Birds on Coins Throughout History
Birds. Those beautiful creatures that sing, fly, and light the world in a vast array of colors. But they are such a common sight on currency today that most people don't even stop to think why they are there. Birds have been on currency for around 2,500 years because they represent power, freedom, majesty and many other symbols to cultures around the world throughout history.
According to "Collecting a 'Life List' of Bird Coins" by Susan Peterson in the June 1995 edition of The Numismatist, birds were "regarded as spirits, messengers to heaven or symbols of freedom, birds surprisingly found their way onto coins very early in the history of numismatics." These creatures that defied gravity were fascinating to men and inspired them to put birds on coins. One of the first birds to be featured on a coin was the eagle because they "symbolized the soul flown heavenward," Peterson writes. The majestic eagle is still found on the world's currency frequently today.
Ancient coins- C. 5000 B.C. - 300's A.D.
(Coins will not go in chronological order; applies to whole article)
Though the eagle might have been first on coins, no ancient coin with a bird on it is more recognizable than the Athenian tetradrachm. The obverse portrays Athena while the reverse depicts her mascot, the owl with the inscription "AOE." The owl, in ancient Athens, symbolized wisdom and was held in awe as their flight was almost completely silent which caused people to attribute magical powers to the bird of prey. Also the owl depicted on the coin may seem to have a very stiff posture but a Peterson writes, "Most of these birds do perch motionless, waiting for prey." These coins were minted circa 454 B.C. to 404 B.C. They contain about 16.3 grams of pure silver.
Later during the Roman Empire, coins were made with the current emperor on the obverse and many animals, but mainly the eagle on the reverse, the ensign of the legion and symbol of power. The eagle was such a prominent figure that the legion believed that "Eagle lost, honor lost: honor lost, all lost." Coins featuring these birds were minted circa 200 B.C. to the 300's A.D. Eagles remained prominent on coins long after this time on many coins around the world but that is getting ahead.
On the other side of the world in ancient China, a coin was minted with the Four Symbols which were animals representing each of the cardinal directions. The creature for the south was the Suzaku, or the Vermillion Bird, which is a phoenix. This bird represents rebirth in many cultures but was viewed as the "reincarnation of the God of Fire. Ancient people considered the phoenix a beautiful bird and the king of all birds owning to its singing voice and appearance. The phoenix is a symbol of auspice and good luck," says the article "The Vermillion Bird." This bird is fairly important to the people of China.
Another bird in China on coins (and also charms) was the rooster from the zodiac calendar. The bird was never portrayed by itself on Chinese until coins recently, but is still fairly significant. The Rooster stands for people who are "observing, hardworking, confident, courageous, talented, frank, and honest," states a Chinese website,
Medieval Coins C. 476 A.D. - 1300's
Close to the founding of Poland in 966 A.D, the country began to produce some coins, again with the eagle. It was chosen because Lech, the founder, took the presence of a white eagle landing in its nest to be a good omen. The first coins were produced with an image of the eagle; however, it is in the posture of a turkey or chicken, and looks awkward in appearance. Later, the white eagle was "updated" to look more majestic. As the nation of Poland continued, more coins were minted and the eagle has evolved over the ages to what is currently portrayed.
Another coin from this time period is an Anglo-Saxon coins minted during 944-949 under Anlaf Guthfrithsson. The coin features a raven, a common Viking symbol with the head turned left and wing outstretched. In his article "In Aspects of Anglo-Scandinavian York," Mr. Blackburn "' the raven is associated with St. Oswald (a Northumbrian royal saint)." This coin is rare and valued at US$29,500. The bird is simple but picturesque and the overall coin design is rustic.