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|---------- Interesting Things About Ancient Coins ----------|
|Ancient Monsters on Ancient Coins|
|You can click on any coin image to see the full coin.|
What happens if you take the front of one animal and attach it to the back of another? Maybe mix in parts of some more? Some odd-looking creatures can be found in the art of more than one ancient culture, right back to the 7th century BCE. The Greeks were pretty good at this sort of mixture, and quite a few appeared on Greek and Roman coins.
The first example here is a creature called Chimaera, or Chimera in the American spelling. This name is applied in modern biology to creatures with part of another kind of creature grafted onto them – and they do exist! But they are more likely to be tiny amphibians than large and ferocious like the Greek Chimaera.
The coin on the near right is a small bronze from Leukas in Arkanania, struck somewhere between 350 and 250 BCE. It shows Chimaera as she was described by Homer, a creature with the body and head of a lion, a tail consisting of a snake (complete with head) and a goat's head emerging from her back. Like many Greek monsters, she was said to be the offspring of Typhon, god of winds, and Echidna, a creature with a woman's head and a snake for a body. Chimaera was a fearsome creature who could breathe fire, and she was finally killed by the hero Bellerophon riding Pegasus – and these two appear on the obverse of the same coin, which you can see if you click on the coin image.
The whole battle scene is on the coin from Corinth shown on the right.
On the far right, Hercules is fighting another of the offspring of Typhon and Echidna. This is the Hydra of Lake Lerna, a water creature with many heads, which grew two new ones whenever one was cut off. He eventually defeated the creature by applying a burning brand to each stump, which stopped the new heads from growing. On the coin, he seems just to be whacking the beast with his club. This coin is even more worn than the first – I am afraid this is typical of many of these coins, which are hard to find in good condition. But you can see the snakey monster-heads rearing up to attack.
Many ancient monsters were not evil or deadly, just a different sort of creature. Centaurs, for example, were mostly supposed to be wild carousers, creatures of impulse, but not evil. And in complete contrast, one centaur, Chiron, the last of his kind, was a wise and revered teacher, whose pupils included Achilles, Jason, Asklepios and many other heroes.
The centaur on the far left is on an antoninianus of the Roman emperor Gallienus, whose coins provide several nice monstrosities. As you can see, it had the head and torso of a human being attached to the body of a horse, so that it had four legs and two arms. He has a bow and arrow, so is likely to be one of the wild fighters. They were famous for rioting at a wedding and fighting a people called the Lapiths. This battle, called the centauromachy, was carved on marble panels on the Parthenon, and parts of it can be seen in the Parthenon Gallery in the British Museum.
This coin is one of a series known as Gallienus' Zoo. They show a whole range of animals which relate to particular deities, and invoke the god concerned as the protector of the emperor. Perhaps the fighting centaurs were more useful protection than the wise Chiron would have been!
Next to that coin is an Islamic coin from the middle ages, 1202 CE, showing something that looks like the same sort of centaur at first, until you see that the creature it is fighting is growing from its own tail!
This creature on the right, though, was definitely both dangerous and fear-inspiring. It is the gorgon Medusa, snaky-haired and hideous, with a gaze that turned anyone she looked at to stone. Once beautiful, she had angered the goddess Athena and been cursed. She was eventually killed by the hero Perseus, with help from Athena. Her severed head, still deadly, was then mounted on Athena's shield.
There are many ancient coins which show parts of this story, and I show some of them on my story of Medusa page. This one is a silver drachm of Apollonia Pontica, and as you can see it has been pierced for use as jewellery. The face of a gorgon was considered a good luck charm on the basis that it would scare away evil influences. Many ancient coins were pierced like this, and you can see some more pierced Medusas that have been used as lucky charms on my Hellenic holed coins page.
Athena's shield with Medusa's head mounted on it was known as the Aegis, and that, too, appeared on many ancient coins. Some of them are shown on my Aegis coins page.
Next, some fishy types. These are sea monsters with the head of an animal and a finned tail.
Creatures like this are often given names based on the Greek for the animals concerned plus the Greek for bent (or possibly monster; opinions vary), so two of these are both hippocamps, "bent horses" of the sea, and one is a criocamp, a curly ram of the sea.
Once again, we are indebted to the Roman emperor Gallienus for three of these coins. Like the centaur above, they are part of the zoo coins range.
