Although today we often think of amulets as being primarily decorative objects, their history stems long into the past and has foundation in a time when life was not so secure. Amulets were first mentioned as far back as 79AD when the tenth and final volume of Pliny’s Natural History was published. In this great work we are informed that the word ‘amulet’ is derived from the Latin Amuletum meaning, ‘power to divert evil.’
We can start to appreciate then that amulets differ from charms and talismans in that their primary purpose is to deflect negative forces. These protective powers are said to evolve due to the amulet being imbued with spirits which can be placed there only by those who possess the appropriate supernatural powers to do so. Amulets then are objects which have been endowed with spirits of protection by those empowered to do so.
Despite our apparent trust in the modern world, even today amulets can be found in every corner of the globe. They are still trusted and in demand, although often ownership is not well broadcast. Their purpose, as essentially protective devises, can be applied to any object although most often the items used are those found in nature.
Many amulets are what is known as ‘sympathetic’ which refers either to the shape of the item or the material which it is crafted from. For example, maybe someone is seeking to ward off the negative forces of ill-health or is perhaps intending to take a journey over the sea, the amulet will not only be imbibed with protective forces relative to such threats, but also it might be provided in a shape that is reflective of its purpose. Historically many amulets were made this way and we see ancient artefacts, particularly in respect of sea journeys which were notoriously dangerous, in the shape of fish or made from shells or pebbles.
Image - CC Hannes Grobe/AWI
Although today we might not appreciate the number of situations where we could face negative forces even in day-to-day life and feel a requirement for protection, back in more trepidacious times, the amulet was considered a necessity in a broad range of situations and was carried by most on a daily basis. For example, from the time of the ancient Egyptians amulets were used to protect fertility, good health and even the spirits of the dead in the afterlife. In the modern world where trust regarding our health is placed, maybe too willingly, in the hands of contemporary medicine, this is rarely something we would consider. We might hope for good health, but other than that, we trust that modern clinicians will put us right when things go wrong. Back then, such faith was, quite rightly, limited, and so trust was placed in the amulet to assist in warding off the perils of sickness.
The Egyptians are also thought to be the first culture to produce amulets in the form of known deities. These objects would be carved from a material considered to be sympathetic and were often done to ward off potential evils thought to be associated with the god in question, and, like many other amulets there purpose could be derived clearly from the shape.
Image - CC BY-SA 1.0 Egypt louvre
Across the globe they were used to deter evil forces, bad luck and even protection against thieves. And, like the Egyptians, in many cultures an amulet was often placed with the dead to sometimes ensure resurrection and most often to protect the soul in the afterlife. This was extremely important to many people and archaeology has revealed that most mummies would have amulets concealed within their bindings.
However it was the children of most cultures who were often seen to be the most vulnerable. And, particularly in times when child mortality was extremely high, they were often provided with amulets from birth which were designed to be worn continuously through their childhood to protect them from ill-fortune.
But in the ancient world what we have to realise is that it wasn’t only people who needed protecting. In times where not only human medicine was somewhat lacking, so was the veterinary variety, and livestock were often provided with amulets to ensure continued good health from disease and also to provide a defence against predatory attack and possibly theft.
Even then the uses to which the amulet could be put were not finished; inanimate objects such as houses or possessions also required protection particularly in times when calling for the emergency services was not an option. Business too attracted the need for amulets, as did employment, and sometimes even personal and professional relationships.
The requirements for amulets as we can see, extended far beyond the scope of simple ‘protection,’ and, even today the amulet is in demand. Our needs might not, in many cases, be as specific as in the past and our understanding of the amulet might be somewhat diminished but all over the world people still live with, and are often buried with, objects that are broadly considered to protect us from ill fortune.