Iásōn (Ἰάσων), better known as 'Jason', is one of the best known Hellenic heroes. Along with Hēraklēs and Theseus, Iásōn's mythology is taught in schools around the globe. If you say 'Iásōn', you immediately say 'Golden Fleece' as well. It's always been seen as 'just a myth', but what if there was truth in it?


A little mythology first: Phrixos (Φρίξος) was the son of Athamas, king of Boiotia, and Nephele (a goddess of clouds). His twin sister Helle and he were hated by their stepmother, Ino. So hated, in fact, that Ino burned the local crops and asked for an oracular message to see if the Theoi were angry at her husband's people. She bribed the messengers to tell her husband that the Theoi were, indeed, angry at him. To appease Them, Phrixos and Helle had to be sacrificed. Pious Athamas did as he was told, but just before they could be killed, a ram with golden wool appeared by order of Nephele, and carried the children off.

The ram flew over the ocean and Helle looked down. Spooked by the height, she fell off of the back of the ram, leading to her death. The stretch of water she fell into was called the Hellespontos (Ἑλλήσποντος), literally 'Sea of Helle', a narrow strait in northwestern Turkey connecting the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara. It was later renamed Dardanellia (Δαρδανέλλια).

The ram, unfortunately did not get to live a long, healthy life. As soon as the ram delivered Phrixos to the palace of King Aeëtes--the son of the sun god Helios--on Colchis, it was sacrificed to Zeus. It's golden fleece was hung from a tree in a sacred grove of Ares, guarded night and day by a dragon that never slept. Iásōn eventually slew the dragon with Mēdeia's help and took the fleece back to Iolkos. The ram, after being sacrificed, was placed into the sky by Zeus.

Archaeologists and geologists alike have struggled to make sense of what the golden fleece could symbolise, or have been inspired by. Now, however, a team led by geologist Avtandil Okrostsvaridze from Ilia State University in Georgia has found evidence to suggest that the myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece was indeed based on historical events related to ancient gold extraction techniques, thus Science Alert reports.

Between 2002 and 2010, the team carried out field work in Svaneti region on the east coast of the Black Sea, where they compared the available geological data, artefacts, myths and historical sources surrounding the kingdom of Colchis. Publishing in the current edition of Quaternary International, they now suggest that the myth took inspiration from an actual voyage sometime between 3,300 and 3,500 years ago. Iásōn and the Argonauts’ destination was the kingdom of Colchis, famous at the time for harbouring a great wealth of gold. The researchers write:

"According to Greek mythology and historical sources the ancient Georgian Kingdom of Colchis was rich in 'gold sands' and the natives mined this metal from the rivers, using special wooden vessels and sheepskins.”

 As a result of their geological investigation, they confirmed that still today in the Svaneti region, the rivers that snake down the sides of the mountains contain tiny particles of gold that have worn off the edges of the rocks. The researchers also found that the Svaneti region contains numerous goldfields and river placers--an accumulation of valuable minerals--one of which they estimate contains around 65 to 70 tonnes of gold. They suggest that this particular resource was one of the main suppliers of alluvial, or river, gold in Svaneti, which the locals have been using sheepskin to extract for thousands of years. This ancient tradition was likely passed down from time that the mythology of Jason was being formed, the researchers suggest. So it turns out that the theory proposed way back in the 2nd century AD by Roman historian, Apian Alexandrine--that the myth was based on a real journey to Colchis to obtain the famed sheepskin gold mining technique--was likely to have been accurate.

"We think, from our investigations, that the bedrock and placer gold contents of this region give grounds to believe that there was enough gold in this region to describe Svaneti as 'the country rich of this noble metal'. The end result of this technique of gold recovery river gravels was a gold imprinted sheepskin, giving rise to the romantic and unidentified phenomena of the 'Golden Fleece' in the civilised world."