The Colchian Dragon was a massive serpent, immortal and sleepless, that guarded the fabled Golden Fleece in Ares’ sacred grove, in Colchis. The hero Jason had to overcome the dragon, take the Fleece and present it to the usurper Pelias in order to take back his rightful place on the throne of Iolcos.
|Parents||Typhon and Echidna|
|Region||Ares’ sacred grove in Colchis|
|Siblings||Caucasian Eagle, Cerberus, Chimera, Crommyonian Sow, Lernaean Hydra, and Orthrus|
|Names||The Colchian Dragon, Dragon of Colchis|
|Ancient Greek||Κολχικός Δράκων|
Origins of the Colchian Dragon
The Colchian Dragon was one of the seven monstrosities born from the union between the giant Typhon and Echidna, the mother of (all) Greek monsters. He was the largest beast among his siblings and doubtless a very dangerous one. It was believed that either Zeus or Ares, the god of war, had sent this sizable monster to guard the Golden Fleece in the land of Colchis.
The serpent guardian of the Golden Fleece is the personification of the unbound and unyielding force of Nature. The dragon keeps the invaluable treasure protected and devours those who are bold enough to come near it. In the same manner with the dragon Ladon, who guarded the golden apples of the Hesperides, the Colchian Dragon functions as the archetype of the later, medieval dragons that hoarded treasures and could not easily be slain.
The myth of the Colchian Dragon
In the distant land of Colchis, where Aeetes, the son of the sun god Helios, is king, there lies a grove that is sacred to Ares, the god of war. In this rather desolate waste, much to Ares’ liking, a lone oak tree is casting its long shadow over the cracks on the copper-coloured ground. A golden light shines always at the top of the tree, pouring from a fleece of remarkable beauty and divine grace. Below it however, a gigantic serpent is coiled around the old and mottled trunk; an immortal, sleepless guardian that scans the horizon with its yellow eyes, waiting for the next hero who would come and attempt to claim the prize.
When the golden, winged ram Chrysomallos was sacrificed to the gods of Olympus, its bright fleece was hung on an oak tree, located in Ares’ sacred grove, in Colchis. Soon afterwards, a terrible black dragon, merely called the Colchian Dragon, was sent to guard that priceless trophy. The undying beast was an enormous serpentine creature that never slept and always stood vigilant. His appalling presence however was not the only extraordinary aspect of the Colchian Dragon. After pulling, then planting his teeth, frightening soldiers would emerge.
The leader of the Argonautic Expedition, a young man named Jason, was eagerly seeking the Golden Fleece. The prize, as the story goes, would allow him to reclaim his homeland, Iolkos, and sit on the throne as the rightful king. But, to achieve such an honorable deed, Jason had to overcome a series of obstacles. Fortunately for him however, he was aided by king Aeetes’ daughter, the witch Medea, to complete the tasks assigned to him.
First, Jason yoked unscathed the fire-breathing bulls (Khalkotauroi). Then, he sowed the dragon’s teeth and defeated the warriors that grew from the ground. Lastly, he spurted Medea’s potion upon the Colchian Dragon and succeeded in making the monster fall asleep. After all his trials, the Golden Fleece was his.
A black-scaled beast with yellow eyes and a colossal body that knew no sleep was the general idea regarding the appearance of the Colcian Dragon. In some sources, the monster is said to have long, sharp teeth, a crest, four nostrils and three tongues. It (or he) is a wingless creature, more like a snake than a common dragon. Its figure is so wide that it extends beyond the length of a ship of fifty oars (more than 66 metres!).
Roles and Responsibilities
The Colchian Dragon guarded the Golden Fleece night and day against anyone brave of foolish enough to come and seize it. Without the help of Medea, Jason would have had a really hard time doing battle with this very long and terrifying serpent.
In the old texts
The Colchian Dragon is mentioned in Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca, Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica, Diodorus Siculus’ Bibliotheca Historica and Lycophron’s Alexandra as well as in Pindar’s Pythian Ode.
‘κείνου νῆ’ ἐλάοντες ἐπὶ προχοὰς ποταμοῖο
πύργους εἰσόψεσθε Κυταιέος Αἰήταο,
ἄλσος τε σκιόειν Ἄρεος, τόθι κῶας ἐπ’ ἄκρης
πεπτάμενον φηγοῖο δράκων, τέρας αἰνὸν ἰδέσθαι,
ἀμφὶς ὀπιπεύει δεδοκημένος· οὐδέ οἱ ἦμαρ,
οὐ κνέφας ἥδυμος ὕπνος ἀναιδέα δάμναται ὄσσε.’
‘guide your ship to the mouth of that river
and ye shall behold the towers of Cytaean Aeetes
and the shady grove of Ares, where a dragon, a monster
terrible to behold, ever glares around, keeping watch over
the fleece that is spread upon the top of an oak;
neither by day nor by night does sweet sleep subdue his restless eyes.’
(Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica 2.402-407)
‘He (Aeetes) expected that Jason would not be able to accomplish this further labor.
For the fleece lay in a thicket, held in the ravening jaws of a serpent, which in thickness and length surpassed a ship with fifty oars, built by the blows of a hammer.’
Pindar’s Pythian Ode 4.244-246
The Colchian Dragon appears in Hyginus’ Fabulae, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Heroides and Seneca’s Hercules Furens and Medea as well as Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica.
‘Pervigilem superest herbis sopire draconem,
qui crista linguisque tribus praesignis et uncis
dentibus horrendus custos erat arboris aureae.’
‘It still remains to lay asleep with herbs the watchful dragon,
who, distinguished by his crest and his three tongues,
and terrible with his hooked teeth, is the keeper of the Golden Fleece.’
Ovid’s Metamorphoses 7.149-151
Most of the stories tell that Jason, using the magic potion Medea gave him, was able to put the Colchian Dragon to sleep. Very few argue about the hero killing the dragon, however it is not said how it is done. According to a vase depiction, Jason was swallowed by the Colchian Dragon and then later spewed before the hero forced the beast to fall asleep.
In the old days, it was believed that the teeth of a dragon were magic items. If they were planted, fully armed soldiers would emerge and attack those nearby. The Colchian Dragon is no exception to this lore.
Featured Image Credit: Charles Mills Gayley, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons