Labyrinths and Minotaurs and Bulls, Oh My!
CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz …..
FOR THE ANCIENT GREEKS, CRETE was a place of myth and legend. It was the birthplace of Zeus and the site of the Labyrinth. It was home to the Minotaur and the Cretan Bull. It was also the center of Minoan civilization, one of the great Mediterranean cultures and a major influence on later Greek city-states.
Homer called Crete the island of a hundred cities (Iliad II.649). Of that number, some 30 of them are known to have issued coins that arguably rank among the most beautiful and valuable ancient coins ever struck. The most important of these cities were Gortyn, Knossos, and Kydonia.
And interestingly, since Crete lacked silver mines, the Coinage of Crete was often overstruck on imported issues from other Greek states or countermarked to validate them for local use. The silver stater of 11-12 grams was the most common denomination, but some towns struck Athenian-style silver drachms, tetradrachms and bronze small change.
Once upon a time, Zeus, king of the gods, fell in love with Europa, a lovely Phoenician princess. He transformed himself into a tame white bull and mixed with her father’s herd. Europa was so struck by the beauty of this bull – a universal symbol of potency – that she climbed on his back, whereupon he abducted her, swimming all the way to Crete. Europa settled there, married a mortal, bore a line of kings and gave her name to a continent. The 2013 series of Euro banknotes carries her image in the watermark and hologram.
From the fifth century BCE down to the Roman era, the coinage of Gortyn (or Gortyna) featured Europa and the bull. Tourists are still shown a great plane tree where Europa supposedly found refuge after she was ravished by the king of the gods.
On a rare silver stater that sold at auction for $479,000 in 2012, Europa sits forlorn in the tree with an eagle in her lap (Zeus in another disguise).
On an overstruck coin in the British Museum, the body of the bull seems to form the top of Zeus Ammon’s head on the under-type, a coin of Greek Kyrene in Libya. Overstrikes can be charming when random chance creates such bizarre combinations.
A later issue of Gortyn depicts the head of Zeus on the obverse, with a seated archer on the reverse, possibly Herakles.
According to myth, Pasiphaë, wife of King Minos of Crete, fell in love with a beautiful white bull (potency symbolism again). She commanded the legendary engineer Daidalos (Daedalus) to construct an artificial cow, in which she could hide in order to satisfy her unnatural lust. The result was the birth of the Minotaur, a monster with a bull’s head on a human body. When the Minotaur developed a taste for human flesh, Minos had Daidalos construct a vast maze–the Labyrinth–to confine him.
On an early stater of Knossos we see the running figure of the Minotaur, and an abstract representation of the Labyrinth. Berk (2008) included this type in his list of the “100 greatest ancient coins.”
Later, the rectangular image of the Labyrinth became more complex, serving as a civic emblem on the coins of Knossos. A beautiful rare variant, c. 80 BCE, shows the Labyrinth in circular form. The most recent sale of this type in 1976 brought 18,000 Swiss francs (then equivalent to US$7258). The British Museum has a superb example acquired by bequest from a wealthy collector, Richard Payne Knight, in 1824.
Kydonia occupied the site of the modern town of Khania on the northwestern coast of Crete. It was named for the legendary hero Kydon, son of the god Hermes and a mortal woman, Akakalis, daughter of King Minos. Kydon is depicted on the coinage as a hunter with his hound and bow. Artemis, goddess of the hunt, appears on the obverse.
The dog often appears alone on the city’s bronzes. For reasons no one seems to be able to explain, Kydonia also gave its name to a fruit, the quince (Cydonia oblonga).
Located on the fertile Messara Plain near the sea, Phaistos was inhabited as early as 4000 BCE. Coinage began around 450; the city was destroyed by the Gortynians at the end of the third century BCE. Coins of Phaistos (or “Phaestus”) usually feature the bull – a universal symbol of potency (even to modern Chicagoans and Wall Street traders).
On a magnificent stater (c. 350), we see the Cretan Bull surrounded by an olive wreath. “The composition of the obverse, depicting Herakles, calmly seated on his lion’s skin and gazing out from the coin, is masterful,” says the cataloger of the Prospero collection. This coin brought an astonishing $650,000 against an estimate of $40,000 at auction in January 2012 – apparently the record price for an ancient Cretan coin.
Another stater from the Prospero sale shows Talos, a mythical winged giant of bronze who protected Europa by circling Crete three times each day, hurling boulders at any intruding vessels. The imagery of Talos is almost startling in its similarity to the much later Christian iconography of the Archangel Michael. The United States Navy adopted the name Talos for a long-range ship-launched anti-aircraft missile (in service 1958-80). Back in those days, Admirals still benefitted from a classical education.
Other coins of Phaistos, in contrast, are almost charmingly naive, with a style that recalls children’s drawings or modernist abstraction.
Some Other Towns
Praisos, an inland town near the eastern end of the island, was one of the earliest Cretan cities to strike its own coins. A rare stater shows a mare (or cow?) suckling a human infant – possibly a reference to a local myth about the infant Zeus. On the reverse, in an archaic style, a kneeling archer (Herakles?) draws his bow.
Itanos, a port at the eastern tip of Crete, often depicted mythical sea creatures on its coins. A stater of c.350 BCE shows a bearded figure with a trident, half man, half fish, often identified as Glaukos, a marine deity who was the protector of fishermen. On the reverse, two sea monsters confront one another with the town’s name between them. On a silver drachm c. 330-270, we see the goddess Athena in a very Athenian style. On the reverse, the eagle of Zeus turns its head to gaze rather skeptically at the sea-god Triton, who seems to be struggling with a sea-monster in the distance.
Hierapytna, on the southern coast, used the palm tree as a symbol on its coinage. This Cretan date palm (Phoenix theophrasti) is Europe’s only native palm. A palm forest at nearby Vai Beach is a major Cretan tourist attraction. One modern source describes the fruit as “usually inedible, but sometimes eaten by the locals”. A silver didrachm (c. 200-67 BCE) shows Tyche, the popular goddess of Fortune, on the obverse. She wears a “mural crown” symbolizing a city wall. Bronzes of Hierapytna often combine a palm tree reverse with an obverse head of Zeus.
Collecting the Cretans
Cretan coins are scarce; it is unusual to see more than two or three in even a major auction catalog these days. Many coins that appear on the market have long and distinguished pedigrees, suggesting that little new material is being unearthed. Significant auctions include the 1965 sale of the Walter Niggeler collection (11 pieces), the 1976 Bank Leu auction #15 (12 pieces), Sotheby’s 1990 sale of the Nelson Bunker Hunt collection, and the spectacular 2012 New York sale of the Prospero collection (14 pieces). Nevertheless, this is not just a hobby for the extremely rich. Interesting bronzes from the later period of Cretan coinage can still be found for under $200, and lower-grade silver pieces for under $500.
The standard reference works are both in French: Le Rider (1966) and Svoronos (1890, with several modern reprints), long out of print and most expensive on the secondhand market. However, Wroth’s 263-page English language catalog of the awesome British Museum collection (1886) is available as a free download from such sites as the Digital Library of Numismatics.
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Berk, Harlan J. 100 Greatest Ancient Coins. Whitman (2008)
Le Rider, G. Monnaies crétoises du Ve au Ier s. av. J.-C. Études crétoises XV, Paris. (1966)
Svoronos, J.-N. Numismatique de la Crète ancienne. Macon (1890)
Wroth, Warwick. “Cretan Coins.” Numismatic Chronicle. (1884)
Wroth, Warwick. Catalogue of the Greek Coins of Crete and the Aegean Islands. British Museum. (1886)