JASON AND THE
F. Max Müller
Golden Fleece, tree, and dragon, 480 BCE.
FRIEDRICH MAX MÜLLER (1823-1900) was a German philologist specializing in the study of Indian mythology. In his works on comparative mythology, he investigated the connections between the Indo-European myth systems, including those of India and Greece. In Contribution to the Science of Mythology (1897), he discussed the Indo-European mythic symbol of the tree of life, which is guarded by a dragon. This he relates to the myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece, which he saw as a solar myth.
The same tree as the great oak-tree, watched by dragons, may help us to interpret the exploit of another hero, namely Jason (Iason). We must of course distinguish, as the Greeks did, between Iasion, the son of Zeus and Electra (or Hemera) and brother of Dardanos, who on the thrice-ploughed field begat with Demeter Plouton or Ploutos, and was killed by the thunderbolt of Zeus, and Iason, the son of Aison and Polymede, the grandson of Kretheus of Jolkos, and the famous conqueror of the golden fleece and of Medeia, the daughter of Aietes. But the names and their varieties are difficult to keep apart, except that ,lason, the Argonaut, has short i and long a, while (if I am not mistaken), Iasion, Iasos, Iasios, Iaseus have long i and short a, because the name corresponds to Sk. Vivasvan, the sun, which transliterated into Greek would become Wiwaswan, i. e. Iason or Iasion. The tradition was that Jason had been instructed by Cheiron, and had received from him the name of Jason, i. e. the healer, instead of his former name of Diomedes. Here therefore the long a of iasthai would be right, though it does not follow that lason was originally meant for healer. But the beloved of Demeter who is called not only Jasion, but Jasos and Jasios, had originally a short a, and its i was lengthened in order to make the name possible in hexameters. This Jasion then, originally Jason, would be meant for Vivasvan the sun, and who could with Demeter beget the wealth of the fields, if not the sun?
As to the other Jason, unless originally he was likewise Vivasvan, the sun, and afterwards misinterpreted as a healer, iatpos, he would lend himself readily as the chief actor in several of the adventures of the Argonaut Jason. Let us remember that Phrixos, after losing Helle (another Surya), had carried the golden fleece to Aia, the country ruled by Aietes, who was the husband of Idyia (the knowing, another name of Hekate), and the father of Medeia (the wise). It is true it is difficult to suggest an etymology for Aia. Even if it could stand for Gaia. that would help us very little. Mimnermos, however, as quoted by Strabo, i, 2, gives us an important hint by telling us that Aia was the country where the rays (aktines) of the swift Helios are kept in a golden chamber on the shore of Okeanos. If this was the popular belief in his time, then Aia was the West where Helios deposits every day his rays, as the Sun-daughter deposits her crown, and where he dwells till he appears again with his rays in the East. Later poets speak of one Aia in the West which they assign to Kirke, and another Aia in the East which belongs to the brother of Kirke, Aietes, both children, it should be observed, of Helios and Perse. In the Odyssey Aia is clearly the Aia in the West.
The next question is, what could be meant by the golden fleece? It was the fleece of the golden ram on which Helle and Phrixos, children of Nephele, had crossed the Hellespont. Helle (Surya) was drowned, like the Sun-daughter, while her brother Phrixos (ripple) when arriving in Aia hung the fleece of the ram on which he and his sister had been riding on a great oak-tree which was guarded by a dragon. The Lets seem to know nothing of the dangerous journey of Phrixos and Helle, but they know of a woollen cloth which Maria, here the Sundaughter, had hung on the great oak-tree, and which had been bespattered with the blood of the oak-tree when it was struck down by Perkun (No. 72). This woollen cloth is often mentioned in the Lettish songs, it had to be cleaned, washed, and dried. We have seen already that the great oak-tree which grew in the West is really the same as the sun-tree that springs up in the morning and is cut down every evening. The branches of it were not to be gathered, but the Sun-daughter is said to have carried off one golden bough (Nos. 45, 82). The red woollen cloth that was hung on it by the Sun-daughter can hardly have been meant for anything but the red of the evening or the setting sun, sometimes called her red cloak. When it is said that this woollen cloth when gathered up was full of silver pieces (No. 37), this can only have been meant for the silver stars which had risen where the red of the evening had been spread out before.
If then we take this red cloth on the oak-tree for the original form of the fleece hung on the oak-tree in Aia, i.e. in the West, its recovery by some hero would simply be the repetition of the recovery of the golden apple by Herakles. This recovery could only be the work of a solar hero, who brings the next day, and might well have been called Vivasvan or Jason, the sun (not yet Jason, the healer), being the father of the two Asvins, and the husband of Erinys (Saranyu). The fundamental idea of this expedition of Jason as of several of the labours of Herakles, such as the fetching of the apples of the Hesperides, the recovery of the girdle of Hippolyte (the Sun-daughter also has her girdle), the chase of the golden-horned Kerynean doe (generally taken for a representative of the moon), seems to have always been the same, the bringing back of the western sun. At first we must suppose that there were ancient sayings among the people such as 'the great oak-tree has been cut down,' 'the red woollen cloth has been spread out,' 'the girdle has been brought back,' 'the golden apple in the West has been found,' 'the gold-horned doe has been caught' —all meaning no more than what we mean when we say the bright sunlight has come back. As this return or recovery could not be achieved by itself, some agent had to be supplied to do the work, and the agent could only be the sun again in his diurnal and half-humanised character. All this may sound very strange, but to the student of ancient language it is so by no means, only we must wait till we get more light from ancient Lituanian sources in addition to what Mannhardt has already obtained from more modern Lettish poetry. What with proverbial sayings and popular riddles, mythology would spring up in abundance, and answers would readily be given by imaginative grannies to any questions that might be asked. If, for instance, the old people were asked who made crowns and girdles for the Sun-daughter and the God-sons, they would soon tell of a Heaven-smith who makes crowns and girdles and rings and spurs, while they would point to the stars as the sparks that come flying from his smithy, and fall into the great waters.
Source: F. Max Müller, Contributions to the Science of Mythology, vol. 2 (Longman, Green, & Co., 1897).
Note: Some footnotes have been omitted, and some Greek language text has been transliterated into Latin characters.
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