the what and why of amulets

Welcome to part 1 of a 4-part blog series on amulets & talismans.

If I asked, point blank: Do you intentionally carry an amulet? You’d likely say no. It’s not something on the forefront of most people’s minds. Were you ever gifted a rabbit’s foot? I was, and as a child I carried it with me…at least for a while. Or maybe instead you whisper, “rabbit, rabbit” at the start of each month. Either way, calling in good luck, or repelling bad luck, with various objects is serious business within cultures across the globe.

These days it seems that amulets are somewhat increasing in popularity, yet again, these are not objects at the forefront of one’s mind. The rabbit’s foot as a good luck charm was quite popular in the United States and Great Britain for decades. The history of this particular amulet is not entirely certain and is connected to several possibilities.

So what exactly is an amulet anyway? 

An amulet is said to contain natural virtues used for warding off evil, guarding against negativity, and protecting the wearer or carrier from harm. As a protective object an amulet can come in many shapes and sizes. The power is within the material. In short, an amulet repels what we don’t want, claims Mary Grace Fahrun, author of Italian Folk Magic (2018).

Here are some examples of common amulets which are culturally and situationally dependent:

Coral

Vervain

Thyme

Garlic

A leaf of Bay/Laurel

A fresh or dried sprig of Rue

Amber

Silver and Gold

A stone, gem or crystal (such as quartz, amethyst, tourmaline, carnelian or onyx). 

Italian red coral is considered an amulet.

Amulets can offer protection in all states, whether in dream, meditative, visionary or waking states. Furthermore, amulets can serve as a general protective element as well as carry a unique function. One historical example is how fossilized amber was used for preventing nightmares with children. Another example could be the Italian corno or hunchback or the hand of Fatima, all of which are meant to provide a specific function—protection against evil eye. 

Apotropaic (aka protective) magic refers to the power to avert evil or harmful influences, bad luck, misfortune, or the evil eye. The popularity is evident, even today, by the vast number of apotropaic amulets and talismans sold worldwide. A very early example comes from ancient Greece in the 4th-century BCE – a relief showing Asklepios performing a healing ritual with a serpent and two apotropaic eyes above. These talismanic ‘eyes’ were also commonly found on ancient Greek vases and throughout parts of the Mediterranean region. See part 4 of this 4-part blog series for more on talismans.

From my visit to the archeological museum in Thessaloniki, 2019.

In the book The High Magic of Talismans and Amulets, Lecouteux (2005) provides some history on the origins of the word amulet: In the first century BCE, we come across the Latin word amuletum, derived from amoliri, meaning to protect, to drive away. Considering what amulets are and are not, the most striking example I’ve come across is revealed below. What you see is below is from an excerpt from my 2021 book, Dream Medicine:

Considering the notion of general protective capacities, let’s turn to Celtic traditions for a moment. Healing, wisdom and truth are sourced from severed heads. The most extreme example of an amulet I have ever come across, unsurprisingly, is that of a human skull fragment. According to Tom Cowan, author of Fire in the Head: Shamanism and the Celtic Spirit (1993), ancient Celts were well known for “their cult of the severed head” (p. 35); they flaunted the heads of enemies from their horses or their own necks. Celtic warriors wore human skull fragments as amulets. Sometimes the entire head was placed on a gatepost, outside a doorway, or on top of a stake for protection. In belief systems where the soul is immortal, residing in the head while alive on earth, it is not surprising that claiming or keeping one’s head “was the same as possessing that person’s soul, spirit and personal power, analogous to the practice found among some cultures of eating the heart or brain of a noble warrior or admired enemy in order to ingest his strength” (Cowan, 1993, p. 36). How about that for a power object!

Now that you know what amulets are and why people carry them, we’ll turn our attention to their care in the next part fo this blog series.

~Dr. Kim

Consider joining the Dream Medicine retreat in Mexico this Fall – we are booking now, so get all the details here: www.ConsciousChimera.com/Retreats

Thank you for reading part 1 of this 4-part blog series. The next part (2) will place attention on the cleaning of amulets. For fuller exploration of this subject, read Dream Medicine: The Intersection of Wellness and Consciousness (Toplight Books, 2021).

