By Steve Benner for CoinWeek …..
The mythology of ancient Greece and Rome is vast, and many volumes have been written on it over the centuries. In the United States, several books have popularized the subject, with Bulfinch’s Mythology (1855) being the gold standard. Using it as a guide, the following is a brief exploration of mythology on ancient coins.
There were many, many gods worshipped by ancient people. The Olympian Gods of ancient Greece are perhaps the best known: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Hephaestus, Aphrodite, Hermes, and either Hestia or Dionysus, and there are many stories associated with each of these gods and their offspring. In addition to these well-known deities, each Greek (and Roman?) city had its own divinities associated with its founding, local geographical features such as rivers and mountains, or a visitation by a demigod hero. I’ve decided to take a look at some of the more obscure individuals that appear on Greek or Roman coins. There’s no particular thread here, just ones that piqued my interest or had neat coins.
Talos: Bronze Giant of Crete
Those of us who saw the movie Jason and the Argonauts when they were kids must remember the giant bronze statue that attacked Hercules and his companion on an island at which the adventurers had stopped. That was Talos, a giant, animated, bronze statue built by the gods. In Crete (Figure 1), Talos was a winged giant that flew over the island protecting Europa. He was considered a pre-classical solar deity. In Greek mythology, he lost his wings and would throw rocks at approaching ships to sink them. On their return from stealing the Golden Fleece, Medea prevented Talos from sinking the Argo by either driving Talos mad or by removing a nail holding his ichor in, causing him to bleed to death. Figure 1 shows a silver stater from Crete showing the winged Talos throwing rocks (at a ship?), and the reverse has a butting bull (a symbol of Crete).
Hekate: Goddess of Black Magic
Hekate (or Hecate) was the goddess of magic, witchcraft, the night, moon, ghosts, and necromancy and was the only child of the Titans Perses and Asteria from whom she received her power over heaven, earth, and sea. Hekate was associated with Demeter and helped her search for her daughter Persephone after she was kidnapped by Hades. In statuary, Hekate was often depicted in triple form as a goddess of crossroads and was usually depicted holding two or more torches, dressed in a maiden’s skirt and hunting boots. Like the Roman Trivia, her image was believed to keep out evil spirits. Her primary cult site was located in Lagina, Caria. Figure 2 shows a 26 mm bronze coin of Hadrian from Halicarnassus, Caria. The triform Hekate is shown on the reverse holding torches in her hands.
Aiolos: God of the Winds
Those familiar with the story of Odysseus may remember that Aiolos (or Aeolus) gave the hero a bag containing all the storm winds but Odysseus’ crew thought it was a treasure and opened the bag, thus releasing the winds. The resulting winds drove their ship back to Aiolos’ island. Aiolos would keep the storm winds in a cave on his floating island of Aiolia and would release them when called upon by the gods. He was associated with a group of islands between Sicily and Italy called the Aeolian Islands. The largest of the group was Lipara, where Aiolos was said to reside. Figure 3 is a bronze hexas from the island of Lipara. It shows Aiolos wearing a pilos helmet on the obverse and PIL (the first three letters of Lipara backward) on the reverse.
Korybantes & Kuretes: Dancing Militant Divinities
The Korybantes, sons of Apollo and the Muse Thalia, were mythical attendants of the ancient Oriental and Greco-Roman Mother God, Gaia (Cybele). They were dressed in military attire with swords and shields. Their numbers and names vary from location to location, but their origin was Asiatic. They had a ritualistic cult that involved wild dancing that was claimed to cure mental illness. The Korybantes also presided over the infancy of Dionysus; this may explain the ecstatic dancing. They are also credited with the invention of the drum.
The Kuretes were similar to the Korybantes and sometimes confused with them. There were nine dancers, and they venerated Rhea, the Cretan counterpart of Gaia. They were tasked with protecting the infant Zeus from his father Cronos. Gaia hid the infant in a cave beneath Mt. Aigaion, and the Kuretes would clash their shield and swords to create a loud din to cover up the cries of the baby Zeus. The Curetes’ dance was later re-enacted by young men at Greek festivals and games. Figure 4 shows a large bronze coin from Mesembria, Thrace, with Gordian III and his wife on the obverse, and the Kuretes dancing on the reverse.
Bes: The Good God
Bes was an Egyptian god of households and of mothers, children, and childbirth and is depicted as a dwarf with large ears, long-haired and bearded, with prominent genitals, and bowed legs. Bes along with his female consort, Beset, became a god of everything good and against anything evil. He came to symbolize the good things in life, like music, dance, and sexual pleasure. The worship of Bes spread from Egypt to Syria, where it was adopted by the Phoenicians, and then to Crete, Cyprus, and Spain. Eventually, it was picked up by the Achaemenid and Roman Empires.
