One of the most treasured coins of Collectors worldwide is an ancient silver coin from Greece known as the Athenian Owl tetradrachm. It’s collected not only for its beauty, but because this coin was a stabilizing force in the known world, at that time, and is a reminder of all that has emanated from the era known as the “Golden Age.” One of my customers, who is a famous and respected movie actor, once told me, “…I know it’s not an expensive coin, but what I like to do, after a hard day, is sit on my patio, watch the sunset, and hold the coin in my hand, and imagine who could have held it before me.”
The Athenian Owl was not just a coin originating from Athens. It was a coin that was known for its silver purity. It stabilized the known world economy, and was accepted everywhere as good legal tender for trade and commerce. As a matter of fact, this coin was such a stabilizing factor that it was manufactured and remained in circulation for over 300 years (from around 430 to 99 B.C.).
These coins were hand struck from dies that were hand carved in there actual size. So, one will find a lot of variations in the coins due to the artesian who crafted the dies, and the mint from which the coins were struck. The weight of the coins varies slightly, but one will find that they all are approximately 17 grams plus or minus.
The obverse of the coin features the portrait of the helmeted goddess Athena. According to Greek mythology, she is the goddess of wisdom, war, the arts, industry, justice and skill. Her mother was Metis (goddess of wisdom, and Zeus’ first wife), and Athena was the favorite child of her father, Zeus. Zeus feared that Metis would bear him a son who would be mightier than he was, so he swallowed her. Metis began to make a robe and helmet for her daughter. The hammering of the helmet caused Zeus to have agonizing headaches. To alleviate the pain, Hephaestus (a son of Zeus) split open the head of his father with an axe, and from it emerged Athena, fully grown and wearing the robe and helmet her mother made.
Athena named the city of Athens after a contest with her uncle Poseidon, to win the favor of its citizens. The two gods were to provide a gift to win the favor of the populace. Poseidon struck his trident into the side of a cliff and produced a spring, but it turned out to be salt water. Athena gave the people an olive tree to provide wood, food and oil.
The reverse of the coin depicts an owl (Athene noctua), and the more recent coins show the owl perched on and amphora. We all know that the owl is a representation of wisdom, but the latest theory by Greek Mythologists tells us more. Athena had the ability to change her form (shape shifting). It has also been noted that both Athena and the owl seldom appear together in Greek paintings and sculptures. The conclusion is: Athena is the owl, and the owl is Athena. They are one and the same. The letters ÁÈÅ, as a reference to Athens, also appear on the reverse of the coin.
The Athenian Owl has to be one of the most remarkable of the ancient Greek coins. It is a piece of history and artistry that can be appreciated by every collector. There are enough variations to be found that if one was to purchase 50 of these coins, no two would be exactly the same.