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Labyrinth of the Minotaur


idesofmarch01

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The portrayal of Greek mythology on their coins has always fascinated me, from Pegasus, to the Chimaera, to the labors of Herakles.  This coin is my first foray into Greek coinage that represents their ancient myths.

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CRETE, Knossos. Mid 2nd-early 1st centuries BC. AR Tetradrachm (32mm, 15.67 g, 12h). Diademed and bearded head (of Minos?) right / Labyrinth; KNΩ/Σ-I/ΩN in three lines across field. Cf. Svoronos, Numismatique 98–101 and 177–8 (for type). An unpublished issue, struck between Svoronos types 98 and 177.

This coin, from Triton XXVII, has an excellent representation of the labyrinth on the reverse, with the obverse showing a bearded head, possibly of Minos himself.  The coin is quite large – 32.67mm by my measurement – as large as most Roman sestertii.  CNG’s picture of it is a bit flat, and the coin is more vibrant and stunning in hand.  The labyrinth itself is a real construct; you can trace its path from the entrance all the way to the innermost sanctum.

The Myth (In Brief)

In Greek mythology, Minos became King of Crete partly through the auspices of the sea god Poseidon, who responded to Minos’s prayers by sending him a snow-white bull as a sign of Poseidon’s favor.  Although Minos was to sacrifice the bull in honor of Poseidon, he was mesmerized by the bull’s beauty and kept it, sacrificing a substitute bull instead.

This didn’t fool Poseidon, and to punish Minos, Poseidon made Minos’s wife Pasiphae fall in love with the bull.  Subsequently, Pasiphae had the craftsman Daedalus create a hollow wooden cow, which she climbed into in order to mate with the bull.  Defying all (un)known laws of genetics, Pasiphae bore an offspring Asterius, the Minotaur.  Clearly, much of Greek mythology is R-rated.

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In most Greek mythology, the Minotaur has the head and tail of a bull, and the torso of a man.  Although Pasiphae initially nursed the Minotaur, as he grew he became ferocious and required humans as food. Minos found this just a bit distressing, and after consulting with the Oracle at Delphi, constructed a gigantic labyrinth to contain the Minotaur.

Sometime later, after Minos’s son Androgeus died, his death was attributed to the Athenians (although ancient sources seem to differ on exactly how the Athenians were responsible).  When Minos attacked and defeated Athens, King Aegeus was to send seven young men and seven young maidens, every seven years (some versions say every year) as a feast for the Minotaur.

By the third sacrifice, the Athens prince Theseus was getting a bit tired of the ritual and volunteered to go himself and kill the Minotaur.  When he got to Crete, Minos’s daughter Ariadne fell madly in love with Theseus and volunteered to help Theseus navigate the labyrinth and kill the Minotaur.  Theseus succeeded at this task, and sailed with Ariadne away from Crete.

Unfortunately, all did not end well.  Theseus abandoned Ariadne on the island of Naxos, and on his way back to Athens to reunite with his father, forgot to change the sail of his ship from black (indicating to his father that Theseus had failed and was dead) to white (indicating that Theseus had succeeded).  King Aegeus saw the black sail from a distance, presumed his son was dead, and killed himself by leaping into the sea that’s now named after him – the Aegean sea.  Theseus  ascended to Aegeus’s throne.

At least Ariadne went on to a better fate than Aegeus.  She recovered from her abandonment on Naxos later when Dionysus fell madly in love with her after he saw her asleep, and married her.  

Feel free to post your coins that illustrate ancient myths!

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Wow. That's gorgeous! Mary Renault's two novels based on the Theseus myth, The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea, are probably my two favorite books in that genre.

Edited by DonnaML
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That is a really wonderful large-sized coin, @idesofmarch01!! Thanks for sharing. The story of Minotaur and the labyrinth is my most favorite among all Greek myths. I have the following Greek coins that illustrate ancient myths.

006-crete.jpg.5977f9672e0b3a140874a0e5da773964.jpg

CRETE. Gortyna. Ca. 330-270 BC. AR stater (24mm, 11.47 gm, 4h).
Obv: Europa seated facing in tree, raising her veil with right hand, left arm holding eagle with spread wings in her lap.
Rev: Bull trotting to right, head turned left. 
BMC Crete 30. Svoronosp. 168, 84 and pl. XV, 7 (same obverse die).
CNG Feature Auction, 2022.


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Pontos, Komana Æ 29mm. Time of Mithradates VI Eupator, circa 105-90 or 90- 85 BC.
Obv: Helmeted head of Athena Parthenos to right
Rev: Perseus standing facing, holding harpa and severed head of Medusa, headless body at feet; KOMA-NΩN across fields, monograms to left and right.
SNG BM Black Sea 1260-1; HGC 7,279.
18.00g, 29mm, 12h.
ROMA E-Sales, 2021.

