This paper was presented at the Fifth World Congress on Coloured Sheep (Geelong, Australia, 1999) and printed in the Congress Proceedings. It is reproduced here with the permission of the Black & Coloured Sheep Breeders’ Association of Australia (Victoria).
The colour photographs were not part of the original. Footnotes (the numbers in brackets) and the bibliography will be found here.
The legendary Greek hero Jason, setting off in the good ship Argo to get hold of the golden fleece — a fairy tale, or a romanticised memory with some basis in fact?
Jason’s quest, we are told, took him from Iolkos in Greece to a place called Kolchis at the far end of the Black Sea, where the Golden Fleece was hung on an oak tree in a sacred grove, guarded by an enormous snake. How the fleece got there is another story. First I want to mention some interpretations of the Golden Fleece that have been suggested — because it’s endlessly fascinating for many people to try to find some sort of historical reality behind such legends.
• Environmental. How about a bad case of canary stain? This fleece fault, if it occurred at all in the climatic conditions of ancient Greece, would have been well known to flock-owners. I doubt if they thought an extreme example was a gift from the gods and a suitable objective for a hero’s quest!
A more elaborate theory is that the wool was stained by bile pigment caused by liver damage from eating leaves of olive trees, perhaps in a time of feed shortage.(1) Again, if this happened at all, it probably wouldn’t be rare or special. There were and still are a great many olive trees in Greece!
• Historical. Could the real objective of some expedition such as Jason’s have been to obtain a supply of good quality wool? Or fine-woolled sheep to improve the local breed? More on this later.
• Technological. As long ago as the first century AD a Roman writer suggested that the origin of the legend was a technique used in Turkey and other places, of collecting alluvial gold by pegging out sheepskins in the bed of a gold-bearing river. Gold particles would be trapped in the wool, and could be shaken out after it was dried.(2)
A sheepskin loaded with gold particles would be an impressive sight, and certainly a treasure worthy of a hero’s best efforts. This theory fits well with Jason’s voyage but as we’ll see, not so well with what the Greek legends actually tell us about the origin of the Golden Fleece.
• Genetic. 20-odd years ago when the brown/moorit colour was first recognised in coloured flocks in Australia and New Zealand, it seemed so new and rare that we might well have jumped up and down and said “Aha, we’ve found the Golden Fleece that Jason was after”. But now we are all aware how normal brown sheep are in many of the more primitive breeds, and we can probably assume that they were well known to the people of early Greece. A moorit fleece would have been nothing to go on a quest for.
Might there have been some other, less common colour that could be regarded as “golden”? We’ll come back to this.
• Cultural. Legends like this often reflect important preoccupations of the society that creates them. Perhaps it’s all about the importance of wool as a fibre in the economics of ancient Greece. Perhaps the tellers of tales just felt that lovely wool was as precious as gold. We can all relate to that sentiment.(3)
Let’s now look at what the Greeks themselves tell us about the Golden Fleece. The first essential is that it wasn’t actually a fleece, but a skin. The Greek sources are quite clear about this, but unfortunately the early translators into English didn’t understand the difference and got it muddled (being no doubt quite ignorant of wool-handling).
The origin of the Golden Sheepskin, naturally enough, was a golden-coloured sheep. Like so many Greek myths, the stories involving golden sheep (for there are actually two such stories) are a wonderful blend of sex, violence, corruption in high places and sheer improbability worthy of the most lurid television series. It can be difficult to retell these tales accurately, because there are so many different versions. Greek mythology had nothing equivalent to the Bible, no one written work which was taken as the authority. Everyone who told a tale based on a legend could adapt or change it to suit themselves. However, I’ll do my best.
Jason’s golden sheepskin came from a golden ram which had been given by one of the gods to the first wife of the king of Boeotia, a district northwest of Athens.(4) This woman (whose name in Greek means “Cloud”) eventually returned to the sky (as you might expect). She left their two children Phrixos and Helle with their father. The father remarried, and his jealous second wife hatched an elaborate plot to destroy her stepchildren which resulted in the king believing the only way he could end a famine was to sacrifice his son Phrixos to the gods. At the last moment the boy’s mother “Cloud” snatched up both Phrixos and Helle and sent them off eastwards through the sky on the back of her golden ram.
