Extremely rare, mint condition coin from Ionia, 5th Century BC
This electrum 1/12 stater is from an uncertain mint in Ionia. It is only the 5th recorded specimen and the finest known. It shows a Siren standing facing right, holding a tympanon (tambourine). The reverse shows a Bucranium with fillets hanging from each horn.
The mythical Sirens are best known to us from two ancient epics: The Argonautica by Apollonios in which Jason and the Argonauts have to travel past them on their quest for the Golden Fleece, and Homer’s Odyssey, where they are portrayed as a pair of dangerous creatures that lure passing sailors to their deaths with their sweet music (Odyssey XII, 40). They are supposed to have inhabited an island with a particularly rocky shoreline onto which sailors would be drawn by their desire to hear the Sirens sing, leading to shipwreck. Speaking to Odysseus and warning him of the dangers he would encounter further into his journey, Queen Circe describes the Sirens as sitting in a meadow, with around them “a great heap of bones of mouldering men” (Odyssey XII, 45).
Although later depicted as women with wings, feathery tails and scaly bird-like feet, and eventually as mermaids, whose bodies were as seductive as their voices, depictions of the Sirens in early Greek art were as they appear on this coin, combining the body of a bird with the head of a woman, as can be seen on the ‘Siren Vase’ (photo), now in the British Museum, decorated in c. 480-470 BC and roughly contemporaneous with this coin.
Ionia (map) was an ancient region on the central coast of Anatolia (modern Izmir Province, Turkey). It consisted of the northernmost territories of the Ionian League of Greek settlements. Never a unified state, it was named after the Ionian tribe who, in the Archaic Period (600–480 BC), settled the shores and islands of the Aegean Sea. Ionian states were identified by tradition and by their use of Eastern Greek.