Amulets and Talismans

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AMULETS AND TALISMANS . An amulet is an object, supposedly charged with magical power, that is carried on the person or displayed in a house, barn, or place of business in order to ward off misadventure, disease, or the assaults of malign beings, demonic or human. A talisman is an object similarly used to enhance a person's potentialities and fortunes. Amulets and talismans are two sides of the same coin. The former are designed to repel what is baneful; the latter, to impel what is beneficial. The employment of both (which is universal) rests on the belief that the inherent quality of a thing can be transmitted to human beings by contact.

The choice of objects used as amulets and talismans is determined by several different criteria. They may be (1) of unusual form, such as perforated stones; (2) rare, such as four-leaved clovers; (3) medicinal herbs or flowers, such as mugwort (thought to ease childbirth) or various kinds of febrifuges; (4) parts of animals exemplifying certain characteristics (for example, of a hare for swiftness or a bull for strength), or deemed potent in protecting from attacks by those animals; (5) relics of holy or heroic persons, or even dust from their graves, regarded as imbued with those persons' "numinous" charisma; (6) figurines of gods and goddesses; (7) models of common objects to which a symbolic significance is attributed, such as miniature ladders exemplifying the means of the soul's ascent to heaven; (8) exotic objects of foreign provenience, which are held to contain powers not normally available in a given society. The color of an object may also be decisive, on the basis of "like affects like"; a red stone, for instance, may be thought to relieve bloody flux or menstrual disorders and a yellow stone, to ward off jaundice. Ubiquitous also are models of the male and female genitalia, to increase procreation and sexual pleasure, and threads, to bind evil spirits.

Nor is it only in material things that magical power is thought to reside. Since, in primitive thought, the name of a person is not a mere verbal appellation but an essential component of his being (like his shadow or voice), that of a god or demon written on a slip or engraved on a gem or a medallion can serve as an effective amulet or talisman. Similarly, a text relating some feat or special benefit, especially the discomfiture of a demon, dragon, or monster, associated in traditional myth and folklore with a god or hero, may be regarded as charged with the power that accomplished that deed, so that to carry such a text on one's person transmits that power and perpetuates it. Scrolls or scripts containing excerpts from scriptures accepted as divinely inspired and therefore instinct with the divine essence, or (in medieval Christian usage) copies of letters said to have fallen from heaven are likewise favored.

Sometimes, howeverespecially when an amulet is directed against human rather than demonic enemiesthe procedure adopted is not to enlist the influence and charisma of gods or "numinous" objects but to scare potential attackers by exhibiting in houses statuettes or figurines of monstrous, terrifying creatures. The Babylonians, for instance, fashioned models of the head and body of the grim demon Pazuzu, and one form of Greek amulet was the head of a gorgon whose eye could petrify would-be assailants.

Of salient importance is the material out of which an amulet or talisman is made, since the magic power is inherent in, not merely associated with, the object itself. Gems have to be of substances and colors believed to convey qualities efficacious for particular needs and written texts have to be inscribed on specified skins and in special inks or pigments.

Amulets and talismans borne on the person take the form of ornamentsbrooches, lockets, pendants, seals, and sachets. Indeed, it is maintained by several authorities that what came eventually to be mere decorations were originally designed for protection.

