Banded agate ring stone

Period: Hellenistic

Date: 3rd–2nd century B.C.

Culture: Italic

Medium: Agate, banded

Dimensions: Other: 5/16 x 1/16 x 1/2 in. (0.8 x 0.2 x 1.3 cm)

Classification: Gems

Credit Line: Gift of John Taylor Johnston, 1881

Accession Number: 81.6.28


This banded agate ring stone represents Hermes wearing a chlamys (short cloak) and a winged cap, and holding the kerykeion (herald's staff). The god is pulling a bearded figure from the ground, presumably a soul emerging from the shades. The image has been interpreted as a representation of Hermes in his role of Psychopompos (guide of the souls), escorting the souls of the dead to the banks of the River Styx. According to a different interpretation of the subject, here Hermes is bringing a dead person back to life, an iconography connected to Pythagorean doctrines popular in Etruria at the time when the gem was carved.
Engraved letters frequently accompany the figural design on antique gems. These can refer either to the artist or the owner of the gemstone, or to the subject represented on the gem. This agate is inscribed with the letters C.A.D., presumably the initials of the gem's owner, who might have used it as a seal. The letters are carved in reverse in the stone, so that they would read correctly once impressed on clay or wax.