How Did the Golden Ram (Κριος Χρυσομαλλος) Come to Colchis?

Phrixos and Helle - Ancient roman fresco found in Pompeii, now in the Archaeological Museum in Naples; book illustration of 1902 or earlier (J. C. Andrä: “Griechische Heldensagen für die Jugend bearbeitet”. Berlin: Verlag von Neufeld & Henius, 1902.) Public Domain courtesy of Immanuel Giel and Wikipedia.
Phrixos and Helle – Ancient roman fresco found in Pompeii, now in the Archaeological Museum in Naples; book illustration of 1902 or earlier (J. C. Andrä: “Griechische Heldensagen für die Jugend bearbeitet”. Berlin: Verlag von Neufeld & Henius, 1902.) Public Domain courtesy of Immanuel Giel and Wikipedia.

Pindar, Pythian Ode 4. 156 ff (trans. Conway) (Greek lyric C5th B.C.) :
“`You have it in your strength to undo the vengeful anger of the powers of earth below. To bring his spirit again Phrixos commands us journey to Aietes hall, and fetch from thence the thick fleece of the ram, which saved him from the sea long ago, and from the impious darts of his step-mother.'”

Wending my way to my least favorite hero from Greek mythology, Jason, there are several more pleasant digressions or tangents to examine. The first is the Golden Ram whose fleece Jason requires in the story of the Argonauts.

The Golden fleece was given to King Aeetes when Phrixe (Phrixos/Phrixus) landed at Colchis

Pseudo-Hesiod, Aegimius Fragment 1 (from Scholiast on Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 3. 587) (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C8th or C7th B.C.) :
“Phrixos was received without intermediary because of the fleece and so holding the fleece he walked into the halls of Aeetes.”

and sacrificed the Golden Ram to Zeus.

Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 2. 1141 ff : 
” `Phrixos sacrificed the ram at its own suggestion to Zeus alone, because he is the god of fugitives; and Aeetes made him welcome in his palace.'”

Questions to answer include:

  1. Where did the ram come from?
  2. Who was Phrixe/Phrixos?
  3. Why was he on the back of the ram?
  4. And less importantly because he belongs to the story of the Argonauts, who was King Aeetes of Colchis?

Answers:

  1. The ram was a gift of Hermes to Phrixos’ mother Nephele, who may or may not be the same Nephele (cloud) who produced the centaurs. A Roman story says that the mother of the ram was a beautiful woman named Theophane whom Poseidon/Neptune seized and changed into a ewe. Himself in ram form, he raped the ewe and so the golden ram, Aries Chrysomallus, was produced.

    Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 188 (trans. Grant) (Roman mythographer C2nd A.D.) :

    “Theophane, a most beautiful maiden, was the daughter of Bisaltes. When many suitors sought her from her father, Neptunus [Poseidon] carried her off and took her to the island of Crumissa. When the suitors knew she was staying there, they secured a ship and hastened to Crumissa. To deceive them, Neptunus changed Theophane into a very beautiful ewe, himself into a ram, and the citizens of Curmissa into cattle. When the suitors came there and found no human beings, they began to slaughter the herds and use them for food. Neptunus saw that the men who had been changed to cattle were being destroyed, and changed the suitors into wolves. He himself, in ram form, lay with Theophane, and from this union was born the Aries Chrysomallus (Golden-fleeced Ram) which carried Phrixus to Colchis, and whose fleece, hung in the grove of Mars [Ares], Jason took away.”

  2. Phrixe and his sister Helle were children of Nephele and King Athamas of Orchomenus in Boeotia, but King Athamas had remarried and his second wife, Ino, sister of Semele, mother of Dionysus, acted the typical evil stepmother with respect to her step children. In turn, Ino was eclipsed by another woman

    Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 1. 80 (trans. Aldrich) (Greek mythographer C2nd A.D.) : “Athamas, lord of Boiotia (Boeotia), sired by Nephele a son Phrixos and a daughter Helle. Then he took a second wife, Ino, by whom he had Learkhos (Learchus) and Melikertes (Melicertes).”

    and her own children paid with their lives, but although that is an interesting tangent, it is too far removed at this point. See

    “The Sorrows of Ino and of Procne”
    Joseph Fontenrose
    Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 79 (1948), pp. 125-167