The ram eventually arrived in Kolchis, on the Black Sea. One of his passengers, Helle, had fallen off en route and drowned, at the place called after her “Hellespont” (the sea of Helle), now the Dardanelles. Phrixos however landed safely and settled down in Kolchis, married a local princess, and “lived happily ever after”. The ram was less fortunate — Phrixos sacrificed it to Zeus, and presented its golden-fleeced skin to the king of Kolchis. The skin was hung in a sacred grove and guarded by a snake until Jason arrived with his Argonauts and stole it.
The other golden sheep of Greek legend was a ram lamb. The king of Mycenae had died and his two sons both laid claim to the throne.(5) This unsavoury pair had already been involved in the murder of their younger brother, and now they reached an agreement that whichever should receive a sign or portent from the gods should be king. The older one of course had the better claim, and sure enough it was in his flock that a golden lamb was born.
However, his wife was having a secret affair with the other brother, and she stole the lamb and gave it to her lover. In most versions it had by now been killed, and was kept hidden in a box, we assume in the form of a sheepskin. The younger brother was able to display the golden sheep, or its skin, to the assembled citizens, and duly became king. Zeus was so angry at this usurping of power that he disrupted the weather and even changed the course of the sun. Later the older brother seized the throne, and took his revenge by inviting the younger to a banquet at which he served his guest’s own sons in a stew. The story continues down through several more generations of murders, incest, adultery and other colourful events.
These legends were all told in the Classical period and later (from about 600BC). The episode of Jason, at least, was well known earlier, because Homer, around 700BC, mentions in passing the voyage of the Argo, though he doesn’t actually tell the story or mention the fleece.(6) Our detailed written accounts are 5thC BC and later.
However, it was all supposed to have happened many, many generations earlier. If there is any real history in the tales at all, the events would probably have taken place in what is called the Mycenaean period, a time of warrior kingdoms and elaborate palaces which ended about 600 years before what we think of as classical Greece. Mycenae itself, where those two quarrelling brothers lived, was a major stronghold in mainland Greece from around 2000 BC to 1200 BC or so. Towards the end of this time, on the island of Crete where the civilisation called “Minoan” had flourished for several centuries, the old palace at Knossos was taken over by Mycenaean rulers who introduced their own special blend of militarism and bureaucracy.
In the economies of the Mycenaean period, and particularly in Crete, the wool industry was very important. At the palace of Knossos have been found a whole collection of palace inventories or census records, written on clay tablets in an early form of Greek (it’s a little depressing that the very earliest examples of the Greek language are accountancy not literature). Quite a few of these tablets deal with sheep and wool.
The scribes who wrote these tablets listed male sheep and ewes separately, but they didn’t distinguish between rams and wethers. The keeping of large wether flocks for wool production is pretty much proved by the numbers of male sheep. For example one tablet lists a flock of 264 “rams” and 22 ewes.(7)
This leaves us, however, with no records that we can identify as being of breeding rams, at least on the tablets that have survived. It’s very tempting to conclude that no special importance was attached to rams. Certainly there is no evidence whatever to suggest any effort to improve wool or lamb quantity or quality by selecting the best rams to breed from. Presumably it just didn’t occur to Mycenaean shepherds or their overlords that production could be lifted in this way.
With this background in mind, let’s look again at some of the interpretations of the Golden Fleece.
If we are to take the tales at all literally, we see right away two possible objections to the historical interpretation — the idea that Jason’s quest was for better quality wool or finer-woolled breeding stock.
First of all, Jason’s golden fleece originated in Greece, not overseas, and the golden lamb of Mycenae never left Greece at all. If the whole story is really about going to the East to find a special strain of sheep and bring it back to Greece to breed, it’s odd that what happens in the story is the opposite — the sheep goes from Greece to the East, and there is killed, effectively preventing breeding. You could argue that this is being too literal, but I would reply that if we are going to look for history behind a legend at all, we must consider all the details, not just those that happen to suit our theory.
Secondly, we can’t assume the Greeks had any conception of improving their flocks by introducing a new strain. There was no real understanding of selective breeding until much later.(8) In particular, there was no appreciation of the importance of rams in a breeding programme. So in both legends, presented with a ram of exceptional quality, their reaction is to cut its throat. Admittedly the ability to fly might not be something one would want to breed into one’s flock, but all the same, we’d expect any modern flock-owner to treasure such a special sire. The Greek approach was different. These special animals were a gift from the gods and should be given back to the gods in the form of a sacrifice.
What about the idea that Jason’s expedition was to locate supplies of fine-quality wool, which was perhaps in short supply after the downfall of Knossos and its wool industry? The history here is plausible, though we may wonder whether something so mundane would give rise to a legend of such enduring fascination. It’s not impossible that the idea might have had some input into the part of the tale that deals with the voyage. But again, it doesn’t fit the origins of the two golden sheep.
