CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.
― G.K. Chesterton, a la Criminal Minds (CBS, 2007)
CLASSICAL MYTHOLOGY IS FILLED with monsters. For the civilizations of the ancient Mediterranean, stories of these beasts strongly influenced art, literature and culture – so it is not surprising that mythical monsters appear on coins. As fearsome protectors or the vanquished victims of heroes, monsters provided powerful visual symbols for artisans who engraved coins and rulers they served.
Consider the Minotaur, who appears on coins from Knossos on the Greek island of Crete.
Product of an unnatural union between Queen Pasiphaë and a magnificent white bull, the Minotaur was a ferocious man-eating beast, imprisoned in the Labyrinth (a vast maze designed by the brilliant engineer Daedalus). The hero Theseus slew the Minotaur, saving Athenians who were sacrificed to his cannibal appetite every year.
A rare silver stater of Knossos (c. 425 – 360 BCE, about 20 examples known) depicts a running Minotaur, with the head of a bull and the body of a man. A stylized Labyrinth appears on the reverse. On Harlan Berk’s list of 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, this coin is #48. “Appropriately, the depiction is forceful and strong rather than delicate or elegant (34).”
Herakles (better known by his Latin name, Hercules) was the champion monster-slayer of classical mythology. In a fit of madness, Herakles killed his family; to atone for this crime he undertook a series of heroic quests. These “Labors of Herakles” were a favorite theme of Greco-Roman art. The Lernaean Hydra, a many-headed swamp monster, terrorized a marshy lake near the Greek city of Argos.
Sever one of the Hydra’s heads and two immediately grew back, making the monster hard to kill (and providing a name for the evil pseudo-Nazi organization in Marvel Comics). Herakles slew the Hydra, helped by his companion Iolaus, who cauterized the neck with a torch as each head was cut off.
The obverse of a silver stater of Phaistos on Crete shows Herakles fighting the Hydra.
About six centuries later, the same image appears on a magnificent Roman gold aureus of Maximian: “Hercules standing left, battling the Lernaean Hydra, club in upraised right hand and preparing to strike one of the hydra’s heads, another head grasped with his left hand, its serpentine body wrapped about his right leg.” Ancient artists consistently show the hero swinging his signature weapon, the club, where one might expect to see him wielding a sword.
The heroic struggle against the Hydra has inspired many modern medalists, for example on the reverse of a 1914 silver medal honoring German general Eric von Ludendorff.
Yet the Hydra was the mother of the Chimaera whose breath was irresistible fire. This creature, huge and terrible, swift-footed and strong, had three heads, one of a lion with glaring eyes, one of a goat, and one of a fierce dragon-snake (62).
—Hesiod (c. 750 – 650 BCE)
The hero Bellerophon, riding the magical flying horse Pegasus, killed the fire-breathing Chimaera (or Chimaira) with a block of lead impaled on a spear he lodged in the beast’s throat. The fire melted the lead, choking the beast.
The Greek city of Sicyon, near Corinth (Bellerophon’s home town) adopted the chimaera as a symbol on coins, which are relatively common, from c. 430 down to about 280 BCE. The Chimaera of Arezzo (c. 400 BCE), an Etruscan bronze statue now in the Museo Archaeologico Nazionale in Florence, is probably the most famous classical representation of this monster.
In J.K. Rowling’s novel, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1998), Cerberus appears under the name of “Fluffy”.
In classical mythology, Cerberus (or Kerberos) is a giant, ferocious three-headed dog who guards the gateway to the land of the dead. He is often depicted as the companion of Hades (or Pluto,) god of the underworld. As his 12th Labor, Herakles used his superhuman strength to wrestle Cerberus into submission and drag him back to the land of the living. He then returned to the underworld, unharmed. Cerberus appears on a magnificent electrum stater of Cyzicus (c. 500-450 BCE).
The cataloguer writes:
“For practical reasons, representations of Cerberus in Greek art often depict him with two visible heads (the third being assumed to be hidden), but occasionally three heads, and rarely only one, are also seen.”
