The Golden Fleece of Nothingness


Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Herbert Draper, The Golden Fleece 1904

Out of curiosity and a certain doggedness, I chose this afternoon to admit to my uncertainty about one of the allusions at the start of Zbigniew Herbert’s poem, The Envoy of Mr Cogito. “Go where the others went before to the dark boundary/ for the golden fleece of nothingness your last reward.”

It was a classical allusion I knew; but precisely what I did not.

First I opened my Complete Dictionary of Symbols, which described the Golden Fleece, as “the famous symbol of the near impossible goal.” This very Jungian reference guide explained the golden fleece incorporated two solar images – the winged ram, whose fleece it was, and gold, ore of the sun.And here I learned as perhaps I faintly recalled, that the symbol is part of the story of Jason and the Argonauts.

The Golden Fleece had been stolen, in a flight on the ram, by King Aetes of Colchis, approximately Georgia today. After a prophecy that if he ever lost the fleece he would lose his fortune, Aetes had the ram shorn and the fleece hung in a sacred grove guarded by a sleepless dragon, which if he plunged his teeth into the ground would release skeleton warrriors from his fangs.

Jason was tasked with recovering the Fleece, and charms the dragon to sleep to achieve this hero’s quest.

But the story itself is not what interests me so much as the ever-opening doors of interpretation of literature, and how liberating it is to feel that you do not need to make one truth out of anything you read. So I find on wikipedia – always a comically authoritative source – a list of 18 possible symbolic meanings of the Golden Fleece: royal power, alchemy, the spring power, the technology of the East, the wealth of Colchis, and on it goes. Yet, this quest is its own reward, and that reward is nothingness in Herbert’s poem.

So in writing, in the quests that we all pursue through life, the golden fleece is the magical door that takes us to an impossible quest, in which we may never succeed, but that enriches us for trying.

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