A recent article in the Quaternary International suggests that the myth of Jason and the Argonauts took its inspiration from an actual voyage that occurred sometime between 3,300 and 3,500 years ago. A team of geologists, led by Avtandil Okrostsvaridze from Ilia State University in Georgia, report that they have found evidence that the Golden Fleece was real and was the product of ancient gold extraction techniques.
But did these scientists find definitive evidence? The Wild Hunt turned to a Ph.D. Candidate in the Centre for Classics and Archaeology at the University of Melbourne, Australia, and a London-based archaeologist and historian of religion to take a Pagan-friendly look at the paper.Mythos of the quest for the Golden Fleece
Although there are different written accounts of the quest, the basic myth is as follows. Before the Trojan War, Jason gathered together a group of heroes known as the Argonauts to sail to Aietis’ palace in the Kingdom of Colchis [modern day Georgia] to take the Golden Fleece. The fleece was thought to be from the famed golden-haired, winged ram of Zeus. Jason needed the fleece to restore his father as king of Thessaly in Greece.
Jason and the Argonauts faced many challenges – and fathered many children – during their voyage and received help from Gods and mortals. The most famous person who assisted Jason was Medea, King Aitis’ daughter. After they returned home, Jason sets Medea aside to marry another woman. Medea kills that woman and the children she bore to Jason, and then flees to Athens. Jason’s father takes the throne, but Jason dies, lonely and unloved.
Gold mining theory
In the academic paper, geologist Avtandil Okrostsvaridze stated that the quest was a real voyage to the kingdom of Colchis to learn how they extracted gold from rivers, streams and sand deposits.
The team of geologists carried out an eight-year study to test the theory. They compared geological data and archaeological findings with the myths the kingdom of Colchis. The locals in this region have been using wooden bowls to pour water and sand mixtures over thick sheep’s pelt for thousands of years. The sand, being lighter, washes out, while the heavy gold particles become trapped in the sheep’s wool.
This was not the first time that the “gold mining theory” has been suggested. Back in the second century AD, Roman historian Apian Alexandrine put forth this very theory. Since that time, it has been periodically entertained by archaeologists and historians. Yet this is the very first time that geologists have done a thorough examination to test the theory. Will it hold up to scrutiny?
Ethan Doyle White, is a London-based archaeologist and historian of religion currently engaged in PhD research at University College London (UCL). He has “a particular research interest in the pre-Christian belief systems of Europe and the manner in which they have been interpreted and utilised by contemporary Pagan new religious movements.” He said:
Caroline J. Tully, a Ph.D. Candidate in the Centre for Classics and Archaeology at the University of Melbourne, primarily focuses on Aegean Archaeology. However, she is “also interested in the reception of the ancient world, particularly the reception of ancient Egyptian religion.” She said:
Having read the original research paper, I’d say that the ScienceAlert article does a fairly good job of accurately summarising its conclusions. However, I must express some concerns regarding the original research paper itself. While I certainly would not go so far as to claim that the arguments presented are invalid, I am concerned by the fact that the paper has been written by geologists and then published in a geological journal. Now, without meaning to knock geology as a discipline, the study of rock strata really doesn’t provide the sort of theoretical and methodological basis needed to analyse the development and origins of ancient mythology, for which a blend of history, archaeology, folkloristics and perhaps also linguistics would be required.
Further, I would pay close attention to the statement in the paper’s acknowledgements: “The authors would like to thank the general director of the mining corporation “Golden Fleece”, Dr Mustafa Mutlu, which has funded this research”. I think that that is potentially very telling; a company with a vested interest in the name and concept of the Golden Fleece was funding the entire project.
Like many non-Classicists, when talking about Classical Literature these authors are clumsy and rather cursory. I don’t think there is any point in trying to match the Argonauts’ journey with the alluvial paning for gold in Colchis using wooden utensils and sheepskin. I don’t think there is any point in claiming that the Argonauts’ journey was “real” – it may have been, it may not have been. As far as I’d go would be to say “The story of the Golden Fleece in the Jason and the Argonauts myth sounds like it may have been inspired by actual techniques of gold collection, using a wooden utensil and a sheepskin, by people who lived in the region of ancient Colchis and who still use that method today.
