THE TAUROI KHALKEOI (Bronze Bulls) were a pair of fire-breathing, bronze bulls crafted by the divine smith Hephaistos (Hephaestus) for King Aeetes of Kolkhis (Colchis). When Iason (Jason) and the Argonauts arrived in Kolkhis seeking the Golden Fleece, Aeetes commanded him yoke the bulls and plow a field with dragon's teeth.
FAMILY OF THE BULLS
Forged by HEPHAISTOS (Apollodorus 1.127, Apollonius Rhodius 3.221, Valerius Flaccus 6.433)
CLASSICAL LITERATURE QUOTES
Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 1. 127 ff (trans. Aldrich) (Greek mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"[Iason (Jason)] asked [King Aeetes] for the [golden] fleece. Aeetes promised to give it to him, if Iason by himself could yoke his bronze-hooved Bulls, two immense wild beasts which Hephaistos (Hephaestus) had given him, with hooves of bronze and fire shooting from their mouths. Aeetes ordered him to yoke them and sow some drakon-teeth (dragon-teeth) which he had received from Athene . . .
As Iason pondered the problem of yoking the Bulls, Medeia (Medea) fell in love with him. She was a daughter of Aeetes . . . and a sroceress. In fear that Jason might be killed by the Bulls, unknown to her father she offered to work with him in yoking them and getting the fleece, if he would swear to marry her and take her back to Hellas with him. He swore, and she gave him a drug, which, before yoking the Bulls, he was to rub on his shield, spear, and body. So anointed, she said, he would be invulnerable to both fire and iron for one whole day . . . Jason rubbed on the drug, and went to the grove of the temple in search of the Bulls, which he yoked despite their attack of fire. Next, he sowed the drakon-teeth, and armed men did rise up from the earth."
Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 3. 221 ff (trans. Rieu) (Greek epic C3rd B.C.) :
"He [Hephaistos (Hephaestus)] had also made him [Aeetes king of Kolkhis (Colchis)] Bulls with feet of bronze and bronze mouths from which the breath came out in flame, blazing and terrible. And he had forged a plough of indurated steel, all in one piece. All as a thank-offering to Helios (the Sun), who had taken him up in his chariot when he sank exhausted on the battlefield of Phlegra."
Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 3. 407 :
"[King Aeetes addresses Iason (Jason) :] ‘I propose to test your courage and abilities by setting you a task which, though formidable, is not beyond the strength of my two hands. Grazing on the plain of Ares, I have a pair of bronze-footed and fire-breathing bulls. These I yoke and drive over the hard fallow of the plain, quickly ploughing a four-acre field up to the ridge at either end. Then I sow the furrows, not with corn, but with the teeth of a monstrous serpent, which presently come up in the form of armed men, whom I cut down and kill with my spear as they rise up against me on all sides. It is morning when I yoke my team and by evening I have done my harvesting. That is what I do. If you, sir, can do as well, you may carry off the fleece to your king's palace on the very same day.’"
Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 3. 493 :
"[Iason (Jason) addresses his fellow Argonauts :] ‘He [Aeetes] said he had a couple of bronze-footed and fire-breathing bulls grazing on the plain of Ares, and told me to plough a four-acre field with these. He will give me seed from the serpent's jaws which will produce a crop of earthborn men in panoplies of bronze. And I have got to kill them before the day is done.’"
Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 3. 1045 :
"[Medea addresses Iason (Jason) :] ‘In the morning, melt this charm, strip, and using it like oil, anoint your body. It will endow you with tremendous strength and boundless confidence . . . neither the spear-points of the earthborn men nor the consuming flames that the savage bulls spew out will find you vulnerable.’"
Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 3. 1277 :
"Iason (Jason), as soon as his men had made the hawsers fast, leapt from the ship and entered the lists with spear and shield. He also took with him a shining bronze helmet full of sharp teeth, and his sword was slung from his shoulder. But his body was bare, so that he looked like Apollon of the golden sword as much as Ares god of war. Glancing round the field, he saw the bronze yoke for the bulls and beside it the plough of indurated steel, all in one piece. He went up to them, planted his heavy spear in the ground by its butt and laid the helmet down, leaning it against the spear. Then he went forward with his shield alone to examine the countless tracks that the bulls had made. And now, from somewhere in the bowels of the earth, from the smoky stronghold where they slept, the pair of Bulls appeared, breathing flames of fire. The Argonauts wee terrified at the sight. But Iason planting his feet apart stood to receive them, as a reef in the sea confronts the tossing billows in a gale. He held his shield in front of him, and the two Bulls, bellowing loudly, charged and butted it with their strong horns. But he was not shifted from his stance, not by so much as an inch. The bulls snorted and spurted from their mouths devouring flames, like a perforated crucible when the leather bellows of the smith, sometimes ceasing, sometimes blowing hard, have made a blaze and the fire leaps up from the bellow with a terrific roar. The deadly heat assailed him on all sides with the force of lightning. But he was protected by Medea's magic. Seizing the right-hand bull by the tip of its horn, he dragged it with all his might towards the yoke, and then brought it down on its knees with a sudden kick on its bronze foot. The other charged, and was felled in the same way at a single blow; and Iason, who had cast his shield aside stood with his feet apart, and though the flames at once enveloped him, held them both down on their fore-knees where they fell. Aeetes marvelled at the man's strength.
Kastor (Castor) and Polydeukes (Polydeuces) picked up the yoke and gave it to Iason--they had been detailed for the task and were close at hand. Iason bound it tight on the Bulls' necks, lifted the bronze pole between them and fastened it to the yoke by its pointed end, while the Twins backed out of the heat and returned to the ship. Then, taking his shield from the ground he slung it on his back, picked up the heavy helmet full of teeth and grasped his unconquerable spear, with which, like some ploughman using his Pelasgian goad, he pricked the Bulls under their flanks and with a firm grip on its well-made handle guided the adamantine plough.
At first the Bulls in their high fury spurted flames of fire. Their breath came out with a roar like that of the blustering wind that causes frightened mariners to take in sail. But presently, admonished by the spear, they went ahead, and the rough fallow cleft by their own and the great ploughman's might lay broken up behind them. The huge clods as they were torn away along the furrow groaned aloud; and Iason came behind, planting his feet down firmly on the field. As he ploughed he sowed the teeth, casting them far from himself with many a backward glance lest a deadly crop of earthborn men should catch him unawares. And the Bulls, thrusting their bronze hoofs into the earth, toiled on till only a third of the passing day was left. Then, when weary labourers in other fields were hoping it would soon be time to free their oxen from the yoke, this indefatigable ploughman's work was done--the whole four-acre field was ploughed. Iason freed his Bulls from the plough and shooed them off. They fled across the plain."
Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 4. 47. 2 - 3 (trans. Oldfather) (Greek historian C1st B.C.) :
"He [King Aeetes] also threw a wall about the precinct [where the Golden Fleece was kept] and stationed there many guardians, these being men of the Tauric Chersonese, and it is because of these guards that the Greeks invented monstrous myths. For instance, the report was spread abroad that there were fire-breathing Tauroi (Bulls) round about the precinct and that a sleepless Drakon (Dragon) guarded the fleece, the identity of the names having led to the transfer from the men who were Taurians to the cattle because of their strength and the cruelty shown in the murder of strangers having been made into the myth of the bulls breathing fire."
Philostratus the Younger, Imagines 11 (trans. Fairbanks) (Greek rhetorician C3rd A.D.) :
"After the contest with the bulls Medeia (Medea) has charmed this Drakon (Dragon-Serpent) to sleep, the ‘ram's fleece of golden wool’ has been seized as booty."
Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 22 (trans. Grant) (Roman mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"Aeetes appointed this task to Jason, if he wished to take away the golden fleece--to yoke with yoke of adamant the bronze-footed bulls which breathed flames from their nostrils, and plow, and sow from a helmet the dragon's teeth, from which a tribe of armed men should arise and slay each other . . . Juno [Hera] since she knew that Jason could not perform the commands without help of Medea, she asked Venus [Aphrodite] to inspire Medea with love . . . By her [Medea's] aid he was freed from all danger, for when he had plowed with bulls, and the armed men had been born, by Medea's advice he threw a stone among them. They then fought among themselves and slew each other."
Ovid, Metamorphoses 7. 29 ff (trans. Melville) (Roman epic C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"[Medea ponders :] ‘Unless I help [Jason], the Bull's hot breath will blast him; he will meet fierce foes of his own sowing, Earth-Created (Creati-Telluria), or to the Draco (Dragon) be cast for prey and prize. If I permit such things, I'll surely own a tigress was my dam and in my heart I nurture iron and stone!--Yet why not watch him dying there, my own gazing guilty eyes sharing the crime? Why not urge on the bulls, the Earth-Born (Terrigenae) warriors and the unsleeping Draco?’"
