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|---------- Interesting Things About Ancient Coins ----------|
|Snakes on a Coin|
|You can click on any coin image to see the full coin.|
Modern coins have a limited range of subjects compared to ancient ones. Those old coin engravers drew from the fantastic worlds of mythology to produce the messages that their coins were to spread. And there are few subjects richer with meaning and with more variety in execution than the incorporation of snakes into the design.
The denarius of Julius Caesar on the right shows a snake in probably the nearest way to which we think of them today; deadly, often repulsive, perhaps evil. This snake is being trampled by an elephant, and this scene is often interpreted as representing Pompeius Magnus, Caesar's enemy, being crushed.
But snakes, mostly, did not have these negative connotations in the ancient world. Some represented deities; some scared away evil; some lived in temples of healing; and they meant new life and regeneration, from the way they could shed their skins and appear bright and new.
Here is a quick slither through some of the ways snakes and serpents appeared on ancient coins.
Today, snakes are still associated with health through their appearance on the staff of Asklepios, known as Aesculapius to the Romans.
That staff also, perhaps originally, belonged to Asklepios' father, the god Apollo. Apollo was also a healing deity.
The coin on the far left, from the provincial town of Serdica, shows Apollo, and next to it is an Imperial denarius, also of Caracalla, showing Aesculapius.
They can be distinguished because Apollo is nude, as a major deity may be, whereas Aesculapius (and Asklepios) were always clothed, though often bare to the waist.
Asklepios and Aesculapius both appeared on many coins with their serpent staff. Sometimes they hold food for the snake in their hand.
Asklepios' daughter, Hygeia, was said to be his helper. While Asklepios cured the sick, Hygeia's role was to maintain general health and welfare, and she also tended his snakes. It is from her that we get the word "hygiene."
In Rome, the minor goddess Salus took on the same role and was depicted in the same way; either standing or seated, feeding a snake, sometimes with the snake cradled in her arms.
The denarius of Macrinus on the near right, dating from 217-218 CE, shows Salus, as does the much more stylised coin of Victorinus on the far right, from 271 CE. On that third coin, the snake is so stylised that it does not even appear to have a head.
There is more detail, and many more such coins, on my Salus page.
There were several famous temples and sanctuaries of Asklepios in the Hellenic world, dedicated to healing. By the 4th century CE the cult was very popular.
The one known best through ancient coins was the long-established sanctuary at Pergamon.
Visitors would sleep in the sacred enclosure and would be visited by the deity in their dreams. Snakes were allowed to roam within this enclosure.
Pergamon produced a range of coins showing Asklepios and his snakes. On the near right is one without any legend, which for this reason is sometimes thought to be a temple token rather than actual currency.
It shows a snake winding its way up a staff, undoubtedly the staff of Asklepios, a symbol which also appeared on coins elsewhere.
Athough this type was long thought to have come from Pergamon, is it possible that it actually came from a different temple of Asklepios at a later time.
The coin on the far right is definitely currency from Pergamon. This one also shows a snake climbing a staff, but the staff had an odd semicircular feature in the centre, through which the snake's body passes. This has made some people conjecture that it could be a temple key rather than a plain staff. It would be a large and, to our eyes, very crude key, but suited to its time and purpose.
On the far left is yet another snake, this one encircling a sacred stone. There were many such stones in the ancient world, and this one is clearly the Omphalos of Delphi, which was sited close to the Delphic Oracle's prophetic chamber at the centre of Apollo's power. You can see the netting or agrenon of plain wool which encloses the stone. The connection hinted at here is that Asklepios was said to have been an assistant to Apollo, a much more powerful deity who also had healing powers.
On the near left is a variation of this type with an owl seated on the back of the snake. The owl represents the goddess Athena. There are two possible reasons for its presence. One is that Athena was supposed to have given Asklepios blood from the gorgon Medusa, which had powerful properties. Blood from the right side could heal, or even revive from death; blood from the left side was deadly poison. So the design might represent Asklepios (the snake), and the two gods from whom his powers derived. It is also possible that the owl was a reference to Pergamon's sanctuary of Athena.
