Alchemy shares with magic Gnostic Gems the belief in a Stone means of connection between sky and earth. But, while magic relies on weird inscribed pictures and diagrams.
Alchemy makes its Philosophers Stone directly out of Secret Fire. With no need of 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- in fact all these words are descended, together with weaving, source, fecundation, music, irrigation and bull. But initiator, among them, seems to have been “weaving” intended as drawing lines.
The use of scratching diagrams in the belief to influence the course of 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 whole series of hermetic, as well as mythological symbolism, usually recognized as alchemical foundations. Since this period corresponded with gnostic syncretism, namely from about one century B.C to fourth century A.D. those magic jewels were known under the “Gnostic Gems” definition .
In spite of all the inscribed symbolism, Gnostic Gems never really had any gnostic dimension. They rather were magic gems in the full 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 involved as a mere knowledge of symbolic iconographies and names to be inscribed.
Unlike nineteenth century satanism (in christian countries) Gnostic Gems were not involved in any blasphemy as a path of liberation or transcendence, but rather, like medieval age people did with devil and his legions, those stones were regarded as a source of power. In the very sense that they are alleged to draw spirits. In this sense gnostic gems seem to retain some alchemical reminiscences. But, perhaps, the hope of moving spirits is naturally within human beings.
Thinking of magic as a childish parody of Alchemy would be an error. Paraphrasing Canseliet (1) one could say there isn’t other magic than Alchemy, and there is no other Alchemy than magic. Even very ancient alchemical treatises began with incantations to repel evil. And many medieval treatises presented prayers or invocations to God in their prefaces. Alchemy, magic and religion are not foreign to each other.
In “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, we can see a preface engraving, on the right, in which a whip is lending on the right wall. This tool, a strip of leather or length of cord fastened to a handle, used for flogging or beating a person or for urging on an animal, is a symbol standing for spirits to be drawn in the conviction they can be tamed by those Cameos owners. In fact we can also notice Hermes/Mercurius helping a hesitant lady to choose the right gem. While old Saturn is resting on the floor. All over in the hall we can recognize those “….quae obscurissimi hyerogliphicis supersticiosisque caratheribus circundata sunt”, as Antonio Capello called them, putting on display his collection. In fact at the beginning of eighteenth century hermetic symbols were already described as obscure and supersticious hieroglyphs. Here below I chose the series of engravings, taken from Prodomus Iconicus, unquestionably rich in hermetic-like allegories.
Most used Materials are jasper, cornelian, magnetite, sardonyx, agate, scarcely in gold, silver and sapphire. Antonio Capello cannot exactly defined the period of the gems in his collection, he just restricts at a probable period from second to fourth century. Scratched scenes present single symbols, allegories and myths in common with Alchemy, like Ouroboros, Caduceus, Hermes, Dyonisos, 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. As a matter of fact these gems may appear as mere artistic recreations. On the last page you can see an exhaustive gallery of Capello’s Prodromus Iconicus gems drawings.