First coins in history – the river Pactolus and a legend


First coins in history - the river Pactolus and a legend - coins

Lydian coins

It’s time for a break from information. But before that – bits of the past.

The first coins in history most often are associated with the ancient kingdom Lydia. Situated near the coast of Aegean Sea, it was part of what is today western Turkey. Although with little variations in mass, these coins were of irregular shape, one-sided, without letters or words, depicted some sort of animal and contained both gold and silver. Whether Lydians were the first to invent coins is debated among the historians but it is agreed that they were the first to make coins on a large scale and use them as money. That took place somewhere between 650 BC and 550 BC. Gold from which these coins were made was the basis of the kingdom’s economy. Question arises, where did they get their gold? Turns out the capital of the kingdom had the river Pactolus flowing through it – its sands carried gold in abundance. This gold was of pale yellow color, indicating at the presence of a decent percentage of silver. The type of gold which is naturally alloyed with silver  is called electrum. The river Pactolus had so much electrum that even today there is a saying “rich as Croesus”. Croesus being the last ruler of Lydia was the one who particularly benefited from the river. On top of that, people could not believe that so much gold could exist without some sort of magic, so a legend was born to explain its astonishing amounts. I came across this legend when surfing the Russian search engines and liked it to the point that read several versions of it. By coincidence, it turned out to be linked to an important event in a history of gold. Here is it, that’s a product of me reading four different versions of the legend.

Once Dionysus, the god of wine, and his buddies including the teacher Silenus were on their way to Phrygia, east of Lydia. As usual, Dionysus was all about teaching humans how to grow and harvest grapes, how to make best wines and other winy stuff. Silenus, loving wine more than anything, drank too much of it this time and was badly intoxicated. He had a difficult time walking and hardly could keep up with others. After numerous stumbles and falls he finally lost sight of everyone. When somehow he managed to get out of the woods, to his surprise, the air there was filled with the smell of roses. With half open-eyes, he attempted to spot the flowers. In near vicinity, he could see a huge garden of flowers, all roses: yellow, red, white. “The perfect place to sleep the hangover off” he thought, and quickly fell into the deep sleep. It didn’t last for long as one of the guardians spotted the drunken and soon the old Silenus was surrounded by a couple of them tying his hands and body with rose stems. In moments, he found himself before the ruler of Phrygia, King Midas. About the king: he adored roses, especially yellow ones but gold was his real obsession. He immediately recognized the companion of the famous god and welcomed Silenus into the palace.

Ten days and nights Midas spent with Silenus offering him the most exquisite foods, showed the objects that he treasured the most around the palace, watched a couple chariot races together. In short, engaged him in “bread and circuses” activities. On eleven’s day Midas returned Silenus to Dionysus. When Dionysus saw his buddy-teacher safe and sound he was truly touched by the kindness of Midas and offered him to pick a wish. Midas thought: “Obviously I could ask him for a pile of gold but still there would be so much gold left in the world”. Then his eyes sparkled with epiphany and he said: “I want to have an ability to turn everything I touch into gold!” For a millisecond Dionysus thought why humans are so silly and then with one of his charming smiles asked whether Midas wants this for real. Midas exclaimed “sure” and Dionysus promised to fulfill the wish. On the way home, with fear that the god joked on him, he picked a piece of chert. Immediately it turned into gold! He touched a couple crocuses, an olive tree, a butterfly and all of them turned into the finest gold sculptures. Midas nearly lost his mind from the excitement! He was only concerned that he couldn’t take all this gold home but he had an idea and hurried into the palace. At home, for several hours the king was running around the rooms touching every object in them. The palace was turning into unbelievable museum of gold sculptures…

Later, exhausted but still ecstatic he ordered to prepare a feast and invited all his friends over. The tables covered with his favorite dishes made him even more ecstatic as he forgot to eat on that day. With the impression of victory in his eyes, he brought a glass of wine to his lips and sipped. The lips touched something cold and heavy. He looked, the glass and the wine itself were of pure gold. The drops of cold sweat slid across his back. With shaken hands, he tore a piece of partridge and put into the mouth but it only made a sound against his teeth while a grape landed as a golden ball and he could feel its smoothness with the tongue. Now he understood what he had done. In a midst of plenty he was starving. He became poorer than the poorest man. Weak and in despair, he went back to Dionysus and with tears begged him to take the wish back. Dionysus didn’t have to be asked twice as he was a happy god and the sight of sad humans always spoiled his mood. He said that the waters of Pactolus river in Lydia would wash away the spell. Midas sprinted to the river, dived in and began to vigorously scrub his body and hands. He was liberated but the sand he touched has turned into gold dust, flakes and nuggets…

A sweet story. In reality though, the river Pactolus washed off gold from the mountain Tmolus and carried it down into the city. In those times the mountain was full of gold deposits but not anymore. The last gold flake was taken out of the river a long time ago…


First coins in history - the river Pactolus and a legend - the river







Main references:

Edward Wells. 1819. An Historical Geography of the Old and New Testament, Clarendon Press (image) (image)


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