Was the Golden Fleece Really Sea-Silk? Plus: "Ancient Origins" Writer Endorses Modern Hoax as Pre-Flood Hermetic Secrets
Quality standards have never been high among fringe historians, but you’d think that someone calling himself a journalist might have had at least a little bit of research skill. Armando Mei (whom we have met before) is an Italian investigative journalist who fell down the rabbit hole and fully embraced the Graham Hancock model of history. In fact, he became one of Semir Osmanagich’s coauthors in writing about the Bosnian mountains mistaken for ancient pyramids. Anyway, Mei’s big idea is that alchemy was invented in ancient Egypt and encoded in the Great Pyramid around 36,000 years ago. You will immediately recognize this as the Arab-Islamic medieval pyramid myth, and he does nothing to confirm it except to accept it at face value.
In his new article for Ancient Origins he attempts to argue that the god Thoth built the Great Pyramid because he ascribed such as role in the Emerald Tablets, which he identifies as ancient writings from before the Great Flood. Here is where the quality control issues arise. He conflates the Emerald Tablet (singular), a medieval or Late Antique Hermetic text of a few lines that is preserved first in Arabic in the 800s CE and then translated into Latin in the High Middle Ages, with the Emerald Tablets (plural) a hoax text concocted from scraps of fringe history and Lovecraftian pulp fiction by neo-Theosophist Maurice Doreal (Claude Doggins) and published in 1939 as The Emerald Tablets of Thoth the Atlantean.
Mei conflates all of this still further with the Hermetica, the Late Antique Hermetic texts that were collated and translated in the sixteenth century. In so doing, he then declares that the Emerald Tablets of Doreal are in fact “ancient documents” that survived among the Hermetica.
Obviously, nobody over at Ancient Origins knows what they are talking about, and they don’t seem to have much by way of quality control. Mei, however, is happy to crow about his endorsements from the likes of Osmanagich and his appearances alongside Hancock, Robert Bauval, and others. But since the true facts are rather easy to find, this suggests that either Mei is utterly incompetent or intentionally fabricating. Since he now claims that the pyramids are actually giant cuneiform ideograms and that the gods spoke Sumerian, it might well be the former.
Yesterday, Ancient Origins also ran a mostly useless article that was obviously inspired by the story that ran in on the BBC last month that only one woman in all the world retains knowledge of the ancient art of weaving byssus, or sea silk. Mostly, the Ancient Origins piece was a recap of that story, but the editors chose to frame it in an unusual way, asking whether the famed Golden Fleece from the Jason myth was really a bolt of cloth made from byssus. “It has also been suggested that some objects from mythology may actually be sea silk. This, for instance, is an interpretation of the Golden Fleece found in the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts.”
Even though the editors chose to make that the headline claim, the author gave it no more space. That’s obviously because the author, a college student writing under the name Dhwty, doesn’t have a clue about the Argonauts myth or the Golden Fleece. I, on the other hand, wrote an entire book about it. What astonished me is that having written that book, I can’t recall having ever heard the claim that the Fleece was made from byssus before now. This is rather astonishing since I have come across dozens of different speculative accounts of the Fleece, ranging from claims that it was a book of alchemy to claims that it was a crashed airplane or spaceship.
The claim, so far as I can see, seems to have been popularized in Europe in 1806 when a Prof. Joseph Hager published Pantheon Chinois, an attempt to prove close contact between ancient Greece and ancient China. In the book, Hager claimed that the Golden Fleece was actually Chinese silk, the first seen by the Greeks. The warrant for this is Roman use of “fleece” as a metaphorical word for silk, as Virgil does in Georgics 2.120, and the Fleece was suspended from a tree, just as silkworms make their cocoons in mulberry trees. This silk was also supposedly the byssus of the Bible. Therefore, the Fleece was byssus. The trouble is that what we mean by byssus isn’t what the Biblical writers meant, and theirs was not always, or even primarily, sea-silk, according to many explicators of the texts. Hager’s clever analysis failed also in the eyes of his contemporaries on the fact that byssus wasn’t rare in Greece, and Pausanias (5.5.2) recorded its use on the island of Elis, comparing it specifically to that of the Hebrews, though under the name of flax.
I will grant you that I hadn’t heard that claim before. It is apparently an obscure one, and one that did not long outlive its first proposal. I am not sure exactly how we got from there to the story reported on Ancient Origins. It appears that there are two versions. Beginning in the 1950s, some writers began to speculate that the Fleece was byssus and attributed it to “historians” and claimed that the identification was an ancient one. But Jacques Cousteau said the opposite, though in a confused way: “Byssus was first woven into cloth in the Kingdom of Colchis on the Black Sea. Jason and the Argonauts called the elusive golden fleece ‘Colchis,’ giving rise to the modern theory that the fleece was made from byssus.” The most influential source seems to be James Dugan’s 1956 book Man Explores the Sea, where he identifies the Fleece with byssus and attributes the claim to “some seashell experts,” though the claim can be found as far back as an academic journal in 1941. The “expert” in question, by the way, was A. Hyatt Verrill, writing in the Shell Collector’s Handbook (1950), a book that I can’t imagine was widely read among Classicists, and which I have not seen. I wish I knew whether he cited a source, but, alas, I do not care enough about shells to waste the money.
Obviously, none of the “experts” seems to have any idea what he is talking about. This prompted me to go looking for the origins of the claim. Through some German books, I was led to the work of Basil of Caesarea, a fourth century Christian writer. In his Hexameron 7.6, he writes, “How can the sea pinna produce her fleece of gold, which no dye has ever imitated?” (trans. Blomfield Jackson). Apparently, based on this unrelated bit of verbiage, German writers argued that the Fleece of the Jason myth was the byssus of the textile world. This is the closest the ancients came to saying that the Golden Fleece was sea-silk. It’s really just a bit of poetic language.
I can’t say who resurrected the claim in the last century, or whether it emerged from German writings or the fancy of a scientist, but the general thrust seems to be that the biologists and other life scientists took up the idea of byssus as the Golden Fleece, largely because it gave poetic gloss to an otherwise rather dull species of pen shells. From various books on shells and ocean lore, the story spread to other histories, until recent writers could rightly write that the story had many “historians” standing behind it.
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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