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Question of the month

Faith or magic?

We have had this strange pendant for years and have no idea where it is from or what it means except that it may have rune symbols on it.

Answer

Talisman with ancient Christian symbols. Photo by F. Collier.

What you can see on your object are not Runes but a complex combination of early Christian symbols forming a protective talisman. The large symbol in the centre is the Ichthys from the Greek word for fish.  Today the fish symbol is usually depicted running horizontally rather than vertically. The word Ichthys was used as a mnemonic of "Iesus Christos Theou Yious Soter" which translates as "Jesus Christ (the anointed one) Son of God and Saviour".  Early Christians avoided the cross symbol we associate with Christianity today; the fish being the most common symbol during the first three centuries of the common era.

The head and tail of the fish are formed into stylized Alpha and Omega symbols. These are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. In Christian iconography they stand for the beginning and the end; God is the beginning and end of all things, referring to the "always was and always will be" of the Bible.

Bisecting the Ichthys is a Staurogram. The Staurogram is a combination of the Greek letters Tau (T) and Rho (P) which if you superimpose them looks like a person hanging on a cross, the top of the Rho forming the head of the person. The word comes from Stauros (cross) and this symbol appears in early Gospel fragments from the 2nd century CE for the Crucifixion. They have added a short tail to the top of the Rho (P) so it can also stand for an Alpha and the Tau (T) terminates with an Omega which makes another "the beginning and the end" symbol.

The four crosses in circles situated in the corners added to the Stuarogram represents five crucifixion symbols. This signifies the Five Holy Wounds of Christ: nail punctures in both hands and feet and a spear wound to the side. The Five Holy Wounds was a very common symbol in the medieval period often being represented by five circles or a five pointed pentagram star.  Interestingly, the four small crosses surrounding a larger central one representing the Five Holy Wounds can still be seen on the national flag of Georgia and on the Jerusalem Cross. 

As to where it is from and when it was made I cannot even guess. Greek was the language of the early Christian church as it was the common language in use throughout the Eastern and Southern Roman empire. Even when Latin took over as the official language of the Catholic Church the Greek symbols remained.  It is a rather complex combination of symbols to form a talisman, so I expect it was made by or for someone with knowledge of Christian mystical traditions. It is quite possible that there are more combinations of symbols that I have missed, as each letter was considered to hold a numerical value which could be added to give a further protective mystical value.

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