Basic Principles of Magic Talismans

Some things just go together. Tomato sauces work well with chili. A white cotton shirt is a good match for blue denim jeans. The persistent patter of percussion forms a great foundation for wind or stringed instruments to play over.

It’s this simple principle that’s at the heart of talismans: things that go together have a kind of resonance. And putting them together in a particular form allows a person to access that power when they have need of it. Think of how you dress to impress when you go to meet a potential employer or lover – there’s a ritual element to it, the clothes helping you feel a way that’s suited to the outcome you want, whether it’s a job or a marriage proposal.

That kind of power we’re all familiar with. It’s easy to describe it as psychological, but that doesn’t actually define how it actually works. And there are people who go further using these principles, and create magical talismans to protect their homes from negative influences. Most of us recognise the existence of such influences, and within occult traditions such as those found in the Arab world and Indonesia they are variously described as black magic, jinns (Djinns), and demonic entities.

Call it spiritual. Call it energetic. Call it magic. Whatever your preferred term, that’s the power talismans tap into. Some people are doubtful that such power exists. The fact that a clear logical connection cannot be perceived between cause and effect doesn’t mean that there isn’t one. There’s a video online about bees who pull strings to get sugar. Not all of them can do so, but 23 out of 40 manage it. Bees don’t know what string is, or understand the physics of how pulling it results in sugar appearing – they do so because it works. Smart as we humans are, we’re still at the level of baby steps regarding true comprehension of the forces of the universe.

One tradition that’s found in all religions with holy books, is the holy book being placed by a person who is ill, to affect their healing for the better. At this point, we’re moving away from the object being powerful in its own right, and heading towards acknowledging the power of what the object represents. Hence this comment by occultist Dion Fortune – “A talisman is, in fact, nothing more or less than a spiritual storage battery.”

A talisman then, is powerful because of its associations, the way it is linked to something else. And that effect may go beyond the psychological. Certainly that’s the experience of many who have used talismans, and the model here is akin to that of sympathetic magic, where there is a connection between the object and that which it represents. For example, someone has a tiger tattoo to link themselves to that animal. And with talismans, the linkages can as well as being literal like the tiger tattoo, also be symbolic. Thus, Saturn can be represented not only a picture of the ringed planet, but by a symbol for it. There’s another shift too: ‘Saturn’ in magical thought – and symbol – is less about the physical planet than the divine energies which it has long been associated with.

Talismans utilise two principles that were first codified by Frazer in The Golden Bough. The Law of Similarity suggests that an effect can be created by imitating it – seen this way, cave paintings depicting animals being hunted are less a record of that having happened, than a means of bringing it about. And the Law of Correspondence suggests that influence can occur because two or more phenomena are related – in seeking for a communication to go well, offer something that resonates with Mercury, associated with communication. Crowley’s book 777 is a collection of such correspondences, and says that associations with Mercury include a sword; twin deities in different traditions including Hindu and Egyptian; magpies; and orchids.

The root of 777 is documentation of what people were already doing over centuries in different cultures. And there are sensible reasons for using symbolic references and materials as Fortune suggests: “…the solid gold talisman of the sun is beyond the means of all save millionaires; the lead talisman of Saturn is too weighty for practical use; the iron talisman of Mars is liable to rust. The simplest and most practical method is to use a copper base enamelled with the symbolic colours.”

Much of what’s been said so far relates to amulets as well as talismans. The distinction is straightforward: where an amulet has a general purpose that it can satisfy because of its innate magic, a talisman is charged for a specific intention by the magic of its creator. The word ‘talisman’ derives from the Arabic ‘Tilasm’ which means ‘the completion of a religious rite’. That Arabic origin connects talismans to Islam. In turn, the spread of Islam means that you can buy a talisman for black magic protection in countries including Malaysia, Ghana, Turkey, and in many places in Europe and America.

ISLAM and Magic Talismans

Talismans take many forms throughout Islamic history. Whether made of metal, or fabric, on a scroll, or carved in wood, there are certain elements that recur. Qur’anic inscriptions are a familiar theme, such as the names of God or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. The belief is that the mention of a given Prophet or hero connects the talisman-holder with them and gives them their protection. The same applies to figures including family members of the Prophet Muhammad, such as his son-in-law Iman cAli and his sons Hasan and Husayn.

Some talismans reference stories, together with associated images. One narrative that’s found repeatedly concerns the seven sleepers of Ephesus, a group of six Christian men accompanied by a dog who were in danger from persecution, but found a cave where they slept safely for centuries. As with the characters in the tale, the bearer of a talisman with that story was said to be protected from harm.

Seven sleepers amulet - Trustees of the British Museum

Image 1.Seven sleepers amulet – Trustees of the British Museum

Image 1 shows a cameo made from red paste with the names and profiles of the sleepers detailed.

Side 1 of metal seven sleepers amulet - Kelsey Museum of Archaeology
Side 2 of metal seven sleepers amulet - Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

Images 2,3. Both sides of metal seven sleepers amulet – Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

Images 2 and 3 are of a lead amulet – on the front, the names of the six sleepers overlapping. On the reverse, a murabba – magic square – and the names of four archangels.

