On the evolution of unicorns

I haven’t posted much lately because there’s been a lot going on, but it’s mostly internal stuff which is terribly interesting to me and terribly irrelevant to everyone else. I guess you could say I’ve been navel-gazing, and I didn’t want to subject everyone to the slides from that vacation. I half-jest, but seriously, it’s also that so much of this stuff is inexpressible, and some of it even feels like it benefits from secrecy while it gestates. You all know what I’m talking about. But there are a number of thinks that may develop into posts in time, if the assays pan out.

I came here, to my family’s little corner of Appalachia, a little over a year ago now, and I laugh now to think of my plans for my future back then (best left unsaid as they are embarrassing). It all made perfect sense, logically, and I thought I had some idea of what I wanted. That might sound like no big deal but having spent my life up until late 2015 always doing what others wanted, I am only beginning to have a sense of the boundaries between my own interests and those of others. Well, I was still way short of the goal there. Anyway, shortly after I got here it became obvious that spirits had other plans. I wasn’t ready to start a new life yet, because I still had to process the end of the old one. Also I had some remedial education to go through. My ancestors ensured that I got a safe place to land and cocoon, and I have been able to forge stronger communication with them as well as reconnecting with a culture integral to my family’s experience and values. My inner power has been building though I don’t know what that means or what to do with it. That I have made friends and had fun here has been gravy.

So it’s bittersweet for me that my ancestors are now making it clear they are going to push me out of the nest soon. Economic opportunities here are severely limited, so I’ll have to leave. I mean, I don’t maintain a luxurious standard of living, but I got bills to pay. On the positive side, this will mean I get to go overseas again, that being where I stand the best chance of improving my circumstances–something my ancestors get really excited about–but I am going to miss this place and these people, the waters and the ghosts. It’s also damn difficult because while I am getting tons of synchronicities and lots of spectacular bird omens, and the helping spirits are all thumbs up, I have no idea what I am doing. There is no guiding purpose or goal here because defining one would require a better understanding of what I want. (The curse of the phlegmatic. You see why I don’t do much practical magic now, right?) Sometimes just putting one foot in front of the other is enough, of course, and I’m used to being a rambler; funnily enough the little direction I’ve been given actually confuses things more than clarifies because the intermediate steps all seem to lead in the opposite direction. Well, they don’t call it a crooked path for nothing.

Alpaca posse, assemble! We’re hitting the road.

Anyway. Something I thought might be of interest to some:

Because of reasons, I found myself having to do some research into the mythos of the unicorn. “Mythos” is maybe a bit of a stretch, since there isn’t much of a mythology when it comes to unicorns–more of a symbol set, really. What struck me, though, is that it is pretty obvious the European unicorn evolved/derived from the Chinese qilin, yet The Internet seems determined to disavow this. The obvious caveat: Of course I know the internet is not a good place to do research on anything, but it can serve as a sort of bibliography and lead you to better places. Also, I’m busy and lazy. My research is only at the beginning, and doesn’t necessarily need to go too deep–that remains to be seen–and I am certain I cannot be the first person to make this connection. But what surprises me is that this little corner of Eurasian myth apparently hasn’t been given the common-knowledge treatment yet.

Unicorn from The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents by Edward Topsell (1658) (Wikimedia Commons). Note all the extra hair on the shoulders, fetlocks, and chin, cloven hooves, and tufted tail.

It’s true there are significant differences in appearance between modern depictions of qilin and unicorns; but the historical evidence, while circumstantial, is pretty darned suggestive. Consider:

  • The first (surviving) written Chinese record of the qilin and the first more or less European (Graeco-Persian) account of unicorns are approximately contemporaneous–5th century BC. That makes it possible for the European account to be derived from the Chinese (assuming that the qilin existed in Chinese oral lore before being written about).
  • That first European account of unicorns is in Ctesias’ Indica (“On India”), which was more or less a natural history based on the accounts of Silk Roads travelers in Persia. The eastern hub of the Silk Roads was, of course, China–but to the Greeks, India was the eastern edge of the known world. It seems reasonable to suppose that the Subcontinent and everything east of it was basically “India” from the Greek point of view, and thus a Chinese creature might be understood as Indian, which is what Ctesias said of the unicorn.
  • Although qilin and unicorns have followed separate trajectories since the 5th century BC, and settled into familiar forms which are quite different today (people of a certain age may remember the plethora of folders and Trapper Keepers with airbrush unicorn pictures on them back in the ’80s…pretty sure I collected them all), there is a great deal of overlap in their earlier forms: Older (e.g., medieval) depictions of the unicorn show it with a deer-like body, horse-like head, tufted tail like a lion or ox. The hooves are sometimes cloven, sometimes horse-like, and sometimes it has a goat-like beard and/or feathery hair on the fetlocks and shoulders. Ctesias described it as a type of wild ass, as large as or larger than a horse, with a white body, red head, and blue eyes, and of course a single horn. The qilin was described differently by time and region (here is an assortment of images), but among its recognized variants were a deer-like body, cloven or horse-like hooves, a tufted tail, and a single horn. It is often depicted with flames emerging from around its shoulders, and sometimes with a goaty beard and hairy fetlocks. The main consistent differences between the two is the shape of the head (horse-like in the unicorn and dragon-like in the qilin)–although these are not entirely dissimilar in overall shape–and the color (generally white in the unicorn since the Middle Ages, and variable in the qilin). The all-white color of unicorns presumably came to be emphasized as part of its symbol set related to purity.
  • The European unicorn is symbolically associated first and foremost with purity (hence virgins), and deriving from that, healing. It is generally described as gentle and elusive, but extremely wild and pretty much impossible to capture. It is fierce only in defense of its freedom (hence its use as the symbol of Scotland). The qilin is described as an exceedingly gentle and peaceful creature, but one which is fierce in the defense of justice. It too is elusive and impossible to catch. Both are often used as symbols of forests and wilderness.

