In his latest CoinWeek article, Mike Markowitz examines snakes on ancient coins - even snakes with beards. Here's an excerpt - be sure to read the complete article online.
MOVING SILENTLY AND mysteriously without legs, the snake has always held a powerful grip on the human imagination. The snake is a complex and multi-dimensional symbol in Western art. At various times and places, it has represented fertility, rebirth, healing, and guardianship, as well as the forces of darkness and evil. In the CoinArchives Pro database, which records almost two million ancient coin auction sales that took place during the last two decades, a recent search for the term
snake produced 36,918 hits. The synonym
serpent produced 39,759 hits. That's nothing to hiss at.
Snakes with Beards
A peculiarity of ancient Greek art is that snakes are often depicted with beards. Real snakes have no beards. A third-century Roman author, Claudius Aelianus (or
Aelian) in his book De Natura Animalium explained that the beard showed that the creature was male. Lacking external sex organs, as well as legs, snakes present no visible indication of gender. A bearded snake appears on the reverse of a little electrum hekte of Mytilene on the Aegean island of Lesbos, c. 357-326 BCE.
One of the most charming snake tales in Greek mythology concerns the infant Herakles. A coin cataloguer retells the story:
The birth of Herakles, son of Zeus and Alkmene, enraged Zeus' wife Hera, who tried to kill the infant by sending two serpents to strangle the sleeping baby in his crib. The following morning, the nurse discovered Herakles playing with the serpents' lifeless bodies: he had strangled one in each hand.
This striking image even has a name: Herakliskos drakonopnigon (
Little Herakles the Serpent Strangler). It appears on the coins of many Greek cities, including Kroton in southern Italy; Rhodes; Samos; Kyzikos; and notably Thebes, on a unique gold drachma dated to 395 BCE, symbolizing the Theban struggle against Sparta.
In 1783, when Benjamin Franklin, American ambassador to France, commissioned a silver medallion celebrating victory over Britain, the image of the infant killer of snakes was chosen to symbolize America.
To read the complete article, see:
Snakes on Ancient Coins
Wayne Homren, Editor
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