Skull as a banned symbol of Life? Why was it often hidden under the OMO hieroglyph? Fortunio Liceti in his compilation on ring gems unravels the evidence.

Fortunio Liceti OMO hieroglyphicaUnder an ugly image and boring moral teachings, some strange statements wake up the reader from drowsiness. Fortunio Liceti successfully succeeds to give interesting hints while escaping the index of Vatican banned books.

So we have not only a weird construction on a skull, but also the divine and human use of a symbolic wheel, as well as a gestation urn and a red flower bringing to a forbidden dimension. Not to mention a colored butterfly, living for only one day, engaged in unorthodox marriages.

Fortunio Liceti (1577-1657) was an italian philosopher, mathematician, theoretical medicine teacher, scientist, and astronomer. A real fruitful and erudite pen, according to the style of the age. He was not a modern thinker, but was rather tied to Aristotelian ideas, and in fact he is almost known for having written pamphlets against Galileo Galilei.

Fortunio Liceti Hieroglyphica gem 12Towards the end of his life, Liceti wrote “Hieroglyphica sive Antiqua Schemata Gemmarium Anularium” 1657, that’s to say: hieroglyphs collection, or ancient draws of ring gems. Unlike Antonio Cappello’s “Prodromus Iconicus” collections of ancient gnostic gems, which I have presented in my article Gnostic Gems & the Art of Drawing Spirits, Liceti’s seem almost a compilation of weird engravings very likely never carved on ring gems. Anyway, in my opinion, the gems drawings in Liceti’s Hieroglyphica, differently from Cappello’s, can be defined as hermetic, in the sense that interesting and intriguing diagrams, whose meanings might find alchemical issues, are outlined. Gnostic generally relates to knowledge, especially esoteric mystical knowledge. In this sense Liceti’s gems might be defined more “gnostic” than those in Prodromus Iconicus.

Liceti here doesn’t provide too much informations on the gems in his books. We are not told where and how he found them. In the preface he merely says that the fashion to wear ring gems dates back to greatest ancient times and bordered on magic. He adds that these kind of jewels represent an heritage handed down by erudites of every time.

Fortunio Liceti starts his book with a dedication to Christina of Sweden, who was in Rome at the time. An italian author who addressed a book to the former queen of Sweden, was sure to have his books tagged as “hermetic”, or at least as those “curiosities” usually filling a “wunderkammer”, even if no explicit hermetic doctrine could be found. In fact the written part in the book provides little hints, which instead silently speak out from the sketches. But this was very common, and allowed, in seventeenth century. Since images were hardly prosecuted. In this part Liceti writes: “ Hanc ego Spartam, à nemine tentatam, adornare quum adortus fuerim non ita pridem impulsu clarissimorum hominum”, shortly : so I too shall try to “adorn Sparta”, like those great erudites who hid their knowledge in these gems. The sentence “to adorn Sparta” was a kind of a password among the ermeticists of the time to signify they meant to go very deep into the issue. It specifically meant to add metallic gold to be dissolved into Mercurius.

The use of greek and egyptian mythologies, excerpts from Aritotle and Plato and “curious” marks, as esoteric symbolism were defined back then, makes Fortunio Liceti’s Hieroglyphica to be, in my opinion, not so far from other italian authors such as Piero Valeriano, Achille Bocchi and the well-known Cesare Ripa (1).

The engraving we are examining is number twelve on page 158, under the title ” Humana Vita est mors undique mysteriis obsessa, or the human life is death on every aspects surrounded by mysteries. The image is rather plain, if not ugly, and divided into five parts, or objects: a human skull in the center encircled by a six spokes wheel, a poppy, a butterfly and an amphora.

