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Morris Silver
Department of Economics
City College of New York

TOPIC B:Oedipus of Thebes as "Coin"

TOPIC III.3 in ANCIENT ECONOMIES I presents Mesopotamian evidence of the circulation of sealed pots of coins (and precious metal fragments) and loaf-shaped ingots as large denomination "coins." These monetary practices find echoes in Greek literature, most obviously in the story of Kypselos (see TAME, 49-53) and, as I will try to demonstrate, in the Oedipus-myth.

1. In the versions of Euripides (Ph.20-30) and Sophocles (Oed. 1016-36), Laios, the king of Thebes, had his son Oidipous, Latinized as Oedipus, exposed on Mt. Kithairon. The infant Oedipus was rescued and passed from one shepherd to another (Ph. 1040) until he reached the house of the king of Corinth, Polybos, where he grew to manhood. Ultimately, Oedipus returned to Thebes, as Vernant (1982: 23) aptly puts it, "like a boomerang." (Here the resemblance to Kypselos is obvious.) The passing from hand to hand and the circuiting of Oedipus is a point of contact with currency.

2. While this may reflect a more general practice, it is still worthy of note that Aeschylus (Laios fragment) has Oedipus being exposed in a chutra "earthen pot" (Gantz 1993: 492). Perhaps this represents another point of contact with coinage.

3. The Greek name Oidipous is interpreted as derived form oideo_ "swell" and pous "foot," thus meaning "swell-foot." Consistently with this etymology, Euripides (Ph. 27) explains that before Laios exposed his son he had "his ankles pierced through with iron spikes, whence Greece named him Oidipous" (Way). In Sophocles (Oed. 716ff) we read that his "feet were pierced" [diatorous] (Gould). However, LSJ (s.v.), in citing a fragment of Sophocles, includes the meaning "engrave" for diatoreuo_. No convincing explanation has been offered for the unique expedient of "piercing" or "engraving" the exposed infant's "feet" with a metal (gold or iron) spike.

An explanation in terms of coinage opens up once we grant, citing the word oide_ma "swelling, tumor" (LSJ s.v.) the resemblance between "swell-foot" or "tumor-foot" and "loaf." As noted above, there is evidence for "loaves" as currency in the ANE, especially in earlier first millennium Assyria. In addition, the pelanor "round cake" is attested as an (iron?) coin at Sparta. More importantly, Greek traditions and inscriptions refer to a monetary unit, quite possibly a coin, called obelias artos (sometimes obelias alone), meaning "(like?) a loaf (artos) baked on a spit (obelias) (see LSJ s.vv.; Hdt. 2.135; Figuera 1981: 66-76; and Tod 1947). LSJ points out that obolos, obelos, and odelos are different forms meaning "spit," "nail," or, at Athens, "coin."

Direct testimony in favor of the swollen-foot analogy with a monetary loaf is provided in an inscription of the third century BCE from the Panhellenic center of Delos by the mention of the presence in the temple of "obols" from various places as well as an oboloi arbylikoi (Tod 1947:7). What then is an obeloi arbylikoi? LSJ reports that an arbyle_ is a "strong shoe (coming up to the ankle)" and a "half-boot (used by country people, travelers, hunters)" and adds that arbylikos means "in the form of an arbyle_. Thus, unless the reference is to a coin engraved with a foot, we are dealing with a foot-shaped "coin".1 In this coin (or in others resembling it) I see a strong point of contact with Oedipus meaning "swell-foot" or "loaf."

1.An Egyptian inscription of the 6th Dynasty shows several workmen blowing air into a furnace. One workman says "See his face! It is a new pot! Put into his sandal, strongly comrade. Hurry up! By the life." Another answers "I am doing to thy satisfaction. See, a gold ingot." Badawy (1978: 21-2) explains that gold in fusion is called "beautiful of face" glowing red like a new pot and he surmises that "sandal" must be a technical term. He adds that in other inscriptions the process is described as "Smelting the ingot placed in his sandal. It is a new pot... Oh the beautiful-of-face that bubbles in the smelting pot!" One can only wonder if the gold ingot was formed in the shape of a sandal.

