Greek & Roman Mythology of the Golden Fleece & of Hermes,
The God of Wool and Shepherds, Merchants & Travelers

 

ABOUT HERMES & SHEEP

Hermes was the last of the 12 “Great Gods” to be born, descended of Zeus and Maia, precociously active and full of mischief. For all that he is truly ancient and is mentioned in Mycenaean Greek linear B documents as the God of sheep and flocks. He is said to have made the first flesh sacrifices to the Gods, became the messenger of the Gods, herald of Hades and a diviner of the future by magical means. He made instruments and devised the musical scale, trading his instruments to Apollo for the golden wand of power and life, and he is sent to use it to touch those who are given a calm death. He also is credited with the alphabet, astronomy. boxing and gymnastics. weights and measures and the olive tree. He is a god of borders, and the use of the primitive Herm pillar statue for his worship may relate as much to border marker stones as ancient priapic stone pillars signifying the gods.

Most important to us is his role in story of the Golden Fleece of Chrysomallos, the ram who bore Phrixus to Colchis, where the ram was then sacrificed in accordance with Hermes’ love of flesh offerings and hung in a tree guarded by a fearsome serpent (who was later upgraded to a dragon, an ancient Anatolian and Caucasian creature of evil). But it was Poseidon, or Zeus as protector of fugitives in some versions, who received the gift of the Colchis sacrifice, perhaps reflecting the Anatolian focus on storm gods. As Poseidon was the father of Chrysomallos it would be seemingly proper to sacrifice the beast to him. It should not surprise us that the Hittites had a springtime religious festival where they hung the skin of a ram on a tall pole or tree as a sacrifice to Tiu, the ancient Indo-European sun god. Just as Apollo and Artemis were Anatolian gods that Luwian refugees brought to Mycenaean Greece, so too the Golden Fleece seems to have been more anciently a part of eastern mythology that the Greeks imported.

We also should note that there was another “Golden Fleece” that came from Hermes and was associated with both the Achaean kings and ritual kingship. In his testing of the piety of the Pelapoid kings of Mycenae Hermes caused such a lamb to be born in the flocks of Atreus, and then asked through oracles that Atreus sacrifice it to Hermes. Atreus was so taken by the glorious ram that he did sacrifice the ram and offer his body to Hermes in burnt offering, but he kept back the wonderful fleece and hid it away. In retribution for his greed the gods willed ill luck and disaster upon the family, of which they were fully capable of being willing victims. Thereafter, when the choice of king of Mycenae was in dispute between Atreus and his brother Thyestes, Atreus readily agreed that the holder of the Golden Fleece was the rightful king, being confident in its possession. But Thyestes had seduced the wife of Atreus and stolen the fleece. He thus became king until Atreus, with Hermes’ help in making the sun run backwards, forced Thyestes to yield the throne to him. Here again we have Hermes,a Golden Fleece and the right to rule all wrapped up in one tale that dates to about the time of the Argonauts.

In Rome Mercury was a major god for daily worship as he was held to protect merchants and travelers, as well as the specific occupation of shepherds. In their expansion the Romans equated local gods with variations of their own gods, and Mercury/Hermes was held to be the same as one of the three major Celtic gods — in Gaul Teutates and in Britain Llud. This would certainly help Mercury/Hermes gain a place in the minds and lives of these new western Roman citizens, and his long connection to sheep, wool and trade could explain the use of a golden fleece as a symbol of wool workers. Tradition, as well as Gaius Valerius Flaccus and his Argonautica, made a real place in Roman society for Mercury/Hermes and his Golden Fleece. At the right is a Roman bronze ram from a collection in Cambridge, England dating to the first two centuries A.D. that shows how the ram was a daily object in Roman times. In my experience some 4-5% of all such Roman animal castings are rams.


ABOUT CHRYSOMALLOS & THE GOLDEN FLEECE MYTH

Although Hermes is said to have supplied the ram to save Phrixus and Helle the legends also say it was Poseidon who begat it as a ram when he seduced Theophano (or Nephele or Themisto according to other versions) after changing her to a lovely ewe. That Poseidon should have created such a creature, and by seduction in a changed animal form, shows the religious symbolism that such animals had in ancient mythology. They are used a symbols for the gods associated with them, in art, literature and daily objects such as protective amulets. That this is an early and primitive story can be deduced from the fact that this seemingly erotic seduction also included mass transformations of people to animals and extensive inadvertent cannibalism. Animal transformations are a common Indo-European motif, but especially common in Greek and Celtic myths and legends. The Celts were the earliest and first to arrive of the Italo-Celtic peoples, and the Greeks were the early front of a migration that populated the Balkans, so perhaps that explains their retention of primitive Neolithic cult features. The Celts were head hunters, another primitive survival, and the Greeks seem to have done that and also had many stories of cannibalism, even if they were reported as abhorrent to civilized Greeks. At the left is a Greek sculpture of a Ram with the Golden Fleece c. 300 B.C. now in the Römisch-Germanischer Museum, Köln. His mouth is open, as if to talk, just as Chrysomallos did in Colchis when it told Phrixus to sacrifice him to Zeus.