I see no reason there couldn’t be an even earlier origin for a unicorn-like creature in Indian myth, but if so it went through China before reaching Europe. I don’t find the argument that the Indus Valley Culture seals represent unicorns terribly persuasive. Maybe the representation is of a one-horned magical form of bull (elsewhere two-horned animals are shown with both horns, after all), but it is still clearly a bovine; and while it’s possible the unicorn as we know it could have evolved from a very ancient bovine prototype, there are so many more similarities to the qilin that the Chinese connection mustn’t be dismissed. I’m also not convinced by the argument that the unicorn derives from the accounts of travelers who saw oryxes in profile. I mean, are we really to believe that multiple travelers never saw an oryx turn its head even a tiny bit? The qilin connection is way more parsimonious than this oryx nonsense.

Not surprisingly, the European end of the Silk Roads has tended to way downplay the influence of the Asian end. We are determined to be the core and make them the periphery. Temperate Eurasia (that is, Eurasia minus the arctic or tropical parts) is basically one giant prairie, with horses, rivers, and wheels allowing for rapid and efficient transit; trans-Eurasian contact has been the norm since at least the Bronze Age. And It doesn’t take a Marco Polo traveling the breadth of the entire supercontinent* to share myths, it just takes interlinked trade networks. So as far as I can tell there is no valid reason to think the unicorn couldn’t have evolved from the qilin and yet over and over again I read how they are in no way related.

Anyway, personally it doesn’t change much for me to know that unicorns and qilin are related, except it makes me wonder what other connections we might be missing. It also gets me thinking why the unicorn caught the European (or Graeco-Persian) imagination the way it did, not only being carried across Eurasia but remaining/becoming an extremely potent symbol in the process. For me the connection, or communication, came through the symbolic vectors of healing and childhood. And finally it makes me curious what further evolution of the unicorn/qilin we may yet see.

*Although there clearly were such people: https://theheritagetrust.wordpress.com/2016/09/23/east-asian-skeletons-found-in-a-londinium-cemetery/

Addendum to thoughts on “Celtic” paganism: text, ontology, epistemology, theology

Verbena officinalis
Verbena officinalis

So I wrote my last post before reading Io’s latest over at Disrupt & Repair, and it turns out that he made some points that are directly relevant to the questions I closed with, and that led to some new thoughts.

Io says:

“The weird/wyrd/almost fortean side of all this is that these ‘wrong’ names sometimes get responses from spirit and become functional parts of the living ritual world (probably no accident Dianteill stumbled across theis multiplication through Eleggua), though often at the cost of obscuring the conceptual order that animated the original. It’s always hard to tell when that’s a big problem (deceiving spirits [whatever that means!], etc.), just evolution (variation and selection) in action around our interface with the others, or something else entirely. This is one of the big reasons why I hedge around (2) problems usually being toxic; they can be generative, too.

“I don’t think there is an easy way to figure out when the error is just an error or when it turns productive….I will say that I think it [I think ‘it’ refers to plain ol’ error] becomes more likely when the textual exchanges happen outside of the dialogue that grounds a tradition alongside others.”

This “wrong name getting a response from spirit” is evidently what has happened with Elen of the Ways as I described in my post. And that can indeed be viewed as a case where the “mistake” was generative rather than toxic. Also, it’s not like this is something that has only happened in modern times; who can say how much theology is the result of this kind of process? We already know that we don’t fully understand what goes on in the spirit world, so if such “errors” result in mutually beneficial interactions, then from a practical point of view, maybe no harm no foul.

I couldn’t help but think of the evolution of Van-Van oil in this context. “Van-Van” refers to vervain (Verbena sp.), which is a medicinal and sacred plant from Europe. In New Orleans, the magical connotations of vervain were transferred to lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora), which was more readily available than vervain. These plants are not closely related; both belong to the very large mint family–Order Lamiales*–but lemon verbena is native to South America. The transfer of vervain’s magical properties was textual, hinging entirely on the word “verbena.” And yet, Van-Van has been working for over a century now, and its lemony-ness has even been enhanced by blending with plants such as lemongrass, taking it ever further away from the original inspiration and context without reducing its effectiveness (or, presumably, compromising the effectiveness of vervain).

