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Coins of mythological interest

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Tracy Aiello:

I enjoy reading these threads of yours. Great work. Informative and interesting.



Thank you for your comment!


Lykurgos and the nymph Ambrosia

Dear friends of ancient mythology!

The botanical season, in which I roamed through meadows and forests almost daily as a volunteer mapper for the Stuttgart Natural History Museum to discover new plants, is coming to an end. Now I have more time again to take care of numismatics and ancient mythology. And finally I have found a coin worthy of being presented here. Its condition is suboptimal, but it is one of the rarer ones.

The coin:
Syria, Coele-Syria, Damascus, Trebonianus Gallus, AD 252-253
AE 25, 9.20g
         Bust, draped and cuirassed, seen from behind, laureate, r. 
        The nymph Ambrosia, nude, standing frontally, head n. r., holding in both hands   
        Vines, her feet growing out of the earth.
Ref.: RPC IX, 1949 (there are several slight variations of the rev. image, here e.g. the 
         grapes below the elbows)

The Hyades
The Hyades, from Greek. Hyades (= "who make it rain"), were nymphs of Greek mythology, already mentioned by Homer in the Iliad. As a constellation, the Hyades are found as a V-shaped star cluster in the constellation of Taurus. The largest star among them is Aldebaran at the bottom left.
(see picture)
There were already different views in antiquity about their number and their lineage. In Hesiod there were five. According to Hygin, the Okeanide Pleione (or Aithra) gave birth to 12 daughters and the son Hyas to Atlas. When the latter was killed in the hunt, Zeus placed seven of them in the starry sky as Pleiades, and the other five, who had especially wept for him, as Hyades.

Pherekydes knows seven:  Ambrosia, Eudora, Pedile, Koronis, Polyxo, Phyto and Thyone. Their mother was Boiotia. Among them we now find our Ambrosia. They looked after Dionysus in his childhood and their role was probably thought to parallel that of the nymphs Adrasteia and Ide, who raised and guarded little Zeus on Crete. 

The nymph Ambrosia
In describing the coin, Barclay Head writes to the reverse "Maenad(?)" and indeed, for certain identification, a reference to the terrible fate of Ambrosia, who is not depicted on the coin, is missing. Nevertheless, I adopt here the description from RPC IX, 1949, which Leu Numismatik also did. That the nymph's legs grow out of the earth is very unusual and could be a reference to Gaia, who plays a not insignificant role in the tale of Nonnos.

There are also different genealogies for Ambrosia, Greek Ambrosia (= "immortal", with emphasis on the i(!). In Hygin she was the daughter of Pleione and Atlas. She became a Dodonaean nymph and a nurse of Dionysus. In Nonnos she became the companion of the wine god Dionysus, a maenad.

The most impressive description of her fate is found in Nonnos (Dionysiaka, lib. 21). These events took place after Dionysus had passed through Thrace on his way east or on his return from India.

Lykurgos, King of Thrace
Lykurgos appears in all mythologies as a fanatical opponent of Dionysus. Most often, Lykurgos is used to refer to the mythical king of the Edonians in Thrace. When Dionysus wanted to go from Asia across the Hellespont back to Europe, Lykurgos offered him his friendship. But when Dionysus translated his maenads first, Lykurgus ordered them all to be killed along with Dionysus. Dionysus, however, was warned by a man called Tharops and just managed to escape to the other side of the Hellespont. His companions, the Maenads, were all killed on the orders of Lykurgus. Here the name Ambrosia already appears. After Dionysus had crossed with his army, a battle took place in which Lykurgos was defeated and captured. Dionysus had his eyes gouged out and crucified. He handed over his kingdom to Tharops (Diodorus Siculus).

In another version it is said that Lykurgus taunted Dionysus and finally chased him away, but captured his companions. Then Dionysus struck Lykurgus with madness, so that he mistook his son Dryas for a vine, struck him down with an axe and cut off his own feet until he regained his senses. A great barrenness then came over his land and the oracle answered that it would only end when Lykurgus had shed his mortality. Then the Edons led him to Mount Pangaios and had him torn apart by horses (Apollodor).

Others tell that he did not want to acknowledge Dionysus as a god, and when he was drunk with wine and wanted to rape his own mother, he thought the wine was poison and ordered all the vines to be uprooted. Then Dionysus drove him mad, so that he slew his wife and son and cut off one of his own feet, which he thought was a vine. Then Dionsos throw him ro his panthers on the mountain of Rhodopes (Hygin. Fab.).