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WoWiE! A Knossos tet! Very cool coin. Incredible acquisition referencing one of the most popular Greek myths, and surprisingly hard to come by!

Here's my little bronze:

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CRETE, KNOSSOS.

AE (2.54 g), approx. 200-67 BC BC: head of the bearded Zeus to the right. Back: Labyrinth between ΚΝΩΣΙ / ΩΝ. Svoronos, Crete 116.2.00, Lindgren. Nice. Ex BAC Numismatics 2/9/20201

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6 hours ago, idesofmarch01 said:

This coin is my first foray

That's an incredible first foray! Wow. And 2 Cretan coin threads in a day....

Here's  a Cretan stater (around 300BC)  of Poseidon, who was closely linked with your coin, as  it was he who cursed Pasiphae into the  bull "incident" behind the Minotaur.

Poseidon, trident in right hand, and holds  reins with his left, standing horse //PAV-KION (retrograde) Decorated trident. Le Rider Pl. XXXII, 10

 

02282q00_orig.jpg.59f82e1d5fde974012b87af624d566e9.jpg

 

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I remember taking note of that coin when perusing the Triton sale, and thinking........."if only". Beyond my means, but great to see it added to your fabulous collection of Roman coins. A beautiful coin with a great story to tell.

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Having grown up in a town in Nebraska... named after a town in Illinois... named after the island in the Mediterranean... I have always wanted a coin from there. 
I had the opportunity to visit Crete for a few days in 2013 while waiting for my ride (deployment). I only got to explore around Chania where I was staying but it was beautiful. 

I only have one picture of any coins. They were in a little display at the Athens airport that showed artefacts that were found while working on the airport. Here are a few pictures of the coins as well as Chania. Hope nobody minds.
IMG_0148.JPG.17de77cb413ac5690a5e37a112c5c5bc.JPGIMG_0147.JPG.dc50456af81795b27416b00a5ef67250.JPGIMG_0174.JPG.a377e03c24bcd1df6c56e3e29c16d61e.JPGIMG_0178.JPG.d37ba1acae76e91eea6db03034d4fadc.JPGIMG_0217.JPG.8d818085a63b35ce80b3d8fb65b050c9.JPGIMG_0191.JPG.c117ebd52c1c0acb84b9fd00dcc664bb.JPGIMG_0218.JPG.4f5f419c6fb4459fb104b9e8c356e438.JPG

And one of my "ride" 😛
IMG_0252.JPG.4c7d88ca7fe07f591ba4fd23098fb42f.JPG

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1 hour ago, happy_collector said:

That is a really wonderful large-sized coin, @idesofmarch01!! Thanks for sharing. The story of Minotaur and the labyrinth is my most favorite among all Greek myths. I have the following Greek coins that illustrate ancient myths.

006-crete.jpg.5977f9672e0b3a140874a0e5da773964.jpg

 

I really love this coin too. Europa being ravaged by Zeus in the guise of an eagle is wonderful imagery. You should be really proud of this coin.

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I have a number of coins from Crete, but none anywhere near that amazing Knossos labyrinth!

Here's my coin from Knossos.

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Crete, Knossos
Circa 300-270 BCE
Æ 13.5mm, 3.35 g, 12h
Head of female right /
Head of Zeus right.
Svoronos, Numismatique 80; SNG Copenhagen 371

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If you wanted to own only one Greek coin, you certainly picked a highlight! That is an excellent coin and a particularly rare denomination. I'd store it labyrinth-side up but the portrait is also a remarkable work of atypical art.

My Knossos stater is a bit smaller but one of my favorite coins:

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And, keeping with the mythology of Crete, I'll follow @happy_collector's lead and post my Gortyna as well:

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Exceptional coins in the post, with fascinating connections to the even-more-ancient world of the Minoans! 

I don't think I have any coins from Crete, but I have a number of coins that are connected to one of the famous traditions known from the Minoan ruins of Knossos. One of the most famous artworks is the Bull-Leaping Fresco (c. 1400 BCE) :Bull_leaping_fresco_palace_Knossos.jpg.2dba4cb731dee4143f1285cc4a33dccc.jpg

Sourceshttps://web.sas.upenn.edu/discentes/2023/12/24/bull-and-bull-leaping-iconography-knossos-tell-el-daba-and-beyond/
Andhttps://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/bulls-and-bull-leaping-in-the-minoan-world/

It was Sir Arthur Evans who first excavated the Minoan Palace, and the fresco. He noted that the bull-leaping tradition had survived later in Greek culture, but in modified form, in the Thessalian Taurokathapsia.

