The Kursa and the Golden Fleece
As I close in on the due date for my manuscript for Jason and the Argonauts, I’ve completed copy-editing the 180,000 words text, and I have 39 of the 42 images for the book ready. But there is one thing that is still bothering me and which I can’t quite wrap my head around. That thing is the kursa, a Hittite religious object that some think inspired the Golden Fleece. I think that the idea is wrong, but I’m not sure why. My gut tells me it’s wrong, but I can’t seem to articulate a clear argument for why this is.
As always, the general idea is very simple but the details rapidly become overwhelming in their complexity. The argument hinges on a pair of Hittite myths. These can be summarized rather simply: In the first, the Storm God needs to defeat an evil dragon, so the goddess Inara hires a human to help her get the dragon so full of food and drink that he can be tied up so the Storm God can kill him. She then locks the hero up in a tower as her sex slave. The second myth involves a separate god, Telepinus (Telepinu or Telipinu), who throws a fit, runs away, and refuses to let crops grow. After the goddess of healing assuages his anger, he agrees to restore the world. Then, upon his return:
Telipinu took account of the king. Before Telipinu there stands an eyan-tree (or pole). From the eyan is suspended a hunting bag (made from the skin) of a sheep. In (the bag) lies Sheep Fat. In it lie (symbols) of Animal fecundity and of Wine. In it lie (symbols of) Cattle and Sheep. In it lie Longevity and Progeny. In it lies The Gentle Message of the Lamb. In it lie… and…In it lies…In it lies The Right Shank. In it lie Plenty, Abundance, and Satiety. (AETN3, trans. H. A. Hoffner, Jr.)
The hunting bag is the kursa, and it is the troublesome concept, especially since nearly everyone writing about the kursa derives his or her information from a single 1989 essay by Hans Gustav Güterbock. In early days of Hittite studies, the kursa was believed to be a “shield.” Then, later, it was translated as “fleece.” More recently, it was translated as “hunting bag,” and most recently as “skin-bag.” The word kursa entered Greek as bursa, eventually becoming the English word “purse.” Many argue that the kursa was a bag made of a fleece based on the older translation and the fact that it could be made from the hide of three animals: an ox, a goat, or a sheep. It is usually a leather sack, but the goat version apparently had long angora hair still attached. Yet, a different fragment of Hittite text tells us that a sheepskin (a fleece) and the kursa were not the same thing (since they are listed as two different items), and the Hittite Etymological Dictionary disclaims “fleece” as a primary meaning; its determinative KUS specifically means hide or leather.
In art, it is very clearly a leather bag with a handle. Below I have drawn the most famous image of a kursa, from a Hittite rhyton of 1400 BCE. It is the object below the quiver and above the stag.
This kursa really get around. Many believe that (since it is a bag) it stands behind the magic bag, the silver kibisis with its golden tassels, that Perseus uses to carry the head of Medusa in the Shield of Heracles. Calvert Watkins argued that the kursa was the origin of Athena’s aegis, the fleece-like shawl that controls storms. Somewhat ridiculously, S. P. Morris argues that the famous Artemis of Ephesus, with her many breasts, was also the kursa, each breast representing one hunting bag. Oh, and it’s also the skin of the satyr Marsyas hung up in Kelainai in Phrygia in Herodotus (7.26). And that’s just in Greece. It supposedly also traveled east where it can be found in Persian myths.
In 1930, A. H. Sayce first suggested that Telepinus’ kursa on the eyan tree was the model for the Golden Fleece hanging on the oak in Colchis, and he thought the Greeks called it golden because “kursa” sounds something like the Greek word for gold, “chrysos.” To my knowledge the kursa-chrysos argument has not been repeated. Following this, in 1975 Volkert Haas renewed the claim that the kursa, which at the time was thought to be a fleece, must be the original of the Golden Fleece. To this he added that the purulli festival, the Hittite New Year’s, with its retelling of the Storm God and the Dragon myth must be the original of Jason and Medea since the similarities were quite striking: a human hero and a magical woman subdue a dragon. However, Walter Burkert cautioned in 1979 that while the parallels were “suggestive,” there was no way to effectively make a 1:1 correlation between the Hittite and Greek material.
