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The Orpheus Amulet from the cover of The Jesus Mysteries


The Jesus Mysteries by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy was first published in 1999 in the UK and soon received a US imprint as well. Although it obtained some good reviews from journalists who knew no better (and from rent-a-quote salesman like John Selby Spong), it was ignored by academics as beneath their notice. Sadly, it gained a following on the internet and consequently I, together with a few others, made the effort to read it. My review can be found here. Those scholars who have bothered with it have been even less flattering than I was (see, for example, Reinventing Jesus).

This article deals with just one question about The Jesus Mysteries, its striking cover picture. This is illustrated below. It purports to show a fourth century amulet showing a crucified man with the inscription (in Greek) ORPHEOS BAKKIKOS. This means Orpheus Bacchus. A little bit of nifty computer-generated colouring turned the black and white pictures of the amulet into the attractive three dimensional image on the cover of the Jesus Mysteries. The amulet appears to be a magical talisman of the kind very popular in the late Roman Empire. These were used to harness the power of the stars to effect change in the earthly realm. Synthesis of symbols and names from different religions on these amulets is also not unknown. Magical practice is not shy about taking anything which might have power in order to use in its rituals. For example, in the Middle Ages, Christian prayers were used as magic spells and Christian emblems as talismans. In the fifteenth century, an Italian priest called Marsilio Ficino even revived Orphic magic as part of the humanist project to bring ancient wisdom back to light. In short, there is nothing implausible about an amulet with the image of one religion and the name from another. It is simply syncretism of a sort already known from other sources. Freke and Gandy suggested that the amulet is evidence that Jesus was based on a pagan God, but, in fact, it is no such thing.

However, this entire argument was rendered moot when I did a little research of my own. I found that the amulet is almost certainly a fake. Furthermore, Peter Gandy actually knew this but did bother make this fact known. The first half of this article outlines how we know that the amulet is probably a fraud. The second half explains how Freke and Gandy reacted to this and eventually the latter admitted he had known about it.

The History and Exposure of the Orpheus Amulet

Two views of the Orpheus amulet.  The one of the right is the enhanced version from the cover of The Jesus Mysteries

The amulet originated in Italy (from whence so many fakes have come). It was purchased by one E. Gerhard whose entire collection ended up in the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin. There, it was studied by the German epigrapher Otto Kern who included it in his seminal collection of Orphic fragments in 1922. Its inclusion in this book meant that several other scholars assumed that it was genuine including the English historian of Greek religion, W.K.C. Guthrie whose Orpheus and Greek Religion came out in 1935. Kern himself reviewed Guthrie’s book on pages 473 – 8 of a German journal called Gnomon that same year. Guthrie had discussed the amulet at some length in his book (see page 265 of the second edition from 1952) where he dismisses the idea that there was a tradition of a crucified Orpheus. He points out, rightly, that Justin Martyr in his First Apology (chapter 55), writing in the second century, had specifically ruled this out (a passage tendentiously not quoted by Freke and Gandy). However, unknown to Guthrie, an article had appeared in a journal called Aγγελος (issue 2, 1926, pp. 62ff). The title of this journal is Greek for messenger from which we get our word angel) analysing the amulet and coming to the conclusion that it was almost certainly a fake. Kern, in his review, pointed this article out with the words:

It evidently escaped [Guthrie’s] notice that the amulet with the image of the crucifix and the inscription ΟΡΦΕΟΣ ΒΑΚΚΙΚΟΣ in the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin is almost certainly a fake. One must grant credibility to such outstanding connoisseurs of this material as Joh. Reil and Rob. Zahn, who asserted this [i.e. that the amulet is a fake] in Aγγελος 2, 1926, 62ff., and one must not be put off by the fact that this Italian counterfeiter, like so many--the amulet is from Italy and came from E. Gerhard's estate to the museum in Berlin--possessed some learning and knew of the connection of Orpheus to Bacchus. (translated from the German here)

This led Guthrie to add an endnote to the second edition of Orpheus and Greek Religion where he states "In his review of this book in Gnomon (1935, p 476), Kern recants and expresses himself convinced by the expert opinion of Reil and Zahn that the gem is a forgery." Rejected by the experts, the amulet itself was largely forgotten about. Kaiser Friedrich Museum probably removed it from display once it was denounced and it has since been lost, probably when the collection was dispersed after the Second World War. The museum, now called the Bode Museum, reopened only in late 2006 after a major restoration programme. Perhaps now the museum is back in business the amulet will eventually turn up.

