Insects! Some of the first words that come to mind are: disgusting, small, and unimportant. Yet not all people think these tiny creatures are any of those. But insects were important in ancient times. To honor them, the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Ephesians minted coins depicting insects ranging from bees to locusts. Some cultural entomologists believe that the ancient Greeks minted over 300 different coins with images of bugs. The Ephesians minted coins that depicted the honey bee for over six centuries.
What is Numismatics?
“The definition of numismatics is (nooomizomato’iks) n.: The study of coins, medals, and related objects such as paper money.” Two other important terms that I will use are: “obverse (ob’vûrs) adj.: The front or principal side of anything, especially the side of a coin bearing the main design or device.”1 And “reverse: (riovûrs’) adj.: The back, rear, or secondary side of anything.”
There was information on a total of five coins. The first coin is an ancient Greek stater. On its obverse is a locust on the right of a strand of wheat and on the left is the word “META.” On its reverse is a strand of wheat with a dolphin on the left. It appears to be made of silver.
The second coin was a silver Tetradrachm that was minted in the ancient Greek city of Messana — now the modern city of Messina in Sicily. It depicts a cicada in the bottom center, eating what appears like an ear of corn, with a hare above it. “The design of the coin was mentioned by Aristotle, who states that the Tyrant of Messana, Anaxilas, was responsible for introducing hares into Sicily.”
The third coin bore the image of a beetle in its center. It looks like it is made out of silver. The fourth, depicting a bee, comes from the ancient Greek town of Praesus at the eastern end of the island of Crete. Its obverse shows a picture of Persephone. On its reverse is a bee. It was minted sometime between 400 and 148 BC.
The fifth coin comes from the ancient Greek town of Elyrus (witch is now the modern town of Rhodhovani) located in southwestern Crete, also depicts a honey bee on its reverse. On its obverse is a male goat.
I found only one piece of paper money that has an insect on it. It is a bank note from Denmark’s National Bank for one hundred Kroner. The note was printed in 1912. A picture of a moth is in its upper left hand corner.
The Importance of Insects
Insects are important to many cultures. To the Ephesians, the honey bee was the sacred symbol of Artemis, their center of worship. The honey bee was minted as the main design on their coins for almost six centuries. A grasshopper on the back of a lion could be a double reference connected to Hercules’ battle with a lion and his freeing of Mt. Oeta of Locust. On some coins, a small picture of insects may be symbols of families, political leaders and religious leaders who were responsible for their minting. The butterfly, which represents the soul leaving the body, has been a symbol of death and resurrection in many European cultures since ancient times.
Even though many people today have a negative viewpoint regarding insects, some ancient cultures thought higher of them. The Romans also minted their own coins depicting insects until the fall of the Roman Empire, after which coins being minted with insects depicted virtually ceased. While it is uncommon today for a piece of currency to be minted with an insect on it, one is minted every so often.
Comstock, Mary, and Cornelius Vermeule. Greek Coins. Meriden: Meriden Gravure Co. 1964.
Houge, Charles. “Cultural Entomology” Cultural Entomology. Online. Internet.
Klawans, Zander H. Handbook of Ancient Greek & Roman Coins. New York: Golden Books Publishing Company, Inc.
William, Jonathan. Money: a History. New York: St. Martins Press, 1997.
Brown, Dr. Kirby, “Numismatic Entomology.” Cultural Entomology.