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Athenian Owl

Athenian Owl

Ancient Greece captures the imagination like few other eras do. It was the time of the scholars, the home of great artists, classical philosophers, the birthplace of Western culture. It was also for it's time one of the most stable and solvent economies in the known world. Coins minted in Athens were among the most trusted throughout the lands with which they traded. The head of Athena on one side, and her sacred emblem, the Owl, on the other, marked a coin as true silver, in its full weight.

The Athenian tetradrachm was nearly always welcome in trade because those trading knew that the coin was worth its face value. The trust that others placed in the purity of the silver in the Athenian Owl tetradrachm served as a stabilizing force for the ancient world's economy. It was so important and so popular in trading that the tetradrachm was minted and in circulation for well over 300 years (c. 430 B.C. to c. 99 B.C.). Because they were minted in such profusion, they are one of the more common ancient coins in collectors' circles, but their beauty and history make them among the most sought after.

In modern times, we are used to seeing coins of uniform size and shape, each one an exact copy of all the others we've seen. This wasn't true of the ancient coins, each of which was struck by hand, individually, in molds carved by hand. Because each artisan had his own style, there are many variations in appearance among Athenian owls, but they all share several common traits. They weigh approximately 17 grams. The front of the coin bears the head of the goddess Athena, patroness of Athens, and the obverse bears the likeness of her sacred bird, the owl. Many also bear the crescent symbol of Athens, an olive branch and the letters AEA, for Athens. In later castings, the Owl is often shown perched on the edge of an amphora or on a fallen amphora.

The earliest examples of the tetradrachm are distinguished by the crudeness of the figures. The helmeted head of Athena shows little facial detail, and the hair is merely outlined. The owl on the reverse is highly stylized, looking very much like a child's drawing of the bird. As the decades and centuries passed, and methods of casting became more refined, the details of the engravings on the coins also became more refined. Some coins minted in the 150-100 B.C. period are highly detailed, with feathered helmet, hair lines drawn and the owl's feathers defined in intricate detail.

There were other Athenian coins in regular circulation, but the tetradrachm is the coin that is most likely to have survived to the modern day. Because it was a relatively large denomination of coin, it was not passed from hand to hand as often as coins of smaller denominations. Instead, most Owls were kept in treasuries, or reserved for large trades and purchases.

The Athens Owl is easily one of the most popular coins among collectors of today, as prized for its history as for its beauty. Our coins of today can claim direct lineage to the Athenian Owls of Ancient Greece.

Symbolism of Athens Owls

The Athenian Owl was the first currency that was widely recognized and used in international trade. It is possibly the single most influential coin in history, both for its longevity (the Athens Owl tetradrachm was minted and circulated widely for over 300 years, more than any other coin in history), and for its contribution to coinage tradition. Among other things, the Athens Owl was the first widely minted coin that placed a 'head' on the front and a 'tail', an animal image, on the obverse. Throughout its history, the design of the Athenian Owl remained substantially unchanged, though the engraving on the later coins is highly refined in contrast to the earliest. It's said that when Theodore Roosevelt was president of the U.S., he carried an Athens Owl as a good luck piece, and that its design inspired him to order the redesign of U.S. coins.

The symbols and figures on the Athens Owl throughout its history are peculiar to Athens, and were carefully chosen to represent the majestic ancient city state. They range from the most obvious, the head of Athena, patroness of Athens, to the minute - the number of olive leaves on the olive wreaths that surround the owl on some later issues. The subtle differences in style and symbols can help date specific specimens of Athens Owls more accurately.

In ancient times, the story goes, Athens had no patron, but both Poseidon and Athena wished to take the city under their protection. To settle matters, Zeus proposed a contest - whichever of the two could give the most precious gift to the city would be allowed to be its patron. On the day appointed by Zeus, Poseidon and Athena met on the plain outside the city. Poseidon presented his gift first - he struck his trident into the ground, and from the trench it made a well of water sprang up. The water, unfortunately, was salt, and not much good for drinking or irrigating. When it was Athena's turn, she knelt and dug a small hole in which she planted an olive branch. The branch began to grow, and within moments, it was a towering tree bearing ripe fruit. Her gift was judged far more useful, and indeed it was. Though the olive is widely seen now as a symbol of peace, at the time it meant survival. The olive tree provided food, oil, shelter and fuel for fires. Thus, Athena became the patron goddess of Athens and took the city under her protection.

