The Abduction of Europa

Mythology has always played an important role in the iconography portrayed on coinage. One very enduring myth that saw widespread representation on the coins of many eras and cultures was the story of  Europa and her abduction by Zeus.

According to Greek myth, Europa was a Phoenician princess, the daughter of King Agenor of Tyre. One day as she was gathering flowers by the sea, the god Zeus looked down upon her and became enamored with her beauty. Zeus disguised himself as a white bull and descended to mix in with King Agenor’s herds. When Europa saw him, she approached and, seeing that the bull was tame, climbed onto its back. Zeus then leaped into the sea and swam to the island of Crete. Upon arrival, Zeus revealed himself to Europa in his true form and eventually fathered three sons with her.

The first mention of Europa in literature can be found in Homer’s “Iliad” which is generally dated to about the 8th century B.C. The myth is mentioned by numerous sources throughout history including  Herodotus, and the Roman poet Ovid.

With regard to coins, the depiction of Europa being carried away on the back of a bull has been a popular motif almost since the advent of coinage as a medium of exchange. Beginning around the 4th century B.C., this scene has been reproduced on coins of Greece, Rome, and Cyprus just to name a few. And being a native of Phoenicia, Europa of course figured most prominently on the coins of that ancient nation.

The above coin is a bronze from the city of Sidon, Phoenicia dating from the 1st century B.C. On the obverse is the Phoenician god Melqart facing right, possibly the Phoenician equivalent of the Greek Heracles according to Herodotus. On the reverse is the famous scene of Europa in a divine halo seated on the back of Zeus in the form of a bull. Below is the name of the mint city, Sidon, written in Greek. There is another line of text below the mint name and a possible date to the left of the bull but I have yet to decipher them.

Geographically, ancient Phoenicia corresponded approximately to the modern day country of Lebanon. It was a powerful seafaring nation in its heyday, famous for its navy, wine, and purple dye. Sidon was known for its skillful metalworkers as early as the 7th or 8th century B.C. Sidon fell under the sovereignty of the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians in antiquity and was conquered by Alexander III the Great in 333 B.C. The Ptolemies and Seleucids followed as Sidon’s overlords until self government was achieved around 250 B.C.

Around the time this little piece of small change was minted, Pompey the Great of Rome recognized Sidon as a sovereign city-state. Representations of the abduction of Europa continued on Sidon’s coins even after it was assimilated into the Roman Empire under the emperor Elagabalus c.218-222 A.D.

You can still find this myth portrayed on modern day coins, such as the 50 cent coin of 1994 from Cyprus. The Abduction of Europa has endured on coinage for over 2500 years and I’m thinking a collection from ancient to modern times would be a very rewarding endeavor!

Comments

  1. Hi Matt,
    You know I’m not a coin collector, but i still like to read your articles. So glad you and Wendy got the opportunity to go to Portland. Still can’t believe you met the man that sold you your first coin!

    I think you should write a book and share all the knowledge you have about coin collecting. You’re style of writing is fun and interesting to read!!!!!!

    We’re all melting down here in Illinois and it’s only June…LOL

    Love and kisses to you all, Marsha

  2. Thank you for an excellent article!!!

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