Ancient Greek amulet with strange palindrome inscription discovered in Cyprus

Ancient Greek amulet with strange palindrome inscription discovered in Cyprus

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Archaeologists in Cyprus have unearthed a 1,500-year-old amulet in the ancient city of Nea Paphos in Cyprus, which contains a curious palindrome inscription – a text that reads the same both backwards and forwards – as well as several images believed to represent Egyptian god Osiris, god of silence, Harpocrates, and a dog-headed mythical being.

Live Science reports that the discovery was made by archaeologists with the Paphos Agora Project , who have been excavating an ancient agora (gathering place) at Nea Paphos, the most famous and important place for worshipping Aphrodite in the ancient world.

“Paphos, which has been inhabited since the Neolithic period, was a centre of the cult of Aphrodite and of pre-Hellenic fertility deities. Aphrodite’s legendary birthplace was on the island of Cyprus, where her temple was erected by the Myceneans in the 12th century BC and continued to be used until the Roman period,” writes UNESCO. “The site is a vast archaeological area, with remains of villas, palaces, theatres, fortresses and tombs. These illustrate Paphos’ exceptional architectural and historic value and contribute extensively to our understanding of ancient architecture, ways of life, and thinking.”

Fourth century Roman ruins at Nea Paphos, Cyprus looking out to the Mediterranean Sea

Fourth century Roman ruins at Nea Paphos, Cyprus looking out to the Mediterranean Sea. Source: BigStockPhoto

Palindrome inscription

The amulet found at Nea Paphos, which measures 1.4 x 1.6 inches (3.5 x 4.1 cm), contains a 59-letter palindrome inscription on one side, and several images on the other side.

The inscription, written in Greek, reads ΙΑΕW ΒΑΦΡΕΝΕΜ ΟΥΝΟΘΙΛΑΡΙ ΚΝΙΦΙΑΕΥΕ ΑΙΦΙΝΚΙΡΑΛ ΙΘΟΝΥΟΜΕ ΝΕΡΦΑΒW ΕΑΙ (“Iahweh is the bearer of the secret name, the lion of Re secure in his shrine”).

The use of palindromes is believed to date back at least 2,000 years, and became popular during the Middle Ages. Byzantine Greeks often inscribed the palindrome, "Wash [the] sins, not only [the] face" (ΝΙΨΟΝ ΑΝΟΜΗΜΑΤΑ ΜΗ ΜΟΝΑΝ ΟΨΙΝ), on baptismal fonts. This practice was continued in many other churches throughout Europe, such as the font at St. Mary's Church, Nottingham, o the font in the basilica of St. Sophia, Constantinople, the font of St. Stephen d'Egres, Paris.

Engravings of gods

On the other side of the amulet are several images, including a mummy lying on a boat, which is believed to represent the Egyptian god Osiris. According to Egyptian mythology, Osiris, god of the underworld, was killed by Set, god of storms, disorder and violence, who shut Osiris in a coffin and threw it in the Nile river. After his body was recovered by Isis, Set tore his body into pieces and threw them back into the river. Isis collected all the pieces and bandaged the body together. This form of Osiris traveled to the underworld in a boat and became god of the dead.

Symbology relating to this story has been seen on amulets before, including this talisman below, which depicts Osiris as a mummy, standing to front in a papyrus boat.

Talisman depicting Osiris as a mummy, standing in a boat

Talisman depicting Osiris as a mummy, standing in a boat. Credit: Genevra Kornbluth, University of Michigan, Special Collections Library .

Another image etched on the back of the amulet is of the god of silence, Harpocrates, who is shown sitting on a stool with his right hand to his lips.  Harpocrates was adapted by the Greeks from the Egyptian child god Horus. To the ancient Egyptians, Horus represented the newborn Sun, rising each day at dawn.

A statue of Harpocrates, god of silence, 1789, by Louis Philipe Mouchy

A statue of Harpocrates, god of silence, 1789, by Louis Philipe Mouchy ( Wikimedia Commons )

The final image found on the amulet was a cynocephalus, a mythical dog-headed creature, which is shown holding a paw up to its lips, as if mimicking Harpocrates' gesture.  Cynocephaly was familiar to the Ancient Greeks from representations of the Egyptian gods Hapi (the son of Horus) and Anubis (the Egyptian god of the dead).

A cynocephalus. From the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

A cynocephalus. From the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493. ( Wikimedia Commons )

Jagiellonian University professor Ewdoksia Papuci-Wladyka, who led the research, told Live Science that the features of the amulet suggest that the ancient people of Cyprus, were continuing to practice their traditional, polytheistic beliefs even after Christianity had become the official religion, and that such amulets were used for protection from harm and danger.

Christianity became the official religion in Cyprus in the 5 th century AD. “[A]s time went on, traditional polytheistic (also called pagan) practices came under tighter restrictions and bans,” writes Live Science. “Nevertheless, some people continued to practice the old beliefs, worshipping the traditional gods.”

Featured image: The amulet with the palindrome inscription found in Cyprus. Credit: Photo by Marcin Iwan, artifact from the excavations of Jagiellonian University in Krakow at Paphos Agora


The photograph depicting the location were the Ancient Palindrome inscription found in Cyprus at Nea Polis Paphos, is in fact Kourion near Limassol some 40km away from the correct location.

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