Under Roman rule, during the reign of Emperor Antoninus Pius (138-161 CE), Alexandria issued a series of large (35 mm, 22.3 grams) bronze drachms illustrating the labors of Hercules. On Berk’s list of the 100 Greatest Ancients, this series is #96 (Berk, 105). The coin showing the capture of Cerberus is very rare. An example form the famous Dattari collection, one of the finest known, brought $8,000 in a 2018 auction.
Three mythical sisters, Medusa, Stheno and Euryale, known as the Gorgons, had writhing, venomous snakes for hair, so horrible that the sight of them turned people to stone. Using a mirror-like shield, to avoid gazing directly on the petrifying sight, the hero Perseus beheaded Medusa, presenting the trophy head to the goddess Athena, who affixed it to her own shield.
The image of Medusa’s facing head, the gorgoneion became a very popular symbol in classical art, particularly on coins. An electrum stater of Cyzicus (c. 500-450 BCE) is a good example. At least 37 different ancient cities placed the Medusa head on their coins, including the Etruscan town of Populonia. To modern viewers the grotesque face with protruding tongue is comical, but ancient people probably perceived it differently. A late Hellenistic or Roman gorgoneion, without the grotesque expression, is the logo of the modern Italian fashion house Versace.
In classical art, griffins have the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle, with long ears and a knob like a giraffe’s horn on top of their heads. Seated griffins were often depicted guarding treasures and tombs.
Teos, one of 12 cities in the Ionian League, adopted the griffin as its emblem, as shown on an archaic silver stater (c. 520 BCE). After the Persian empire occupied Ionia, many citizens of Teos relocated to Abdera in Thrace, bringing the griffin emblem along with them. A magnificent silver octodrachm of Abdera (c. 490 BCE) from the famous Hunt collection brought almost $40,000 in a 2015 Swiss auction.
The folklorist and historian Adrienne Mayor has proposed a controversial theory that griffin legends are based on fossils of beaked dinosaurs (such as Protoceratops) found in Central Asia by ancient gold prospectors.
Ancient sources disagree on the appearance of the monster Skylla (or Scylla). An early account is in Book 12, lines 85-92, of Homer’s Odyssey (c. 700 BCE):
In that cavern lives Skylla, whose howling is terror…
She has twelve feet, and all of them wave in the air, she has six
necks upon her, grown to great length and upon each neck
there is a horrible head, with teeth in it , set in three rows
close together and stiff, full of black death…
The prosperous city of Akragas on the southern coast of Sicily created some of the most beautiful ancient coins, treasured by modern collectors. The reverse of a silver tetradrachm (c. 413 BCE) pairs the city’s emblematic crab with a depiction of Skylla.
She is rendered in a perfectly mastered three-quarter view with her head in profile. In her half-human form she is pictured as a beautiful young woman, naked to the waist, where the foreparts of two dogs are attached. The lower part of her body is transformed into a long, coiled fish tail with sharp-edged dorsal fins and a broad, thorny tailfin. Her wet hair flutters out freely from her head and she lifts her right hand towards her eyes. The first die (R1) is of outstanding artistic quality and is one of the great masterpieces of Greek coinage. The crucial point in the rendering of the strange creature, the transition between Skylla’s human body and the dogs and fish tail, is accomplished in a masterful way (Westermark, 106).
On Berk’s list of the 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, this type is #21 (Berk, 39).
A somewhat different (and more affordable!) representation of Skylla appears on a silver denarius of Sextus Pompey during his era’s Roman Civil War (40 – 39 BCE). Younger son of Pompey “the Great”, Julius Caesar’s onetime ally and later adversary, Sextus gained control of Sicily and continued a doomed struggle against Octavian, Caesar’s heir, until captured and executed in 35 BCE. On the coin’s reverse, Skylla appears as a woman with two sinuous fish tails and three dog heads emerging from her waist. She swings a ship’s rudder above her head as a weapon.
With the head of a horse and the tail of a fish, the winged hippocamp (or hippokampos) was often harnessed to the chariots of sea gods. A hippocamp appears on coins of the Phoenician city of Byblos, accompanying a warship.