A cardinal feature of amulets in many cultures is that they are esoteric and although, to be sure, they are often exhibited in full view on the walls of rooms and buildings, when they are carried on the person it is often a requirement that they must not be revealed to anyone except to the one who uses them on a specific occasion, to the magicians who make and dispense them, and to the hostile beings against whom they are directed. For this reason they are commonly concealed in the clothing or tucked away in bags or small cases. Moreover, in the case of written texts, they frequently employ cryptic alphabets or are couched in gibberish (known as ephesia grammata perhaps a distortion of aphasia grammata, i.e., "unutterable letters"), supposed to be the scripts and languages of gods and demons. (These can sometimes be identified as genuine ancient scripts and tongues garbled in the course of the ages.) Signs of the zodiac and conventional symbols of constellations and metals also appear, because such signs are, like names, part and parcel of what they represent and because the inherent properties of constellations and metals are believed to control human fate and fortune. Common too are permutations of letters spelling out in esoteric fashion the words of the text. Thus (to use English equivalents) z will substitute for a, y for b, and so forth. In much the same way, the initial or final letters of words in a scriptural verse will be used instead of writing it out in full, and in alphabetical systems (like Hebrew) where each letter also possesses a numerical value (i.e., a = l, b = 2, etc.), a combination of letters that add up to the same total as those of the word intendeda device known as gematria (probably a distortion of the Greek grammateia )is employed. (The Library of Congress possesses the manuscript of a complete Hebrew Bible so written as a manual for the preparation of amulets!) A further device is the use of magical squares, each vertical column and each horizonal line of which adds up to the same sum, and all of them together spelling by gematria the name of God or of a protective angel.

The esoteric character of amuletic texts, it may be added, is matched in oral spells by having them recited in a whisper or crooned in a low voice. Indeed, this is the primary meaning of the term incantation.

Written amulets frequently express their numinous character by beginning with the words "In the name of [this or that god]" (e.g., the Arabic Bismillah, "In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate") and by being interspersed with religious signs (e.g., the cross, swastika, or shield of David), and their efficacy is increased by marks or letters (ss or kh ) indicating that their recitation is to be accompanied by hissing and spitting to ward off demons. They also feature strings of vowel letters standing cryptically for the powers of angels or planets. Sometimes too the power of a written amulet is conveyed not simply by wearing it but by immersing it in water that is then drunk.

Amulets and talismans seem to have been in use even in prehistoric times, for cowrie shells, celts, arrowheads, and stones buried with the dead (a practice surviving throughout the ages) were evidently intended to protect them in the afterworld. Amuletic too were the pictures of eyes painted on prehistoric walls and monuments; these represented the providential vigilance of benevolent gods or spirits, countering the evil eye of the malevolent demons.

It is obviously impossible in the space of this article to describe in detail the whole host of amulets and talismans current all over the world. We shall therefore confine ourselves to representative examples of the principal types drawn from various cultures ancient and modern.

Historically, the oldest amulets came from Egypt. Dating as far back as the fourth millennium bce, these take the form of images and figurines made of faience, feldspar, carnelian, obsidian, jasper, and the like wrapped in the bandages that swathed mummies. Each limb of the corpse had its appropriate amulet, usually placed over it. In addition to figurines of gods and goddesses there are miniature hearts, eyes of Horus, frogs, ladders, and steps. The eyes of Horus (usually a pair), made of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, hematite, or porcelain, represented the all-powerful might and watchfulness of that god and were worn also by the living to bring health and protection. The frog, emblematic of teeming abundance, symbolized life in the broadest sense, including resurrection of the body. The miniature ladder stood for the means of ascent to heaven. Miniature ladders are still set up beside graves by the Mangors of Nepal, and a ladder made of dough was traditionally placed next to coffins in some parts of Russia. One recalls also Jacob's ladder in the Bible (Gn. 28:12) and the reference to the same notion in Dante's Paradiso (21.25ff.)

Ubiquitous also was the familiar ankh. What it actually portrays is uncertain; some say it represents a combination of the male and female genitalia and hence (eternal) life. It was carried also in the right hand of deities, where, of course, it was not amuletic but a symbol of immortality. Scarabs (a species of beetle) were also interred with the dead. This particular type of beetle, one that continually rolls pellets of dung until they become larger and larger, symbolizes the process of continuous creation.

Mention should be made also of the so-called Horus cippi, stelae or plaques inscribed with legends of that god and portraying him standing on, or beside, serpents he had vanquished. A Canaanite version of this myth has recently been recognized in a Canaanite magical text from Ras Shamra (Ugarit) in northern Syria. The cippi were displayed to ward off malign spirits.

