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«Man has always searched for a medium to resolve phenomena which he did not understand. His fear of the unknown was so strong that there was no formal ...»

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H. Gitler

Man has always searched for a medium to resolve phenomena which he

did not understand. His fear of the unknown was so strong that there was

no formal objection to the use of deities of other religions (syncretism)1

when they offered hope in solving his problems. These ideas became

universally popular after the campaigns of Alexander the Great to the East

which acquainted the Greek world with the principal religions of the conquered area.

The first impact of this new situation was a noted change in the realm of more sophisticated ideas. Thoughtful men began to hope that by a union of Greek philosophy, especially Platonism, with the outstanding elements of Oriental beliefs, the problem of man’s place in the universe and his destiny might be solved.

What had started as intellectual movements in early Roman times, transformed into religious sects. The credo of these sects was based on the assumption that man could attain the supreme aim of spiritual accomplishment only by “gnosis” – a deep knowledge of the “hidden mysteries of existence”. Gnostic belief incorporate various elements among which the main components were mysticism, Platonic philosophy, and the three religions (Judaism, Christianity, and those practiced in Egypt).

While at the intellectual level gnostic belief allowed philosophers to search for new conjunctions of ideas; at the level of the common man it solved the intricacy of daily life by using a mixture of philosophical thoughts and religions to form a fantastic combination of deities. A glimpse * I would like to thank Prof. Hans Dieter Betz, The Divinity School, University of Chicago, for his valuable comments, corrections and additions. I would also like to extend my appreciation to Prof. John Gager, Department of Religion, Princeton University, to Prof. Ya’akov Meshorer and to Yael Israeli, the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, for their guidance and encouragement. Finally, I am indebted to the Israel Museum, for the permission to publish these amulets.

1. The existence of syncretism makes it almost impossible to relate a magical amulet to a certain religion since the same deity was commonly used in different connotations and various elements from several religions were merged and influenced each other; see C. Bonner, Studies in Magical Amulets chiefly Graeco-Egyptian, Ann Arbor 1950, p. 18.

For an important work on syncretism; see M. P. Nilsson, Geschichte der griechischen Religion II, 3rd edition, München 1974, pp. 581-701.

LA 40 (1990) 365-374; Pls. 61-62 366 H. GITLER of this fantastic group is apparent to us usually through amulets but also from magical papyri.2 We define amulets mainly as those objects that could be comfortably worn as pendants, ring stones, or beads,3 whose contact or close proximity to the person was believed to exert magical powers.4 The first step in the making of an amulet was to chose a specific stone5 and engrave on it a certain deity. To secure and strengthen the magical potency of the amulet, a careful preparation known as consecration was essential in giving the stone its full efficacy.6 Some of the preliminaries included: sacrifices, libations, censing, recitation of special formulas, and previous purification and continence.

In the first century A.D., in marked distinction to what we find before, gems with a distinct magical engraving began to appear. This phenomenon is first noticed in Egypt, Palestine and Syria, from which it later spread throughout the Roman Empire.7 In the making of magical amulets many kinds of materials were used (stones, metals and papyrus as well as parts from animals and plants), since they were supposed to possess or be imbued with supernatural or magical virtues. Even parts of the body had peculiar efficacy, thus the snout of a wolf fixed upon the door protected the inhabitants against evil influences (Plinius, Historia Naturalis: 28.157).8 The engravings which were usually intaglios9 depict a single figure surrounded by a long inscription and many signs, all of them adding to the potency of the amulet.

2. The amulets are considered the main source in this aspect since the active magical agent in them is a picture or a symbol, whereas the magic in the papyri is mainly verbal; see M. Smith, “Relations between Magical Papyri and Magical Gems,” Papyrologica Bruxellensia 18, Brussels 1979, p. 135. (Actes du XVe Congrès Int. de Papyrologie, IIIe Partie).

3. Amulets corresponds to perivapta, periavmmata: “Things tied around the neck”.

4. C. Bonner, (above n. 1), p. 2. In Jewish-Christian contexts this phenomenon is represented by the tefillin or “phylacteries”: see The Jewish Encyclopedia, X, 1907, p. 27.

5. Plinius, in the thirty-sixth and thirty-seventh books of the Historia Naturalis, gives a long account of the prophylactic, therapeutic and magical qualities of stones. For some examples see: 36, 37. 20; 37, 15. 4; 37, 40; 37, 54. 10; 37, 60.