On the left are two coins with the legend "NEPTVNO CONS AVG," meaning "Dedicated to Neptune, protector of the emperor." Neptune was the god of the sea and of horses, and the first coin is a hippocamp, with a horse's forepart and a fishy tail.
The second coin is a capricorn, with a goat's forepart and a more stubby fishtail with a trident-shaped tail fin. Capricorn translates as "goat horn."
The criocamp coin on the near right says "MERCVRIO CONS AVG," making a similar dedication to Mercury. The ram was Mercury's sacrificial animal, though why there is a fishy monster version of a ram on this coin is a mystery. There is more about Mercury on my Mercury coins page.
The far right coin is quite different. It is a small silver diobol of Taras, sometimes called Tarentum, in Calabria, from the 4th century BCE. The head is that of Athena, wearing an ornate helmet.
It was struck a little off centre and has suffered some damage to Athena's face, which reduced its price to something I could afford. Athena's helmet decoration is another hippocamp; this one, unlike Gallienus', has wings.
The coin below is shown enlarged so that the monstrous element is clear. It is Ketos, a sea serpent.
Ketos was killed by Perseus, the hero on the right, who is rescuing the maiden Andromeda. Perseus' right foot is resting on Ketos' coils, and the monster's fishy tail can be seen on the lower right.
The object swinging from Perseus' left hand is the head of Medusa, already seen on its own coin above. This scene took place after Medusa's defeat and before the head was returned to Athena.
On the right is a benign monster, the winged horse Pegasus (or Pegasos to the Greeks), which you have already seen fighting Chimaera above. This creature was said to have sprung, fully formed, from the neck of Medusa when her head was removed by Perseus.
Pegasus was then just a wild creature, powerful and immortal but not dangerous or threatening. He was finally tamed by Bellerophon, using a golden bridle provided by Athena, and together, they were able to kill the dangerous Chimaera. (Despite what anyone might have seen on TV, Pegasus was not Hercules' mount.)
Bellerophon and Pegasus went on to undertake many more successful quests, but unfortunately for him, Bellerophon's pride in his accomplishments eventually led him to anger Zeus, and he came to a miserable end.
This Pegasus coin is a silver stater of Dyrrhachium in Illyria. Pegasus was a very popular theme on ancient coins, and there are many of them on my Pegasus coins page.
Below are some coins with winged monsters that are more malevolent. The first coin in this row is a griffin on a Roman Republican denarius. This creature has the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. Modern heraldic griffins have eagle's claws as forefeet, but you can see that this ancient one has a lion's forepaws. Its prominent ears don't really belong to either animal.
Next to it is another griffin, this one from Abdera in Thrace around 200 BCE. This looks very much the same, and demonstrates the similarity between Roman and Greek griffins.
On the right of this group is a sphinx on a small bronze coin from the town of Chios in Ionia. The Sphinx was Chios' emblem, and appeared on many of its coins. This is the Greek sphinx, not an Egyptian one.
Egyptian sphinxes had a lion's body and a human head, and were often temple guardians. The world's most famous sphinx is the huge statue near the pyramids at Giza, which has a recumbent lion's body and whose head was probably modelled on the Pharaoh Khafra.
The Greek Sphinx, whose name means "strangler," has a woman's head on the body of a winged lioness, and sits upright. In Greek mythology there was only one Sphinx, and like Chimaera, she was an offspring of Echidna. Also like Chimaera, she was not a creature you would be pleased to encounter.
The coin on the far left is in a completely different style from the Greek and Roman productions that mostly fill this page. It is from Castulo, a Spanish town that was a semi-independent ally of Rome.
The creature is clearly a Greek sphinx, having wings and a human head, but is wearing some unexpected headgear.
Next to it is a small diobol from the Greek town of Klazomenai showing the forepart of a winged boar. It was struck half a century earlier than the Spanish coin, before it became common to put images on the reverse of coins. The winged boar is less exotic than the sphinx from Spain, but still quite an odd creature. It appeared on a range of denominations from the town.
Like a wild boar, it has a bristly crest. The wings are curled at the tip, and the protrusion below its body is the curled tip of the far wing.
The monster on the coin on the near right is not the seated figure, but the creature at his feet.
Seated on his throne is Hades and Serapis combined, two gods of the underworld in one package. Hades had a three-headed dog called Cerberus (or Kerberos to the Greeks) who guarded the entrance to the underworld. Cerberus was yet another offspring of Echidna and Typhon, huge and ferocious.
