… and thank you for all the fish.

It’s important to read lots of different scholars on a subject and to keep in mind 1) they are only as good as the sources they’re working from and 2) everyone has biases, which shape how they interpret information. 

Case in point: G. M. Hirst’s The Cults of Olbia was published in 1903. She brings together a wealth of material (some of which more contemporary scholars fail to cite) but that material is limited to what was available at the time, primarily literary citations and numismatics. Serious excavation didn’t even begin at the archaeological site until 1902, with its heyday being the 1920s when they were able to return to the field post-WWI. Some of the most significant discoveries weren’t made, however, until the 1980s and as late as the 2010s when efforts were intensified due to concerns over erosion from the Black Sea and damage from pollution and climate change. None of this is reflected in Hirst’s study, obviously, so if you relied solely on that you’d have a pretty skewed perception of, say, Dionysos’ place in the Olbian pantheon (since many of those discoveries have had to do with him.) 

And for point two I simply want to remind folks that biases shape how we perceive things both large and small, significant and not. It’s easy to recognize bias when the scholar is postulating out-dated or faulty theories, especially if they’ve been thoroughly debunked or it’s something we’re familiar with and happen to care about – but other errors can slip right by without us realizing.

For instance, there is much debate about whether the Olbian dolphin coins are actually dolphins – or rather sturgeons. Sturgeons don’t mean anything to me, so I’m inclined to agree with the dolphin camp. That doesn’t make them right, however. After all, while it’s unlikely that an eagle could carry off a dolphin in its claws (not impossible, just extremely unlikely) there is nothing extraordinary about it doing that to a sturgeon.

While I applaud the scholar who was first able to look past the communis opinio and see a sturgeon one reason I side with the dolphiners is that no one I’ve read has satisfactorily explained why the Olbiapolitians would mint coinage with sturgeons on them, whereas it’s self-evident why they’d do so with dolphins, considering the animals’ associations with Dionysos and Apollon. In fact, one of Olbia’s major trading partners was the polis of Taras (or Tarentum) in Magna Graecia which minted its own dolphin coins, associated originally with their eponymous hero and Poseidon, though later on Dionysiac attributes were added via Taras’ blending with Iakchos (or Kloster.)

In other words, question everything – especially the things you are certain of.

Dolphin money

The Olbians really liked dolphins, and minted many types of coins with them on it. 

There are the famous “dolphin coins” themselves:


A more detailed example of which you can see here:


As well as more normal coins, such as this one which has a Gorgoneion on the obverse:


You’ll note that the dolphin is being carried off by an eagle. This is a common motif, and I’m not sure if it refers to some myth I’m not familiar with or an everyday occurrence. In which case, fuck, they must have big eagles in the Ukraine. 


On this coin (with a kneeling Herakles on the obverse) we find a wheel with dolphins in the cardinal directions, for reasons.

Dolphins also appear in conjunction with some kind of flower and an eight-rayed star, as well as by themselves.

I wonder if these are the dolphins of Dionysos or of Apollon. I’ve seen good arguments either way, as well as scholars put forth that they have some association with Poseidon. While certainly possible, the other two are much more prominent members of the Olbian pantheon so I think it unlikely. 

Hail Borysthenes!


I rather like these coins from Olbia, depicting Borysthenes the river-God of the Dneiper. In earlier mints his bovine attributes are more pronounced, including one with super cute bull ears to go with the horns. On the reverse are his sacred weapons, an axe and a Skythian bow with arrows. 

Hail the original Archiboukolos!

The election is now over and the votes have all been tallied. Since none of our candidates broke the minimum threshold (Mithridates Eupator came the closest) that means the play will be going to Herakles!

Expect much geekery to follow

Exciting news!

I got my hands on a PDF of G. M. Hirst’s “The Cults of Olbia,” originally published in The Journal of Hellenic Studies in 1903. Pretty much everyone working on the polis cites this monumental study, and now I get to read it for myself.

Expect much geekery to follow.

Oh, by the way – G. M. Hirst was Gertrude Mary Hirst, a lady-scholar back when it was pretty much just her and Jane Ellen Harrison. She taught at Barnard College from 1901 until retiring in 1943, and died in Croton, New York in 1962. She was “a demanding teacher and a well-known eccentric but was loved and respected” by her students, whom she would often invite back to her quarters in the college dormitory for tea and conversation. She was also notorious for flouting the law by “riding her bicycle down the centre of Broadway.” You can learn more about her at the Database of Classical Scholars

I may have to visit her grave at some point, cause she sounds like a pretty interesting person.


From the comments section:

fakt: There is a wordplay in Russian. The last line in the song means “God please give me resurrection”, then Severija repeats “resurrection” (“vaskreshenje“) and says “Sunday” (“vaskresenje“). In Russian “Sunday” literally means “the day of the resurrection of Jesus Christ”. That’s why in Russian “resurrection” and “Sunday” sounds almost identically.

the one you share cattle-wealth with

By the way, the history of Berezan Island is pretty interesting:

Berezan was home to one of the earliest Greek colonies (possibly known as Borysthenes, after the Greek name of the Dnieper) in the northern Black Sea region. The island was first settled in the mid-7th century B.C. and was largely abandoned by the end of the 5th century B.C., when Olbia became the dominant colony in the region. In the 5th century BC, Herodotus visited it to gather information about the northern course of the eponymous river. The colony thrived on wheat trade with the Scythian hinterland.

In the Middle Ages, the island was of high military importance because it commanded the mouth of the Dnieper. During the period of Kievan Rus’ there was an important station on the trade route from the Varangians to the Greeks. It was there that Varangians first came into contact with the Greeks.

The only Runic inscription in Southern Ukraine, the Berezan’ Runestone, was found on the island in 1905, now on exhibit in the Odessa Historical Museum. The inscription seems to have been part of a gravestone over the grave of a Varangian merchant from Gotland. The text reads: “Grani made this vault in memory of Karl, his partner.”

The article on the Berezan Runestone has a great deal more to say about Grani and his félag Karl.