Birth of a Legend
from the book, "Petrified Lightning"

Petrified Lightning

Birth of a Legend

Almost all legends, in contrast with myths, are accepted as having some basis in fact. Just how much is fact is often difficult to discern because, with time and many retellings, the original facts can be completely inundated with distorted details. An excellent example is provided by the familiar Greek legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece.

Jason was the son of a king of Thessaly. With his band of 50 heroes, the Argonauts, he set out to find and capture the Golden Fleece. This hide of a golden sheep hung in a sacred grove in the kingdom of Colchis, located on the eastern shore of the Pontus Euxinus, known today as the Black Sea. Here the fleece was guarded by a sleepless dragon.

A dashing warrior, Jason managed to enlist the aid of Medea, a sorceress and princess of Colchis. Jason performed incredible feats that included slaying the dragon who guarded the gilded treasure. He seized the Golden Fleece and, after further adventures, escaped with it back to Thessaly accompanied, of course, by Princess Medea. A typical legend, recounting the audacious exploits of its clever, invincible hero, the story of the Golden Fleece has a definite basis in fact. The original story occurred in ancient Colchis.

Scholars have long been aware that in Colchis there was a tribe known as the Tibareni who practiced a form of placer mining by sluicing rich, gold—bearing stream gravels over unscoured sheepskins. The skins and their natural oils caught and held on to the particles of gold. After shaking out the coarser nuggets, the ancient gold miners would hang the fleeces on trees to dry. When the skins were thoroughly dry the fine gold dust was beaten out of them. The citizens of Colchis accumulated a vast amount of gold, and thus was born the Golden Fleece. Many Jason types of expeditions were launched to find a golden treasure; few did. So who was Jason? Throughout history there have been many Jasons. He was the prototype of the California forty—niners, the sourdoughs of the Klondike, and all the gold seekers through the ages. Under whatever name, the searcher was for the moment filled with the spirit of Jason and was in truth searching for the Golden Fleece.

Recent evidence confirms that most of another legend is true. In early 1990 a team of scientists scouting the boundary between two ancient Greek cities unexpectedly uncovered an inscribed monument previously known only through the writings of the first—century Greek historian Plutarch. Plutarch had written an account of the legend. But he was known to invent dialogue in many of his writings, so with the lack of any corroborating evidence his account was not taken seriously. In Plutarch's “Life of Sulla” he describes how two townsmen of Chaironeia made possible a great victory for the Roman general Sulla.

Troops from Pontus, a kingdom near the Black Sea, had camped on a floodplain north of the city of Chaironeia, and one detachment perched on a hill known as Thourion. According to Plutarch's tale, Sulla had positioned his foot soldiers between the main body of the forces from Pontus and the town of Chaironeia but was absolutely unable to repel the hilltop squads in frontal attacks. His losses were heavy, and his campaign appeared hopeless. Finally two townsmen named Homoloichos and Anaxidamos offered to lead Roman soldiers up a back pathway on Thourion, thereby surprising the invading Pontus soldiers. Plutarch wrote that the plan worked perfectly; at least 3,000 infantry from Pontus were destroyed in a surprise attack on Thourion's rocky slopes. This allowed a successful Roman attack on the river troops, resulting in a complete victory for Sulla. In honor of the heroic townsmen, according to Plutarch, the grateful general erected two stone trophies to celebrate the victory, one on the plain and the other on Thourion.

Classical scholars knew that such a battle may have occurred on a hill called Thourion. On the basis of Plutarch's description of the event, they selected several hills about ancient Chaironeia as possible battle sites. However, much doubt was placed on his accuracy and, for that matter, on all of his talents except the spinning of tall tales.

In February 1990 an archaeologist and four graduate students from the University of California, Berkeley, found the long—lost legendary monument atop a hill near the archaeological site of Chaironeia which was, incidentally, Plutarch's hometown. Near the base of the hill they uncovered about 150 stone blocks that appear to be the remains of a temple dedicated to Apollo and built during Plutarch's time. But most important was the discovery of the ruins of a shrine on top of the hill. This hill could now be identified as Thourion, for amid the pile of rubble was a marble block, about three feet wide and one foot high, inscribed with three words “HOMOLOICHOS,” “ANAXIDAMOS,” and “aristis” (the Greek word for heroes).

On at least one occasion, Plutarch was not inventing dialogue. Almost the entire legend is now accepted as historical fact.