Such serious study as scholars have bestowed upon magical amulets has been prompted largely by the hope that these bits of stone or metal would prove to be monuments of ancient religion, and that from them careful scholarship might derive some new information about the various cults practiced in the time of the Empire, particularly the sects or heresies that are called Gnostic. This hope has in the main proved illusory. When strict criteria were applied to the evidence, it was found that the reliable results of earlier investigation had shrunk to a small bulk. In the present chapter an effort will be made to draw together the little that can be safely upheld.
It is well to begin with the amuletic type which, more than any other, has led students of these gems to overestimate their importance for the history of religion, and upon which the belief that they are monuments of Gnosticism has been founded. This is, of course, the very common representation of a cock-headed monster with serpent legs, often called Abrasax, or Iao Abrasax. For the time being the Gnostic theory of its origin will be put at one side, and the type will be examined without regard to it. The following characteristics of the type are briefly noted, with apologies for repeating them. The monster faces front, the cock's head usually turned to the right, sometimes to the left. On most specimens the comb and wattles are clearly indicated. The arms and trunk are human. There is sometimes an indication of a short‑sleeved tunic, and the chest, on which the muscles are often strongly marked, in some specimens seems to be armed with a cuirass that closely follows the contours of the body, while in others it is apparently naked. The right hand regularly holds a whip,1
but — a point which may be significant — the lash does not fall heavily, like the flail whip of Osiris and the Pharaohs,2
but flies in the air, often over the head of its wielder. The left arm carries a round shield, sometimes seen edgewise, oftener from the inside, the arm holding it out from the body in a natural position; but the outside is sometimes shown, although that would require a rather strained position of the elbow, as the shield seldom interferes with a full view of the torso.3
There is a military kilt