Amulets – the self-management of misfortune and belief

1. The Lore of Charms and Medical Folklore

    1 (a)  Sympathetic magic

    1 (b)  Superstition

    1 (c)  Folk medicine and quackery

2. Amulets and Protective Charms

    2 (a)  Amulets

    2 (b)  Holed stones

    2 (c)  Touch pieces

3. Amulets and Charms in London Museums

    3 (a)  the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum Collection

    3 (b)  the Edward Lovett Collection

4.  Amulets and Charms in Britain

     4 (a) Oxfordshire

     4 (b)  England

     4 (c)  Wales

     4 (d) Scotland and Ireland

5.  Amulets and Charms in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.

6. Conclusion

References and Sources

1.  The Lore of Charms and Medical Folklore

The wearing of charms, to ward off ill-luck or evil spirits may have begun as amuletic adornments millennia ago, at the dawn of human history.  Evidence from Africa some 75,000 years ago shows shells were used for adornment.  In Palaeolithic Germany mammoth tusks were intricately carved or engraved into charms or talismans around 30,000 B.P.  Prehistoric amulets were made from shells, animal bones, fossils, or fashioned from clay.  Charms of later periods were made from wood, stones, rocks, and gems.  In Ancient Egypt amulets were worn as a means of identification (perhaps totemic), symbols of belief and good luck, and as prophylactics for good health and to fend off illness, see Figure 1. and Figure 2



Figure 1. Examples of Ancient Egyptian Amulets and Talismans


Figure 2.  Examples of Egyptian amulets.

During the Roman Empire tiny emblematic fish charms were secreted within clothing by Christians.  In Judaic Law tiny inscribed passages inside amulets were worn near the heart, see Figure 3.


Figure 3. Jewish amulet for wearing adjacent to the heart.

It becomes obvious that amulets “…appeared throughout history and across many cultures in an infinite variety of forms…” (Powell, 2012).  Charms were worn or used in the belief that these objects would obtain favour for their wearers.  Many amulets were seen as protective against the Evil Eye.  Wearing amulets and charms, often in the form of beads made of gold, silver, bronze, coral, or clam and cowry shells “…play an important part in the campaign against the Evil Eye” (Seelig, 1905) and its effects, see Figure 4.


Figure 4. A selection of amulets and charms

Interest in amuletic folklore in the 19th and 20th centuries led to a noticeable increase of scholarly studies (Bratley, 1907; Fernie, 1907; Villiers, 1929; Bridge, 1930).  Folkorists enthusiastically ventured into exploring the topic (Udal, 1922;  Harland & Wilkinson, 1861), as well as a work of fiction (Nesbit, 1906). However, charms and amulets are “…not simply specimens of folklore.” (Hill, 2001), because the “…question of belief is not only crucial to an understanding of narratives, but also central to other folklore genres, superstition in particular.” (Roud,  2008).

1 (a)  Sympathetic Magic

Historically “…magical remedies, rituals and explanations which were passed down by word of mouth from one generation to the next…as a narrative of folk or religious discourse.” (Williams, 1999).  This is an demonstrates the persistence of the effect of oral transmission of belief even after the original reason for the belief has long ceased to exist.  The theory of sympathetic magic, similarity and contagion originated with the works of Sir James George Frazer (1854-1941), the Scottish anthropologist who influenced the early progress of modern studies in comparative religion and mythology.  Frazer opined that if “…we analyze the principles of thought on which magic is based, they will probably be found to resolve themselves into two: first, that like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause; and, second, that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to action each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed. The former principle may be called the Law of Similarity, the latter the Law of Contact or Contagion. From the first of these principles, namely the Law of Similarity, the magician infers that he can produce any effect he desires merely my imitating it: from the second he infers that whatever he does to a material object will affect equally the person with whom the object was once in contact, whether it formed part of his body or not.” (Frazer, 1933).

Early healing was “…supposed to be attained by the homeopathic principle that like cures like.” (Ettlinger, 1943).  In the view of Frazer sympathetic magic or the Law of Sympathy “…can be subdivided into its two branches. Firstly, Homeopathic Magic or the Law of Similarity, and secondly Contagious Magic or the Law of Contact.” (Frazer, 1933).  It follows that charms based on the Law of Contact or Contagion can be described as Contagious Magic.  Moreover, with regard to the mystique of charms and amulets, they encompass a “…particular kind of mediation, and interplay between authoritative knowledge (science) and enchantment (magic).” (Macdonald, 2005).  Essentially ‘primitive’ magic is based on the idea “…that by creating the illusion that you control reality, you can actually control it.” (Thomson, 1973).  In other words amulets, charms, and talismans represent the appreciation and practice of personal sympathetic or homeopathic magic by the individual.

