The Preventive Amulet

An amulet is credited with the inherent power to ward off all evil influences and is still universally popular. Explanations for the etymology of the word amulet are varied. The word is derived either from the Arabic himalah, meaning ‘to carry’, or from the Latin verb amoliri, meaning ‘to remove’ or ‘to drive away’.

An amulet is a preventive charm believed specifically to remove dangers or to drive them away. It is thought to protect through mere passive possession. It is also credited with providing good luck, strength, fertility, virility, success in battle and in love, and last but not least, providence in agriculture. Psychologically, the amulet gives the wearer a feeling of security and well-being. Amulets can be placed in one’s surroundings or worn anywhere on one’s person, such as around the wrist or ankle, but are usually suspended from the neck.

An amulet can be made of almost any substance that can be fashioned into some or other significant representation or shape. Although amulets need not be shaped in any specific way for them to be effective, they usually are given some distinctive form to convey symbolic meaning. Amulet shapes and forms are almost unlimited and might include holed stones, abnormal vegetable growths, shells, minerals, rings, inscriptions, cords and strings, representations of the eye, the hand and the phallus, and many other objects.

Throughout history, good spirits have always been perceived as willing to be propitiated and bargained with so that benefits could be obtained, whereas evil spirits were mostly seen as unwilling to be reconciled and forever remaining insatiable in their desire to inflict harm. Hence, the protective powers of amulets were sought universally amongst all peoples. Amulets, since antiquity, have been considered indispensable, especially for those who dared evoke spiritual forces from the netherworld. Without the protection given by various amulets, a magician ran the risk of being severely attacked by these spiritual entities.

Amulets were in use from the earliest times and are relics of stone worship, when they were worn as luck stones to protect from evil influences and diseases and to secure good fortune. In Europe, naturally holed pebbles were probably amongst the first amulets ever worn, the use of which goes back to prehistoric times. Their intriguing, unusual shape must have conjured promises of hidden magic powers protecting from famine, storms, peril at sea, and most of all, from evil and witchcraft. Threaded on twine or rope, they were often attached to the bows of sailing vessels to protect against sorcery. In some parts of England, they were called witch stones, or alternatively, fairy stones or holy flints, and if worn by a succession of owners, thought endowed with even greater protective magic powers. These holed stones often supplemented medieval healing methods, and they are still worn today for good luck.

The ancient Babylonians and Assyrians hung amulets modelled in clay outside their doors to keep away evil spirits. Nearly three hundred different varieties of amulets have been discovered in ancient Egyptian tombs. In fact, ritual practice of Egyptian religion and social life were so wrapped around by magic and myth and the bodily wearing of protective amulets that its followers must have been both mentally and physically weighed down. Amongst the diverse protecting amulets worn by the ancient Egyptians, the most common were the scarab and the ‘Eyes of Horus’. The right eye of the Egyptian god of the underworld, Horus, represented the sun and the left eye, the moon. Therefore, to afford twenty-four hour protection, by day and by night, both eyes were habitually worn. These amulets were found in great profusion in tombs and placed on the dead to guard against evil influences in a future life. The Eyes of Horus conferred on the dead the power to see and protection from evil influences in the Tuat or netherworld.

The ancient Greeks and Romans also had great faith in using the power of amulets to protect the body from diseases, believed caused by malignant influences. Both Pliny the Elder and the renowned 2nd century physician Galen mention the beneficial properties of amulets in protecting against disease. In the early part of the 1st century, amulets were not only worn on a person’s body but also used as ornaments in houses, much as we use vases and other decorations on tables and mantels. In his writings on the cyclamen plant, Pliny the Elder mentions that the plant ‘.... ought to be grown in every house, [....] wherever it grows, noxious smells can have no effect. This plant is what is called an amulet’.44 In the past, noxious smells were thought to cause pestilence and other diseases.

According to sympathetic magic, an amulet’s shape was thought to influence its effectiveness profoundly. All objects worn as protection against specific diseases of bodily organs or limbs represented the shape of that organ or limb. A stone shaped like a human foot was therefore carried to prevent gout, and an amulet shaped like a mole was worn as a cure for cramp because of this animal’s cramped appearance. The claws and teeth of wild animals were believed to be protective agents against being attacked by savage beasts and to give courage and agility to the wearer. A piece of wood shaped like an acorn was carried in the pocket as protection from lightning during thunderstorms because the oak tree was considered a stalwart against lightning strikes. Shells and corals have also been popular amulets for hundreds of years, necklaces of shells and corals originally believed to protect against drowning at sea. 

Many amulets worn in early Christian times bore heathen or heretical symbols, which is why the Christian Church registered its opposition to the practice of wearing amulets as early as 364 CE at the Council of Laodicea. Amulets were labelled ‘fetters of the soul’, and all who wore them were threatened to be cast out of the Church and thus forfeit any redemption for their sins. However, despite this grave threat, the insurmountable tendency in humans to wear objects believed to be endowed with protective properties simply found expression in another form. Instead of heathen or heretical symbols being worn, emblems linked with Christian belief, especially those blessed by priests, supplanted them. Examples are the Cross and medallions depicting various saints, typically Saint Christopher as the patron saint of travelling. Amongst the early Christians, pieces of the true Cross were also believed to offer effective protection and held in great reverence as amulets for their healing and shielding powers.

Frequently, amulets were inscribed, usually consisting of a few words written on a piece of skin or parchment. This type of amulet could be encased in a small metal or leather case, suspended from the neck or bound to the body. In the past, the great importance attached to these amulets was due to the awe illiterate people felt for the written word, which they could not decipher. Examples of inscriptions appearing on amulets were magic names, the names of saints, angels, holy personages, and spells, prayers, or passages from ancient holy books, such as the Torah, the Bible, or the Koran. Some Christians still customarily wear short passages from the Gospels or the Lord’s Prayer concealed on their person, whereas Moslems might wear small necklace amulets containing passages from select suras of the Koran to protect them against misfortune. 

In India and Tibet, the use of amulets dates to ancient times and is still widespread. Enclosed in small boxes made of copper or silver or sewn in pieces of cloth, amulets consist of pictures of deities, relics, or specific verses written on pieces of paper. Many Buddhists wear sacred symbols, relics of holy lamas, or pebbles and other materials from holy shrines as amulets, all prepared with elaborate ritual and ceremony. 


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