There are other versions of his end. But even though Dionysus always had to flee from him at the beginning, he was able to capture him afterwards. He had him bound and scourged with vines so violently that Lykurgos had to shed tears. These fell to the ground and cabbage grew from them. This is still today an enemy of the vine.(Schol. Aristoph. in Equis.)

In the oldest story (Homer, Iliad) he pursued the nurses of little Dionysus on Mount Nysa. These threw their thyrses to the ground, while Lykurgus wounded them with his hatchet. Little Dionysus threw himself into the sea, where Thetis picked him up and comforted him. The gods were enraged by the atrocity and struck Lykurgos with blindness. Shortly afterwards he died.

There was a tragedy about him by Aeschylus, but it has not survived.

Already Diodoros, who reports the battle between Lykurgos and Dionysos, states that Antimachos transferred this battle to Arabia. This was taken up by Nonnos in his extensive work "Dionysiaka". He narrates:

On its way to India, his army reached Arabia via Tyros, Byblos and Lebanon. There a son of Ares ruled, the terrible Lykurgos, who slew all strangers and wanderers, slaughtered them and decorated his palace with their limbs. Lykurgos pursued the female companions of Dionysus, here called Bassarides (after Greek "Bassaris" = "fox fur", which they wore like the Nebris, the deer skin) and took up the fight against them. In particular, the maenad Ambrosia, one of the Hyades, resisted him valiantly; almost overcome, she was transformed into a vine by Gaia, Mother Earth. With her tendrils she inextricably entwined herself around Lykurgos, and since by Rheia's grace human speech was preserved for her, she mockingly addressed her opponent. Ares could not free his son, but at least took the divine battle-axe from him. The Maenads surrounded the bound opponent and scourged him cruelly. At Rheia's request, Poseidon caused an earthquake in Arabia. At the same time, the inhabitants of Arabia, the "Nysaeans", were seized with madness, so that they killed and slaughtered their own children. The maltreated Lykurgos did not bow to Dionysus, but persisted in his defiance of all the gods. At last Hera took pity on him, cut the tendrils of ambrosia and thus freed Lykurgos. He was later blinded by Zeus, but the Arabs worshipped him as a god with sacrifices. Ambrosia, however, ascended from the earth into the sky and was transferred to the constellation of the Hyades.

This would have been a nice theme for Ovid's "Metamorphoses", but Nonnos lived almost 500 years after Ovid!

And now it also becomes geographically understandable that this motif with Ambrosia was struck precisely on coins from Damascus. Otherwise Damascus only appears once: On his way to India, the king of Damascus confronted him on the Euphrates. He was flayed alive (Ranke-Graves). But I have not been able to find out anything more about this.

Art history:
The motif of Ambrosia has been taken up several times in ancient art. I have selected the following pictures:

(1) This image is from an Apulian red-figure vase from the Late Classical period, c. 330 BC, and is now in the Staatl. Antikensammlung, Munich.
King Lycurgus holds the body of Ambrosia, whom he has just slain with his sword. The angry god summons an Erinnye to drive him mad. She is depicted as a winged huntress whose arms and hair are draped with poisonous snakes. Dionysus wears elaborate clothing with high boots and holds a tree branch in his hand.  Behind him, the thyrsos of a maenad is still visible. This vase does not have the vine tendrils that are present on our coin and so typical of the Nonnos narrative.
(see picture)

(2) The mosaic pictured above was found in Herculaneum and is now in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. It shows the king of Thrace, Lycurgus, the enemy of Dionysus, attacking the nymph Ambrosia. The latter is in the process of transforming herself into a vine and binding Lycurgus with her shoots to deliver him to the vengeance of Dionysus. It seems to grow out of the earth, which is reflected in the depiction on our coin. So at this time the version that Nonnos later adopted is already known!
(see picture)

Ambrosia, the food of the gods
We already know that Ambrosia means "immortal" in Greek. And so Ambrosia was the food reserved for the immortals. Whoever ate it became immortal himself. This happened to Tantalus, for example, and Thetis anointed her son Achilles with Ambrosia to make him immortal.

The first to receive ambrosia was Zeus, to whom it was brought by wild doves from the mountain tops of Crete. In Homer, the terms "ambrosia" and "nectar" are still interchangeable. Later, ambrosia was used to refer to food and nectar to refer to something to drink.

Ambrosia was used as food, drink, balm, ointment and as a remedy. It was famous for its fragrance and would have tasted sweet. Rationalists thought it was honey, e.g. Roscher: "This fits wonderfully with honey, which was also conceived as a gift from the gods." The nymph Ambrosia would then have been the personification of honeydew.

The immortal horses were also fed with ambrosia. This has also been inferred the other way round: since horses are usually fed oats, ambrosia could simply have been oatmeal!

