The Gnostics and Their Remains, by Charles William King, , at sacred-texts.com
A Limoges enamelled plaque of the twelfth century (in the collection of Mr. Octavius Morgan) represents on its one half "Moyses" lifting up the Brazen Serpent to the "Filii Israel." On the other half, "similis Aaron" is seen inscribing with a
reed pen the mystic Tau Cross upon the foreheads of the elect. The first of these tableaux offers the most extraordinary feature in its representation of the serpent, depicted here with lion's head and mane: the veritable Agathodæmon Chnuphis of our Alexandrian talismans. The preservation of this form to so late a period fills one with surprise: it indicates a traditionary belief that the symbol was the giver of life and health. The belief must have come down from the times when the Egyptian talisman was commonly worn, in the way Galen mentions, as a protection to the chest. The Brazen Serpent of Moses and the Plasma Agathodæmon of King Nechepsos had in all probability one and the same origin, giving currency to those little ingots which formed the sole money of the Hindoos before the establishment of the Macedonians in Bactria. But the most probable solution of the question is that the symbol stealthily represents the serpent-entwined club of Aesculapius (itself so hard to account for), or the wand similarly encircled, which was the badge of Egyptian priesthood. And what renders this conjecture of mine almost a certainty is an as of the gens Acilia, bearing for obverse the head of Aesculapius, for reverse a wand (not the usual club) placed vertically and encircled by his serpent in three convolutions. This type, if slightly defaced by wear, would become identical in appearance with the Chnuphis symbol. The spiral frequently takes the form of the letters S S S disconnected, traversed by a straight line. The curative virtue ascribed to the sigil, again, tends to indicate its derivation from the proper badge of the god of the healing art. For the eminent physician Marcellus Empiricus (who flourished at Bordeaux in Theodosius' reign) promises wonderful effects in the cure of pleurisy from the wearing of this very figure engraved upon a cerulean Scythian jasper. Whether this promise be true or not, marvellous has been the vitality of the symbol itself; for reduced to a double S S upon a bar, it became a favourite device in the times of chivalry, being taken as the rebus upon the word Fermesse * (SS fermées) and the emblem of constancy. Hence comes it that this ancient Egyptian symbol now adorns
the Collar of the Garter, formerly known as the "Collars of SS." Meyrick's derivation of the name from the initial of "Souver ayne," motto of Henry IV. when Earl of Derby (and on whose effigy the Collar first appears), is of little weight; for that king was long posterior to the institution of the Order and its insignia. Even more preposterous is Camden's idea that the name originated in the initials of Sanctus Simo Simplicius, a famous Roman lawyer; and therefore was taken for badge by his profession--a theory which assuredly does not account for Henry's queen, Joan of Navarre, being similarly decorated with her husband upon their monument.
That the Agathodæmon sigil was not only pre-Christian, but ascended to the remotest antiquity in its use as a talisman, plainly appears from Galen's notice thereof (De Simp. Med. 6 ix.). "Some indeed assert that a virtue of this kind is inherent in certain stones, such as it is certain is possessed by the green jasper, which benefits the chest and mouth of the stomach, when tied upon them. Some indeed set the stone in a ring, and engrave upon it a serpent with head crowned with rays, according to the directions of King Nechepsos in his thirteenth book. Of this material I have had much experience, having made a necklace out of stones of the kind, and hung it about the patient's neck, descending low enough to touch the mouth of the stomach, and they proved to be of no less benefit than if they had been engraved in the manner laid down by King Nechepsos." This treatise by Nechepsos must have been a regular Manual for the use of Magicians, for Ausonius mentions its author as
[paragraph continues] The book, perhaps the foundation of the pretended Evax, was the first source of the notions concerning the virtues of sigils and gems preserved to us in the mediæval "Lapidaria." Pliny (vii. 50) quotes him along with his countryman Petosiris as an astrological authority, according to whose rule of the "Tetartomorion" (or law deduced from the position of three signs, Trine) the possible duration of human life in the region of Italy extended to 124 years. And before dismissing Nechepsos and his book it may be as well to add here--for the fact will be of service in a further stage of this inquiry--that Pliny mentions (xxx. 2) a second school of Magic, "but more recent by many thousand years" than Zoroaster's, and founded by the Jews, Moses, Iannes and Jotapes. The first of the trio may be the Talmudist to whose "secret volume" Juvenal alludes--
[paragraph continues] Although the Apostle couples Iannes along with Iambres amongst the Egyptian opponents of the Hebrew legislator, Juvenal also informs us that the nation retained even in his times their ancient fame of veracious interpreters of dreams; nay, more, grown "wiser than Daniel," they even produced them to order--
"The Jew, for money, sends what dreams you choose."