Talismans were just part of a worldview which also incorporated omens and astrology and intermingled science with religion and magic. That paradigm developed over the centuries, so that horoscopes together with a science of letters derived from the ninety-nine names of God would form the basis of talismanic designs.

With the spread of Islam, and its interaction with the traditions of areas where it manifested, fusions occurred with elements of local lore and practice.

Nigerian board – Wellcome Images

Image 4. Nigerian board – Wellcome Images

Image 4 is a wooden board made in Nigeria by or for a Hausa healer with words from the Qu’ran inked onto it. The board would be washed with water to be drunk by a patient. The many variations on this theme include a metal amulet that would be placed in a bath to imbue its waters with healing properties.

Seal of Solomon scroll – Metropolitan Museum of Art

Image 5. Seal of Solomon scroll – Metropolitan Museum of Art

There’s cultural crossover to be found in Image 5, an 11th century scroll (by Christian calendar reckoning) from the Fatimid Islamic Caliphate. It utilises Kufic, the most ancient calligraphic Arabic text, and the central image is the six-pointed Seal of Solomon, which became known as the Star of David by the Jewish faith and features in other religions too. Solomon is featured in many talismans, thanks to the prophet’s legendary wisdom, and his ability to communicate with animals and the supernatural entities known as jinn.

In Egyptian tradition, the upward-facing triangle points represent Osiris, Isis, and Horus. To the Indians, the depictions are of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. And Christians hold that the triangle shows the Holy Trinity. The overall shape of the triangle corresponds with the symbol for fire, and the downward-facing one with water. With the two connected as they are, some propose the resulting shape is symbolic of the energies created when people make love, and the two triangles represent the pubic areas of a man and woman. This in turn points to the important of sexuality in magic, which many consider its greatest secret, whether in the form of Tantra or in other iterations.

Inscribed chalcedony - Trustees of the British Museum

Image 6. Inscribed chalcedony – Trustees of the British Museum

The material a talisman is made from can be significant. The use of pearls, for instance, alludes to the belief that a pearl is not simply itself, but symbolic of the oceans where it can be found. And that in turn references the belief that as a pearl is to the sea, so is an Imam to humankind. The talismanic amulet in Image 6 is made of chalcedony, which among other properties protects the bearer from the evil eye. The name ‘Muhammad’ is inscribed in the centre, along with a verse from the Qu’ran – the script-within-script technique is referred to as gulzar.

Armour - Metropolitan Museum of Art

Image 7. Armour – Metropolitan Museum of Art

It’s no surprise that the range of objects with talismanic significance includes arms and armour. The 16th century Iranian mail shirt in Image 7 offers not only physical protection, but metaphysical too. Each of its thousands of metal rings features an inscription to Allah and to the Prophet Muhammad and members of his family.

Sword - Metropolitan Museum of Art

Image 8. Sword – Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Prophet also gave a legendary sword to his cousin Ali abi Ibn Talib. Called Dhu’l Fiqar (among many other spellings), it was double-pointed, and was awarded Ali after he broke his own sword in an epic combat that split the shield and helmet of his fierce Meccan opponent. The image of the sword has featured on many flags over the centuries, and the name was even used more recently by a Bosnian military unit. The intent as ever is to identify the signified element with the power of the original, in much the same way that America’s space programme has rockets named Apollo, a powerful god important to the Greeks and Romans. Image 8 shows an Indian sword, probably from the 17th century, that with its shape and inscriptions references the tradition of Dhu’l Fiqar with the hope its bearer would be as mighty a warrior as the Prophet’s cousin.

One of the fascinating aspects of the Qu’ran is that 29 of its 114 chapters are preceded by between one and five so-called ‘mysterious letters’. It’s unclear exactly what their purpose was, but it’s interesting to speculate as some have that they were included to set the tone for what was to follow. If that’s the case – and it’s certainly feasible, with some authorities saying they have protective properties – then the Qu’ran itself uses the methods of talismans in the way it engages readers.

Calligraphy page - Trustees of the British Museum

Image 9. Calligraphy page – Trustees of the British Museum

Image 9 shows a talismanic page by Sudanese calligrapher Osman Waqialla where the dominant design element is formed by five of those letters – kaf, ha, ya, ayn, sadd) in thuluth script. Thuluth was developed in the tenth century and is still in use now, with a curved style that features typically in titles and architectural usage. Around it, in smaller naskh script – often called ‘the servant of the Qu’ran’ because of the frequency with which naskh is used to copy from it, is written chapter 19 of the Qu’ran.

Conclusion on Talismans

Talismans are part of human history that tends to get overlooked in mainstream accounts because they represent a way of understanding and engaging with life that has faded as the scientific worldview has taken hold. The fact that rationalism has seemingly triumphed does not mean that a more magical framework is outmoded. Far from it. As the rich tradition of talismans within Islam demonstrates, there is an innate human desire to experience enchantment and ritual, and some ways to enact that in everyday life which offer an opportunity for craftwork and artistry to be an expression of spirituality. It’s in that vibrant nexus that talismans can be found, and which regardless of the triumph of technology in many aspects of our lives speaks to something deep within us.

Copyright Zahir Karbani – Mani Zone LTD

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