Numism > Reading For the Advanced Collector

Coins of mythological interest

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As motto on top of this thread I have chosen the following word of Gottfried Benn ('Roman des Phänotyps'):

Aber Jahrtausende leben in unseren Seelen,
Verlorenes, Schweigendes, Staub; Kain, Zenobia,
die Atriden schwingen ihre Thyrsosruten her.

(But millenia are living in our souls,
Lost, silent, dust: Kain, Zenobia,
The Atreids sway their Thyrsos rods from afar.)

This thread should present coins in loose order with its mythological background. Please wait for some of my contributions to see how it works! The target group is not the scientific world but the interested layman as I am too. If you see errors please send me a PN. I will try to correct them.

The first coin I want to present is a coin of Caracalla. It is an AE22 from Alexandria/Troas with the depiction of Apollo Smintheus on the reverse. The legends are in Latin because this city was a Roman colony.

Apollo Smintheus

Caracalla AD 198-217
AE22, 6.1g
bust, draped and cuirassed, laureate, r.
rev. GEN CO - L - AUG TRO
Genius standing facing, head l., holding cornucopiae l. and statue of Apollo Smintheus
in his outstretched r. hand.
cf. Lindgren & Kovacs 331 (different obv. and rev. legends)
about VF

The worshipping of Apollo Smintheus interestingly extends only to Asia Minor and not the Greek mainland. Especially Alexandria/Troas was the center of this cult. This is as is generally known one of the strongest arguments for the thesis that the origin of the Apollo cult was Asia minor. Here we have the mythological  explanation:

After the fall of Troy the Greeks start to spread to the East. They settled on the Aegaen islands and the western coast of Asia Minor. The worshipping of Apollo in this region have had a curious origin. When the old Teukri under their king Teucer came from Crete to the coast of Asia Minor, the oracle have said them to stay there where they could see their enemies creeping out of the ground. When they came to Hamaxitos, a city in this region, the mice creeping out of the ground gnaw at their shields in the night. So they saw the oracle of the god fulfilled, settled down and built up a statue of Apollo and at his feet laying a mouse, which in the Aeolian dialect was called Smintha. (Ovid Met. II, 5685)

There are known two different versions of Apollo Smintheus depictions:
a. A cult statue where he stands frontal holding a mouse in his hand. This version is characteristic of Alexandria/Troas. This is depicted too on my coin. The fact that the statue is hold by the Genius of the city may be an allusion that the temple of Apollo got governmental benefits. (Pat Lawrence)
b. A cult statue where Apollo is standing l. and has a mouse under his foot. Iin Chryse there was a statue made by Scopas, showing exactly this position. This statue too could be seen on coins.

The meaning of the epitheton 'Smintheus' is interpreted different ways:
1. The origin of the name is the city of Sminthe in Troas, where Apollo was worshipped  
    already in pre-hellenic times. So Apollo Smintheus = Apollo from Sminthe.
 2. In the Aeolian dialect 'smintha' means 'mouse'. So Apollo Smintheus = the mice-god.
     The mouse in ancient times was a symbol of prophetic power because it was thought
     mice were inspired by the exhailing coming out of the gound.
3. Apollo the mice-killer. The Greek already had recognized the mice as vermin and
    worshipped Apollo as protector against mice.

I for myself tend to #2. The last I think is too rationalistic.

(will be continued)


The first mention of Apollo Smintheus is found in Homer's Ilias I, 39. The beginning of the Ilias describes how Apollo strikes the Greeks with a plague because Agamemnon has raped Chrysis, the daughter of Apollo's priest Chryses, and so has humiliated his priest.

The old man, afraid, obeyed his words, walked off in silence,
along the shore by the tumbling, crashing surf.
Some distance off, he prayed to Lord Apollo,
Leto's fair-haired child:
"God with the silver bow,
protector of Chryse, sacred Cilla, 40
mighty lord of Tenedos, Sminthean Apollo,
hear my prayer: If I've ever pleased you
with a holy shrine, or burned bones for you— [40]
bulls and goats well wrapped in fat—
grant me my prayer. Force the Danaans
to pay full price for my tears with your arrows."
So Chryses prayed. Phoebus Apollo heard him.
He came down from Olympus top enraged,
carrying on his shoulders bow and covered quiver,
his arrows rattling in anger against his arm. 50
So the god swooped down, descending like the night.
He sat some distance from the ships, shot off an arrow—
the silver bow reverberating ominously.
First, the god massacred mules and swift dogs, [50]
then loosed sharp arrows in among the troops themselves.
Thick fires burned the corpses ceaselessly.

(Translation by Ian Johnston, )

To say the Greeks have recognized the mice already as transmitters of plagues, as I have read too, I would refuse because it is the rat flea, which is transferring plague, and so the bad guy is the rat and not the mouse.

