Istros, also known as Histria, was an ancient Hellenic colony located on the western Dobrudja coast of the Black Sea. Situated approximately 300 miles north of Byzantium, this small city was founded by Miletian traders around 657 or 656 BCE. As the oldest Hellenic colony on the Black Sea, Istros survived for some 14 centuries before its eventual abandonment in the mid-seventh century CE. It is unsurprising, therefore, that such a long-lasting settlement would produce several interesting and important numismatic types. Perhaps the most recognizable Istrian coin is the “unique” anti-parallel Apollonian silvers.

Struck in both drachmai and the associated fractional denominations, these coins portray “essentially identical” dual portraits of Apollon on their obverse. The inverted heads set these coins apart as a rarity not seen anywhere else in the ancient world. The only real design differences on the obverse come from the engravers’ skill level and artistry. Some of the obverses are finely engraved with highly realistic features, while others are rather crude, as demonstrated below. This design would not change during the entire span of this type’s production, from 434 BCE to approximately 300 BCE.

Similarly consistent, the reverse design shows an eagle in flight with wings outstretched as it clutches a dolphin in its talons. Since dolphins were, and still are found in the Black Sea, it is rather common to see them on Thracian and other Black Sea coins. Historians believe that the eagle represents Zeus and the dolphin the Black Sea. Due to the dolphin’s position as prey, it is logical to assume that the reverse image symbolizes either some unspecified military victory or Hellenic domination over the region and its vital trade routes.

But unlike the reverse imagery, the obverse has been a matter of interest and study for a long time. In all, numismatists and historians have suggested six possible meanings. The first and least likely is that the two heads represent the east-west trade routes along the River Danube and into Asia. This does not acknowledge the more important north-south trade routes into Hellas and the Mediterranean.

Another unlikely theory is that the Apollonian heads represent dual wind Gods. While possible, with their cheeks not puffed out and with their mouths open instead of closed, the obverse imagery does not match that of contemporary wind Gods.

The next theory is that the dual-headed imagery represents multiple branches of the Ister river, later to be known as the Danube. While these tributary branches no longer exist, it is possible that this interpretation is correct. Similar to the last theory, however, the iconography does not match. River Gods are usually depicted in profile, not facing forward, with beards and long flowing hair. With their short hair and beardless faces, these coins do not match this standard iconography.

A more “attractive” interpretation is that the two heads depict the rising and setting sun. Since the two Apollonian portraits are similar to those with radiate crowns from Rhodes, this is not an implausible idea. However, the “uniqueness” of the Istros imagery proves this false. The rising and setting of the sun is not a uniquely Istrian phenomenon and should therefore be seen on many coins around the ancient world, and not solely of coins from a small trading center on the periphery of the Hellenic world.

The most common theory about this interesting design is that the two heads represent Kastor and Polydeukes, the mythical Dioskuri. These identical twin brothers, sons of the princess Leda, participated in some of the most famous Hellenic mythical adventures and are known today as the Gemini twins. While this theory fits in broadly, and there are many numismatic examples of the Dioskuri being pictured on ancient coins, the Istrian type does not include many of the specific details. For example, the brothers are usually shown as full figures, and sometimes on horseback with their signature conical Dioskuri caps. More importantly, they are “seldom identical, never inverted and sometimes with stars above them.” The standard iconography is displayed on this quadrigatus from Bruttium.

We are forced to concede that while this theory is a partial fit, it cannot fully explain the enigmatic design.

In 2005, William Saslaw and Paul Murdin, noted academics at the Cambridge Institute of Astronomy, authored an influential article that argued that the double-headed Istrian coins were actually the earliest commemoration of a solar eclipse in numismatic history. Astronomers are able to predict the date and time of both future and past eclipses to within minutes. After searching for an eclipse that would have been visible from Istros between 450 and 300 BCE, Saslaw and Murdin discovered that at 6:30 am on the fourth of October, 434 BCE, there was a partial eclipse. Initially, the sun would have risen as a crescent with the two points facing up, like a bull’s horns. The sun and moon would have risen at differing speeds, thus as the sun gained altitude the horns would have “flipped” with the horns later facing down. “Clearly the Sun God was up to something astonishing.” This would have been “memorable” and “worth recording”. Since “solar eclipses are rare in both space and time,” it would not be unusual for it to be commemorated on a coin.

In fact, in the following centuries, many societies commemorated such events on their coins. The Roman emperor Vespasian included a “star” on the reverse of a denarius to commemorate the eclipse of January 5, 75 CE, and Hadrian’s mint produced the “Star and Crescent” series after the September 3, 118 CE eclipse. Hundreds of years later, the English king John included a crescent sun after there were eclipses in 1201 and 1207 CE, just to name a few.