On the Athens Owl, she is most often depicted wearing a warrior's helmet. In the earliest version of the coin, her face has few distinguishable features, and the helmet is more suggested than drawn. As time went on, her visage became far more detailed, and the helmet drawn in all its glory. One mark of the latest period of Ancient Grecian coins is the shape and orientation of Athena's eyes - open corners, giving the face a more lifelike appearance.

The Owl and obverse symbols

The owl
was Athena's mascot and symbol. The particular species of owl that is most associated with Athena, and is the one depicted on the Athens Owl, is the Minerva owl, a small, nocturnal bird that is native to the area. Athena's relationship with the owl was even closer than taking it as her mascot, though. It is said that the goddess took the form of the owl when she traveled on the Earth.

Olive branches, wreaths and leaves
have been variously used on the obverse of the Athens Owl. As the gift of Athena to the city, the olive held a special place in its heart and its history, but it also was a very practical gift. Olive trees were plentiful. The oil from olives was a major export for Athens, and olives themselves provided food for the people. The wood was used to build houses, furniture and boats, and could be burned for fire. Wreaths made of olive branches were placed on the heads of victors and heroes, and an olive branch was commonly extended between enemies as a symbol that they wished to enter into treaties.

The crescent
represents the moon, though it is a historical reference, not a symbol that relates to Athena. In 490 B.C., the Athenians defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon beneath a waning moon. In coins that were struck after that battle, the crescent moon appears behind the shoulder of the owl.

Because the Athens Owl coins were struck by hand in molds carved by hand, there is are many wide variances between one coin and another. In fact, it has been said that a collector might buy fifty genuine Athens Owl tetradrachms, and not find two exactly alike. The differences can help date the coins if you know what to look for.

Counterfeit Athens Owls

In general, the Athenian Owl tetradrachm was one of the most trusted coins of the ancient world. It was used for trade throughout the known world, largely because it was well-known that Athens carefully regulated the manufacture of its drachma. In fact, the penalty for counterfeiting the Athens Owl was death, but that didn't stop counterfeiters from trying.

The tetradrachm was a coin of solid silver. The most common method of counterfeiting this coin was to cast it in the less-precious copper or even bronze, then plate it in silver. The biggest problem with that method was duplicating the weight of a solid silver coin. A counterfeit coin, called a foure (pronounced for-ay), was often appreciably larger to account for the difference in weight. One way of determining whether a coin was a real Athens Owl or a foure was to notch the coin, revealing any layers of copper or bronze beneath the silver. Many surviving tetradrachms show notches and slits cut into the surface of the coins, proof that the concern about counterfeiting was not uncommon.

A contemporary Athens Owl forgery - one from the same era as the coin itself - is as valuable and as of much interest to most collectors as a genuine Athens Owl. In fact, there was a period of time in Athens history when the city itself minted and circulated foure.

During the final years of the Peloponnesian War (c. 431-404 BC), Athens was cut off from its silver mines by the Spartan forces. In an attempt to stretch their thinning resources, the Athenian government issued a series of tetradrachm foures as circulating currency. These are sometimes referred to as Emergency Owls, because of the circumstances of their minting. The foure coins were produced with the promise that they would be traded for a full tetradrachm when the instability had passed.

There has been considerable controversy surrounding the Emergency Owls. Some scholars insist that it never happened, but it's a difficult argument to make when Aristophanes makes reference to the 'coppers' in several of his writings. The other controversy has to do with the intent of the issue. Many scholars believe that the underweight tetradrachms were issued as "fiduciary coins" - more or less promissory notes to those that accepted them that they could be reclaimed for full-weight silver coins at a later time. Others believe that the Athenian government simply intended them to be accepted as full-weight coins out of sheer desperation.

While the foure may have been worthless - or at least worth less - to the ancient merchants and soldiers who accepted them, the same isn't true of the modern collector. Those coins are rare and highly prized for their scarcity and their history. Like most contemporary forgeries of ancient coins, they'll fetch approximately 40%-60% of the worth of a genuine coin of the same period, and in some cases far more.