Alchemy shares with magic Gnostic Gems the belief in a Stone means of connection between sky and earth. Thinking of magic as a parody of Alchemy would be an error. But, according to modern scholars, magic seems to be based only on strange images and inscribed diagrams.
Alchemy makes its Philosophers Stone directly out of Secret Fire. With no need for bizarre symbolism but for a lock system. No wonder, since in Indo-European languages, verbs meaning drawing, pulling, dragging, and extracting partake the same root. From Aw- all these words are descended, together with weaving, source, fecundation, music, irrigation, and bull. But the initiator, among them, seems to have been “weaving” intended as drawing lines.
Scratching diagrams in the belief to influence events, pretending to use mysterious or supernatural forces, is as old as human history. There was a time when magicians used to inscribe hermetic symbols on their talismans and amulets. Sometimes those jewels featured a whole series of hermetic and mythological symbolism, usually recognized as alchemical foundations. Since this period corresponded with gnostic syncretism, namely from about one century B.C. to the fourth century A.D. those magic jewels were known under the “Gnostic Gems” definition.
Unlike nineteenth-century satanism (in Christian countries), Gnostic Gems were not involved in blasphemy as a path of liberation or transcendence; rather, those stones were regarded as a source of power in the very sense that they are alleged to draw spirits.
Despite all the inscribed symbolism, Gnostic Gems never really had any gnostic dimension. They instead were magic gems in the whole meaning of the word. Amulets and talismans intended to bring good luck. To be more precise, those pieces of jewelry were expected to give protection against evil, danger, or disease. Gnosis, as knowledge of spiritual mysteries, was, in this case, only a mere knowledge of symbolic iconographies and names to be inscribed.
During the fourth century, in Byzantium, there was a gnostic gem huge diffusion, with real byzantine demonology as long as a complex list of angelic names. Their production was unofficial and unsanctioned by the church till the patriarch formally gave orders to the clergy to search for magicians in any quarter of Constantinople and asked the civil authorities for support Investigation, inquisition, and denunciation, as in Ammianus. Finally, Emperor Constantius II condemned nearly all the interpreters and prophets that the ancient Roman world had known without differentiating between religious, scholarly, and popular forms of divination. And coming Iconoclasm did all remaining.
Amulets in the pictures above were found during the small village Anemurium digging works. They were bronze, glass, and earthen. On the left is an amulet with a cross, a symbol that Alchemy shares with Christianity, but more interesting is that one on the right with a six-pointed star, a direct symbol for the Philosophers Stone as a symbol of the meeting between the Macrocosm and the Microcosm. Suppose we want to adapt it to operational Alchemy, in that case, the downward desolvation triangle is intermingled with the upward sublimation triangle to give the volatile fixation (see Basilius Valentinus Azoth or Solve et Coagula).
Paolo Lucarelli, in his essay entitled Anima Mundi or World Soul (3) states: “Corporification of this Spirit has always been the ultimate purpose of alchemical works (4), resulting in what we traditionally call Philosophers Stone”. A synonym for corporification may be Embodiment (5)—a new body for an indeterminate Spirit and an old determined Soul.
As we go back in age, we find closer connections between gnostic gems and hermeticism. Thus Gnostic Gems become less unconcerned. The one on the left represents Chnoumis, the cock headed serpent, dragon-headed, or lion-headed. Enough explicit rendition of our fluid serpent-Mercurius (moving as a flux) made fixed and provided a different male animal head, definitely a Mercurius Philosophorum. Our material or molecular container for Spirit of Life/Secret Fire, then turning into Sulphur or Soul. Spirit of Life and Soul being our alchemical spirits. Not so inoffensive, though. But noble and virtuous. In fact, on the other side, there is inscribed: “ I’m forever the good spirit” Agathos Daimon or good spirit indeed.
Invocations or incantations often accompanying gnostic gems sometimes become “recipe”. The well-known Dardanos recipe, “Sword of Dardanos”, is a good rendition of a “breathing stone”: “Recipe called sword, matchless for its efficacy. Since it tames and leads a Soul wherever we want, as soon as one declaims: I tame the soul of anyone. So one takes a Magnetic Stone, the breathing stone, and one draws on it Aphrodite riding Psyche as a horse and keeping her with their left hand wrapping hair curls. Over her head, one inscribes achmagerarpepsei. Under Aphrodite and Psyche, there is Eros/Amor standing on a globe. He hands a flaming torch to burn Psyche. On the other side of the stone embracing Eros and Psyche and under Eros foot ssssssss and Psyche èèèèèèèè”.
Eros is our alchemical Mercurius/Spirit – or he who holds a soul united to the body – and Psyche our alchemical Soul/Sulfur – or she to whom Zeus gave perpetuity. They have to become a single new body; ssssssss and èèèèèèèè appear to be very simple and explicit breathings. we know that the priests of the Gnostic era handed down a series of whispers and sounds with which they performed their theurgic rites. In “Der compas der Wisen” or Compass of Wises, edition Fredrich Maurer Berlin 1782, we can find the symbology of the round trip breath-like winds that proceed from the earth to the sun. As for Aphrodite, she was known as one of the three deities in charge of retrieving souls from the body.