Not only are partial eclipses “relatively rare”, a once-in-a-century phenomenon, but Istros happened to have witnessed two of them within three years. This dual occurrence should be considered “sufficient to initiate the coinage.” Since as I have discussed in past articles, coins were used to “spread news or propaganda,” it would be logical that the Istrian authorities would include “an emblem advertising Apollon’s favor” as a result of these two astronomical events. Why wouldn’t the locals take “these events as signs of good times”?

A century later on the 14th of July, 337 BCE, there was a third celestial event: a much rarer total eclipse. However, by this time, the city was beginning to decline in economic and cultural importance. Though full eclipses occur every 375 years on average at any given location, the double-headed coinage was already thought mainly to have been discontinued. There are some examples that are believed to have been struck later, but this is disputed, and they are given a date range of between 313 and 280 BCE.

One reason these dates are disputed is the general difficulty in dating this series. Unlike many other ancient coins, this Apollonian series is “never dated specifically, nor is there any datable historical reference.” Usually, there is one of these factors or the other to help numismatists date a specific example. Numismatists must therefore rely on a four-step process to date these coins.

The first step is to analyze their alloy and weights. Before the discovery of the lunar connection, this was used to date the beginning of the series to 480 to 430 BCE. The next step is to look at their production method. In the earlier issues, the mint workers employed a narrow incuse die for the reverse. This was common in Hellas during the fifth century BCE but fell out of use around 340 BCE in Istros. Another dating tool is the reverse lettering font. Between 359 and 336 BCE, it morphed to closely resemble the text on Phillip of Macedonia, the regional hegemon’s, coinage. Lastly, numismatists can use hoard membership to help date specific examples. For example, coins from the Orgamé-Argamum Necropolis Hoard were found in a ceramic pot dated to between 380 and 360 BCE. Therefore, the 39 coins inside were all struck before those dates.

Despite the difficulty in dating and the unsettled iconography, these interesting coins are fairly common and enjoyed a “relatively long run” of 150 years. They must have been intended for circulation beyond the city walls because the “variations in weight, size, and purity of the coins were small.” We can therefore infer that they were “important and reliable for commerce.”

If a collector were interested in acquiring an example of this type, they are very affordable. Examples of the full drachmai can cost as little as $80 USD and as high as $750. Fractional examples also fall within this range, with examples valued between $100 and $500.

Elaion is proud to announce that on the sixth and seventh of Thargelion, 18 and 19 May, we will be hosting another PAT ritual, this time for the Thargelia. The Thargelia (Θαργήλια) was, as said, held over the course of two days. It was an agricultural festival as well as a kathartic one. The purpose was to purify the city in order to please the Theoi and ensure a successful harvest come harvesting time. It also celebrates the birth of the divine twins Apollon and Artemis.

The first day, a sheep was sacrificed to Demeter Khloe on the Acropolis, and perhaps a swine to the Fates, but most telling about that first day was the following that took place:

In ancient times, two poor, ugly men (or a man and one woman) were chosen each year to be Pharmakoi.  They were fed for a while at public expense and were then paraded around Athens as scapegoats for the people, one wearing a string of black figs to represent the men, the other white figs to represent the women. At the end of the procession, they were driven out of the city by flogging and beaten them with branches and squills (sea onions), and killed. The bodies were burned and the ashes thrown into the sea or land, to fertilize.

This sacrifice became symbolic as time wore on, first with banishment, then with play acting where they were beaten with branches of figs and pelted with squills instead of beaten with branches and stoned to death. What matters was that they were driven out and with them, so was the pollution of ever man and woman in the city.

The first day focused on purification and appeasement but the second day was a lot less gruesome: a great pot of vegetables was prepared as an offering of the first fruits to Apollon. A panspermia was ritually sown into the earth. The Thargelia also featured choral contests among pairs of phratriai, and was recognized by phratriai as a day of festival and sacrifice. An eiresione (olive branch of supplication) with fillets of white wool and first fruits attached was carried in procession along with a winnowing basket full of fruit.

Sources tell us clearly that Apollon was linked to the festival as well as the sun, Helios, and the seasons, the Horai. With Apollon's birth, so came the light that grew the vegetation, that ripened the corn and barley. And in line with Apollon is Helios who journeys across the sky every day and the Horai who precede over the lengthening and shortening of the days, giving Apollon and Helios more or less time with us to ripen our crops.

