hemidrachm

♥ 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.

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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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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