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Amulets and talismans

Amulet necklace of 49 glass beads resembling eyes, worn to overt the Evil Eye, from Hebron, Palestine, 1880-1930.

Amulet necklace of 49 glass beads resembling eyes, worn to overt the Evil Eye, from Hebron, Palestine, 1880-1930.

Credits:Science Museum, London

Amulets and talismans were, and for many people still are, objects believed to have magical or spiritual powers. They are thought to bring good fortune, including good health, and protection from bad fortune or illness. They vary in style and construction from carved coconut shells in Papua New Guinea to prayer flags blowing in the Himalayan wind in Nepal. In Europe a rabbit’s foot, a four-leaved clover and a horseshoe are all traditionally supposed to bring good luck. In medieval Islam, magic number squares were widely used as talismans.

In many places the amulet was believed to be more effective if accompanied by magic words or phrases. Within the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions, holy books are sometimes believed to have talismanic qualities. For example, early Muslims believed that water washed over the ‘Fatiha’, the opening section of the Qur’an, could cure snakebites.

A similar practice was believed to help women through childbirth in China in the 500s CE. Paper with magic writing on it was burnt and the ashes were then pounded up and drunk in water by the woman in labour. Other amulets thought to help women through childbirth include carved objects of wood or bone from Australia, and necklaces of beads and shells from 19th-century southern Africa.

Belief in the power of charms and objects to ward off bad luck continues to this day. The miniature figure of a protective god or a religious symbol is often worn as an amulet. Examples include Buddhas in Thailand and crosses in the Christian world. Many Mediterranean and Middle Eastern households display necklaces to ward off the ‘evil eye’, which is commonly thought to bring misfortune and disease. Those facing a trying situation over which they do not have control, such as athletes and members of the armed forces, continue to wear ‘lucky’ items too.


Related links

Techniques and Technologies:


L I Conrad, ‘Arab-Islamic medicine’ in W F Bynum and R Porter (eds), Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine (London, Routledge, 1993)

K Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Belief in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England (London: Penguin, 1991)