4. Another point of contact is the "spike," "nail," or "spit" that pierced Oedipus' feet. I would hazard the suggestion that Greece's coin-loaf was called "spit" after the iron spit upon which it was "baked." Unfortunately, I am not sufficiently familiar with metallurgy and pyrotechnology to appraise this hypothesis realistically. There is, however, some archaeological evidence which seems relevant. Excavations in late eighth-century strata at Eretria on the island of Euboea revealed a goldsmith's hoarded stored in a skyphos. Themelis (1983:160-61) explains:

A large number of gold ingots and some pieces of electrum, in a very great variety of forms and sizes came to light... Two of our ingots, one complete with a deep groove in the middle and one half, must have been cast in sea-shells... They measure about 2 x 1.9 cm. and weigh 25.65 and 13.9 gr. respectively... At first sight one might think that they were talents of gold of definite weight of exchange, and relate them to one gold talent and two half-talents found in the cemetery of Old Salamis in Cyprus and dated to the 11th century BC... A breadlike ingot weighing 2.6 gr. (85 x 75 mm., 4mm. thick) also has a groove in the middle... We cannot say what kind of mould was used in this case or in the case of more than 35 similar ingots cut in halves and quarters of various sizes and weights... The largest two among them weigh 14.3 and 11 gr. respectively. (emphasis added)
Thus we can say at the very least that pierced and grooved ingots of gold were known in Geometric times. Iron spits have been found at various ancient sites, but their connection, if any, with the ingots is unknown (Oeconomides 1969:443).

5. Arguably the dramatists have built the characteristics of a pierced or grooved monetary unit into their characterization of Oedipus. This coin-loaf hypothesis finds support not only in the possible sense of "engrave" for diatoreuo_ noted earlier (Oed. 1034) but in terms such as episamon (Ph. 804): episama and epise_ma are alternative forms meaning "device on a coin (or shield) (LSJ s.v. epise_ma I). Again, in Oedipus 1035 after the messenger says that he was the one who removed the pin that bound Oedipus' feet, Oedipus responds that "from birth he bore that [oneidos] brand" (Way). There is more. In Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus 1258-60, it is said that Oedipus' clothes have sygkato_ke_ken pinos "marked, stained, incrusted, branded, formed a patina on" his flesh (see LSJ s.v. pinos; Raman 1975:202-203; and L. Edmunds 1981:230). All this terminology might refer to a personified coin.

6.Earlier in Oedipus at Colonus there is a report of an oracle to the effect that one day the Thebans would regard Oedipus as an euesoias "security" (390) and as a ze_te_on "object of desire" (389) (Linforth 1951:84). A reasonably safe prediction if Oedipus represents money! 7. Also, as might well be expected of a personified coin, when, in Euripides (Ph. 1540-41>), Oedipus first appears on stage he complains: "Why have you brought me up into the light out of my dark chamber?" (L. Edmunds 1981:230). In Oedipus at Colonus (1590f. 1600-02, 1661f) Oedipus vanishes into a bronze chamber in the earth. Apparently, Oedipus was at home in a treasury. 8. The blindness of Oedipus is understandable in terms of the privacy and inviolability of deposits of valuables in temples. It is precisely for this reason that Ploutos, the very god of stored wealth, was blind (LSJ s.v. ploutos II. 9. What are we to make, however, of the theme of Oedipus' self-blinding or, according to a scholion on Ph. 61 (Kamerbeek 1967:5) and a fragment of Euripides' Oidipous (Gantz), his being blinded? I would suggest, with due hesitation, the process of "countermarking" whereby a coin of one issuing authority is guaranteed by another. The second guarantor certifies the foreign coin by hammering it with a jagged-ended nail or a small iron punch with a design engraved on its business end. Ancient coins are known with as many as six countermarks. This countermarking hypothesis does not, I fear, come directly to grips with the "blinding" of Oedipus and the fact that, in both Euripides (Ph. 61-2) and Sophocles (Oed. 1268-70), the instrument employed is a gold pin, not an iron nail or punch..

Despite the difficulties noted under 9., the points of contact between Oedipus and currency are too numerous to be attributed to chance.

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