There is a latin motto under the engraving saying: ” Papilio? an ne rota est vitae fugientis image? Urna rogum? lethi fratrem signat ne papaver? obtinuit medium cur quae ultima linea rerum est? The butterfly? or is rather the wheel the fugitive image of life? the urn as sepulcrum? or instead is the poppy to mark Lethe’s brother? does lie in the middle what is the greatest diagram of things? Liceti attributes the sentence to Francesco Gualdi (1574-1657), the author of” Le Memorie Sepolcrali”, or Sepulchral Memories, treatise on the vast heritage of tombstones destroyed during the almost total removal of the old thirteenth and fourteenth centuries tombstones from the churches of Rome, during the first half of the seventeenth century. Gualdi tried in vain to stop the demolition because of which Rome lost almost all the rich medieval iconographies replacing them with the Baroque.

fortunio liceti hieroglyphica page 160As I said above, more than often the written part of seventeenth century illustrated books were quite disappointing as for the explication of the clueing images they contain. In fact Fortunio Liceti starts lacking on originality about our life caducity, according to him so well represented by wheels and butterflies movements. The poppy flower would so easily stand for our mortal falling asleep, and what’s better than an urn as our last receptacle? I spare you all his sad, and obvious, considerations on the fate to which no one can escape. Till he arrives to an interesting Dante Alighieri’s verse: “Parean l’occhiaia anella senza gemme, chi nel viso degli homini legge OMO, ben hauria quivi conosciuto l’emme”, or the eyes seemed rings without gems, he who in human faces can read OMO, well has here recognized the M. Middle aged italians ( like me) should have heard from more aged people ( my grand mother, for instance) that idiomatic motto representing someone who had find a clue: “He/she has found the M”. And we children understood that he/she has solved the mystery. In fact we soon asked how the solution was. In the Dante’s verse we have a mystery (M) and the clue (OMO). Now……they are the same thing, they represent the same part of the human skull. Mystery and clue at the same time.

Cristoforo Landino, a renaissance man of letters and fine Dante’s commenter, gives us an explication: “they say that, in the human face, ears and nose make a M, while the eyes combine two Os, in the form O O, which they call OMO. So the poet wants to prove that the man he met was so slim to have a face like a skull”. One would ask where is the arcane here, since the skull in the ring gem image is already a very easy to recognize cranial box.

Liceti’s presentation of the other symbols is rather strange, at some extent very unusual. He starts with the butterfly which, according to him is a symbol of our body’s life ephemeral brevity, opposed to the long-lasting of our Soul’s life. He quotes a well-known verse from Genesis where God forbids Adam to eat from “de ligno scientia boni et mali” or from the wood science of good and evil, in the case he will “morte morieris” , or he will fade in the death. And we know how the story went: Adam and Eve did eat the forbidden fruit (Genesis never really mention a fruit, but something from wood) . Why does Liceti quote this sentence? To apparently give an historical reason for human death, pointing at Adam as the first mortal man? And furthermore, why he doesn’t mention Eve? Liceti limits himself to tell us that, from that moment on, Soul and body get separated. And that condition was defined as Death. From Adam’s guilt, and here Liceti quotes Plato, the body is Soul’s sepulcrum, and Soul and body are bound to live two different lives. There is a very strange quotatiom from Aristotle: “Omnes morimur et quasi aqua dilabimur in terram, qua non revertuntur”, or we all are going to die and reduced to a kind of water we degenerate in earth, which doesn’t come back. Usually a cadaver has the tendency to become liquid when decomposing, not the opposite. The whole description, of a decay from water to earth, from liquid to dry, to remain an eternal stone-like, has so many similitudes with our Opus Magnum, or Great Alchemical Work. From Mercurius/Water we achieve Sulphur/Earth in an eternal dry body. Never see a corpse to follow an alchemical going on, but rather a decomposing decay from dry to liquid to a complete dissipation.

fortunio liceti hieroglyphica page 158Then Liceti quotes Albertus Magnus: ” butterflies are multicolored flying worms, but surely they are purple, white and sometimes hyacinth, nevertheless they always turn into red. In autumn they gather to match, the male dies after coitum, then one becomes female and get married with a simile.” Really astonishing the similitude with our Opus Magnum, where the metallic male gets dissolved in Mercurius to become another Mercurius, so a female, to then be joined in a vessel with another female in what we call a double Mercurius, or Duplicatus (2). Then, from white, the couple turns red passing various colors, and end up as red (3). We know that Christina of Sweden ran, or better had some alchemists to run for her, an alchemical laboratory. We understand that the dedication of Liceti was not a daring chance occurrence.