At its core this festival is a festival of Apollon, but myth tells us Artemis helped bring Him into the world and thus She is honored as well. And we bring Demeter offerings because She taught us how to grow crops and once Persephone leaves for the Underworld again, She will kill them all. Add to that the Horai and Helios and you have a very involved and intricate festival that was absolutely essential to ensure a good harvest. And so we shall celebrate it as well and honor to all these Theoi in appeasement.

You can find the rituals for the events here, for both days, and the community page here.

On the fourth of Thargelion, in the deme of Erkhia, located approximately twenty kilometers (twelve miles) east of Athens, a series of sacrifices were held. Most likely, these were in relation to the Thargelia which was soon to follow. Preporatory rites, of a sort. Elaion will hold a PAT ritual to follow in their footsteps on 16 May at the usual 10 am EDT. Will you be joining us?

The Thargelia was one of the major festivals of Athens, and most of ancient Hellas. It celebrates the birthday of Apollon and Artemis and was held over the course of two days, one with the focus on Artemis--the first, as she was born first--and Apollon on the second day, held on the sixth and seventh day of the month of Thargelion, respectively. The thargelia was both an agricultural and a purifying festival: it was a festival intended to lift miasma from the city of Athens (and anywhere else it was celebrated) in order to ensure a good harvest. It was of vital importance and it could be that the people of Erkhia hosted these sacrifices in order to feel entitled to have Erkhia's harvest fall under the results of the katharthic rites of Athens once they would be held a few days later.

The ancient Erkhians would have held separate rituals for (almost) all of the listed deities, more often than not at different locations. It could therefore be that not all of these sacrifices are linked to the Thargelia. The sacrifices to Leto, Apollon and Zeus most likely were. Hermes, perhaps, but it is more likely that He, along with the Dioskuri was honoured due to the influence of Sparta, of whom all three were patrons. Perhaps the sacrifice to Zeus had a joined function as the father of all (Depending on the mythological account, of course).

We won't be distinguishing between the two 'branches' and have made a single rite to be performed on the 16th, at 10 am EDT. You can join the community here and find the ritual here. We hope you will join us!

On the day of the Hene kai Nea (or sometimes the day after, like this month), I post a monthly update about things that happened on the blog and in projects and organizations related to it. I will also announce Elaion's coming PAT rituals.

PAT rituals for Thargelion:
  • Thargelion 4 - May 16 - Sacrifice to Leto, Pythian Apollon, Zeus, Hermes & Dioskuri at Erkhia
  • Thargelion 6-7 - May 18 - 19 - Thargelia - birthday of Apollon and Artemis
  • Thargelion 16 - May 28 - Sacrifice to Zeus Epakrios at Erkhia
  • Thargelion 19 - May 31 - Bendideia - festival in honor of Thracian Goddess Bendis
  • Thargelion 19 - May 31 - Sacrifice to Menedeius at Erkhia
  • Thargelion 25n - June 5n - Plynteria - festival of washing, where the statue of athena was removed from the city of Athens to be cleaned. Auspicious day.
  • Thargelion 27 - June 8 - Kallunteria - spring cleaning of the Temple of Athena

    Anything else?
    Are you looking for an online shop to buy incenses and other Hellenistic basics from? Try The Hellenic Handmaid on Etsy.

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    During his childhood (or so goes one legend), the future Olympian wrestler Milo of Croton owned a young calf he used to lift onto his shoulders and carry around for a spell. Milo is said to have done this every single day: as it got bigger, he grew stronger. Four years later, Milo could be seen wandering around with this fully grown pet bull resting on his manly shoulders.

    Nearly 2,500 years ago, Milo of Croton was regarded as the strongest person who had ever lived in the known world. A man of incredible strength and athleticism, he taught us the three basic principles of building muscle: Start very light, don’t miss workouts, and increase training in very small increments.

    Milo, from Croton in Magna Graecia, today’s southern Italy, was almost certainly the most successful wrestler of his day, becoming six-time wrestling champion at the Ancient Olympic Games. In 540 BC, he won the boys’ wrestling category and then proceeded to win the men’s competition at the next five Olympic Games in a row. He also dominated the Pythian Games (7-time winner), Isthmian Games (10-time winner), and Nemean Games (9-time winner).

    Other legends say he carried his own bronze statue to its place at Olympia. One report says the wrestler was able to hold a pomegranate without damaging it while challengers tried to pry his fingers from it, and another report says he could burst a band fastened around his brow by inhaling air and causing his temple veins to swell.

