Object, inscription, drawing, or symbol believed to be imbued with a supernormal or magical power to protect against disease, evil spirits, the evil eye, bewitchment, infertility, impotence, bad luck, and a host of misfortunes and calamities.
In their simplest form, amulets are natural objects that have an eye-catching color, an unusual shape-such as a holed stone-or are rare, such as a four-leaf clover or double walnut. Ancient civilizations, in their efforts to control spirits and the forces of nature, made amulets from a variety of materials. The practice continues universally in modern times.
The term "amulet" is derived either from the Latin amuletum, or the Old Latin amoletum, for "means of defense." Amulets customarily are worn on the body, especially around the neck, in the form of jewelry or a charm, which is a magical phrase, rhyme, or prayer inscribed on paper, parchment, or an object. Amulets also are commonly worn as rings. Some amulets are designs, symbols, or inscriptions engraved on the doors or posts of homes, buildings, holy places, and tombs.
Virtually anything can become an amulet, depending on beliefs and resources. Among the most common are gems and semiprecious stones fashioned into jewelry, starues of deities, or statues of animals associated with certain powers and properties. Eyes also are common; perhaps the best-known eye amulet is the Eye of Horus of ancient Egypt, which guarded health and protected against evil spirits. The Egyptians also used frog amulets against infertility, and scarab beetle amulets to guard the soul for resurrection after death and protect it against sorcery. Mummies have been found wearing pectoral necklaces containing scarabs and the Eye of Horus.
Vegetable amulets, including berries, fruits, nuts, plants, wood, and leaves, are very common in many parts of the world. The use of garlic as an amulet against evil, most notably vampires, may be traced to the ancient Romans, who used it against witches. Peach wood and stones are considered strong amulets against evil spirits in China.
Certain metals are believed to have amuletic properties. Iron universally is believed to keep away demons and witches. In India rings made of copper, silver, gold, and iron are worn to protect against sorcery. Elsewhere, iron horseshoes hung over the doorways of stables and homes keep out witches and evil spirits. Bells made of silver or iron will drive away the same. Amethyst pendants set in silver and worn on silver chains are believed to protect wearers from negative energy.
Written amulets also have been common since ancient times. The Romans had formulae for preventing various diseases. The ancient Hebrews believed in the protective powers of the names of angels and of God, and in the written word of scriptures. Written amulets are worn about the neck, hung over doors and beds, or carried in cases, boxes, and bags. The cylindrical mezuzah is one example of this type of amulet. Originally intended to protect against demons, it was later given religious significance with biblical inscriptions about monotheism. The mezuzah continues to be worn as a pendant and hung on the doorjambs of Jewish homes.
Other types of written amulets include spells, words of power, secret symbols and signs, religious phrases and scripture, and legends. In magic, magic circles are inscribed with amuletic symbols and words and names of power, which help protect the magician from harm by the spirits summoned in ritual.
Francis Barrett. The Magus. 1801. Reprint. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1967; E. A. Wallis Budge. Amulets and Superstitions. 1930. New York: Dover Publications, 1978; Richard Cavendish. The Black Arts. New York: Perigee Books, 1967; Emile Grillot de Givry. Witchcraft, Magic and Alchemy. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1931; Maria Leach, ed., and Jerome Fried, assoc. ed. Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979.