The Paphos amulet: a reinterpretation

The Paphos amulet. Picture credit: Marcin Iwan and Paphos Agora Project Archive.
The Paphos amulet. Picture credit: Marcin Iwan and Paphos Agora Project Archive.

Have you all seen this amulet that made the news around the beginning of this year? There are many such “magical gems” from Greek Egypt, but this one is interesting because it was discovered at the site of the ancient agora in Paphos, Cyprus. The immediate context was dated to the late Roman (Byzantine) period, specifically the 5th-6th century AD. That means that the milieu was Christian, but the iconography on the amulet is clearly not.

Now, my opinions on this topic may not be taken seriously by anyone since I am not an Egyptologist nor a Classicist. But then, few archaeologists are experts in the Western Magical Tradition (not that I’m claiming to be one myself), and I suspect that a lack of familiarity with the WMT has hampered the archaeologists’ interpretations. Which is kind of ironic, because they explain all the amulet’s deviations from orthodox Egyptian style by concluding it was the the artist who didn’t know the subject matter well. I do think the archaeologists got a lot right, but unlike them I think that the unusual aspects of the amulet may represent a blending of mythic elements, as I will explain. And, since I have no professional reputation to ruin, I am free to speculate about what it all means.

In researching this topic, I discovered The Campbell Bonner Magical Gems Database, which is awesome. Thanks to this resource, I was able to compare the Paphos amulet to other magical gems and find some actual evidence rather than just bloviating about it. I assume the database is not a comprehensive collection of all magical amulets, but it is a large sample.

But first, here is how the Paphos amulet is described in the official scholarly publication on the artifact, “Magical Amulet from Paphos with the ιαεω- Palindrome” (Studies in Ancient Art and Civilization Vol. 17, 2013), by Joachim Sliwa. You can download the article for free at this link, but I think you have to register with to do so.

Going clockwise from top, the seated figure at the top is Harpocrates, seemingly wrapped in mummy bandages, seated on a stool and holding a nekhekh flail. To his right is a star and below it, a snake and a mummified cynocephalus. At the bottom is a mummy, identified as Osiris, in a papyrus boat sailing toward the right (as indicated by the direction of the oars at the stern), and below that a crocodile. Above and to the left is a rooster, and above that, a moon.

Sliwa identifies a couple of ways in which the composition differs from standard Egyptian iconography: (1) Harpocrates usually kneels on a lotus, rather than sitting on a stool with his feet down; he is never depicted as a mummy. (2) He is often accompanied by falcons, but it appears that here the falcon has been replaced by a rooster “with a rayed crown upon its head that was an aspect of Chnoubis or cock-headed Anguipedes…” (3) Cynocephali are normally shown with their hands raised in prayer or adoration toward Harpocrates, not with one hand to the mouth, which is Harpocrates’ customary gesture. These “mistakes” are attributed to the artist not understanding the source material. (4) Harpocrates is often shown in a boat surrounded by animals in triplicate–these include birds (usually falcons, sometimes ibises or herons), crocodiles, and snakes. Three of each animal was meant to signify all members of that animal type. The snakes and crocodiles represented vanquished powers of night. Below is a more typical depiction of Harpocrates:

Amulet, 2nd-3rd century AD. The database adds this interesting note: "A praxis known from a papyrus (PGM LXI 1-38) specifies that love charms had to be incised with the image of Horus on a lotus flower and the magical name Abraxas."
Amulet, 2nd-3rd century AD. The database adds this interesting note: “A praxis known from a papyrus (PGM LXI 1-38) specifies that love charms had to be incised with the image of Horus on a lotus flower and the magical name Abraxas.”

“Another issue is the considerable artistic ineptness….However, the fundamental context of solar ideas has not been lost. … Harpocrates…traverses the celestial ocean in a boat. The half-moon on the left symbolizes Thoth while the star on the right symbolizes Sirius. … [The] crocodile is…a symbol of chaos, the chthonic world and its powers, the West, the Night and the element of water. The snake depicted above, to the right of Harpocrates, also falls into this [evil] category.”

On the back of the amulet is a so-called ιαεω- palindrome (ιαεω is a variant of IAO) with two mistakes (ρ where it should have ν). The text has been translated as follows:

“Yahweh is the bearer of the secret name, the lion of Re secure in his shrine.”