Bes was typically shown facing forward wearing a soldier’s tunic, ready to attack evil. Figure 5 shows a small bronze coin from Ebusus, (now Ibiza) an island off Iberia, showing Bes on the obverse and a bull butting left on the reverse.
Marsyas: Roman Symbol of Free Speech
After inventing the aulos, a double reeded flute, Athena attempted to play it and noticed in a mirror it made her look silly with puffed-out cheeks. She threw it away and cursed anyone who played it with a horrible death. Not taking the hint, Marsyas, a pot-bellied satyr, picked it up and began to play it. He became so good that he decided to challenge Apollo to a music contest; this satyr was not the sharpest tack in the box. He lost and Apollo punished him by flaying him alive and hanging his skin on a pine tree.
Marsyas was reimagined during the Roman Republic as the inventor of augury and a defender of free speech, “speaking truth to power”. A statue of him was placed in the forum showing him with a wineskin over his shoulder and raising his right hand. Sometimes in artworks, he is shown with a pilos on his head. This statue stood for 300 years in the Roman Forum near or in the Comitium, the space for political activity. It was regarded as an indicium libertatis, a symbol of liberty, and was associated with demonstrations of the plebs. Marsyas was shown on many Republican denarii. Figure 6 shows one of these with Apollo on the obverse and Marsyas on the reverse next to a column with a goddess on top.
Kerberos: The Dog from Hell
Kerberos (or Cerberus) is not as obscure as some of the other individuals in this article. It appears in a number of other myths, like the labors of Hercules and Orpheus’ journey to the Underworld – it even appears in the Harry Potter books and movies. Kerberos was a very large three-headed dog that guarded the entrance to the Underworld and sometimes is shown with a serpent for a tail and snakes protruding from multiple parts of his body. He was the offspring of Echidna, the mother of all monsters, and the multi-headed Typhon, the deadliest monster of Greek mythology. The earliest description goes back to Hesiod’s Theogony (c. 8th – 7th century BCE), and Kerberos was a common theme on the pottery of the Classical Age (510-323 BCE).
However, the depiction of this three-headed dog is very rare on coinage, found only on coins minted in this period by Epeiros, Cumae, and Kyzikos. Figure 7 shows a beautiful example on the obverse of an electrum stater from Kyzikos, Mysia with a quadripartite incuse reverse.
Kallisto: Ursa Major
I covered this coin in my book, History and Coinage of the Ancient Greek Leagues, 5th through 1st Centuries B.C.E., but it is such a unique coin that I wanted to repeat it here.
The nymph Kallisto was the daughter of Lykaon, the king of Arkadia. Choosing to remain virginal, she joined the cult of Artemis. But Zeus took a liking to Kallisto and got her pregnant. When Artemis discovered she was pregnant, she grew very angry and, pushed on by Hera, turned Kallisto into a bear. Kallisto gave birth to Arkas, who became the eponymous founder of the Arkadians. Subsequently, Artemis killed Kallista with an arrow, though some say Arkas killed her not knowing it was his mother. Zeus felt sorry for the nymph and set both mother and son in the heavens as constellations – Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.
Figure 7 shows a coin with Artemis killing the nymph. What makes this coin unique is the obverse shows Artemis shooting an arrow on the obverse, and Kallisto being killed on the reverse with Arkas at her feet. This is the only coin I know of that has action starting on one side and ending on the other. Of course, she should be shown as a bear, but poetic license is allowed. The coin is a bronze dichalkon from Orchomenos, Arkadia (there’s an Orchomenos in Boeotia as well). One of the four large moons of the planet Jupiter discovered by Galileo is named Callisto.
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Bulfinch, Thomas. Bulfinch’s Mythology. Modern Library (1998; first published 1855)
Hamilton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. New York (1942)
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About the Author
Steve M. Benner has a Ph.D. in engineering from the Ohio State University and worked for NASA at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, for almost three decades before retiring in 2016. He has been an ancient coin collector since the early 1970s and is a member of the ANS, the ANA, and the ACCG. He specializes in coins of the ancient Greek leagues and in Roman Imperial bronzes. Dr. Benner has published over 30 ancient coin articles in various publications and is the author of Achaian League Coinage of the 3rd through 1st Centuries B.C.E. (2008) and History and Coinage of the Ancient Greek Leagues, 5th through 1st Centuries B.C.E. (2018).