Featured Omphale - owner and lover of Heracles

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by Jochen1, May 14, 2019.

  1. Jochen1

    Jochen1 Well-Known Member

    Dear Friends of ancient mythology!

    Here I would like to present a provincial coin from Maionia in Lydia. It shows a motive which belongs to the legend circle around Heracles, but is rarer than the coins which describe the 12 famous deeds.

    The Coin:
    Lydia, Maionia, pseudo-autonomous, AD 145-175
    AE 19, 4.57g, 180°
    struck under strategos Appa (time of Faustina jun.)
    Obv.: MAIO - NΩN
    Bearded head of Herakles l.
    Rev.: CTP TO Γ - AΠΠA (from upper right)
    Omphale advancing r., holding with r. hand club over r. shoulder and in l. hand lion's skin
    Ref.: BMC p. 130, 20r
    are, about VF, brown patina with some earthen highlights

    The rev. means "when Appa was strategos for the third time"

    This myth takes us back to the time after the 12 famous deeds of Herakles. Eurytos, the king of Oichalia, had promised the hand of his daughter Iole to the one who could defeat him in archery. Herakles took over and defeated him. But Eurytus refused him his daughter. Heracles then took revenge by destroying Oichalia, stealing Iole and killing Iphitus, the son of Eurytus. Then he went to Delphi to question the oracle and cleanse himself of murder. But Pythia did not answer him, and Herakles was so angry that he took Apollo's tripod. The God felt compelled to argue with Herakles about this sacred object. Finally Herakles was condemned to serve as a slave. Hermes brought him to the slave market and bought him Omphale, the queen of Lydia, for whom he performed some heroic deeds, but also had to spin wool and wear women's clothes; he also became her lover. Against Sileus, who used to force passers-by to work in his vineyard, Herakles defended himself, killed him and devastated the vineyard. And he grabbed the tailed Cercopes, two funny but predatory dwarves who wanted to steal his weapons. Finally he shot the huge snake Ophiuchos. Released from Omphale's service after three years, Herakles fought against a number of other giants and fantastic creatures.


    Omphale, daughter of Iardanos, was the mythological Queen of the Lydians (Maionians) as successor of her husband Tmolos. For the murder of Iphitos and the fight with Apollon for the tripod in Delphi Herakles had to sell himself as a servant to Omphale, serve her for 3 years and pay Eurytos weregeld. In this time were also put the bondage of the Cercopes, the overcoming of Syleus and the participation in the Voyage of the Argonauts to Kios. Lamos and Agelas are named as sons of Herakles and Omphale. He was considered the progenitor of the Lydian Mermnades (Gyges to Kroisos), whereas the previous dynasty (Agron to Kandaules) was attributed to the connection of Herakles with a slave of Iardanos.

    Genealogical efforts of the Lydian rulers were probably the main reason that the myth of Herakles and Omphale from the area around Malis and Trachis was transferred to Lydia. It expresses ideas of the "service marriage" of the matriarchal social order as it existed in Malis and in Lydia; the exchange of clothes (Omphale with lion's skin and club, Herakles in female garment and with female housework) is partly based on cultic customs. Both motifs gave the comedy and the satyr drama cause to shape the myth in the sense of erotic Bondage (Ov. fast.2, 305ff.). To see in Omphale an original earth and death goddess seems to be very questionable (Der Kleine Pauly).

    Omphale is the female form of Greek Omphalos (Lat. umbilicus). Ranke-Graves therefore assumes that Omphale is identical with Pythia, the guardian of the Delphic Omphalos, and that Herakles had to serve her as Hierodule, as temple servant. Only later would the mythographers have moved this story to Lydia. The story refers to an early stage of the development of the Holy Kingdom from matriarchy to patriarchy, when the king, as husband of the queen, had the right to represent her in ceremonies and sacrifices - but only if he wore her clothes. The French Historian Reveillout showed that this was the custom in Lagash in early Sumerian times. And in numerous Cretan works of art men are shown wearing female clothing for sacrificial purposes - not only the spotted trouser skirt as on the sarcophagus of Hagia Triada, but the wide skirt as on a palace fresco at Knossos (Ranke-Graves)

    I have added the famous painting 'Hercules and Omphale' by Lucas Cranach the Elder from 1537. This painting was unfortunately destroyed in 1945 by the effects of war.


    (1) Ovid, Metamorphoses
    (2) Der Kleine Pauly
    (3) Robert von Ranke-Graves, Greek Mythology
    (4) Münsterberg, Beamtennamen auf griechischen Münzen
    (5) Aghion/Barbillon/Lissarrague, Reclams Lexikon der antiken Götter und Heroen in der Kunst

    Excursion: New interpretation of a Farnese depiction from Markianopolis

    The Coin:

    Moesia inferior, Markianopolis, Macrinus & Diadumenian, AD 217-218
    AE 28, 12.14g, 27.51mm, 180°
    struck under governor P. Furius Pontianus
    Confronting busts of Macrinus, draped and cuirassed, laureate, r., and Diadumenian,
    draped, bare-headed, l.
    Herakles of the Farnese type, bearded, nude, stg. r., r. hand behind back, resting with l. arm on club covered with lion's skin set on rocks(?)
    in l. field E (for pentassarion)
    Ref.: a) AMNG I/1, 753 (2 ex., St.Petersburg, Sestini)
    b) Varbanov (engl.) 1291 corr. (writes in error different obv. legend and describes bust wrongly)
    c) Hristova/Jekov (2013) No. (plate coin)
    d) Pfeiffer 254 (same dies)
    e) Megaw MAR5.29c (this coin)
    scarce, VF, black green patina
    ex coll. Lars Rutten

    The coin shows the famous Herakles Farnese of Lysipp. But the matter of this excursion is not Hercules Farnese as such but the strange object he has set his club on. Usually it should be a rock. But already Pick has doubts about the description as rocks on this coin: "According to Sestini's description the club is set on four apples. The same could be valid for the specimen from St. Petersburg." And actually the 'rock' looks like for balls which has been led to the apple hypothesis. But here we see a strange but specific structure of the balls which could not be seen so often.
    Wool balls.jpg
    Detail of the balls

    (1) They are obviously not apples as Sestini has suggested
    (2) I don't think they are rocks. For rocks their structure is too destined and specific.
    (3) And it is not a transverse four-cylinder-engine with crank handle!

