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FORVM`s Classical Numismatics Discussion Board  |  Numismatic and History Discussions  |  Ancient Coin Forum (Moderator: goldenancients)  |  Topic: Coins held in the mouth? 0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic. « previous next »
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Author Topic: Coins held in the mouth?  (Read 6857 times)
moonmoth
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« on: December 26, 2007, 11:25:26 am »

I have read in more than one place that in ancient times, in the absence of purses, people would carry their small change in their mouths. Doug Smith's pages say that there is evidence in literature for this.  Does anyone know what source(s) there are for this idea, please?

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« Reply #1 on: December 26, 2007, 12:14:22 pm »

In his play The Birds, Aristophanes described someone carrying coins in his mouth. This is a satire and should probably not be taken literally, though.
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« Reply #2 on: December 26, 2007, 12:27:59 pm »

Thanks, that's a start!

Searching "The Birds," I find:

---------------

PITHETAERUS Formerly also the kite was ruler and king over the Greeks.

LEADER OF THE CHORUS The Greeks?

PITHETAERUS And when he was king, he was the one who first taught
them to fall on their knees before the kites.

EUELPIDES By Zeus! that's what I did myself one day on seeing a kite;
but at the moment I was on my knees, and leaning backwards with mouth
agape, I bolted an obolus and was forced to carry my meal-sack home
empty.

--------------

This might imply that the obol was in Euelpides' mouth at the time, but it doesn't say so explicitly (unless the original Greek is clearer). 
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« Reply #3 on: December 26, 2007, 01:15:09 pm »

It would seem to be implied, in such a fashion as though contemporaries would instinctively understand why he had swallowed an obol. Otherwise it would be more fully explained.
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moonmoth
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« Reply #4 on: December 26, 2007, 02:08:01 pm »

Yes, that seems clear enough.  I don't suppose there will be any references explaining a thing that was common practice, just as books today don't have to explain exactly what a pocket is.
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« Reply #5 on: December 26, 2007, 04:20:20 pm »

Of course, it's also possible that the joke, which the original audiences would have gotten, was that carrying coins in your mouth was something only done by simpletons and people who had never heard of that new fangled invention, the purse. Euelpides was demonstrating the aptness of the saying, "It's better to be silent and thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt." That's a very common comic device in Aristophanes.
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« Reply #6 on: December 26, 2007, 04:50:07 pm »

That's a very common comic device in Aristophanes.

Yes, that is why I said "this is a satire and should probably not be taken literally, though."
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« Reply #7 on: December 27, 2007, 12:59:28 am »

So, the joke wouldn't work unless the practice was known of, but if this is the only place it is documented, it might have been be known of as a comment on idiocy rather than as a real-life practice at the time.  Even so, it might still be something that the ancestors did or that (still) happened in deep rural areas.  (Treating country people as simpletons is quite a common joke form.)  I wonder if there is another source?
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« Reply #8 on: December 29, 2007, 09:24:52 pm »

I would think that everyone would have been sick all the time if this was, indeed, ever a common practice!

Of course, it is well documented that it was common practice to place a coin in the mouth of a dead person, but that was to pay the ferryman to cross the River Styx and so was a completely different matter.
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« Reply #9 on: December 30, 2007, 02:21:19 am »

Maybe that´s the way this legend started:
 - modern people find coins in ancient skulls from Greek times,
 - no knowledge about the ferryman tradition,
 - many questions why
 - Aristophanes´ play as the only source (?) why an ancient Greek should have coins in the mouth.
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« Reply #10 on: December 31, 2007, 07:09:31 pm »

I think Greeks put an obol in the deceased's mouth as a payment to Charon for them to be able to go across the River Acheron or Styx into Hades.
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« Reply #11 on: January 01, 2008, 10:57:38 am »

Yes, and the Romans had a similar tradition.
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« Reply #12 on: January 02, 2008, 02:28:59 pm »

After the Crusades a similar (be it shortlived) tradition can be seen in Holland in the thirteenth century. I supoose the Dutch were too thrifty and abandoned the custom soon. Wink


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« Reply #13 on: August 24, 2009, 01:45:30 am »

Quote from: commodus on December 29, 2007, 09:24:52 pm
Of course, it is well documented that it was common practice to place a coin in the mouth of a dead person, but that was to pay the ferryman to cross the River Styx and so was a completely different matter.

This is still practiced today in some Asian countries as part of Buddhist and animistic beliefs. Coins are placed in the mouth of the deceased before cremation, and are retrieved afterward, along with any bone fragments and ashes. The remains are interred, and the coin kept by the family. My grandfather, who was an animistic spirit doctor and medicine man, was cremated in this fashion with a coin in his mouth. I still possess the coin.

A few years ago, I attended an Orthodox funeral in the Transylvanian region of Romania. During the procession to the gravesite, coins are tossed by the family into each intersection to buy passage for the soul of the deceased.  The interesting thing is that I have witnessed the same custom during funeral processions in Southeast Asia.
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« Reply #14 on: August 24, 2009, 02:22:32 pm »

Interesting; it's obviously a very widespread custom. I suppose it's a hangover from the days of grave goods. The idea of paying the ferryman could easily have been a rationalisation. Do you know the current raison d'etre of these customs?
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« Reply #15 on: August 24, 2009, 05:35:56 pm »

Anyone ever herd of the story of the outlaw who was embalmed and his body put on display, people would put buffalo nickles in his mouth, and the owner of the "Museum" would collect all the nickles at the end of the day.
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« Reply #16 on: August 24, 2009, 09:00:02 pm »

Interesting; it's obviously a very widespread custom. I suppose it's a hangover from the days of grave goods. The idea of paying the ferryman could easily have been a rationalisation. Do you know the current raison d'etre of these customs?