[paragraph continues] Hippolytus in the following century remarks that the "Samaritans," or "Simonians," founded by the first preacher of the Gnosis, Simon Magus himself, availed themselves of this power in order to plague their adversaries, "sending the dream-producing demons to trouble whomsoever they please." The mediæval name for engraved gems regarded as talismans, viz., "Pierres d’Israel," is better founded than is generally supposed. The obvious difficulty that graven figures--nay, more, idols--could not have been the work of Jews, is answered by the Rabbinical gloss upon the Second Commandment, which allows the wearing of any sort of design cut in intaglio, though prohibiting anything of the sort in relief.
The choice of the green jasper (now called plasma *) for the Agathodæmon sigils was probably dictated by the resemblance of its colour to that of the sacred Asp--green banded with brown. As for the figure itself, a very ancient testimony as to its nature and signification is afforded by the tradition Eusebius has preserved (I. 7): "The serpent, unless injured by violence, never dies naturally, for which reason the Phœnicians have given it the name of the 'Good Genius,' Agathodæmon. For the same cause the Egyptians have called it 'Cneph,' and given to it the head of a hawk, because of the especial swiftness of that bird." The priest of Epeae, entitled "Head-interpreter of sacred things and Scribe," had expounded the allegory thus "The most divine Nature of all was one Serpent having the face of a hawk, and most delightful in aspect, for when he opened his eyes he filled all the places of his native region with light; but when he closed them, darkness immediately ensued." The serpent on our gems, however, does not appear invested with a hawk's head, but with a lion's; for which reason this legend applies better to the Abraxas-god, occasionally equipped with a hawk's or lion's head, in place of his proper one, that of a cock. But the idea is certainly embodied in that common design upon the Mithraic gems, a man grasping a serpent, of which the radiated head points at his eyes and seems to supply them with light. Furthermore, the meaning of the figure of the Agathodæmon is clearly denoted by the Chaldee legend frequently accompanying it. CΕΜΕCΕΙΛΑΜ, "The Everlasting Sun," which is sometimes followed by ΨΕ, probably used as sacred numerals, for they have the power in Greek arithmetic of 705. This same legend is attached to a classical figure of Phœbus (such as he appears on the coins with the legend SOLI INVICTO COMITI) engraved upon a yellow jasper in the Marlborough Cabinet--a fact sufficiently attesting the accuracy of the interpretation here given to the Chaldee inscription.
Astrology likewise lent its aid to accrediting the virtues of the
sigil. That great authority Hephaestion (quoted by Salmasius, i.e.) observes that ΧΝΟϒΜΙC is the name of one of the Decani, or three chief stars in Cancer; whilst another astrologer laid down that the star so called was set in the breast of Leo, and for that reason was efficacious for the cure of all diseases in the chest of man. And in fact we find this latter dictum confirmed by the prayer ΦϒΛΑCCΕ ϒΓΙΗ CΤΟΜΑΧΟΝ ΠΡΟΚΛΟϒ, "Keep in good health the chest of Proclus," engraved upon the back of one of these very Chnuphis gems. Others of the same kind are again surrounded by a long Coptic legend often arranged in the outline of a serpent, varying in words, but always terminating in the epithet ΓΙΓΑΝΤUΡΗΚΤΑ or ΠΑΙΚΤΑ, "Breaker" or "Mocker" of the Giants--that is, of the evil and rebellious Angels; for the Grecian fable of the War of the Giants against Jove had then revived, a Zoroastrian interpretation being applied to the rebellion of Ahriman and his demons against Ormuzd and the Ministers of Good.
The method of employing a talisman is thus prescribed in the Magic Papyrus, § 9:--"A Spell of Alleius Cræonius, spoken to the Lamp," "Ωχμαρμαχω τοννουραι χρη μιλλον δερκυων να Ιαο σουμψηφισον σουμψηνις σωσια σιαωι, Thou that shakest the world! Enter, and deliver an oracle concerning such and such a matter. Θοιο κοτοθ φθουφνουν νουεβουη επτασπαχατου. The engraved stone (λ.γ.) Serapis seated in front, having the Egyptian crown (βασιλήῑον) ξξ, and upon his sceptre an ibis, on the back of the stone the Name; and lock it up and keep it for use. Hold in thy left hand the ring, and in thy right a branch of olive and of bay-tree, waving them over the lamp, repeating all the while the spells even times. And having drawn the ring upon the proper finger of thy left hand, facing and being inwards (the engraving), stick the gem against thy left ear, and go to sleep, without returning answer to any one." The object of this charm was (although not so stated) to procure prophetic dreams, which are actually enumerated amongst the effects to follow from the use of the one that stands next in the MS.
