The Myth of the Golden Fleece
The Golden Fleece, the title motif of the Georgia exhibition, derives from the oldest accounts of Greek mythology. It is an extraordinary tale of the mad courage of a few dozen Greek adventurers lured by tales of a land where the golden fleece (undoubtedly synonymous with greater riches) was stored. The heroes set out into the unknown in the hope of reaching this mythical place and capturing this gold. Imagine how ancient those times were, when even to the Greeks the Black Sea seemed to be a body of water of unrecognised size, and the lands to the north of it remained unknown. In ancient times, this story was mentioned by Homer in the Odyssey and by Pindar in his Fourth Pythian Ode.
The golden fleece came from a winged ram, which was said to have carried Phrixus, son of the king of Orchomenus, Athamas, and the cloud goddess Nephele, to Colchis to protect him from his father’s intention of offering his son as a sacrifice on the altar of Zeus. Phrixus, well received by the king there, was given the hand of his daughter Medea. In gratitude, Phrixus offered the ram to Zeus and gave his golden fleece to the ruler of Colchis.
The story of the expeditions of the Argonauts is an example of an encounter between Greek (European) culture and the culture of the Caucasus, which according to legend was a rich and fertile land. The term Argonauts would become part of Europe’s cultural code and would henceforth refer to all those who ventured into the unknown at the risk of their lives, right up to twentieth-century astronauts sailing towards the stars. The name of the ship, Argo, meant ‘swift’ and recalled the name of the builder, Argos. It was said to be the first Greek galley with both sails and oars, built with the help of Athena specifically for this voyage.
The expeditions of the adventurers led by Jason of Iolcos (contemporary Volos) in Thessaly, succeeded despite endless obstacles. The fleece had been won.
Legends generally contain grains of truth. This is also the case here. We can imagine that gold was fished from the currents of gold-bearing rivers using sheep wool, which was then hung on branches to dry. The gold of Colchis became synonymous with the Promised Land, the goal of many an expedition. In the modern period, the Conquistadors attempted to reach the legendary Land of Gold – Eldorado – this time heading west. The desire to discover new lands and acquire riches proved stronger than fear for Europeans. Unfortunately, the gold itself was often more important than the works that were made of it. Today, “art is more valuable than gold”, therefore, under the heading the Gold of Colchis, we will see in our exhibition exquisite items made of this precious metal from ancient times, coming not only from the lands of the legendary Colchis, but also from Iberia, i.e. central Georgia, created over several thousand years. These are true cimelia, mostly from the collections of the National Museum in Tbilisi, but also the Batumi Archaeological Museum, the Dadiani Palaces Historical and Architectural Museum in Zugdidi and the Kutaisi Historical Museum, constituting the most valuable part of the permanent exhibitions of these institutions. Their loan to our exhibition is exceptional, as this selection and quality of items has never before been shown outside Georgia. Their loan is an expression of the great kindness and trust that our Georgian friends have in us.
Jason and his companions were welcomed by the local king, Aeëtes, and that was not all; the king’s daughter Medea fell in love with him. Interestingly, the name Jason meant healer, while Medea had powers of sorcery, which she acquired thanks to the goddess Hecate. Once again, the role of Athena appears here, who, together with Hera, were said to have appointed Medea to help Jason. At their instigation, Cupid pierced Medea’s heart with his bow, causing her to burn with love for Jason.
It is likely no coincidence that the palace of Aeëtes was built at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains, to whose rocks Prometheus was once chained for having stolen fire from Olympus and given it to the people, as well as teaching them various arts and crafts. The heart of Colchis, the city of Kutaisi, was already considered as one of the oldest ancient human settlements. According to archaeological evidence, it was the capital of ancient Colchis, flourishing in the sixth to fifth centuries BCE. The exhibition will also show the iconography of the medieval churches – the cathedral linked by its name to the Bagrationi dynasty and the Gelati monastery, which was the spiritual, cultural and philosophical centre of Georgia in the Middle Ages and the burial place of the famous King David the Builder. From the entrance to the Gelati Monastery, the panorama of the Greater Caucasus Mountains can be seen, with the rock to which Prometheus is said to have been chained visible on the horizon.