I have a somewhat different take on the scene: (1) I think that the heterodox depiction that Sliwa attributes to ineptness may instead be an adaptation to a different cultural context. (2) Related to that, I think Harpocrates is holding a torch here instead of the nekhekh flail. (3) Also related to that, I think the rooster may come from a non-Egyptian (Greek?) context. (4) While it is possible that the star represents Sirius and the moon represents Thoth, I think that those two together with Harpocrates are meant to represent the celestial lights in toto. (5) I don’t think that’s a cynocephalus next to the snake. (6) I suspect that the artist has conflated Ra, Osiris, Horus, and possibly a dead human, into the solar cycle.

Detail: Harpocrates.
Detail: Harpocrates.

I decided not to accept any of the identifications of the figures a priori, but to compare them to other representations. That said, I agree with the identification of the seated figure as Harpocrates because it has several of Harpocrates’ characteristic features. First, there is the finger-to-mouth gesture, representing childhood (though the Greeks misunderstood it as the “hush” gesture). Harpocrates is the Greek form of Heru-pa-khered (“the child Horus”), the embodiment of the newly risen sun. Second, Harpocrates is frequently depicted seated, although usually he is kneeling on a lotus. The lotus is often looks as if it is growing from a papyrus boat (31 out of 188 amulets in the CBMG database, or 16%). Third, Harpocrates frequently bears the nekhekh flail, which is how Sliwa has interpreted the object in the figure’s left hand. However, I think it represents a torch, another characteristic symbol of Baby Horus. Note the shape of the torch in the representation below and compare it to the shape on the Paphos amulet. In particular, I call your attention to the band that separates the flames from the top of the torch in the image below, and the line across the object on the Paphos amulet which divides the object transversely at approximately the same point. I suspect the torch may have been a Greek addition meant to symbolize his light-bringing nature (versus the Egyptian nekhekh). However, the Paphos depiction is sufficiently schematic that I wouldn’t bet the farm on any particular identification of the object in Harpocrates’ hand. It could also be a cornucopia, another of his symbols.

Hellenistic Harpocrates carrying a torch.
Hellenistic Harpocrates carrying a torch.

Finally, other Harpocrates amulets also show the god along with crocodiles (22/188, 12%), snakes (not counting ouroboroi, 22/188, 12%), birds (39/188, 21%), cynocephali (25/188, 13%), crescent moon and star (27/188, 14%), and even occasionally mummies (5/188, 3%), so the presence of all these elements on the Paphos amulet lends further credence that this is indeed Harpocrates.

I also looked at combinations of these elements.I found that 88% of the time, if both Harpocrates and a boat are present, there will also be some combination of the moon and star, birds, snakes, crocodiles, or cynocephali.

The mummy is a slightly different case. There are only five cases where Harpocrates appears along with a mummy that is clearly not Anubis, (which I treated as a separate case); of these, two of the five (40%) also feature a crocodile and a crescent moon and star. The remaining three feature, respectively: only a moon and star; only a falcon (though in this one the mummy seems to be blended with a papyrus boat); and nothing else.

So the Paphos amulet is not unusual (relatively speaking) in featuring Harpocrates, a mummy, crocodile(s), snake(s), bird(s), and a moon and star, and as far as that goes I think the archaeologists’ interpretation is good. As for the atypical aspects–Harpocrates being seated on a stool rather than a lotus, and apparently being mummified–none of the amulets in the CBMG database have these features. There is one amulet that shows Harpocrates holding a torch.

Detail: the "cynocephalus."
Detail: the “cynocephalus.”

But I am not as sold on the cynocephalus. The head of the figure is exactly the same round dot as the heads of Harpocrates and “Osiris”; there is nothing dog-like about it, whereas of the 19 amulets in the CBMG database with cynocephali on them, all have clear snouts. Moreover, the Paphos figure appears to be mummified when cynocephali were not (there are no cynocephali mummies in the CBMG database). As Sliwa details, the posture of the figure is not customary for depictions of cynocephali. So the only reason I can see for identifying this as a cynocephalus is that cynocephali were associated with Harpocrates in other images. Sliwa doesn’t state that in the work I quote above, but the connection was stated explicitly in some of the many articles I read in the popular press (for example, “the Greek god [Harpocrates] is usually depicted receiving the adoration of members of a dog-headed race of men, known as cynocephalus or cynocephali collectively…”, found here). There are 19 amulets in the CBMG database where Harpocrates is accompanied by one or more cynocephali (19/188, 10%). To me, 10% of the time is a far cry from “usually.”

It should be noted that in the context of Egyptian art, “cynocephalus” actually refers to baboons–specifically, the species known as Papio cynocephalus. Apparently, the Greeks thought they looked like dog-men, hence the appellation “dog-headed.” The baboon is one of the animals associated with Thoth. Of the 19 amulets with cynocephali, I found that 11 of them (58%) were clearly baboons. The remaining 42% were not identifiable beyond saying that they had snouts and were depicted in an otherwise-cynocephalus-like way (i.e., same posture). Interestingly, they usually feature raging erections.