The latter three coins have the legend AΣKLHΠIOY ΣΩTHPOΣ, Of Asklepios the Saviour, and all four show his head on the obverse. They originated in the 2nd century BCE.
Glycon the snake god was invented in the second century CE, and revealed to an admiring populace by one Alexander of Abonutichus. The satirist Lucian of Samosata claimed that the snake-god was a hand puppet, and certainly no natural snake would have had Glycon's manlike face and blond hair.
There were other snake cults originating in Macedonia, and Glycon could have been just another of these. But the cult of Glycon spread, and later, even Marcus Aurelius looked to it for a prophecy.
There are many coiled snakes on ancient coins of the eastern Roman provinces. On the smaller coins they look like ordinary snakes, but the larger ones are often unnatural in several ways, showing their supernatural origins. They might have been intended as representations of Glycon himself, even though they don't have his flowing locks, or they might be images of other local snake deities.
On the coin of Plautilla, the snake has a beard and a forked tail. The snake on the coin of Philip II on the right has a flickering forked tongue — but this is natural, unlike its beard and crest.
Medusa was an ugly and deadly female, one of the three Gorgons, and the only one who was mortal.
The legend goes that she was either surrounded by snakes, or had snakes for hair. Her gaze killed anyone she looked upon by turning them to stone.
So her image appeared on many ancient coins, some very early, to turn away evil from the coins and their makers. The coin on the left, from Apollonia Pontika in the 5th century BCE, has just such an image, and it has even been pierced, probably for use as a personal apotropaic (protective) amulet.
After she was killed by the hero Perseus, her head was taken to be mounted on the aegis, the shield or breastplate of the goddess Athena. The coin on the right, from Baktria in the second century BCE, shows the aegis as a rather floppy goatskin shield, with snakes all around the edge and the gorgon's face in the centre; in this version, rather unnaturally separated from the rest of her head.
But the aegis was also often shown as a breastplate or a cloak.
The coin on the near right, from Thyateira in the 3rd century CE, is one of many that show a lobed and scaled breastplate with the gorgon's head in the centre.
On the far edge, three snakes rise up, and in combination with that deadly head, these would have been a potent protection for the wearer.
The aegis was famous in antiquity, and Roman emperors were often shown wearing it as a symbol of their godlike power and personal invulnerability.
Usually, on coins, you can see little more than a ruffled object on the wearer's left breast, but on a few, like the denarius of Hadrian to the right from 117 CE, you can clearly see a cluster of snake's heads writhing below the emperor's face.
Later coins sometimes showed a simple gorgoneion, without snakes, on the emperor's breastplate.
Hermes, the Greek messenger god, had a staff or wand, the kerykeion, which had two snakes knotted around it so that their heads faced each other.
Mercury, the Roman god who had almost the same attributes, had the same device, called by the Romans a caduceus.
The coin on the left, an antoninianus of Postumus, shows a good clear example. The caduceus and the kerykeion were both often shown winged, like this.
It is conjectured that these snakes are an elaboration, and perhaps originally an artist's misunderstanding, of the ribbons which used to wrap a herald's wand.
Mercury and Hermes were almost always shown with their wand. The middle coin, an antoninianus of Gallienus, shows a typical image. Here, Mercury is shown with wings on his head rather than his caduceus. These wings symbolised speed rather than the power of flight.
You will also notice Mercury's purse. With his speed and ability to travel far, he came to be a god of trade and prosperity, and his caduceus alone came to symbolise the same thing. So on Roman coins showing Felicitas, the personification of happiness was shown with a caduceus, as on the denarius of Trajan on the right. Felicitas also carries a cornucopia, symbolising abundance.
The snakes are not naturalistic on any coin depiction of this wand. The way they were knotted together seems to have been difficult to depict. And as it became more and more symbolic, the snakes were less and less realistic, but they are still there in essence.
