November 15, 2016

Right Back Atcha: καί σύ Inscriptions and ‘Apotropaic’ Text

Apotropaic art, symbols or objects are those which have - or are reputed to have - the power of averting evil influence or ill luck. Many images and inscriptions from the Greek and Roman worlds are believed to have served an apotropaic function. The Greek phrase “καί σύ”, usually inscribed ‘KAICY’, is one such example. Literally translated “and you”, debate continues to persist as to how this type of inscription was meant to be ‘read’. Warner Slane and Dickie, amongst others, stress the apparent hostility of these inscriptions, taking καί σύ to be symbolic of apotropaic phallic aggression (1993: 492; see also Trentin 2015: 51-72 and Clarke 2007: 65).

For instance, in the House of the Evil Eye at Antioch, a mosaic in the vestibule depicts the Evil Eye being attacked by a raven, trident, sword, scorpion, serpent, dog, centipede, and a panther [Fig. 1] (Levi 1947: 33-4). To the left of this montage, an ithyphallic dwarf walks away from the Eye, his oversized phallus curving backwards toward it in a gesture of phallic assault. ‘KAICY’ is inscribed above his head. In this instance, image and inscription clearly work together: the καί σύ projects the violence enacted upon the Eye towards the viewer – “σύ” - warning them that such punishments will also be exacted upon them.


Fig. 1.: Roman mosaic from Antiochia, House of the Evil Eye. Hatay Arkeoloji Müzesi, Antakya, Inv.-Nr. 1024.

However it is still possible to detect, in even the most violent of examples, that καί σύ inscriptions are characteristically ‘double-sided’ and not solely intent on the infliction of injury. The aggressive character of such inscriptions has perhaps been over-stated: their language is inherently conditional and open-ended, and therefore cannot only denote hostility. The Antioch mosaic undeniably wields violence as its primary weapon in the fight against ill-will, but the accompanying inscription installs the tableau with a precondition. Crucially, the use of “καί” presents this violent imagery as a retaliation, not an instigation; that is, it is designed to be read as being in return for something committed against the household – albeit pre-emptively – and if nothing is indeed committed, then this imagery becomes non-operational. In this way, the καί σύ inscription ensures that the aggressive visual imagery only be ‘activated’ if the viewer actually qualifies as ‘evil’.

Therefore the ‘correct’ reading of a καί σύ inscription intrinsically hinges on the input of the viewer. This fundamental dynamic of reciprocity is exemplified by a pair of marble panels from Delos. They bear reliefs of two phallic monsters, with phalluses for heads, threatening each other (Warner Slane & Dickie 1993: 492). Below the two monsters on one panel are inscribed the words “τουτο εμοι|και τουτο σοι”, and on the other “τουτο σοι|και τουτο εμοι” (“That which is done to me, is also done to you” and “That which is done to you, is also done to me”). Each phallic creature declares to the other that for every hit he receives, his opponent will receive the same. But the language leaves it unclear as to who the instigator and retaliator are in this situation; one phallus-creature cannot take action without the other, thus rendering a humorous stalemate. Perhaps this matching-pair of inscriptions is a direct, tongue-in-cheek reference to the prolific “καί σύ” (either they deliberately expand upon the widespread phrase or we could in fact consider καί σύ to be an abbreviation of this longer inscription) for they neatly convey the inextricable relationship such texts are intended to have with their reader and enactor.

Given this patent equilibrium, we can further assert that καί σύ inscriptions were also used to transmit good fortune as well as bad. Not only did they withhold aggression for the correct recipient, they in fact reflected whatever came their way. This is verified by the fact that “καί σύ” also appears alongside more beneficent imagery - yet the auspicious capacity of these inscriptions has long been overlooked. In the vestibule mosaic at the House of Dionysus in Nea Paphos, the words “ΧΑΙΡΕΙ” and “ΚΑΙCΥ” are inscribed in tabula ansata (a "Christmas cracker" shape) either side of a depiction of the four seasons (Kondoleon 1995: 85). The mosaic’s scheme accentuates the threshold in a typical manner - “ΧΑΙΡΕΙ” unambiguously greets the entrant - but the καί σύ here explicitly accompanies imagery evocative of bountifulness, and thus it is these beneficial implications toward σύ, the viewer. It is clearly meant to be read in direct conjunction with “ΧΑΙΡΕΙ”, the two inscriptions ‘bookending’ the visual ensemble. Therefore, the καί σύ inscription still interjects at the moment of threshold transition in the same way as the Antioch mosaic, but does so by projecting positive themes rather than aggressive ones. Equally, however, we should assume it implicit that the reader who entered this house with bad intentions would, conversely, have had a suitably violent response intended for them, facilitated by the duality of a καί σύ.

This pervasive inscription is comprised of only two short words, yet yields surprising polysemy. The open-ended nature of the language of these inscriptions - inherently bilateral but also inherently conditional - generated a relationship with the viewer that was intrinsically oscillating and irreconcilable, neither able to confirm its own status without that of the other. These inscriptions were indispensable in directing the ‘correct’ reading of the visual imagery they accompanied, and capable of turning such images on their head entirely. Thus the study of apotropaic inscriptions is extremely pertinent to the wider discussion of the meaning and perception of text in classical society; the inscriptions examined here possess palpable multivalence and even magical qualities, transcending the limitations of that which was simply just ‘written’.


Clarke, John R. (2007) Looking at Laughter: Humor, Power, and Transgression in Roman Visual Culture, 100 B.C.- A.D. 250 University of California Press.
Kondoleon, Christine (1995) Domestic and Divine: Roman Mosaics in the House of Dionysus Cornell University Press: London.
Levi, Doro (1947) Antioch Mosaic Pavements (Vol.1) Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Trentin, Lisa (2015) The Hunchback in Hellenistic and Roman Art Bloomsbury: London.
Warner Slane, Kathleen & Dickie, M. W. (1993) ‘A Knidian Phallic vase from Corinth’ pp. 483-505 in Hesperia: Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens Vol.62, No.4 (Oct-Dec 1993).

Kathryn Thompson is a second year PhD student, supervised by Prof. Alison Cooley. She is investigating the concept of 'apotropaic' art and symbolism in the Greek and Roman worlds. Currently Kathryn is conducting a re-evaluation of this terminology itself, by considering the extent to which the 'apotropaic' can be considered an invention of late eighteenth and nineteenth century anthropological discourse.

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