BARABANOV N.D. Hair-Snakes. To the Issue of the Semantics of Byzantine Phylacteries with “Hystera”


Nikolay D. Barabanov

Candidate of Sciences (History), Associate Professor,

Department of Russian and General History, Archaeology, Volgograd State University,

Prosp. Universitetsky, 100, 400062 Volgograd, Russian Federation

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Abstract. Introduction. The article is devoted to analyzing the specific type of Byzantine phylacteries (amulets), which are a vivid manifestation of folk beliefs that combine pagan, magical and Christian components. The author talks about the so-called “coils” – pendants with the image of a head with reptiles instead of hair or simply in combination with snakes. Many of them have a magical inscription mentioning “hysteria” (uterus), which can be understood as this particular organ, as well as various harmful entities. For this reason, there is a problem of correlation of the image and the magic inscription. But the article attempts to interpret the serpentine composition in the context of its functional purpose.

Methods. In historiography, there are many opinions about what the images could represent on this type of monuments. At different times, researchers saw in the image of a head with snakes Medusa Gorgon, the dragon-Satan, Russian Aphrodite – goddess Lada, Abrasax, Sophia of Ophites, Moses’ brazen serpent, Eve and the devil, the seven-headed serpent and seven deadly sins, sisters-Likhoradkas, the dragon from the Apocalypse, the serpent of Aesculapius transformed into Satan. In addition, the composition was recognized as a “portrait” of the demon and his machinations elevated to the image of Khnubis and was considered the personification of the hysterical uterus itself.

Analysis. In the article, the meaning of the serpentine composition is considered in the comparative analysis with other images on amulets. This is possible due to the presence of stereotypes and general principles in the construction of magical drawings applied to the amulets, as well as the general meaning that is associated with the functional purpose of the phylacteries. In different types of the images on amulets, semantic emphasis is placed on reproducing the desired action. For this, phylacteries were made and used, and magical texts, signs, images of saints, the Mother of God and even Christ himself were applied to the amulet.

Results. The symbolism of the serpentine composition is revealed within the same sign system. The drawing combining a head (face) and wriggling snakes clearly represents the desired effect – the outcome, the flight of illnesses or the forces of the evil symbolized by reptiles from a person.

Key words: Byzantine Christianity, folk beliefs, amulets, phylacteries, hair-snakes.

Citation. Barabanov N.D. Hair-Snakes. To the Issue of the Semantics of Byzantine Phylacteries with “Hystera”. Vestnik Volgogradskogo gosudarstvennogo universiteta. Seriya 4. Istoriya. Regionovedenie. Mezhdunarodnye otnosheniya [Science Journal of Volgograd State University. History. Area Studies. International Relations], 2019, vol. 24, no. 6, pp. 316-330. (in Russian). DOI:

Лицензия Creative Commons

Hair-Snakes. To the Issue of the Semantics of Byzantine Phylacteries with “Hystera” by Barabanov N.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Download this file (6_Barabanov.pmd.pdf) 6_Barabanov.pmd.pdf