Whilst excavating an ancient city in southwest Cyprus, a team of archeologists unearthed a rather intriguing object - an amulet inscribed with a 59-letter palindrome written in Greek. Palindromes are sequences of characters, such as words or numbers, which read the same backward or forward. “Go hang a salami, I’m a lasagna hog,” is an example of a palindrome.
The discovery was made back in 2011 by archeologists working on the Paphos Agora Project, an exploratory venture of a gathering place (agora) at the ancient city of Nea Paphos. Paphos is one of the most important archeological sites in Cyprus and is the most famous place for worshipping Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, in ancient times.
Amulets are small objects that are either worn or offered to a deity because the owner believes that it will magically impart a certain power or form of protection from harm. The amulet, which is thought to be around 1,500 years old, is engraved on both sides. One side has several images, such as Harpocrates, the god of silence, whereas the other features a palindromic inscription written in Greek. It reads:
ΙΑΕW ΒΑΦΡΕΝΕΜ ΟΥΝΟΘΙΛΑΡΙ ΚΝΙΦΙΑΕΥΕ ΑΙΦΙΝΚΙΡΑΛ ΙΘΟΝΥΟΜΕ ΝΕΡΦΑΒW ΕΑΙ
As reported by Live Science, this translates to “Iahweh (a god) is the bearer of the secret name, the lion of Re secure in his shrine.” The sequence actually features a couple of mistakes, with a “p” written twice when it should have been a “v.”
The use of palindromes can be traced back to at least 2,000 years ago, but they became popular during the Middle Ages. It is thought that early Christians may have developed these sequences as a secret way to signal their presence to each other without risking exposing themselves to persecution.
As mentioned, the other side of the amulet features several different images, such as a mummy lying on a boat, which could represent the Egyptian god Osiris. A picture of Harpocrates, the god of silence, sitting on a stool and holding his hand to his lips is also shown. A dog-headed creature of Greek and Egyptian mythology, called a cynocephalus, is also shown, which appears to be mimicking Harpocrates’ pose. Further descriptions of the amulet can be found in the journal Studies in Ancient Art and Civilization.
Interestingly, according to the author of the journal article Joachim Śliwa, some of the images have been given unusual features which could indicate that the inscriber may have been confused about some of the mythological characters represented. For example, Harpocrates should be sitting on a lotus flower rather than a stool, and should not have been given mummy bandages.