Ancient Amulet Inscribed with 59-Letter Palindrome is Full of Mistakes

Double-sided amulet

Left: The inscribed palindrome with spelling mistakes. Right: Unconventionally drawn images of Egyptian deities on the other side, suggesting the scribe didn’t fully understand the mythology behind them (Marcin Iwan and Paphos Agora Project Archive)

If someone makes you a lucky charm, only for the charm to be misspelled, you’ve got to wonder – would that charm still be lucky?

Archaeologists excavating the ancient site of Nea Paphos in Cyprus have uncovered a curious double-sided amulet with an impressive 59-letter long Greek palindrome on one face, and images of Egyptian deities on the other.

The palindrome, which translates to “Iahweh (a god) is the bearer of the secret name, the lion of Re secure in his shrine” reads the same from front to back as back to front:


The other side is inscribed with images including a bandaged mummy lying on a boat (likely representing the Egyptian god Osiris), a man sitting on a stool while holding his right hand up to his lips (an image of Harpocrates, the god of silence) and a mythical dog-headed creature called a cynocephalus, also holding a paw up to its lips as if mimicking Harpocrates’ gesture.

The problem is, both are peppered with mistakes. According to Live Science, Joachim Śliwa, a professor at the Institute of Archaeology at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland, described the find in an article recently published in the journal Studies in Ancient Art and Civilization, noting that the palindrome contains a couple of spelling mistakes, with two instances of a “ρ” where a “v” should be, while the last three letters EAI seem haphazardly squeezed in and are hard to read. But that’s not all.

Did the inscriber know what the inscriptions meant?

“The depiction is fairly unskilled and schematic. It is iconographically based on Egyptian sources, but these sources were not fully understood by the creator of the amulet,” wrote Śliwa in the journal article.

Harpocrates, for example, should be sitting on a lotus flower with legs drawn up, rather than on a stool, explained Śliwa. And the dog-headed cynocephalus should not be mimicking Harpocrates.

In the classic version of the image, “the cynocephalus faces Harpocrates with paws raised in adoration,” Śliwa wrote. “We can find no justification for the cynocephalus’ gesture of raising its right paw to its lips in a manner similar to Harpocrates.”

Even stranger is the fact that Harpocrates and the cynocephalus have crisscrossing lines on their bodies, which suggest the ancient artist thought these figures should be mummified along with Osiris.

While the cynocephalus can be shown with mummy bandages, Harpocrates is not supposed to have them. Mummy bandages have “no justification in the case of Harpocrates” Śliwa wrote.

These unusual features suggest its creator may not have fully understood the mythology behind them, says Śliwa.

Not such a lucky charm?

Amulets like this one were made to protect their owners from danger and harm, which begs the question, who was this charlatan? And was the amulet’s owner aware of these mistakes? How did they come about?

Maybe it was just some cheap knock-off, maybe there was a genuine misunderstanding, with imagery morphing as copies were made as in a game of Chinese whispers, or maybe it was even a small act of religious subversion. We may never know!

What’s interesting, however, is that at the time the amulet was made – about 1,500 years ago – Cyprus was part of the Byzantine Empire where Christianity was the official religion, and polytheistic or pagan practices were severely restricted.

This amulet adds evidence that some people – however accurately or inaccurately – continued to practice traditional beliefs on Cyprus for several centuries, and the two religions may have co-existed.

The amulet was found by a team of archaeologists in 2011 while excavating an ancient agora (a Greek assembly place) in Nea Paphos (an ancient port city in Cyprus).

The site is home to a number of Hellenistic and early Roman ruins, including fortresses, temples and palaces, as well as a large basilica and a Byzantine castle.

During the most recent excavations there in November, pottery of different categories, terracotta figurines, coins and metal objects, were found in a well. The team also found terracotta figurines, coins and metal objects. Amongst the metal objects were three sling bullets, two of which were decorated with a relief depicting scorpions and the third with a representation of thunderbolt.

Source: Live Science, Paphos Agora Project

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Written by Maiya Pina-Dacier

Head of Community at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She reports on all our discoveries live from the trenches, and keeps our Site Hut full of the latest archaeology news. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

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