The fact that both golden sheep originated in Greece is also a problem with the technological explanation, the custom of collecting alluvial gold by trapping it in wool. There is good evidence for the technique, and it could fit well with the idea of a quest for finer wool, since finer crimpier wool with more grease would trap gold particles better than a coarse primitive fleece.(9) I suspect that this custom has had some input into the tale of Jason’s quest — gold is, next to beautiful princesses, the most popular item for fairytale heroes to seek.
Gold-collecting in a sheepskin, however, like the historical theories, does nothing whatever to explain the golden lamb born to the future ruler of Mycenae, or the mysterious appearance of a golden ram at the critical moment when Phrixos was about to pay the ultimate price for his stepmother’s jealousy and his father’s gullibility.
For those elements of the stories we need precious lambs of striking and unusual appearance. What could be more precious (or startling) when black and brown sheep had been the norm since they were first domesticated, than the sudden appearance of sheep with white wool that could be dyed to previously unheard-of brilliant colours? My suggestion is that we have in these legends a distant memory of the first white sheep in Greece.
The earliest domesticated sheep are thought to have been what some of us still call the mouflon pattern, but must learn to call black and tan (brown or black with a white belly). Ryder puts the appearance of all-white sheep at around 1000 BC in the Middle East,(10) though he does mention that apparently white hair sheep are shown in Egyptian paintings from about 3000 BC.
I’m certain that white woolly sheep began to appear in both Greece and the Middle East earlier than 1000BC.(11) The development of dyeing and the availability of white wool as a raw material would probably go hand in hand, and a dye industry began developing in Crete by 2000BC. In Minoan Crete and Mycenaean Greece, frescos show clothing of elaborately patterned cloth in white and many contrasting colours.
The purple or red dye from the sea snails of several Murex species was known in the Near East and Crete, where huge piles of crushed murex shells have been found. In a port on the coast of Syria, there is also evidence of trade in purple-dyed wool from about 1500 BC. Yellow dye was obtained from saffron, and as those who have tried it will probably agree, overdyeing coloured wool with yellow isn’t usually very satisfactory. Madder was used for reddish colours, and so on.
You will be wondering how come a white sheep was called golden. The answer is that the first white sheep would have been born tan, and faded to a creamy white as they got older. To quote Adalsteinsson: “At one stage during evolution, a specific A allele arose which changed all eumelanin into phaeomelanin. The resulting phenotype was red or tan. The fleece from the adult tan animal was near white, probably containing some red outercoat fibres and some red kemp.”(12)
Adalsteinsson goes on to argue that breeders would have selected for less tan as time went by, valuing the white wool for dyeing to bright colours, and so the tan colour was gradually lost. We see it in very few sheep breeds today, but there are still some in which lambs may be born tan and become white before they are a year old. This happens, for example, in some Karakul sheep.(13)
Ryder has recently speculated “that the “golden” fleece had tan hairs, from which fine, white underwool was combed.”(14) He seems to relate the sheep concerned, however, more to the East (he mentions sheep of Mesopotamia and the Crimea) whereas I am suggesting that the golden lambs which produced white wool were born, as their legends tell us, in Greece.
There still remains the problem that such treasured animals were apparently sacrificed rather than kept to breed from. It could of course be that the ram in the Jason story, at least, sired many lambs before taking off on his epic flight. More to the point, where a particular mutation happens once it may often happen repeatedly, and in this case apparently does.(15) One could imagine the first white ram born on a king’s estate being ceremonially sacrificed, while other white rams and ewes survived to spread the Awt gene through the flocks of the kingdom.
To summarise: I am inclined to suspect different influences at work on different parts of the legend. The grafting of one story onto another in this way is common in myth. Jason’s quest may have originated in a memory of Mycenaean treasure-hunters seeking gold gathered in sheepskins, and possibly fine wool for luxury garments.
But I believe the tradition of sheep which grew a golden fleece arose at least partly from the appearance of golden-tan lambs in the previously black and brown flocks of early Greece, especially when these golden lambs were found to yield white fleeces that could be dyed in a rainbow of colours. Of course this is all speculation, and proof will probably never be possible. The importance of wool in ancient Greece has certainly had an influence, and it could be a major influence, in the formation of the legends. Finally, we cannot dismiss pure imagination as a source of fantastic tales.(16)
Footnotes and bibliography are here.