The Riddle of the Fire-Breathing Bulls

In the myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece, Jason sails to Colchis seeking the Fleece, which hangs on a sacred tree, guarded by a dragon. The King of Colchis, Aeetes, promises to give Jason the Fleece. if he can complete a number of seemingly impossible tasks. The first of these tasks is to yoke a pair of fire-breathing bulls and use them to plough a field. He must then sow the field with dragon’s teeth and reap a harvest.

Jason ans the Bulls of Aeetes Wikimedia commons

Jason ans the Bulls of Aeetes
Wikimedia commons

In the myth Jason manages the first task with the help of Medea, daughter of the King of Colchis, who has fallen in love with him. She gives him a magic ointment made from the colchium or Autumn Crocus which protects him from the breath of the bulls. He is then able to yoke them, plough the field and plant the dragon’s teeth. These then spring up as armed men who rush to attack him. This is the incident, which lead to the famous scene in the movie Jason and the Argonauts, where the hero is attacked by armed skeletons. The original myth however makes no mention of skeletons, and Jason defeats his attackers relatively easily by throwing a stone into their midst, which causes them to fall on each other.

Robert Graves and other commentators regard this story as a typical ‘marriage task’ motif, which has in this case got associated with winning the Fleece, rather than the more usual winning the hand of the princess. There are a number of stories in Celtic mythology where the hero must harness monsters, plough, sow and reap a harvest all within a single day. We tend to view all such tales  as fantastical, stories of fabulous monsters and the supernatural heroes who overcame them and not requiring any more explanation.

There is another way of looking at such tasks however. Not as tests of strength, bravery and luck but as tests of intelligence. The task that has been set is actually a riddle. Solve the riddle and any reasonably competent person could complete the task. There are a number of explicitly riddle-solving ‘marriage tests’ in other cultures. Often, it is a woman, who is told she will only be accepted as a wife if she can come to her prospective husband ‘neither naked nor clothed, neither on foot nor horseback, having tasted food but not having eaten’ and so on. Conditions which she then meets by such expedients as arriving on the back of a goat, draped in nothing but a fishing net and with a mouthful of food that she hasn’t swallowed. Similar riddles surround the manner in which the Welsh hero Lleu Llaw Gyffes can meet his death.

If the task that Jason is set is a riddle, how are we to understand it? The fire-breathing bulls are perhaps the easiest to explain. These bulls are said to have brazen feet and mouths, and, moreover, to have been creations of Hephaestus. Thus it is clear, these bulls are bull-hide bellows with bronze nozzles. If you harness and use them their breath will stoke the forge fire. The rest of the riddle and task may have got somewhat mangled. Perhaps the task was to create a weapon – or a ploughshare – or even to make the right choice between a weapon or a ploughshare. For, while a weapon may be turned against its maker, a ploughshare can do nothing but good.

The fire-breathing bull is yoked? Viking re-enactors with forge bellows Photo by Ardfen CC 3.0

The fire-breathing bull is yoked?
Viking re-enactors with forge bellows
Photo by Ardfen CC 3.0

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