an introduction to talismans

This is part 4 of a 4-part blog on amulets & talismans.

So after reading part 3, did you make an amulet bag for yourself? How did it go?

Now we turn to the sibling of amulets: that is, the complexity of Talismans as the final piece of this 4-part article.

The Greek telesma and, later, the Arabic tilsam bring about the word talisman. These are more complex when compared to amulets. Unlike the various naturally occurring amulets, talismans are crafted works. Cunningham (2019) in his Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs explains how when worn or carried talismans “attract a specific influence, such as love, luck, money, health; as opposed to an amulet which keeps forces from its bearer” (p. 286). Knowing this, the color correspondences that were listed in part 3 of this 4-part series, can be applied here as well. Before moving on, I’ll include a few thoughts on some related European history.

Both amulets and talismans are woven into Europe’s ‘historical marriage’ of religion, magic and medicine. We only have to look back a few hundreds years to see how authoritative power and misogyny laid the foundation for today’s biases, ignorance and misinformation (Magic does not mean heresy.). By this, I mean literally, the exclusion of women from holding positions within Christian/Catholic religious institutions, high-magic orders, and medical practice alongside the formal education required to practice. For those interested, the scholarly writings of Thomas Hatsis offer an in depth look into the pharmacopoeia and folk drug practices of the medieval period. Sure, there were those who misused their status, positions and power, yet how is that any different than today? So, with that noted, let’s look more deeply into talismans.   

While a talisman can potentially be created with any object, it is ritual which surrounds the production of talismans for the purpose of infusing magical powers. In addition, the magical properties of protection and power emerge from the sacred signs found on talismans. In The High Magic of Talismans and Amulets, Lecouteux (2005) explains, “The talisman is, among other things, an incantation, a magic word, a charm set down in writing instead of being recited. Depending on its purpose, the person either carries it or not; it is a personal object that, in order to be effective, should take into account everything concerning the individual for whom it is intended” (p. 24). A talisman’s magical signs and symbols are often obscure (such as a sigil) and this is what some have said to be the reason behind harsh condemnation by the church. Even a few centuries before 1000 CE, talismans became associated with the devil. This negative association, created by church clergy and officials, continued through the Inquisition and beyond. The Dark Ages of Europe lasted around 1,000 years!

To summarize the distinction, both amulets and talismans protect, yet talismans go a step further in that they require ritual preparation (thoughts, plans, care) for a particular purpose, such as attracting something desired. Basically, we charge talismans with our desires. Both amulets and talismans, in their many forms, have been valued by people all over the world for centuries … millennia, actually. These are components of ancient medicine. In fact, a prehistoric male corpse was found in the Alps near the borders of what today would be Austria and Italy with an amulet in the form of a filled leather pouch around his neck. Their use continued, however, although sometimes in secret in order to avoid penalty and consequence. 

Only a century ago, the Bretons (Celts of Northern France) hung starfish over the bed of a child who was experiencing night terrors and nightmares (Lecouteux, 2005). It’s haunting to realize that what many people carry, wear, use, or utter today would have led to interrogation, harassment, possible imprisonment or murder just a half-dozen centuries ago. 

At the same time, it is mind-bending to know that a simple change in terms, from “magic” (pagan) to “miracle” (Christian), makes a difference! After all, magic removes the patriarchal authority of the church. What’s more is that a Christian cross worn around the neck is basically an amulet, as are small pouches with images of saints as seen within Catholicism. When it comes to Christian amulets and talismans, the use of sacred names is important. The utterance or vocal conjuration is what gives the power. Lecouteux (2005) writes that the “mentality underlying the use of Christian amulets predates Christianity itself. It constitutes an interesting form of syncretism that combines elements of the dominant religion with older structures” (pp. 93–94). The appropriation of pagan customs by the church is nothing new and can be observed well beyond amulet and talisman use.

There you have it – a brief introduction to talismans.

Thank you for reading part 4 of 4 – you’ve now completed the entire amulet & talisman blog series. For a deeper exploration of this subject, read Dream Medicine: The Intersection of Wellness and Consciousness (Toplight Books, 2021).

Have you enjoyed this blog series? If so, consider joining me for the Dream Medicine Retreat I’ll be hosting at the beautiful Mar de Jade Wellness Resort in Chacala, Mexico. Details can be found here:

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