The idea of nectar and ambrosia serves the human desire for immortality, present from early on in all cultures, and for a magic cure to achieve it. This is back in a big way today, when ageing is seen as a disease, as seen in the billions spent on anti-ageing products. Behind the desire for eternal life, however, the present is too often forgotten.

Ragweed, an allergenic neophyte
As an amateur botanist, I would like to conclude by mentioning the mugwort ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia), or ragweed for short. This is an invasive neophyte and originates from the Mediterranean region. It has been known in Germany since 1860, but as a field weed it was always tied to humans. Since the 1990s, it began to spread under its own steam and has now become a major threat. Typical features are its strong branching and tall inflorescences. Its pollen has a strong allergenicity that is 5x higher than that of grass pollen. Truly no food of gods!

(1) Pherekydes of Syros (* between 584 and 581 BC on the island of Syros, one of the Cyclades) was an ancient Greek mythographer and cosmologist in the time of the Pre-Socratics. .
(2) Nonnos of Panopolis was a Byzantine poet of the 5th century. He is considered the author of the Dionysiaka, the last great epic of antiquity. In 48 books or cantos and approx. 21,300 hexameters, he describes the triumphant march of Dionysus to India.
(3) Dodona in Northern Greece was an ancient Greek sanctuary and oracle. It was considered the oldest oracle in Greece and, after Delphi, the largest supra-regional oracle in the Greek world. The rustling of an oak tree sacred to Zeus was used for divination, and later the flight of doves was also used for divination.
(4) Antimachos of Kolophon was a Greek poet and grammarian who lived around 450 BC.  He is considered one of the founders of the epic.
(5) Nysa is considered to be the place where Dionysus was raised and nourished by nymphs. This is probably only a figment of the imagination. Later, various places were called Nysa. Nonnos relocates Nysa to Arabia.
(6) A neophyte is a plant that only naturalised in Europe after 1492. A neophyte is invasive if it spreads uncontrollably.

(1)  Homer,  Ilias
(2)  Apollodor,  Bibliotheka
(3)  Hyginus,  Fabulae,  De  astronomia
(4)  Nonnos,  Dionysiaka

Secondary literature:
(1) Heinrich-Wilhelm Roscher, Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie, 1884
(2) Benjamin Hederich, Gründliches mythologisches Lexikon,  1770  (Nachdruck)
(3) Barclay  Head,  Historia  Numorum (online Version von  Ed  Snible)
(4) Der  Kleine  Pauly

Internet sources:
(1)  Wikipedia
(3)  RPC  IX

Best regards

Eos and her unhappy loves

The coin
Roman Republic, L. Plautius Plancus, gens Plautia
AR - Denarius, 3.54g, 17mm, 210°.
        Rome, 47 BC
Obv.: Mask of Medusa with dishevelled hair ending in coiled serpents.
         below L.PLAVTIVS   
Rev.: Victoria (or Aurora), winged, holding palm branch, head slightly left., flying
         right, holding the reins and leading the 4 sun-horses
         below PLANCVS
Ref.: Crawford 453/1a; CRI 29; Sydenham 959; Plautia 15
CNG, 19.9.2012 (my own coin was too eccentric).

About the coin:
Lucius Plautius Plancus was the brother of L. Munatius Plancus, who was Praefectus Urbi under Caesar in 45 BC and 2 years later, as Proconsul of Gallia Comata, founded the Colonia of Lugdunum (now Lyon). Plautius Plancus was born Gaius Munatius Plancus, but then adopted by Lucius Plautius, whose name he took retaining only the cognomen of his original name. The unusual elegance of the reverse type of his silver denarii suggests that their design was based on a special work of art and this may have been a painting by the celebrated painter Nicimachus of Thebes, which was hung in the Capitol by L. Munatius Plancus on the occasion of the celebration of his Gallic triumph in 43 BC. This remarkable painting may have been in the possession of the mintmaster during his tenure and was then reproduced as a coin type to celebrate Caesar's military successes in 48 and 47 BC. In the course of Plautius' proscription during the triumvirate of 43 BC, which led to his execution and the confiscation of his property, it may have come into the possession of his brother Munatius Plancus; there is a strong suspicion that Munatius was responsible for Plautius' tragic end. The significance of the head of Medusa on the obverse still awaits a convincing explanation, although it is probably related to the history of the family into which the mintmaster was adopted (CNG).

Eos (Greek ηως) is linguistically and factually related to the Indian ushas and the Latin aurora from the root -us (= to burn, to shine), in that a Graeco-Italic form ausos is assumed.

