Is the skull 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.
Under an ugly image and boring moral teachings, some strange statements wake the reader from drowsiness. Fortunio Liceti successfully gives interesting hints while escaping the index of Vatican-banned books.
So we have a weird construction on a skull and the divine and human use of a symbolic wheel, 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. He was not a modern thinker but was instead tied to Aristotelian ideas, and in fact, he is almost known for having written pamphlets against Galileo Galilei. A fruitful and erudite pen, according to the style of the age.
Towards the end of his life, Liceti wrote “Hieroglyphica sive Antiqua Schemata Gemmarium Anularium” in 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 seems 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 exciting and intriguing diagrams, whose meanings might find alchemical issues, are outlined. Gnosticism generally relates to knowledge, incredibly esoteric mystical knowledge. In this sense, Liceti’s gems might be defined as more “gnostic” than those in Prodromus Iconicus.
Liceti here doesn’t provide too much information 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 of wearing ring gems dates back to the most extraordinary ancient times and bordered on magic. He adds that these kinds of jewels represent a heritage handed down by erudite every time.
Fortunio Liceti starts his book with a dedication to Christina of Sweden, who was in Rome then. 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. The written part of the book provides little hints, which silently speak out from the sketches. But this was very common and allowed in the 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 tremendous erudite who hid their knowledge in these gems. The sentence “to adorn Sparta” was a kind of password among the hermeticism 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 Aristotle and Plato, and “curious” marks, as esoteric symbolism was defined back then, makes Fortunio Liceti’s Hieroglyphica, 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 in every aspect 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 the wheel the very 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, a 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.
As I said above, more often than the written part of seventeenth-century illustrated books was quite disappointing for the explication of the clueing images they contain. Fortunio Liceti starts lacking originality about our life caducity, according to him, so well represented by wheels and butterfly 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 at 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 should have heard from more aged people that idiomatic motto representing someone who had to find a clue: “He/she has found the M”. And we children understood that he/she had solved the mystery. We soon asked what the solution was. We have a mystery (M) and a clue (OMO) in Dante’s verse. Now… they are the same thing, simultaneously representing the same part of the human skull: mystery and a clue.
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 an 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 the arcane is here since the skull in the ring gem image is already very easy to recognize cranial box.
Liceti’s presentation of the other symbols is rather strange, to some extent, very unusual. He starts with the butterfly, which, according to him, symbolizes our body’s ephemeral brevity, as 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 ate the forbidden fruit (Genesis never mentioned a fruit, but something from wood). Why does Liceti quote this sentence? To give a historical reason for human death, pointing at Adam as the first mortal man?
Furthermore, why he doesn’t mention Eve? Liceti limits himself to tell us that, from that moment on, the Soul and body get separated. And that condition was defined as Death. From Adam’s guilt, Liceti quotes Plato, the body is Soul’s sepulcrum, and the 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 are reduced to a kind of water we degenerate in the earth, which doesn’t come back. Usually, a cadaver becomes liquid when decomposing, not the opposite. The whole description of decay from water to earth, from liquid to dry, to remain an eternal stone-like, has 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 follow an alchemical going on, but rather a decomposing decay from dry to liquid to a complete dissipation.
Then Liceti quotes Albertus Magnus: ” butterflies are multicolored flying worms, but surely they are purple, white and sometimes hyacinth. Nevertheless, they always turn red. In autumn, they gather to match; the male dies after coitum, then one becomes female and gets married with a simile.” Astonishing the similitude with our Opus Magnum, where the metallic male gets dissolved in Mercurius to become another Mercurius, so a female, to 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 ends up 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 extremely important sentence: our butterfly lives the space of a day. Who or what takes the space of a day? Since butterflies usually live more than a day. And why point for that being of the utmost importance? 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 the mortal human condition: “Infelix ego homo; quis me liberabit CORPORE MORTIS HUIUS?” How sad a human being; what helps me 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 to examine the poppy flower as a symbol of falling into a mortal sleep. This flower was said to be a sleeping drug. We know those Italian hermetic poems, like Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, for instance, or even Dante’s Divina Comedia, often used the entrance formula in a dreaming setting when dealing with Souls and Spirits extracted from bodies issue. A dream is living in a world other than our temporal dimension (6).
The wheel is initially treated as a symbol of human fate. But at a certain point, Liceti starts to explore astronomical wheels. I can’t but try paraphrasing the original since the philosophical latin is pretty tricky. So: those who lend to a six spokes fortune wheel must know this is to be operated by gods and then by inferior beings. Because an eight spokes wheel, with its quadrants, deals with sky conditions, as Valerianus rightly pointed out. Furthermore a quote from Aristotle: “nulla lationem possibile est esse, qua non ordinetur ad lationem stella”, or no input 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).
In the end, the sepulchral urn is where our actions 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 a place where an embryo is ready for a new life. It starts to be clear that all the symbols surrounding the skull are tools to prepare it for a new life. Those familiar with this site know about the alchemical belief to extract the spirit of life/Mercurius and the Soul/Sulphur from metal and a human. To form a new perfect body (9).
Now we understand why Liceti has mentioned only Adam and not Eve: 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 metal. Sometimes a human skull merely indicates a metallic red Sulphur. But what about a human being? I have always said that I would not run a site if I knew those proceedings. But I want to end by resuming the first question: one would ask where the arcane is here since the skull in the ring gem image is already a very easy-to-recognize cranial box. So what is the OMO, as mentioned above diagram for? 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?
- Cesare Ripa & the Hot Frozen Ouroboros World Machine , Cesare Ripa & the Two Canons of Beauty and Cesare Ripa: Wheels, Spindles and Celestial Pointers ;
- See also Atalanta Fugiens and Mercurius Duplicatus , Atalanta Fugiens and the Golden Apples ;
- See also Kamala Jnana, Introduction to a Live Secret ;
- See Eros, Psyche and a New Alchemical Body ;
- See also Dionysus, Universal Dissolvent and Kykeon , Ripley Scroll/ the Soul Drinks only Blood ;
- See also Merèlle, Ouspensky & Time out of Matter ;
- See also Trisulti Carthusian Monastery and the Yearbook Wheel , Fulcanelli and External Conditions;
- See also Heiligen Dreifaltigkeit and Secret Iconography of the Wheel ;
- See also Michelangelo and the Mumia-Skin in last Judgement, Holbein Dead Christ Builds his Grave ;