The series of owls c.393 B.C. – 294 B.C., reflects a transition from the Classical to the Hellenistic period of Greek art and coinage. Athena becomes even more human in response to changing attitudes about representation of the human form in Greek art. It was during this era that her eye was first depicted in-profile rather than facing the viewer. Planchets are more compact, and the owl of Athena has a larger head and slightly different proportions.
Owls were the first widely used international coin. They popularized the practice of putting a head on the obverse of a coin and a tail (animal) on the reverse. Owls were handled by Pythagoras, Xenophanes, Democritus, Hippocrates, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Archimedes, and others whose thinking formed the very foundation of Western civilization. They remained thematically unchanged, Athena on the obverse, her owl on the reverse, for half a millennium, through great changes in the ancient world. Because of their centrality, they were known as “Owls” in ancient times as they are today despite many other ancient coins depicting owls in an equally prominent fashion. President Theodore Roosevelt used a Classical Owl as a pocket piece, which inspired him to order the redesign of U.S. coins early last century.
Like other great powers, Athens treated its money not only as a way of facilitating commerce and trade and projecting its image abroad but also as a way of making money. Athens earned seigniorage profits on each Owl minted, whether the source was freshly mined silver or the silver coins of other cities. The traders and merchants of other cities, in turn, liked Owls because of their easy exchangeability. Owls thus became the world’s first great trade currency, and they were followed in this role by among others Alexander the Great tetradrachms and staters, Roman denarii, Spanish American pieces of eight, Dutch lion dollars, Austrian Maria Theresa thalers, and American dollars.
The mythology depicted on Owls is equally interesting. Athena was goddess of both wisdom and warfare, combining within herself two qualities we find incompatible today but the ancients didn’t, a telling difference between their world and ours. She was the patron goddess of Athens, one of the greatest cities of all time.
According to ancient Greek mythology, Athena was the daughter of Zeus and his first wife, Metis, whose name meant “wisdom.” Metis warned Zeus that their first son would be more powerful than Zeus himself, which agitated Zeus so much that when Metis became pregnant he swallowed whole Metis and their unborn child. This gave him a headache, which he cured by splitting his head open with an axe. (Zeus may have been powerful but he wasn’t necessarily smart.) From the wound came forth Athena, fully grown.
One of Athena’s precursors was the Eye Goddess of Neolithic peoples. The wide staring eyes of the Eye Goddess were all-seeing and all-knowing. Along with being the goddess of wisdom and warfare, in ancient Greece Athena was also known as an eye goddess and was described as the “flashing eyed.” The large almond-shaped frontal eye on early Owl coins may thus have religious significance. Some disagree, pointing to Attic and Egyptian art and pottery of the same period with the same frontal eye on human figures.
The owl is Athena’s attribute or mascot. According to the mythology, Athena at times also took the very form of her owl. The owl species depicted on Athenian Owls is the Athena Noctua, also called the Little Owl or Minerva Owl. Standing 6 to 8 inches and weighing 2.5 to 4.5 ounces, they range from the Mediterranean to Scandinavia. The owl then as today was a symbol of wisdom. At different places and in different times, however, owls have symbolized other things, including dread and death.
No coin better epitomizes Athens than the Owl, and no city was more central to Greece than Athens. Greece, in turn, was where the foundation of our way of life, the way we think and interact with one another, was built. Our philosophy, politics, education, mathematics, science, medicine, art, theater, architecture, and sport all originated in ancient Greece from relatively inchoate antecedents. The Greeks masterfully developed the very substance of our civilization from what they inherited from Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Minoa.
Head of Athena right, with profile eye, wearing crested Attic helmet decorated with a “pi-style” palmette, disk earring, and pearl necklace
Owl standing right, head facing; olive sprig and crescent to left, AΘE and Eleusis-ring to right
A perfect choice for Numismatists, Historians, Military Veterans, Collectors.