A 1935 discovery during early excavations at the northern Roman town of Corbridge, Northumberland yielded a singularly fascinating magical object for Roman Britain. The object in focus here is a gold finger ring, decorated in openwork and consisting of sixteen facets, the edges of each are decorated with openwork peltas and each facet contains a letter or a leaf-stop.
The effect is to create elaborate see-through lettering. The letters are all Greek and spell out the phrase:
ΠOΛEMIOYΦIΛTPON (transliteration: Polemiou philtron) which translates as “The love charm of Polemius”.
In a recent blog I discussed the importance of written words and phrases to install good luck on an object or the person who uses it and this ring appears to use the same sort of magical mechanism – words as a source of supernatural power (van den Hoek et al. 2015). It was found in the relatively metropolitan site of Corbridge so the use of Greek shouldn’t come as a shock as the Greek language did feature throughout most of the province of Roman Britain. The ring is in the British Museum and published in Roman Inscriptions of Britain II (Frere and Tomlin 1991, no. 2422.12).
There are a great many betrothal charms from Roman Britain which are worn as declarations of love, often showing two people kissing or right-hands clasped in the dextrarum iuncto – a symbol of marriage. Other love tokens use phrases such as ‘My Darling’, ‘Sweet love’, or ‘Live for me’ and thus the Polemius charm doesn’t really fit into this category of ‘Romantic love’.
It may be presumed that the ring was owned by a man named Polemius, but it is possible that the name relates to the craftsperson producing the object. It is also, somewhat unclear how such an object may be used. Following the presumption that it is owned by Polemius, he may have worn it himself as an object intending to provide support in his love life (love life/sex life, who knows?) – in the same way that a Utere felix device might promote good luck and a generalised supernatural benefit to its user, this ring aimed to use the power of words to achieve this more specific function.
Perhaps he may have intended to give the ring to the object of his affections? Whether this was with or without their knowledge could be of serious interest. As a declaration of love between two people, it makes sense as an affectionate love-token, but as a clandestine object secreted on or around a person to influence their emotions through magical means it takes on a wholly different meaning. The specific ritual use of a ring in this manner is certainly unclear – the Papyri Grecae Magicae and Papyri Demoticae Magicae offer no real clues because, despite the existence of a number of spells and rituals which utilise a finger ring (PGM VII.628-42, XII.201-69, XII.270-350; PDM XII 6-20) all require the use of a setting or intaglio as the focal element of the magical rite rather than an inscription incorporated into the band itself. Thus we might consider the ring a bespoke creation – a unique thing made for or by Polemius.
Many of the more familiar Greek Magical gemstones (see the Campbell-Bonner database of the international corpus and an earlier blog on one such example from Britain) incorporate Greek lettering or whole Greek words into their imagery. Polemius’ charm does not, however, use many of the other ‘magical’ elements (voces magicae, vowel series, palindromes, images or names of Gods, demons and other supernatural entities) visible in such examples.
The singular named link, of Polemius (and I am assuming that this name refers to a real human rather than a deity, demon or other supernatural force) intricately ties the efficacy of this object to one man. The question is whether Polemius was the person who created other charms on demand, as ritual practitioner (dare I say it, ‘magician’?) and it was his esoteric knowledge that formed the functioning part of the ring, or whether it was the name of the person who used it in one of the ways I briefly describe above.
Other openwork rings made from gold are personalised with names, though with less specific intensions. In this category we can include those promising long life to Aemelia (Frere and Tomlin 1991, no. 2422.1), also from Corbridge, Eusebius (Frere and Tomlin 1991, no. 2422.5) from Bedford, and Olympios from Stonham Aspal, Suffolk (Frere and Tomlin 1991, no. 2422.10). Those of Aemelia and Eusebius are written in Latin, Olympios’ in Greek.
Given the explicit named link to one person and the frequently efficacious links in magical epigraphy between objects and individuals the ring clearly was designed to fulfil a very specific problem. We might assume that Polemius was having particular problems in the love department and this ring was an attempted solution. Helping Polemius to fall in love, or for someone to love him, or for a relationship to be retained etc. The ring could have served a medicinal effect instead of a magically emotional one – as a supernatural solution to a physical problem. Impotence perhaps, or infertility?
Frere, S. S. and Tomlin, R. S. O. (eds). 1992. The Roman Inscriptions of Britain, Volume II, Fascicule 4. Stroud, Administrators of the Haverfield Bequest.
Van den Hoek, A., Feissel, D. and Hermann Jr., J. J. 2015. ‘More Lucky Wearers: The Magic of Portable Inscriptions’, in Boschung, D. and Bremmer, J. N. (eds) 2015. The Materiality of Magic (Morphomata 20). Paderborn, Wilhelm Fink. 309-356.