So, why did Reil and Zahn think that the amulet is a fake? Andrew Criddle kindly dug up the article and posted a synopsis onto the Secular Web’s discussion board. With his permission, I quote his discoveries here:

The major part of Reil and Zahn’s article is a long section by Johannes Reil who sees no problems with authenticity on technological grounds (i.e. the amulet could have been carved using the techniques of late antiquity). However, he has several problems with the iconography.

  1. The depiction of the crucified figure is medieval rather than Late Antique.
  2. The cross is Latin in shape + as in later depictions of crucifixion rather than the T shaped cross (and other variants) typical before 500 CE.
  3. The depiction of the crucified figure as alone withuot crucifiers co-crucified or devotees is unparalleled in antiquity and only appears later.
  4. The image of the moon and seven stars is very strange but may be a later development of the early symbolic use of the sun and moon in images of the crucifixion with the sun removed in response to the claim in the synoptic Gospels that the sun was darkened.

In the light of modern knowledge, 2. and 3. may be less evidential than Reil supposes, although I understand that there is still no example from antiquity of a solitary crucified figure on a Latin cross. I find 4. plausible myself others will regard it as speculative. Point 1. is, in my opinion, the strongest argument and I regard it as compelling. The figure on the amulet has bent legs brought together at the feet and hangs from bent arms. This is a characteristically medieval pose, in contrast to the straight upright figure usual in images of the crucifixion from antiquity.

To illustrate this, here are two scenes of crucifixion dating from late antiquity:

Now here are two medieval images:

It should be clear how the crucified figure on the Orpheus amulet resembles the medieval rather than the antique examples.

It seems, then, that the Orpheus amulet was betrayed by that greatest enemy of the forger – anachronism. The amulet was supposed to date from late antiquity and yet contains an image that looks medieval.  We can assume that the forger had no late antique crucifixion images to hand and so used one from the Middle Ages instead.  He probably never realised that the earlier images of crucifixion are completely different from the later ones.

While it is impossible to prove beyond doubt that the amulet is a fake, when you couple the anachronistic image with the dodgy Italian provenance, it becomes impossible to treat is as anything other than extremely suspicious.

How Much Did Freke and Gandy Know about the Amulet’s Origins

Although it features on the cover of The Jesus Mysteries, Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy are actually quite circumspect about the amulet in the text. They say that they chanced upon it late in their research in the appendices of an old academic book, without saying which one. They called it “an unexpected confirmation of the Jesus Mysteries theses.” (p. 16).

I emailed them to ask in which book they had found it. Peter Gandy kindly replied that it was in second edition of Guthrie’s Orpheus and the Greek Religion discussed above as well as R Eisler’s Orpheus the Fisher, first published in 1920. Oddly enough, it isn’t in the appendix of either of these books. On my next visit to London, I looked both these books up at the Warburg Institute and found the note in Guthrie’s work that the amulet was believed to be a fake. I couldn’t understand how Freke and Gandy failed to mention this point about the object that they had chosen to use as the cover for their book. I posted my discoveries at the Secular Web’s discussion board and word quickly reached Timothy Freke who wrote on the board:

The irony - of course- is that we are not making any spectacular claims about the amulet at all. Only that it exists - which we have taken on trust from coming across it a couple of times in our research - and that the Jesus Mysteries thesis explains it very neatly. Our thesis certainly doesn't rest on it in any way. (It is after all from the 3rd century CE if the dating is right, which we have not challenged). Our thesis is an attempt to explain a vast body of otherwise puzzling information. The amulet did play a psychological role for us, however, when it unexpectedly turned up late in our research. And of course it makes a very striking cover.