Ovid, Metamorphoses 7. 121 ff :
"The people [of Kolkhis (Colchis)] throng to the sacred field of Mavors [Ares] and fill the heights around; amid them sits the king himself in purple splendour thrones, look! There the Bulls with brazen hooves come forth, their adamantine nostrils snorting Volcanus' [Hephaistos' (Hephaestus')] fire, that scorches the green grass; and, as a furnace roars or as in a kiln the slaking lime hisses and burns beneath the watery spray, so roared the imprisoned flames that rolled within their burning chests and throats. But Jason went forward to meet them. As he came they lowered their terrible muzzles and their iron-tipped horns; their cloven hooves stamped on the dusty ground and smoky bellowings filled the waiting field. The Greeks were stiff with terror. On he went and never felt the snorted flames, such power the magic charms possessed; with daring hand he stroked their hanging dewlaps; on their necks fitted the yoke and forced the beasts to draw the heavy plough and cut a furrow deep across the sacred ground never ploughed before. The Colchians were amazed; the shouting Greeks cheered on their prince; then from the brazen helm he took the Serpent's teeth and scattered them over the new-ploughed tilth; the waiting earth softened the seeds, in powerful venom steeped, and the teeth formed new creatures in the soil; and as a baby in his mother's womb takes human shape and, part by part within, is perfected and not until the hour is ripe issues into the common air, so, when within the dark and pregnant earth the forms of men were finished, up they rose from the whole teeming field and each came forth clashing--most wonderful--the arms of war."
Ovid, Metamorphoses 7. 210 ff :
"[Medea invokes Hekate and the gods of night in a spell :] ‘You at my prayer tempered the flaming breath of the dread Bulls, you placed upon their necks, necks never yoked before, the curving plough; you turned the warriors, Serpent-Born (Serpentigenae), to war against themselves.’"
Ovid, Heroides 6. 9 ff (trans. Showerman) (Roman poetry C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"Rumour brought me tidings of you [Jason] . . . tidings that the sacred bulls of Mars [Ares] had received the curving yoke; that at the scattering of the seed there sprang forth the harvest of men, who for their doom had no need of your right arm."
Ovid, Heroides 6. 31 ff :
"I began to ask of your [Jason's] fortunes. He tells me of the brazen-footed oxen of Mars [Ares], how they ploughed, of the serpent's teeth scattered upon the ground in way of seed, of men sprung suddenly forth and bearing arms--earth-born peoples slain in combat with their fellows, filling out the fates of their lives in the space of a day."
Ovid, Heroides 12. 13 ff :
"[Medea, betrayed by Jason upon their return to Greece, laments :] ‘All unanointed would the unremembering [Jason] son of Aeson have gone forth to meet the fires exhaled from the flame-scorched nostrils of the bulls; he would have scattered the seeds--as many as the seeds were the enemy, too--for the sower himself to fall in strife with his own sowing!’"
Ovid, Heroides 12. 39 ff :
"The condition is imposed that you [Jason] press the hard necks of the fierce bulls at the unaccustomed plow. To Mars [Ares] the bulls belonged, raging with more than mere horns, for their breathing was of terrible fire; of solid bronze were their feet, wrought round with bronze their nostrils, made black, too, by the blasts of their own breath. Besides this, you are bidden to scatter with obedient hand over the wide fields the seeds that should beget peoples to assail you with weapons born with themselves; a baneful harvest, that, to its own husbandman. The eyes of the guardian [the Drakon (Dragon)] that know not yielding to sleep--by some art to elude them is your final task."
Ovid, Heroides 12. 62 & 93 ff :
"[Medea recounts the assistance she gave Jason in Kolkhis (Colchis) :] Before my eyes appeared the bulls and the dreadful harvest, before my eyes the unsleeping serpent. On the one hand was love, on the other, fear; and fear increased my very love. Morning came, and my dear sister, admitted to my chamber, found me with loosened hair and lying prone upon my face, and everywhere my tears. She implores aid for your Minyae [Argonauts]. What one asks, another is to receive; what she petitions for the Aesonian youth [Jason], I grant . . .