    The Ancient Hellenes typically attributed remarkable deaths to famous persons — in keeping with their characters throughout life. The date of Milo’s death is unknown, but according ancient historians, Milo was walking in a forest when he came upon a tree-trunk split with wedges. In what was probably intended as a display of strength, Milo inserted his hands into the cleft to rend the tree. The wedges fell from the cleft, and the tree closed upon his hands, trapping him. Unable to free himself, the wrestler was devoured by wolves.

    If you want to be as strong as Milo, here are some anchient work-out tips and tricks. Be on the look-out for wolves, though!

    1. Drunk Athletes Still Have to Exercise (Just Not as Strenuously)

    Intoxication wouldn’t excuse you from fitness lessons. The Greco-Roman gymnastics guru Philostratus realized that people couldn’t train as effectively while under the influence. Nevertheless, he maintained that tipsy pupils should still complete their regularly scheduled workouts, just with a bit less intensity than usual.

    2. Ease Up on the Barley
    Denouncing high-carb diets is nothing new; many Roman gladiators bulked up by consuming a dense barley porridge loaded with beans. Claudius Galen—a celebrated Roman physician—believed this made them too flabby for serious combat and criticized the practice.

    3. Your Pre-Workout Routine Should Include Lots of Body Oil
    Ancient Hellenic sportsmen were known to lather themselves in natural oils before exercising, which gave their bods a distinctive glisten. At the time, scholars claimed that doing so kept athletes from getting cold while toughening their skin.

    4. Run Through Sand For Extra Stamina
    Anacharsis, a Mediterranean philosopher who spent much of his time traveling through Athens during the 6th century BCE, once wrote a detailed description of how the Hellenes trained their sprinters. “The [practice] running is not done on hard, resistant ground,” he noted, “but in deep sand where it is not easy to plant a foot solidly or get a grip with it since it slips away from underneath the foot.” As an added bonus, these young men were also instructed “to jump over a ditch, if necessary, or some other obstacle carrying lead weights that are as large as they can hold.”

    5. Wanna Get Toned? Try Digging.
    If your goal is to build chiseled, well-defined muscles without using techniques that involve “violent movement,” the aforementioned Galen recommends digging, rope-climbing, and extending the arms while a workout buddy tries pulling them downwards.

    6. Pick Short and Simple Exercises.
    Seneca the Younger would’ve been a terrible Phys Ed teacher. The Roman philosopher believed that strenuous exercise was, ultimately, pointless. However, if somebody absolutely had to work out, Seneca favored keeping it quick. “There are short and simple exercises which will tire the body without undue delay,” he conceded, “[such as] running, swinging weights about, and jumping—either high jumping or low jumping… But whatever you do, return from body to mind very soon.”

    7. Nobody Likes a Noisy Weightlifter
    Say what you will about Seneca, but at least one of his fitness observations was spot-on. The following rant—inspired by an especially obnoxious breed of bodybuilder which frequented Rome’s urban bath-houses—might as well have been written about a present-day gym:

    "Conjure up in your imagination all the sounds that make one hate one’s ears. I hear the grunts of musclemen exercising and jerking those heavy weights around; they are working hard, or pretending to. I hear the sharp hissing when they release their pent breath."And the bellyaching didn’t stop there. “Add to this,” Seneca moaned, “the racket of a cocky bastard, a thief caught in the act, and a fellow who likes the sound of his own voice … plus those who plunge into the pool with a huge splash of water.”

    Following on from the popularity of their reconstruction of European Castles and Ancient Wonders  award winning Australian insurance company Budget Direct decided to restore a selection of palaces from across the globe, one of these being Greece’s Ancient Knossos Palace. For this project, with the help of a team of architects and a lot of desk research, Budget Direct virtually reconstructed seven ruined palaces around the world including the Knossos Palace.

    The town of Knossos, which surrounds Knossos Palace, is considered to be Europe’s oldest city. It was settled as early as the Neolithic period around 700BC and by 1500BC had a population of 100,000 people. The largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete, the Palace of Knossos is located just south of modern-day Heraklion near the north coast of Crete.

    Constructed around 1700BC, Knossos Palace is the most complex in Greece and thought to be the first palace built in the Middle Minoan IO period.The palace was abandoned sometime in Late Minoan IIIC, 1380 – 1100BC, for reasons which are largely unknown.

    During the Bronze Age, Knossos Palace was the ceremonial, religious, economic and political centre of the Minoan Civilization. The archaeological site of Knossos Palace covers about 20,000 square metres, spread over three acres of land and comprises over 1,500 rooms. Excavation of the site has provided historians with a wealth of insight into the Minoan Civilization. Tools such as clay and stone incised spools and whorls are indicative of a cloth-making industry in existence.