There are some interesting snake coins from Alexandria, a city run by the Romans but with a mixed population of Egyptians, Hellenes and Jews. During the early years of the Roman Empire, Egypt was run as the personal property of the emperor, and its coins were not for circulation in the rest of the empire. They had a mixture of Greek and Egyptian symbology.
Two snake deities appeared quite often. One was the serpent Agathodaimon.
Agathodaimon, or Agathos Daimon, was a benign spirit of vineyards, humanoid to the Greeks, who knew him well. So this snakey Egyptian representation is unusual.
He was shown wearing the Skhent, or Pschent, the double crown of the kingdoms of upper and lower Egypt. The ancient Egyptians called this crown the sekhemti, the "two powerful ones." On the left-hand coin he is also bearded, like the large coiled snakes above, and again this shows a supernatural origin.
In the middle is what must be the weirdest depiction of a snake on any coin: riding a horse! This only makes sense if the serpent Agathodaimon is the idea of a deity, not a natural creature.
And on the right is the other Egyptian snake, clearly a cobra from its hood. It is the Uraeus, an erect serpent form symbolising the goddess Wadjet. The Uraeus was strongly associated with the idea of royalty, so much so that it was worn affixed to the front of the Skhent. Luckily for those who dislike recursive imagery, this Uraeus is not itself wearing the Skhent. Instead, it has a disk and horns headdress, like that of Hathor or Isis.
Second only in surrealism to a snake riding a horse must be the use of a pair of snakes to pull a carriage. Yet this appears on ancient coins from at least two mythical sources.
The coin on the near right is once again from Alexandria, the source of so many interesting images; though this particular scene was widely known, and appears on coins from several places. It shows Triptolemos, who was taught the skills of agriculture by Demeter, and was always associated with her in the Eleusinian mystery rites.
Triptolemos rode over the earth in his carriage, pulled on this coin by winged snakes, and broadcast seeds from a fold in his garment.
Demeter, her daughter Persephone, and their cult, were evoked into Rome under new names following a reading from the Sybilline books of prophecy in the year 496 BCE, during a famine.
Demeter became the Roman Ceres, who is shown on the right-hand coin riding a minimalist carriage pulled by two crested and bearded snakes. This coin dates from 78 BCE.
Here, Ceres is holding two torches, which light her way as she searches for her daughter Proserpine in the underworld, where she had been taken by Pluto. This is part of an agricultural fertility myth which aims to explain the cycles of the seasons. While the goddess of growing grain is distracted by her daughter's yearly stay in the underworld, the crops do not grow. When she emerges in spring, the earth becomes green again.
According to the rather startling myth, the goddess Athena was attacked one day by the artisan deity Hephaestos.
He did not succeed in his lustful design, but his semen fell onto Athena. She brushed it off onto the earth, which — because deities are involved here — became pregnant, and gave birth to a strange creature that was sometimes snake, sometimes human, sometimes a mixture of the two. This was Ericthonios, a name which means "Discord born from the Earth."
Athena is shown on several eastern coins accompanied by a snake, which represents Ericthonios. Athena was said to have protected Ericthonios and treated him well, not something one could always look for from an Olympian deity. Sometimes she seems to be treating the snake with affection on coins. But that is not the case on these two coins, on both of which the snake and the Goddess are turned away from each other.
These are both coins of the Roman provices. Both show Athena in her typical crested helmet and carrying a spear, symbols of her role as a war goddess.
On the left is a coin from Iconium in Lycaonia, dating from Gallienus' reign in the 3rd century CE. This one shows the snake winding its way up Athena's spear. She is also holding an owl, a symbol of her other role as goddess of wisdom.
The coin on the right is from Deultum in Thrace in the late second century. Here, the snake is coiled around a tree branch which Athena is holding and leaning on.
This image appears on quite a few different coins, including the small specimen on the near right, a coin of Diadumenian from Markianopolis in Lower Moesia.