You yoke together the bronze-footed bulls with your body unharmed by their fire, and cleave the solid mould with the share as you were bid. The ploughed fields you sow full with envenomed teeth in place of seed; and there rises out of the earth, with sword and shield, a warrior band. Myself, the giver of the charmèd drug, sat pallid there at sight of men all suddenly arisen and in arms; until the earth-born brothers--O deed most wonderful!--drew arms and came to the grapple each with each."
Ovid, Heroides 12. 163 ff :
"[Medea, betrayed by Jason, laments :] Dragons (serpentes) and maddened bulls, it seems, I could subdue; a man alone I could not; I, who could beat back fierce fire with wise drugs."
Ovid, Heroides 12. 199 ff :
"[Medea, betrayed by Jason, laments :] Where is my dowry, you ask? On the field I counted it out--that field which you had to plough before you could bear away the fleece."
Propertius, Elegies 3. 11 (trans. Goold) (Roman elegy C1st B.C.) :
"The witch of Colchis [Medea] forced the fire-breathing Bulls under a yoke of adamant, sowed the seed of battle for the soil to produce armed warriors."
Seneca, Hercules Furens 238 ff (trans. Miller) (Roman tragedy C1st A.D.) :
"[Medea :] ‘This only can be charged [me], the rescue of the Argo. Suppose modesty should please the maiden, suppose her filial duty should please her . . . [then Jason] will first fall before the fiery breath of the fierce bull.’"
Seneca, Medea 465 ff :
"[Medea addresses Jason after his betrayal :] ‘O ungrateful man, let thy heart recall the bull's fiery breath, and, midst the savage terrors of unconquered race, the fire-breathing herd on Aeëtes' arm-bearing plain, the weapons of the suddenly appearing foe, when, at my order, the earth-born soldiery fell in mutual slaughter.’"
Seneca, Medea 828 ff :
"[The witch Medea employs fabulous ingredients in a spell to create magical fire :] I have gifts from Chimaera's (Chimera's) middle part, I have flames caught from the bull's [the bronze bull's] scorched throat."
Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 6. 433 ff (trans. Mozley) (Roman epic C1st A.D.) :
"Vulcanus [Hephaistos (Hephaestus)], whose flame-emitting bulls she can see snorting forth from their breasts Tartarean gloom in the royal grazing-fields [of King Aeetes] . . . He bids the Minyae [Argonauts] sow the Dracon's (Dragon's) teeth and yoke these monsters."
Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 6. 442 ff :
"Her [Medea], therefore, awe-inspiring with magic power and maidenhood, would Juno [Hera] fain join in alliance with the Achaean leader [Jason of the Argonauts]; for none other can she see to be a match for the Bulls and for the up-springing warriors and for the flame that stands in her mid path, fearing nothing, shrinking from no sight of ill."
Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 7. 62 ff :
"[King Aeetes addresses the Argonauts :] ‘Before the city there lies the plain of Mars [Ares], rough with neglect through many years, and fiery bulls there are, slow sometimes to recognise me when the ploughshare bites the ground. These more and more have my increasing years now suffered to grow wild and unruly, and a prouder flame than of wont shoots from their bellowing mouths. Succeed then, valiant stranger, to my renown, and till my fields once more. The seed which once I sowed will not be lacking, nor the harvest which once I encountered alone . . . I know not yet whether I would have thee straightway enwrapped in flame and darkness, or rather see thee endure a while till the plain be upturned and the seeds sown and warriors come forth from the teeth of Cadmus' snake and the fallows flower with armed men.’"
Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 7. 543 ff :
"[The Argonaut] Echion the Arcadian meets him [King Aeetes] with a message, ‘that already the hero [Jason] is standing in the Circean field of Mars [Ares]: let the king send forth his bronze-footed bulls to battle.’
‘Lo! Of his own accord he challenges me,’ he cried, while hope took wings within him. ‘Now, Bulls, now for the first time plough me the furrows into flame, now open forth and send rolling all your fiery blasts. Let the Haemonian [Thessalian] husbandman find a notable harvest to his reaping, and do thou, my daughter, at thy sire's behest ply thy serpent against the Grecians. Let them perish in sight of the fleece itself, let its very hide keep the very stains of blood for me to see.’