6. For the numerous descriptions of preparations in the making of magical amulets in the Greek Magical Papyri see H. D. Betz, The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Chicago 1986, PGM IV. 1596-1715, PGM IV. 2179, PGM V. 447-458, PGM XII. 270-350 etc.; and C. Bonner, (above n. 1), pp. 4-13. For further relations between magical papyri and amulets see M. Smith, (above n. 2), pp. 130-134 and n. 1 on page 135.

7. C. Bonner, (above n. 1), p. 5.

8. A similar phenomenon is found in the Jewish religion in the form of the Mezuzah. See E. R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Graeco-Roman Period, Toronto 1953, Vol. II, p. 210.


The first three objects discussed in this article have been categorized by their magical character (the catalogue numbers of this objects refer to their registration No. in the Israel Museum collection). The fourth one is a Christian amulet which was previously in the Clark collection.

1. Syncretistic Amulet

–  –  –

9. It is important to note that the designs in these stones or metals were meant to be looked at as represented and not to be used as seals.

10. The anguipede is usually depicted with a head of a cock and its representation with a head of an eagle is quite rare; see C. Bonner, (above n. 1), fig. 172.

11. According to the body shape this small bird is probably a jackdaw (Corvus monedula ) which is a type of crow. I am grateful to Reuben Inbar from the Institute of Evolution of the University of Haifa for making this identification and also for ascertaining that the

anguiped’s head is indeed that of an eagle. The crow had a symbolic significance as navigating bird which ancient seamen took to their voyages; see the story of Noah in Genesis 8:


12. H. D. Betz, (above n. 6), Glossary, p. 331.

13. P. C. Miller, “In Praise of Nonsense”, apud A. H. Armstrong, Classical Mediterranean Spirituality, New York 1986, pp. 481-505. See also: R. T. Wallis, “The Spiritual Importance of Not Knowing”, Ibid., pp. 460-480.

368 H. GITLER The Anguipede,14 an animal-headed snake-footed creature, has a Roman military dress of the third to fourth century A.D. Its usual common depiction is with a cock-head. It holds the whip of Helios in one hand and a shield in the other.15 The name IA w16 is the widely used Greek transcription of the Hebrew “YHWH”.17 A unique distinction of this specimen is the use of Lapis lazuli instead of more common stones, e.g., steatite, haematite, or green jasper.

The word Abrasax or Abraxas requires further comment. Abrasax or Abraxas was used both as a name and as a word of power whose letters were read as numerals (the sum of the numerical values of the Greek letters Abraxas = 365). Abrasax, with his isopsephic significance, corresponding to the number of days in the year (which indicates the solar character of his image), may have been invented by an astrologer as a mystic reminder of the period of the sacred sun.

The identification of Abrasax with the magic number 365 is attested to in magical papyri18; PGM VIII 48-49 “… with the exact number 365 correThe Anguipede is the most important single figure on the amulets of the Late Roman period. For attempts to interpret the origin and meaning of the figure: see M. P. Nilsson, “The Anguipede of the Magical Amulets”, Harvard Theological Review, 44: 2 (1951), pp. 61-64 and A. A. Barb, “Abraxas-studien”, in Hommages á Waldemar Deonna, Collection Latomus 28, Brussels 1957, pp. 67-86. Another interpretation is that of M. Philonenko who suggested that the Anguipede is actually the god Iaô: “L’Anguipède Alectorocéphale et le Dieu Iaô,” Académie des inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, Comptes rendus des séances de l’année 1979, pp. 297-303. A. A. Barb on the other hand has pointed out that “The fact that this name very often occurs inscribed on the shield held by the ‘Anguipede’ obviously does not mean the anguipede equals Iaô, but rather that the shield equals Iaô” (cf. Genesis 15, 1 where God calls himself a “shield” for Abraham): “Diva Matrix”, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. XVI (1953), p. 227 n. 154. This figure continued to play an important role in Jewish magic, this is evident from its depiction on Jewish charms of the eighteenth century: see E. R. Goodenough, (above n. 8), Vol. III figs. 1005, 1006.