And then Chrysomallos disappears from the surviving stories of Greek mythology until Hermes pulls him up, hey presto, when Phrixus and Helle need a quick means to escape. Perhaps this happened because Hermes was the patron god of travelers and so was called upon to del;iver a ride for the kids. Chrysomallos was clearly a more than mortal ram, being the offspring of a god in drag, and the line between human and animal was much blurred in antiquity when beings passed back and forth from one form to the other. There we meet hybrid beasts of bull headed men, lions with eagle or human heads and endless others who were common deities and demi-deities. The rampant sexuality of men and gods seen in both Classical Greek and Irish tales made for many bizarre offspring. Although Chrysomallos could not save Helle from her fate he did talk to Phrixus, which few rams do, and after his sacrificial death he was put into the heavens as the constellation Aries the ram. This astronomical fact alone should have been enough to guarantee survival of the story and interest in Chrysomallos. There are several hints in Greek myth that Chrysomallos figured in other stories and that he may have had a more ancient past in Anatolia, but little more can be said of it.

After the story of the marvelous ram the quest of the Golden Fleece falls into two, very separate, stories. The first is the family quarrels of the early Mycenaean kings and the desperate flight of Prixus and Helle upon the back of the golden ram, or as in some stories in a ship with a golden ram’s head, or merely carring a ritual golden ram away from their evil stepmother. The second is the story of Jason, forced to recover the Golden Fleece of regal authority for his evil uncle, who had disppossed his father and him from the kingdom of Iolcos. Logic and honor in ancient Greece had peculiar twists to it, as here. Gathering heros, as all great Greek legends seemed to do so easily, he built a great ship, sailed to the fathest unkown east in Colchis and brought back not only the fleece but a princess bride as well. The story is well told by Apollonius of Rhodes, Gaius Valerius Flaccus and many authors since, one of the best being Robert Graves in both his Greek Mythology books and his novel Heracles My Shipmate, so there is no need to tell it yet again. One must, however, be careful to sift out the numerous later additions made to satisfy the local pride of various families, cities and states. Especially the entire last part of the return, up the Danube and down the Adriatic is someone’s silly attempt to weld geographic description narratives to ancient myth. In the Odyssey it is reasonable and works; here it interrupts and obscures the power of the real story. The later mythological stories about Jason and Medea are equally ancient and core Mycenean events. And even with the obvious later additions removed there remain several variant versions where key details are quite different, and all are possible and equally true to the era.

Interestingly, although it is one of the great Mycenaean myths and was revived by Apollonius in the Hellenistic Era, the Golden Fleece is almost unknown in Greek art. There are only a couple images and as many statues that survive from Greece, and a five more from Greek Italy or Rome. Below we see, from the left: Jason, guided by Athena, and the fleece on a Greek krater c. 460 B.C. now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY, and another showing Jason and Pelias from a vase c. 330 B.C. found in Apulia and now in the Louvre. Note how these ancient representations clearly show the fully skinned hide of a ram, not a fleshy animal. In the second row are a kylix in the Vatican showing the fleece and a dragon disgorging Jason while Athena watches while holding a dove (definitely showing an episode not in any surviving version of the myth). Note that here the ram is rather full bodied and is not merely a skin, so the form did vary even in ancient times. To the right is Phrixus riding the Ram Chrysomallos, from the Athens Museum. In this image we see a plump ram well able to carry a boy, but with the most spindly legs, as seen on the later Roman Tamworth Fleece (shown below in the Roman section).



There is another surviving group of Greek illustration to the story of the fleece at the Sikyonian Treasury at Delphi. There, in 570-550 B.C., they reconstructed their sanctuary using many carvings from an earlier, perhaps geometric, one. Among the surviving pieces is the Argo, Chrysomallos with a woman’s hand around his neck, which is likely Helle hanging on, and the Calydonian boar. This shows that the old stories were strongly current centuries after their patrons had disappeared, and the Golden Fleece in particular. It is very significant that it was the city of Sikyon that used these images as it is in Achaeia and close to Corinth. The legends say that after the Dorian invaders dispossessed the grandchildren of the warriors who went to Troy that many moved to Achaeia and were left in peace. After returning the Golden Fleece to Iolcus it is said that Jason and Medea went to Corinth where he became king. So it seems we have a survival of all the old stories in the descendants of the great Achaeans of old.