    Artefacts as well as the many vibrant frescoes on the wall of the ruins provide a further understanding of the Minoan culture. Painted in a style emphasising movement and grace, these frescoes illustrate scenes of lithe young athletes, ladies gossiping and dancing, and dolphins and other animals in magical gardens. One frescoe depicts the ancient sport of bull-leaping, a sport which may have given rise to the legend of the mythical Minotaur, a creature of later Hellenic mythology that was half- man and half bull.

    The possibility that there existed a Minotaur became more acceptable once it was understood that, in the Minoan sport of bull-jumping, the male athlete ‘became one with the bull’ as he vaulted over the bull’s horns. It could therefore make sense that this sport may have evoked in ancient consciousness the ‘myth’ of the Minotaur through the impression that these athletes were half men and half bulls.

    The ruins of the palace foundations reveal a vast interconnected maze of small corridors, staircases and private rooms containing residential dwellings, workshops, administrative areas. Since the intricate interior of Knossos Palace has been uncovered it has been speculated that this complex structure, combined with bull symbolism ever-present throughout the ruins, has provided the distant inspiration behind the labyrinth in the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. Timber stairways led to large upper rooms have not survived the ages, but probably once rose five stories in height.

    An elaborate and advanced system of drains, conduits, and terra-cotta pipes provided water and sanitation. Vertical shafts in the structure known as light-wells were designed to bring natural light to the lower levels, created an airy and comfortable atmosphere.

    Despite the fact that Knossos Palace was first excavated a century ago, it is still somewhat shrouded in mystery and researched have many questions about the palace and the people who inhabited it. The controversial restoration of parts of the palace over the years has remained the centre of historical debate, with many saying that the rebuilding has been based on “historically incorrect creative licence.”

    The constellation Draco (from the Greek Drakon, meaning dragon) is identified--funnily enough--with some dragons in Hellenic myth but not others. There are quite a few creatures, after all, who would qualify as a dragon in Hellenic myth. For a dragon or hydra not connected to the constellation, think of the one Kadmos vanquished, for example, or the one Apollon vanquished at Delphi, or even the dragon who guarded the Golden Fleece and was slain by Iásōn. In truth, only two dragons were associated with the myth in ancient times, most notably by Hyginus in his Astronomica: Drakon Hesperios, the Hesperian Dragon, and Drakon Gigantomakhios, the Gigantomachian Dragon.

    The first of the myths associated with the constellation is the legend of the Drakon Hesperios (Δρακων Ἑσπεριος), who was slain by Hēraklēs during one of his Labours. I will tell the whole myth of the labour soon enough, but I will share what Hyginus wrote about this labour, and Hēraklēs' encounter with Ladôn (Λαδων), as the dragon was often called.

    "This huge serpent is pointed out as lying between the two Bears. He is said to have guarded the golden apples of the Hesperides, and after Hercules killed him, to have been put by Juno [Hera] among the stars, because at her instigation Hercules set out for him. He is considered the usual watchman of the Gardens of Juno. Pherecydes says that when Jupiter [Zeus] wed Juno, Terra [Gaea] came, bearing branches with golden applies, and Juno, in admiration, asked Terra to plant them in her gardens near distant Mount Atlas. When Atlas’ daughters kept picking the apples from the trees, Juno is said to have placed this guardian there. Proof of this will be the form of Hercules above the dragon, as Eratosthenes shows, so that anyone may know that for this reason in particular it is called the dragon." [II.3]

    The sole other dragon this myth is linked to is Drakon Gigantomakhios (Δρακων Γιγαντομαχιος), who rose up during the Gigantomachy. When the Olympians rose to power, they first fought the Titans during the Titanomachy. Vanquishing them, the Theoi thought They had won. Yet, there was one who sought revenge for the defeat of his father: Typhôeus, the most-feared son of Tartaros and Gaea. Some versions of the myth say that Typhôeus was actually the Drakon Gigantomakhios, or one of his offspring. Hyginus shares what happened to the dragon:

    "Some also say this dragon was thrown at Minerva [Athena] by the Giants, when she fought them. Minerva, however, snatched its twisted form and threw it to the stars, and fixed it at the very pole of heaven. And so to this day it appears with twisted body, as if recently transported to the stars."

    The constellation Draco is visible at latitudes between +90° and −15°, and best visible at 21:00 (9 p.m.) during the month of July. Tomorrow, we will talk a little more about the types of dragons in Hellenic myth, because I suddenly realized the association with medieval dragons is very easily made when reading 'dragon', but I assure you, the ancient Hellenes were unaccustomed to giant, fire breathing, lizards.