Jason’s quest was the first gold rush

His adventure with the Argonauts helped engender the yellow metal’s mystique and allure, says Dominic Frisby.

Jason and the Golden Fleece
(Image credit: getty images)

We continue with my series about gold in prehistory with one of the earliest of the golden myths: Jason and the golden fleece. Pelias usurped his brother Aeson, the rightful king of Iolcos, to take the throne. He then had all Aeson’s descendents killed. Aeson’s son Jason, however, survived the massacre. When he was born, his mother had all her servants cry to fool Pelias into thinking he was still-born. She then smuggled Jason away to be reared by Chiron, “the wisest and justest of all the centaurs”. So did Jason’s education begin.

Meanwhile, an oracle warned Pelias “to fear the man with one sandal”. No doubt feeling guilty about his ill-gotten kingship, he lived in dread of that prophecy. When Jason was fully grown, he set off to Iolcos to claim his throne. On his way, he chanced upon an old lady trying to cross a river and helped her across. In doing so he lost his sandal. Little did he know that the old lady was Hera, wife of Zeus, Queen of the Gods. She would become his ally.

In Iolcos, Jason was announced as a man in one sandal. He came before King Pelias, revealed who he was and claimed the kingdom. Pelias agreed to cede the kingdom, but only on one condition: that Jason brought him the fleece of the golden ram. He had set Jason an impossible task, which would take him beyond the known world (which at this stage was as far as the Black Sea), to the barbarian kingdom of Colchis. But Jason agreed.

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The fleece was of a magical ram that had once belonged to Zeus. It hung from a tree in a sacred grove, guarded by bulls with hooves of brass and breath of fire, and a dragon that never slept, whose teeth became soldiers when planted in the ground. The fleece belonged to Aietes, King of Colchis, son of the sun god Helios. Another oracle had foretold that Aietes would lose his kingdom if he lost his fleece.

Legends and myths are born out of truths and here is a case in point. Sheepskins were used to pan gold from rivers, a practice thought to have begun to the east of the Black Sea in what today is Georgia (in Colchis, in other words). The fleeces were stretched over a wooden frame and then submerged in rivers, where the tight curls of the sheep’s coat would catch nuggets and specks of gold carried down in the rushing water from deposits upstream. The fleeces were then hung in trees to dry, after which the gold was combed out. If you have a wet fleece full of alluvial gold hanging to dry in a tree, you are going to make sure it is well guarded. 

Three impossible tasks

Jason had a ship, the Argo, built. He assembled a crew, the Argonauts, a band of heroes including Hercules and Peleus (father of Achilles). Once Jason arrived in Colchis, King Aietes set him three impossible tasks to complete before he could claim the fleece. He had to harness the fire-breathing oxen and plough a field with them. He had to sow a field with dragon’s teeth and fight the phantom soldiers that appeared. And, finally, he had to overcome the dragon.

Jason was discouraged, but Hera, Jason’s ally, leant on Aphrodite, goddess of love, to lend a hand. She sent her son, Eros, to shoot one of his arrows and it struck Aietes’ daughter, Medea, who fell in love with Jason. Medea gave him an ointment to protect him from the oxen’s fire. She showed him how to defeat the phantom soldiers with a rock that would confuse them into fighting each other. She gave him a potion to send the dragon to sleep, so that he could take the fleece.  

With the fleece in hand, Jason and his Argonauts, fled Colchis. To help them, Medea murdered her brother and threw pieces of his body into the sea. Grief-stricken, Aietes stopped to collect the pieces, allowing Jason, Medea and the Argonauts to escape.

When they returned to Iolcos, Jason’s father, Aeson, was too old to participate in the celebrations, but Medea used her witchcraft to rejuvenate him. Pelias’s daughters asked her to do the same for the ageing Pelias. Medea advised them to chop him up and put him in a cauldron to boil, which they duly did. It was a trick, of course, and Pelias was no more. But Jason and Medea were exiled for the murder and they fled to the city of Corinth. There Jason betrayed Medea by marrying the king’s daughter. 

Medea confronted Jason, heartbroken, but Jason blamed Aphrodite for having made Medea fall in love with him. Medea would have her revenge, which has become the subject of many a drama since. She gave Jason’s newly betrothed a dress that stuck to her body and burned her to death. The king died with his daughter as he tried to save her. Then Medea killed her own two sons fathered by Jason, and fled to Athens in a chariot of dragons sent by her grandfather, the sun-god Helios. Jason returned to Iolcus to claim his kingdom, but as a result of breaking his vow to love Medea forever, he lost the favour of Hera. He died lonely and unhappy, asleep on the rotting Argo.

It’s a buccaneering adventure story with a typically tragic end. The formula of a hero, dark power and a female helper has become the backbone of numerous plots since. And the premise – a young man in search of his fortune, made of gold – applies to every youngster setting off on his or her life’s adventure.

Dominic Frisby writes the newsletter The Flying Frisby. His show on gold at the Edinburgh Fringe will take place at Panmure House, in the room in which Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations. tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/dominic-frisby-gold

Dominic Frisby

Dominic Frisby (“mercurially witty” – the Spectator) is, we think, the world’s only financial writer and comedian. He is the author of the popular newsletter the Flying Frisby and is MoneyWeek’s main commentator on gold, commodities, currencies and cryptocurrencies. 

His books are Daylight Robbery - How Tax Changed our Past and Will Shape our Future; Bitcoin: the Future of Money? and Life After the State - Why We Don't Need Government. 

Dominic was educated at St Paul's School, Manchester University and the Webber-Douglas Academy Of Dramatic Art. You can follow him on X @dominicfrisby