The parents of Eos are the Titan Hyperion and the Titan Theia (Hesiod, Apollodor), or Aithra (Hygin), also Titan and Earth, or she is the daughter of Pallas (Ovid Fasten). Her siblings are Selene and Helios, Sleep and Death.

Picture #1:
Detail from the ceiling painting in the Villa Ludovisi in Rome with the Sun Chariot of Aurora (1621), Guercino. Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (1591-1666), better known as Guercino, was an Italian painter of the Baroque period. The frescoes of the Aurora in the casino of Villa Ludovisi date from his period in Rome.

Every morning she rises from the camp of her husband Tithonos and ascends from the Okeanos (according to Homer Odyssey 12,4 she has her dwelling on Aiaia) with her team of horses Lampos (bright shine) and Phaeton (the radiant one) and rides across the sky in front of her brother Helios. She only finishes her orbit in the evening and thus signifies not only the morning, but also noon and the whole day (hemera). Her beautiful poetic epithets, the rose-fingered and the saffron-robed, correspond to the colours of the sky at dawn, when the sun covers the sky in long stripes. The horse-drawn carriage is an expression of her speed.

Eos is notorious for her love affairs. Later it was even said that Aphrodite had put a curse on her because she had surprised her in a love affair with Ares.

1) The myth of Tithonos
Tithonos was a Trojan prince, the son of the Trojan Laomedon and thus brother of Priam, but by a different mother, Rhoio (also called Strymo), a daughter of Scamander. He is the only one who, unlike her other loves, was called her husband.

According to the Lesser Iliad, Ganymedes is a brother of Tithonos. Eos also kidnapped him. But he was taken away from her by Zeus, who brought him to Olympus as a lover and cupbearer.

Since Tithonos did not take part in his brother's affairs of government, his main occupation was hunting, to which he set out every morning before sunrise. Then he left Phrygia and offered himself to Teutames in Assyria. Teutames received him kindly and made him his commander.  According to Diodorus, he had founded Susa.

When Eos once saw him in battle, she was so overcome by his beauty that she fell in love with him and carried him off in her golden chariot to Ethiopia, where they lived happily in Aiaia or Aethiops on the eastern edge of the Okeanos.

Picture #2
Eos pursues the young Tithonos, who holds a lyre. From an Attic red-figure kylix, Classical period, 470-460 BC, attributed to the Penthesilaos painter.  Today in the British Museum/London.

Eos loved him so much that she asked the gods to grant him immortality. But she forgot to wish him eternal youth as well. So he grew older and weaker. Nevertheless, she remained tenderly attached to him. Finally he had to be locked up in a room, put in a cradle and nursed and fed like a little child. He finally begged Eos to be allowed to die, but she could not grant him this request. Instead, she turned him into a cicada and hung him in a basket in the air so that she could at least still hear his voice.

Picture #3
Aurora and the old Tithonus (1634-1635), painting by Giovanni da San Giovanni, today in the Uffizi/Florence. Giovanni da San Giovanni (1592-1636) was an Italian Baroque painter who worked mainly in Florence.

Tithonos is the allegory of the freshly beginning, then wearily ending day (Preller), the decrepit old man. The cicada is a symbol of the old people who can no longer do anything themselves, but who constantly talk about all the things they used to do. The motif of the incomplete request is a fairy-tale motif (Pauly).

Eos begat Memnon and Emathion with Tithonos. Both were kings of Aethopia. Emathion was killed by Heracles. Memnon was given a golden vine by Priam to help him against the Greeks before Troy, and then went to Troy with a huge army. In a duel he was killed by Achilles with a spear. Eos wept for him so much that her tears fell to the earth as dew. After his death, he was worshipped especially in Egyptian Thebes. His particular statues were made of black marble and were famous for making a graceful sound at sunrise, as if rejoicing in the presence of Eos, but a deeply sad sound at sunset, as if mourning her departure. In fact, these statues are images of Amenophis III, one of which was split. When Severus had them restored, they fell silent.

2) The legend of Kephalos and Prokris
Kephalos was the son of Hermes and Herse, or Dejoneus, king of Phocis, and Diomede. He was of immense beauty, so that when he was once hunting on Mount Hymettos, Eos robbed him and carried him off to Syria.

Picture #4
Eos abducts the young Cephalus holding a lyre
Attic red-figure lekytos, Classical period, 470-460 BC, attributed to the Oinocles painter. Today in the Museo Arqueologico Nacional de Espana (MAN)/Madrid.

