Phrixus & Helle (a Brief Digression)

Phrixus had close ties with Iolcus’ royal family. He and his sister Helle were the children of King Athamas of Boeotia (brother of Salmoneus) and the cloud-goddess Nephele. But, spurning Nephele, Athamas instead married Ino (Cadmus’ daughter, a princess of Thebes) and had two further children, Learches and Melicertes.

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Jealous of her step-children, Ino plotted to kill them She commanded local women to roast the seed-corn before it was sown to prevent it from producing crops. Inevitably the harvest failed, and Athamas sent messengers to Delphi to discover why. But Ino bribed them, and on their return they announced that the gods were angry. The only way to soothe them was to sacrifice Helle and Phrixus (whom his aunt, the wife of Cretheus, king of Iolcus, had falsely accused of raping her).

The two were taken to the mountain. But before the sacrifice could be performed, their mother Nephele intervened. She sent a winged ram with a golden fleece to rescue them The siblings climbed on to its back and it launched into the air. As it soared east across the Aegean, Helle grew tired, her grip slackened and she plunged into the sea. In her memory the Greeks called the strait where she fell the Hellespont (Helle’s Sea, the modern Dardanelles). Still carrying Phrixus, the ram reached the Black Sea’s furthest shores. Here, on lush plains watered by the River Phasis and bordered to the north by the snowy Caucasus mountains, King Aeetes, son of Helios and brother of the enchantress Circe, ruled Colchis (modern Georgia). Hospitably he welcomed Phrixus, and together they sacrificed the ram and hung its golden fleece high in a tree, setting a sleepless serpent to guard over it.

Back in Greece, Hera drove Athamas and Ino mad. Believing his son Learches to be a white stag, Athamas shot him. And in a vain attempt to save Melicertes, Ino leapt into the sea with him, where she was transformed into Leucothea (the White Goddess), who helped sailors in times of trouble. Homer describes her beautiful ankles.

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