In southeast Asia, the coin in the mouth is called เงินปากผี or "mouth money for the spirits." The spirits referred to are not those of the deceased, but rather evil spirits that will be encountered along the way that will try to hinder the soul from passage on its long journey to its destination. This modern beliefs behind this practice, though taught in Buddhism, has its origins in tribal animistic spirit worship. (Encyclopedia of Cremation, Douglas James Davies)

The practice itself has certainly been carried over from Hinduism, as the Buddhist sect of Hinduism spread throughout eastern Asia. The Hindus sometimes place 7 coins over the seven openings of the head of the deceased, but more commonly the ancient practice of placing a coin in the mouth is observed. The Hindu belief is that the coin is used to pay the ferryman over the river of death. (The Hindu World, Sushil Mittal)

This Indian belief no doubt has resulted from ancient contact between the Hellenistic and far eastern worlds, possibly from the time of Alexander's conquests. Therefore, we can reasonably assume that the modern practices of placing a coin in the mouth in areas such as southern and southeastern Asia are the direct descendant to the custom of the Greeks and the story of paying Charon for passage over the river Styx.  There is a direct correlation to the modern Asian custom and that of the ancient Greek world.
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« Reply #17 on: August 24, 2009, 11:08:33 pm »

Is there anything to suggest that this is done because the mouth is where money would ordinarily, or traditionally, be carried when setting out on a journey?
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« Reply #18 on: August 25, 2009, 01:52:57 pm »

This Indian belief no doubt has resulted from ancient contact between the Hellenistic and far eastern worlds, possibly from the time of Alexander's conquests. Therefore, we can reasonably assume that the modern practices of placing a coin in the mouth in areas such as southern and southeastern Asia are the direct descendant to the custom of the Greeks and the story of paying Charon for passage over the river Styx.  There is a direct correlation to the modern Asian custom and that of the ancient Greek world.

Or could it be the other way round? Maybe the Greeks got their idea from India, directly or indirectly. What are the earliest dates the two are known from?
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« Reply #19 on: August 25, 2009, 11:42:08 pm »

There are many references to Charon and the fee of the ferryman for passage of the dead from the 5th century BC. The earliest mention of the story is found in:
Pindar, Fragment 143 (Greek lyric 5th B.C.)
Timotheus, Fragment 786 (Greek lyric 5th B.C.)
Aeschylus, Seven Against Thebes (Greek tragedy C5th B.C.)
also Euripides, Aristophanes, Plato and Callimachus make mention of the Charon myth, asserting that the story was well established in the 5th century BC.

The timeframe of the custom of placing an obol in the mouth of the deceased is another matter. I have yet to find any ancient eastern references to the custom or the story. That is to not say they do not exist, but I cannot find any. It could very well be that the silence on the subject could prove to mean that the eastern Asian custom did not exist in early antiquity. This is why I assert that the custom probably originated in ancient Greek culture.

I would love to be proved wrong on the matter and find that an eastern culture had such an influence on the Greek mindset and religion as to transfer a funerary custom to the Hellenistic world. If you know of any other reference material on the subject, please let me know!
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« Reply #20 on: August 26, 2009, 02:29:59 pm »

On the available evidence, anyway, we have to conclude that the story went from west to east. But let's never assume the impossibility of transmission in the other direction!
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« Reply #21 on: August 26, 2009, 09:44:23 pm »

Do you know of any other customs or traditions that transferred from eastern kingdoms to the Hellenistic world in early antiquity? This would be an interesting subject to study.
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« Reply #22 on: August 27, 2009, 02:13:15 pm »

It may be as old as Indo-European languages.  Not with minted coins, of course, before the 7th-6th centuries BCE, though the citation in Pindar is far earlier than Hellenistic, and so was trade.  I think that, though some may have carried their silver fractions around in their mouths, it was not a fashionable thing to do, not regarded as refined.
As for Greece and India, check out Aesop's fables, just to begin with.  Furher, and farther, there's the story of Yu (Pinyin spelling unknown to me) who came out of the dragon's belly hairless, and, mea culpa, I forget who in Troy lore, upchucked by the sea monster sent by Poseidon.  That's hairless including body hair.
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I meant to say, too, that it wasn't generally a question of one way or the other; that wasn't how things spread.  Culturally and linguistically and doubtless in other ways as well, it was miscegenation in all ways, at any times when movement was possible.
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« Reply #23 on: August 27, 2009, 02:46:17 pm »

from Robert Garland's 'The Greek way of Death' (page 23)...

Quote
"A late innovation by no means universally observed in Greece was the placing of an obol between the teeth of the deceased as payment to Charon for being ferried across the Styx. The earliest literary allusion to the belief that the dead must be provided with their boat-fare (naulon or danake) occurs in Aristophanes' Frogs where it is spoken of as being two obols. Coins are not actually found in Athenian graves, however, before the Hellenistic period. They were not always inserted in the mouth, some placed there, others randomly in the grave. The coin was normally of bronze, but examples of impressed gold-foil (bracteates) have also been discovered in the Kerameikos and elsewhere. Some of these 'Charon's pieces', so called, represent impressions taken from real coins, although an abbreviated version of a basic coin-type was occasionally manufactured specially. The custom of providing the dead with their boat-fare does not appear to be alluded to on lekythos, a further indication that the prcatice is comparatively late."


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« Reply #24 on: August 28, 2009, 01:12:22 pm »

The guy's not said to have come forth hairless, but is there a parallel between the stories of Yu and the Troy guy, and Jonah being gobbed up by the fish/whale?
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