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|---------- Interesting Things About Ancient Coins ----------|
|Earth, Water, Fire and Air on Ancient Coins|
|You can click on any coin image to see the full coin.|
"Earth, water, fire and air, met together in a garden fair, put in a basket bound with skin" — from "Koeeoaddi there" by the Incredible String Band.
Earth, water, air and fire were the four classical philosophical elements of which it was said that all matter was made up. The idea is accredited to the philosopher Empedocles of Acragas, and formed part of the teachings of Aristotle. The concept was applied to the physical world by alchemists, and to the mystical world by many, where it can be seen in particular in Tarot card decks.
Tarot decks, like ordinary playing cards, have four suits. These are disks or coins, cups, wands or sticks, and swords. These suits represent the four elements, and although it may not be immediately obvious, so do the four suits of normal playing card decks.
Disks and coins represent earth, and so does the suit of diamonds, which originated not as precious stones, but as paving tiles. Cups and hearts represent water. Sticks and clubs represent fire, because wood can be burned. And swords, which slice so easily through air, represent that element. The name "spades" is an adaptation of the Italian word for swords.
Quite coincidentally, symbols for the elements can be found on ancient coins, especially if you use the Tarot symbols. This is a pure coincidence, and there is no actual connection between these coins and the Tarot. But it is easy to put together a small symbolic set, and here is just such a grouping, along with some more general symbols.
So, the coin at the top right, showing Perseus with his shiny sword, is obviously an air coin. In fact, this particular sword with its hooked attachment is an adapted sickle, called a harpa. The harpa is often shown with Perseus, who in legend used it to kill the gorgon Medusa. It is also often shown being carried by Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture. Some coins, like the small bronze shown at the top left, show a harpa alone.
The hooked sword used by Perseus is significant because it suggests his background as a hero, the killer of an evil creature. There are also several other ancient coin types that show people with swords. Here are two examples.
On the far left is a Roman Republican denarius showing the elder M. Sergius Silus holding both a sword and the head he has severed with it. He had only one hand, and on that coin, the sword shows his indomitable spirit and fighting ability. Next to it is a more peaceful scenario; a Sasanian drachm showing a Zoroastrian fire altar with two attendants, each resting on a long sword, both hands on the hilt. On that coin, the swords are ceremonial and are part of the regalia that pays honour to the altar.
The Tarot suit of earth uses disks or coins as its symbols, so all coins have that earth symbolism. But we can get a bit closer than that, because there are several coins that show a globe which represents both the world and the entire cosmos.
On the near right is a denarius with a personification of eternity holding up just such a globe, and apparently gazing at it with relaxed confidence. This is demonstrated by her attitude as she leans on that column.
The coin on the far right shows the emperor Constans holding a globe, to show his dominion over the whole world.
But we can get even closer than that. The coin on the left is a denarius of Hadrian showing Tellus, a personification of the earth. She is holding a plough and a rake, and the fruits of the fertile ground, in the shape of two ears of corn, are behind her.
This coin celebrates Hadrian's steady rule. The legend, TELLVS STABIL, the stability of the earth, is sometimes thought to relate to the aftermath of an earthquake, but that is not likely. It is the stability of the empire that is being advertised, with the fruitful earth as its consequence.
Fire would be represented in the Tarot by a coin showing a staff or a club. There are many Roman coins that show tall sceptres, which would serve the purpose, but on the near right is a rather better one; a bronze coin of Alexander the Great which features Herakles' club along with his bow and arrows.
This club does not look particularly flammable, but is nevertheless a perfectly good Tarot symbol of fire.
Herakles, or Hercules as the Romans called him, was almost always shown with his club, which actually symbolised his strength. The bow and arrows were used on one of his famous twelve labours, the sixth, when he slew the Stymphalian birds.
Moving away from the Tarot, the next three coins are more explicit, so much so that symbolism is hardly the right word. They show goddesses carrying burning torches.
Above, on the far right, is a bronze Greek coin showing a goddess whose torch shows that she clearly has some relationship to Diana. On the far left is Diana holding two torches on a Roman Republican denarius. The coin on the near left is a denarius of Julia Domna, wife of the Roman emperor Septimius Severus, with the very explict legend DIANA LVCIFERA, Diana the bringer of light.
These torches are typically segmented bundles of reeds, which you can see quite clearly on the Republican denarius, so not quite a staff or stick. But they are still excellent fire coins.
There are quite a few coins that make good candidates to symbolise water. On the near right is a small silver trihemiobol from Thasos, and it shows a volute krater, which was a large vessel used to mix wine and water ready to drink at social gatherings, rather the way a punch-bowl might be used these days, but bigger. The one shown on this coin was quite likely a chunky bronze object that would stand in the centre of the room, while people dipped their drink from it with cups.
On the far right, another trihemiobol from Thasos showing a satyr holding a kantharos, exactly the type of cup that would have dipped the watered wine from the krater.
Liquid being poured is an excellent water symbol. On the far left, the god of wine, Liber, pours from a kantharos while his panther looks up in anticipation.
Next to that is a follis of the emperor Galerius Maximianus, showing Genius, who represents the spirit of the emperors, pouring a libation from a shallow sacrificial dish. The libation is usually described as "liquor."
Water pouring from cups is the purest Tarot representation. But looking more widely, the final coin may be even better.
It shows the goddess Dea Celestis riding a lion, which is jumping over a stream of water which is flowing from a rock on the left. This is sometimes thought to represent the building of an aqueduct in Carthage, but no suitable aqueduct has (yet) been identified.
This is a little confused in Tarot terms. Many Tarot decks use the image of a woman taming a lion to represent strength, and sometimes she is riding the lion (as in Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot deck). That has little to do with water imagery. In any case, my personal favourite is the left-hand coin above, showing Liber and his panther.
I enjoy interesting symbolism, but perhaps I should repeat that none of these coins can possibly actually have anything to do with the Tarot, which was invented more than a millennium after they were made! Tarot decks were first developed around 1400 CE.
|The content of this page was last updated on 17 July 2009|
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