1 (b)  Superstition

To begin with it can be assumed that “…a superstition is an irrational belief in luck, omens, spells and supernatural powers.” (Roud,  2008).  From time immemorial peoples have had a respect for the numinous which can be regarded as a “…mythic reverence for the so-called unknowable.” (Seelig, 1905).  The study of amulets, talismans and charms implies the investigation of their special connections and involvements with particular cultures and peoples.  An amulet as a charm has a specific purpose in that it “…is worn as a necklace, bracelet or other decoration about the person in order to benefit from its magical properties.” (Pickering,  1999).  In the opinion of Edward Lovett the “…most interesting features in the study of superstition is the remarkable array of objects which are associated with magic by primitive folk all over the world.” (Lovett,  1905).  Amulets and charms are objects adopted by individuals and as such express a narrative that is intensely personal.  As material objects charms and amulets internalise a magic that for the superstitious “…embraces the valuable truth that the external world can in fact be changed by man’s subjective attitude to it.” (Thomson, 1973).

1 (c) Folk Medicine and Quackery

The practice of folk medicine has been defined as the comprehension of “… charms, incantations and traditional habits and customs relative to the preservation of health and the cure of disease.” (Black, 1883).  Concerning amuletic folk remedies it has been said that “…prophylaxis has received much less attention from the folk than curative treatment.” (Seeling, 1905).  Historically medical folklore has been as extant as the cultures that engendered it, and has “…been present for as long as there have been socialised societies.” (Trimmer, 1965).  Medical folklore flourished alongside, and sometimes overlapped with medical quackery.  Essentially the derivation of ‘quackery’ is from the farmyard, with its rural connotations, because those who come to be called ‘quacks’ resemble ducks.  The allusion to farmyard ducks is because medical quacks “…advertise themselves noisily with strident exclamations, those who have come to be called quacks make themselves heard in similar manner.” (Trimmer, 1965).  One needs to understand the folklore of health and disease and the persistence of quackery.  Firstly, quackery flourishes when qualified medical practitioners are not around, or treatment and advice are difficult to obtain.  Secondly, quackery found a ready-made niche when ailments or diseases were too offensive, repugnant, or untreatable by recognised physicians.  Thirdly, in view of the first two, people turn to homeopathic magic and superstition which is “…the assertion of, and belief in doctrines not possessing the necessary and rational basis on which to rest.” (Seeling, 1903).  Turning to magic, even unconsciously, in preference to scientific method and medical opinion, indicates hope in finding a way out of a medical problem.

2.  Amulets and Protective Charms

 Amulets are objects which are similar to talismans whose word comes from the Arabic tilasim, the intention of which is to bring good luck or bestow protection on the wearer or owner.  The mid-15th century term ‘amulet’ or amalethys is derived from the Latin amuletum, and is perhaps related to  amoliri,  meaning ‘to avert, carry away, remove’. The earliest meaning of the word is found in the  Natural History (77-79 AD) of Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD).  The word was not recorded in English until around 1600.  In Middle French between 1595 and 1605 it was known as amulette.  The word ‘amulet’ can be traced to the Arabic hamala meaning ‘to carry’ which is also the name of the cord which suspends the Koran from the neck.  Talisman is derived from the Arabic tilasm from the Greek telesma (payment) or Greek telein (to complete, perform), which means to ‘initiate into the mysteries’, and as an amulet believed to possess supernatural or occult powers. Used as a synonym for amulet.

2 (a)  Amulets

The majority of amulets are mundane, and objects of common origin, that demonstrate considerable variation according to their origin in place and time.  Such objects are used by ordinary people as protective amulets.  In reality an amulet is any object to which is “…assigned a magical function by a single person… or a single object with a meaning that would be recognised by most members of a culture.” (Pitt Rivers Museum,  2010).  It mattered not how rudely made, or crude and scanty, poor or lacking in sophistication, their essential point was magical power.  The magic of these prophylactic charms was naturally and inherently linked to their materiality, their physical existence.  An amulet therefore is anything “…worn about the person as a charm preventative against evil, much of disease, witchcraft etc.” (Pitt Rivers Museum,  2010).  The intrinsic worldliness of an amulet is its meaning.  Many amulets that appear closely related or superficially similar are often fundamentally different.  Nonetheless, as objects they possess a commonality.  Amulets can confer protection by causing harm.  Either by conferring upon the possessor the ability or strength to resist magic, disease, death, or misfortune.  Amulets are believed protect and save people and property against assumed evil by causing injury or harm to opponents, threats, or malign spirits. In spite of variability in amulet type the same type of amulet can confer protection against different evils as dictated “…by their owners needs.” (Freire Marreco,  1910).

