Washing the Golden Fleece

Perhaps one of the earliest recorded stories to focus on the theme of gold is the Golden Fleece myth. The Greek hero, Jason, set out with his crew of Argonauts on a quest to find the fabled fleece, facing a number of mythical beasts on the way.

Golden Fleece

Jason was mockingly ordered to find the fleece by King Pelias, and upon his successful return, would be able to claim his rightful place on the throne of Iolcus in Thessaly. Unsurprisingly, the story makes a direct link between gold and royalty, with the fleece serving an almost Excalibur-like function – a symbol that marks one’s right to rule. Yet, when looking at classical historical precedents, the idea of a Golden Fleece may be less mythical than we first think. Gold was first harvested in the Bronze Age (4th-3rd Millennium BC), and was found in rivers in the form of soft nuggets.

The process of ‘washing gold’ from streams involved submerging a sheep fleece, often stretched over a wooden frame, in a body of water. Subsequently, any gold flecks and nuggets, borne from upstream placer deposits, would collect in the fleeces. The fleeces would then be hung in trees to dry before the gold was combed out of the wool and collected to trade. This adds an interesting angle to the tale of Jason on the Golden Fleece. The fleece is considered to be is a legendary relic, which when claimed, served to illustrate Jason’s heroism, resolve and worthiness for the throne. However, King Pelias may have been unwittingly asking Jason to claim an item that is more attainable than he initially realised. It’s a shame that there are no equally profitable rivers to wash our fleeces in contemporary day.