    Showing a pic of the four balls to my wife she - unbiased - calls them balls of wool! And there are indeed many coincidences: The two upper ones are ribbed horizontally, the lower two are ribbed vertically, in the same way as wool threads were coiled. And furthermore we can see inside of the balls structures as if the first few coils were done in another direction and then turned 90°. In the same way my mother and my grandma have coiled the wool too turning the balls from time to time to give the balls a better stabilization. And then we see at the right side the end of the wool thread coming out of the upper right ball and curving left.

    Why wool balls at all? The only relation between wool balls and Herakles I know is Omphale

    There are many depictions showing Herakles in female garment. It was often used to mocking especially supposed effeminate men. So it was used by Augustus against Antonius/Kleopatra (Plutarch, Antonius 90, 4). In this context it would make sense to use this concept in connection with Herakles Farnese. Herakles Farnese has fascinated since ancient times because of the contrast between his known strength and the position of weakness he does show here. Then the allusion to Omphale would be highlight of this depiction!

    I have added 2 pics, showing Herakles spinning wool together with Omphale:
    (1) A mosaic from Lliria (Valencia/Spain), now in the National Archaeologic Museum Madrid. We see Omphale Herakles with a wool ball in his raised l. hand.

    (2) The pic of a copper engraving from Jakob Matham (1571-1631), Hercules und Omphale, 17th century, Brukenthal Museum in Sibiu (Hermannstadt)/Romania). Here a wool ball is rolling in the foreground.

    I know that this interpretation is new and a bit surprising. Therefore any unbiased opinion highly appreciated!

    Best regards
    eparch, kaparthy, 7Calbrey and 17 others like this.
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  3. Sallent

    Sallent Live long and prosper Supporter

    Hercules got a lot of love in Greek and Roman coinage...no doubt

    Here's Melqart, a good of Tyre that the Romans identified with Hercules.

    Trajan Melqart tetradracm of Tyre .jpg
  4. Severus Alexander

    Severus Alexander Blame my mother. Supporter

    That is certainly an unusual Farnese "rock" depiction! It's also carefully engraved and a beautiful coin.

    There's no question that the original Farnese sculpture includes a rock, but its representation on Imperial coinage varies quite a bit, as can be seen in my little collection on this theme:
    Screen Shot 2019-05-14 at 2.42.42 PM.jpg Screen Shot 2019-05-14 at 2.42.52 PM.jpg Screen Shot 2019-05-14 at 2.43.03 PM.jpg Screen Shot 2019-05-14 at 2.43.16 PM.jpg

    My bet is that the engraver of your coin was copying a depiction of something he'd never seen and so introduced a bit of fantasy of his own, perhaps not depicting anything in particular.
    Ryro, Marsyas Mike, Jochen1 and 4 others like this.
  5. zumbly

    zumbly Ha'ina 'ia mai ana ka puana Supporter

    Great writeup, Jochen. That 'Farnese' Hercules reverse is wonderful! I agree they do not look like apples or rocks, but admit I have no idea in what shape spun wool would have been collected for use in ancient times. Nevertheless, the "balls of wool" theory is certainly intriguing.
    Jochen1 likes this.
  6. Terence Cheesman

    Terence Cheesman Supporter! Supporter

    phokaia2.jpg This hekte from Phokaia is usually described as an image of Omphale who seems to have appropriated the symbols of Herakles his lion skin headdress and club. 387-326 B.C. Bodenstedt 107
    Ryro, PeteB, Marsyas Mike and 4 others like this.
  7. Roman Collector

    Roman Collector Supporter! Supporter

    Just now got around to reading this and it was absolutely fascinating! Wonderful write-up and lovely coins! You make a strong case for Hercules' club resting on balls of wool on the pentassarion of Macrinus and Diadumenian.
  8. TIF

    TIF Always learning. Supporter

    Sounds like Herakles would be sentenced to Anger Management classes if he were alive today :D.

    Excellent research, @Jochen! On the Markianopolis coin those "rocks" certainly look like balls of wool to me :).
    Roman Collector likes this.
  9. Nicholas Molinari

    Nicholas Molinari Well-Known Member

    Fantastic coin, Jochen.
  10. Marsyas Mike

    Marsyas Mike Well-Known Member

    Great write-up. The "balls of yarn" theory is both compelling and convincing.
  11. ancient coin hunter

    ancient coin hunter Tribunicia Potestas

    Thanks for the write-up - excellent as usual @Jochen ! Nice coin as well.
  12. 7Calbrey

    7Calbrey Well-Known Member

    Little by little, we'll become well-informed about ancient mythology. Thanks @Jochen. BTW.. I think I have a small clue that might help. While searching on Wildwinds, I found a coin of Elagabalus with reverse of Thyche standing in octastyle temple. She is holding an apluster and 4 balls.. Repeat Four Balls.
    The coin was struck in Botrys- Phoenicia. A very rare mint. Botrys is now called Batrun in Northern Lebanon. It's renown for the famous Crusaders Fort there. Hope that would help. Cheers.
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