15. Cf. F. M. Schwartz and J. H. Schwartz, “Engraved gems in the collection of The American Numismatic Society. 1. Ancient Magical Amulets”, The American Numismatic Society:

Museum Notes 24, New York 1979, pp. 155-161; A. Delatte et Ph. Derchain, Les intailles magiques Gréco-Égyptiennes, Paris 1964, pp. 23-42; H. Philipp, Mira et Magia, Main am Rhein 1986, cat. nos. 158-169; C. Bonner, (above n. 1), pp. 123-139 and an interesting study from the seventeenth century: Macarii Ioannis, Abraxas sev Apistopistus, Antverpiae: Ex Officina Plantiniana Balthasaris Moreti, 1657.

16. H. D. Betz, (above n. 6), Glossary p. 335. The name of the Jewish god (Iaô) is used in the magical papyri chiefly as a magical word, only once is he said to be the creator of the world: cf. PGM VII 759-760.

17. See Diodorus Siculus, Histories, 1: 94, who identifies IA w as the name of the God of the Jews. See also: A. A. Barb, (above n. 14 “Diva Matrix”), p. 216 n. 44.

18. H. D. Betz, (above n. 6).


sponding to the days of the year. Truly Abrasax.” PGM XIII 155-156 “You are the number of (the days of) the year, Abrasax.” In the Gnostic world, Abrasax was believed to be the ruler (princeps, mevga" a[rcwn) of the 365 heavens.19 The total of the numerical values of the letters in the name of Mithras (another solar figure), spelled meivqra", is also 365 and according to some, Abrasax and Mithras were one and the same person.20 It is interesting to point out that in Jewish tradition the number 365, the gematric value for h"sç, also had special meanings.21 In Talmud and Midrashic commentaries, 365 was the number of the solar days h"sç (hmjh) twmy but since the targum Pseudo-Jonathan of Genesis 1: 27, which describes the creation of man, a new meaning is attached to this number. It is said that man has 248 limbs ( µyrba j"mr) and 365 tendons (µydyg h"sç).

In another context the numbers 248 and 365 appear as the two groups of deeds. There are 248 “do’s” and 365 “don’ts” the total sum of which equals the 613 deeds (twwxm g"yrt).

2. A Christian Gnostic Amulet

5th-6th century A.D., provenance unknown. Black slade, pierced; No.

70.42.617 (height 4.7 cm. width 3.5 cm.).

More often than any other miracle, the raising of Lazarus (Jn 11: 1-45)22 has been represented in all periods from the early third century onwards and never lost its flavor in Christian art. It was even regarded in the early Christian period as a prefiguration of the resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of the dead at the last judgement.23 Fig. 2 Obv.: Christ resurrecting Lazarus who is shown as a mummy on the left; above, the word BOHQI (“Help!”); above the nimbus on

19. H. Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, Boston 1963, pp. 43-44 and 52.

20. Goodenough brings an example of an amulet which shows on the obverse the anguipede, IA w on the shield, ABRACAS in the field and the name MIQRAS on the reverse: (above n. 8), Vol. III, Fig. 1088.

21. T. Weksler, Zephunot Bemasoret Yisrael, Jerusalem 1968, pp. 75-78 (Hebrew).

22. D. E. Aune points out that the healing command of Jesus: “ Lazarus, come out!”, (Jn. 11:

43) and other similar commands in Mk. 5: 41 and Lk. 7:14, must be regarded as magical formulas of adjuration: “Magic in Early Christianity”, ANRW, II, 23.2, Berlin 1980, p. 1534.

23. H. Leclercq, “Lazare”, DACL, 8/2 (1929), 2009-2086; and G. Schiller, Iconography of Christian Art, Vol. I, London 1971, pp. 181-183 and figs. 424, 433, 562.

370 H. GITLER Christ’s head and a star to the right; to his right another cross; he holds in raised right hand the magic wand and on lowered left hand, a scroll.

Fig. 2a Rev.: Two inscriptions divided by a line. The upper inscription in five lines is formed of Voces Magicae in Hebrew. The letters may suggest a permutation of the word “twabx” since there appears to be a repeated use of part of the word in these lines25 ; the lower lines read: OURIHL BOHQI meaning “Uriel Help.”

We may describe this amulet as a “cry for help” or a “plea for resuscitation” to be granted by Christ and the angel Uriel to the wearer of the amulet. In order to achieve this goal, three cultural levels of magic were used:

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