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Chapter 8: Introduction


Objects of power and mystery range from ancient stone structures with puzzling origins and purposes, to legendary lost relics that reportedly reappeared centuries later, to everyday objects that are believed to have special powers that will bring good fortune to the bearer.

Salt, for example, represents life and health to many people: it has been used as a flavor enhancer and food preservative since ancient times. A superstition for new parents in Europe and the Americas involves placing salt in a baby's cradle to protect the infant until it is baptized; a similar custom in some Middle Eastern countries calls for babies to be rubbed with salt to protect them from demons. It's bad luck in many cultures to spill salt, but there is a quick way to recover: toss a pinch of salt with the right hand over the left shoulder in order to stave off any bad luck resulting from the salt spill. Throwing salt over one's left shoulder is also believed to be a way to ward off the devil, who is said to look over the left shoulder of people; the salt tossed over the shoulder goes into the devil's eyes.

Some people keep or carry a certain object they believe brings them good luck and helps ward off bad fortune. Those items are based on superstition, religious belief, cultural practices, or personal associations. A "good luck charm," an object that symbolizes some important event, or a sacred religious item all possess some significance that combines with personal conviction to bring a sense of power, protection, and influence. The word "charm," however, did not always refer to an object of good luck. In the past, a charm was an incantation or inscription meant to result in an act of magic.

Amulets and talismans are objects intended to attract good luck and ward off bad luck. An amulet is most often a stone or a piece of metal with either an inscription or figures engraved on it. When talismans are crafted, the maker usually follows a ritual in order to infuse the talisman with a certain power. For example, a talisman crafted for a particular individual might be made of a metal corresponding to the qualities associated with a person's astrological sign.

The metal would have to be melted and forged during a positive astrological cycle.

Just as powerful in stirring the imagination are items associated with Judaism and Christianity that were lost in ancient times and were claimed to be recovered later. No physical evidence is available to determine that such objects ever existed, but they continue to be pursued. Sometimes, distinctions between what is real or imagined become blurred. The Holy Grail is never mentioned in the Bible, for example, but by medieval times it was popularized as "the holiest relic in Christendom" through Le morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory (fl. 1470). Tales of knights questing for the Holy Grail actually preceded a full account of the history of the grail. Yet, so powerful is the legend that the term "Holy Grail" is commonly used nowadays to describe an elusive, ultimate achievement. It is questionable as to whether the Holy Grail ever existed as a physical object, but it continues to inspire the imagination.

When it comes to things of mystery and power, then, the human imagination usually plays a key role in broadening the mystery and making it more powerful. Even when science provides data or physical proof that something mysterious can be explained, the ability to understand the impact of the explanation requires imagination, and often a change in outlook. Such is the power of objects of mystery: imagination and skill was used to create them, and imagination is required to begin to comprehend them by the more advanced human race of many centuries later.

Delving Deeper

Bracken, Thomas. Good Luck Symbols and Talismans: People, Places, and Customs. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1997.

Budge, E.A. Wallis. Amulets and Talismans. New York: Collier Books, 1970.

Mintz, Ruth Finer. Auguries, Charms, Amulets. Middle Village, N.Y.: Jonathan David Publishers, 1983.

Nelson, Felicitas H. Talismans & Amulets of the World. New York: Sterling Publishers, 2000.

Pavitt, William Thomas. The Book of Talismans, Amulets, and Zodiacal Gems. New York: Samuel Weiser, 1970.

Walker, Barbara G. The Woman's Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. Edison, N.J.: Castle Books, 1988.

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