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An example of the head-piece in use: a broadside published in 1611 by the Council for Virginia (see the facsimile reproduced in the second-window aside documenting this country’s earliest representative institution, the Virginia House of Burgesses, along with little-known founding principles of universal suffrage and of full representation in 1620s–1650s Virginia).

For more about the gnostic mystery religions of the 2nd–3rd centuries, see the IN BRIEF topic on gnosticism.

The “Hermetick Philosophy,” which influenced so many artists & scientists during the Renaissance and early-modern periods, originated in the gnostic mystery religions of the 2nd–3rd centuries. For more, see the IN BRIEF topic on hermeticism.

For biographical data on women printers, publishers, booksellers, patrons and authors active in the 17th-century scientific/technical book trade, see the List of women involved with the growth of early British science & technology, including the trades in’s REFERENCES section.

For more about women’s role in the 17th-century scientific/technical book trade, see the revised edition of’s GALLERY EXHIBIT on “Women in the Print Trade” (forthcoming).


First Published:  September 2008
Revised (substantive):  28 June 2022

17th-century head-piece symbolizing the hunt for truth

Study: Head-piece No. 1

THE ALLEGORICAL HEAD-PIECE reproduced above is a Gnostic emblem, symbolizing the hunt for truth, which was first used by English printers (as far as I know) in 1583, and last used by them over 100 years later, in 1693.

To date (September 2017) I have documented printers’ use of this head-piece in 142 printed works, beginning in 1583 with Abraham Fleming’s edition of the dictionary by Guillaume Morel (1505–1564), Verborum Latinorum cum Græcis Gallicisque conjunctorum, locupletissimi commentarii, printed by Henry Bynneman (“Londini: In ædibus Henrici Bynnemani, per assignationem Richardi Huttoni. Cum privilegio Regiæ Majestatis, [1583].”), and culminating in 1693 with the 8th edn. of The Works of Mr. Abraham Cowley, edited by Thomas Sprat (“London: Printed for Henry Herrringman; and are to be sold by R. Bentley, J. Tonson, F. Saunders, and T. Bennet, MDCXCIII.”).

Over the century, multiple women (authors, printers and booksellers) also produced books using the design. Three of Margaret Cavendish’s texts feature the head-piece — the 1662 and 1663 printings of Orations of Divers Sorts, Accommodated to Divers Places (neither of which names a printer or publisher on the title-page, but both of which, I surmise, were printed by William Wilson) and the 1667 issue of The Life of ... William Cavendish, Duke ... of Newcastle, printed by Anne Maxwell. Other women printers who used the head-piece design include Anne Godbid and Hannah Sawbridge, as well as publishers Joyce Norton and Anne Seile.

Harold Bailey’s interpretation of the symbolism

Harold Bailey’s The Lost Language of Symbolism reproduces 1,418 examples of emblems and emblematic motifs used as trademarks and decorative devices in Europe, from their first appearance in 1282, through the latter half of the 18th century. Bailey interprets these as “thought-fossils or thought-crystals in which lie enshrined the aspirations and traditions of the numerous mystic and puritanic sects [e.g., “the pre-Reformation Protestant sects known in France as the Albigeois and Vaudois, and in Italy as the Cathari or Patarini”] by which Europe was overrun in the Middle Ages.” Such Gnostic heresies, though nominally stamped out by the Vatican, existed secretly for several centuries after their disappearance from recorded history. Thus, according to Bailey, the awakening known as the Renaissance was the direct result of an influence deliberately and traditionally exercised by paper-makers, printers, cobblers, and other artisans and journeymen. As such, “The nursing mother of the Renaissance, and consequently of the Reformation, was not, as hitherto assumed, Italy, but the Provençal district of France.” (H. Bailey, The Lost Language of Symbolism, 1.2)

Bailey contends that the embellishments used by early printers, beginning in the Middle Ages, are emblems similar to those used as watermarks by paper-makers, and explicable by a similar code of interpretation. By the time Bailey was writing in 1912, “Most of these signs have entirely lost their primitive significance, and are now used purely for commercial purposes; but there was a time when they were not only trade signs, but were also hieroglyphics, under which the pearl of great price was revered.” (H. Bailey, The Lost Language of Symbolism, 1.3) As an example, Bailey cites continuing use of the unicorn, traditionally a symbol of spiritual purity, in trademarks.

Even to-day an ancient unicorn, which has evidently drifted down with the tide of time, may be seen in use as a sign outside a druggist’s shop in Antwerp; and a well-known firm of English chemists employs the same emblem as its trade-mark — once, evidently, a mute claim to purity of drugs. In each case the sign, having outlived its century, has survived as a mere convention, a form from which the spirit has long since flown. Among the Puritan paper-makers and printers of the Middle Ages the unicorn served obviously as an emblem, not of material but of moral purity.

(Harold Bailey, The Lost Language of Symbolism, 2 vols., 1.23)

Bailey interprets’s Head-piece No. 1 as an emblem of what Aubrey called “Hermetick Philosophy.” According to Bailey, the theme of the head-piece is spiritual wayfinding, and there is even a loose connection here with mapping, and the mystical meanings of English placenames such as Wakefield and Wakering.

The Gnostics had various means of symbolizing the spiritual journey, understood by mystics as a double purification of the Understanding and of the Will of the initiate. The figure of Hermes, mystically identified with Christ (the guider of souls), was often used.

