Every so often, I see a coin of the Ancient World – and something about it resonates with me strongly. They may or may not be the most aesthetic or best-preserved numismatic … but it always turns out that there’s something powerful to them which is worth sharing to a broader audience.
This particular drachma proved to be no exception. I’d been on the hunt for glorious Gryphon art from the Indo-Iranian sphere (that is to say, our longstanding friends, the Scythians) – and there it was.
Initially, I merely thought it a slightly peculiar – yet ultimately understandable – place to find a Gryphon. The Griffin is, after all, the well-renowned ‘Guardian of the Gold’ in the Greek conception of the far edges of the world – and we can clearly see upon this magnificent example, even following the wearing down of time, the ‘Grupos’, the ‘Curved Beak’ which informs the Gryphon’s dominant feature in the Classical verse upon the subject.
To quote Aeschylus in Prometheus Bound – “Be on thy guard against the Gryphons, the keen-mouthed unbarking hounds of Zeus, and the one-eyed Arimaspian host, who dwell around the stream flowing-with-gold, the ferry of Plouton.” Some translations instead render the relevant portion as “Beware of the sharp-beaked hounds of Zeus that do not bark, the Grypes”.
Yet there is more going on with this iconography upon this coin than we might otherwise presume – for if you look closely, this is a female Gryphon. And at the base, ‘neath Her Mighty Paw – we have the Wheel (of Justice).
Ladies and gentlemen, this is no mere heraldic Gryphon … ’tis Nemesis in Gryphon form !
Now if you are slightly puzzled by this, allow me to explain.
We often find mention for particular Gods appearing in certain forms and shapes – sometimes these are anthropomorphic, other times these are other sorts of creatures entirely. If the latter, then it is often a sort of shape which has some iconographic saliency in the surrounding conceptry of the Deity, Their myths and cultic practice. Hence why it’s regarded as a prominent Form of the Deity in the first place.
And often we find that there is some metaphoric meaning as well to the reasoning for the shape – the Keen Eyesight and Lofty Heavenly Dominion of the Eagle as ‘King of the Skies’, for instance, helping to explain the Indo-European Sky Father so frequently being found identified with the Eagle or appearing in Eagle form.
In this particular instance, there is a recurrent feature of particular Greek Goddesses having Gryphons represented iconographically with Them. Hera and Athena both have Gryphons mentioned in relation to the incredibly elaborate artistry of sacred artefacts to Them. Nemesis, too, is hailed as having a Gryphon for Her Vahana (‘Vehicle’/’Mount’) – or as having an entire team of Gryphons pulling Her Chariot.
We also see, further to the East across both Steppe and Spires of Mountains, the Hindu Shaivite understanding of the Gryphonic Ashu Garuda – the Swift Raptor – as a Form or Emissary or perhaps Emanation of Shiva. The Indo-European Sky Father’s most prominent modern Deific-Expression being He Who Wields The (Three)Spear.
The general symbolism of the Gryphon is that it is both the Sentinel of the Sky Father’s Realm, and the Guardian of the Gods’ dominion.
It brings together the elements of the Eagle and of the Lion which renders it the King of Beasts of both Air and Land. Its rule – the symbolism thereof, at any rate – can extend anywhere. With the eyesight to immediately espy any transgressors, and both beak and leonine qualities to rend to shreds those who would offend against the Divine Order.
Rather like Nemesis, in fact – Who can go anywhere, is always listening and watching [indeed, there’s a recurrent trend in Greek verse of having somebody do something egregiously and deliberately improper, followed by the narrator observing that Nemesis takes note of the now-doomed character’s words … ] , and has the ultimate regal power in the universe – that of the Cosmic, Divine Law – to enforce with.
It therefore makes eminent sense for Nemesis to be depicted in such a manner – and, indeed, even were it not for the surrounding iconographic and mythic saliency of the subject, we have a number of further sculpted representations of the Nemesis-Gryphon to help to inform our reading of this excellent coin.
A rendering which, even though it has become considerably worn down via the passage of time , nevertheless retains an eminent power and majesty to it. Just as we should expect .
Truly, this is a ‘Crown’ (in the old sense of a Coin being worth something, in part, due to the stamp of the Sovereign and Law thereupon) .