Greek Magic

Tantalus amulets: Image, word and body

In today’s blog post, we are going to take a break from Coptic sources, and we will focus on Greek magical gemstones. Several thousand engraved magical gemstones have been discovered, with the peak of production in the second and third centuries CE, although they had already been in use for centuries by that time, and would continue to be used for hundreds of years after. Although their origin is generally unknown, it is assumed that they were produced somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean area; they combine Egyptian and Greek elements, together with Hebrew or Babylonian influences. The script is generally Greek, but the deities or symbols depicted are often Egyptian – thus, we see Isis, Horus or Osiris on many of these, alongside Mars/Ares and the Hebrew Iao. The gemstones are generally only a few centimetres in width and height, and they were often set into rings or pendants.

We will look at one particular type of these amulets, the so-called “Tantalus amulets”; these are nine amulets which share several common features. The most obvious one is their materiality; they are made of hematite, a reddish stone commonly associated with blood in antiquity. Their recto and verso sides were clearly differentiated: the recto was probably supposed to be visible, especially when made into a ring or pendant. There are several ways to tell which side is which; for example the higher quality of the recto compared to the lower quality of the verso (see Faraone 2009, p. 258). While the verso was probably hidden, it also contained an inscribed image and writing. I have chosen here one amulet of this type as a representative example, referred to by Christopher Faraone as “Festugière (1961) 287 f. no. 1”.

The production of the gems seems to have been standardized. The process by which the gem was created was threefold, according to Nagy and Michel: first, a design was prepared by a “magician”, then the images were carved by a sculptor, and finally the gem was activated by the magician so it would become effective. The magical gems have a clear relationship to the corpus of Greek Magical Papyri (Papyri Graecae Magicae  or PGM), though not directly. Vitellozzi concludes that “most of the motifs that occur on gems are never mentioned in the surviving texts (…) it seems clear that most of our gems were not made according to the instructions in the papyri, but were certainly made following some instructions.” (Vitellozzi 2018, 181-183).

Tantalus magical gem CBd-754. Photo: Christopher A. Faraone
Rights© Trustees of the British Museum Campbell-Bonner Magical Gems Database

Body, Time and Space

The key to understanding the function of amulets is to understand their temporality and spatiality in relation to the body. As amulets – at least the ones made of various stones or metals ­– were made to last, they were simply not a remedy used only once. The object would literally be attached to oneself, and was supposed to be an extension of something within one’s body that was either missing or not working in a satisfactory manner over the long term. If the function of the amulet was protective (warding off evil etc.), it primarily “acted” on the bodily boundaries, and even outside of them, as the iconography suggests, and as we shall see. In addition, different gems were used on specific parts of the body; putting an amulet of different parts of the body had a logic, in academic literature referred to as “corporeal geography”. Simply put, the amulet was a liminal object (neither completely detached from the body, nor an inherent part of the body), whose purpose is precisely to guard the bodily boundaries. The amulet’s function was to keep out of the body what was unwanted and to keep the inside of the body in a harmonious state.

The Outside: Warrior-figure and Disappearing Text

Let’s now proceed to the interpretation of what is carved on the “Tantalus amulets”, starting with the recto, or the “visible” side. Seven of the amulets have an image of a soldier, with a helmet, shield and spear, sometimes wearing a cape. This figure has been interpreted as a warrior figure, as Ares/Mars, or as Tantalus himself. If we compare the warrior-figure to other amulets from this time and place depicting warriors, there are only a few in the Campbell Bonner Database outside the Tantalus gems. Most importantly CBd 756 and CBd 757 depict a warrior figure in the same manner, and this is without a doubt Ares, because the text on them explicitly name him: “Ares, cut the pain in the liver” in CBd 756 (Ἄρης ἔτεμεν τοῦ ἥπατος τὸν πόνο<ν>). The verb temnō (τέμνω) evokes aggressive cutting or cutting off – hence the association with an aggressive deity.

To be able to correctly interpret this amulet, one would have to understand how the liver was understood in contemporary medicine. The second century CE physician Galen seemed to think that liver was the organ in which blood originated and from which it was transported throughout the body. In this case, it will suffice to state that Ares is seen as a figure able to “cut the pain”, kill the pain, effectively neutralize it, separating the “good/healthy” (liver) from the “bad” (pain/disease). The pain is the object of Ares’ aggression and the amulet as a whole is the liminal token of Ares’ aggression towards pain – freeing the liver from pain. A surplus of blood in the body was considered unwanted and harmful, for both men and women.

