The Zodiac Coin Collector
My Escapades in Niche Numismatics
I have been collecting coins and currency, off and on, since I was about 10, but over the last decade, zodiac coin collections have really captured my imagination. I have no idea why I became so passionate about the very small segment of coin collecting, but I did. Maybe it was the hunt to get the whole set of 12, or maybe it was the beautiful and intriguing designs...I am really not sure
and I'm completely blown away at how much fun it is to hunt them down and find new sets.
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by Brad Zylman & Simcha Kuritzky
Some parts of this appear in the Maryland Journel of Numismatics
Ancient astrology was based on the study of the night sky and on the seven moving stars (what we today call planets). The Sumerians, and later the Greeks and Romans, assigned different gods to the planets. The slowest (which we now know is the furthest) planet is Saturn, associated with the god of time. Next is Jupiter, king of the gods; followed by Mars, the god of war; Sol (the Sun), the source of heat and light; Venus, goddess of fertility and love; Mercury, the god of commerce and communication; and Luna (Moon), goddess of dreams and night. The twelve zodiac signs were assigned to the seven known planets to help define the powers associated with the sign.
For the Greeks, the new year was in January. Saturn, being the first planet (by the Greek reckoning) was assigned to the December and January signs, Capricorn and Aquarius. Jupiter got the signs before and after, and this process continued through to the Moon and Cancer, and the Sun and Leo. Most of the associations are not particularly meaningful, but this scheme does place the Mars sign - Aries, at the end of March, and lions have long been associated with the sun (as shown on the earliest coins of Lydia). In the last century, the new planets were substituted, but more recent medals went back to the original assignments. The following tables show the signs and their associated sigils. Traditionally, the sign's period starts between the 19th and 24th of the previous month.
When the calendar was fixed by Julius Caesar, the zodiac sign tended to switch on day 21 or 22 of the month. However, there is widespread disagreement on which days the sign transfers. Hindus recognize the procession of the equinoxes, so the zodiac signs move forward about a day a millennium. Jewish people assigned the zodiac signs to a unique lunar month (Adar), causing Pisces to be over-represented since it is the month that gets doubled to keep the months aligned with the seasons (the Chinese also use a combined lunar-solar year, but alternate the months to fill in the year correctly).
Dec. 22 - Jan. 19
Jan. 20 - Feb. 18
Feb. 19 - Mar. 20
Mar. 21 - Apr. 20
Apr. 21 - May 20
May 21 - June 20
June 21 - July 22
July 23 - Aug. 22
Aug. 23 - Sept. 22
Sept. 23 - Oct. 22
Oct. 23 - Nov. 21
Nov. 22 - Dec. 21
There is a long list of other attributes assigned to each of the zodiac signs in addition to the ones shown in the table above. They can make interesting combinations for tokens, medals, pendants, and actual coinage. Every year countries like Russia, Austria, Germany, and many mints like MACO will produce zodiac sets with these themes. In addition to the Zodiac, we are familiar with, there are also many coin sets that have been produced with the Eastern or Lunar based Zodiac signs. Many countries like China will produce Zodiac sets that are based on the Chinese zodiac signs (Ox, Dragon, Tiger, Dog, etc.), but I have mainly stuck with the Western (Solar/Sun Signs) zodiac sets. Some of this has to do with a large number of counterfeit coins and medals that come out of China, often making it difficult to know that you have an officially minted coin made from the advertised precious metals.
A Brief Sampling of Western Zodiac Astrology Coinage
Crabs in the Ancient Mediterranean
Crabs figured prominently with the ancients, who identified a star constellation (Cancer) in its shape along the sun's annual sky path, or ecliptic. Of the eventual 88 constellations these 12 had a special significance, being considered the "twelve-monthly residences of Apollo", and as signs of the Zodiac, to further propel astrology. (The "uneven development" of astronomy and astrology over the last two millennia - scientifically a corollary of the sun's precession - resulted in the sun residing now in Gemini during the sign of Cancer, but that's another story...) Some Greek city-states had a particular propensity for showing crabs on coins, the two classical examples being Akragas
(later Roman Agrigentum) in Sicily, and the southeast Aegean
island of Kos. Akragas - "the fairest of mortal cities" according
to the famous 5th c. BCE lyricist Pindar, and home of the
famous scientist and philosopher Empedokles - lay actually on
a plateau and cliff two miles inland, leaving apparently the
impression of being "halfway between the sky and sea". This
might be one explanation for the eagle/crab design combination
on many of its splendid coins, with the two symbolizing the divine rulers of these realms - Zeus and Poseidon, respectively.
Octavian Augustus Ceaser
Augustus' sun sign was Libra. We don't know why he selected the Capricorn as his emblem. Perhaps Capricorn was either his rising sign or his Moon sign. Popular astrology, of the newspaper kind, is sun sign astrology. The ancients tended to attach more importance to the Moon sign and rising signs. Perhaps Augustus selected the Capricorn because it is associated with stern moral authority. Tiberius (born on Nov. 13) was a Scorpio and Augustus' stepson. This coin comes around the time when both were still alive.
