rather than evaluating evidence, and (c) all of the explanations are based on looking for “reasonable” explanations for the fantastic, as supported by ancient texts.
So Strabo is no good witness, and Appian admits with his “perhaps” that he is simply speculating. In fact, Okrostsvaridze et al. take Appian to have declared that the Argonauts were on a gold mining expedition and the Fleece was a gold panning implement, when he did no such thing. They confuse material from Strabo and Appian and appear to have little understanding of either.
All of this is predicated, of course, on the idea that the object of the Argonauts’ voyage was always Colchis. But there is no evidence that the Greeks placed the Argonauts’ voyage in Colchis prior to Eumelus, in the fifth century BCE Corinthiaca, whose surviving fragment in Pausanias’s Description of Greece (2.3.8) is the oldest association between the Jason myth and Colchis. Neither Homer nor Hesiod know of Colchis—and indeed the Greeks are not known to have ventured to that side of the Black Sea until after the time of Homer. There is no evidence at all of any Mycenaean expeditions that far to the east. The slim thread connecting older stories to Colchis is the statement attributed to Hesiod in the Apollonius scholia at Argonautica 4.284 that the Argonauts reached the river Phasis. However, M. L. West, the great Classicist, demonstrated that the toponym Phasis was originally mythical and only later applied to the Rioni in Georgia.
Instead, our earliest source to give a geographic location for the Fleece, places it somewhere else entirely. Mimnermus, writing around 630 BCE and preserved in Strabo (1.2.40), claims that the Fleece rested in the city of Aeëtes, on the banks of the River Ocean, in the land of Aea “where the rays of the swift Sun lie in a chamber of gold.” Later, Aea was identified as the capital of Colchis, but this is a late gloss, as evident from the similar and undoubtedly derivative toponym Aeaea, the island of Circe, which was sometimes in Aea (Pherecydes) and sometimes in the farthest west (Homer), depending on the author. The challenges of mapping the glorious dawn land of Aea onto the real geography of wet and dank Colchis were enough that Apollonius of Rhodes’s Argonautica bears the visible seams of trying to stitch together opposing concepts.
M. L. West, who has made two different arguments about the origins of the name Aea, concludes in both that the name refers to the dawn and simply represents a mythological land where the sun rests at night—no more real than the magic islands where Heracles found golden apples, or any other mythological land. These mythic places were rationalized and mapped onto the real world during the Archaic period, but they would not have originated in reality, except perhaps in the vaguest way.
Whether you find such arguments convincing or not, the fact that there is no archaeological evidence for a trip to Colchis in Mycenaean times, nor evidence of an Argonaut myth related to Colchis before Eumelus, should give pause to any geologists or archaeologists who want to declare Strabo the one true guide to understanding ancient mythology without subjecting his claims to the same critical scrutiny expected of any other historical argument.
Oh, and read my book. I covered all of this in much more depth there.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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