Economic Botany

, Volume 53, Issue 2, pp 133–143

The silphium motif adorning ancient libyan coinage: Marketing a medicinal plant

  • Henry Koerper
  • A. L Kolls
Article

Abstract

The Silphium Motif Adorning Ancient Libyan Coinage: Marketing a Medicinal Plant. Economic Botany 53(2): 133–143, 1999. Ancient texts provide an extensive list of purported medicinal benefits for Cyrenaic silphium but omit reference to this extinct, unidentified species o/Ferula (Umbelliferae) as an aphrodisiac. The plant may have been so regarded since ithyphallic and testicular imagery are evoked via stylized representations of the silphium plant and seed pod on the mintage of Greek Cyrenaica in North Africa. These numismatic motifs play to an imitative principle. Whether by calculation or serendipity, commodity marketing likely drew on more subliminal communications through an association between phallus-like renderings of the plant and apotropaic function and through possible association of the geography of a love philtre with a philosophical product of Cyrene, Aristippus’ uninhibited hedonism. Other circumstantial evidence draws on the writings of Avicenna, who attributed aphrodisiacal qualities to a recognized substitute for Cyrenaic silphium, and to the poetry of Catullus whose art linked silphium to carnal pleasures.

Key Words

silphium Ferula Cyrenaica aphrodisiac numismatics 

Le Motif du Silphion dans l’Ornement d’une Ancienne Monnaie Libyenne ou la Promotion d’une Plante Médicinale

Résumé

Les textes anciens font état d’une longue liste de prétendus bienfaits médicinaux attribués au silphion, mais omettent toute référence, en tant qu’aphrodisiaque, #x00E1; l’esp#x00E8;ce, disparue et non-identitiée de férule Ferula (Umbelliferae). Pourtant, la plante a pu être considérée sous cet angle puisque des imageries ithyphalliques et testiculaires sont évoquées au travers de représentations stylisées de plantes et de cosses de silphion dans la frappe de la monnaie en Cyrénaïque grecque (Afrique du nord). Ces motifs numismatiques apparaissent comme relevant d’un principe d’imitation. Que ce soit d’une façon fortuite ou préméditée, la promotion de la denrée se nourrissait probablement d’une communication subliminale qui s’appuyait sur une double association: entre une interprétation phallique de la plante et sa fonction conjuratoire, d’une part, et entre la géographie d’un philtre d’amour et un produit philosophique de Cyrène, l’hédonisme libre de toute inhibition d’Aristippe, d’autre part. D’autres indications indirectes sont issues des écrits d’Avicenna, qui attribuait des propriétés aphrodisiaques à un substitut reconnu du silphion et de la poésie de Catullus dont l’art associait le silphion aux plaisirs charnels.

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Copyright information

© New York Botanical Garden Press 1999

Authors and Affiliations

  • Henry Koerper
    • 1
  • A. L Kolls
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyCypress Community CollegeCypress
  2. 2.Center for Education Partnerships, Hewlett Fellows ProgramUniversity of CaliforniaIrvine

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