The iconography of “magical gems”: How Egyptian tradition meets Greek mythology on Roman glyptic
Dominique Barcat, 2021-06-25
The “magical gems”, a group of engraved stones produced during the Roman imperial period (mainly IInd and IIIrd centuries A.D.), stand out in the whole of the Roman glyptic. These gems have been recently well studied by a number of specialists, and the numerous works published highlight the multiplicity of the religious references that are deployed, one of their main characteristics. A. Delatte and Ph. Derchain, who published in 1964 the catalogue of the gems kept at the Cabinet des Médailles (Bibliothèque Nationale de France), defined them as “intailles magiques gréco-égyptiennes”. Indeed, alongside divine names which belong mostly to the Jewish tradition, the iconography displayed borrows widely from Greek mythology and Pharaonic or Isiac pantheons. However, only a limited group of them mix the Greek and Egyptian/Isiac figures or references (approximately forty gems in the Campbell Bonner database). Thereupon, both traditions are closely associated in specific compositions. Greek and Egyptian/Isiac divinities or items could meet in a same picture (ex: Anubis and Seth carrying Aphrodite anadyomene), or an Egyptian name captions the representation of a Greek divinity (ex: figuration of Athena, associated to the name “Thoueris”). We will also have a look on gems where the figures are opposed on each side of the stone (ex: obverse: Aphrodite, reverse: baboon). These original combinations, sometimes logical and expected, sometimes more surprising, are especially meaningful and they provide clues to understand the modus operandi of these magical images. This communication deals with the questions of interpretatio and with magico-religious conceptions of which this iconography witness. We will also see to what extent these associations allow us to glimpse of how the gem could have been used.