♥ The Ancient Origin of the Heart-Shaped Valentine ♥

This very rare coin is a silver hemidrachm struck in Cyrene (modern Libya) around 500 to 480 BC. Both sides of the coin show the now extinct* heart-shaped silphium fruit. The silphium plant, a large relative of the fennel plant, was abundant and a lucrative cash crop in ancient Cyrene, which is why it appears as the symbol of the city on its coinage.

Since it allegedly went extinct, silphium is a bit mysterious to us. We do know that it was greatly prized for its medicinal and culinary properties. It was  used as an herbal birth control method, thus forever associating the shape of its fruit with passionate love and thus, matters of the heart. Ancient writings also help tie silphium to sexuality and love. One such reference appears in Pausanias’ Description of Greece in a story of the Dioscuri staying at a house belonging to Phormion, a Spartan: “For it so happened that his maiden daughter was living in it. By the next day this maiden and all her girlish apparel had disappeared, and in the room were found images of the Dioscuri, a table, and silphium upon it.”

Pliny reported in his Natural History that the last known stalk of silphium found in Cyrene was given to the Emperor Nero “as a curiosity,” because it was nearly extinct by then.

*There is some debate about whether or not this plant is really extinct. You can read about that on the Silphium Wikipedia page.

Phemius, The Ithacan Poet From The Odyssey

Phemius is portrayed here on the reverse of a silver hemidrachm coin from ancient Thessaly, minted by the Ainianes. They were essentially a tribal people/state with their capital at Hypata, rather than a conventional Greek polis. The coin dates from the 360s to 650s BC. Phemius is shown nude but for a belt holding a short sword in a scabbard and a chlamys draped over his shoulders and arm. He’s hurling a javelin with his right hand and holding his petasos, as if it were a small shield, with his left.  ΑΙΝΙΑΝΩΝ is inscribed and on the ground line between his feet is a sideways Φ (=Phemios). The obverse shows the laureate and bearded head of  Zeus.

About Phemius…

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Rare Delphic Amphictyonic League Coin

This is one of of three known examples of this silver hemidrachm from the ancient city of Delphi in Phocis, Greece. It was struck circa 336-335 BC. It shows the veiled head of Demeter with a wheat wreath and one wheat ear. The reverse is a serpent coiled around a net-covered omphalos which was a sacred religious stone (or baetylus) in the shape of a navel. In Greek lore, Zeus sent two eagles across the world to meet at its center, the “navel” of the world. Omphalos stones marking the center were erected in several places around the Mediterranean Sea; the most famous of those was at Delphi.

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 Hemidrachm from Parion, Mysia c. 400-300 BC

A Gorgoneion surrounded by serpents. On the reverse a bull looking backward; ΠA  inscribed above and PI below.

A gorgoneion was an amuletic symbol with the face of a gorgon and was used as a protective amulet to to ward off evil. In Greek mythology there were three gorgon sisters, of which the most famous was Medusa, who was decapited by the hero Perseus. Anyone caught in the glare of her decapitated head would turn to stone. In ancient times, the hair of the gorgon was never depicted as living snakes, that was a later invention. The snakes, if any, were shown near the head (like this coin’s depiction) or in the hair. No one really knows why Parion chose to use the gorgoneion on its coinage but it makes for an interesting piece of ancient history.

Parion (or Parium) was a Greek city in Mysia on the Hellespont (modern Dardanelles) which is a long narrow strait dividing Europe and Asia Minor.

Rare gold hemidrachm from Thasos, Thracian islands, c. 380 BC

The bearded head of Dionysos wearing an ivy-wreath. On the reverse, ΘAΣION inscription, Herakles, wearing a lion’s skin headdress, kneeling and shooting an arrow, K inscribed on the right, all within a linear square within an incuse square. Extremely fine, superb classical style and very rare.

Thasos is an island off the ancient Thracian coast in the northern Agean Sea. The island was important in wine trade and also controlled rich gold and silver mines on the mainland. It was colonized at an early date by Phoenicians who founded a temple to the god Melqart, whom the Greeks identified as “Tyrian Heracles.” The temple still existed in the time of Herodotus.