According to Apollonius of Rhodes (Argonautica), librarian at the Library of Alexandria in the first half of the third century, it was Kutaisi that the Argonauts were supposed to have reached after sailing from the ancient port of Poti up the River Phasis, known today as the Rioni. This river was known to both Hesiod (Theogony I 340) and Herodotus (Histories 1.2). The latter cited the Persians’ accusations against the Greeks that their first offence was to kidnap the daughter of the King of Tyre, Europa, and their second was to abduct the daughter of the King of Colchis, Medea. Plato in his Dialogues invoked the opinion of Socrates that the world was certainly much larger than what was known to the peoples of the Mediterranean world, living between the Pillars of Hercules in the west, i.e. the modern Strait of Gibraltar, and the River Phasis, like ants or frogs around a pond (Phaedo 109a). Kutaisi was then called Aea/Aia.
The next chapter of the story of the Argonauts is dramatic. Aeëtes did not want to part with the fleece that was bringing prosperity to his land and set conditions that Jason was only able to fulfil with the help of Medea. The fleece was suspended in a sacred grove on a spreading oak tree and guarded by an ever-vigilant dragon. Jason defeated the dragon and thus became part of a long tradition of heroes – slayers of fantastic animals – from Hercules to the sainted Christian warriors George and Theodore. Jason, having stolen the fleece, had to flee the Caucasus and there he was still aided by Medea, whose love commanded her to kill her younger brother and scatter his remains at sea to delay her father’s pursuit. This act brought the wrath of Zeus down upon the bold travellers, with the result that they wandered for many years across the endless sea, calling at so many ports that the memory of their sojourn is preserved everywhere. The lovers were only cleansed of their act of bloodshed by the sorceress Kirke, sister of the King of Colchis. Eventually, Jason returned in triumph to his native Iolcus and displayed his conquest before King Pelias, the brother of Jason’s father, Aeson, whom he had once despicably deposed by raiding his estate with a group of armed men. In return for capturing the fleece, he had promised Jason that he would surrender his throne and restore him to power in Iolcus. Despite Jason having met this condition, however, Pelias had no intention of giving up power.
Here, on a red-figure vase held in the Louvre, we see a scene where Jason is bringing the golden fleece to Pelias, seated on the throne: the hero’s head is about to be crowned with a laurel wreath, held by a winged figure hovering above him. This beautiful work dates from around 330-340 BCE.
On the other hand, Jason's dying father Aeson was saved by Medea, who restored his health and youth by means of her sorcery, thus gaining great fame and notoriety. The daughters of Pelias, seeing this miracle, also wished to rejuvenate their father. They asked Medea for this favour, not suspecting that they had thus given Jason’s companion an opportunity for revenge.
Medea once again boiled herbs in the cauldron, but this time devoid of their magical power, and then advised her daughters to cut their father’s body into pieces and throw it into the pot. She then left, leaving them in despair. This scene we can see in the exhibition on a vase on loan from the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin:
Jason and Medea could not feel safe after this crime. They left Iolcos as quickly as possible and placed the golden fleece in the temple of Zeus in Orchomenos. In this way, the history of the fleece came full circle, for it was from there that the winged ram carried the son of the local ruler to the Caucasus.
Our heroes, meanwhile, had settled in Corinth, where Jason had decided to marry Glauce (Creusa), who was the daughter of the Corinthian king, Creon. Medea, in a frenzy of anger, killed Jason’s new bride, Creon, and her own two children she had with Jason, then fled to Athens, where she was received by King Aegeus, but was soon banished because she had attempted to kill his son Theseus, after he warned his father of her spells. She was whisked away to the east, in a cart harnessed to winged dragons. She was to settle beyond the river Tigris, giving her name to a new land, henceforth called Media. Jason, on the other hand, soon died tragically under the stern of his ship the Argo, which he pulled ashore near Corinth. The ship, dedicated to Poseidon, floated to the heavens and was transformed into the constellation of that name.
