Talismans and Amulets


Charms for protection, health and good fortune are the most passive form of "magic," and the most common. Whether involving protective magical texts, images, or figurines, they are by no means unique to Greece and Rome: their use has spanned the globe, from the peoples of East Asia to the Jews of czarist Russia, to the blue Mediterranean rooftops meant to ward off the "Evil Eye," to the "lucky" rabbit's feet carried by some Americans and crystals cherished by others. Descendants of ancient charms, cleansed of original magical meaning, include the mezuza which Jews affix to their doorways and the crucifixes and saints' medallions which many Christians wear about their necks.

In the ancient Mediterranean world, such charms took many forms and are described by a variety of terms. They could be "phylacteries," the purpose of which was to ward off danger from a building or property, as well as the walls and gates of a town or city. These can be divided into two broad and overlapping categories: "talismans," which were items that had been consecrated through rituals and thus imbued with divine powers, and which would keep danger at bay simply by being present, even if hidden or buried; and, "apotropaia," which were meant always to be fully visible in order to turn back evil and frighten wrongdoers. Among the common talismans were guardian statues and figurines and even sacred stones, while apotropaia could also include guardian statues, or take the form of inscriptions and painted or mosaic images and symbols, as well as certain herbs and other items that were hung near an entrance. Talismans and apotropaia could also serve to bring luck and prosperity or some other advantage to an individual, or to protect him or her from danger, misfortune, ill will, illness, sterility, and so on. For the purpose of this study, the term "amulet" will be used for such personal, portable items, as a contrast to "phylacteries," which were meant to guard a place rather than person.[[1]]

Phylacteries and amulets were made from a number of materials. In addition to the consecrated stones and statues and the words and images inscribed or painted or even inserted into a wall, phylacteries could be made of some of the same materials as amulets, including strips of precious and non-precious metals (lamellae) and potent herbs. Amulets, being portable, took many forms: strips of metal or paper that bore written charms and incantations and which were rolled up, placed in a pouch or tube, and worn about the neck; knotted cords that were similarly worn; small figurines of a god who was significant to the bearer; inscribed magic gemstones, featuring brief charms and the likeness of some divinity, which were worn upon rings or necklaces or otherwise carried in one's clothing; special herbs and parts of animals that were also suspended from necklaces; and, sometimes, even live animals were used.[[2]] Indeed, phylacteries and especially amulets seemingly could be made of anything that was animal, vegetable or mineral. While the vast majority of amulets and phylacteries employed by the Greeks and Romans have biodegraded or otherwise perished, archaeologists have discovered thousands of items that have survived. Among these are inscriptions, mosaics, figurines, magic gems, rings, rolled metal strips called lamellae, and a handful of charms written on papyrus which survived in the dry heat of Egypt.

By all accounts, in the ancient world amulets were very much in demand, especially those related to healing and keeping healthy. Although forms of magic such as divination and cursing were common, the most popular was healing magic. Of all the amulets that were ever produced, the majority most likely involved health; however, a significant number of these were made of an organic substance and have since perished, leaving a possibly disproportionate number of durable amulets that were for other purposes. Hundreds of stone and metal amulets have been found throughout the Mediterranean region, in addition to papyrus amulets from Egypt, and, although many appear to be generic charms, those that do indicate a clear purpose tend to be medical amulets, erotic charms, and charms for success and protection.