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New series of banknotes based on European mythology

National face of the Greek 2 euro coin, illustrting the story of Europa's adbuction by Zeus. © European Central Bank [1]

National face of the Greek 2 euro
coin, illustrting the story of
Europa’s adbuction by Zeus.
© European Central Bank

On 2 May 2013, a new 5 euro note will be placed in circulation. This will be the first stage in the issuing of the “Europa” series, named in honour of the Phoenician princess of Greek mythology who gave our continent its name. Good reason to take a look at the current 5 euro note and the surprises that its replacement has in store for us…

It is one of the banknotes that we use all the time without really looking at it. While the smallest euro note does not have the same aura as its big brother, the 500 euro note, it is nevertheless worth a closer look, especially as its current familiar appearance is about to change. Not radically, but enough for the changes to disconcert some people.


But first, let’s just go back to the banknote that you handle every day. The images depicted on our banknotes all contain references to European architecture, divided chronologically into seven styles (one for each denomination). For instance, the 5 euro note illustrates the Greco-Roman style, while the largest denomination, the 500 euro note, focuses on contemporary architecture. The motif is not random, since it symbolises Europe’s cherished values: openness and cooperation. Openness, indicated by the window (or door) on the front of the banknote, is intended in its broadest sense: open borders, but also open mind, as Europe wants to be a continent open to the rest of the world. And cooperation, symbolised by the bridge on the back of the banknote, indicating that European countries are linked together in a mutual desire to help one another.

Front of the 5 euro note, first series. © European Central Banke [2]

Front of the 5 euro note, first series. © European Central Bank

These windows and bridges may already have reminded you of some famous European monuments (such as the Pont du Gard, suggested by the image on the back of the 5 euro note), but you should be aware that the structures are fictitious, and are designed to illustrate a specific architectural style. They are therefore necessarily based on existing buildings, but are not an exact replica . If they were, then they would refer to a particular country, whereas that is precisely what was not wanted: the euro aims to unite, not divide. The architecture fulfils that need: the seven styles depicted by the banknotes are seen throughout Europe, so all European citizens, regardless of their nationality, can feel at home with the euro banknotes.


The new banknote series will feature hardly any changes to the graphics. However, one minor innovation is the explicit introduction of mythology, with the face of Europa depicted on the hologram stripe and in the banknote’s watermark. So who was this lady? In fact, there are several young women bearing this name in ancient literature, but the tradition most commonly referred to is Cretan. According to this myth, she was a princess from the Phoenician town of Tyre (modern Sour, in Lebanon), daughter of Agenor. She was seduced by the god Zeus, who had turned himself into a magnificent white bull. Fearful at first, Europa climbed on the animal’s back. He then leapt into the air and swept her off to Crete, where the two were united, and where Europa gave birth to three sons (including Minos, see the myth of the Minotaur). Her father Agenor then ordered three of his sons to go in search of her, stipulating that they must not return until they had found their sister. Unfortunately for them, their quest was in vain. Fearing their father’s wrath, they did not return to their home country but all settled in countries farther west where they established centres of civilisation: one in Thrace, another in Sicily and the third in Thebes (Greece) where they introduced the alphabet.

But what is the connection between this princess Europa and the continent that now bears her name? That is a difficult question, and in Antiquity opinions were already divided. Because, as the Greek historian Herodotus (484 BC to 420 BC) pointed out, the young lady never set foot in “Europe”. But if we look at the travels of Europa’s three brothers, we find that they cover a geographical area which includes Greece, and in ancient literature, Greece is constantly opposed to Asia, be it politically, militarily or culturally. So perhaps the origin of the word “Europe” may be found in that antagonism: the West (Greece, Europe) against the East (Asia). There is support for that theory, especially as some people discern in the word “Europe” the Semitic root “ereb-” which refers to the setting sun, i.e. something found in the West, and that is true of the European continent.

Front of the 5 euro note, [3]

Front of the 5 euro note, “Europa” series. © European Central Bank

The abduction of Europa by Zeus is a story commonly depicted in western art, be it literary or pictorial. It is already found on the Greek 2 euro coin, which can be seen in the Museum.


The euro was officially created in 1999, when it first became possible to effect transfers in euro. But the coins and notes were only introduced 3 years later, in 2002. Eleven years is a considerable period of time for a banknote series: forgers have endeavoured to copy them. So the aim is to make their task more difficult by enhancing banknote security. Three new security features have been unveiled to the public; the first two are the “hologram portrait” and the “watermark portrait”, which we have already talked about. The third feature is the “emerald number”. On your new 5 euro note you will find a large number 5 on the front; the colour of the number will change through various shades of green when you tilt the banknote.

The change from the first series to the new series of banknotes will take place unobtrusively, as in the case of the Belgian franc. At first, the two series will be used simultaneously, until a pre-announced date. From then on, the old 5 euro note will cease to be legal tender. However, if you later come across a few hidden bundles of the first series (you never know ….), you can always come and exchange them at the National Bank. The other denominations will follow in the next few years.

Charlotte Vantieghem
Museum guide