A few years ago, it caused quite some amusement when a large banner covering a prominent construction site in Budapest was printed with the text “Same in English”, obviously as a result of translating the accompanying instructions instead of the text itself. It was not only the size of the words that made the whole thing absurd, but also the number of people who had overlooked the blunder before it was placed on the side of the building – repeatedly, to make things worse.
Still, there is consolation in the fact that “even the ancient Greeks” made similar mistakes, and the jasper gem below from the Louvre collection is a case in point. Although an amulet is much smaller than a building facade, engraving the images and texts on the gem also required considerable effort and involved the work of several specialists, much like the making of a banner today.
These amulets were popular in the Roman imperial period, and were used mainly for achieving love and success, and for protecting health. The effectiveness of the tiny gemstones, only a few centimetres in size, was ensured by the careful combination of raw material, engraved text and image. Their production required two skills: that of a magician, who would devise the spell and design the gemstone, and that of an engraver, who would carve the stone using the magician’s notes.
The engraver of the Louvre gem must have been illiterate: he not only engraved the prescribed spells and images on the barely 3-centimetre gem, but also the manufacturing instructions. One side of the amulet reads: “and (write) the (words) below, between two falcons: βασιχε”, and the other: “around, on the back of the stone, as is worthy, the names below”. Only then come the magical names intended for the gem.
This was not an isolated phenomenon: the Collection of Classical Antiquities of the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest also possesses a magical gem, which is engraved with the instruction rather than the recipe itself: “As it is prescribed” it reads. Same in Greek.
Featured image: Information banner on the former Carmelite Monastery as it is transformed into the office of the Hungarian Prime Minister. Budapest, 2016. Source: Leiter Jakab.