White Gold: Revealing the World's Earliest Coins | Curator: Haim Gitler     Israel Museum
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Nike, Goddess of Victory

Cyzicus. Ca. 500–460 BCE. Stater (15.98g). Phocaic standard. Winged Nike running left, looking back, holding tuna by tail before her.

Nike, the personification of Victory, was usually depicted in Greek art as a winged female. She represented victory in all of its forms, in athletic, equestrian, and musicopoetic competitions, as well as military victory on the battlefield. Nike was often associated with Zeus and Athena, because victory was an attribute of both of these deities and a gift they could confer on the mortals they favored.

Cyzicus. Ca. 500–460 BCE. Stater (15.98g). Phocaic standard. Winged Nike running left, looking back, holding tuna by tail before her.

Nike, the personification of Victory, was usually depicted in Greek art as a winged female. She represented victory in all of its forms, in athletic, equestrian, and musicopoetic competitions, as well as military victory on the battlefield. Nike was often associated with Zeus and Athena, because victory was an attribute of both of these deities and a gift they could confer on the mortals they favored.

Cyzicus. Ca. 375 BCE. Stater (15.95g). Phocaic standard. Laureate head of Apollo three-quarters right; below, tuna right.

Among the artistic sources that inspired Cyzicene electrum coinage were the coin types of other cities. The first artistically successful facing heads on coins were created in Sicily ca. 410 or ca. 405 BCE. To the extent that these coins portray Apollo, they show him with long flowing hair. For a three-quarter head of Apollo with short hair, we must look to the coinage of Amphipolis, a city in Macedonia, ca. 357 BCE. The Amphipolitan type is a mirror image of the head of the seated Apollo on the east frieze of the Parthenon, a major sculpture of high classical style executed by Phidias (or under his direction) in the 440s BCE. The Cyzicene Apollo head closely resembles the Amphipolitan tetradrachm type and was probably also inspired by the Parthenon sculpture. This particular Cyzicene issue was represented by three examples in the Myrmekion hoard of 2003, proving that it was in circulation before the hoard's closure ca. 375 BCE. The multiple examples and their fresh condition may indicate that the facing Apollo variety was one of the latest issues of the hoard.

Cyzicus. Ca. 375–350 BCE. Hecte (2.65g). Phocaic standard. Bearded Orestes, nude except for chlamys (mantle) around neck, half-kneeling left, his right knee raised before him, his left knee resting on tuna left, his right hand holding sword with tip upward, his left hand resting on filleted omphalos (sacred stone) beside him.

This coin illustrates a scene from the myth of Orestes as recounted in Aeschylus' Eumenides. Orestes' mother, Clytemnestra, had murdered his father, Agamemnon, when the latter returned from the Trojan War in company with Cassandra. Years later, on orders from Apollo, Orestes avenged his father's death by killing Clytemnestra and her lover. The Furies punished this act of matricide by driving Orestes mad and pursuing him to Delphi, where he sought sanctuary with Apollo. This is the moment portrayed on the stater, as Orestes clutches the omphalos (sacred stone) of Delphi and attempts to ward off the Furies with his sword. In the end Apollo's protection was insufficient, and Athena intervened, holding a jury trial on the Athenian Acropolis, breaking a deadlock with her own vote to acquit Orestes, and propitiating the Furies with new rituals and an auspicious new name, the Eumenides (Well-Disposed).

Lampsacus. Ca. 410 BCE. Stater (15.15g). Local standard. Forepart of winged horse, vine branch before it, Greek letter Ξ below.

Lampsacus, a colony of Phocaea, was located on the east shore of the Hellespont near the entrance to the Propontis. Lampsacus differed from the contemporary electrum mints of Cyzicus, Phocaea, and Mytilene in that it used its civic badge as the main type of the obverse. This was the forepart of a winged horse, perhaps representing Pegasus, perhaps a hippocamp (fishtailed horse). On an honorary decree erected at Epidaurus, the Lampsacene symbol was completed with the tail of a cock. This coin represents the final issue of electrum staters of Lampsacus, probably struck in or after 412 BCE when Lampsacus, along with other tributary members of the Delian League, revolted against Athens. The vine branch arching over the winged horse symbolizes the cult of Dionysus and the local vineyards, which were famous.

Cyzicus. Ca. 500 BCE. Stater (16.10g). Phocaic standard. Half figure of winged female left wearing kekryphalos (cap), round earring, and long-sleeved chiton, right hand holding tuna by tail, left hand lifting flower to chin, truncation indicated by dotted line between parallel lines.

The type of this stater could represent any of several beings from Greek mythology: 1. A siren, a sea spirit whose songs lured sailors to their deaths and who accompanied the souls of the dead to the underworld. The siren was usually depicted in art as half-woman, half-bird, not as a winged female. 2. A harpy, one of three sisters who carried people off to the underworld. In Archaic art the harpies were represented as winged women. 3. Iris, goddess of the rainbow; in art she was depicted as a winged woman with a herald's staff. 4. Nike, the winged personification of Victory. None of these beings was associated with flowers, which were above all an attribute of Aphrodite. The winged female is rendered in exquisite detail, from her ornamented cap to her expressive face and crinkly chiton. This treatment of the chiton can be observed in major art of the Archaic period, for example, in the east frieze of the Siphnian Treasury at Delphi

Cyzicus. Ca. 375–350 BCE. Stater (15.95g). Phocaic standard. Zeus, draped below the waist, half-kneeling right on tuna right, right hand holding lotus scepter behind him, left hand supporting eagle with spread wings above his knee.