So, I’m saying that the description of a “golden fleece” in Colchis as it appears in the myth of the Argonauts’ voyage may certainly have been inspired by the actual method of collecting gold in ancient and modern Colchis – as Tim Severin suggested in 1984.
When asked specifically about the geologists’ research approach, Tully said:
While they are rather cursory on their Classical literature, on the other hand, where the authors of this article have expertise, in their sciency approach to the subject, they seem fine and I would cite them myself. They seem to have done the work and know the topic. I, on the other hand, have no science background so I have to take their word for it. But the article is in a peer reviewed journal, which would suggest that it was of a reasonable scholarly standard. I would trust the authors in their expertise re the geology and mineralogy of Georgia / Colchis. What they’ve said in regards to the sciency angle seems reasonable to me.
I’m not saying their claims about the mythology are wrong, just that they shouldn’t bother trying to specifically match Jason and the Argonaut’s voyage – especially because they are not specialists in Classical Archaeology or Classical Literature… They should stick to their specialty – science.
Tully then went on to speculate more deeply on the theory from both a mythological or historical standpoint. She said:
Surely lots of Greeks went to the corners of the Black Sea. There were Greek colonies all around the Black Sea. That is well known. So, Jason and the Argonauts could be a sort of generic adventure that combines stories from all those sailors’ adventures. I mean there might be evidence of “Jason” over there in Colchis, I don’t recall any inscriptions saying “Jason was here” but there might have been and that would be mentioned in Severin’s book
Jason is quite interesting. His name comes from the root for “medicine” or “doctor” or “healing”, that sort of thing, the root being “Ia” as in “Iatros, or any mediciney word that derives from the Greek root “Ia”. thats “i”, not “L”. Anyway, there is talk that perhaps Jason was originally the magical one who had knowledge of herbs and poisons, rather than (or as well as) Medea.
What Tully is referring to here is a theory proposed by scholar Yulia Ustinova in 2004. In her paper titled Jason the Shaman, Ustinova claims that Jason’s mythical biography define him not only as a hero and a father, but also as having a “shamanic personality.” She concludes, “The most important functions of a shaman are healing, retrieving of the souls of the sick from the malevolent powers, and escorting the souls of the dead to the nether world … These major elements, initiation period under the tutelage of a skilled shaman and seer, a horrible ordeal, healing talents and a voyage to the netherworld in order to bring back a dead soul and a magical object are present in Jason’s mythic personality.”Tully went on to say, “The idea that collecting gold with a sheep skin influenced the story of Jason and the Argonauts is perfectly feasible…” because, as suggested earlier, myths can be based in historical fact. She added as an aside:
Speaking of myths being real.. there’s a great new book out by Adrienne Mayor called “The Amazons.” Classicists have always thought the Amazons were completely mythical, but Mayor, who is a classical scholar, interprets archaeological remains of female warriors from around the Black Sea and into Central Asia as what probably were … the “Amazons” of Greek myth. Of course “myth” doesn’t mean “untrue”… but we mainly tend to think that the bulk of myth is just a story. But its perfectly feasible that myth has components of actual events in it.
While Tully believes that the geologists do make a reasonably good case from a scientific perspective, she said that their work would have been more convincing if they were “better writers” or knew more about “classical literature and archaeology.” Tully also would have liked to have seen a photo of one of the collected fleeces. However she also noted that this failing is not unusual in the academic world. She said:
This is a bit like the spate of articles that came out with varying degrees of dry sciency language when it was discovered that there indeed was a crevice that produced psychoactive gases under the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Because the scientists verified it.. but they aren’t very evocative writers.
In the end Tully summed up her discussion of the topic by saying, “Yes, it is a perfectly reasonable claim which seems to be backed by science. (Well, except that I think they can’t possibly say that it is “proof” that the Argonaut’s story was ‘true”. It’s suggestive that some of the Argonauts’ story may have had factual components).”