Talismans and Amulets: An Enduring Tradition of Meaningful Jewelry

St. Christopher Talisman

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What are Talismans and Amulets?

In his article "Dragons as Amulets, Dragons as Talismans, Dragons as Counselors" professor Robert G. Stevens provides a very effective description of what a talisman is and what it imparts to it's bearer: "A talisman is an object that exerts an influence for good fortune to occur to the one who possesses it." He further explains, "It transforms the person who holds it so that he or she can accomplish great deeds." Comparatively he describes amulets as objects believed to protect and ward off evil or harm. So close are these two purposes that it is not uncommon for the distinction between talismans and amulets to be blurred so that the two terms are used interchangeably.

A talisman or amulet can take many forms, but most common are pendants or charms worn on the body. They can also be made of many different materials and in most instances the material from which they are made contributes to their intended power. If an item is made of wood, the type of wood chosen is of significance, if made of metal, then the type of metal dictates the affect the object will have, likewise if stones are included, then their color is both symbolic and influential. Other examples include common objects which have an unusual malformation (four-leaved clovers), animal parts or carvings of animals, relics of religious icons and heirlooms once owned by ancestors. Ultimately, the power of a meaningful piece of jewelry is determined by the social, spiritual and emotional relevance that an object acquires as dictated by the culture the individual inhabits and the individual's personal experience surrounding the object.

Talismans and War

Historically, it has not been at all uncommon for warriors to carry talisman objects into battle. When the threat of probable death or other trauma is facing an individual it is human nature to seek protection and a means to bolster the internal will to counter anxiety. In a 2003 Washington Post article it was predicted that more than 50 percent of soldiers take some object of significance with them when they are deployed. These objects take the form of pendants that can be worn securely on the body but can also be religious books, letters, photos or even dog tags that belong to a military relative. Religious affects are nearly universal talismans worn by soldiers as exemplified by carved pendants of Buddha handed out to the military in Thailand, Koranic scripture carried by Muslims and medallions depicting Catholic saints worn by soldiers in Europe and America. During WWI many soldiers carried some form of Psalm 91, commonly referred to as the "Soldier's Psalm" on their persons, a particular talisman that is still popular amongst military as a form of protection. Also common is for a talisman object to be acquired by a soldier's family and presented to the soldier as a direct connection to kin while away from home.

Talismans and Native American Culture

Native American talisman jewelry with its liberal use of animalistic iconography is quite popular in the Western world. In a time when human impact on the environment has put our own well-being in jeopardy, many are seeking a way to realign themselves with the natural world. The adoption of animal talismans is one path toward achieving this integration. Anther reason people are fond of adopting these animal icons is because of their symbolic association with particular attributes that the wearers would like to gain themselves.

Some common motifs in Native American spiritual jewelry include the eagle, stallion, bear and buffalo. The eagle is often considered the king of birds, a symbol of victory and power; according to Native American belief, the soaring power of the eagle contains the capacity to correct the imbalance of evil influences. North American tribes are still the most prevalent wearers of eagle talismans worldwide, whether for ceremonial regalia or everyday wear. Both the stallion and buffalo symbolize strength, while the bear symbolizes strength and leadership.

Examples of Talismans and Amulets Still in Popular Use

  • Cross - Origin: Middle East. Long before Christians adopted this symbol, it was possibly used as a fertility talisman in Ancient Cypress. The Christian version of the cross made its appearance around the 4th century A.D., since then it has been donned by the pious as a declaration of faith and more recently, by the less devoted as a function of fashion.
  • Hand of Fatima - Origin: Islam. The symbol of the downward facing hand is derived from the story of Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, who in the midst of cooking, burned her hand when she was surprised by her husband arriving home with a lover. Because Fatima did not cry out, The Hand of Fatima has come to be associated with patience and loyalty. An eye is also often added to this amulet to signify the All-seeing Eye of Mercy. 
  • Heart - Origin: Europe. Though it is a matter of speculation which culture first began to use the heart as an icon, the modern symbol we associate with the word is proposed to have first been used in Medieval Europe. The cleaved, evenly balanced shape that comes to a point at its bottom is now universally accepted as a symbol of love and deep emotion. 
  • Italian Horn - Origin: Middle East, Mediterranean. The bull is an emblem of male power and fertility. It was not uncommon for buildings and houses to by fixed with a mounted pair of bull's horns to invoke the protective spirit of this virile animal. Today, the talisman is popularly worn as a gold or silver pendant hinting at the owner's sexual potency. 
  • Scarab - Origin: Ancient Egypt. The scarab symbolizes immortality and renewal. Ancient Egyptians wore the scarab to guard against death and it was placed on the chests of the dead to insure their resurrection in the afterlife. The scarab is popular in contemporary times as a good luck charm. 
  • Seal of Solomon - Origin: Middle East. The six-point star, which is easily recognized as a symbol of Judea, has actually been used by a variety of religions over the eons including Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. Kabbalists incorporated the symbol as protection against evil; in modernity this emblem has been adopted as a symbol of Jewish identity and is frequently worn as a pendant. 
  • St. Christopher - Origin: Catholicism. Saint Christopher was once held by the Catholic Church to have been a giant who helped Christ cross a dangerous river. In the late 1960's it was decided by the church that the tale was likely a hoax and his sainthood was revoked. This has not diminished the saint's popularity amongst travelers, particularly in the Americas. The faithful believe that a St. Christopher amulet will keep them safe on their journey. 
  • Animals - The vast variety of animal talismans and amulets is perhaps as numerous as there are species on the earth. Since time immemorial humans have sought to capture animal essence via the adoption of animal parts or effigies worn on the body.

© S. C. Versillee

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Research Sources:

Books:

Budge, E. A. Wallis. (2001). Amulets and Magic. London: Kegan Paul Ltd. 
Gonzalez-Wippler, Migene. (2001).Complete Book of Amulets & Talismans. Woodbury: Llewellyn Publications. 
Paine, Sheila. (2004). Amulets: Sacred Charms of Power and Protection. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd. 
Morris, Desmond. (1999). Body Guards: Protective Amulets and Charms. Shaftesbury: Element Books Ltd. 
Ywahoo, Dhyani. (1987). Voices of Our Ancestors: Cherokee Teachings from the Wisdom Fire, Shambhala. Boston & London

Articles
Broadway, Bill. (2003, March 29). Troops Find Faith in Things They Carry. Washington Post, p. B1. 
Todd, Douglas. (2007, March 6). A 'Soldier' on a Mission of Faith. Vancouver Sun. 
Stevenson, R. G. (1994). Dragons as Amulets, Dragons as Talismans, Dragons as Counselors. Death Studies, 18 (3), 219-228

About the Author: S. C. Versillee is an artist and jewelry designer with a Bachelor of Arts Degree as well as a Master's in Library Science. Through her web site http://www.EssenceCraft.com she publishes informative articles aimed at educating collectors of fine art and jewelry. If you found this article useful, feel free to visit http://www.EssenceCraft.com read more submissions from the web site's Learning Center.

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