A short chapter from the new book by Gary R. Varner, "The Use & History of Amulets, Charms and Talismans."
Amulets, charms and talismans have been used to take away illness and provide protection of the mind and body since antiquity. As described elsewhere in this book, amulets in the form of stones have a universal application and a universal appeal and have been used to treat illnesses as well as to avoid them.
Called lithotherapy, the use of stones in the treatment of diseases has included minerals, precious and semi-precious gems, coral and pearls, and stone-like objects said to have been produced in the bodies of both real and mythical creatures.
The madstone reportedly was recommended as a cure for both snakebite and rabies. What the madstone actually was appears to be debatable. One example was said to have been found in the head of the cobre de capello and, when applied to a snake bite or poison arrow wound, would draw out the venom and then drop off the wound. Other forms of madstone include the famous Lee stone.
According to legend Sir Simon Lockhart of Lee fought the Saracens in the late 12th century and acquired a pebble set into a stone. “According to the story,” writes Thomas Forbes, “water into which this talisman had been dipped would relieve fever, stop bleeding, and work other cures.” (1)
The Lee penny is known to have existed into the 19th century and was still used to treat dog bites. It had gained such a reputation for its healing powers that during the reign of Charles I it was borrowed by the city of Newcastle to combat the plague. The townspeople had to put up a bond of £6,000 to ensure its return.
Another healing amulet with a wide reputation is a large brown seed called the “petrified deer’s eye” or ojo de venado. The seed is similar to a buckeye and in carried in Mexico to ward off evil spirits, which cause “bad air”, or mal aire.
Such “bad air” causes paralytic twitching and is brought on due to sudden exposure to rapid temperature changes or over heatedness caused by fits of anger. This condition has been linked to the Aztecs who believed that illness was caused by evil spirits present in the air.
An old tradition from California dating to the 1890’s states that one should always carry a buckeye to ensure continued good health. This tradition continued well into the 1960’s. A similar folk-medicine tradition existed in the Ozarks in the 1930’s.
The wearing of amber was widely believed to prevent convulsions in children in 1950’s Spain and data from Utah in the late 1960’s indicated that amber beads worn around the neck also protected one against colds. Other illnesses said to be avoided with amber amulets include croup, goiter, whooping cough, pulmonary ailments, sore throat, asthma, enlarged thyroid, heart disease, nosebleed, and toothache among others. A word of caution however as amber amulets were also recommended to stop sexual desire.
Paine noted that amber, when rubbed, produces a slight electrical charge and a distinctive aroma which most likely contributed to the healing powers it was believed to hold. (2) “No doubt the early peoples, who gathered Adriatic and Baltic amber and distributed it and its lore far and wide,” wrote Donald Mackenzie, “discovered this peculiar quality in the sacred substance.” (3)
Amber, like coral, shells and pearls, was though to have its origin in the seas and were closely associated with the goddess who, like Aphrodite, had her origins in the deep waters.
Jade is another amuletic stone widely used for its healing and protective properties. Jade has been used in India to cure reptile bite, although it is unknown how many of those bites were actually from venomous snakes.
Jadeite was a well used folk-medicine in 16th century England as well for treating poisons. It has been reported that by wearing jade one can avoid kidney problems for a whole year and the Chinese would wear wristlets of jade to strengthen the arm. Jade is also reportedly a bringer of good luck and longevity.
In Mongolia the practice of wearing small amulets in the form of blacksmith tools were used by village shamans in their healing rituals.
Coral is another substance used in protective amulets. Children wore pieces of “male and female” coral around their necks to be protected from the evil-eye in the 1940’s. In Italy, coral pendants and red vests are still used to protect babies from the evil eye. In the 1880’s coral was thought to “preserve and fasten the teeth of men” and was widely used to ease the pain of teething in children.
Coral traditionally has been regarded as the sea-tree of the Mother Goddess and the giver of life and fertility in the waters. Coral was regarded as being the “life substance” of the goddess in ancient Egypt. In Greek myth, coral is grown from the blood of Medusa. (4) In Spain, amulets of coral were believed to protect children from convulsions.
Copper is an ancient amuletic material that is still commonly used today to ease arthritic pain and to provide a number of health benefits. Copper bracelets are sold through television advertisements as cure-alls for pains and illnesses and go for as much as $150. They can also be bought in New Age shops and drug stores around the United States for as little as $1.50. Scientific tests on copper wire and bands of copper have shown no effectiveness in healing but amulets require faith more than scientific evidence to produce results. While copper was, and still is, most often recommended for arthritis and rheumatism it has also been worn as a protective device against snake bite. Other uses include children wearing a copper penny around the neck until it is old enough to talk to avoid speech defects. In addition, bee stings were said to be neutralized by placing a copper coin on the area stung. Those penny-loafers most likely carry old superstitions with them as well.
An old practice from the first few years of the 20th century included taking the copper pennies off the eye-lids of the deceased and using them as amulets against rheumatism.
The Egyptians undoubtedly used copper for magical purposes first before they began to use it for jewelry and weapons. Many of the sacred wells and waterways received copper offerings and many of these wells still carry names such as “Penny well” and “pin well” which reflect these offerings.
Other, more mundane items that we use everyday have also been used as charms and amulets to prevent and cure illnesses and body pains. Folklorist W. J. Witemberg recorded in 1918 that an informant in Canada “gave to the author, to add to his collection of charms and amulets, a dried and hardened potato which he had carried on him for a year as a cure for rheumatism. A fresh potato, he explained, had to be put in one's pocket at the end of every year.” (5)
Likewise, strings of garlic and onions were worn to remain healthy and should one carry an old lemon with them it would also ensure good health.
Italian-Americans in the 1950’s continued an ancient tradition to combat the evil eye. They wore small metal male hunchback figurines to combat this dreaded sorcery. It was believed that sickly female hunchbacks could cause the disease and the male hunchback figurines were able to combat it successfully.
In Germany during the 1950’s crayfish eyes were credited with supernatural power and they were frequently made into amulets in the shape of the cross with 3 or 5 stones. This concretion is not unlike that of the bezoar stone and is taken from the stomach of river crayfish. These crosses were frequently hung around the necks of children to ensure good health. It is unknown if this tradition continues today.
There are as many amulets, charms and talismans as there are ailments, despair and desires in the world. Leo Kanner wrote, “In short, heaven and earth and all three kingdoms of nature and God and a world of spirits and ghosts are involved in the subject of medical folklore.” (6)
1. Forbes, Thomas R. “The Madstone” in American Folk Medicine: A Symposium. Edited by Wayland D. Hand. Los Angeles: University of California Press 1976, 16.
2. Paine, Sheila. Amulets: Sacred Charms of Power and Protection. Rochester: Inner Traditions 2004, 89.
3. Mackenzie, Donald A. Ancient Man in Britain. London: Senate 1996, 164.
4. Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd. 1978, 42.
5. Wintemberg, W. J. "Folk-Lore Collected in the Counties of Oxford and Waterloo, Ontario." Journal of American Folklore, 31 (1918), 135-153.
6. Kanner, Leo. "Medical Folklore." Medical Life, 38, pt. 2 (1931), 523-527.