Pliny tells the story of a wonderful and famous Greek painting of the Argonauts and the Fleece that was painted by Kydias in the 4th century B.C. It was, Pliny says, purchased by the Roman orator Hortensius for 144,000 sesterces. He had a special room constructed for it in his Tusculan villa, so it is connected to the now Romanized Etruscans as well. There has been some thought is it was the original idea for the Etruscan Ficoroni Cist that is now in Rome.

In between Greek and Roman we even find a representation of Chrysomallos and Phrixus on an Etruscan tile, a copy of which is in the Berlin Museum (seen at left). It certainly says much for the interest in the legend that another culture would take it up and illustrate it. The Etruscans were a most interesting and mysterious people who interacted with both the Greeks and Romans, adopting many Greek elements into their culture and passing much on the Rome. In origin they just appear in Tuscany in the early first millennium B.C., speaking a language unrelated to any other known in a land now full of Italic Indo-European speakers. They claim, as did the Romans with Aenas, to have come from the coast of Asia Minor after the fall of Troy and the chaos that engulfed the Middle East as the Sea Peoples swept through. Comparing this tile to the Greek version above we note the greater skill in depiction, the greater age of Phrixus and the very different type of ram.

The Etruscans were much taken with the story of the Golden Fleece, and so it must have been very popular then, because there are two more surviving illustrations to the story from Etruria. First we have the fourth century B.C. Ficoroni Cist that was found in a woman’s grave south of Palesrina. Part of its decoration is a scene from the voyage of the Argo. The illustration is engraved and runs like a frieze around the cist, leading art historians to surmise it was copied from a well known painting. The second, seen below, is a sculpture of Phrixus sitting on the fleece that is part of a bronze fire shovel, now in the British Museum [BR 1227]. It dates to the third quarter of the fourth century B.C. and is a fine piece of sculpture. Art historians are unsure if he is relaxing or is on the living Chrysomallos and is looking for his sister Helle who just fell off.


The Golden Fleece is even scarcer in Roman art, although the indications are that it was a nevertheless a wide spread myth in the Roman Empire. In addition to the Tamworth Fleece and the Cambridge ram shown above, such pieces have also been found in most of the Roman provinces. Below at left is a surviving wall painting of Jason and the fleece from an excavated building in Aquincum in Pannonia, the modern Budapest. All this may well relate to the popularity of the version of the tale by Gaius Valerius Flaccus from the same early Empire period. In the Aquincum painting, at least, the ram is still a flat, empty skin. The “dragon” is also back to being merely a big and more realistic snake. Note also two spears stuck in the ground behind Jason, as surviving accounts indicate Mycenaean warriors carried two spears and a shield into battle.

Most Roman representations of rams are as small bronze amulets or ram heads as the terminals of handles for tools and cosmetic items, much in the Persian fashion. Below at right is a gold Perso-Greek rams head terminal, a Roman bronze one and a Roman bone one. And, of course, at the very bottom left is shown the important bronze Tamworth Fleece from early Roman Britain, that presents all the elements later found in the standing ram Golden Fleece 1300 years later. You will note, however, that although the Tamworth Fleece shows a lifting strap and other later standing ram features, its head is conical and bullet shaped like the Greek and Roman handle ends. This helps place the Tamworth Fleece as distinctively Roman, and may indicate a peculiar physical feature of Greek and Roman sheep. In comparison note that the small Perso-Greek ram’s head is neither conical nor symetrical. What we can not do with certainty, of course, is know if the Roman use of Rams in art and craft reflected the Golden Fleece myth, on the use of the ram as a symbol for particular gods or goddesses, or merely the flocks of sheep raised by the Romans. As illustration of this I show, at the bottom right, a Roman mosaic found in Aquileia, near Venice, of a fine Roman ram. Is he there to remind us of the Golden Fleece or any other myth? or is he just there to celebrate the building owner’s fine farm and excellent animals? and who, or what, is C V PIACEVIBAS? Many times we just can not be certain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



Also showing the myth in Roman art, but not showing the Golden Fleece itself, are these two Roman sculptures. On the left, a terracotta relief of c. 1st century AD. date in the British Museum shows the building of the Argo under the direction of Athena. The yard is held by the helmsman Tiphys while Argus sits across the stern. On the right is a portion of a Roman late 2nd century A.D. marble sarcophagus that shows Jason seizing the Golden Fleece while Medea lulls the dragon-serpent to sleep, although the fleece itself is hard to see.


