Numismatic Entomology

While Aristotle was studying the living world, including insects, other Greeks of the ancient world were probably collecting coins of their ancestors. The study of insects and of coins are probably equally ancient. The direct link between the two seemingly unrelated fields is even more ancient. Among the very first true coins, little lumps of electrum (a natural mix of gold and silver) issued in the late seventh century B.C., are ones picturing beetles, bees, and scorpions.

Numismatics is the study of coins, currency, medals and tokens. In recent years, collecting by “topic,” has become popular. Collectors specialize in animals, ships, famous persons, etc. It is only natural that a few devoted individuals have pursued an entomological bent. Using the broader concept of entomology, arachnids may be included.

The ancient Greeks produced the most artistically beautiful coins ever seen. These miniature masterpieces pictured gods and goddesses, mythological scenes, portraits and animals including insects. In some cases the insect was a principle part of the design. Entomological subjects include bees, beetles, butterflies, cicadas, ants, grasshoppers, and preying mantises.

In some cases the reason for depiction of an insect is easy to discern. For example, the honeybee was a sacred symbol of Artemis who’s center of worship was Ephesus. The honeybee appeared as the main design element on Ephesian coins for almost six centuries. In other cases the insect may have a mythological connotation. For example, a grasshopper on the back of a lion being strangled by Hercules may be a double reference to Hercules’ battle with a lion and to his freeing Mt. Oeta of locusts. Other depictions of insects are small, incongruous elements of coin designs and are thought to be symbols of families or local rulers responsible for the minting of the coins. There are somewhat over 300 types of ancient Greek coins picturing insects and arachnids.

The decline of the Greek power and the rise of the Roman Republic and Empire saw a decline in the place of insects on coins. No Roman coin has an insect as a principle design element; however, insects are frequent as small symbols on coins of the Roman Republic before 44.B.C. About 200 types of Roman Republican coins picture insects. The coming of the Roman Empire after Julius Caesar represents the almost total disappearance of entomological subjects on coins. A few of the Roman colonies in former Greek areas pictured scorpions, an occasional coin from Ephesus still pictured a bee, and some zodiac coins from Egyptian Alexandria included a scorpion. After about 200 A.D. the entomological eclipse was almost total. For 140 years until the 16th Century, the blackout continued. Only some obscure lead pilgrim’s tokens from the 12th Century found in Turkey, Break this pattern. They are probably from Ephesus and picture a crude bee.

The Renaissance that started in the 15th Century had a profound effect on coinage. After over a millennium of relegation to a utilitarian medium of exchange, coins once again became outlets of creative expression. Other changes included the development of medals (coin-like metal disks with no monetary value) and tokens (unofficial substitutes for coins usually issued by merchants). However, insects never regained the prominence they achieved in classical Greek coinage and art. Their appearance on true coins is a rare event until the present day. Fewer than 100 different coin types in the last five centuries have pictured insects. Only in the last few years with the developing craze for topical coins have several countries issued coins picturing insects. These are related to wildlife conservation themes. Similarly, insects are recent elements of some paper money.

While true coins have been a rather infrequent medium for entomological themes, medals and tokens have been varied and rich. These objects are not subject to the bureaucratic restraints of coins and are often highly original and artistic. They often have a propaganda purpose. By far the most frequent theme has been a beehive and honeybees. Even after the invention of the modern wood beehive, the old straw skep continues to be depicted on medals and tokens. The message is usually “industry has its sure rewards” as appears on an 18th Century British trade token The beehive is part of the coat-of-arms of Utah and often appears on medals and tokens of that State. Since ancient times, the butterfly has been a symbol of death and resurrection. It appears on medals relating to the death of kings and other famous people. Grasshoppers are shown on several German medals relation to plagues of locusts at different times. Ants appear on bank tokens as a symbol of frugality. There is an incredibly large variety of insect and arachnid depictions on medals and tokens. To date over 2000 different medals and tokens may be counted in this category. With increasing interest in the environment, entomological themes in numismatics are bound to increase in numbers, variety and artistic quality.