Other ancient Near Eastern amulets, common among the Babylonians, Assyrians, Canaanites, and Hittites, take the form of cylinder seals, usually made of diorite or hematite, engraved with mythological scenes depicting the discomfiture of demonic monsters by gods or the vanquishing of the formidable Huwawa, guardian of the sacred forest of cedars, by the heroes Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Sometimes, too, pictures of men supplicating gods, the beneficent sun rising between mountains, or a goddess bountifully pouring water from two jugs are featured. In interpreting these "mythological" amulets it is important to bear in mind that the scenes depicted may be simply mythologizations of general principles. Thus the goddess who pours water may be simply an illustration of bountiful profusion. Often, indeed, the basic meaning may be elicited by matching the glyptic portrayal with a corresponding verbal metaphor.

Another popular Mesopotamian and Canaanite amulet was a plaque portraying the ravages and eventual dispatch of a demonic hag or wolf who stole newborn babes. This has analogues in many parts of the world, for example, in Armenia, Ethiopia, and the Balkans, and especially in a Jewish charm, the so-called Kimpezettl (a Yiddish distortion of the German Kindbettzettel, "childbirth note"), in which the beldam is identified with Lilith.

Despite the monotheistic orientation of the writers of the Old Testament, amulets seem to have been used by the masses in ancient Israel. The prophet Isaiah castigates women who wore charms (3:20), and a silver amulet inscribed with the words of the Priestly Blessing (Nm. 6:2427) and purportedly dating to the sixth century bce has been found in Palestine. On the other hand, a figurative reference to amulets in Deuteronomy 6:8 was later taken literally and led to the modern Jewish practise of affixing to doorposts a small cylinder (mezuzah ) containing excerpts from the Pentateuch and of wearing phylacteries (tefillin ) on the brow and arm at morning prayer.

More modern Jewish amulets are the hexagram, fancifully termed the shield, not star, of David. This, however, is simply a Judaized version of a magical symbol of disputed meaning that is widely used elsewhere. Its counterpart is the equally universal pentagram, known to Jews as the seal of Solomon. Common too are metal amulets in the shape of the divine hand (likewise fairly universal), often engraved with the letter h, an abbreviation of JeH ovah. A favorite written amulet is a strip of paper on which is inscribed the legend "Abracadabra" (variously interpreted) in a series of lines, each of which has one more letter cut off at the end, so that the whole forms an inverted triangle ending with the single letter a. In recent times a further popular amulet is a golden pendant or brooch shaped in the form of the letters of the Hebrew word ai ("life, living").

Of special interest is a class of gems or semiprecious stones (sard, beryl, chalcedony, onyx, etc.) found mainly in Egypt of the Greco-Roman period (but later also in other lands), featuring fantastic imagesoften part human and part animalof Egyptian and other gods accompanied by magical inscriptions such as the mysterious "Ablalhanalba," which is said to be a distorted palindrome of the Hebrew phrase "Av lanu [Aram., lan ] attah," "Thou art a father to us." Prominent among the deities depicted is a certain Abraxas (or Abrasax), who is an important figure in the teachings of the Gnostics. These have therefore been termed Gnostic amulets, but the attribution is increasingly questioned by modern scholars. When these amulets came to be current in Christian circles the mysterious name Ablalhanalba was explained as equivalent by gematria to Jesus.

In many countries, written amulets are more common than any other. Among Muslims, for instance, the most popular type is a small case containing excerpts from the Qurʾān or a list of the ninety-nine epithets of God. The Copts use pictures illustrating the defeat of a monster by Saint George of Lydda, and the Ethiopians, scrolls relating the praises of the Virgin Mary, or grotesque representations of the divine eye or face. This, however, by no means precludes the use of ornamental amulets. Christians most often carry miniature crosses or crucifixes, but equally common is the written legend "Sator Arepo," which is really "Paternoster" spelled cryptically.

The Japanese use, besides relics, two forms of amulet that deserve mention. One of these is an image, painted on pillows, of an animal who swallows bad dreams. The other amulet is a pair of dead sardines affixed to a stick of holly at the entrance to a house to keep away noxious spirits at the annual festival of Setsubun. (This finds a parallel in the use of garlic elsewhere.)