At least Freke made no attempt to defend the authenticity of the amulet. However, I was still concerned that The Jesus Mysteries did not mention the doubts about it. I blogged my discoveries and added them to the relevant Wikipedia article. Eventually, Freke and Gandy came across the Wikipedia article and wrote a rebuttal.  This includes the words:

Our reaction to the second charge of calculated dishonesty is one of indignation. This is not only the lowest form of ad hominem attack, it is also libellous. Neither of our sources mentions any doubts about the authenticity of the amulet, nor do they refer to any other scholar who had expressed such a view. Both Eisler and Guthrie clearly accept the object as genuine as they advance theories about its meaning and significance. This would be absurd if either had any doubts about its authenticity. The fact that neither professor expresses such doubts, or refers to doubts that may have been expressed by any other scholars, undermines the charge that the object ‘has long been suspected of being a fake.’ If Kern had pronounced the object a fake then why do neither Eisler and Guthrie refer to this? We can only conclude that they were either unfamiliar with his work, or that they found his evidence unconvincing and not worth repeating.

Now clearly, this is untrue, for we have already seen that the allegations about the fraud are made in the 1952 edition of Guthrie’s book – the very edition that Freke and Gandy refer us to.

In subsequent email correspondence through an intermediary, Peter Gandy eventually came clean. I will quote in full.

I have to admit that James Hannam is correct. Kern's comment is indeed in Guthrie's book! However, it is not in the endnotes but in a two page 'Supplement' that follows the endnotes. I was surprised to find that I had even marked it up! I then spent a few minutes wondering how I missed in our recent discussion, and looked again for a reference to this Supplement in the main text or endnotes but couldn't find one. (If Hannam can point to such a reference I will demur.) I then spent a few minutes wondering why Guthrie hadn't referred to this Supplement and realized that the answer is provided by the supplementary note itself. It makes clear that Kern's comments were made in a review of Guthrie's book, and hence after it was published. Therefore this Supplement can only have been added to later editions.

Clearly I had come across Kern's comment some nine years ago when I originally read this book, and yet I ignored it then as irrelevant. I still consider it irrelevant for he following reasons. What does it actually tell us? It makes clear that Kern originally considered the amulet genuine but later 'recanted' on the evidence of Reil and Zahn. However, it does not tell us why Kern recanted, or provide the evidence of Reil and Zahn that convinced him. And again I ask the question. Why did Guthrie relegate Kern's comment to a two line comment in a Supplement instead of re-writing the passage on the amulet or removing it completely? Clearly neither Kern's evidence, or that of Reil and Zahn, can have convinced him that such action was necessary.

Now although Guthrie says that Kern 'recanted' this is not strictly true. Ironically, I only discovered this when following the link to the Kern article provided by Hannam. What Kern actually says is that it 'is almost certainly a fake.' I was also disappointed to note that the article provides none of the evidence which made Kern change his mind. Nor is the evidence of Reil and Zahn presented either, although the website promises to post it in the future. Does Hannam have this information? I would like to see it if he does. And if he doesn't, on what basis was he convinced that the amulet was a forgery, as Kern only says that he thought it 'almost certainly' was but offers no evidence to back this up.

So our position remains the same. The amulet has not been proved to be a forgery. Eisler accepted it as genuine, as did Kern originally. And Guthrie continued to allow his book to be published in its original form despite Kern's reservation. Hannam and the author of the wikipedia article (and I have a suspicion that they are the same person) will have to do a lot better than this if they want to go around claiming that the amulet has been proved to be a forgery. This is presumably why they have resorted to spin and attacks upon our integrity.

We now know that Gandy did come across the allegation that the gem was a fake and ignored it. He probably forgot about the subject subsequently. His points in the email above about the supplement only being attached the to later editions of Guthrie's book are irrelevant because it was the later edition that he referred to.

In summary, not only is the cover of The Jesus Mysteries probably a fake, but at least one author of the book knew this and kept quiet about it.

My thanks to Andrew Criddle and Melchior Sternfels v. Fuchshaim for their research and help with this article.  Thanks also for their permission to quote material here.

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© James Hannam 2006.
Last revised: 08 December, 2009