THE MELOI KHRYSEOI were a flock of vicious, golden-fleeced sheep with poisonous bites whose wool princess Psykhe was instructed to fetch as one of her penitentiary Labours by the goddess Aphrodite.
Apuleius, The Golden Ass 6. 11 ff (trans. Walsh) (Roman novel C2nd A.D.) :
"Venus [Aphrodite] summoned Psyche, and spoke to her like this : `Do you see the grove there, flanked by the river which flows by it, its banks extending into the distance and its low-lying bushes abutting on the stream? There are sheep in it wandering and grazing unguarded, and their fleeces sprout with the glory of pure gold, I order you to go there at once, and somehow or other obtain and bring back to me a tuft of wool from the precious fleece.’
Psyche made her way there without reluctance, but with no intention of carrying out this task. She wanted to seek the cessation of her ills by throwing herself headlong from a cliff above the river. But from that stretch of stream one of the green reeds which foster sweet music was divinely inspired by the gentle sound of a caressing breeze, and uttered this prophecy : `Psyche, even though you are harrowed by great trials, do not pollute my waters by a most wretched death. You must not approach the fearsome sheep at this hour of the say, when they tend to be fired by the burning heat of the sun and charge about in ferocious rage; with their sharp horns, their rock-hard heads, and sometimes their poisonous bites, they wreak savage destruction on human folk. But one the hours past noon have quelled the sun’s heat, and the flocks have quieted down under the calming influence of the river-breeze, you will be able to conceal yourself under that very tall plane-tree, which sucks in the river-water as I do myself. Then, as soon as the sheep relax their fury and their disposition grows gentle, you must shake the foliage in the neighbouring grove, and you will find golden wool clinging here and there to the curved stems.’
This was how the reed, endowed with human qualities of openness and kindness, told Psyche in her extremity how to gain safety. She did not disregard this careful instruction and suffer accordingly; she followed out every detail, and the theft was easily accomplished. She gathered the soft substance of yellow gold in her dress, and brought it back to Venus."
The appearance of Golden Sheep in the story of Psykhe is obviously a play on the Greek words meloi khryseoi which translates as both "golden sheep" and "golden apples" [although, Apuleius wrote in Latin not Greek, the parallel would have been understood]. The latter was a symbol of love associated with Aphrodite. The Hesperides were also sometimes said to herd flocks of golden sheep rather than tend an orchard of golden apples (again, the word meloi meant both "apples" and "sheep").
- Apuleius, The Golden Ass - Latin Epic C2nd A.D.