On this coin, though, he looks like a gentle pet: Hades and his good doggie. Only the two extra heads just visible behind the front one give the game away. Cerberus also had a snake for a tail, and something that might be that is just visible behind his haunches.
This coin is a silver antoninianus of Caracalla, one of the sons of the Roman emperor Septimus Severus.
To its right is a coin of Clodius Albinus showing a snake which seems to have prominent ears, or possibly horns, which you will never find on a snake in real life. Quite a few snakes on Roman coins were shown like this, and oddly, it does not seem that it represents any particular symbolism. But this is nothing to the snakes you can find on Roman coins from the eastern provinces.
Next are three eastern snake monsters with various unnatural additions. On the far left, a coiled serpent with a beard and a forked fish-tail on a brass provincial coin of the empress Plautilla, wife of Caracalla, from Pautalia in Thrace. There were many snake cults in the Roman provinces, and this serpent is rather like the snake god Glycon, which was depicted with a full head of hair.
In the centre is a bronze coin of Philip II Caesar, the son of the Roman emperor Philip I, from Markianopolis in Lower Moesia. This large and well-drawn snake has a spiky crest and a different sort of beard, with the hair in a single lock rather than spread out like the previous one. Its forked tongue protrudes from its mouth. This is something that real snakes do have. The end of its tail is not visible, but sight of other examples of this issue does not show any forks.
Sometimes these snakes even have haloes. The monstrous additions to these two coiled serpents, and others like them, are intended to show their unnatural and godly nature.
To the right of these is something even more unnatural, on a bronze coin of the emperor Domitian from Alexandria. Some of the coin types from Alexandria were quite unusual, with Egyptian rather than Roman inspiration. This one has a snake, apparently a cobra, with a human head. I have found it documented as a Uraeus, the Egyptian sacred serpent, with the head of the goddess Demeter; and elsewhere as a combination of the goddess Isis and the serpent goddess Thermouthis.
The last coins in this section show horned felines. On the near right is one from the Greek town of Sardes or Sardeis in Lydia. It shows a horned panther, standing to the left with its head facing us. The panther holds a spear in its jaws and is breaking it with its right forepaw.
On the far right is a rather worn coin from Tarsos in Cilicia. It shows Sandan, a god who originally belonged to the Hittites. Like other Hittite gods, his feet do not touch the ground; instead he rides on a mythical beast, a horned lion.
Next, some man-monsters. On the left is Janus, the Roman god of doorways and beginnings. Janus had two faces, one looking forward and one behind. The month which begins the year, January, was named after him.
This particular Janus is on a silver denarius of Geta, for a short time the co-ruler of Rome with his brother Caracalla, whose coin with Cerberus is just above. This image of Janus, carrying the thunderbolt of Jupiter, might have been meant to symbolise the equality of power of the two rulers. Caracalla, the older brother, did not agree, and Geta was dead within months of this coin being struck. There are some portraits of the brothers on my Publius and Lucius page.
Below left is a silver trihemiobol of Thasos showing a satyr. The satyr is not much of a monster, but he does have a tail, so he is certainly not human.
Satyrs were companions of Pan and Dionysos, and were noted for carousing and having a high sex drive. This one is carrying a kantharos, a drinking cup with large handles, and on the other side of this coin is the large wine vessel that he dipped his drink from. He is nude, but unlike some vase paintings, he does not have an erection. His posture looks a little like kneeling, but in fact it is an ancient way to depict running.
In modern times we think of satyrs as having goat's legs and maybe even horns, but that was a Roman idea, and this is an earler Greek coin from the 4th or 5th century BCE.
The two coins to the right show is the god Pan, on provincal coins from Roman times, about 600 years later than the one to their left.
On both of these coins he has quite spectacular goaty legs. He has goat horns too, though they are hard to make out on one of these specimens.
On the middle coin, he has a fawn's skin over his left arm. He is holding a rather short shepherd's crook, and trampling on a panther to represent his power over all wild things.
That crook is an interesting object. It is sometimes labelled a pedum, a shepherd's hooked stick for catching sheep, and sometimes a lagobalon, a stick to be thrown at rabbits. It is not always celar which is intended. On the middle coin, it could be either. There is more about this on my page on Pan's lagobalon.
