Of all the mythical beasts to appear on coins from the ancient world, the man-headed bull must rank among the most bizarre. These strange beasts were usually river-gods, the power of a raging bull equating to the relentless power of a fast-flowing river.
Achelous was the chief river-god of the Greek pantheon. Son of the Titans Oceanus and Tethys, he appears in various forms throughout ancient material culture, including a bearded man and a bull, and sometimes a combination of the two. The Achelous river, which formed the border between Akarnania and Aetolia, was the largest river in Greece, thus making the river god the most important in Greek mythology.
Coins from Akarnania depict the god in his man-headed bull form, including coin #23 from our Christmas Fixed Price List. This silver stater, minted in Leukas, which was a part of the Akarnanian Confederacy, features a close-up of Achelous’ head, clean-shaven and with horns. Behind his head is the name of the magistrate in ancient Greek – ΛYKOYPΓOΣ, or Lykourgos. This coin was minted around 250-200 BC. Its reverse depicts the god, Apollo, seated left on an ornately decorated throne, along with the name of the confederacy. It bears an impressive provenance dating back to 1948, when it was sold at a Swiss auction house in Basel.
The Greek colonies of Southern Italy, also known as Magna Graecia, adopted the use of these creatures for their coinages. The city of Neapolis, modern day Naples, issued large quantities of coins depicting man-headed bulls, as did many other cities in Campania. With a lack of evidence for the worship of streams and rivers in the area, historians have suggested these man-headed bulls may have a link to the cult of Dionysos, as they are often accompanied by emblems associated with the god. Gardner, writing in the late 19th century, suggested that the man-headed bull of Neapolis was in fact Dionysos in disguise.
The Sicilian city of Gela was named after its river, its name meaning ‘winter frost’. As with all rivers of the Greek world, it had its own river-god. A powerful city-state, Gela issued an extensive coinage in antiquity. The river-god Gelas appears as a primary motif on various denominations, as both a ferocious, bearded, man-headed bull, and an innocent looking male youth. The ability for divinities to adopt various forms was a key feature of ancient gods and goddesses. The impressive silver tetradrachm shown here is coin #7 in our Fixed Price List. Its reverse depicts a large, strongly struck forepart of the river-god Gelas, charging left at speed. The city’s name appears above, in Greek. The obverse features a biga of horses. Due to the strongly struck and high-relief river-god, the obverse has been somewhat less well-struck. Nonetheless, it presents a superb example of this popular type.
Distinctive and intriguing, coins depicting river-gods remain very popular to this day. Do you have any coins featuring river-gods in your collection?
Some other river-gods from the ancient world, sold by Baldwin’s in the past:
Assinos appears as a youth on this silver hemidrachm from Naxos in Sicily, minted c. 413-404 BC.
This silver didrachm from Kamarina depicts the river-god Hipparis, struck c. 415-405 BC.
The youthful Akragas appears on this bronze unit from the Sicilian city of the same name, struck c. 400-380 BC.