But his real wife was Prokris, the daughter of Erechtheus and Praxithea, whom he loved so much that he could not forget her. This angered Eos and she released him, but told him that the time would come when he would not wish to see his Prokris. Then he suspected that she had been unfaithful to him, and he wanted to put her to the test. With the help of Eos, he disguised himself and wooed his own wife with rich gifts until she did his bidding. When he revealed himself, she was so ashamed that she fled and went to Crete to King Minos. When she cured him of a serious illness, he gave her the dog Lailaps, from which no one could escape, and an infallible spear. According to another version, she received both miraculous weapons from Artemis, to whom she had taken refuge. With these she went back to Attica, reconciled with her husband and gave him the dog and the spear. But when Kephalos went hunting incessantly, she became suspicious that he was cheating on her again with Eos. She crept after him and heard him calling for "Aura", which confirmed her suspicions. When she rustled in the bushes, Kephalos thought it was a deer and threw his spear at her, killing her. For this murder he was exiled by the Areopagus and finally came with Amphitryon to the island of Kephalonia, which was named after him. He is also said to have gone with Lailaps, the wonder-dog, in pursuit of the Teumessian fox that was ravaging Thebes and that no one could catch. To escape the dilemma, the fox and the hound were then turned into stone by Zeus.

This non-homeric story is told at length by Ovid in his Metamorphoses (Ovid met. 7, 672). In fact, Kephalos called in Greek for "Nephele", a cooling cloud, which Prokris misunderstood as a girl's name.

In general, the story of Kephalos and Prokris is the fusion of various independent sagas (Roscher).

Picture #5
Piero the Cosimo (1461-1512), The Death of Prokris (c. 1490). Today in the National Gallery in London.

3) Astraios
With the Titan Astraios, son of Krios and Eurybia, Eos begot the main winds Argestes, Zephyros, Boreas and Notos (Hesiod), a myth based on the observation that the winds seem to come from above, i.e. from the stars. According to Apollodorus, she also fathered the stars with him, including the morning star Eosphoros (= Lucifer), who walks before her in the morning and sets with her in the evening.

4) Orion
It is said (Apollodorus) that Eos also once abducted the mighty hunter Orion and brought him to Ortygia, the island where Artemis was born. There are many, also contradictory, stories about his death. In one, the gods envy her possession and Artemis is said to have killed him with an arrow out of jealousy of Eos (Homer, Odyssey). There Calypso laments the jealousy of the celestials.

Other lovers included
5) Kleitos, the son of Mantion and father of Koiranos, who was abducted by Eos because of his beauty to dwell among the immortals (Homer Od. 15, 249).

Eos plays no cultic role. Even the ancients had difficulty distinguishing between a personification and the actual natural phenomenon.

Of the many literary adaptations of the Tithonos theme, I list only two here:

(1) The Tithonos poem by Sappho.
This poem belongs to the late work of Sappho. It was first published in 1922 after a papyrus fragment was discovered at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt. The fragments of the Cologne papyri from the 3rd century BC, published in 2004, contain only 12 lines of the poem, but complete it almost in its entirety and attracted international attention. This poem is one of very few essentially complete works by Sappho and deals with the effects of ageing, which must have been of great concern to Sappho:
"Often I sigh over it. But what can I do? Ageless, if one is human, one cannot become."

 (2) In "Tithonus" by Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892), Tithonus complains that he is neither mortal nor immortal.

(1) Nikomachos of Thebes, famous for his rapid painting, worked in the middle and 2nd half of the 4th century B.C. Among his pupils was the even more rapid Philoxenos of Eretria. Nothing is known of his style, although the Victoria quadrigam in sublime raptens (called "Aurora" by Sydenham) on denarii of L. Plautius Plancus is related.
(2) Little Iliad ("Ilias mikra"), belonging to the Epic Cycle. This cycle includes the epics which represent the prehistory of the Iliad and the stories of the homecomings (Nostoi). The time of origin is the 7th/6th century BC, the authorship is disputed.
(3) Aiaia, mythical islands in the west and east of the Okeanos. The western one was considered the residence of Kirke and the dancing place of Eos after her demise in the west.

(1) Homer, Odyssey
(2) Hesiod, Theogony
(3) Apollodor, Bibliotheka
(4) Hyginus, Fabulae
(5) Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite
(6) Pausanias, Periegesis
(7) Ovid, Metamorphoses
(8) Vergil, Aeneid

Secondary literature:
(1) Wilhelm Heinrich Roscher, Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie, Teubner 1889.
(2) Benjamin Hederich, Gründliches mythologisches Lexikon, Leipzig 1770 (also online)
(3) Ludwig Preller, Greek Mythology, 1894-1926
(4) Karl Kerenyi, The Mythology of the Greeks, dtv
(4) Der Kleine Pauly, dtv

Internet sources:
(2) Wikipedia

Best regards


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