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|---------- Interesting Things About Ancient Coins ----------|
|The Story of Medusa on Ancient Coins|
|You can click on any coin image to see the full coin.|
Medusa's story is a Greek legend. You need to know before you start reading that all Greek legends have connections to all other Greek legends. This page mentions creatures and connections that aren't explained, because if I tried, the page would go on forever. This is just a summary, and I'm not even covering all the versions of this story, only the version which is illustrated on ancient coins. But all the stories are interesting and exciting, so it's worth finding them and reading them.
Medusa was one of the three Gorgons. They were sisters, and all three had a very dangerous power – their gaze turned men to stone. They had snakes for hair, and were very ugly.
Or were they? Some early coins showed Medusa as beautiful. But there are more which show her pulling a ferocious face, and with snakes surrounding her head.
Medusa's image was regarded as powerful and lucky. It was intended to ward off evil, and protect and comfort friends. It was stamped on these coins nearly two and a half thousand years ago. They look quite primitive to modern eyes, with their irregular shape and vivid images. On the left-hand coin, the upper part of a face seems to loom as though emerging from a mist. This coin came from Parion, and the image was stamped on a roundish blob of silver metal. The reverse of this coin is just a punched pattern.
This is Medusa, even though there are no snakes attached to her head. The coin on the right looks more like the image you would expect, with a ring of snakes around an ugly, grimacing head; though even here it's not clear whether the snakes are actually growing from her head. This second coin was designed to advertise its town of origin, Apollonia Pontica on the Black Sea. The reverse has an anchor, a crayfish and the letter A. So, even though the coin is still irregular in shape and the art is rather crude, it is much more like a modern coin in concept.
The mask or head of Medusa has been a common theme since those times, and is called a "gorgoneion."
These two coins were struck around 100 years later. Both coins are flat and have well-defined reverse images, unlike the first coin above. The right-hand coin is from Parion, like the first coin, but is much more advanced in concept.
The left-hand coin is from Selge. This gorgon is shown with wavy hair and no snakes. She looks quite normal, and in fact resembles a portrait of Helios or the sun-god Apollo. The right-hand coin, from Parion in Mysia, has the snakes that we tend to expect. As on the Apollonia Pontica coin above, they surround her head but do not seem to be growing from it. You can see their tails as well as their heads.
There is a theory that at least some early gorgoneions were actually intended to be Apollo, and the image gradually became more fearsome and snakey with time. But these two pairs of coins, two from the 5th century BCE and two from the 4th, show that such a sequence can not have been a clear-cut thing across the Hellenic world.
One version of the story says that Medusa was beautiful at first, with long flowing hair, but she angered Athena by violating her temple. Versions vary, as many legends do. But Greek legends have one common thread, that the gods are capricious, vain and easily provoked. So, true to type, the jealous and angry Athena turned Medusa into a snaky-haired killer with menacing teeth and brass claws.
The Gorgons were the offspring of the sea gods Phorcys and Keto. Medusa's sisters, Stheno and Euryale, were immortal, but Medusa was mortal. And now the hero Perseus enters the story. Perseus was the child of Zeus and Danae, born after Zeus visited Danae in the form of a shower of gold. King Polydectes challenged Perseus to kill the dangerous creature Medusa. But Perseus knew he couldn't achieve this alone. Luckily for him, he had the help of two of the gods, Athena and Hermes.
The two coins on the right show Athena and Hermes. A silver stater from Corinth, around 330 BCE; and on the far right, a bronze coin of the Roman emperor Gordian III from Hadrianopolis, around 238-244 CE.
Athena was Zeus' daughter. The stater shows her wearing a Corinthian helmet over a leather cap. Athena was the goddess of wisdom, and the patron goddess of Athens, and so she also appeared (with her owl companion) on the coins of that city.
Hermes was the messenger of the Gods. He carried a caduceus, a magical staff consisting of a short rod entwined by two snakes, whose heads face each other at the tip. It is usually winged, though not on this version. This is not the same device as the staff of Asklepios, though they are often confused. Hermes' rod probably originated as a willow wand twined with ribbons, the symbol of a herald.
Hermes was the protector of merchants and thieves. Because of his association with trade, coins show him carrying a purse. He often wore a winged hat and winged boots. Americans may be familiar with the winged hat from so-called "Mercury" dimes (left), even though these actually show a representation of Liberty and not Mercury at all. I have a page about coins showing Mercury, the Roman equivalent of Hermes, which goes into more detail about his aspects and attributes.