RAMS & FLEECE BEFORE HISTORY

Lest we see Chrysomallos and his magical fleece as a Greek invention we need to remember that sheep were one of the first domesticated animals and that they weave in and out of mythology across the ancient world. We see two fine rams with large curved horns in the middle register of the Standard of Ur c. 2800-2600 B.C., and here I show a 12 shekel weight in copper from Sumeria c. 3000-2600 B.C. that is a ram’s head just like those on the Ur Standard. They are the original Sumerian 11 gram shekels, and in those times 12 shekels [of copper, presumably] was the worth of a bushel of barley, the basic food of ancient Sumeria. It was also the worth of 144 pairs of leather sandals, and so we see that labor was worth little to the Sumerians but food was scarce and precious. Today a bushel of barley is about $3.00 and even cheap sandals $30 or more, making 144 pairs at least $4320.00, and showing how far price relationships can change over time. This comparison to the price of barley is the core of Sumerian life and commerce as it was both their main food crop and their original money. The first shekel weight, called gin by the Sumerians, meant barley and was 180 barley grains. Their first unit of weight was named for the grain it most commonly weighed.

This weight of 134 grams is 27 x 37 x 40 mm and is a developed piece of art work with an accurate shape, complex eye and notched horn to show the growth bands. It is comparable in shape to rams on the Ur Standard indicating some consistency in how rams were seen, and the conical head shape is very much like those in Greek and Roman depictions of the fleece seen above. Even at the dawn of history commerce and standards were sufficiently developed for there to be standard weights like this that permitted exchanging goods over large distances with some certainty of fair dealing. Of course there are many cases noted of dishonest weights, and the value of the shekel, like that of the ounce and pound in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, varied from place to place, but mostly in a narrow range. The range is about 8-17 grams per shekel, with the lower numbers being the later light shekel of 8-9.4 grams, 11 being the first Sumerian standard c. 3000 B.C. and some very late classical units, when silver had become much more available, were heavy at 14.5 grams or more. We also see the origins of some of the early Sumerian pictograms. The Sumerian six shekel weight is in the shape of a horned bull’s head; here the 12 shekel weight is in the shape of a ram’s head. The written characters in the first clay tablets of this period often reflect these traditional symbolic shapes from pre-literate times.


The Golden Fleece in Ancient Texts

This page gives, in translation, most of the classical mentions of Phrixus and the Golden Fleece.

The Christian Use of the Golden Fleece

The Christ Story Bestiary page for The Ram lists all the uses and explanations of the Golden Fleece in Christian doctrine. An interesting twist on a pagan story, and it may help us see how the Pascal Lamb and the Golden Fleece were both used as symbols for the later wool guilds.


ABOUT ROMAN GUILDS & ASSOCIATIONS

In late Republican and Imperial Rome there arose a number of associations for mutual help and trade benefits that the Romans called collegia, and from which our words for colleague and college come. These functioned as artisan associations organized by trade, and they had both social and religious elements in their organization and ceremonies. It is noted, for example, that a bakers' guild was formed in Rome around 168 B.C. called the Collegium Pistorum, which was an important, respected guild given the role of bread and circuses in Rome. The fabri navales, the shipbuilders' guild, listed 320 ordinary members in the late second century AD, and other important guilds in or around Rome, such as the construction worker’s guild, were about the same size .Although mostly unregulated by the government at first, they later were brought into the Imperial system. Regulated by Theodosius I around 490 as the state moved to control all employment, production and prices, the guilds were then seen as vital institutions that were important to state policy. In 409 his grandson Theodosius II banned all guilds with pagan rituals, showing that there may well have been good reason for the state and church to distrust the ancient pagan guilds. The ritual nature of late Roman guilds and their secret oaths and clandestine meetings may also explain how they could survive the decline in urban life in the Dark Ages. In 438 with his Theodosian Code, an important update to Roman law that codified evcerything since Constantine, Theodosius established broad rules for the conduct, responsibilites, taxes and prices of guilds. Finally, the Byzantine emperor Leo VI, the Wise, in the late ninth century codified laws on commerce and crafts, including the guilds. This, and later Byzantine documents, indicate an unbroken tradition of the guilds from ancient times. Many historians believe that, despite the decline in cities and commerce in the west of the Empire, crafts, trade and the guilds survived in a reduced but unbroken way. The great French historian Henri Pirenne was one of the most outspoken proponents of ancient survivals.