Some more information under

Der kleine Pauly
Homer, Ilias
Ovid, Metamorphosen

Thanks to Pat Lawrence for the other two coin pics!.

Best regards

Apollo Sauroktonos - The Lizardkiller

Nikopolis ad Istrum/Moesia inferior, Geta 198-202
Ae 25, 11.38mm
       bust draped, bare head r.
      Apollo, naked, laureate, with crossed legs, stg. r., r. hand raised behind holding arrow, l.     
      hand resting on tree before him; at the tree a lizard, touching Apollo
AMNG 1654, VF (lizard only partially visible due to a weak strike)

When we look at the reverse we see Apollo who looks a bit strange. We see the smiling Apollo looking relaxed at the lizard climbing a tree. But in the same moment he has already the arrow in his hand to spear this small animal. A shudder runs across our back! What's the matter with Apollo?

With this question we aim into the heart of the greek mythology. Because the greek mythological figures are not the invention of the Greeks alone, but have a long prehistory leading into dark times long ago and pointing mostly to the East, not only to ancient Asia but Sumer and Babylon. And this is fact with Apollo too!

We all know Apollo as bright god of light (Phoibos), the god of science, of the Muses and of prophecy. Nietzsche had called this 'Apollonian' in contrary to the 'Dionysian', the dark side of the libidinous and uncontrolled. Apollo so is the greek god kat' exochen. But if we look behind the curtain then we recognize strange, awful features. Already in his first days of life he strangled the Python (therefore the Pytheas in Delphi), he killed with his arrows unpitying the sons of Niobe and skinned the Marsyas. He 'is vwalking like the night' (Homer), launches the plague and assisted the Trojans against the Greek. Is the ethymology of Phobos actually 'phobos = terrible'? The Greeks were saying his name descends from 'apolymmi' (Apollo the annihilator).

He has an affinity to the chthonic-natural which we can see not only by his relations to trees and groves but to related deities too like Poseidon, Hermes, Dionysos and Hades. so he could become the master of Nymphes, Muses and other natural spirits. Bow and lyre - these two contrarion attributes characterize his ambivalent nature.

Because one of his epithetons is Lykeios, scholars has challenged an anatolian origin or his source should be Babylonian because altars were found inscribed with 'Apolunas' and cuneiform writings of 'Ap-pa-li-u-na-as' in a contract between the emperor of Wilusa and the hethitian king Muwatalli. But in the last time the name Lykeios is interpreted as 'god of the wolfs' and so the Hellenestic part of Apollo was strengthened. The result of all research is that we must confess we don't know his origin (Der kleine Pauly).   

In the mythology of Apollon I couldn't find a story with a lizard. From Pliny we know the description of a famous bronze sculpture of Praxiteles (4th century BC) named Sauroktonos, the Lizard-killer. He gave the description: A youthful Apollo standing beside a tree, holding an arrow and looking at a lizard crawling up a tree. The original sculpture is lost. We have two Roman marble copies, now in the Louvre and in the Musei Vaticani in Rome. 2004 the Cleveland museum of arts purchased a bronze sculpture which seems to be from 350-275 BC. These copies show Apollo in a bit different position than on my coin. We found this position on coins too (Look at Doug Smith's wounderful site!). But they miss the arrow Pliny mentioned in his description.

May be it is the pic of Pliny's description of the Sauroktonos of Praxiteles or may be not. But the reverse shows clearly the two sites of Apollo: Here the youthful smiling bringer of light and in the same moment the merciless killer for fun.
For a more detailed discussion see

Best regards

The statue is the copy from the Musei Vaticani.

Amphilochos - The seer

The next coin with a mythological theme is not about Apollo but about Amphilochos. It is an AE31 from Mallos in Cilicia.

Valerian I. AD 252-260
AE 31, 19.89g
bust cuirassed, laureate, r..
rev. MALLO COLONIA (lat.)
Amphilochos, nude except Chlamys, standing to l., holding laurel; at his feet
wild boar. Behind him tripod on platform with an egg(?) at top and a snake coiling around to eat the egg.
SC in ex.
SNG Levante 1298 (same obv. die); SNG France 1933 (same obv. die); BMC 13; SGIC 4498
Very rare (only 13 coins known from the time of Valerian), about VF, light roughness, small holes due to the fabrication
added to Wildwinds

Mallos was one of the oldest cities in Cilicia. It is told that the heroe Amphilochos was the founder. He was the son of Amphiaros and Eripyle and a great heroe and seer as was his father. As brother of Alkmaion he took part in the famous war of the Seven against Theben. He seems to be one of the suitors of Helena and has fightened at Troy.
Together with the seer Kalchas he traveled to Klaros near Kolophon where Kalchas was defeated by Mopsos in a competition of the seer and died of broken heart.