In my studies of herb lore, I have seen the same thing happening whereby the traditional magical and symbolic associations of myrtle (Myrtus sp.) are being transferred to crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia sp.), which is native to Asia but commonly used in landscaping in the U.S. and thus more easily acquired here than true myrtle is. Again, both these plants belong to the same phylogenetic order but are not closely related. It remains to be seen whether the textual confusion will work in terms of practical magic. If you try it, let me know.

Although we are talking specifically about textual transfers/confusion here, analogical transference in general is basically how magic works. The part stands for the whole; the image stands for what it represents; metaphors, symbols, analogies. Maybe that is why these textual “errors” are turning out to be so fruitful in practical usage.

An article that may be of interest, good to think with, is Nicholas Saunders’ “A Dark Light: Reflections on Obsidian in Mesoamerica” (World Archaeology Vol. 33, No. 2, 2001, pp. 220-236). Unfortunately you’ll need access to a library with a subscription to the journal, or you’ll have to pay for it–I know, bummer. I don’t think I have a pdf of it anymore, but if you really want it, email me and I will see if I can hook you up. Anyway, Saunders actually has a number of articles on shiny types of material–stones, seashells, feathers, minerals, etc.–and how they relate to Mesoamerican cosmology. In the article on obsidian, Saunders shows–I think convincingly–how obsidian was linked to places, creatures, and other types of material through analogical connections. For example: Obsidian is volcanic, and being found around volcanoes it became linked with them and with caves near the volcanoes. It is dark and so linked to the darkness of those underground caves. It is reflective, linking it with water. It was used to make mirrors, which were in turn linked with the reflective eyes of jaguars. The jaguars’ glowing eyes were believed to demonstrate their magically powerful vision, which could be achieved by shamans. And so obsidian was linked with preternatural vision. The predatory power of jaguars was claimed by Mesoamerican elites–both shamans as spiritual elites and rulers as political elites, though these categories completely overlapped–and so obsidian was a precious and sacred material connected with rulership, and moreover obsidian had its own agency. The god associated with both obsidian and rulership was Tezcatlipoca, “Lord of the Smoking Mirror,” who was represented by an obsidian sacrificial knife. Anyway the list goes on and on but the point is that in Mesoamerican ontology, you had a shared materiality, a shared nature, that connected the underworld/underground, night, shamans, jaguars, magical/spiritual vision, sacrifice, and more. That entire ontological circuit could be mobilized through magic enacted at any one point.

Just as–perhaps?–all forms of journeying can now be presided over by the ancestral spirit of a 4th-century Romano-British woman invoked as a Palaeolithic reindeer shamaness-goddess. And who knows? Maybe this “error” was being inspired or guided from the Other side.

But in my previous post I argued that we need to develop more rigorous epistemology. I don’t see any problem with analogical transference in magic or theology per se, but might we not at least aim to do this with intention rather than through carelessness? It seems to me the need to ground theologies, ontologies, magical practices in context is all the greater today because widespread literacy, the publishing industry, and the internet make the replication of any errors–and some of these will inevitably be, to use Io’s word, “toxic”–exponentially greater than it was at any other point in our history**. Unintentional, careless reproduction of spiritual/magical BS is kind of like opening up a party line where you don’t know, or evidently, care, who is on the Other end. What is the freaking point of that? Even worse, in a day and age when sheer volume grants authenticity and authority–all wrapped up and conveniently deposited in your news feed by an algorithm–reiteration of these errors has a tendency to fossilize them:

“Theology becomes deeply entangled with epistemology and ontology, the texts are treated with increasing literalism and their fluid esoteric dimensions supressed in favor of exoteric stability.”

The more we see it, the more we believe it. Worse yet, the more we see it, the less we see of other things. And if you find yourself trying to work with/worship what turns out to be a mere dried-up husk, how will you then find your way back to the vitality of the original vervain?

P.S. I have decided I don’t even like the terms god and goddess anymore. The more I think about them, the less I’m sure what they mean. Maybe I should move to using something akin to the Egyptian neter or Japanese kami. In trying to get away from forcing a Graeco-Roman model onto all other forms of spirit the last thing I want to do is arbitrarily impose some other equally foreign model. But the English language and hegemonic Christian theology are really hampering my ability to communicate here.

*To put this biological relationship in a more familiar context, humans belong to the Order Primates along with apes, monkeys, lemurs, tarsiers, lorises, bushbabies, etc. In phylogenetic terms, the relationship of vervain to lemon verbena is about like our relationship to a spider monkey. (However, I have no idea how much or how little genetic similarity that entails.)

**I say the same, incidentally, about the woeful loss of language skills these days. “Languages evolve” is no excuse for not understanding the mechanics of your own language and how to coherently express ideas using it.

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 academia.edu 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.