Modern coins sometimes use a hippocamp as a nautical symbol. On the classic 1915 gold quarter-eagle issued to commemorate the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, a graceful maiden (“Columbia”, the female personification of America) reclines on the back of a hippocamp.
Centaurs are compound beasts with the head and torso of a man and the hindquarters of a horse. There is deep ambivalence about centaurs in classic mythology. On one hand, they are wise and noble, serving as tutors and guardians of young heroes. On the other hand, they can be savage and hostile.
One of the most celebrated works of Greek sculpture is the “Centauromachy”, a series of panels carved (c. 447-442 BCE) for the Parthenon in Athens, depicting a legendary fight between men and drunken centaurs.
A centaur occupies a place in the sky, as the sign of Sagittarius in the zodiac. The most famous centaur was Chiron, who tutored Herakles, Achilles, Jason, Perseus, and other heroes. Chiron appears on the bronze trichalkon (second century BCE) of Magnetes in Thessaly, holding a branch over his shoulder.
Centuries later, a crudely rendered centaur appears on coins of the Roman emperor Gallienus (ruled 253-268 CE) as part of a long series depicting animals and mythical creatures.
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 Gorny & Mosch Auction 224, 13 October 2014, Lot 816. Realized €55,000 (about $69,744 USD; estimate: €30,000).
 The lake dried up in the 19th century: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lerna
 Roma Numismatics Auction XI, 7 April 2016, Lot 290. Realized UK£44,000 (about $62,016 USD; estimate: UK£10,000).
 Heritage NYINC Sale, 6 January 2019, Lot 32240. Realized $65,000 USD (estimate $30,000 – 50,000).
 WAG Online, Auction 66, 3 July 2016, Lot 1480. Realized €75 (about $84).
 CNG Triton XVIII, 6 January 2015, Lot 542. Realized $850 USD (estimate $500).
 Roma Numismatics Auction XII, 29 September 2016, Lot 289. Realized UK£18,000 (about $23,368 USD; estimate UK£20,000).
 CNG Triton XXI, 9 January 2018, Lot 159. Realized $8,000 USD (estimate $7,500).
 Roma Numismatics Auction XVII, 28 March 2019, Lot 486. Realized UK£19,000 (about $25,066 USD; estimate £20,000).
 CNG Mail Bid Sale 66, 19 May 2004, Lot 64. Realized $6,000 USD (estimate $5,000).
 Leu Numismatik Auction 4, 25 May 2019, Lot 269. Realized CHF 5,000 (about $4,968 USD; estimate CHF 2,000).
 NAC Auction 88, 8 October 2015 Lot 387, realized CHF 38,000 (about $39,297 USD; estimate CHF 30,000).
 CNG Triton VIII, 11 January 2005, Lot 56. Realized $240,000 USD (estimate $200,000).
 CNG Electronic Auction 458, 18 December 2019, Lot 318. Realized $550 USD (estimate $400).
 CNG Triton XX, 10 January 2017, Lot 355. Realized $2,750 USD (estimate $2,000).
 CNG Electronic Auction 247, 12 January 2011, Lot 642. Realized $6,000 USD (estimate $5,000).
 Roma Numismatics E-sale 2, 2 November 2013, Lot 82. Realized UK£260 (about $414 USD; estimate £100).
 CNG Electronic Auction 456, 13 November 2019, Lot 449. Realized $130 USD (estimate $100).
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Berk, Harlan. 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, 2nd edition. Pelham, AL (2019)
Boardman, John (editor). The Oxford History of Classical Art. Oxford (1993)
Buxton, Richard. The Complete World of Greek Mythology. London (2004)
Davis, Kenneth C. Don’t Know Much About Mythology. New York. (2005)
Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. New York (1942)
Hesiod (Norman O. Brown, translator). Theogony. Indianapolis (1953)
Homer (Richmond Lattimore, translator). The Odyssey. New York (1967)
Mayor, Adrienne. The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times. Princeton (2000)
Melville Jones, John. A Dictionary of Ancient Greek Coins. London (1986)
Westermark, Ulla. The Coinage of Akragas: c. 510-406 BC. Uppsala (2018)