Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes: Vol. 56 (1993), pp. 25-62
A diverse yet distinctive group of magical amulets has periodically attracted the attention of scholars from Renaissance times to the present. The amulets take many forms, including engraved gems and cameos, enamel pendants, die-struck bronze tokens, cast or engraved pendants of gold, silver, bronze, and lead, and rings of silver and bronze. All share a common motif-an enigmatic representation of a face from which radiates a varying number of serpents-and this device is usually accompanied by a Greek inscription, often abbreviated or blundered, beginning…(‘womb, black, blackening…’). The formula makes explicit that the amulets were meant to aid the ‘hystera’ (womb) in some way, but what is meant by hystera and what sort of aid is intended are in need of clarification. The identification of the image itself, the date and place of origin of the amulets, and the magical tradition to which they belong, are all controversial.
Renaissance scholars correctly viewed the gems of this group as belonging to the Graeco-Roman magical tradition. They associated them with the many gems erroneously termed ‘Basilidian’ or ‘Gnostic’, now viewed as products primarily of the second and third centuries AD, deriving from the syncretistic magical tradition that emerged from Hellenistic Egypt.’ Pirro Ligorio (1513/14-1583), in his unpublished essay on such gems, made a drawing of one which was later to enter the ducal collection in Gotha (no. 54,3 P1. 4g-h, now lost?). Although Ligorio under- stood only a small part of the inscription, he was able to recognise its magical character.