#traditionalways

#magic

#power

#ritual

#amulets

#ancientgreece

#talismans

#goodluck

#folkmagic

#craft

#folkloric

#protection

#evileye

#Asklepios 

#rabbit-rabbit

#apotropaic 

dreamy greek delights

After the annual international dream conference of the IASD, held in the Netherlands this year, I visited Greece. Greece has been on my bucket list for over a decade. Finally, I made it! With only five days to spare, I stuck to the North East area of the country, exploring the city of Thessaloniki and Halkidiki peninsula. Time in the sea was, of course, a must. I also  wanted to see with my own eyes evidence of a long lost dream culture.

e0329c47-1757-43f0-a42a-cf5d6894bf48I spent time speaking with young Greeks, and even a few older ones. As I walked through downtown Thessaloniki, not for from Aristotle Square by the sea, I walk past 4th century monuments and wait…what?… yes, vendors selling Native American dreamcatchers. What a surprise! Young, contemporary Greeks call these oneiropagida yet they do not have a similar object from their own, forgotten, ancient dream-focused culture. Evidence for this lost culture is mostly found in museums nowadays, especially within the boundaries of my recent trip. One man, who is in his 20s, shared two opposing views of today’s Greek people. Dreams either mean little-to-nothing, he told me, or dreams must be interpreted, as they hold significance for some. For the latter group, oneirokritis or dream dictionaries, however, are popular. He considered those who use dream interpretation to be “superstitious,” yet as we spoke further, I understood that this term was not necessarily negative. The 21 year-old woman who was selling dreamcatchers, among other objects and souveniers, told me that for her and her friends, dreams were not meaningful. She said that her mother, however, carries a belief that night dreams are worth paying attention to and may lead to an action if they seemed meaningful. This isn’t a daily practice though, as some dreams hold more weight than other dreams.

A middle-aged cab driver from a small mountain town told me that contemporary Greeks today look at the old God/Goddess culture as “fairytales.” That old mythology is not a part of our contemporary belief system whatsoever, he conveyed. With regard to dreams, he said that this is also mostly ignored, yet for some Greeks, “powerful dreams” are given more attention. Those vivid, or easily recalled, types of dreams may need interpretation. The dream may be placed in one of two categories: good or bad. Dreams are judged, polarized, it seems. An example of a good dream may involve flying, he said, while a dream of a snake may be viewed as bad. I commented on how serpents were held in high regard, in the past, for their healing and transformative qualities. He agreed, but said “times have changed.” He attributed this shift in perspective to religious changes, particularly the rise of Christianity.

Thessaloniki’s archeological museum staff provided stimulating discussion regarding the Greek history of dreaming. Two women working in the museum shop shared some img_4201information about the healing nature of snakes as we looked at a marble relief being sold there, which features Asclepius. A fourth century BCE relief depicts three stages of healing of a patient by the god Asclepius with two apotropaic eyes above. The healing ritual shown here appears to depict Asclepius giving injections and using snake venom as a healing substance. Some believe that Asclepius could transform into a healing serpent himself. The original can be found in the sanctuary of Amphiaraos at Oropos (Attica). Apotropaic magic refers to the power to avert evil or harmful influences, bad luck, misfortune, or the evil eye. Its popularity is evident, even today, by the vast number of apotropaic amulets sold worldwide. Other copies of votive offerings to Asclepius also feature the serpent. Snakes can be found in numerous pieces img_4203of jewelry (bracelets and earrings in particular) worn by the ancient Greek/Macedonian peoples. We discussed how the serpent, or snake, was considered a strong healing, transformative force historically, yet with the arrival of Christianity, this all changed. From then on, snakes were primarily associated with women and evil, or the devil, thus connecting the two. This myth continues to hold strong today. Then, she asked for me to help her understand a puzzling dream of her own. I say that I’m honored to listen, but cannot interpret another’s dream, as I am not the author of it. She agrees that dreams belong to the dreamer, and continues. We play the game, “If it were my dream,” and have an enlightening discussion. She smiles as her eyes widen, img_4202expressing thanks for my view on this dream, as if it were my own, revealing a positive resolution in the end. Dreams belong to the dreamer, yes, and isn’t it wonderful to have those that will listen and take them seriously. For these exchanges offer fresh insights and perspectives. I was delighted over my time spent in the museum and with it’s employees – they had much to say about Asclepius and healing, while the others I spoke with knew little, or nothing at all of that part of local ancient history.

My time in Greece will continue…hopefully within a year or two. Athens and the oracles and sanctuaries of the area are at the top of my list. Have you traveled to the ancient Greek regions where healing and dreaming were once so common? If so, tell us about it. Comments and discussion here are always welcome.

Happy Summer,

Kim

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