Sunday, 11 August 2013

Pontus Axeinos and Scythian Gold

unknown painter
Ukrainian Shepherd
The ancient Greek name for the Black Sea is Pontus Axeinos,  "inhospitable sea" because it was so far away for them. In times long passed they may have believed there were monsters dwelling there, but the scents, sounds and tastes of these mythical waters lured many. Indigenous people have inhabited the lands north of the Black Sea, for many thousands of years before that. Their lifestyle and wealth was the stuff of myth and legend. I heard recently that research is indicating that Greek culture may have originated here, on the north shores of the Black Sea, due to the archeology work being conducted deep in the waters off short there. Not an expert, these are my musings, me trying to make sense of Jason, the Black Sea, and some of the sights on this Black Sea Cruise.

Early Greek colonization brought foreigners to the shores of Crimea and soon the seas teemed with guests. Pontus Axeinos clearly had learned to become Pontus Euxinos - "hospitable sea". Why would people sail into the unknown, into the treacherous Black sea into uncharted territory? Why attempt landing on "empty shores"? For economic gain, of course.

The Scythians were a people who prospered through trade along the north coast of the Black Sea between the 5th and 3rd centuries BC.  They not only traded extensively with contemporary Greek civilizations but had close cultural ties with them and that is reflected in the gold and silver craftsmanship shown in many museums world over.  But there is more. Alluvial gold abounded in the rivers coming out of the heart of Ukraine, enticing adventurers the likes of Jason and the Argonauts. Thirsty for wealth and adventure, eager volunteers joined Jason to be his shipmates on a perilous but glamorous adventure into the Pontus Axeinos, among them the legendary Heracles (Hercules).

The barrier between Greece and the Black Sea is the strategic passage way called the Bosphorus Strait. The waters are complicated to navigate because currents flow both ways simultaneously there. Fresh water from the rivers north flow while the heavier salt waters of the Mediterranean sea flow into the deep basin of the Black Sea through a high pressure passage way called the Bosphorus. Navigating is treacherous, even today.  A little motor boat might take a full year to take the short trip through the powerful currents! For the ancients to have done this must have taken many eager volunteers, just lining up for the exciting job! Imagine the labor required to achieve this simple goal, to acquire gold desired everywhere south of the Black Sea!

Sacrificial lambs, sacrificial rams, and burned offerings all contribute to the story. Jason, the legendary Greek hero leads his team of intrepid adventurers in a perilous quest for what we now know was an ingenious observation, a creative, miracle technology for the time.  Burned offerings, food, and the secret to smelting all came of the sacrifice of rams and lambs tended in the fast running waters descending from the north into the Black Sea.  The Golden Fleece was a new exciting technology involving pounding the skins of sheep to the river beds where panning for gold was both exhaustive and dangerous.  The fleece accumulated the heavy alluvial gold flakes and could then be burned, and the leavings smelted into precious gold, gold desired by everyone.

Now do the pieces of the puzzle begin to fit for you as they did for me?  Songs about the Carpathian mountains, songs about sheep, heavy golden earrings, the Scythian Gold, and  Jason searching for the Golden Fleece, and the dangerous, treacherous life of the people native to the lands north of the Black Sea. 

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