The butterfly , according to Liceti, is also “UNIUS DIEI VITA”, as he uses all capital letters and a dedicated line for an apparently extremely important sentence : our butterfly lives the space of a day. Who, or what, does actually take the space of a day? Since butterflies usually live more than a day. And why to point for  that being of the utmost importance? Definitely this butterfly is not an insect. In hermeticism a butterfly stands for a Soul. For instance the mythological Psyche was sometimes represented as a butterfly (4). There has been another capitalized sentence above, when talking of human mortal condition: “Infelix ego homo; quis me liberabit CORPORE MORTIS HUIUS?” How sad I human being, what help me to get rid of this cadaveric body? What is Liceti talking about here, since just a few lines above he has complained  about the caducity of human life, that’s to say of the body’s caducity? And why does he use a neutral “what” and not a divine “Who” to help him out? Does he rather mean a substance (5)?

Liceti passes then to examine the poppy flower as a symbol of falling in a mortal sleep, in fact this flower was said to be a sleeping drug. We know that italian hermetic poems, like Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, for instance, or even Dante’s Divina Comedia, used often the formula of the entrance in a dreaming setting, when dealing with Souls and Spirit extracted from bodies issue. A dream is a life in a world other than our temporal dimension (6).

The wheel is initially treated as a symbol of the human fate. But at a certain point Liceti starts to explore astronomical wheels. I can’t but try a paraphrases of the original, since the philosophical latin is pretty difficult. So: those who lend to a six spokes fortune wheel must know this is to be operated by gods, and then by the inferior beings. Because an eight spokes wheel, with its quadrants,  deals with sky conditions, as Valerianus rightly pointed. Furthermore a quote from Aristotle:nulla lationem possibile est esse, qua non ordinetur ad lationem stella”, or no imput is possible to be, which is not ordered by a star (7). What Liceti and Valerianus call the divine six-spokes “Fortune Wheel” takes in Alchemy a different sacred meaning than in tarots: it usually stands for our Secret Fire and all its operations (8).

fortunio liceti hieroglyphica page 164In the end the sepulchral urn, where our actions come to an end. But this tumulus is strangely described as a womb. From Aristotle: “de utero, in quo semimortus iacet veluti somno sopitus homo, inter esse et non esse consistens …about the womb, in which a human being lulled to lie as half dead, between to be and not to be. So an urn might be a generating womb, not a sepulcher. That’s to say a place where an embryo is ready to a new life. It starts to be clear that all the symbols surrounded the skull are tools to prepare it to a new life. Those who are familiar to this site know about the alchemical belief to extract the spirit of life/Mercurius and the Soul/Sulphur from a metal, as well as from a human. To form a new perfect body (9).

Now we have understood why Liceti has mentioned only Adam and not Eve: because Adam is the hermetic allegory of our red Earth, from which God formed the first human being. Adam, indeed. Which means red earth, indeed. Adam is our Soul, our perfect red Sulphur. Not so difficult to accept in the case of a metal. In fact sometimes a human skull merely indicates a metallic red Sulphur. But what about a human being? I have always said that If I knew those proceedings, I would not run a site. But I want to end resuming the first question: one would ask where is the arcane here, since the skull in the ring gem image is already a very easy to recognize cranial box. So what is the above mentioned OMO diagram for? Apparently it points at a precise area in our skull, the zone between the eyes. And apparently this is involved with our immortal practices. And here I retake the paragraph on wheels: only in determinate and precise periods of the year.

But, what does it take the space of one day?

  1. Cesare Ripa & the Hot Frozen Ouroboros World Machine , Cesare Ripa & the Two Canons of Beauty and Cesare Ripa: Wheels, Spindles and Celestial Pointers ;
  2. See also Atalanta Fugiens and Mercurius Duplicatus , Atalanta Fugiens and the Golden Apples ;
  3. See also Kamala Jnana, Introduction to a Live Secret ;
  4. See Eros, Psyche and a New Alchemical Body ;
  5. See also Dionysus, Universal Dissolvent and Kykeon , Ripley Scroll/ the Soul Drinks only Blood ;
  6. See also Ouspensky & Time out of Matter , Aiòn, Light & Spirals of Immortality ;
  7. See also Trisulti Carthusian Monastery and the Yearbook Wheel , Fulcanelli and External Conditions;
  8. See also Heiligen Dreifaltigkeit and Secret Iconography of the Wheel ;
  9. See also Michelangelo and the Mumia-Skin in last Judgement , Holbein Dead Christ Builds his Grave