The Many Examples of Ancient Zodiac Coinage
One of the few unambiguous zodiac portrayals are the bronze drachms of Alexandria, Egypt. These large copper coins were issued in year 144/5 CE in the reign of Antoninus Pius. They were hand-stamped and are the first purely zodiac set minted in the western world specifically with the zodiac signs. All twelve signs were issued. These are frequently found in well-worn condition, implying they were kept as pocket pieces. They sell today in the $250 to $5000 range. By the way, if you happen to have some of these just laying around and you don't want them, I would be happy to have them.
Examples: (Leo and Taurus)
Other cultures have also used the zodiac and planet signs together. The Turkmen issued a number of coins in the first centuries of the last millennium. One of the best known is a dirham from Qunyat circa 1244 CE showing Leo and the sun that later became the symbol of Iran. This one is in silver from the Seljuq period.
Nuruddin Jahangir, the son of Akbar, was the fourth Mughal Emperor. Akbar died in the year 1605 CE after a long and glorious rule of almost half a century. Jahangir was the worthy successor of Akbar. His reign was also marked by prosperity and a thriving economy. On the one hand, agriculture was experiencing one of the most glorious periods. On the other hand, maritime trade and commerce with European countries were flourishing. The Portuguese, the British, and the Dutch were all competing with each other to gain more profit from the Indian trade. The ruling Mughal elite class was the main beneficiary of this prosperous economic condition. The flourishing state of the economy is well reflected in the coins of the successive Mughal rulers from Akbar to Aurangzeb. Jahangir’s reign and his issues of coins are also testimonies of this phenomenon. In 1618 AD, Jehangir brought out an unusual and exclusive type of gold and silver coins bearing the zodiac signs. These coins are remarkable in their execution and artistry. They are now scarce because Jehangir's successor, Shan Jahan withdrew them and melted them down.
Examples: (Cancer in Silver and Pisces in Gold)
The Swedes issued a series of copper dalers portraying the planets in 1718. When Charles XII ascended the throne in 1697, Sweden controlled most of modern Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and pieces of northern Germany. Russia, Poland, and Denmark started the Great Northern War to take some of these territories back from Sweden. Although initially, the Swedes did well, by 1709 they were losing the battle. In 1715, the treasury was empty and Finance Minister Görlitz tried to finance the war with copper daler emergency money (he was later executed for issuing token coinage). Half of the dalers portrayed planets (but for some strange reason, only the male planetary gods). Shown here are Jupiter and Mercury. These are also scarce, but when found, can be inexpensive in worn condition, and around $75 in VF-XF.
Jetons or counters were used as calculation instruments in Europe in the middle ages. According to medieval taste, they were always decorated. These decorations always had a purpose, sometimes religious, but usually related to the user or the principal. In the 16th century, jetons were mostly used to propagate political messages and to glorify the deeds of the ruler. Over time, the jeton became a small commemorative medal only suitable as a collector's item. Real jetons are metallic thin flat discs and are struck like coins. They are usually made from copper or brass but sometimes silver jetons are struck. Gold jetons are very rare. Jetons are not coins, so they never have an indication of value. Since any type of design can be made on them, there have been many jetons designed with zodiac and astrology images, sometimes showing the zodiac constellations in the sky or depictions of the zodiac signs themselves. These can be easily found from the early 1700s through to today and can be quite fun to track down in good condition.
Good Luck Tokens & Amulets
The Great Depression gave birth to a large number of amulets. One unusual set has a 1934 copyright. These medals are minted on bronze ten-sided planchets. The common side, or perhaps the obverse has an elephant with upraised trunk with a tiny horseshoe above, a five-sided star on the left and a four-leaf clover on the right. On the scroll below is the name of the planet that rules the sign. During the 1970s there seemed to be an explosion of zodiac pendants, coins, amulets, good luck charms, and just about anything to do with Zodiac signs. This takes us to our next section on bullion.
Zodiac Sign (Front)
Zodiac Bullion, Non-Circulating Tender & Calendar Medals
It seems like during the 1970s in the United States many mints (besides the U.S. Mint) thought that a great way to sell medals and pendants was to stamp it with Zodiac patterns. Turns out that they were right. There has been a proliferation of zodiac-themed medals and bullion not only in the United States but all over the world. In the last few decades many countries like Russia, Austria, China, Belarus, Moldovia, Germany, Hungary, Poland, and even little islands, like the Cook Islands, have issued silver and gold non-circulating bullion tender in gold, silver, bronze, and even copper bullion with zodiac patterns on them. This continues to this day. In addition, many mints will offer calendar "art" medals with astrology and Zodiac themes in silver and bronze. Many of them are simply amazing in artistic design as well as their monetary value. I have seen silver calendar medals sell for thousands of dollars. But, that's why collecting them can be fun!
There are many facets to zodiac numismatics. Ancient and medieval coins honored the planets and the zodiac constellations. There are modern zodiac coins, medieval and Baroque jetons, medals, and commemorative coins which portray the zodiac plane as a strip of signs against the sky. There are commemorative medals that include either one zodiac sign or all twelve for good luck. There are pocket pieces, pendants, and even tokens that portray one zodiac sign each, so people can collect all twelve or just their own personal birth sign. In the following pages, I will give examples of many of my favorite designs after we figure out how to get them organized for you to see.