On the left side of the “Tantalus amulets”, next to the warrior-figure is a phrase ΔΙΨΑΣ ΤΑΝΤΑΛΕ ΑΙΜΑ ΠΙΕ, translated by Festugière as “Are you thirsty, Tantalus? Drink blood!” (“Tu as soif, Tantale? Bois du sang!”), which is the most accepted translation. This text is written in an unusual manner, in a wing-like formation, or inverted triangle (also known as a ‘Schwindeschema’ or ‘disappearing-pattern’). This command clearly refers to the mythological character Tantalus, who is described in the Odyssey by Odysseus, who saw Tantalus in Hades (Hom. Od. 11.567, 580-590):

“I saw Tantalus in violent torment, standing in a pool, and the water came nigh unto his chin. He seemed as one athirst, but could not take and drink; for as often as that old man stooped down, eager to drink, so often would the water be swallowed up and vanish away, and at his feet the black earth would appear, for some god made all dry.” (Homer. The Odyssey with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, PH.D. in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1919)

Tantalus has an abundance of what he is lacking, that is water, but as soon as he acts to use this abundance, it disappears. We should understand this story as a puzzle, always containing a contradiction. Tantalus is trapped in an eternal loop. This story hints that the owner of the amulet was also trapped in a loop and this loop needed to be cut – this would be the role of the warrior and of the disappearing wing-text. The the command should be separated from its form; the disappearance of the text evokes the wished-for vanishing of the sickness, while the text of the command as such serves the purpose of performing the command (Faraone has previously explained the disappearance of the text as the disappearance of the command to drink blood, leading to a stimulation of blood production. This, however, goes against how “Tantalus textual amulets” are usually used. See Faraone 2009) The “magic” must act against the negative force causing the loop. A firm resolution is required. But of what?

We have now dealt with the visible or “public” face of the amulet, which, as we have seen in the previous paragraph, deals with matters that happen outside of the body. It could be said that the recto of the amulet has to do with warding off evil. First, the outside circumstances need to change for the wearer’ body to be healed. That happens on the “hidden”, inner side of the amulet, which we will examine at once.

Feminine Body: Base as legs, snakes instead of hands, sun as the head and uterus as the belly

The verso of the “Tantalus” amulets bears several common traits; around the central image appear the following names, in different variations: Iaō, Sabaōth, Adōnai and Thadōath.  On one version (Festugière (1961) plate I), there is a text on top saying: “ὁ κύριος ὁ ἀπόκρυφος ἰάσε<ται> τὰ ἀπόκρυφα”, which Faraone translates as “The hidden lord will heal the hidden things.”  In this case, I would argue that “the hidden god” refers to the Jewish god and the “hidden things” the womb, as Faraone states as well. Again, this is a reinforcement of the thesis that what happens on the verso of the gem concerns “hidden” things. Beside the text, which gives us a “anchorage” of the meaning of the image, the gems have an image of the womb in the centre. The womb is either represented as a leather sack (resembling Italo Etruscan terracotta ex-votos from the 4th-2nd centuries BC) or as a jar. Beneath it is in several cases an object, described often as an altar and two snakes appear on both sides of the depiction of the uterus.

Clay-baked uterine Roman votive figure. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images.

But is it really an altar? Before we answer this question, we must look at how a healthy woman’s body was understood. According to various sources, the uterus was considered to be capable of wandering around the female body; the search for liquid caused it to travel through the body in this way, according to Hippocrates. There are various sources confirming the idea of the wandering uterus, across different time periods – Hippocrates, Plato or Aretaeus of Cappadocia (1st century CE), Soranus of Ephesus (1st-2nd century CE) and Galen of Pergamon (2nd-3rd century CE) all mention the notion. Hippocratic ideas were still around during the 3rd century CE, when the magical gems might have been produced. Hippocrates’ treatises Diseases of Women I and II were translated to Latin (or “adapted”, according to Totelin) as late as in the 6th century CE. There is even a chance that these ideas influenced medieval medicine.

Now, what is represented under the uterus? Alan R. Schulman compared what may be a birth scene from Memphis with images from Deir el-Medina; both represent a nursing woman sitting on a “jarstand-like seat”. Schulman describes it as an unusual type of chair, appearing mostly in scenes “connected to the birthing arbor”, as he shows in the article. Its shape is very similar to the shape of the “base” we have on the gemstones.

To strengthen this connection, I will turn to a spell from the PGM (PGM VII 260-271) urging the wandering uterus to return to its place – which, I argue, is also the purpose of the amulet:

“I adjure you, womb, <by the one> established over the abyss, before heaven, earth, sea, light or darkness came to be, who created the angels, foremost of whom is Amichamchou and chouchaō cherōei ouiachō odou proseiogges, and who sits over the Cherubim, who bears his throne: return again to your seat and do not lean into the right part of the ribs nor the left part of the ribs (…). (see Faraone, New Light, 1985).

