Medusa / Gorgons

A frequently encountered mythological type on ancient coins is Medusa, best known of the three Gorgon sisters. Known for their frightful ugliness, Gorgons could turn a man to stone with a glance. Medusa and her sisters Stheno and Euryale were beautiful maidens turned ugly by a jealous Athena. On coins, Gorgons are shown as a full face head, often with a protruding tongue. Some, mostly later, images show their hair as a tangled mass of snakes.

Probus - Silvered bronze antoninianus - 276-283 AD - Rome mint
Military bust with decorated shield / Roma seated in temple

Our Featured Coin makes use of Medusa's fear inducing ugliness as an appropriate motif for the shield carried by Probus. These pages have shown several different shield designs for this Emperor and once Featured a coin with a tiny Medusa head on the Emperor's breastplate. Other than this fancy shield this coin is an ordinary Rome mint antoninianus and does not require extensive discussion here. We can, however, note that the nearly full silvering on this coin shows almost no wear. The weak details on high points of the head and the reverse figure inside the temple was caused by the thin planchet failing to fill the die detail. This is a coin that might be graded only a nice Fine for detail or called nearly mint state or 'as struck' depending on how you view the situation. The face of Medusa could be struck more fully but, at least, still shows the snakes for hair.

More common than our Roman Medusa are examples from the Greek cities of the Archaic and Classical periods. These Gorgons (how you can tell Medusa from her sisters is unclear to me) vary considerably in details of the round, full frontal ugliness. This early fifth century BC fourree stater of Neopolis, Macedon, is executed in high relief with a thick silver layer that withstood much wear before breaking through to the core. This wear has removed much tongue detail but considerable ugliness remains. The coin (like most early Gorgons) never showed anything that could be considered snakes for hair.

A special category of numismatic Medusas was produced by several cities in the southern Black Sea region c. 100 BC. Our example is from Amisos in Pontos. This large (28mm diameter) bronze shows Perseus killing Medusa. The hero is shown with a sword in one hand and the freshly severed Gorgon head in the other. At his feet lies the body with blood gushing from the neck. This is much more than numismatic gore. The tale of Medusa specified that blood from her right side was gathered and used by Asklepios to restore life but that blood from her left side was a deadly poison. Pegasus, the winged horse, was said to have sprung from the severed neck. Showing the gushing blood (the arch shaped lines to the right of the head) was an important part of the scene. Unfortunately, these reasonably common coins are rarely well struck across the entire flan. Many examples, like ours here, barely show the corpse on the ground. On the obverse is a head of Athena wearing a helmet decorated with Pegasus.

Our few coins showing Medusa provides just one example of what is known as 'Thematic' collecting. A related and popular theme is 'monsters and mythological beasts on coins'. Similarly a collection could be based on coins relating in some way to the story of Perseus. In addition to the Gorgon coins shown here one would add coins from places he visited and showing the gods that helped him defeat the Gorgons. Other collections could follow the story of the Odyssey, the Aenead or countless other tales from mythology. Coins could be selected in any way that seemed appropriate to the individual collector.

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