Diving Archaeologists Find Rare Zodiac Coin on Mediterranean Seabed by Israel

Bronze coin showing Cancer the crab and the moon goddess on one side, and the Roman emperor du jour on the other, was found during an underwater survey

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Spectacular rare coin depicting Cancer beneath the the moon goddess Luna, discovered off the Mediterranean coast.
Spectacular rare coin depicting Cancer beneath the the moon goddess Luna, discovered off the Mediterranean coast.Credit: Dafna Gazit, Israel Antiquities Authority
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

A beautiful bronze coin almost 2,000 years old has been rescued from the depths of the Mediterranean off Israel during an underwater archaeological survey, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced on Monday. The coin shows the emperor on one side, as befits coinage of the time, and Cancer, the crab sign of the zodiac and a lady on the other – interpreted as the moon goddess Luna.

The crab coin bears the date “Year eight,” referring to the eighth year of rule by the Roman Emperor Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Pius. That eighth year was either 144 or 145. It belongs to a series of 13 coins, one for each sign of the zodiac and one the complete zodiac wheel, the IAA said.

Cancer is Latin for “crab” and that is why it is named thusly in horoscopes. The weekly reading for Cancerians, courtesy of India TV: “Cancer should avoid investment plans.” EliteDaily elaborates: “As the week kicks off, Venus in Cancer will square Jupiter in Aries” – and that’s just the beginning of that astrological analysis.

Now we know that. Anyway, when faith in the supernatural and its ability, desire to commence or inability to prevent communication with us took shape is hard to say. Nor is the “where” clear.

Emperor Antoninus Pius on the coin discovered by archaeological divers in the Mediterranean.Credit: Dafna Gazit, Israel Antiquities Authority

Scholars think that astrology, the pseudoscience of mundane divination, may have originated in Sumeria around 5,000 years ago, though there is clearer evidence for early zodiac belief in Babylon almost 4,000 years ago. Others suspect the belief originated in China, or ancient Egypt or Greece; maybe astrology spontaneously developed, much like agriculture, in different places at different times for different reasons.

Astrology developed in different directions in the various places it was practiced, notably in the context of divine intervention, which could always be relied on to explain why a forecast based on the imaginary influence of a given juxtaposition of celestial bodies was wrong. The Babylonians for instance apparently created a subdivision called astral medicine, where treatment would depend on date.

Moving on maybe 4,000 years or a little less, in 2016 the Smithsonian’s Linda Rodriguez McRobbie asked “How Are Horoscopes Still a Thing?” and pointed out, in different words, that a broken clock is also right twice a day.

Astrology aficionados claim that the relative positioning of moon, planets, stars and god knows what – the truth is out there – influences Earthly affairs, able to affect our destinies in predictable ways. Scientists have been unable to find mechanisms that could implement this influence. Perhaps the true gift of astrologers today is to tell a good story based on keen observation of human behavior in general and their customer in particular; many of them may even believe in their own powers.

Evidently, many are undismayed by there being no evidence over 4,000 years that astrology works. In 2022, according to YouGov, 27 percent of American adults said they believe in astrology; 51 percent said they didn’t and 22 percent were unsure. Among American Jews, the rate of believers was estimated to be 22 percent. That poll also found that 10 percent of atheists “believe that the stars and planets influence behavior,” ergo the god Mars is out but the planet is in.

Back to the coin, which clearly shows the crab: its arthropodan eyes on stalks, the right number of legs, its pincers in position seemingly holding up a half-crescent, above which we see the profile of Luna, and a star.

The other side shows the profile of the Gaul-born Emperor Antoninus Pius, one of the so-called “five good emperors” who did not pursue military glory and booty but ruled in peace, which may explain the paucity of historical records from his reign. He did put down a rebellion in Britain, but is better remembered for his encouragement of culture through building temples and theaters – and promoting science, which has not found support for astrology in any way.

Pius’ peacemaking also extended to the Jewish population of the empire: he is credited with rolling back decrees imposed by his predecessor Hadrian, though the timeline of what preceded what remains debatable. It seems that due to unrest in Judea, Hadrian had stepped up efforts to Romanize the province, including by rebuilding Jerusalem, which had been badly damaged in the Jewish-Roman war of 66-73, as a Roman city named “Aelia Capitolina.” Hadrian banned Jews from the city, instating pagan worship in synagogues, and prohibiting circumcision (and castration, while about it). The name Aelia Capitolina would persist until late antiquity.

Israel Antiquities Authority maritime archeology unit director Jacob Sharvit holding the rare coin.Credit: Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

The moon goddess Luna is a more ephemeral character in the annals of Roman religion, sometimes perceived as part of a triumvirate of goddesses with Proserpina and Hecate and sometimes as a stand-alone deity. The crescent on the coin is her symbol.

Finally, Monday’s horoscope for Cancerians on the astrology.com website: “If there are issues floating around in your sphere right now, this would be a good time to speak your truth while asserting yourself.”

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