In essence an amulet confers protection by its presence and retains its potency for as long as its wearer retains trust in it, and are cared for by its owner.  The theme that validates the use of amulets and charms is that the people who made and wear them also “…believe in them…” (Pitt Rivers Museum, 2010), and that these artefacts are “…examples of sympathetic magic which generally means the appearance of an object it resembles, in some way, the cure it is believed to offer.” (Pitt Rivers Museum, 2010).  By their prophylactic role in warding off disease and evil, and bringing about good luck and harmony, amulets are believed endowed with magical power.  Ordinary people believed in and used amulets because they were “…important in their lives, shaping their attitudes, spirituality, well being, or even life and death…” (Hill,  2007).  Amulets are assumed efficacious when touched, held in the hand, or kept close against the body.  As such ‘objects of solace’  they have been “…invested with the hope or belief that it could somehow mediate on behalf of its owner.” (Powell,  2012). Amulets have a twofold role in the sense that they are, to their owners, both familiar and peculiar.

The majority of charms have been made often in a process accompanied by incantations and magical rituals that are decisive in the making of the object.  The potency of the charm is assured by ritualistic practices and expectations.  People believe and wear charms because these magical objects are “…tiny embodiments of the anxieties we feel about our human frailties, their assumed power of drawing on the dark arts of superstition and magic.” (Powell,  2012).  The properties of charms are not necessarily those of amulets in the sense that charms, unlike amulets, transfer their effects across distances.  Charms that oppose are only intended to be used for a limited period, and are eventually destroyed for their intended purpose.  Moreover, the same type of charm acts “…only in ways specified by tradition…its effects…are limited and defined.” (Malinowski,  1925).  Whereas a charm is an artefact worn in order to avert misfortune some objects are “…neither amulets or charms but objects that were used in ritual or instilled with a supernatural power.” (Pitt Rivers Museum,  2010).

2 (b)  Holed Stones

                Stones “…with natural holes in them were formerly believed to have magical powers of various kinds.” (Hole, 1980; Edwards, 2008).).  These stones are found in many places and appear as standing stones, small perforated pebbles, and even as large holed rocks.  There is “…a widespread belief in the magic properties of naturally holed stones, called hag stones or witches stones, and that prehistoric man attached magic properties to fossils.” (Oakley,  1978).  Small holed stones, which when carried in the pocket were thought to protect against witchcraft, and variously known as hag-stones, witch-stones, holy stones, holey stones, dobbie stones, adder-stones, and in Scotland as mare-stones, see Figure 5.


Figure 5Examples of holed stones.

Other names are wish-stones, nightmare-stones, witch-riding, and Ephialtes-stones, which may refer to ancient Greek stones inscribed with Athenian reforms (Rankine, 2002). A similar superstition concerning nightmares and “…a stone with a hole in it at the bed’s head will prevent the nightmare…called a Hag Stone from that disorder which is occasioned by a hag or witch…” (Hazlitt,  1905).  Holed stones were at times in Europe regarded as prophylactics for bad dreams, see Figure 6.


Figure 6A holed ‘Fairy Spying Stone’.

Indeed, on the question of stones Ettlinger “…mentions holed stones. Such stones were evidently regarded as magical as early as the beginning of the second millennium BC…”  (Murray,  1943).  Perforated stone amulets were not only seen as hostile to the multifarious crafts of witches but also “…protective against the much dreaded evil eye.” (Elworthy, 1903).

