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A Magical Tessera?


Tesserae of lead or bronze were struck in a smattering of places.  Their function is the subject of debate.  This particular token has generated some particularly colorful theories.

IONIA, Ephesus. Anoynmous; c. 1st century CE.  Æ tessera, 19mm, 5.14 g.  CKωΠI, stage kneeling left, head right; E to left, Φ to right / KHPIΛICωΔEΠPOCΠAΛVPIN surrounding a bee,  SNG Copenhagen 355; BMC 186; SNG von Aulock 1875

Barclay Head (1844-1914; British numismatist and  keeper of the Department of Coins and Medals at the British Museum) had this to say:  

Barclay V. Head, Historia Nvmorvm, 1911, p. 578

Eckhel believed they were apothecaries' advertisements. Babelon felt they were charms with inscribed with magic formulae (the coin's legend, which is either nonsense or abbreviations whose meaning has been lost to history). Head thought they might be bee-charms (charms used in apiculture?).


In January 2016 a CNG cataloger had this to say about the type:


"A series of tesserae, or tokens, was produced at the cult center of Ephesus during the Hellenistic period and later. The legends generally cannot be translated and are probably, for the most part, meaningless mystical formulae." [Note: I disagree with this statement. Surely there was some meaning of the engraved legend; we simply don't know what it was.]


A dozen years ago, another CNG cataloger offered this story:


"In the ancient world, many people carried magic talismans to ward off evil. In addition to symbols, these devices often included magical incatations, though many times there is no coherent meaning to the pharse. Such incantations are known as "Ephesian letters", since their source was alleged to be Ephesus, as is the case with our example. The obverse legend may refer to the Greek verb skopew, or "look", an allusion to the "evil eye" against which many of these objects were intended. The reverse legend can best be translated as "This, as a coating toward the disease," with PALVPIN being a corruption of palurion, some type of disease."


Bill Dalzell (Ardatirion on CoinTalk), an avowed tessera junkie and CNG cataloger, pointed me towards an interesting thesis about these strange bronzes:  The Tesserae of Ephesos in the History of Medicine, published in a medical journal. I invite you to read that short article. To briefly summarize, the authors make a case for these being health amulets. While Asklepios and his family are perhaps the best known ancient medical figures, in Ephesus it was Artemis who assumed the role of protector of health, among her many other roles. Non-metal versions of these tessera were produced near the Temple of Artemis in earlier centuries. The charms were worn around the neck as treatment for disease and protection from evil.


So... I guess we may never know the real story behind these tesserae. Feel free to conjure up your own theory.

Perhaps I'll try holding this tessera and whispering kerilic ode proc palurin next time I have a headache.  Just in case :)

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