Among the Greeks the God of good luck and of dice or the cubes was Hermes. Hermes, the Greek Logos, the golden-shod Emissary and Herald of Heaven — like Anubis — was regarded as the Conductor of Souls; and in Leighton’s familiar picture, “The return of Persephone,” it is Hermes who is depicted leading Persephone from the realms of Darkness into Daylight.
     Hermes, entitled Trismegistus, “thrice greatest,” was invoked as “the Eye of Mind,” as Mind itself, and as the altogether Good or God.
     The magic instrument with which Hermes, the Good Shepherd, either lulled the tired to slumber or roused the sleeping into wakefulness, was the white-ribboned staff or wand caduceus — a word suggesting duce, the leading light, and ca, the Great A.
     Among the Latins Hermes the Guide — i.e. Guy de, the shining Sense or Mistletoe — was known as Mercury, i.e. the ‘Fire of merak,’ the Great Mare. In the emblem herewith
facsimile of 17th-century printer's ornament (Bailey's Fig. 995)
the caduceus is spanned by an encompassing winged horse or mare.
     The symbols of Mercury, the great Mind or Mare, were a lizard and a cock, and among the animals sacrificed to him was a pregnant sow....
     The pagan god of ways was Mercury, to whom numerous statues were erected at the roadsides and at the cross-roads. These so-called herms or hermæ were particularly placed at three-road-junctions, and so numerous were these holy three-ways or trivia that the word trivial came to denote something commonplace and negligible. Under the name Terminus, Hermes was the God of boundaries, and the name Terminus cannot but be related to the British Ermine Street.
     There is a second very famous prehistoric Way, of which the remains crop up in various parts of England under the name of “The Ichnield Way.” This is supposed to have derived its name from Boadicea’s tribe, the Iceni, but the origin is probably older. In Greek ichnos means a track, and ichneia a tracking. A certain kind of lizard is termed ichneumon, because, says Skeat, “it tracks out and devours crocodiles’ eggs.” The name ichneumon may be resolved into ik en Hu mon, the “Great One, the Solitary Hu.”

(Harold Bailey, The Lost Language of Symbolism, 2 vols., 2.110–113)

In addition, the dog (“the hound of heaven”) — which features in the lower left and right corners of’s Head-piece No. 1 — was identified with “the pathfinder”: a leader and opener of ways to the gods. Rabbits — top left and right corners of the head-piece — were also sacred symbols associated with wayfinding in both material and spiritual worlds.

A third great ancient British main road is known as London Stone, and elsewhere as Watling Street. The wat of this name may be compared with the uat of Up-uat, the Egyptian opener of the ways.
     In Tudor England wat was a colloquial name for the hare or coney, and in the design herewith [i.e.,’s Head-piece No. 1] hares are associated with twin bowmen and with horned or intelligent hounds which are nosing along the ground towards the central figure of Eros or Cupid, the five-rayed unaging Child.
     The name wat suggests that the hare or rabbit may have been thus named because it is one of this animal’s characteristics to make well-defined runs or tracks across the meadows; and this idea is somewhat strengthened by the fact that the method of a hare’s running was used by the Druids for divination. The course of a hare set free from the bosom of Boadicea, persuaded that unfortunate Queen of the Iceni to her disastrous action.

(Harold Bailey, The Lost Language of Symbolism, 2 vols., 2.113)

Here, “Eros or Cupid, the five-rayed unaging Child” (seated figure in center of’s Head-piece No. 1) is the symbol for divinity. In Gnostic lore, Eros, the God of Love or Attraction, represented the first principle of animation: the father of Gods and men, and the regulator and disposer of all things. It was said that Eros pervaded the universe, and was self-illuminating, bringing pure light with the motion of his wings. “The ancients regarded the number five as sacred to the God of Light, and the attributes of Deity were held to consist of five, namely, Being, Sameness, Diversity, Motion, and Rest.” (H. Bailey, 1.109)

The bow and arrow — symbols of divine love & power, fire & lightening — are traditionally associated with Cupid, and in the head-piece, the arrows of the two bowmen are tipped with the heart of Eros. According to Bailey, “English Bows were almost invariably cut from Yew trees, and that the evergreen Yew (Greek, taxos) was a sacred tree is evident from its appearance, generally as twins, in Churchyards.” (H. Bailey, 2.54)

The pairing of figures (dogs, rabbits, birds, flowers) is also significant. Twins were another sacred symbol, evoking Castor and Pollux, the celestial twins of Love and Knowledge (spirituality and science, will and understanding) — “beneficent, star-browed brethren, known to the Greeks as the Dioscuri” — and by extension, humanity’s dual character (i.e., a hard and a soft side, a worser and a better self). (H. Bailey, 2.6)

To the extent that authors and printers and audiences understood the symbolism of the head-piece — and I expect some did — it is not surprising to find it used in so many early English books of science and navigation. It was an appropriate and intriguing choice.

Image database and analyses

I am still building the image database with digital facsimiles of’s Head-piece No. 1 from 142 early-modern texts. When the tables and lists are ready, the following will change to active links.

  Table of 16th- and 17th-Century Printers & Publishers Associated with’s Head-Piece No. 1

  Annotated List of 16th- and 17th-Century Uses of’s Head-Piece No. 1 (with links to image database)
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Tail-piece from Thomas Johnson's edn. of Gerard's _Herball_ (1633 and 1636)

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