In Greek Mythology, the fleece of a winged ram given by Hermes to Nephele, the wife of Athamas and mother of Phrixus and Helle. Athamas had abandoned Nephele and married Ino, who sought to kill her stepchildren. Phrixus and Helle escaped on the ram, although Helle became scared and fell into the sea now called the Hellespont. Phrixus arrived in Colchis and, in gratitude to the gods, sacrificed the ram to Zeus. He gave the fleece to Aeëtes, King of Colchis, who set it, guarded by a Dragon, in the grove of Ares. The fleece became legendary and Pelias, king of Iolcus, wishing to be rid of Jason, who had come to claim his birthright, sent him to fetch it. Thus begins the famous story of the Argonauts, one of the most famous Quests in legend. Jason, during his journey, met and married the sorceress Medea, whose powers enabled him to complete tasks set by Aeëtes and claim the fleece. Jason returned to Iolcus, killed Pelias and gained his kingdom.
The story, in the oral tradition from circa 800BC, was first written down in the epic poem Argonautica (?250BC) by Apollonius of Rhodes (?295-215BC), which remains our primary source. It is recounted in The Heroes (coll 1856) by Charles Kingsley, Tales of the Greek Heroes (1958) by Roger Lancelyn Green, and many others, and is explored in greater depth by Robert Graves (1895-1985) in The Golden Fleece (1944) and Henry Treece in Jason (1961). In The Mask of Circe (1971) Henry Kuttner has a modern descendant of Jason travel through a Portal to a world of Greek myths where he finds the fleece to be an alien artifact. The legend itself was filmed as Jason and the Argonauts (1963).
The fleece is representative of any object whose attainment brings the keys to the kingdom or other great prize. It is not cognate with the Grail, whose quest is for spiritual perfection – indeed, it might be seen as an opposite, since the quest is for material gain. Although success may bring an immediate reward, it usually ends in tragedy – Jason was betrayed by Medea, his children were killed, and he died when part of the Argo fell on him. The fleece may thus be seen as a Thing Bought at Too High a Cost. [MA]