Most of the objects to be discussed in this book belong to the class known as “Gnostic” amulets. That term has been so widely accepted that there is something to be said for retaining it; for even those who recognize its inaccuracy find it a convenient designation for things that cannot easily be brought under any other descriptive name.
Gnosis is a name applied to certain systems of religious philosophy whose origin has been much debated, but which certainly manifested themselves as heresies in the Christian church of the second and third centuries. Now amulets, though fundamentally magical, tend to take religion as an aid and ally, just as the converse is often true; and wherever amulets are made with the help of the graphic and plastic arts, they are likely to invoke, by their designs and inscriptions, the support of local divinities, and to absorb into themselves local religious ideas, or at least religious expressions and symbols. But the tendency does not stop there. In its desire to enlist all possible supernatural aid, magic, especially in its later development, calls upon many deities without regard to their local connections. Even in the classical period people regarded magic that came from a distance as especially powerful, particularly when it seemed to spring from a primitive way of life; hence Athenian writers refer to the unusual powers of Thessalian witches.1
In the magical documents of the Graeco-Roman period gods and demons of several countries are summoned to aid the operator. Magicians who were Egyptians or Egyptianized Greeks name Babylonian and Jewish or Syrian divinities in their charms. Wherever any knowledge of Gnostic mythology or Gnostic ideas had got abroad, it was natural that Gnostic elements should make their appearance in magical texts.
The writers may or may not have belonged to a Gnostic sect; but the documents themselves, whether written on papyrus or carved on gem stones, can seldom be regarded as monuments of Gnostic religion, just as an incantation containing the words Iao Sabaoth cannot safely be claimed as the work of a Jewish master of magic. In brief, Gnosticism is merely one of several religious influences that have left their mark on these amulets. As a group they cannot be labeled as Gnostic; individual pieces that can be so described are rare, and still rarer are those that can be safely assigned to a particular Gnostic sect. We find that earlier writers from Baronius and Macarius to Bellermann and King confidently treat many of these amulets, especially those inscribed