I read an interesting article in a recent issue of the Israel Exploration Journal that intrigued but also saddened me.1 It is about 16 eulogiai (singular, eulogia) inscribed in Greek simply with the name “Solomon.” A eulogia, literally, “blessing,” is a small token that operated as a kind of good-luck charm, mostly associated with a particular Christian pilgrim shrine. Christian travelers frequently came home with eulogiai from pilgrimage journeys in the Byzantine period (fourth to seventh century A.D.).a
The article is by L.Y. Rahmani, a longtime scholar at the Israel Antiquities Authority, now retired. He examines these Solomon eulogiai to identify the indistinct images on the center of each. It is difficult to see the images in photographs; the drawings by Rahmani are much clearer.
The eulogiai themselves are made of dark brown clay, poorly fired. The backs are plain. There are two variants: In Variant A (of which there are five), the name “Solomon” moves up from the lower left, divides at the top and continues down the right side (above). In the 11 examples of Variant B, the name begins on the lower right, divides at the top and continues down the left side (below). The central image also varies somewhat, although in both it looks a little like spaghetti—or perhaps rigatoni. Variant A consists of two tubular forms, one vertical at the center and the other bent into a U-shape that lies diagonally across the foot of the vertical tube. In Variant B, there are four tubular forms. The three longest are joined at the lower right. The fourth and smallest tubular form, which Rahmani describes as carrot shaped, lies between the two uppermost tubes of the spray formed by the other three.
So what are they? Scholars have speculated that Variant A represents a “full-faced figure” or perhaps the hill on which Solomon’s Temple stood. Rahmani rightly rejects both of these suggestions, as he does the suggestion that Variant B is a coiled serpent. In Christianity (as in Judaism), the serpent was the incarnation of evil.
There is little doubt that these eulogiai date to the mid-sixth or early seventh century A.D., since that is the date of most eulogiai, a date confirmed by the ancient literary sources as well as by archaeology. Eulogiai are quite common, and these 16 are typical except for their inscriptions and 047images. The most common images on eulogiai are the Nativity, the Adoration of the Magi, the Baptism and the Resurrection. Eulogiai and ampullae (small decorated flasks) seem to have been the most popular devotionalia, or pilgrim mementos, of the time. They vary widely in quality; the Solomon eulogiai are among the cheapest, presumably for the poorest pilgrims. These items are barely a half inch in diameter.
In Rahmani’s words, eulogiai “were considered a safeguard to the living, and perhaps even to the dead.” Mere possession and display was thought to assure a pilgrim of safety. Sometimes, to get the proper effect, the eulogia was rubbed or scraped. Many in this collection are worn from rubbing, and several show intentional chips at the edges.
The inscription tells us in effect that it was Solomon who was bestowing the blessing in this case. And Solomon, an ancestor of Jesus, is known for his wisdom and power. To demonstrate Solomon’s wisdom and power, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus tells of a man who was cured of a demonic spell when a kind of shaman pronounced Solomon’s name and had the possessed man inhale from “a ring which had under its seal one of the roots prescribed by Solomon.” In another passage, Josephus refers to a root as having curative powers, and indeed, ancient literature contains many references to the healing power of roots.
This is the key to Rahmani’s identification of the spaghetti images on the eulogiai: They are Solomonic roots that have the power to dispossess demons and cure diseases.
The Solomon eulogiai probably originated at a holy place connected to Solomon. In the Byzantine period, the burial place of Solomon and David was pointed out to pilgrims about a half mile from Bethlehem. The site is mentioned in several pilgrim itineraries. This is where these eulogiai were probably manufactured and sold to pilgrims.
The final question is why Rahmani’s article, from which I have copiously copied, makes me sad. Actually, I revel in its careful scholarship and clever insights. But all this has been possible only because the two collections of eulogiai from which the Solomon exemplars came were purchased on the antiquities market, the larger one in 1973 by the venerable British Museum, which acquired the collection from a London antiquities dealer. And this would be a no-no today. The museum’s stated policy is to acquire only “those objects that have documentation to show that they were exported from their country of origin before 1970.” There are enough weasel words in the museum’s policy statement to allow the acquisition of something important that the museum really wants, but in general it’s “Stay away from unprovenanced articles.” As to the eulogiai in question, curator Chris Entwistle advised me, “If they were to appear on the market today, the museum would probably only give the matter of their acquisition any consideration if their country of origin was established beyond doubt [which could not be done in this case] and if, after consultation with the relevant country’s antiquities authority, they raised no objections to the British Museum’s acquisition of them.”
Thus, if these eulogiai came on the market today, they would probably be sold not to the museum, but to someone who would keep them a secret lest he be vilified by the archaeological establishment. I am sad because of all the knowledge that we are probably losing by this foolish policy. We should be grateful to people who ransom valuable antiquities that come on the market so that we can all be the beneficiaries of the knowledge of the past they can unlock. I am grateful to Dr. Rahmani not only for his insights, but for his courage in helping us all learn from unprovenanced artifacts.
I read an interesting article in a recent issue of the Israel Exploration Journal that intrigued but also saddened me.1 It is about 16 eulogiai (singular, eulogia) inscribed in Greek simply with the name “Solomon.” A eulogia, literally, “blessing,” is a small token that operated as a kind of good-luck charm, mostly associated with a particular Christian pilgrim shrine. Christian travelers frequently came home with eulogiai from pilgrimage journeys in the Byzantine period (fourth to seventh century A.D.).a The article is by L.Y. Rahmani, a longtime scholar at the Israel Antiquities Authority, now retired. He examines these Solomon eulogiai […]