The spell urges the womb to “return” to its seat, by a divine power. Could this be happening in the case of the gemstone as well? This might be an explanation of why the divine names appear around the womb, they ensure that the womb will stay fixed. In the PGM spell, the womb is urged to return to its seat. This seat is perhaps represented on the gemstones. In Egyptian tradition, women may have sat on a jarstand-like stool after giving birth, as was argued by Schulman.

The order in the PGM spell “do not lean into the right part of the ribs nor the left part of the ribs” could be secured by the two snakes depicted next to the womb. They might be on one hand good guardians, on the other representations of the power of the spell holing the womb in its place. The association with hands cannot be ignored – if we accept that this image is supposed to represent a stylized woman, we need to turn to analogical images. Images of anthropomorphic figures holding snakes in both hands are very common, on magical gems, in Egyptian iconography and even in Greek thought. I argue that their role here is apotropaic; they are beneficial, although (or therefore) extremely dangerous – they create boundaries of the body, but they themselves are “scary” so they on one hand “scare off” the womb from moving, on the other they protect the body from the outside. It makes sense that it is an ambivalent figure that would be making sure the bodily boundaries are protected.

To sum up, on the verso we have a stylized female figure, which is represented by the “magical” elements which on one hand express what is to be achieved by the gem and on the other by representing this, they achieve it. The woman’s healthy womb, not wandering, seated firmly “on a seat” in her body, protected by snakes, apotropaic figures. The womb is identified with the god, which is also seated and, of course, healthy and harmonious. The outer side expresses the protection of the body from external dangers and the hidden expresses the fixing of the uterus in the body.

The final piece of the puzzle is the materiality of the amulet; the blood-red stone haematite is often used in amulets which aim to control bleeding. At this stage, we need to look at parallel medical texts from the Egyptian and Greek contexts. The idea of surplus or lack of menstrual blood (which was also the nursing of the child in the womb) was a crucial one for the health of women. On some occasions, a surplus was required (menstrual blood should flow out of the body), and on others feared (a loss of blood during pregnancy). This is a loop in which the woman is trapped. The woman wants to be in control unlike Tantalus; the warrior figure symbolizes this control.

In conclusion, the “Tantalus amulet” might have been aimed at drying surplus humidity in the body – most obviously excess blood from a woman’s uterus. But as Véronique Dasen has shown, even amulets which have a depiction of a uterus might be not only for women, but for men as well. Considering the depiction on the verso, the amulet would seem to be targeted at women and at the anchoring of the uterus in the right place, but it could have been targeted to both genders, as an amulet designed to draw out surplus blood from the body. Michel has even suggested that similar amulets could act on other ailments which produced excess humidity in other organs – the stomach, or the belly in general – which might be believed to be caused by, or the cause of, different diseases.

Further reading and bibliography

Dasen, Véronique. Le sourire d’Omphale: maternité et petite enfance dans l’Antiquité. Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2015.

Faraone, Christopher. “New Light on Ancient Greek Exorcisms of the Wandering Womb.” Zeitschrift Für Papyrologie Und Epigraphik 144 (2003): 189–197. URL

Faraone, Christopher. “Does Tantalus Drink the Blood, or Not?: An Enigmatic Series of Inscribed Hematite Gemstones.” In U. Deli and C. Walde (eds.). Antike Mythen: Medien, Transformationen und Konstruktionen, Berlin 2009. 248–273. URL

Festugière, André-Jean. “Pierres magiques de la Collection Kofler (Lucerne).” Mélanges Univ. St. Joseph. Beyrouth 37.17 (1961): 287–293.

Homer. The Odyssey with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, PH.D. in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press. London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1919. URL

Michel, Simone. Die Magischen Gemmen. Zu Bildern und Zauberformeln auf geschnittenen Steinen der Antike und Neuzeit. Berline: De Gruyter, 2004.

Nagy, Árpád M. “Daktylios pharmakites. Magical Healing Gems and Rings in the Graeco-Roman World”, in: Ildikó Csepregi and Charles Burnett (eds.). Ritual Healing: Magic, Ritual and Medical Therapy from Antiquity until the Early Modern Period (Micrologus’ Library vol. 48). Florence: Sismel, 2012, 71–76. URL

Totelin, Laurence. “Old Recipes, New Practice? The Latin Adaptations of the Hippocratic Gynaecological Treatises.” Social History of Medicine 24.1 (2001): 74–91. URL

Vitellozzi, Paolo. “Relations Between Magical Texts and Magical Gems. Recent Perspectives.” In Bild und Schrift auf ‘magischen’ Artefakten. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2018, 181–254. URL

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