The Golden Fleece myth is one of the most ancient in Greek mythology. But let's start with the beginning: a weird love story.
Theophane was the daughter of Bisaltes. She was very beautiful, and that's why she had many suitors. Poseidon, god of the sea, fell in love with her and took her to the island of Crinissa/Crumissa. The suitors found out about the beautiful maiden's whereabouts, took a ship and went to the island. That's why Poseidon decided to turn Theophane into an ewe, while he turned into a ram, and thus they could hide among the sheep. From their union a winged ram was born, which was called Krios Chrysomallos, i.e. "the ram with the golden fleece".
Meanwhile, in Thessaly, king Athamas took as his wife Nephele, who was a cloud nymph. They had twin children, Phrixus and Helle. After a while, Athamas repudiated Nephele and married Ino, who was very jealous of his children. She roasted all the crop seeds and told women to sow them, and of course the seeds didn't germinate. Ino told everyone that this was a curse which can be lifted only if Phrixus and Helle were sacrificed to Zeus. Pressured by the inhabitants of the country, Athamas agreed, and when the children were on the altar, moments before being killed, their mother Nephele covered them with a cloud and sent the golden fleece ram to save them.
(There are several versions about how the ram got there. Some say Nephele received it as a gift given from Hermes, to save her children. Others say it was Zeus who sent the ram to the altar. In another version yet, the two children were wandering in the woods because Dyonisus had sent them madness, their mother brought them the ram and told them to mount it).
The ram flew over the sea for seven days and seven nights. The poor Helle was very tired and couldn't hold an more to the ram's horns. Her clothes were wet because of the sea water and the gold was slippery. And so the girl fell to her death, in the sea which was later called after her name, Hellespont, i.e. Helle's Sea (today it is called Dardanelles). Phrixus shed tears for her death, without knowing that in fact she was not dead, because Poseidon received her in his arms.
The ram took Phrixus to Colchis, at the Eastern end of the Black Sea (in present-day Georgia). There are several versione (but of course) as regards the golden fleece:
- the ram took it off by himself (he just undressed), gave it to Phrixus and then ascended and transformed into the Aries constellation.
- Phrixus was advised by Hermes / by his mother, Nephele, to sacrifice the ram to Zeus and give the golden fleece to the king of Colchis, Aeetes.
- Hesiod just mentions that the ram was immortal.
We'll go with the best known version: Phrixus sacrificed the ram to Zeus and then took the golden fleece to the king. Eveybody would look at him in awe, because the gold reflected the sunlight and made everything around it glow. Our hero went to the king's palace and gave him that wondrous gift. Aeetes took it and put in into an oak grove dedicated to Ares (and there's also the version that it was put into a temple dedicated to Ares). Anyway, the fleece was guarded by a sleepless dragon.
Pelias, the king of Iolcus, had seized the power by banishing and killing the other members of his family. An oracle told him that he would be killed by a man with only one sandal. One day, Jason, his nephew, came into the city. He had lost one sandal while crossing a river. Pelias understood he was the man the oracle told him about, and so he asked Jason:
- What would you do to a person about which you know that is going to kill you?
And Jason answered:
- I'd send him to bring me the Golden Fleece.
Pelias was thrilled with such a good idea, and so he sent Jason on this "mission impossible". (Others say that Jason wanted to prove that he was a brave hero and so he was looking for a difficult enterprise. His uncle realized that Jason might die during this impossible quest, that's he he encouraged Jason to go.)