World Coins

Legend of Europa and the bull on coin from Crete

A silver drachm of the third century B.C. was issued in Gortyn, Crete, and tells the familiar story of Europa being abducted by the god Zeus. The coin highlights a March auction.

Coin images courtesy of Gorny & Mosch.

The legend of Zeus as a bull seducing Europa is honored on a circulating commemorative €2 coin first issued in Greece in 2002, but the story has ancient roots. 

The legend also has a place on ancient coins.

A silver drachm from the third century — issued in Gortyn on the island of Crete — is an example of an ancient coin depicting the ancient story.

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An example of the coin is among thousands of items being offered during Gorny and Mosch’s March 7 to 9 auctions in Munich. An offering of “high quality ancient coins” (including this and several other coins from Gortyn) is scheduled for March 7, followed by auction No. 237 of ancient coins and lots on March 8, and auction No. 238 of medieval, modern and Russian coins, on March 9. 

The obverse of the silver drachm from Crete shows the Greek god Zeus, wearing a laurel wreath, while the reverse shows Europa riding the bull.

According to Greek mythology, the notable playboy and Olympian chief god Zeus was drawn to the Phoenician maiden named Europa because of her beauty and grace (her name would give the continent of Europe its name). 

To seduce her (and to avoid detection by his wife Hera), Zeus turned himself into a white bull. The young maiden, gathering flowers, caught sight of the bull, began to caress him and then took a seat to ride the bull. 

Zeus abducted Europa, fleeing across the ocean to the island of Crete, where he revealed his true identity and forcibly impregnated her. The resulting child, known as Minos, would become the king of Crete. 

The earliest literary reference to the legend of Europa is in the Iliad, commonly dated to the eighth century B.C. The legend has a long life in paintings and sculpture, continuing to the present, with its mentioned appearance on euro coinage in modern times. 

The silver drachm from Crete offered in the Gorny & Mosch auction is graded Extremely Fine by the auction firm. It has an estimate of €2,500 (about $2,724).

That estimate is about double the estimates for three other silver coins (two staters and one didrachm) from Gortyn that show Europa and the bull on opposite sides of the coins. 

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