Jason, the Greek hero on an extremely rare silver hemidrachm from Larissa, Thessaly, c. 500-479 BC

The coin shows the head of Jason wearing a petasos with ties under his chin. On the reverse, inscribed around Jason’s sandal is LA - [RI]-SAE; all within an incuse square.

According to ancient Greek mythology Aeson was the rightful king of Iolcos, but his half-brother Pelias usurped the throne. Pelias, fearing he would lose his kingdom, approached the oracle at Delphi for advice and was told to beware of a man with one sandal. Unknown to Pelias, this was going to be the goddess Hera’s revenge. Many years ago, Pelias had angered Hera by committing the despicable act of killing his stepmother Sidero at the goddess’s altar and by prohibiting the people from worshiping Hera. The goddess vowed to avenge herself and she chose to do this through Jason, the rightful king Aeson’s son.

When he turned twenty, Jason set out to reclaim the throne of Iolcus from his uncle Pelias. While he was walking to Iolcus, across the river Anauros, Jason came across an old woman trying to cross over to the other side. Being a good-natured young man, Jason helped the woman across but the water washed away one of his sandals. The old woman thanked him and Jason continued on his journey unaware that he had helped Hera, Queen of the Gods, who had disguised herself as the old woman as part of her plan to punish Pelias. Hera knew of Jason’s quest, but little did Jason know of the goddess’ participation in it.

At Iolcus, a celebration was being held to honor the sea god Poseidon, Pelias’ father. Jason’s arrival and his claim to the throne shocked Pelias who started seeing that the old prophecy  was coming true: here was the man with one sandal. To get rid of this dangerous stranger, Pelias agreed to abdicate the throne only if Jason brought him the Golden Fleece from the faraway land of Colchis, thought to be an impossible task. He was sure that Jason would never return and that he would remain king of Iolcus forever, but as we all know, Pelias was wrong and Jason succeeded at his task, proving the Delphic oracle’s prediction correct.

Pantikapaion by Ancient Art on Flickr.

Greek Silver Hemidrachm coin of Pantikapaion (the ancient Cimmerian Bosporos aka modern day Kerch Strait)

CIMMERIAN BOSPOROS, Pantikapaion. Circa 370-355 BC. AR Hemidrachm. Head of satyr facing slightly left / Lion standing left, head facing, holding spear in its jaws.  Good Very Fine, toned, granular surfaces.

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Greek Hemidrachm issued by the tyrant Alexander, Pherae, Thessaly, c. 369-358 BC

This coin shows the youthful head of Jason wearing a petasos. On the reverse is ALEXA - NDREION on either side of a horse’s hoof and lower leg to right. An extremely rare and fine coin, the very best of few known examples, as close to perfection as any Greek coin can be.

Pherae was an ancient Greek town in southeastern Thessaly. In history, Pherae is famous as the home of the fourth-century BC tyrants Jason and his son, Alexander of Pherae, who took control of much of Thessaly before their defeat by the Thebans.

The accounts of how Alexander of Pherae came to power vary somewhat in minor points. Diodorus Siculus tells us that upon the assassination of his father, the tyrant Jason of Pherae, in 370 BC, his brother Polydorus ruled for a year, but he was then poisoned by Alexander, another brother. However, according to Xenophon, Polydorus was murdered by his brother Polyphron, who was, in turn, murdered by his nephew Alexander, son of Jason, in 369 BC. Plutarch relates that Alexander worshiped the spear he slew his uncle with as if it were a god.

Alexander’s tyranny caused the intervention of a number of city-states in Thessalian affairs. The other Thessalian cities, refusing to recognize Alexander as head magistrate, appealed to the Thebans, who sent Pelopidas to their assistance. Alexander imprisoned Pelopidas, and the Thebans had to send a large army to procure his release. In 364 Pelopidas defeated Alexander at Cynoscephalae in Thessaly. Alexander was then compelled by Thebes to acknowledge the freedom of the Thessalian cities, to limit his rule to Pherae, and to join the Boeotian League. He was murdered at his wife’s instigation in 357-356 BC. She waited until he was sleeping and then let her brothers in his chambers to assassinate him. His body was then cast into the street and ridiculed.