Hermes was able to fly round the world with the help of his winged helmet and boots. He lent these to Perseus to give him speed and agility and the power of flight, and in some versions, the helmet gave him invisibility. For her part, Athena – goddess of wisdom, remember – told him how to avoid being turned to stone. He was to polish his shield until it was bright, and use it as a mirror, and never look a Gorgon in the eye.
After the death of Alexander the Great, his massive domain broke up into several successor kingdoms, one of which was Macedonia. The last king of Macedonia before it was assimilated by the Roman Empire was named Perseus.
On the far left is one of his coins, on which he showed himself in the guise of the hero. He is wearing the winged helmet loaned by Hermes, and he is carrying a harpa, a sickle with a hooked section as well as a point. This is the weapon Perseus the hero used to kill Medusa.
You can see that this version of the helmet is not only winged, but is also designed to look as though it is topped with a bird's head – or perhaps it is meant to represent a mythical gryphon. Click on the coin showing the harpa, below on the right, and see what you think. Birds don't have ears like that.
Just left is a bronze coin of Amisos with another version of Perseus, this time showing him with wings emerging from the side of his head. This is a representation of the swiftness and power of flight loaned to him by Hermes which does away with the need for a cap. (There are some images of Mercury with head-wings on my Mercury page.)
Near right is a very pretty provincial tetradrachm of Hadrian from Aigeai in Cilicia, showing Perseus with his harpa over his left shoulder.
On the far right is Perseus' harpa in closeup, on a coin of Philip V of Macedonia, the father of the same King Perseus whose coin is above on the left. The harpa is often described as a "sickle" because it has that curved section, but if that makes you imagine some sort of harmless agricultural implement, think again! This is a dangerous weapon. Notice the guard on the hilt. That's to protect your hand against other blades. Agricultural implements don't need one of those. The agricultural version is on this antoninianus of Gallienus on my Aeternitas page. Notice the lack of a hand guard. James Bonanno's ancient coin blog has a good section on the harpa.
Perseus was a popular theme for ancient coins in this region, and there are several different portrayals, sometimes representing different versions of the legend.
So Perseus followed Athena's instructions. He polished his shield, used the reflection to locate Medusa, and struck off her head with his harpa. Then, still doing as he was told, he carefully lifted the head without looking at it, and enclosed it in a leather bag, and carried it away with him.
This large bronze coin is from Amisos. Perseus has just struck off Medusa's head. He is still holding his harpa, and he has the head in his left hand. Below is the body of Medusa with blood flowing from it, only partly visible on this specimen (that is quite typical of these coins) but you can see the flowing blood well enough. Perseus is wearing a Phrygian cap, not the helmet of Hermes. Variations in the different tellings of the legend are responsible for this.
Just what did happen back then to provoke Athena so badly? One version is that the beautiful Medusa was seduced by the sea-god Poseidon in Athena's temple. This union eventually resulted in offspring, in a magical and god-like way. When Perseus cut off Medusa's head, the blood flowed, and from her neck sprang two creatures, the children of Medusa and Poseidon. One was the giant Chrysaor, a name which means "Golden Sword." The other was Pegasus, the famous winged horse.
On the right is Pegasus on a much later coin of the Roman emperor Domitian, a silver denarius from 76-77 CE. Pegasus appeared on many Greek and Roman coins. See my Pegasus page for some examples.
There are some nice coins showing Perseus' adventures while returning with Medusa's head, but they tend to be expensive .. luckily there are some helpful coin dealers out there, and I have permission to show two of their coins to help complete the story.
On his way back, Perseus encountered a maiden, Andromeda, chained to a rock, about to be sacrificed to a sea monster. Perseus fell for Andromeda, and using his flying ability to good advantage, he killed the monster by cutting off its head.
Perseus and his mother had been cared for when he was young by a fisherman, Dictys. On his return, Perseus found Dictys and his mother hiding from King Polydectes. He rescued them and set Dictys up as a king.
On the left, a bronze coin of Philip I from Deultum. Perseus is helping Andromeda down from the rock. The dead monster is beneath her feet. He has Medusa's head in his other hand – held behind him so that she doesn't see it – and you can also see that he still has his harpa, grasped in the same hand and pointing backwards.