    To dispose of the children of Nephele, Ino either used the drought caused by Nephele’s irate departure or she conspired with the women of the area and then the messenger sent to the oracle:

    Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 2 (trans. Grant) (Roman mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
    “Ino, daughter of Cadmus and Harmonia, wishing to kill Phrixus and Helle, Nebula’s children, formed a plan with the women of the entire tribe, and conspired to parch the seed grain to make it unfertile, so that, when the sterility and scarcity of grain resulted, the whole state should perish, some by starvation, others by sickness. With regard to this situation Athamas sent a servant to Delphi, but Ino instructed him to bring back a false reply that the pestilence would end if he sacrificed Phrixus to Jove.”

    [Alternatively, another second wife (or an aunt), this time, Demodice, fell in love with her stepson Phrixus, who resisted her. Scorning a woman had certain predictable results, so Phrixus was obliged to take flight.

    Hyginus Astronomica Part 2.20, Translated by Mary Grant:
    Phrixus was born, some say, in the town of Orchomenus, which is in Boeotia; others say, in the district of the Salones of Thessaly. Still others make Cretheus and Athamas with many others, sons of Aeolus; some, again, say that Salmoneus, son of Athamas, was a grandson of Aeolus. Cretheus had Demodice as wife; others name her Biadice. Moved by the beauty of Phrixus, son of Athamas, she fell in love with him, and could not obtain from him favour in return; so, driven by necessity, she accused him to Cretheus, saying that he had attacked her, and many similar things that women say. Stirred by this report, Cretheus, as was fitting for one who deeply loved his wife and was a king, persuaded Athamas to put Phrixus to death. However, Nubes intervened, and rescuing Phrixus and Helle his sister, put them on the ram, and bade them flee as far as they could through the Hellespont Helle fell off and paid the debt to nature, and the Hellespont was named from her name. Phrixus came to the Colchians, and, as we have said, hung up the fleece of the slain ram in a temple. He himself was brought back to Athamas by Mercury, who proved to his father that, relying on innocence, he had fled.]

  3. The king’s first job was to protect his state, so Phrixus was to be sacrificed to Zeus, whether on his own volition or at the command of the king, but before that could happen, Nephele set her children upon the Golden Ram which bore the pair of children across the sky*, sea and land towards Colchis on the Black Sea. Unfortunately, Helle fell off the ram’s back and drowned in the sea which has since then borne her name. This is, of course, the Hellespont.
  4. Aeetes, King of Colchis, at the eastern end of the Black Sea, was brother of Cretan King Minos’ bull-loving wife Pasiphae and the well known Odyssean sorceress Circe, all of them children of Helios.

See

The Flight of Phrixus
D. S. Robertson
The Classical Review
Vol. 54, No. 1 (Mar., 1940), pp. 1-8 for more on the method of transportation.
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2 Comments

  1. NS,

    I might add that Aeetes is the father of Medea the nastiest witch in greek myth. Not a big Jason fan myself, but then again who is. We studied Book Three of the Argonautica recently at Hour 25. One participants said that reading the book made her feel like a child forced to eat everything on her plate!

    Good summary of the fleece story. Oh, the Nereides saved Helle, si she was okay.

    Bill

    Like

  2. Writing about Jason makes me feel about like the Hour 25 participant, so I’m nibbling away, hoping the final gulp won’t be too hard to swallow. I don’t think that in my 17 years at About.com I ever did a “proper” job of Jason. However, it is not hard to feel some sympathy for Medea. One of the articles I read in connection with Phrixus argues that Medea was forced into the role of stepmother to her own children and while there was internal conflict between mother and step mother roles, it was as stepmother she plotted to kill them.

    “Ultimately, by seeking to redefine
    the status of Medea in relation to her sons, Jason’s reasoning
    has the effect of turning Medea from the natural and biological mother
    into the fictional and symbolic stepmother of her own children.”

    I planned to write about this and may still do so, but the article is

    The Ironies of Salvation: The Aigeus Scene in Euripides’ Medea
    Pavlos Sfyroeras
    The Classical Journal, Vol. 90, No. 2 (Dec., 1994 – Jan., 1995), pp. 125-142

    Like

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