Upper Palaeolithic Groups in Southern France came across  fossil echinoids as a result of flint working.  Therefore fossil echinoids of regular shape called Cidaris and Diadema “…were apparently regarded as magical objects by the early Celtic peoples thousands of years later after the disappearance of the Palaeolithic hunters.” (Oakley, 1985).  In antiquity Pliny the Elder in his Natural History relates a story of an object called a ‘snake egg’ allegedly by Druids which is known as an ovum anguinum, and was invested with great magical powers.  For one naturalist the fossil sea urchin was valued as an antidote to poison (Boodt, 1609).  A fossil echinoid from Dolni Vestonice was a form which came to be known as ‘Jew’s Stones’.  Their shape “…suggested utility in the treatment of urethral and bladder troubles, in accordance with the principle of sympathetic magic (Oakley,  1985).  Another account stated the “…bodies called Tecolithi by Pliny, Lapidus Judaici, and Syriaci…much celebrated by the ancient Physicians for their diuretic properties…” (Woodward,  1728).  For more than three millennia Jew’s-stones have been used as talismans (Oakley, 1985) and the earliest record of usage was in Ancient Egypt during the 24th Dynasty around 650 BC (Fraas,  1878).  Oakley (1985) goes on further to surmise “…that their use began in Upper Palaeolithic times, perhaps nearly as 20,000 years ago.”  In Denmark numerous Cretaceous echinites have been found that were used as amuletic pendants during the earliest centuries AD.

The prophylactic use of small holed stones was quite common with some forms known as holy volints, and obviously similar to holed or holy. The amuletic use of such stones was an “…attempt to apply a mystical remedy in a practical manner.”  (Elworthy,  1903).  The belief in the magical nature of a holed stone was not its actual substance but its perforation, its holeliness.  It was the hole that bestowed value to the object.  Of importance was the belief that it was the perforation that gave protection against influences that were malignant.  Just as a naturally holed Perugian piece of coral had its virtue in the perforation as much as in the coral itself. Snake-stones of Oriental origin whose marbled markings resemble snakes are called draconitis or draconita lapis (Hole,  1980). It is recognised that “…forms of beads depend upon religious and magical beliefs is a generally accepted opinion.” (Smith,  1925) and can explain the use of pomegranate seeds as a charm. In deed beads can be seen as a serial assemblage of tiny holed stones.  The use of the seed of the pomegranate is assumed to have magical properties and is popularly considered an aphrodisiacal charm in ancient Mesopotamia.

2 (c) Touch-pieces          

Coins or medallions used as ‘touch-pieces’ are attached to attracted superstitious beliefs. Such objects are known as touch pieces and believed to have prophylactic properties and cure ailments and disease.  They also function to bring luck and influence people.  The commonality of touch-pieces is in their name whereby to be effective they have to be touched or in close contact.  Only in this manner can the permanent magical power contained in the coin be transferred.  Once done the touch-piece effectively becomes an amulet.  Touch-pieces used to cure disease can be those bequeathed at Holy Communion and are used to treat rheumatism by rubbing the coin on the affected part.  Medalets and medallions with representations of defeated Satan were specially minted in Britain – as specifically made objects they are also charms – were distributed among the poor to reduce the incidence of sickness and disease (Waring,  1987).  Touch-piece traditions can be traced to Ancient Rome where Emperor Vespasian (9-79 AD) donated cons to the sick at a special ceremony known as “the touching”.           

3.  Amulets and Charms in London Museums

                The metropolis of London has, despite the passage of time, retained clear evidence of a folklore and a folk-life. During the 20th century, especially its initial decades, it was the accepted view that magical and superstitious beliefs were generally associated with rural areas rather than  the city environment (Wright & Lovett,  1908).  A meeting of the Royal Society of Arts in 1919 was addressed by Arthur Rackham on the topic of folklore who asked “…is it not time that we ourselves are making history? And yet London is a very large country with peculiar boundaries, and also a country concerned with folklore. Ideas are constantly coming into London and constantly going out of it.” (Rackham,  (1919), cited in Macfarlane,  (2011).  As a large metropolis with a long history it is apparent that with its “…size and history of a mixing bowl of peoples and leveller of traditions and customs…this region has a certain unity and superficially, a common culture.” (Celoria,  1965).  It seems therefore that amulets deposited in London’s museum collections form a repository reflecting the concerns and beliefs of the population of the capital.

Edward Lovett, a member of the Council of the Folk-Lore Society mounted an exhibition of charms at Southwark Central Library in Walworth Road in 1917, who claimed it shows “…how widespread was the belief, especially in East and South London, that the fortunes of individuals can be affected by some inanimate object deemed to be lucky or potent against disease.” (Lovett, 1917). Today it is obvious that there are, and were, London variants of a “…universal or national lore.” (Celoria,  1965), an example being that folk whooping cough remedies were recorded as much in London as the Midlands.  Edward Lovett was a cashier in a London bank and amateur folklore collector who amassed a treasure trove of some 1400 amulets and charms.  He devoted much time and effort collecting from market vendors, herbalists, and costermongers in working class London from the 1880’s onwards.  His now mostly forgotten collection is now scattered around London in the Wellcome Collection, the Cuming Museum in Southwark, and the Science Museum, as well as the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford where they are archived but rarely seen.  Lovett also dealt with the Horniman Museum (Forest Hill, South London), the Imperial War Museum, and the Bethnal Green Museum of Children.