Zeus was king of the Greek pantheon and father of gods and heroes. He was originally a sky god, and thus the eagle, most impressive of all birds, was considered his sacred animal.

Mytilene. Ca. 485 BCE. Hecte (2.56g). Phocaic standard. Facing head of Medusa.

Medusa was a hideous winged monster with snakes growing from her head instead of hair, and a glare that instantly transformed men into stone. The hero Perseus managed to decapitate her using a mirror so that he could avoid looking directly at her eyes. The severed head was used as an adornment of the aegis, a protective garment worn by both Zeus and Athena. The head of Medusa was also a favorite decorative motif in Greek art, often used as a repelling emblem in contexts where protection was needed, such as city gates, rooftops, and warriors' shields.

Sixth stater of Phocaea showing the head of a female, perhaps Aphrodite, wearing a cap.

Cyzicus. Ca. 500–460 BCE. Stater (16.06g) Phocaic standard. Phobos, with head of vulture and winged human body, running left, head turned back, holding tuna by tail before him.

Phobos was the personification of Fear, specifically the fear inspired by war. He was the fruit of an illicit liaison between Ares, the god of war, and Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and he accompanied his father on the battlefield together with his brother Deimos (Dread). In his depiction Phobos' qualities are represented by his non-human aspects. His wings symbolize the speed with which fear, or death itself, can descend. His vulture's head evokes the horror of death in war, when a proper burial cannot be assured and the corpse may fall victim to scavengers.

Cyzicus. Ca. 350–300 BCE. Stater (15.99g). Phocaic standard. Bearded Heracles crouching left on ground line, left knee lowered, right knee raised before him, right hand holding club over shoulder, left hand holding cornucopiae, tuna placed vertically behind him (head upward).

The usual attributes of Heracles were a lion skin, club, and bow. He was also associated with the origin of the cornucopia, a horn filled with an infinite supply of fruits. According to one myth, Heracles broke off a horn of the goat Amaltheia, who cared for the infant Zeus when he was in hiding from his ravenous father Kronos. Her miraculous nurturing nature extended to the horn and it became an inexhaustible source of good things. In a variant tale, Heracles broke off a horn of the river god Achelous and it became the horn of plenty.

Cyzicus. Ca. 400–375 BCE. Hecte (2.70g). Phocaic standard. Bearded Cecrops left, with human head and torso and a snake's tail replacing his lower body, riding on tuna left and holding sapling in right hand.

Cecrops was a mythical king and founder of Athens, credited with introducing most of the institutions of civilization, including worship of the gods, literacy, marriage, and ritual burial. He was depicted in art with the tail of a snake instead of human legs in order to express the notion that he had been born from the soil of Attica. One of the events of his reign was a contest between Poseidon and Athena over which should take possession of the new city. Each deity offered a gift: Poseidon brought forth a spring from the rocks of the Acropolis, and Athena planted an olive tree. Cecrops judged the gift of Poseidon less valuable because the water was salty, not recognizing its promise of future sea power, and he awarded the city to Athena. The sapling carried by Cecrops in this Cyzicene coin type is the first olive tree, symbolizing Cecrops' role in establishing Athena as patron goddess of Athens.

Cyzicus. Ca. 430–400 BCE. Stater (15.95g). Phocaic standard. Nereid seated left on dolphin left, her raised right hand holding wreath, left arm supporting large round shield with star device in center; below, tuna left.

The Nereids were the fifty daughters of the sea god Nereus and his consort Doris. The names of many of these sea nymphs are preserved in Greek literature, but by far the most important Nereid was Thetis, the mother of Achilles. She commissioned special arms for her son from the smith god himself – Hephaestus – and the Iliad devotes many lines to a minute description of the elaborate decoration of Achilles' shield. Although this stater depicts a shield with very simple decoration, it may be intended as the shield of Achilles, delivered to him by silver-footed Thetis.

Sixth stater of Erythrae showing the hero Heracles wearing the skin of the Nemean lion as a headdress.

Heracles was a popular image on electrum coins. His attributes were the club, bow, and lion skin, which he acquired after slaying the Nemean lion – the first of twelve labors imposed upon him by Eurystheus, King of Tiryns. His final labor was to capture Cerberus, the three-headed hound, guardian of the gates of the Underworld, and present it to the king. But as soon as Eurystheus set eyes upon the monster he became so frightened that he sent him back to the Underworld.

The city of Erythrae was famous for its sanctuary of Heracles, the Heracleum, one of the rare such temples found in the Greek world. The Erythraean Heracles was also worshiped as the destroyer of the vine-eating ips, a creature which was apparently only found there. His head came to be the civic type on Erythrae's coinage.

Many images appearing on electrum coins have their origin in myth. For the Greeks, mythos did not have the modern connotation of legend, folklore, or fable. The Greeks used mythic narrative to fill in the blanks of times for which no records existed and places that could not be reached or observed. The distant past was adorned with tales of the gods, with interactions between deities and mortals, and with the adventures of heroes who combated monsters or invented the elements of civilization. Dimly recalled historical figures became the protagonists of colorful tales, and the regions beyond reach were populated with strange tribes and fabulous beasts.