The primary difference was that the Thessalian event was performed on horseback. It also had its own mythology and heroes, distinct from the older Minoan. The AE Chalkous below includes a trident above the bull, suggesting the event was performed in honor of Poseidon, and depicts the hero Thessalos with his horse on the obverse:

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Thessaly, Krannon AE Chalkous (14mm, 2.10 g, 12), Taurokathapsia issue, c. 400-375 BCE.
Obv: Head of Thessalos (?) to right wearing petasos, behind him right, head and neck of horse facing right; all within linear circle.
Rev: ΚΡΑΝΟΙΝΩΝ. Bull butting right, above, trident right.
Ref: BCD Thessaly II 115.4 (this coin); HGC 4, 388; Rogers 172a (corr., Atrax).
Prov: Ex BCD Collection (Triton XV [CNG, 3 Jan 2012], 115 [part, [LINK]); Leu WA 20 (16 Jul 2022), 674, for much better photo: [LINK].

 

Four hundred fifty years later, the event must have still been practiced. It appeared for the last time on an AE Diassarion struck following Nero's visit to Greece c. 66/7 CE:

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Thessaly, Koinon of Thessaly, Nero Æ Diassarion (20mm, 6.88 g, 12h), Aristion, strategos, ca. 66-68 CE.
Obv: ΝΕΡΩΝ ΘΕΣΣΑΛΩΝ. Radiate head of Nero right. Border of dots (part visible).
Rev: ΣΤΡΑΤΗΓΟΥ ΑΡΙΣΤΙΩΝΟΣ. Hero Thessalos (?) jumping from his horse, in background galloping right, onto a bull running right, the head of which he restrains with a band held in both his hands. Border of dots.
Ref: RPC I 1440; BCD Thessaly I 1436.4; BCD Thessaly II 931.2; Burrer 35 (A9/R28).
Prov: Ex-BCD Collection (CNG EA 325, “Coinage of the Thessalian League from the BCD Collection” [23 Apr 2014], Lot 45); CNG e-Auction 493 (21 Apr 2021), Lot 421.

Edited by Curtis JJ
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There are some beautiful coins above, those of Ancient Joe being particularly stunning.

I also share a fondness for coins showing scenes from Greek mythology. Here are a couple.

The first shows the myth of Prixus and the ram. Phrixus and Helle, his sister, were Boeotian royalty and hated by their stepmother who plotted to kill them. They escaped on a flying ram with golden wool. While crossing the channel between Europe and Asia Helle fell off the ram and drowned - which is why it was called the Hellespont. Phrixus made it to Colchis where he was taken in by King Aeetes. In gratitude, Phrixus - somewhat ungraciously in my opinion, given that the ram had saved him - sacrificed the ram to the gods and gave the king its golden fleece, which Aeëtes hung in a tree in a holy grove, guarded by a dragon that never slept. This is the Golden Fleece subsequently stolen by Jason and the Argonauts.

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Thessaly, Halos.

Circa 250 BC.

Chalkous.

Diademed head of Zeus right / Phrixus riding ram right.

BCD Thessaly 86.2; HGC 4, 8.

2,43g, 12mm.

 

The second shows the Phrygian satyr Marsyas. In Greek mythology he found the aulos (double-pipe) that Athena had thrown away. After becoming skilled with it he challenged Apollo to a contest with his lyre. Apollo won and for his audacity dispatched Marsyas by flaying him alive.

Marsyas.jpg.3d022afb4908bd5c218291a427a2e0b0.jpg

Phrygia, Apameia.

 Circa 133-48 BC.

ΚΗΦΙΣΟΣ, ΣΚΑΥ (Kefisos, Skau-), magistrates.

Turreted and draped bust of Artemis right, bow and quiver behind shoulder / AΠAME KHΦIΣO ΣKAY, Marsyas, naked but for chlamys and nebris, walking right on maeander pattern, blowing double flute.

BMC 74-75.

4.33g, 16mm.

 

Finally, I share Donna ML's admiration of Mary Renault's novels set in Ancient Greece; the only bona fide Hellenist in 20th century fiction, as she was once described. If people are on this site they probably love the ancient world. If you love the ancient world and haven't yet come across her you should read her. Historical fiction of the highest quality.

 

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I want to thank everyone for their compliments and comments.  I especially enjoyed seeing other collectors' coins illustrating ancient myths, many of which helped me learn myths that I didn't know existed.  Nor did I realize that there's even historical fiction based on this myth!

This site really helps expand my horizons on ancient coins, via the coin-related threads, the range of casual-to-scholarly research, and the ensuing discussions.  I continually look forward to seeing new coins and new topics!

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