3 (a) the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum Collection

The collection of Henry Salomon Wellcome (1853-1936) contains some 4000 amulets including dead animals and meticulously carved shells.  These amulets and charms thus form a special collection within a collection (Hill, 2007). These curiosities were sold to welcome by the obsessive amateur folklorist Edward Lovett.  Lovett scoured London after dark seeking and buying from the City’s  mudlarks, sailors, and barrow men.  The Wellcome Historical Medical Museum was opened in 1913 at 54a Wigmore Street.  It is now part of the Wellcome Collection in the Science Museum.  Lovett sold to Wellcome a bronchitis necklet from Bermondsey (1914); a pair of dried mole’s feet from Kings Lynn against rheumatism from between 1881 and 1903, see Figure 7; also a small metal amuletic boot used by a man of the Surrey Regiment (1901-1916),


Figure 7.  Moles feet.

Wellcome himself accepted contemporary evolutionary theory (Skinner,  1986; Symons, 1993; James, 1994), and his purchased amulets were displayed in the Hall of Primitive Medicine after 1914.  The amulets were shown with “…emphasis on exhibiting material culture as objects of knowledge in their own right…” (Hill, 2007), see Stocking (1985) and Shelton (2000).

3 (b) the Edward Lovett Collection 

Some 1400 amuletic artefacts were collected, sold, or donated by Edward Lovett (1852-1933) “…a paradigm of middle-class respectability…” who “…spent his working life in the City of London, where he rose to the rank of Chief Cashier in the Bank of Scotland, see Figure 8.


Figure 8A selection of Lovett’s charms.

His activities as a folklore collector however, led him to explore a very different side of the capital .”  (Macfarlane, 2011), he was also President of the Croydon Natural History and Scientific Society in the 1880’s.  Just like the house of General Pitt Rivers, the Caterham home of Lovett was filled with his large trove of charms and amulets, where his collection included “…numerous examples from the First World War, with British soldiers travelling to the Western front with an array of good luck mascots and totems…” (Macfarlane,  2100).  Pinning on these amulets and charms British ‘Tommies’ sought protection in military action and “…some sewed old farthings as mascots into braces, offering protection through close proximity to the heart.” (Hill,  2007).  Some soldier’s talismans were made from used cartridges (Lovett, 1925; Saunders, 2003) with one bullet charm engraved ‘Frank’ (Saunders,  2002), see Figure 9.


Figure 9Example of trench art amuletic bullet.

A large part of Lovett’s collection consisted of medicinal charms, hence the interest of Wellcome, of which he wrote “…these primitive amulets may be referred to as sympathetic magic… (Lovett,  1925).  However it is now accepted that his hoard of amulets did “…capture something of the beliefs of everyday Londoners from a century ago.” (Macfarlane,  2011).  It was items of  Lovett’s “…curious collection of ‘charms…” that were “…carried in the pockets of Londoners for luck or protection…” (Powell,  2012).

With regard to bronchitis in West London the Medical Inspector for the Schools in Acton informed Lovett that children wore necklaces of glass beads to ward off the illness.  These necklets, believed to be charms against bronchitis were never to be taken off.  These necklaces, usually of 34 beads, were usually sky blue, though sometimes yellow, were worn underneath the clothes.  On the basis of over 60 lower class shops he visited – every one of which recognised the blue beads as a cure for bronchitis, see Figure 10, and Figure 11.AMULET 10

Figure 10. Blue beads.


 Figure 11Coral beads.

Lovett created a distribution map which went to prove that magical beliefs and practices were alive and well in London, see Figure 12. It is worth noting the blue beads, which were of Austrian origin, were similar to the blue Ushabtiu Egyptian figures.  The belief was not confined to London as the beads were used from Cardiff to Newcastle upon Tyne to Ramsgate in the south east. Again a connection may be with port towns and cities?


Figure 12Lovett’s London distribution map.