There was another topos of European culture associated with the concept of the Land of Gold – that of an indefinite golden age of mankind, followed by the eras of silver, bronze and then iron. In this context, it is worth remembering the legend that attributes the invention of metalworking methods, i.e. metallurgy, to the peoples of the Caucasus. We will admire the tools used for this, as well as the results of their work, in the opening section of the exhibition, filled with archaeological treasures documenting both the beginnings of settlement and metallurgy, as well as wine production, the cradle of which was said to be Georgia. Linked to this account is the biblical motif of the blacksmith Tubal-Cain, who appears in miniature medieval codices alongside Jubal, David and Pythagoras, as one of the inventores musicae, or inventors of the harmony prevalent in music. And while some of these inventores were to arrive at the discovery of harmonic values by way of intellectual inquiry, Tubal discovered them by empirical means, by striking an anvil with hammers of varying weights. Indeed, in deep antiquity the Caucasus was populated by the Tubals, who are credited with knowledge of metallurgy, so the account of the biblical Tubal-Cain the Blacksmith may not be a coincidence.
This is not the only example where we find analogies in art from Polish lands for such distant works and such distant places. It is worth recalling here, for example, the highly suggestive animal heads that greet visitors to the exhibition in the Christian Georgia section, which are more than a thousand years old. At first glance, these heads appear to be relics of pagan times, since one of them holds a human figure in its jaws, as if a victim of some primitive, cruel religious rituals.
An analogous piece can be found in another magnificent monument of Plock, i.e. a bronze door cast for Płock Cathedral in the twelfth century (the original is now in Veliky Novgorod, a copy in Płock). The knockers of these doors are in the form of lion heads with human heads visible in their jaws. In both cases, both the Georgian and the Polish relics, this is the most synthetic vision of the Last Judgement, for it was in gaping monstrous jaws St Basil saw the end of the lives of sinners. After the door was moved to Novgorod, this motif was supplemented by an unmistakable commentary, probably from the first half of the fourteenth century:ΑΔЬ ПОЖNPAЄ ГРҌШНЫХ(= The Abyss devours the sinful)The literary source of this motif can be traced to the description of Leviathan in the Book of Job (40, 20–41, 25):Who can discover the face of his garment?or who shall come to him with a double bridle?Who shall open the doors of his face?His teeth are fearful round about (Job 41,4–5, GNV).
Such an entablature can also be found in the Collegiate Church of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Czerwinsk on the Vistula – both the door and the Płock Bible, as well as the renovations of the Płock basilica and the Czerwinsk collegiate church, are the fruits of the labours of the highly enlightened Bishop Alexander of Malonne, who came to Mazovia from distant Flanders and established numerous foundations here.** *
Prepared by the team at the National Museum in Kraków, this exhibition will give visitors the opportunity to travel back thousands of years to the beginnings of human civilisation and trace its evolution in the mythical land of Caucasus up to the twentieth century.
The material heritage of the descendants of the fabled Colchis, despite the passage of time, continues to amaze, bearing witness to the better side of human nature, capable of sowing destruction, but also of creating beautiful and extraordinary things.
prof. dr hab. Mirosław P. Kruk, prof. UG
 And Adah bare Jabal, who was the father of such as dwell in the tents, and of such as have cattle. And his brother’s name was Jubal, who was the father of all that play on the harp and organs. And Zillah also bore Tubal-Cain, who wrought cunningly every craft of brass and of iron (Gen 4, 20-22, GNV).
The so-called Golden Boy of Gonio, 1st-2nd-c. CE, Batumi Archaelogical Museum
Hercules Freeing Prometheus, black-figure vase, 6th c. BCE, bpk / Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Antikensammlung / Johannes Laurentius
Jason bringing Pelias the Golden Fleece, red-figure krater, 330–340 BCE, RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Hervé Lewandowski
Medea showing Pelias the rejuvenated ram, red-figure vase, 6th c. BCE, London, British Museum, © The Trustees of the British Museum, shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) licence
Medea and the Peliades, red-figure stamnos, 475–451 BCE, bpk / Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Antikensammlung / Johannes Laurentius
Medea killing her son, red-figure amphora, 340–330 BCE, RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Maurice et Pierre Chuzeville
Inventores musicae (Inventors of music), miniature in the Płock Bible, 12th c. CE, Diocesan Museum in Płock
Stone relief found in the settlement of Yegeta (Western Georgia – Mingrelia), 10th c. CE, Dadiani Palaces Historical and Architectural Museum
Knocker from the Płock Door, bronze, cast, 12th c. CE, shared under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0 Deed), 2.5 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.5 Deed), 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0 Deed) and 1.0 Generic license (CC BY-SA 1.0 Deed)