Tuesday, July 12, 2016

As Old As Time: A Brief History of Amulets and Talismans

gnostic amulet
A Gnostic amulet (to draw love, wealth, strength & protection)


Protection in History :: Amulets and Talismans


The history of mankind has been, at times, a history of danger and conflict. For denizens of the ancient world, drought, famine and war could be impossible to predict and difficult to survive. As a result, much emphasis was put on protective charms. We've heard of King Arthur's Excalibur, or the Golden Fleece of Greek mythology, but there did in fact exist a plethora of amulets and talismans that were specifically crafted to protect regular citizens from the whole range of human maladies, from plague to bad luck.

Though the terms are often used interchangeably, talismans and amulets are not the same thing. Amulets are traditionally considered to be inherently magical items, either because of the symbols they bear or the materials from which they are constructed. In contrast, talismans must be imbued with magical properties by their creator. In many cases, talismans are made for a single, specific purpose whereas amulets are more generally protective and helpful. Of course, history is long and there are many, many exceptions to this rule.

A class of amulets that has become especially important over time is the apotropaic. These amulets deflect evil influence, particularly the effects of the evil eye. In Western Asia and the Mediterranean, the evil eye is a glare given by one person to another that transmits ill will and misfortune. Also known as the stink eye and the bad eye, this glare is purported to have powers that range widely among individuals and cultures. Some view the evil eye as merely symbolic of envy and negativity, while others believe more literally in its killing intent.

hamsa hand amulet
A hamsa hand amulet (to repel the evil eye)

Turkish nazars are common amulets, worn either on individuals or strung on buildings and trees to ward off the evil eye. The hamsa, or khamsa, is an ancient amulet resembling a hand with two thumbs, the palms of which are adorned with an eye.

The hamsa is almost as old as civilization itself. It began in the Fertile Crescent, in Mesopotamia, where it was designed to mimic an open right palm. Holding one's right palm up was among the first universal gestures of safety and protection, potentially because it showed that one was unarmed and honest. The hamsa as a symbol and artifact can now be found throughout the world and is especially important in the Middle East, Asia, North Africa and parts of South America.

In the West, we perhaps think of amulets and talismans as adornments worn by individuals in the form of necklaces and jewelry, but this is at times far from the case. Paleontologists have found amulets from the Neolithic period crafted delicately out of human skulls. Similarly, amulets made from hand, foot, leg and arm bones are common throughout the Old and New worlds. Not all of these amulets are meant to be fearsome or morbid either, some are crafted to be buried along with the dead to honor and protect them, while others are intended to draw good luck.

Later in history, the astrologer and alchemist, Tycho Brahe, created an astronomical observatory called the Uraniborg in which scientists worked at studying the heavens. The Uraniborg was designed to function as a massive protective talisman for those working inside of it. Brahe aligned the walls and supports of the building such that they mimicked the ratios of the distance between Jupiter and the sun, believing this would bring good fortune both on a scientific and spiritual level.

main building, Uraniborg
The main building of the Uraniborg; public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

Another example of an unexpected talisman is the swastika. This design is ancient and a good example of a symbol that is somewhere between an amulet and a talisman. Some form of the swastika has existed in almost every major civilization on Earth. The Western world titled it as the Gammadion Cross because its arms resembled the Greek letter Gamma. It is a standard character in Chinese and Japanese writing and an oft-used and beloved Indian symbol for good-luck and well-being.

Unfortunately, in our contemporary world, the swastika is most often associated with Nazi Germany and the atrocities committed by Hitler. This is a shame because for thousands of years before that, the swastika was an indicator of auspiciousness and a way to attract good fortune and bountiful harvests. Many individuals in India and Asia still abide by this original meaning of the swastika.

The allure of amulets and talismans is an important aspect of their history. Maybe you've noticed that many of the most iconic symbols and shapes used in our everyday life had their origin as part of a protective charm. In the United States and other industrial nations, we’ve become desensitized to these items because we're flooded with logos and brand names that, in some cases, function as a kind of contemporary talisman. Ultimately, just about anything can become a talisman or amulet for an individual, but it’s always interesting to see how certain symbols have endured throughout centuries and millennia, serving as a source of comfort and strength for near countless generations of human beings.

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