The Owl of Athena and the Coins of Athens Ancient Coins
Finding an owl in ancient Athens was no big task. The bird could be easily spotted on the trees of Attica at night or the pockets of its people during the day. That’s exactly why “bringing owls to Athens” was a proverb used by the ancient Greeks to refer to a pointless task, sort of like bringing sand to the Sahara.
Over a long period of more than 400 years, from the 6th to the 1st century BCE, the “owl” or “glaux”, as the owl-bearing tetradrachms of Athens came to be known, would travel to every corner of the known world. Indicative of the power of this ancient coin is that archaeologists still unearth hoards of owls in places as far from the Aegean Sea as Yemen and Afghanistan.
The Sacred Bird of Athena Becomes a Coin
To understand how the owl ended up in Athens’ coinage, we have to understand the special relationship between the city and its favorite goddess, Athena. According to an old myth, Athena earned the right to name Athens after herself in a contest judged by the gods. The people of the city honored their patroness in many ways. On the hill of the Acropolis, one would find two temples devoted to the cult of Athena: the Erechtheion and the Parthenon, the latter housing a monumental gold and ivory image of the goddess. In addition, the Athenians held a yearly festival, the Panathenaea, in honor of Athena, while every four years, they celebrated the Great Panathenaea, her most important and sacred festival. Just as they loved and honored their goddess, the Athenians respected her sacred symbols, which included the olive tree, the head of Medusa, and, of course, the owl.
So, in the 6th century BCE, when the Athenians issued their first coins, among the earliest in mainland Greece, they forgot neither their beloved goddess nor her symbols. At around 515 BCE, after experimenting with different ideas, they settled with one of the most recognizable coin types in history: Athena wearing an Attic type helmet on the obverse and her sacred animal, the owl, with the city’s name (ΑΘΕ[ΝΑΙΟΝ]) spelled right next to the bird on the reverse. No other Greek city could boast such an easily recognizable type.
The owl became a trademark of the city, consistently depicted on the city’s silver tetradrachms (the main coin of the Attic-Euboean standard weighting 17.2grams and equal to one drachma of 4.3grams). Of course, the owl also appeared on other silver denominations, ranging from the tiny hemitetartemorion (1/48 of a drachma) to the obol (1/4 of a drachma) and the relatively rare didrachms (two drachmae) and decadrachms (ten drachmae), the latter being the largest coin produced by the city. The owl was also found on various bronze and gold denominations. It is worth mentioning that the smaller the denomination, the harder it is to find in good condition today.
The Significance of the Owl as a Symbol
As Athena’s sacred animal, the owl was a good omen in Athens. Whereas other civilizations related the night-hunting creature with misfortunes, the Athenians saw it as a bearer of wisdom due to its connection with Athena. In his biography of the Athenian general Themistocles, the historian Plutarch relates that the Athenians were reluctant to fight the Persians during the naval battle of Salamis in 480 BCE. Themistocles tried to lift their spirits, but words weren’t enough. What motivated the Athenian troops, according to Plutarch, was the sighting of an owl! And the omen was indeed favorable. For in the ensuing battle, the Persian fleet was annihilated. If men found the strength to fight against the most powerful empire of its time just because of an owl, then it must be true that owls were important in Athens.
The Owl-Bearing Coins of Athens
After the Persians were driven off Greece around 480/479 BCE, signaling the passage from the Archaic to the Classical Period, the Athenians changed their owls. In the new type of the Classical Period, the goddess’ helmet was adorned with four olive leaves, later reduced to three. A crescent moon was also added next to the owl. The Classical type would remain consistent until the second century BCE when the style of the tetradrachm would change so much that numismatologists refer to this period as the New Style.
Thanks to their silver mines at Lavrion, the Athenians created a virtually unending supply of high-quality tetradrachms that flooded the world. Due to its purity, stability, and quality, the owl became a standard for trade, reaching parts of the world where money was not being used. Imitations of owls became widespread, first in southern Egypt and the Levant and then to south Arabian states and the middle East. In many cases, these imitations came even before native coinage. By 375 BCE, the foreign reproductions were causing problems to the Athenians, who passed laws restricting the use of counterfeit owls in their agora.
Even in the first century BCE, when Athens was a shadow of her former self, the prestige of the owl was undebatable. During the Mithridatic wars (88 – 63 BCE), both sides of the conflict, king Mithridates of Pontus and the Romans, issued coins featuring the owl of Athena to fund their military campaigns.
Athens would keep issuing owl-bearing tetradrachms even under the Romans. However, production stopped in 42 BCE when the Roman eagle of Augustus eventually replaced the owl of Athena.
Today, the owls of Athens are popular collectibles among those passionate about ancient coins. At the same time, one can find the owl on the one-euro coin issued by the modern Greek state under the European Union.
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Tsangari, D. 2011. Myth and coinage: Representations, Symbolisms and Interpretations from the Greek Mythology. Ministry of Culture and Tourism, National Archaeological Museum, Numismatic Museum, pp 56-64