In the first decade of the seventeenth century, a pseudo-Trithemius writes a little treatise on “ The Art of Drawing Spirits into a Crystal”. Her appearance and crystal used in the magic liturgy seem a parody of Urim. Let’s hear from him.: “Of the making of the Chrystal and the Form of Preparation for a Vision: Procure of a lapidary good clear pellucid crystal, of the bigness of a small orange, i.e., about one inch and a half in diameter; let it be globular or round each way alike; then, when you have got this crystal, fair and clear, without any clouds or specks, get a small plate of pure gold to encompass the crystal round one half; let this be fitted on an ivory or ebony pedestal, as you may see more fully described in the drawing. Let a circle around the crystal be engraved with these characters inside the circle next to the crystal; afterward, the name “Tetragrammaton”. On the other side of the plate let there be engraved “Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, Raphael;” which are the four principal angels ruling over the Sun, Moon, Venus, and Mercury; but on the table on which the crystal stands, the following names, characters, &c. must be drawn in order. First, the names of the seven planets and angels ruling them, with their seals or characters. The names of the four kings of the cardinal directions. This being done, your table is complete and fit for the calling of the spirits.
I cannot help but mention the sacred stone Urim used by Jewish priests during rites on the judgment of Souls. We can see Urim’s visual representation from an engraving from Abraham Eleazar, “Uraltes Chymisches” Leipzig 1760, who unquestionably was a serious alchemist. I posted here on the left an image colored by Adam McLean since it is very useful to put on display the Urim feature as a jeweled breastplate.
Attilio Mastrocinque, in his essay Studi sulle Gemme Gnostiche, Venice 1998, presents a detailed investigation of some more ancient magic jewels owned by an ancient roman lady Vibia Paulina. The first gem should be enough for our purpose: it is a gnostic cameo dated in the first century representing Hermes holding a caduceus and a turtle and enclosed by greek characters Θ and χ.
Θ is well occurring in an alchemical environment, standing for Sulfur and Sacred (see Lucarelli & origins of Sulfur name). χ is a quite universal symbol standing for the cross and all its hermetic meanings: from volatile fixation to crucible to our Mercurius. Mastrocinque does not mention the sort of phylactery beside the letter χ, generally standing for adeptness. The caduceus is a well-recognized and common symbol for Mercurius Philosophorum.
The turtle is a very learned and unusual symbol for Prima Materia and Materia Prima. That’s to say Mercurius and Sulphur, Spirit, and Soul. Both Secret Fires are to be extracted, breaking the hard armor shell of Materia Tertia or raw matter. This iconography is unquestionably seriously hermetic. But the turtle is also the unlucky little animal that Hermes meets near the entrance to his mother Maia’s cave and that he will smash to make his first instrumental lyre and then give it to Apollo.
Then Mastrocinque passes to examine the motto on the other side of the cameo, and comes to the conclusion that the artist has just made jokes with the syncretic religious pantheon in Rome and the consequent multi-cultural language, since the used language was also greek but of complex and obscure signification. I spare you Mastrocinque’s philological research on this inscription; for the simple reason that he concluded it to be a sort of unintelligible rigmarole. No wonder Vibia Paulina took action against magicians for fraud. Very interesting to us is her providing an attestation explaining what this talisman was for: “ to draw evil and dead spirits from the underworld to protect her against incantations by would-be seducers”. So we encounter again this pretension to draw spirits inside a stone. The pretension that we know has some alchemical reminiscences.
Vibia Paulina’s case was not isolated in the roman empire. But such gnostic gems material arrived to us is rare since, as Henry Maguire refers in his Byzantine Magic 1995: “Until relatively recently, archaeologists did not pay much attention to objects such as amulets, rings, and bracelets unless they were of gold or silver.”
Prodomus Iconicus Sculptilium Gemmarum Basilidiani, Amuletici, atque Talismani Generis de Museo Antonii Capello, or “Messenger in images of gems, talismans… from Antonio Capello private collection”, Venice 1702, is a massive collection of Gnostic gems designs. Among them, I chose those which are unquestionably rich in hermetic-like allegories.
Antonio Capello describes the used materials of the gems in his collection as jasper, cornelian, magnetite, sardonyx, and agate, scarcely in gold, silver, and sapphire. He cannot exactly define the period, but he restricts it to a probable period from the second to the fourth century.
Scratched scenes present single symbols, allegories, and myths in common with Alchemy, like Ouroboros, Caduceus, Hermes, Dionysos, Hercules, Serpent Serapis, Chnoumis (serpent cock heated), Sun, and Moon. Nevertheless, the whole iconography cannot be defined as fully hermetic. More than gnostic, those settings may seem syncretic. Symbols and allegories seem to be taken from the most varied doctrines, myths, and mystic-known systems.