In short, none of them looks anything like the figure on the Paphos amulet. Sliwa attributes the lack of similarity to recognizable cynocephali to the artist’s ignorance or lack of skill, and while I concede that might have been the case, when the differences so outnumber the similarities, I consider it pretty unlikely. I have an idea about this which I will come back to.

Detail: "Osiris" mummy in papyrus boat.
Detail: “Osiris” mummy in papyrus boat.

On to “Osiris” in the papyrus boat. It’s pretty clear what we have depicted here is indeed a mummy lying in a boat. It strikingly resembles this model from ca. 1900 BC:

mummy boat

We can clearly see the two steering oars at the stern, the body laid out in the middle, and the flat profile of the boat with high prow and stern.

But is the mummy Osiris? A boat with a crocodile underneath immediately brings to mind the solar barque, called Semektet, in which Ra passes through the Duat each night. The Semektet is attacked by Apep, the “Lord of Chaos,” depicted as a serpent or crocodile, who attempts to swallow Ra/the sun. Ra is assisted or attended by several other deities; for instance, in many representations, Set is the one shown destroying Apep.

Set spears Apep from the bow of the solar barque.
Set spears Apep from the bow of the solar barque.

Since Ra is mentioned in the inscription on the back of the Paphos amulet, that would seem to bolster this connection. However, Ra is always shown enthroned, and never as a mummy. Osiris on the other hand is commonly shown as a mummy, but usually standing up. There are plenty of pictures of recumbent mummies on boats, but most of these images seem to represent dead humans.

But the Graeco-Egyptian magical amulets differ from standard Egyptian iconography in certain respects, so could that be what is happening here? Interestingly, 4 out of 5 amulets (80%) in the CBMG database which show Harpocrates and a mummy show the mummy lying down. In the one below, the mummy and the boat actually seem to be merged:

Harpocrates on a mummy-boat?
Harpocrates on a mummy-boat?  The mummy’s feet seem to curl up like the prow of the papyrus boat, and there are falcons perched fore and aft, as is frequently the case on depictions of Harpocrates’ boat.

If a mummy and a boat could be blended, could something similar be going on with the Paphos amulet? I think to answer this question we first have to consider why Harpocrates was so often represented in a boat.

I could not find much supporting documentation, although see this analysis of another amulet, but it seems likely that this is a version of the solar barque. Ra, the mature sun, sails the boat into the west, where both pass into the Duat. There, he battles Apep each night, to emerge victorious as the morning sun, represented either as the scarab Kheperer, or as a child with identical iconography to that associated with Harpocrates in Ptolemaic times. Because both Ra and Horus were associated with the sun, they were sometimes fused into Ra-Heru-Akhety (“Ra who is Horus of the Horizons”), or Ra-Horakhty, in later Heliopolitan myth. So, we can connect Ra with Horus and Harpocrates, and all three with the theme of the daily sun cycle via the solar barque.

But the usual captain of the Semektet boat is enthroned and alive, not lying down “dead.” For the boat’s occupant to be dead would contradict the entire mythic message of the solar journey. However, there is another deity besides Horus who is associated with rebirth, and that of course is Osiris, or Serapis as he would have been to the Greeks. But Osiris is usually shown reanimated and standing. Then we have to consider the similarity of the recumbent mummy in a boat to depictions of dead humans (e.g., pharaohs), like the model above.

The theme of rebirth and the immortal soul is important to mortal humans, so it seems not unreasonable that a person commissioning or using an amulet such as this one might be interested in seeing a depiction of a rebirth in “human” terms. In other words, I wonder whether the usual iconography of Osiris and Harpocrates could have been blended with the iconography of dead kings in order to reinforce the theme of death/rebirth.

This ties in with the figure of the “cynocephalus.” Egyptologist María Rosa Valdesogo has drawn a connection between the djat ra (“the hand to the mouth,” referring to bringing food to the mouth) gesture, breastfeeding, and the resurrection of the dead. Specifically, she states (my emphasis):

“1) The deceased, assimilated to Osiris, became a new born and needed to nurse his mother Nut’s breast milk. This way he started his new life in the Hereafter.

“2) The image of Horus as a child suckling at Isis’ breast also granted the dead’s resurrection, since Horus was the avenger who eliminated the evil (Seth) and recovered the Udjat eye as a symbol of the final resurrection.”