Two decades later, Calvert Watkins, fully aware of the correct translation of the kursa, suggested that since the aegis was very clearly similar to the kursa (both, he says, are shaggy and have large handles), and Pindar describes the Golden Fleece with the same adjective Homer used to describe the aegis, by the transitive property of religion, the Fleece must be the kursa. (That Pindar might have modeled his language on Homer does not seem to concern Watkins.) However, Watkins offered this only as a suggestion and noted that it was speculative, not proved. He felt more secure in identifying the tassels of the aegis, kibisis, and Fleece with one another and thus with the kursa—even though the only evidence for kursa tassels is a single adjective describing the kursa that can mean either “rough” or “shaggy.”
In 2008, the Dutch scholar Jan Bremmer endorsed Haas’s view and expanded upon it in a thorough chapter of Greek Religion and Culture, the Bible, and the Ancient Near East. In it, Bremmer laid out the similarities between the Jason story and the Hittite Purulli festival, and he asserted that because the kursa was “renewed” at the spring festival (though in actuality six were burned and six were made before the festival, according to KUB 25.31), where the poem of the Storm God’s triumph over the dragon was recited, that therefore the kursa was associated with the dragon slaying and could be viewed as the object of the festival. In a separate event, the kursa was hung up in its temple, and Bremmer compares that to early accounts of the Fleece hanging in Aietes palace or the Temple of Ares.
But the kursa was not unique to the purulli festival but rather was renewed at many festivals across the Hittite lands, and neither was it a singular item but occurred in multiples, one for each god, the bag itself serving as the god’s aniconic image, like the planks of wood the Mycenaeans worshipped as cult images of their gods. Nor does Jason’s myth share anything of the hunting magic of the kursa, nor the specifics of the Hittite festivals. The Golden Fleece is not burned and destroyed, as at the purulli festival, nor is it made from black or white goats, as at purulli (KUB 25.31).
Bremmer cites as support a quotation from an old Etruscan text preserved in Macrobius’ Saturnalia (3.7.2) in which a golden sheep is viewed by royalty as an omen of prosperity. Bremmer says that since the Etruscans likely originated in Anatolia, this is yet more proof that the kursa was remembered (in the form of a live sheep) in both Greece and Etruria as a magical source of fertility. But the Etruscans only emerge after 800 BCE, and if this were true we ought to see more documentary evidence of kursas and magic sheep in Greek writings of the time; we are 800 years too late for the Golden Fleece, and the Etruscans had heavy influence from the Greeks themselves—adopting the Argonaut myth as one of their own!
Yet there are undoubtedly similarities. The kursa was the symbol of and also embodied a god, just as the Fleece is called the “soul of Phrixus” in Pindar. Both hang from trees. The myths of the Storm God and of Telipinu bear resemblance to Jason, who slays the dragon like the characters from the Storm God story (except his has no Storm God), and who “disappears” for a while in Archaic art by vanishing into the dragon, not unlike the way Telipinu “disappears” for a while, causing the crops to fail. Yet the Storm God story is more frequently related to the Zeus-Typhon battle in Greek myth. Every time I start to read about the kursa I become convinced, until the doubts start.
My thought is that the aegis and the kibisis are probably derived directly from the kursa, but that the Golden Fleece, which is not associated with Jason until centuries after Jason first appears in Homer and Hesiod, was remodeled from several sources, which include the aegis and the fleeces of purification used since Mycenaean times. The fleece of Phrixus, probably originally a separate one, may have originated more directly in the kursa and loaned Jason its attributes. The trouble is that there is no easy way to decide whether the kursa yielded the other objects or whether they represent a common idea that sacrificed animals’ skins were sacred to the gods. There are an enormous number of sacred fleeces in Greek ritual, and any of those would be closer in time and space to the first report of Jason’s Golden Fleece 630 CE. Consider, for example, the silver fleece of Demeter in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (192-198), used in the Eleusinian Mysteries. Consider also the special magic black fleece of Zeus Meilichios, the Dioskodion, which is even more similar to the Golden Fleece, as K. O. Müller noted 200 years ago. This Zeus was an underground snake, like the dragon of Colchis, and his magic Fleece went on a long journey, paraded around Athens during the Diasia festival, and it purified people who placed one bare foot upon it, just like one-sandaled Jason. That such usage is ancient we know from the Mycenaean Linear B tablets, which record that a ram’s fleece was a sacred offering to Poseidon before 1200 BCE—and Poseidon (Neptune) is father of the Golden Ram (Hyginus, Fabulae 3)!
And of course we must remember that there were other famous ram sacrifices, like Abraham’s substitute sacrifice of a ram for Isaac, and other famous fleeces, like that of Gideon, which Yahweh sanctified with his divine dew.
