In the 1970s, my father was offered the opportunity to open a small jewelry shop next to his regular jewelry store. Since I wanted to succeed him in the business, he suggested that I run this small jewelry business, as a kind of test.
However, I was still in school and a shop assistant would take over my job during school hours. I thought it was a great idea, but then I also wanted to have control over the collection.
First I bought a collection of Israeli jewelry. Part of it was silver pendants with a little paper prayer roll in it. Quite cute I thought.
They sold great and I didn’t realize that these pendants could mean anything in the field of religion or protection. They were just fun pendants for me.
Much later a very good friend of mine gave me a light pink rose quartz stone in the shape of a heart. To bring me luck!
I never realized or believed that amulets -for that is what they were- would bring me any luck or protection. But many people in many cultures think differently. Time to dive into the world of the amulet.
What is an amulet exactly?
An amulet is an object – most of the time a piece of jewelry, like a pendant- that is natural or man-made in which people believe that it brings them luck or gives them protection against the evil eye.
In many cultures and religions, there is some dose of superstition in one’s daily life, and some help to get safe through the day is welcome.
The amulet and the talisman are often used interchangeably. Although the talisman is often used to indicate an engraved amulet. Some people call them also lucky charms.
The name comes from the Latin word ‘amuletum’. Plinius the Elder, a Roman author, naturalist, and philosopher, explained this word as ‘an object that protects a person from trouble’.
The different types.
There are two types of amulets, natural and man-made. The natural version can be plant parts(clover four), parts of animals (rabbit’s foot), or even human remains (relics). Or man-made copies, like pendants, statues, coins, or written words.
The amulets that suppose to have special properties, like getting fortune, are most of the time part of folklore and tradition. Bit when they are considered a sacred object, that has no power of its own when you don’t believe in God, or without it is blessed by a priest, and it is necessary that the bearer has the right disposition.
Some people think that an amulet is the same as a pendant. If you understand the above, you know that a pendant may be one, but also another object or piece of jewelry.
Part of the story of an amulet is tradition or culture and is specific to a certain country or culture. So let us talk a bit about the difference between the major countries and cultures.
Amulets in different countries and cultures
Neanderthaler and prehistory
Probably the oldest man-made examples are used by the Neanderthalers in prehistoric times. Archeologists found so-called Venus figurines that are more than 25.000 years old in graves.
The Ancient Egyptians (from the predynastic Badarian Period, the Period of the Pharoah until the Egyptian Roman Time with Cleopatra) strongly believed in the power of amulets.
They thought they were very useful as a way to protect themselves and as a means of ‘reaffirming the fundamental fairness of the universe’ (from the book by Bob Brier 2009 ‘Ancient Egypt, Everyday Life in the land of the Nile’).
Not only for the living, but also for the death the Ancient Egyptians thought amulets were important, as a small carved god to make a wish come true, or an engraved jewel to pay for the ferryman, that passed the deceased safely over the river to the afterlife.
Pregnant Egyptian ladies wore one, depicting the goddess of childbirth Taweret, to prevent having a miscarriage. But the moment they have given birth they changed it for an amulet with the depiction of goddess Bes, the protector of the children.
Other used symbols were the ankh, the symbolic key of life, or the Eye of Horus. The eye of Horus was destroyed during a battle with his uncle Seth. God Thoth gave him a new one.
Not only gods were depicted on amulets, but also animals, like the scarab beetle (symbol of god Khepri) or hieroglyphs.
Most of the time they were made of faience, which is a kind of ceramic and can have beautiful colors, that can be faded over time. But also stone, metal, wood, bone, or gold were used to make them.
Historians think that the scarab or beetle was so popular as a symbol because beetles push a large dung ball around and inside their eggs. The ball was the symbol of the sun, an important power in Egypt.
Another explanation was that the hieroglyph for ‘beetle’ was the same as the one that meant ‘to become’. People thought the scarab therefore could restore the heart of the deceased in the afterlife.
The Roman amulets that were important in Roman society were actually the inheritors of a very Ancient Greek tradition. It had something to do with magic and unusual religious experiences.
Amulets were associated with certain gods and gemstones.
Like Jupiter (god of heaven and storm) was connected with the milky Chalcedony. The god of the battle/war Mars could be associated with red Jasper and the god of the wine Bacchus on Amethyst.
The people wore the gemstones with the carved god on them as a way to gain the same power as the depicted god, not to honor them.
Not only were amulets made of gemstones and engraved gods popular, but also the amulet boxes, with a part of a plant or animal or a written piece of paper.
Children had a special protective amulet, called bulla and lunula. A bulla was a hollow ball with a piece of a written paper or a kind of token worn by boys. The lunula is the equivalent for girls.
The Jews love amulets, and there are many to choose from. Most of them are a kind of pendants engraved with a text or a name. The shape and the material are not that important.
For instance, you have the Silver Scroll, dated around 630 BC, and the equivalent which is the mezuzah. That is a decorated case with the engraved text of the Torah.
Or the hand of Miriam, which looks kike the outline of a human hand, most of the time worn like a pendant. The is an equivalent in the hand of Fatima, that looks more or less the same.
Another example without a text is the seal of Solomon, also known as the star of David (the hexagram).