Mopsos, the son of Apollo and Manto, daughter of Teiresias, was the most famous seer in his time. Together with him Amphilochs founded Mallos in Cilicia. They make an arrangement for ruling Mallos alternately each for one year. Mopsos was first and Amphilochos went to his homeland Argos. When he came back a year later to take over the reign as contracted Mopsos refused and tried to chase him away. The embarassed inhabitants suggested to decide the conflict by duel. In this duel both killed each another. To avoid further controversy between the spirits of Mopsos and Amphilochos the pyres were erected to different sides.

But it happened that the spirits discontinued their controversy and joined in friendship and decided to establishe a combined oracle. This oracle in Mallos was the most famous after Delphi in ancient times, actually it is said that its oracles were more reliable than those of  Delphi. The priests got their answers in dreams and wrote them on wax plates. The price is said to be two copper coins.

Under the reign of Severus Alexander Mallos became Roman colony. Therefore the latin legends on the coin.

A discussion you can find here

Der kleine Pauly
Robert von Ranke-Graves, Greek Mythology
Kerenyi, Griechische Heroen-Sagen
Hederich, Gründliches Mythologisches Lexikon

Best regards

Apollo Lykeios

Here we have another Apollo!

Macrinus & Diadumenian AD 217-218
AE28 (Pentassarion), 11.86g
struck under the legate Furius Pontianus
       confronted busts of Macrinus, draped and laureate, l., and Diadumenian, bare-
       headed, r.
       Apollo, nude, with curled hair, standing facing, head r., holding r. hand above his
       head, bow in l. hand, r. before him a tree stump with a snake coiling around
       E in l. field
Varbanov I, pp. 91-92 No.881; Moushmov 520, pic 726
Apollo in the attitude of the so-called Lykeios, typical for Marcianopolis

In Athens we have advices of a Apollo Lykeios cult already in very early times. If you want to look at coins, where Apollo is depicted really with wolfes you had to go to Cilicia. The Apollo depicted on this coin in this attitude is connected only to Athens, where the famous sculptor Praxiteles (or perhaps Euphranor) had made this statue for a sanctuary in the 4th century BC, obviously not as cult statue but for the Temenos, the park-like temple area of the Lykeion. This famous Lykeion was situated north-east of Athens outside the city and has included not only the sanctuary of Apollon but the Gymnasion too where the Sophists were teaching, Protagoras and then Aristoteles with his scholars. This is the origin of our Lyceum.

This statue immediately became famous and was copied over and over, in this typical, sensual hand-above-head position. Because this statue is standing frontal, it could well be used in temples, or as consecration gift iside and outside the sanctuary especially if a new founded city was in need of it. Lucian writes, that Apollo was leaning at a cippus, with a bow in his l. hand and the r. hand above the head as if resting after a great effort. Pick says, due to the fact that all Marcianopolis types are showing a tree stump, that the original statue was made of bronze and therefore doesn't need any support. The copies were made of marble mostly and have the support in various ways. Today we know the original was of bronze and have had the support of the cippus too, but for compositorical reasons only. For ancient sculptures Lucian is the best source because he had seen them with his own eyes!

As additum a pic of the most beautiful Louvre statue I know which reflects exactly the type of Marcianopolis.

Here a summary of the various Lykeios interpretations:
1. Lykeios = man from Lycia. This could be a good explanation for the fact, that
   Apollo defends Troy against the Greek, what could be an advice to an
   origin in Asia Minor. This is firmed up by interpretations of Hittite inscriptions. This
   was the opinion of Wilamowitz too.
2. Lykeios from Lykos = the wolfe. Apollo Lykeios so the defender of the herdsmen
    and their sheep against robbery by wolfes. This would be an expression of an old
    animal-like looking deity, the 'Wolfe-God' Lykan-Lykurgus.
3. Lykeios = the Bright, the Shining, like Phoibos, essential identical with the
    lionshaped, Anatolean god of light Syros.

Resume: Apollon in our recent knowledge was a great bow-carrying god of healing and death of the scythic-indoeuropean northern people, who in his wolfe symbolic reveals his chthonic aspects. At the time of the indoeuropean invasions in the Aegaeis he was melted with the Letoids of Asia Minor, the son and brother consorts of the mediterranean virgin-mother Leto-Artemis. The famous god of the oracle, that he was always in historical times, keeps always a certain strange character, what would explain the estimation of the Delphic Apollo by Kroisos the famous Lydian king.

Some more contributions here

Der kleine Pauly
Hederich, Gründliches Mythologisches Lexikon

Thanks to Patricia Lawrence

Best regards


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