Heraklean Knot Serpent Armlet- an ancient gold, ruby and garnet upper arm bracelet
This Central Asian treasure is dated to the Hellenistic period of Greek history, about 4th century BC- 1st century AD, and is a beautiful and unusual piece. Style-wise, the jewel displays many classical aspects of Hellenistic jewelry, depicting the intertwined bodies of two Asclepian snakes joined in the centre by a Herakles knot, adorned with two inlaid cabochon-cut garnets and a large cabochon-cut ruby. What makes this piece so unusual is the incredible attention to detail that went into it’s construction: the snakes are lifelike, with textured heads and finely detailed faces, their bodies covered in hundreds of individually applied scales. This technique has been documented on several other artifacts, and has been attributed to the Scythian culture, since several pieces of surviving Scythian jewelry are constructed similarly.
This piece was most likely worn as a protective amulet by it’s original owner as it depicts two of the most powerful protective symbols in Greek mythology- snakes and Knots of Herakles.
The serpent is one of the oldest and most powerful symbols of fertility and creative life force in the Greek, Egyptian and Roman civilizations. It was associated with wisdom and protection in these mythologies as they often guarded the bodies and temples of the gods. Snakes were considered lucky, and snake-styled jewelry was extremely popular as talismans against evil among the elite of these cultures. Aesculapian snakes were considered particularly special due to their association with Asclepius, the Greek god of healing and medicine, who carried a rod entwined with an Aesculapian serpent.
The Herakles Knot depicts a strong knot created by two intertwined ropes, and was another powerful symbol in Greek, Egyptian, and Roman beliefs. Originally used as a healing charm in Egypt, the Greeks and Romans utilized the motif in protective amulets, believing it to avert evil and illness. It was often incorporated in jewelry and clothing (most commonly girdles worn by brides), but has been found in mosaics, sculpture, metalwork and pottery. Although it was a common symbol in Hellenistic jewelry design, it’s use in combination with snake imagery is notably less so, with only two other pieces of jewelry (both armlets) having been found so far.
Hellenistic jewelry was also quite popular outside of the Greek civilization and was coveted by the nomadic Scythians, Persians and other cultures that traded extensively with Greek settlements. This sparked a thirst for Greek art across Eurasia, influencing craftsmen to adopt the Greek style in their art and jewelry. Some styles were so perfectly copied that it is sometimes impossible to determine who crafted an item, or even exactly where it was made.
Such is the case with this piece. Although it has been attributed to the Scythians, it is not known exactly where it was made as the Scythian Empire stretched across Central Asia, into the Eurasian Steppes and up the coast of the Northern Black Sea. Trade within the Empire was extensive and as the armlet is made of widely traded inorganic materials, the conclusive dating and mapping of it’s origin may be truly impossible. For now, we’ll say it’s a Scythian product.
All I know is it’s beautiful and it’s history makes it even more special to me. It’s a perfect Jewel of the Month!
Xx – Ana