His right foot rests on the coils of the dead sea monster Ketos, and you can see the monster's fishy tail at the lower right. The head of Medusa, just above the tail, was not involved in this scene, so he probably has it here just to show that he had already accomplished that feat.
Next to that is a bronze coin of Trajan Decius from Silicia. On it is Perseus, still holding Medusa's head, facing Dictys. The head doesn't seem to be in its bag, so let's hope that Dictys doesn't look down.
When Perseus returned to King Polydectes, the king tried to have him killed – that was the reason he had sent Perseus on such a dangerous mission in the first place – but Perseus revealed Medusa's head from its bag, thus turning Polydectes and all his court to stone. Then, when everything was settled, he gave the head to Athena, as she had asked. Perseus now leaves this story, but of course his own tale continues, and can be found elsewhere on the web. Legend says that he founded the kingdom of Mycenae, now an archeological site near Athens.
Hermes mounted Medusa's head on Athena's shield, which had once been the property of her father Zeus. Being the property of a deity, this was a special shield with particularly strong protective qualities, known as the aegis.
The aegis is often represented as a small cloak of goatskin, taken from the goat Amalthea which suckled Zeus when he was a baby. The protective power of the aegis is associated with the protection given Zeus by this goat.
On the right is a detail from an antoninianus of Valerian II. It shows Jupiter, the Roman version of Zeus, as an infant, riding Amalthea, his cloak-to-be. The legend on this coin is IOVI CRESCENTI, and suggests that the young Caesar will grow in power as the young Jupiter did. On this coin, Amalthea looks wild and nicely shaggy.
On the far right is a tetradrachm of Hadrian from Aigeai. This illustrates another version of the legend, in which Amalthea was a nymph who kept goats, and gave their milk to the baby Zeus. The nymph Amalthea holding the baby, who is crowning her with a wreath to acknowledge her good work. Amalthea is also holding a cornucopia, or horn of plenty, made from the horn of one of her goats. Zeus had given it magical powers of abundance and presented it to Amalthea as a reward. The town of Aegeae used a recumbent goat as its particular symbol, so the goat on this coin is serving two or three purposes. (This coin and this photograph of it are owned by Patricial Lawrence, and the photo is used here with her permission.)
The size of a goatskin is about right for the aegis to be used as a shield covering, but classical statues and paintings of Athena show it as a garment worn on her breast, complete with gorgoneion, as shown just below.
On the left is the aegis, the goatskin cloak of Zeus, as adapted for Athena to include Medusa's mask at the centre. This version, on a bronze coin of Sinope, has overlapping leather scales radiating outward from the head, imitating the scales of a snake. It appears to be stretched out, and there are cords or tassels round the edges – you can see one on the left edge, just below the 9 o'clock position. Sometimes loops are shown. This aegis could perhaps be fixed to a wooden frame to make a shield.
The coin next to it is a silver drachm of Menander, ruler of Bactria. Here is Athena, standing in a warlike pose, about to hurl a thunderbolt. She is carrying her aegis as a shield, and you can clearly see the gorgoneion at the centre (click the picture to see an enlargement). You can also find similar coins which support the goatskin version of the aegis, showing it draped over Athena's outstretched arm. The pose shown here is Athena at her most powerful, and is known as Athena Alkidemos.
This is a painting on a calyx crater (a large vessel for mixing wine and water) dating from around 450 BCE – around the time of the earliest coins on this page – showing Athena wearing her aegis, with Medusa's head mounted on it. This is how the gorgoneion was usually shown on classical Greek statues and paintings. Notice that it does not have snakes for hair. Instead, in this version there are snakes fringing the aegis. So Medusa had snakes around her, but didn't necessarily have snakes as part of her person.
And that is the end of Medusa's story. But gorgoneions, images of her face, were used for hundreds of years throughout the Western world as amulets and tokens of protection. Look at the range of places and times that were the origins of these coins that tell her story.
There is something very compelling about the idea of Medusa, and there are things to be learned from her story. For example, Athena got a very powerful device from this tale. What did she give, that was worth such a prize? Nothing more than wisdom and good advice. Nothing at all of real value, you might think, except that Perseus could not have succeeded without it.
The content of this page was last updated on 5 March 2011.
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