Just before we start, a little introduction by Omicron:
“Hello everyone! Omicron here! Just to let you know that I’ve been allowed to help a bit with this – I picked the pictures and wrote the captions! I hope you enjoy it. Personally it’s all a bit heavy going for me, and my friends at the shop kept interfering – as you can see! -, but then I did get to write a bit – later on! -about my other friends on the Akropolis! Love, Omicron x)
The 8th century BC was a period of exploration and expansion in the world of the ancient Greeks. Citizens from cities such as Athens and Corinth took a chance, left their home city – for a variety of reasons – and went in search of the new and the better. They arrived and set up a colony (apoikia)– a home (oikos) from home, usually in areas with echoes of home: a coastline, familiar climate and fertile land for the production of grain, vine and olive. The south of Italy and Sicily was one such area, which in time, with its dense concentration of Greek colonies, became known as ‘Magna Graecia’. The colonists took with them their social structure, their traditions, their religion and their craftsmanship. Trade was brisk between metropolis and colony, and across the Mediterranean and beyond. Pottery and coinage are two media which provide us with ample testimony of this.
Owl skyphoi (drinking cups) were produced in abundance in the 5th and 4th centuries BC in the areas of Apulia and Campania, by vase painters schooled in the inherited tradition of the red-figure technique. But this particular style of owl skyphos (below), shows how the Athenian colonies in south Italy continued to champion their mother city by their choice of iconography. What’s more, this type of skyphos was even given its own ‘brand name’: a ‘glaux’ (owl). These skyphoi have been discovered all over the Mediterranean. Now they are found in museums, auction houses and private collections all over the world. A symbol of ancient Athens in particular – the branches of olive flanking the owl reinforce this -, but for many, the owl is in any case a quintessentially ‘ancient Greek’ symbol.
But there was another ‘glaux’: the owl coin.
The image on the skyphos is echoed on the coinage of ancient Athens: those thick, heavy, high-relief coins in silver, which were minted over two millennia ago. The historian Philochorus of Athens, writing in the late 4th century BC, tells us something interesting: this coin too was called a ‘glaux’ throughout the ancient world. Collectors and numismatists today simply call it the ‘owl’.
What of the owl and Athena? Homer in his Odyssey gives the goddess Athena the epithet ‘glaukopis’ – a fusion of ‘glaukos’ (bluish-green/steely grey) and ‘ops’ (eye, or sometimes face). Glaux is from the same root. Maybe because Athena’s flashing eyes were likened to the bird’s own– distinctive and ever alert. Because the owl, like Athena, is known for its vigilance, resourcefulness and perspicacity. Perhaps Homer’s epithet heralds her connection with the owl and with Athens. A triad immortalized in the iconography on the Athenian tetradrachm of the 5th century BC and thereafter.
And then there is the olive. On the Akropolis today stands an olive tree near the Erechtheion.
Athena, along with her uncle Poseidon, was challenged to make a gift to a city – a city hitherto without a name. The West pediment of the Parthenon depicted this dramatic contest: the elemental god of the sea tapped the soil with his trident. A spring of water was his gift to the city. Athena’s coup de grâce was the versatile olive. Thereafter the city was known as Athens and she became its tutelary deity. Uncle Poseidon supported too, as illustrated by the fact that the Erechtheion with its Karyatid porch was constructed in honour of them both.
(Omicron here!! Sorry to interrupt, but I thought you might like a little break! My friends up in the Akropolis say that there are still a lot of little owls there! Even today! The ‘little owl’ is in fact called ‘Athene noctua’! Isn’t that cool! Apparently they’re only about 9 inches tall on tippy talons! Here they are:
On we go!! Love, Omicron x)
So the olive, the owl and Athena are on that famous Athenian glaux coin. The goddess faces right on the obverse, the owl, the olive and the letters Alpha Theta Epsilon on the reverse. The formula – with very few refinements – remained the same.
These coins were minted from silver mined at Laurion in Attica. They financed the Parthenon project during the ‘Golden Age’ of Athens in the second half of the 5th century BC. They covered the cost of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. They were handled by Perikles, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Pythagoras, Demokritos, Hippocrates, Sokrates, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Archimedes, and so many others whose thinking formed the foundations of Western European civilization.
Aristophanes’ comedy ‘The Birds’, produced in 414BC, presents a fantasy world, where Wisdom, Grace and Love prevail, in preference to a society beleaguered by complex law and litigation. The Leader of the 24-strong Chorus (each a different species of bird) appeals to the judges with these words: “We’d like to say something to the judges, about the good things we shall give them if they award the prize to us: far finer gifts than Paris got for a similar task. Firstly, what every judge desires most of all: owls from Laurion! An inexhaustible supply. They shall nest in your homes and breed in your purses, hatching little coinlings, jingle jingle jingle.’
The Athenian glaux was used in transactions throughout the ancient Greek world, even in cities politically hostile to Athens. It was adopted as a currency by many other city-states throughout the Greek-speaking world, and with the armies of Alexander the Great, it spread to the areas of present day Iran and India which were under Greek influence. This was the first widely used ‘international’ coin. It is still very popular amongst collectors – if you could have only one ancient Greek coin, it would probably be this one: the most important, the most beautiful and the most historically significant.
There is poignant irony that the 1 euro coin issued in Greece has the owl side of the glaux on its reverse.
Author: Elinor Wynne Lloyd (with help from Omicron of course!) for It’s All Greek (July 2015)