The secret is out. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew favors keeping Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill, with a group of important women on the back of the note. He is also entertaining the prospect of replacing Andrew Jackson with a woman on the $20 bill.
It's important to make U.S. money more representative of our country and to highlight individuals who have made great contributions to our nation. Currency throughout history has been laden with portraits, images, and symbols, some more self-evident than others. I was surprised to learn about the origin and meaning of several mysterious symbols on U.S. currency while I was researching for my book Coined. Here are three secret symbols on the $1 bill.
1. The Great Seal
On the reverse of the dollar bill is an ancient Babylonian symbol, an eagle with a ribbon in its beak. Yes, that's part of the Great Seal of the United States, which was designed in 1782, and placed on the $1 bill in 1935.
But art historian Rudolf Wittkower traces this symbol to its origin, a Babylonian story known as the Etana Epic. In this tale, the gods select Etana to be king, yet his wife is unable to produce a son. Etana starts his journey to find a special fertility plant, and along the way, he encounters a dying eagle. The eagle was injured by a serpent out of revenge, as the bird ate the snake's young. Etana rescues the eagle, and the bird helps him fly to the heavens to obtain the birth plant.
The symbol of an eagle with a serpent in its beak has appeared in various civilizations, over thousands of years. For example, a pendant discovered in South Asia, which dates back to 3000 BC features the symbol. It was also found on the insignia of Pope Clement IV in the thirteenth century. It is on the Mexican coat of arms, state flag of New Mexico, and the Great Seal of the United States -- prominently placed on the $1 bill.
Of course, the meaning of this symbol has changed to fit the society which incorporates it. On the Great Seal of the United States, the eagle doesn't have a serpent but ribbon in its beak that reads, "E Pluribus Unum." Nevertheless, the eagle-serpent imagery isn't uniquely American.