Extremely Rare Greek Cerberus Coin, c. 500-450 BC
This is an electrum stater from the city of Cyzicus (aka Kyzikos) in the region of Mysia (map), with the very rare depiction of the hellhound Cerberus (with just two heads). He is depicted above a tunny fish with a quadripartite incuse square on the reverse. Cerberus appears with some frequency on Roman provincial coins, yet rarely on Greek coins. In Greek and Roman mythology Cerberus guards the entrance of the Greek underworld to prevent the dead from escaping and the living from entering. He is best known for having been captured by Heracles in his twelfth and final labor, which was by far his most dangerous. After delivering the hellhound to King Eurystheus, he then returned to chain the creature at the gates of Hades, which he continued to guard.
Cerberus is typically described as having three heads of wild dogs, though often with just two, as here on this coin; but as with most every aspect of Greek mythology there are various traditions and little agreement, such that Cerberus is described as possessing somewhere between one and one hundred heads. He is said to have had the claws of a lion, a tail in the form of a serpent, and his mane sometimes is described as being composed of a great mass of serpents.
It has been suggested that this type coin was struck in reference, or homage, to Cimmerium (Kimmerikon), a city on the southern shore of the Cimmerian Bosphorus that earlier had been called Cerberion. The reason being that this city would have been a familiar destination for the intrepid Cyzicene merchants. However, Cyzicus was particularly attached to the story of the Argonautic expedition – especially to Heracles’ involvement – and to the goddess Persephone, who Appian says had received Cyzicus as a marriage gift from Zeus. Since Cerberus is associated with both Heracles and Persephone, this type perhaps is best seen as part of a larger display of designs associated with those deities.