Talismans and Amulets
By David Weitzman
The word “amulet” comes from the Latin amuletum. The earliest extant use of the term is in Pliny’s “Natural History”, meaning “an object that protects a person from trouble”. An amulet can be any object but its most important characteristic is its alleged power to protect its owner from danger or harm.
Amulets are different from talismans as a talisman is believed to bring luck or some other benefit, though it can offer protection as well.
Every zodiacal sign corresponds to a gem that acts as an amulet, but these stones vary according to different traditions.
Perfumes and essences also serve the purposes of attraction or repulsion. Popular legends often attributed magical powers to certain unusual objects, such as a baby’s caul or a rabbit’s foot; possession of these items allegedly endowed their magical abilities upon their owners.
In addition to protection against supernatural powers, amulets are also used for protection against other people. For example, soldiers and those involved in other dangerous activities may use talismans to increase their luck. Carlist soldiers wore a medal of the Sacred Heart of Jesus with the inscription “Detente bala” (“Stop, bullet!”).
Amulets may incorporate gems with specific significance or engravings, statues, coins, drawings, pendants, rings, bells, etc.
Figures of elephants are said to attract good luck.
Today amulets can be found among people of every nation and social status. They can be displayed in jewelry, artisan fairs, museums, shops, homes, vehicles, just about anywhere.
Amulets and Talismans in Folklore
Amulets and talismans vary considerably according to their time and place of origin. In many societies, religious objects serve as amulets. A religious amulet might be the figure of a certain god or simply some symbol representing the deity such as the cross for Christians or the “eye of Horus” for the ancient Egyptians.
The ancient Egyptians had many amulets for different occasions and needs, often with the figure of a god or the “ankh” (the key of eternal life); the figure of the scarab god Khepri became a common amulet too and has now gained renewed fame around the Western world.
In Arab countries a hand with an eye amid the palm and two thumbs – similar to a Hand of Fatima – serves as protection against evil.
Some forms of Buddhism have a deep and ancient talismanic tradition. In the earliest days of Buddhism, just after the Buddha’s death circa 485 B.C., amulets bearing the symbols of Buddhism were common. Symbols such as conch shells, the footprints of the Buddha, and others were commonly worn. After about the 2nd century B.C., Greeks began carving actual images of the Buddha. These were hungrily acquired by native Buddhists in India, and the tradition spread. In Thailand one can commonly see people with more than one Buddha hanging from their necks.
In certain areas of India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, it is traditionally believed that the jackal’s horn can grant wishes and reappear to its owner at its own accord when lost. Some Sinhalese believe that the horn can grant the holder invulnerability in any lawsuit.
In the Philippines, the local amulet is called agimat or anting-anting. According to folklore, the most powerful anting-anting is the hiyas ng saging (directly translated as pearl or gem of the banana). The hiyas must come from a mature banana and only comes out during midnight. Before the person can fully possess this agimat, he must fight a supernatural creature called kapre. Only then will he be its true owner. During holy week, devotees travel to Mount Banahaw to recharge their amulets.
An ancient tradition in China involves capturing a cricket alive and keeping it in an osier box to attract good luck (this tradition extended to the Philippines). Chinese may also spread coins on the floor to attract money; rice also has a reputation as a carrier of good fortune.
In Bolivia and Argentina, the god Ekeko furnishes a standard amulet, to whom one should offer at least one banknote or a cigarette to obtain fortune and welfare.
In Afro-Caribbean syncretic religions like Voodoo, Umbanda, Quimbanda and Santeria, drawings are also used as amulets, such as with the veves of Voodoo; these religions also take into account the colour of the candles they light, because each color features a different effect of attraction or repulsion.
In Central Europe, people believed garlic kept vampires away, and so did a crucifix.
For the ancient Scandinavians, Anglo-Saxons and Germans and currently for some Neopagan believers the rune Eoh (yew) protects against evil and witchcraft; a non-alphabetical rune representing Thor’s hammer still offers protection against thieves in some places.
Deriving from the ancient Celts, the clover, if it has four leaves, symbolizes good luck (not the Irish shamrock, which symbolizes the Christian Trinity). In the celtic tradition a bag made from a crane skin (called a crane bag) symbolized treasure, a wheel symboled the sun, a boat also was a sun symbol, but also a death symbol (to the land of the dead), the raven was a symbol of death, the head was a symbol of wisdom as was the acorn and a well.