The djat ra figured in the Opening of the Mouth ceremony “indicating that in some moment of that ancient Egyptian rite the dead’s mouth would symbolically be opened as a new born who needs to suckle.”

In the Opening of the Mouth ceremony (New Kingdom), the sem priest enacts a gesture of opening the mouth of the deceased with his little finger. At the (Old Kingdom) mastaba at Qar, the djat ra gesture is also made by a male embalmer and a female professional mourner. In the female’s case, the gesture could relate to breastfeeding, but what about the males? Valdesogo suggests the gesture was also tied to clearing mucus from a baby’s mouth at birth. Mind you, I suspect that action too would have been performed by women in the quotidian context; but I see no reason why “female” real-life activities could not be symbolized through formal ritual gestures performed by a male. Regardless, the gesture would be associated with life-giving actions performed toward a newborn.

So we have here a connection, or as Valdesogo puts it, an assimilation, between Osiris, the Child Horus (a.k.a., Harpocrates), and the deceased-and-resurrected individual. And, while Valdesogo’s ideas are speculative, they do give a rationale for why the Paphos amulet might depict a mummified person with their hand to their mouth in the “childhood” gesture, as well as why Harpocrates appears to be wearing mummy bandages. Could this figure be a deceased person, newly reborn and seeking the “food” or “breath” of new life?

Now, look at the direction the figures on the Paphos amulet are facing. From the position of the steering oars, we know the boat is sailing to the right. Above and to the right, the not-a-cynocephalus above it is facing left, and above that and to the left, Harpocrates is also facing left. Following their gazes, I see a counter-clockwise circle–from the deceased person in the boat, to the deceased now newly-reborn, to Harpocrates enthroned among the heavens, and so on. Admittedly, a counter-clockwise circle would be a little unusual for something associated with a solar cycle. I don’t have an explanation for that.

If I am correct, then the solar barque has been “assimilated” with the funerary barque. Which totally makes sense given that in tomb paintings, the resurrected pharaoh rides in the solar barque with Ra. After all, it’s due to these tomb paintings that we even have depictions of the solar barque, so it has a concrete association with funerary contexts.

Now for the animals. Given the ubiquity of animal triads including crocodiles, snakes, and birds in amulet representations of Harpocrates, it seems not unreasonable to think the animals on the Paphos amulet were meant to have more or less the same symbolism. But of course there’s no reason to suppose they only symbolized one thing. The bird is so schematic that while it does look rooster-like, I am not convinced that it couldn’t be a falcon, heron (the Bennu phoenix), or even a goose (a symbol of Amun-Ra, but Harpocrates is often shown riding a goose), another bird associated with Harpocrates. The rays around its head do look like some representations of Anguipes, better known as Abraxas. If it is a rooster though, I wonder if that could be a Graeco-Roman addition. Roosters have been associated with the morning in many cultures because of their morning crowing. (Not that they bother to wait until sunrise to crow. They crow whenever they damn well please. Jerks.)

Harpocrates moon star

Finally, we have the crescent moon and star. Sliwa suggests the star is Sirius, indicating an association between rebirth of Horus during the rise of Sirius that coincided with the annual Nile floods. That is of course possible. However, I observed on the gems in the CBMG database that 14% of the Harpocrates amulets had the same crescent moon and star (see image above). But interestingly, in between these was a solar disk on top of Harpocrates’ head. So in these amulets you have the moon, sun, and star(s) all in a row. In the Paphos amulet, the moon and star are slightly displaced, but Harpocrates himself is the sun, so the sun is still between the moon and star. Therefore I think these three have to be read as a suite that represents all the lights of heaven. I don’t know why a sun god is depicted with “nighttime” phenomena like the moon and stars except to say that his influence seemingly spread to all the heavens.

To conclude, yes, the artist of the Paphos amulet wasn’t the most skilled amulet-maker. And maybe they really didn’t understand the details of standard Egyptian iconography, but I think it’s more relevant to the amulet’s history that it was used in a context rather removed from Egypt. To me it looks like the meaning of the solar/resurrection myth has been kept intact and depicted quite thoroughly; but the elements have been even more explicitly tied to the human death/rebirth cycle, perhaps bringing it more into the fold of the Graeco-Roman mysteries. It could be that the artist was copying another amulet, but still none of the meaning was lost. I can only imagine it was used either by a closet pagan–the mysteries had actively been persecuted by Christians for at least a century–or a magician who would have had the occult knowledge to read the text and pictures. So while my interpretation doesn’t differ too greatly from Sliwa’s, I think that familiarity with the WMT and the mystery religions allows us to see it as a really fascinating artifact instead of just a kind of bastardized Egyptian scene.