It is a cista mystica, a sacred and mystical chest, which on coins was actually a basket. The basket is usually shown like this, with its lid half open, and a snake making its way out.
There are silver coins from several towns that show a writhing group of snakes, but on the other side, only one is emerging from its basket.
Of course, the snakes in these baskets were not just random creatures. They too were sacred, because they represented the god Dionysos. The baskets were "mystical" because they were used in his cult's initiation ceremonies.
This must have been an interesting surprise for any unwary initiates!
The coin on the far right does not actually have a visible snake; it is still inside the basket. It is included here because it has Dionysos' thyrsos lying across the mystical basket, showing the connection with his rites.
There is another cista mystica on the unusual coin on the near right. But it does not have any direct connection with Dionysos.
At first it is easy to think that this shows some version of Hygeia, the daughter of Asklepios and his snake-tender. The snake winding its way up the staff she holds makes it look like Asklepios' staff. But it's not right for Hygeia; that is actually a tall torch rather than just a staff, with flowing flames at its tip. The graceful figure is fully robed and veiled, and is holding a phiale.
It belongs to Demeter, the goddess of agricultural fertility who searched for her daughter Persephone in the underworld, needing a torch to light her way. Her Roman equivalent, Ceres, is shown above, in a carriage, with two torches.
Demeter was at the core of the Eluesinian mysteries, and it is likely that this coin depicts a local version of a mystery ritual, perhaps one held at night.
The association of snakes with Demeter is also symbolised by the coin on the far right, on which a short torch is entwined by a snake which rears its head above. Demeter's grain ears dangle from the top of the torch.
The image of an eagle attacking and eating a snake is a common one, shared by eastern and western cultures.
It is said to have been part of the vision that led the original Mexicans to settle there. An eagle perched on a cactus and devouring a snake is the main feature of the coat of arms of Mexico.
In the east, the eagle and snake appear in Babylonian mythology and Albanian folk tales. They also appears on ancient Greek coins.
On the left is a silver drachm of Chalkis in Euboia, dating from the 3rd or 4th century BCE.
Next to it is a bronze coin of Amyntas III of Macedonia, the grandfather of Alexander the Great.
This coin, nearly 100 years older than the drachm to its left, shows the same scene.
The inspiration for this coin type was a statue by Praxiteles in the Lykeion, one of the gymnasia of Athens, the school which (with its Roman spelling) was the original Lyceum.
The name originated from the district in which it was situated, which at one time contained a sanctuary of a Lycian cult; but the statue had no connection with Lycia.
That original statue is lost, but there were many copies with minor variations, and its design and appearance were famous over the ancient world.
It shows Apollo with one arm over his head in a relaxed posture, holding his bow. To one side is a tree trunk up which a snake is coiled. The version shown here is on a coin of Septimius Severus from Markianopolis in Lower Moesia.
It is possible that this snake refers back to the association of snakes with health and welfare, and Apollo's role as a deity of medicine and healing, not forgetting that Asklepios was his mere assistant. So even though the snake's position on this coin looks threatening, Apollo has nothing to fear from it.
In the original statue, the tree would have been a support for Apollo's outstretched arm. On a coin, of course, that support is not necessary and the artist can vary the design.
The low rock (or possibly bow case) to the left of Apollo, on which he has lain his discarded clothing, is not present on all coins that show the Lykeion.
These are not the only ancient coins showing snakes. There are others, some completely different. If I am lucky enough to acquire any of them, I will add them to this page.
Some of these sections summarise, and partly duplicate, material on other pages. This was done so that all the snakes could be brought together on one page. It was worth it in my opinion, and I have tried to cast a different light on the material to avoid the boredom of repeition.
Skhent or Pschent? You won't find the word Skhent in Wikipedia, but it is the way it is spelled in most coin descriptions, for example in Milne, so this is the version I have used on this page.
|The content of this page was last updated on 4 January 2013|
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