There is no type among all these magical amulets which has so puzzled the archaeologists as this one has. Consequently the mere rehearsal of the suggested interpretations is a string of bizarre fancies. It is usually a waste of time to go over examples of mistaken ingenuity, but some of these false explanations have persisted down to our time, and still need to be corrected; and, furthermore, the history of the problem is so curious that may warrant spending a little time on it.
Strangely enough, the first recorded approach to an understanding of this type was right, although, paradoxical as it may seem, the interpretation was set forth in connection with a stupid forgery, not a genuine specimen. It appears in some letters exchanged between Nicholas Claude Fabri de Peiresc and Peter Paul Rubens in the year 1623.2
Both the scholar and the painter were keenly interested in antiquities, especially coins and gems, and, like other amateurs of their time, both men had a taste for items that some modern collectors call curiosa
— a taste which led them to accept, with uncritical eagerness, some obvious counterfeits as genuine productions of later antiquity. In a letter of July Peiresc tells Rubens that he is sending him four gems, which he begs him to accept as a present.3
More or less complete descriptions in this letter and the preceding one (July 20)4
make it clear that three of these intaglios bore phallic subjects. To another he refers as an “intaglio d'amethista con la vulva deificata et revestita delle ale di farfalla.”5
Other passages in their correspondence make it plain that Peiresc uses the word vulva
in the ancient sense, i.e. as a synonym for uterus. Replying from Antwerp on August 3 Rubens acknowledges the gift of the gems, accepts Peiresc's interpretation of the amethyst, and, fortunately, draws on the margin of his letter a little sketch of the main design, which enables us to form an idea of it.6
The fact that the vessel rests upon an altar and has wings attached to it marks it as a forgery, because not one of the many genuine uterine amulets has these characteristics. But it is also clear that the forger had used a genuine specimen as a pattern, modifying it according to his ignorant fancy; for the principal object conforms fairly closely to the shape most commonly shown on ancient gems of this class.
In his next letter (August 10) Peiresc refers again to the design in question, saying that in his collection of “Gnostic” gems there are several that show the same object, but never with the wings. He further interprets the lines or bands projecting from it as the ligaments of the uterus.7
A more careful comparison of the stone that he presented to Rubens with those in his own collection might perhaps have shown him the spurious character of the former; but he seems to have been singularly unsuspicious, although certain incredible