Amulets for Health and Healing


Medical amulets were meant to be worn or carried by an individual or kept close to him or her at certain times. Although many general amulets were created for the hopeful purpose of keeping the bearer healthy by keeping harmful forces and spirits at bay, a great number of prescriptive amulets were prepared for a specific illness or problem, such as digestive troubles or fever. As with other amulets, medical amulets were made of many materials; however, since prescriptive amulets often featured texts, they were commonly written upon papyrus, certain types of leaves, or metal lamellae. Medical amulets could often be prepared by the individual and, with the exception of those amulets written upon gold or silver lamellae, they were an affordable method of treatment and prevention. For these reasons, they were extremely popular over a vast span of time. In classical Greek literature, such amulets are described by comic writers such as Anaxilas, who mentioned people "wearing fine Ephesian charms in little sewed bags," and Aristophanes and Antiphanes, both of whom referred to rings that cost a drachma and were meant to prevent intestinal difficulties and the bites of insects or vermin, respectively.[[1]] More than four centuries later, the Roman encylopedist Pliny the Elder discussed amulets at length and indicated that they were popular at all strata of society: even Marcus Servius Nonianus, who was consul in 35 C.E., had attempted to cure his opthalmia by writing the Greek letters *P*A on papyrus and tying it around his neck.[[2]] And three centuries after that, a Constantinople physician named Theodorus Priscianus described many other curative amulets. Of those that could be used for a bloody nose, one is especially appropriate to this Website:

And likewise, write on a slip of paper that is held to the person's ear, "O Blood, Apuleius of Madaura commands that your running may stop."[[3]]

In this case, rather than invoking a spirit to heal, the name of Apuleius, who in the centuries after his death was reputed to have been a great miracle-worker, is used to effect magical healing. Numerous other authors also dealt with amulets to some extent.

The vast majority of medical amulets have been lost, but some survive, as do numerous instructions for preparing amulets that have been preserved in the magical papyri of Egypt. These all give numerous insights not only into the nature of amulets and their preparation, but the various illnesses and infirmities for which they were used. The most common healing amulets involved digestive problems, which could be caused not only by over-eating and indigestion, but by ingesting food that had spoiled in the Mediterranean heat. Several gemstones have been found with engraved symbols and magical words, as well as such phrases as "Good digestion!," "Digest Digest Digest," and even the alliterative "God bids bowels breed no banes ." According to the great physician Galen, digestive amulets were often worn on a necklace and rested against the abdomen/stomach or throat/esophagus for greatest effect.[[4]] Also quite common were amulets for fever, which, after all, must have been a major problem in those days before antibiotics and sanitary conditions. A lamella made of a silver alloy and found in Egypt provides a typical example:

I call upon you, the one over the ocean, in (the) spirit (or: "in name of") Obach, and by the Babarathan Baroch Abraham Sabaraam: protect the one who carries you, from the fever and every matter. If fever seizes him, extinguish it once and for all. (R. Kotansky (1994), no. 59 (=Suppl. Mag. no. 2))

Gemstone amulets for fever were quite rare,[[5]] but numerous papyrus amulets and recipes for such amulets have been found in Egypt. Perhaps fever, being of relatively short duration, did not merit the expense of having a gem carved when a slip of papyrus or a lamella would suffice. So, whereas this silver lamella amulet apparently was meant to provide constant protection for the bearer and therefore needed to last for a long time, other amulets were intended to drive off illness already present, as was the case with a papyrus amulet that called upon the assistance of supernatural powers:

Ablanathanalba. Deliver Techosis, whom [...] bore, from the quotidian fever with shivering that possesses her, on the present day, in this very hour, now now, quickly quickly. (Suppl. Mag. no. 9 (=P.G.M. XCI)) (Click here for an image of this amulet.)

Numerous other fever amulets survive, as do those for a range of other maladies, including eye problems, sciatica, gynecological troubles, and so on.[[6]]

In addition to such diseases, amulets could be used to address certain problems. For example, an Egyptian papyrus gives instructions on how to cure insomnia:

This name causes sleep. If a patient suffers from insomnia, take a leaf of laurel, write on it this name and put it under his head or in the mattress. (Suppl. Mag. (1992), no. 74)

The name of the spirit invoked is missing from this text, but the rest is clear: all that was needed to create an amulet was a leaf and a magic name, and the insomniac could sleep soundly. Male impotence, another problem not caused by disease, could also be cured with magic.[[7]]

These and the many other types of medical amulets that survive, along with the countless others which have disappeared, clearly indicate that amulets played a great part in both healing and preventing maladies of all sorts. Whether used alone to combat illness, or used in tandem with incantations, medicines, prayers, or other forms of healing magic, such amulets held an important part in the health practices of the Mediterranean world in antiquity.