The point, I think, is that if there is an origin of the Fleece in the kursa, it had to be in the early Mycenaean era, so long ago that it is effectively lost amidst all of the sacred fleeces of Mycenaean, Dark Age, and Archaic Greece. The question is whether you want to believe that the Greeks invented magic fleeces themselves or derived them from an earlier source. In the past, suggesting a Near Eastern origin for anything Greek was anathema; today, the pendulum has swung so far that nothing Greek exists without a Near Eastern explanation for it. But what of the Hittites? Were they unique in their ability to imagine the sacred?
A problem is that scholars see what they want to see. Those who specialize in Near Eastern religion see Anatolian origins. Those who specialize in Georgian studies see Georgian origins. For example, Georgian scholars claim that the Greek word for fleece, koas (Mycenaean kowalo) come from a Kartvelian word, *t’q’wa, and the Argo from Egr-i-si, a Georgian kingdom, which by the power of Georgian might is also the origin for Argos because the Greeks remembered and honored the amazing Georgians. If any of this was so, it had to happen before the Mycenaeans moved into Greece since there is no evidence of any Greek presence in Georgia before 700 BCE. The migrating Indo-Europeans probably picked up koas from a pre-Indo-European people, who may have had some long-ago connection to Anatolian, Balkan, and/or Pontic languages while en route from Central Asia to Greece around 2000 BCE—hence the presence in Mycenaean Greek of a Georgian word. By contrast, the Hittite word kursa enters Greek much later, as bursa. The Golden Fleece is only koas, never bursa.
So it’s all very confusing, and it doesn’t help that scholars don’t agree. Billie Jean Collins recently wrote, on the basis of Haas’s and Bremmer’s essays, that it was “well-established” that the Fleece was a kursa from Asia Minor, while others (especially archaeologists) still insist that the Golden Fleece was literally a fleece used to pan for gold in the Caucasus, as Strabo had suggested. I think that the Hittite and Greek myths share motifs, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence; but at the same time, I don’t think there is a 1:1 correlation, but rather that in successive waves various influences shaped and remodeled an ancient story.
The Other J.
9/15/2013 08:19:10 am
What you have here is a conundrum. If I've got this right, the question is whether the origin of the fleece comes from the Hittite 'kursa,' and if that origin could have influenced the other origins your competing scholars have offered. Or is it the case that a possible earlier source influenced both the Hittite and other interpretations, and it's not even clear if that earlier source was Indo-European? And if it's the latter, you still run into the problem of whether the influence was first expressed by the Hittites and then picked up by other cultures via them, or if there were multiple avenues of influence.
9/15/2013 11:01:31 am
I'm sort of thinking out loud here. The problem is that so much of the evidence involves assumptions and reconstructions, so it's a bit nebulous. The general flow, though is that the Hittites used the kursa from 1800 BCE to 1200 BCE, with Neo-Hittites using it down to 750 BCE, with local survivals after.
"The word kursa entered Greek as bursa"
9/15/2013 11:14:30 am
I'm certain Pindar was echoing Homer on purpose since the Fourth Pythian Ode is intentionally designed to create an epic feeling in the form of a victory ode.
9/15/2013 09:32:15 am
This whole article fascinates me, because it sounds so much like the process of writing modern fairytale-based fiction--particularly of the sort that mixes tales. Actually, what kept coming to my mind was in the author's note for Mercedes Lackey's "The Sleeping Beauty," which liberally mixes Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and the Wagnerian Ring cycle. "All three have sleeping princesses in them," she says, "which is how they manage to get crossed up..."
9/15/2013 11:20:19 am
And there's the rub--the Jason myth is in fact assembled from many parts over time. He has his boat, the Clashing Rocks, and Aeetes in Homer (c. 750 BCE), his wife Medea in Hesiod (c. 650 BCE), but not the Golden Fleece until Mimnermus (c. 630 BCE) nor the land of Colchis until the Corinthiaca (c. 450 BCE). He also loses adventures: He used to get swallowed by a dragon and heal the blind, but those things vanish. The dragon-swallowing in particular argues against the kursa as the Golden Fleece since nothing like it is associated with Hittite myth but is very much a part of Mesopotamian and Levantine stories.
9/15/2013 12:30:55 pm
9/15/2013 12:40:38 pm
oops, first post was empty.
9/15/2013 12:52:17 pm
And that's a point I try to make in my book, that the myth has been employed for many and varied uses in each successive age. While the kursa and the Fleece share some motifs, in terms of the actual structure and function of the myth and ritual, they don't seem to share anything in common beyond a general sense that someone encountered something sacred near a snake that is vaguely connected to royal legitimacy.
