Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Labyrinth of Crete

During the seventeenth century many English gentlemen studied antiquities, that is historical artefacts. One of the easiest forms of access for the antiquarian to the ancient world was through the study of numismatics, that is coins from Classical antiquity or early modern Europe. Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82) was an antiquarian and an avid collector, of books, bird-eggs, curio's and of coins and medals. Indeed the diarist John Evelyn on a visit to Browne's home observed-

'[the whole house & Garden [is] a Paradise & Cabinet of rarities, & that of the best collection, especially Medails, books, Plants, natural things...
The source of the Greek myth of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth noted in chapter two of The Garden of Cyrus is from a publication by Leonardo Agostini (1593–1669) an Italian antiquary appointed by Pope Alexander VII as superintendent of antiquities in the Papal States. In 1649 Agostini issued a new edition of Sicilian Medals, with engravings of 400 specimens. He also published a work on antique engraved gems. The book listed in the Library of Sir Thomas Browne is entitled - Ant. Agostini Dialoghi intorno alle Medaglie, Inscrissioni & altre Antichita Romanze tradotti di Lingua Spagnola in Italiana da D Ottav. Sada, e dal Medisimo accresciuti, con Annot. & illustrati con disegni di molte Medaglie &c. Rome 1650 .But I think Browne just enjoyed looking at the engravings in this book rather than improving his Italian! He describes the 'elegant medall of Agostino' thus-

And, though none of the seven wonders, yet a noble piece of Antiquity, and made by a Copy exceeding all the rest, had its principal parts disposed after this manner, that is, the Labyrinth of Crete, built upon a long quadrate, containing five large squares, communicating by right inflections, terminating in the centre of the middle square, and lodging of the Minotaur, if we conform unto the description of the elegant medal thereof in Agostino.

The most famous maze in Classical antiquity was the labyrinth, the Cretan palace in which King Minos stabled the minotaur and from which, according to Greek myth, Theseus was able to escape from, because of the thread which Ariadne gives him. The Cretan labyrinth may well have a solar significance because of the double axe, of which it may have been the palace which is carved on many Minoan remains. The bull shut in the labyrinth is also a solar symbol. Indeed the very name labyrinth which means palace of the axe, reminds us that in the palace at Knossos, the mythical stall of the minotaur was pre-eminently the shrine of the double axe.

The symbol of the Labyrinth occurs once more at the apotheosis of The Garden of Cyrus in which Browne names the combined forces of Reason and Empiricism as the essential tools to aid a successful weaving through the 'Labyrinth of Truth'.

affording delightful Truths, confirmable by sense and ocular Observation, which seems to me the surest path, to trace the Labyrinth of Truth

But is in his companion Discourse of 1658 Discourse Urn-Burial, that great hymn to antiquity and the unknowing of the human condition, that Browne displays his numismatic knowledge most. In particular , his description of an Iceni coin which he describes thus-

Besides, the Norman, Saxon, and Danish pieces of Cuthred, Canutus, William, Matida, and others, some British Coynes of gold have been dispersively found; And no small number of silver pieces near Norwich; with a rude head upon the obverse, and an ill formed horse on the reverse, with Inscriptions Ic. Duro. T. whether implying Iceni, Dutotriges, Tascia, or Tribobantes, we leave to higher conjecture.




Clearly Sir Thomas Browne knew his coins. He's off again a page later-
Nor is it strange to finde Romane Coynes of Copper and Silver among us; of Vespasian, Trajan, Adrian, Commodus, Antonius, Severus, &c. But the greater number of Dioclesian, Constantine, Constans, Valens, ...

Browne acted as a magnet for any curio's or object of antiquity which surfaced throughout the county. In a revealing foot-note to Urn-Burial he acknowledged the source of his numismatic finds thus-

'most at Caster by Yarmouth, found in a place called East-bloudy-burgh furlong, belonging to Mr Thomas Wood, a person of civility, industry and knowledge in this way, who hath made observation of remarkable things about him, and from whom we have received divers Silver and Copper Coynes'.

Click on link for an excellent site on numismatics
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