But on the coin to the right, Pan is readying the stick to throw, and may be in the act of throwing it. That is definitely a lagobalon. On this coin he is running in a lively fashion, and has his syrinx in his right hand.
Another type of man-monster is a humanoid who has been endowed with horns. There are several origins for this kind of creature, all various combinations of human and animal.
One is the combination of man and goat, such as the god Pan. The coin on the far left, a small bronze coin of Perikle, dynast of Lycia in 380-362 BCE, shows the horned head of a young Pan. (But the horns look a little like a head-dress, so this coin may actually represent someone playing the part of Pan.)
Next to it is a tetradrachm of Commodus from Alexandria. This shows the head of a combined deity, Zeus-Ammon, crowned with a solar disk which was typical for Zeus, and with big ram's horns curling down from his brow, typical of Ammon.
Ammon was the Greek name of Amun, who when merged with the sun god Ra was at one time the chief Egyptian deity. But Egyptian theology was never simple, and Amun was also depicted as having the head of a woolly ram, hence the horns on this coin.
A third origin was the combination of man and bull which came about when river spirits were depicted with the unstoppable momentum of a charging bull. Some coins showed man-headed bulls, and others just showed human forms with horned heads.
The coins on the right are of this type. The near right coin comes from Olbia in Sarmatia, from 250-200 BCE, and shows the river-god Borysthenes (the modern Dneiper), bearded and with curved horns.
In the centre is the river-god Istros (the modern Danube) from the town of the same name, around the 3rd to 2nd centuries BCE. The deity Istros was actually one of the man-headed bulls.
On the far right is another of those creatures, this time shown in full on a coin from Neapolis in Campania. Its full beard shows clearly below the horned forehead.
These and some other river deities are shown on my page about river gods on ancient coins.
There are other ways to modify a human head. The coin on the right is another antoninianus of Gallienus. This one shows the god Mercury, and on particularly nice specimens you can see that there is something on his head. Expanding the view shows that he has a pair of winglets.
Mercury was a messenger god, and the wings were probably meant to suggest speed as much as the ability to fly. He was usually shown on coins with a winged hat, occasionally with winged boots, but very rarely with the wings attached directly to his person; but Gallienus does this more than once. Click on the image to see some background to this depiction.
And there are other winged heads to be found on coins. Below left is a bronze coin from Amisos showing Perseus, the hero who killed Medusa, with large winglets growing from the side of his head. According to one version of the legend, Perseus was loaned the winged boots of Hermes (the Greek equivalent of Mercury) to help in his quest. In fact, he was so loaded up with godly goodies that he could hardly have failed. But the winged head is a different twist.
The coin on the near left shows Medusa herself with a winged head. This is not the grotesque creature of the legend! This image is probably based on the same original statue as the "Medusa Rondanini", a remarkable sculpture of cool beauty which is currently in Munich. Many ancient coin types were based on famous statues. This particular coin was struck during the reign of Seleukos I Nikator, 312-280 BCE.
The coin on the right is a modern fake, a cast copy of a denarius of Sextus Pompey, son of the famous Pompey the Great, and a proficient admiral in his own right. It's here because is shows a naval trophy decorated just above the anchor with two heads of the six-headed sea monster Scylla (or Skylla to the Greeks). Scylla was said to live on one side of a narrow channel, with another monster called Charybdis on the other side, so that you could not avoid one without coming dangerously close to the other.
On this page, I have given only a little of the story of each creature, just enough to set it in context. All the named creatures are all well enough known that you can get lots of detail on Wikipedia if you like, except for the criocamp, and the Wikipedia page on the hippocamp covers fish-tailed monsters in general.
There are a few other monsters on coins that I would like to have, such as some snake-footed giants and the sea-monster Ketos. I asked the members of Forum if I had missed any, and they came up with lots! So I should also be able to find a winged snake, a winged lion, Triton, a harpy, Echidna herself, the bronze man Talos, and a range of un-named monstrous combinations. I thought I had a good selection here, but there is some way to go .. Most of these extra creatures appear on coins that tend to be poorly preserved, or are scarce and expensive, or both. I will add to this page if the opportunity presents itself.
A short article based on this page appeared in the Summer 2009 issue of Remus, the magazine for Young Friends of the British Museum. Most of the coins illustrated there belong to the Museum and have much better-looking monsters than mine.
|The content of this page was last updated on 21 January 2013|
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