During the Middle Ages Maimonides and Sherira Gaon, philosophers and Torah scholars were strongly against the amulet tradition. They considered it a kind of paganism. Others approved of wearing them.
A famous kabbalist and rabbi, Naphtali ben Isaac Katz (1645-1719) wanted to put the power of the amulet to the test. He caused a fire, that ruined the whole Jewish part of Frankfurt (Germany) and did not want to make an end to the fire with water, because he wanted to see whether the amulets would ‘do’ something about it.
Pity, but the amulets abandoned him and he was sentenced to prison. Besides that, he had to resign from his job and leave Frankfurt.
The Christian church states that when you truly believe in God and you fulfill your Christian obligations, like going to Mass, reading the Bible, etc, you don’t need some object to protect you from bad spirits.
And all the holy objects, like prayer beads, rosaries, scapulars, and more, are only powerful because they are blessed by the Church in the name of Jesus.
So if you wear a crucifix as a pendant around your neck it shows that you are Christian and cannot be regarded to have the power to protect you from evil.
But… there are some objects that can be regarded as an amulet, used for protection, in the Christian belief. There is the cross of Conrad II (1024-1039) meant for protecting the bearer. And what about the Saint Benedict medal?
It is engraved with a formula on the back of Satan. In use since 1700 and even in 1742 it was approved by Pope Benedict XIV and people used it while performing exorcisms.
And what about the scapulars that depict for instance Antonius of Padua, who helps you when you lost something. Or Saint Cristoforo, who is bringing you home safely.
Now it gets a little difficult since some Muslim condemn wearing talismans and others think it is forbidden in Islam. And then you read that under certain circumstances you can wear one.
I don’t want to burn my fingers on this and describe here only what I see, without mentioning the possible meaning for the people. There are amulets with engraved texts or names and the ones that look more decorative in general.
You see Muslim people wear necklaces, bracelets, and rings that can be considered an amulet. They have engraved texts or holy names. And of course, you have the prayer cords, that some people wear as a kind of bracelet.
From the Punic Period the hamsa (that means five in Arabic) or the ‘hand of Fatima’ are popular, as a charm, a pendant, or even a decoration in the house.
The existing amulets are made of precious or semi-precious stones because not only the image but also the material (gemstones) can have protective powers. For instance, the carnelian is popular, since it is considered the stone of Muhammed, who wore a carnelian silver ring on the little finger of his right hand.
But also jade and jasper were regarded as gemstones with protective and medicinal powers. And then the combination of gemstones had a meaning too.
The combination of Carnelian and Jade is such an example. The green of jade means fertility and the reddish of the carnelian represents the blood from which Allah created the humans.
In the Middle Ages, people liked to have the tiny amulets made of paper, with a text on them, that could be rolled into a pendant or amulet box. The texts are necessary to prevent misfortune and promote good health.
You can find examples of amulets in nearly every country, in every culture, in every religion. If you keep your eyes open you will see them nearly everywhere. It goes too far to mention and describe the amulets used in every culture. But pay attention and you find enough examples of your own.
Amulets used in the medical world
In Ancient Times doctors were expensive and most people could not afford their services. So one had to rely on persons that were not professional doctors but could help you out when the problem was not too severe.
But when even those people were not available you relayed on magic and hope for the best. Examples are certain spells or incantations that were performed to get rid of the evil things that made you sick in the first place.
In Ancient Egypt, nor in Mesopotamia there was no real difference between a magician and medicine. You could be cured by praying hard to your god or by magical spells. And each treatment had another spell.
In those days amulets were a legitimate part of medical treatment. That changed (just a bit) in the Modern Times (1500-1750) when objects were used to heal or protect you or your home. Just as an ‘extra’ or ‘you never know’.
Those amulets could be made of natural (gemstones, parts of plants, and animals) and hand-made materials. Sometimes they worked, sometimes they don’t, but the ‘why’ was not understood.
In any case, they were used to prevent getting ill or prevent having bad luck, and not that much for healing people.
A hare’s or rabbit’s foot was sometimes carried with you to gain luck or ward off evil, but could also be used to cure or prevent colic. Naturally holed gemstones next to your bed were the remedy to prevent nightmares.
In time the healing function of those amulets was replaced by a proper medicine, but traditional people kept associating them with good fortune and preventing evil. So they kept wearing or using them.
Even these days people keep wearing amulets, sometimes to prevent misfortune, but most of the time for emotional reasons.
Like sportsmen carry an object because when they carried that same object last time, they won the match. Or a traveler who is carrying the medallion of St Christopher to get a safe journey. Or students who always use the same pen when they have exams.
It seems as if supernatural powers and the belief in those powers are part of humanity. A lot of people believe in the power of birthstones and want to have a piece of jewelry set with their birthstones. You believe in this or you don’t.
The fact is that those pieces of jewelry are very personal, and most of the time represent a dear memory. If you want to give a personal gift to a loved one, why don’t you give her a piece of jewelry set with her birthstone? It becomes her lucky jewel then!
FlorenceJewelshop wrote a PDF about birthstones and in it, you find information about other stones too. It is a great gift for someone or for yourself. It is free, you just have to let me know where to send it to.
Florence from FlorenceJewelshop