The use of colors in amulets is influenced also in medieval magic by the belief that they carry the charisma of the sun, moon, and the seven planets. Thus, yellow stones (amber, topaz) bear the "influence" of the sun; whitish stones (diamond, mother-of-pearl), of the moon; red stones (ruby), of Mars; green stones (emerald), of Venus; black stones (jet, onyx, obsidian), of Saturn; and so forth. Moreover, each stone "controlled" a specific condition. Agate, in Italy, is deemed efficacious against the evil eye, and in Syria against intestinal disorders. Crystal cures dropsy and toothache; diamond neutralizes poisons and also averts thunderstorms. Furthermore, gems promote human passions and affections. Beryl gives hope; carbuncle, energy and assurance; ruby, love; and of coral it is said that it fades when a friend dies. There is also a stone for every month, and these are often featured in brooches inscribed with zodiacal signs portraying a person's horoscope.

Lastly, with regard to the use of exotic objects as amulets and talismans, a curious fact is worth mentioning. Many years ago the present writer had occasion to examine a number of ceremonial costumes worn by African shamans and found that several of them included a pouch worn on the breast. Opening these, he discovered that their contents consisted mainly of European hairpins, scissors, cigarette butts, London omnibus tickets, and similar foreign paraphernalia deemed magical.

Like myths and popular tales, the actual forms of amulets migrate from one culture to another as the result of trade relations, conquests, importation of captives, intermarriage, voyages, and the like, but new meanings are then read into them in order to accommodate them to the beliefs and traditional lore of those who adopt them. Thus (as we have said) the hexagram became to Jews the shield of David, the cross to Christians a symbol of Christ, and the dung-rolling beetle (heper) to the Egyptians the emblem of the creator god Hepera and the pellet as the orb of the sun that he rolled across the sky. It is necessary, therefore, in interpreting these vehicles of magic, to get behind such particular local explanations of them and to attempt to recover their underlying, subliminal significance. This approach, however, is inevitably fraught with the perils of subjectivism and has led, indeed, to any number of psychological fantasies and absurdities. But abusus non tollit usum; a spurious coin does not invalidate currency, and the basic nature of amulets will never be understood unless the attempt is made to do so.

See Also

Images; Relics; Stones.


For English readers the most serviceable survey and discussion is E. A. W. Budge's Amulets and Talismans (reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y., 1961), originally entitled Amulets and Superstitions. Useful also is Frederick Thomas Elworthy's The Evil Eye (New York, 1970), although this work tends at times to go too far afield and to indulge in untenable theories. C. W. King's The Gnostics and Their Remains, Ancient and Mediaeval, 2d ed. (London, 1881), gives a good survey of the "Abrascas" and kindred amulets, but it is a bit antiquated in its interpretations. Arabic amulets are treated fully in Edward W. Lane's classic An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, 5th ed. (New York, 1973), and in Edmond Doutté's Magie et religion dans l'Afrique du Nord (Algiers, 1909). Jewish amulets are discussed in Joshua Trachtenberg's Jewish Magic and Superstition (1939; New York, 1982).

New Sources

Blair, Nancy. Amulets of the Goddess: Oracle of Ancient Wisdom. Oakland, Calif., 1993.

Fulghum, Mary Margaret. "Coins Used as Amulets in Late Antiquity." In Between Magic and Religion. See pages 139147. Lanham, Mass., 2001.

Leland, Charles Godfrey. Etruscan Roman Remains and the Old Religion: Gods, Goblins, Divination and Amulets (1892). London and New York, 2002.

Tambiah, Stanley J. Buddhist Saints of the Forest and the Cult of Amulets. Cambridge, U.K., 1984.

Wardwell, Allen. Tangible Visions: Northwest Coast Indian Shamanism and Its Art. New York, 1996.

Theodor H. Gaster (1987)

Revised Bibliography