Certainly many other Roman institutions and laws were retained by the new Barbarian rulers, and the emergence of the feudal system and the structure of Medieval European states replicated Roman institutions. When, in the 11th century, the guilds come to view again in the documentation of society they are suspiciously similar to their Roman predecessors. So little survives from the Dark Ages, and there was so much decline and loss of urban locations to depopulation and wars, that we should not be surprised at this seeming silence. Negative evidence is a very shaky ground for conjecture and conclusions, and I find no problem with temporary documentary silence when something reemerges from the other side as we would expect a surviving institution to look. We do know from extensive church documentation that ancient pagan cults survived as secret institutions and cults until the Renaissance, if not later, and were the origin of Medieval crusades and the witch hunts of the Reformation. This being so, the less feared guilds that were also of use to society should also have survived. We do know of mason’s guilds during the Carlovingian period, and that is strong indication of general guild survival since the mason’s skills, taught through guilds and their members, survived with them, and they must of necessity be retaught from master to apprentice every generation or they are lost.

The Roman guilds were something like the fraternal orders of recent years, supplying support and help to members and trying to regulate their activities to the benefit of all. In doing this there were sacred oaths to support members and uphold guild rules, and rituals connected to the common pagan religion and honoring patron gods, such as Mercury. The Roman authorities took an increasingly dim view of such groups as a threat to social order and administration, and the Christian Church even more so. These efforts were only partly successful, and when, in 858, Bishop Hincmar sought to ban or Christianize the guild banquets on December 26, the day of the pagan feast of Yul, he failed. This again shows that the guilds had, indeed, survived in real form down to the late Carolingian times, and we should expect them to also still be functioning two centuries later when they again are documented in Italy.

The first notice of Medieval guilds was in Germany where they are mentioned in texts of the tenth century, only a century after their Carlovingian records.. Soon after they appear in Florence, Italy where they are noted as early as 1050 and have statutes and public roles by 1090. As Italy was both the center of the Roman Empire and the place where ancient institutions survived the Dark Ages more than anywhere else, this is where we would expect to first see them again. It is most relevant to our story that the wool guilds are the first, and oldest noted in Medieval Florence. The guild of the workers in wool had an eagle of Roman style on a bolt of cloth for their symbol, and the wool merchants the lamb of god in a wreath (seen at left). Although the agnus dei is a firmly Christian symbol, we are also told in texts that the Golden Fleece is also called a lamb, and the Golden Fleece badge of the order is called a lamb in many texts too This use of agnus dei may therefore be the Italian interpretation of the Roman Golden Fleece of the wool trade to their now deeply Christian world. In his History of the United Netherlands Motley says of one sixteenth century investiture into the order, “ This the Prince immediately fastened to the chain around his neck, from which was suspended the lamb of the golden fleece, with which order he had just been, amid great pomp and ceremony, invested.” The lamb, of course, was Christ, the lamb of God and all this talk was part of the continuing attempt of scholars and clerics to interpret ancient myth and story in light of Christian imagery and values. We see this in the many efforts to call the Golden Fleece the fleece of Gideon, or that of other Biblical stories.

From this time the guilds grew in importance and function, filling in for many things the weak Medieval governments and church could not do effectively. Their peak was the sixteenth century when they not only controlled crafts and local trade, but in institutions like the Hansa dominated all North Sea and Baltic trade for centuries. And so it was most possible that Philip the Good of Burgundy would see a standing ram image on a wool merchant sign in Brabant and so engender the standing ram Golden Fleece for a time. By the seventeenth century the guilds were in retreat before growth of capitalist industry, revived national states and a new religious structure. They lingered longer in backward Catholic countries, and faded faster in dynamic Protestant ones, but by the nineteenth century they were a memory except for scattered survivals as preserved ancient traditions.


Introduction To The Aldenhaag Fleece

I. The Aldenhaag Fleece

II. The Hamlets of Thedinghsweert & Zoelen-Aldenhaag

III. The van Egmonds, Claes Vijgh & The Golden Fleece

IV. The Standing Ram Fleece & Charles V

V. Documentation & Photos

     VB. Documentation & Photos II

Appendix 1. The Standing Ram Fleece As Seen in the Insignie Orden Book & Other Catalogs

Appendix 2. Other Scholars Look At the Aldenhaag Fleece

     3B. Classical Texts That Mention the Golden Fleece

May 2010 Meeting on the Aldenhaag Fleece 1. The Places

May 2010 Meeting on the Aldenhaag Fleece 2. The Fleece

Bibliography

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