Although the original intention of these Chnuphis sigils was unquestionably the one pointed out in the preceding pages, yet
there is every probability from the nature of the case that the same were adopted and interpreted in a spiritual sense by the numerous and influential sect that first assumed the title of "Gnostics." They had an all-sufficient reason for so doing, in the fundamental doctrine of their creed. The well-informed and temperate Hippolytus, writing at the most flourishing period of these transitional theosophies, thus opens his actual 'Refutation of all Heresies' and his Fifth Book with the description "of that sect which hath dared to boast the Serpent as the author of their religion, as they prove by certain arguments wherewith he hath inspired them. On this account the apostles and priests of this creed have been styled 'Naaseni,' from 'Naas,' the Hebrew word for serpent: but subsequently they entitled themselves 'The Gnostics,' because they alone understood the deep things of religion. Out of this sect sprung many other teachers, who by diversifying the original doctrines through inventions of their own became the founders of new systems." Further on he has a passage bearing immediately upon this subject. "This Naas is the only thing they worship, for which reason they are called 'Naaseni' (i.e. Ophites, or Serpent-worshippers). From this same word Naas they pretend that all the temples (ναοί) under Heaven derive the name. And unto this Naas are dedicated every rite, ceremony, mystery, that is; in short, not one rite can be found under Heaven into which this Naas doth not enter. For they say the Serpent signifies the element Water; and with Thales of Miletus contend that nothing in the Universe can subsist without it, whether of things mortal or immortal, animate or inanimate. All things are subject unto him; and he is good, and hath all good things within himself as in the horn of a unicorn, so that he imparts beauty and perfection unto all that is, inasmuch as he pervades all things, as flowing out of Eden, and divided into four heads. . . . This Naas is the 'water above the firmament,' and likewise the 'living water' spoken of by the Saviour. Unto this Water all Nature is drawn, and attracts out of the same whatever is analogous to its own nature, each thing after its own kind, with more avidity than the loadstone draws the iron, the ray of the sea-hawk gold, or amber straws. Then they go
on to boast: We are the Spiritual, who have drawn our own portion out of the living water of the Euphrates that flows through the midst of Babylon; and who have entered in through the True Gate, the which is Jesus the Blessed. And we of all men are the only Christians, in the Third Gate celebrating the Mystery, being anointed with the ineffable ointment out of the horn like David, not out of the earthen vessel like Saul who conversed with the Evil Spirit of carnal concupiscence."
Euphrates, a more recent teacher of the sect, who founded the branch calling themselves "Peratai," or Fatalists, has a passage that indicates the sense in which his followers may have accepted these Chnuphis gems. "To them therefore of the Children of Israel who were bitten in the Wilderness Moses showed the True and Perfect Serpent; in whom whosoever trusteth he shall not be bitten by the serpents of the Wilderness, that is, shall not be hurt by the Powers. No one therefore is able to heal and to save them that be gone forth out of Egypt, that is, out of the body and out of the world, save that Perfect, Full of all fulness, Serpent. In Him whosoever putteth his trust, that man perisheth not by the serpents of the Wilderness, that is, by the gods of the nativity."
These last Powers, whom Euphrates (a pure astrologer) in another place calls the "gods of death," are the stars of the horoscope, "which impose upon all that be born the fatal yoke of the changeful nativity," that is, the necessity of death, the necessary consequence of birth, a doctrine that clearly leads to the efficacy of the Serpent sigil as a talisman to protect the wearer against the malign influence of the astral genii. The Ophites, in fact, were the legitimate descendants of the Bacchic Mystae, whose religion during the two centuries preceding our era must have been the predominant one in the great cities of Asia Minor. An argument derived from Numismatics establishes the common fact--the coinage of the chief cities, Ephesus, Apamea, Pergamus, was issued chiefly in the form of Cistophori, having for obverse the Bacchic Serpent raising himself out of the sacred coffer; for reverse, two serpents entwined round torches.
219:* This sigla in its simplest form, , makes its appearance in profusion over all the buildings of Henri IV., where it is popularly explained p. 220 as relating to Gabrielle d’Estrées, a rebus in its sound, "S percé d’un trait." But Longperier has shown that the same figure is to be found on the medals of Henri's mother and sister, and even upon articles made for Anne of Austria; and he acquiesces in the explanation given in the text, which is taken from an old book, 'Les Bigarrures,' chap. "Des Rébus de la Picardie," by Etienne Tabouret, Sieur des Accords--('Revue Numismatique' for 1856, p. 276).
222:* The green jasper of the moderns was the molochites or molochas of the ancients, for Pliny describes it as opaque, dark-green, and specially used for amulets.