The Gnostics and Their Remains, by Charles William King, , at sacred-texts.com
p. 214 p. 215
"THERE was a time" (says M. Matter with much force) "when it was from Judaism, especially from the Kabbala, and the system of Philo, that people sought to derive the great transition of the human mind from the ancient into the modern world: a revolution in which so important a part is played by Gnosticism. So far as regards the explanation of the writings and the understanding of the views given by Origen, Irenæus, and the other Fathers upon Gnosticism, the Jewish element still retains its ancient pre-eminence; but in the case of the tangible monuments come down to us from the Gnostics themselves, we ought henceforth to be fully convinced that it is in the antiquities of Egypt we must look for our chief information: and if the ideas, terminology, and symbols of Judaism (that is, of the Kabbala) have lent certain doctrines to this system, yet it is Egyptian art that has furnished it with the greatest part of its symbols."
This grand development of the old Wisdom of Egypt in a new phase is the most conspicuously exhibited in that very numerous class of engraved gems popularly and indiscriminately called Abraxas, Basilidan, and Gnostic stones, almost the sole production of the expiring Glyptic Art during the last two centuries of the Western Empire. But, contrary to the generally received notion concerning their nature, a careful. study of their numerous subdivisions has fully convinced me that only a very small minority amidst their multitude present any traces of the influence of Christian doctrines; being for the most part the fruit of religious ideas which had flourished long before the first dawn of Christianity. An important portion, indeed, originating in the primitive Egyptian Mythology, have more connexion with Magic and Medicine than with any religious object; and their employment as talismans establishes
for them a higher antiquity than belongs to the real "Abraxas" gems, the date of whose origin is historically ascertained. The subject therefore will be more conveniently approached by considering in the first place the Agathodæmon, Chnuphis, or Chneph figures, often named "Dracontia," and erroneously attributed to the Ophites and such-like semi-Christian sects, as their actual inventors.
It cannot however be denied, that although these last-named sectaries did not invent this emblem, yet that they generally adopted it for their distinguishing badge or, to use their technical word, "seal." And this circumstance leads to a remark which, applying to all talismans alike, may aptly serve for preface to the following dissertation upon their several classes. In the primitive Nature-worship of the Old World all religion consisted in the deification of the great visible Powers of the Universe. The Supreme Beings therefore belonged to the present World, consequently all the blessings they could confer were limited to this life. The means, of whatever kind, supposed to secure the goodwill of these Powers had for object tangible blessings alone--wealth, peace, long life, posterity--in fact all those rewards promised by Moses to the obedient Israelites. The engraved stones under consideration, being legacies of this older religion, were designed to secure temporal not spiritual benefits to the wearers. The latter were not even dreamed of by people holding the belief "mors ultima linea rerum est." 'This fact explains why so many of the Gnostic gems are in reality no more than medicinal agents, and prescribed by physicians, Heathen and Christian alike, in their regular practice, from Nechepsos down to Alexander Trallianus. On the other hand the true Gnostics, whose sole profession was the knowledge of the other world, when they applied to the doctrines of the ancient religion the same method of interpretation that the Kabbalists had used for Moses and the Prophets (of which the Pistis-Sophia has left us such ingenious specimens), subjected all the productions of the former creed to the same Procrustean torture, and consequently availed themselves of these same symbols--nay, more, continued to manufacture them in their own sense of their import.
The Agathodæmon--"Good Genius"--whose very name furnishes the reason why he should be chosen to figure on an ornament intended to defend its wearer from all disease and mischance, is depicted as a huge serpent having the head of a lion, surrounded by a crown of seven or twelve rays--components conspicuously announcing that he is the embodiment of the idea of the Sun-god. This figure is usually accompanied, either on obverse or reverse, with its proper title, written variously ΧΝΟϒΒΙΣ, ΧΝΟϒΦΙΣ, and ΧΝΟϒΜΙΣ, accordingly as the engraver fancied he could best master that difficulty to the Greek mouth, the true sound of our letter B. This name Salmasius * considers as a rendering of the Coptic ΧΝΟϒΒ, gold; and hence explains another title which sometimes takes its place, ΧΟΛΧΝΟϒΒΙΣ, as "All-golden." Jablonsky, however, derives the word more plausibly from ΧΝΟϒΜ, good, and ΙΣ, spirit, and thus makes "Agothodæmon" to be the literal translation of the name. †
This last had become in the third century the popular name for the hooded snake of Egypt. Lampridius has "Heliogabalus Ægyptios dracunculos Romæ habuit, quos illi Agathodæmonas vocant." This kind was the Uraeus, to be seen commonly on Egyptian monuments, where it is the badge of royalty placed upon the head of the sovereign. It is the hadji hasher of the modern Arabs, the cobra di capello of the Hindoos. I have met with a large sard engraved in the late Roman-Egyptian style, with two imperial busts regardant; reverse, the Chnuphis Serpent, with the legend in Roman letters AGATHODAEMON, the sole instance known to me of such an amulet with a Latin inscription: but which goes far to confirm Jablonsky's interpretation of the Coptic title. In classical Greek the original Chneph becomes Canopus; hence the Canopic vase often appears between two serpents for heraldic supporters. But in those lower times, so fruitful in the Chnuphis talismans, no more Canopic vases appear on gems.
The ancient Agathodæmon, in the form of his congener the Cobra, still haunts the precincts of the Hindoo temples, as of old the shrines of Isis; and issues from his hole at the sound of a fife to accept the oblation of milk from the attendant priest. As with the ancients so with the Hindoos, he is the special keeper of concealed treasure; and when a zemindar deposits his board in the prepared hiding-place, he, to make assurance doubly sure, builds up a serpent therewith, to watch over the gold. Suetonius records that Tiberius had a most appropriate pet in a "serpens draco"; but having found it one day devoured by a swarm of ants, the suspicious Cæsar took warning from its fate to beware of the force of a multitude of feeble individuals; and consequently secured his person against all danger of popular outbreak by shutting himself up in the inaccessible fastness of Capri.
But to return to the type of the Agathodæmon upon our gems. Over the seven rays of the lion's crown, and corresponding to their points, stand often the seven vowels of the Greek alphabet, ΑΕΗΙΟϒΩ, testifying the Seven Heavens; a mystery whereof notice shall be taken in the fitting place. The reverse of such gems is invariably occupied by a special symbol resembling the letter S, or Z, thrice repeated, or the convolutions of a spiral cord, and traversed by a straight rod through their middle; a symbol for which many and the most whimsical explanations have been proposed. Of these the most ingenious, but also the most fanciful, makes it represent the spinal marrow traversing the spine--certainly an apt device for a medicinal talisman. But whatever its primary meaning it was probably imported in its present shape from India (that true fountainhead of Gnostic iconography). It is to be seen in two varieties, upon series 16 and 17 in Plate VII. of E. Thomas’ admirable Essay on the Primitive Coinage of India, amongst the punch-marks.
217:* He has treated the subject at some length in that learned miscellany of his, the treatise 'De Anno Climacterico.'
217:† The prototype appears to have been that ancient figure of Atmon (the Sun) designated as ΗFΕ "The Serpent" par éminence, and which was a winged serpent having human arms and feet. He is thus painted on mummy-cases as guardian of the inmate.