9/15/2013 12:18:23 pm
It seems to me, you've proven your initial instinct to be correct. Such an interwoven mixture of varied sources does make it appear virtually impossible to pinpoint an object or ritual as the origin of the Golden Fleece. Perhaps, as you said, everyone had a "sacred animal skin" integral with a specific festival.
9/15/2013 01:09:50 pm
I also forgot about Herodotus 2.42, which describes the Egyptian rite of Amun in which a sacred ram is sacrificed each year, and the god's statue is cloaked in the holy fleece as part of the annual Opet festival, which also involved a boat journey, a sacred marriage, renewal of kingly power, etc. Obviously, the idea was widespread across the eastern Mediterranean.
9/16/2013 02:52:41 am
You've mentioned in a few of your articles now the idea that it was once anathema to ascribe anything Greek to MIddle Eastern origins, but how long ago are you talking about here?
9/16/2013 03:13:10 am
That's a great question. Many Victorians thought the Phoenicians were responsible for Greek mythology or that the Greeks were corrupt Jews who accidentally worshiped Noah's Ark. In the twentieth century, these ideas were recognized as wrong and the pendulum swung very far in the opposite direction, with many making the case for Greek exceptionalism. That said, the "anathema" is more of a perception than a reality... many speculated on connections between the Greeks and the East, but the evidence was lacking. Volkert Haas, M. L. West, and Walter Burkert among others all discussed the Near Eastern connections (West particularly links Greece to Babylon), but all of them noted that the mainstream consensus considered that a radical and unusual hypothesis as late as the 1990s. I can't help but think that there was a Cold War influence there, with Western scholars looking to celebrate the source of Western civilization as independent of the "East."
9/16/2013 04:00:44 am
There are hand bags, then there are Louis Vuitton hand bags.
9/16/2013 06:57:23 am
My guess would be that there is a common denominator for both the fleece and the kursa/purse.
9/16/2013 06:39:59 pm
Wow, Jason, that does seem to be quite the conundrum. It is fascinating and I do think you relay the information well. I've never actually put that much thought into the Jason myths.
9/17/2013 12:09:19 am
Jason, your skepticism is understandable. However, I think that it is plausible that Jason's story incorporated elements from those Hittite myths. I do not think that there is any question that oral traditions may survive for centuries before being recorded, but that they are prone to modification to conform to differing cultural motifs. In this case, perhaps the Greeks changed the bag into a fleece because they recognized the latter, rather than the former, as a sacred object.
9/17/2013 12:26:12 am
I don't have any problem with the Jason myth having Near East elements in it; the question is WHICH Near East elements. Not to give too much away, but as M. L. West noted, Jason travels to the solar land of Aia, which shares its name with the Babylonian dawn goddess, wife of the sun and goddess of brides and sexual love. Jason, of course, finds in Aia a magical woman (Medea) who is related to the sun and obsessed with bedding him. Too, he travels through the Clashing Rocks to get to the sun's kingdom, just as the Babylonian Sun God cuts through two mountains each morning to emerge from his kingdom into the sky.
As I suspect you already know, West also attributes several parts of the Jason myths to Indo-European origin, including the story of Jason and Pelias - the part where Jason presents himself at Pelias' court in Iolkos wearing only one shoe, causing Pelias, the usurper, to fear him as the rightful king after the warning of an oracle. West connects this, via proto-Indo-European precedent, to Irish custom, specifically the idea of the 'man of one shoe' (Irish: fear an énais, etymologically unlike the Greek, it should be noted) as the rightful chieftain (Indo-European Poetry and Myth, p.419).
9/17/2013 09:55:29 am
Oh, yes. The Indo-European background is also very interesting, including the folklore/fairytale style opening and the Indo-European dragon-slaying motif at the other end. The fact that Jason means "Healer" and slays a dragon that can be connected to Indo-European healing magic through serpent/worm poetry (discussed by Calvert Watkins) is another fascinating aspect. This is one reason my book ended up ballooning to 180,000 words--there are so many layers: Near Eastern, Indo-European, Mycenaean, etc.
9/17/2013 06:56:07 am
Never underestimate the power of coincidence. You can find similarities in religion and culture that developed side-by-side and in cultures oceans apart. Some through contact, some shared development experience, and some just plain old coincidence.
3/31/2016 06:21:07 pm
Thanks for the great post. I found it very informative!
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