He speaks, and bids the plain be opened to the charging bulls. Some shoulder the monstrous seeds, the Echionian teeth, others bear the heavy wood of the awful plough. But the great-hearted leader is escorted by a throng of his own men from Pagasae; then with heartening words all withdrew far from the grim fields. Firmly he planted his feet, and out of all his company was standing there alone . . . when suddenly the most distant wave of astonied [river] Phasis and the trees of [mount] Caucasus and all Aeetes' land flashed bright as the stalls poured forth a glowing darkness [of fire and smoke] . . . Then did the two bulls issue from the barriers and snort forth a mighty whirlwind of fire, holding high their heads and rolling eddies of murky flame . . .
Jason brooked no delay, but rushed upon them when he saw them parting, and waves his threatening helm, and advancing towards them summons with right hand their wandering fire. When at length the bull who first saw Jason's approaching armour stood still and with angry glance changed his course, he delays a moment, then bursts forth in sudden fury. Not so madly do the seas rush against the cliffs and fall broken back again. Twice with thunderous blasts does he charge the hero and envelop him in cloud, but the Colchian suffers not the burning heat to come nigh him, and the fire cools as it rushes upon his shield, and the flame pales when it feels the poisons. Aesonides [Jason] puts forth his right hand and tempers the burning horns, then clinging presses them down with all his might. The bull struggles against the hero and against even thee then, Medea, and would fain shake him off, and standing motionless bears him, as he wrestles with all his rage, upon his horns; at length sinking down he begins to bellow with a deeper note, his horns are weary and he falls to the ground beaten. Then the son of Aeson glances towards his friends, calling for the huge bridle, and already he has closed his mouth, drags him and is dragged, and pressing his knee against him overpowers him, and forces the quivering shoulders beneath the brazen yoke. The other bull then does the anxious Colchian [Medea] rob of his terrors, and brings him to Jason moving slowly and threatening but timidly, and now as he draws near she casts a cloud about him; exhausted he falls upon his head and shoulders by the sheer force of his weight and angry rage: Jason is upon him and from above plies all his strength and presses him down, his own blasts failing him. And when he has got him beneath the yoke and bound him fast in the strong plough, with his knee he makes him rise and goads him also with the ruthless spear . . .
Then, as though it were the Libyan plain or the fertile plough-lands of rich Nile that he were cleaving, he joyfully scatters the seeds by handfuls on the ground and burdens the newly-tilled land with war. Then thrice from the very ploughshare issued the trump of Mars [Ares] and from every furrow blared the horns; then was the warlike soil shaken, and the phalanx took life and arms together, and sprang up over all the plain."
Nonnus, Dionysiaca 29. 193 ff (trans. Rouse) (Greek epic C5th A.D.) :
"These [the bulls] father Hephaistos (Hephaestus) had made with his inimitable art, breathing defiant fire between their teeth, like the pair of brazen-footed bulls which he made for Aietes (Aeetes) the redoubtable ruler of the Kolkhians (Colchians), with hot collars and burning pole."
Suidas s.v. Medea (trans. Suda On Line) (Byzantine Greek Lexicon C10th A.D.) :
"Medeia (Medea). A Colchian, the daughter of Aietes (Aeetes), most venomous of women; she made it so Iason (Jason) could yoke the Fire-Breathing Bulls unharmed to plow the earth. And having taken the golden fleece he led Medea [away]. [Note] that the Greeks call naphtha ‘olive-oil of Medea.’"
- Apollodorus, The Library - Greek Mythography C2nd A.D.
- Apollonius Rhodius, The Argonautica - Greek Epic C3rd B.C.
- Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History - Greek History C1st B.C.
- Philostratus the Younger, Imagines - Greek Rhetoric C3rd A.D.
- Nonnus, Dionysiaca - Greek Epic C5th A.D.
- Hyginus, Fabulae - Latin Mythography C2nd A.D.
- Ovid, Metamorphoses - Latin Epic C1st B.C. - C1st A.D.
- Ovid, Heroides - Latin Poetry C1st B.C. - C1st A.D.
- Propertius, Elegies - Latin Elegy C1st B.C.
- Seneca, Medea - Latin Tragedy C1st A.D.
- Valerius Flaccus, The Argonautica - Latin Epic C1st A.D.
- Suidas, The Suda - Byzantine Greek Lexicon C10th A.D.
A complete bibliography of the translations quoted on this page.