Amuletic cures for rheumatism abounded and are represented in Lovett’s collection.  A potato or knuckle bone (astralgus from a sheep) – the idea being a dead bone will absorb the affliction – carried in the pocket was seen as efficacious, see Figure 13, as were “small glass tubes containing mercury, hermetically sealed and covered with soft leather, to be carried in the pocket by those who suffered from that complaint.” (Lowett, 1925).  These phials, which were supplied by the London pharmacist’s Allen & Hanbury, who were still selling them in 1924, were carried my many people – including ‘City Men’.  Indeed, some refugees from Belgium, around the time of the First World War, wore cat skins to treat rheumatism as well as chest complaints.


Figure 13A bone for rheumatism.

Considering childhood complaints a general prophylactic was to place a necklace of acorns around the neck of a child. A necklet of nightshade was regarded as useful in helping an infant cut its teeth. In Whitechapel the Jewish population employed orris root to relieve sore gums due to teething. The orris root is  Iris florentina, once used in herbal medicine, which was chosen in its resemblance to a human figure – male was a ‘he root’ for boys and female was a ‘she root’ for girls However, in non-Jewish communities no sexual distinction was made.  In South London a number of teeth cutting charms were available.  A box of calf’s teeth (or sometimes the child’s mother’s teeth) was put in a bag and placed around the baby’s neck, see Figure 14, and was recommended for an infant having difficulty cutting its first teeth, see Figure 15.  Another tooth cutting soother was the ‘lost tooth’ of a girl that was saved till marriage and children born.


Figure 15.  A flint necklet for teething.


Figure 15Charms for the toothache.

Whooping cough or pertussis was treated with an old fashioned remedy in Bethnal Green in 1913.  A small scrap of a child’s hair was placed btwenn two slices of buttered bread and,  the following day, the front door was opened and the bread given to a dog to eat, after which the door was closed.   Other therapeutic oddities include remedies for cramp.  In Whitstable in Kent there are found fossil sharks teeth in the London Clay.  Known as Cramp-stones they are carried as a charm in the pocket and were locally regarded as very effective.  Some sharks teeth were sold in London street markets as a cure for cramp.  A hyoid bone from a sheep’s head was seen as a lucky charm against drowning and would have been popular in a port city such as London.  In the north this amulet was called ‘Thor’s Hammer’.  Another fossil charm worn by Londoners during the smallpox epidemic of the 1850’s was a brooch made from Madrepora coral, a stony coral from tropical reefs known as the ‘mother of corals’.

 4.  Amulets and Charms in Britain

Despite awareness of the existence of healing charms from the Middle Ages onwards “…modern British academics have largely neglected this aspect of poplar magic.” (Davies,  1996).  However, there has been a long-term interest by scholars in Anglo-Saxon and medieval charms and amulets, as well as traditions attached to them.  Academic research has centred around (1) their content and application; (2) and the fact that popular folk medicine and healing magic extends backwards to the Anglo-Saxon period.  Not only written talismans and spells obtained as charms against fevers, the ague, and toothache, there is also “…quite extensive evidence for the widespread use of these charms, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries…” (Davies,  1996). Nonetheless, regarding the ailments of children “…much more importance appears to have been given to prevention than to other branches of folk-medicine.” (Rolleston,  1943).

4 (a)  Oxfordshire

There are many examples of amuletic folk medicine in Oxfordshire.  Belemnites were squid-like cephalopods from the Jurassic or Cretaceous ages.  Their remains are found as ‘belemnites’ or ‘bullet stones’ which are the fossilised ‘guard’ or rostrum of the animal which is composed of calcite or aragonite.  These fossils were deemed to be thunderbolts from the heavens, and therefore celestial in origin.  Once regarded as supernatural in origin “…they were endowed in the popular mind with a medical virtue…” (Balfour,  1939a).  These objects were referred to as ‘thunderbolts’ and in Oxfordshire were used to treat an oral ailment in children so “…overwhelming was the people’s faith in the ‘thunderbolt’”. (Balfour,  1939a).  Many folk medicine charms are in the sympathetic magic collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum, but their “…efficiency however, must be regarded as based purely on superstitious beliefs.” (Ettlinger,  1943).

In 1899 a piece of belemnite and in the possession of a Mrs Yates of Garsington was used as a treatment for children’s ‘white mouth’.  Powder was scraped from the fossil was mixed with and administered with water. Frictional Keratosis or ‘white mouth’ was an eruptive disease of the lips.  Around 1900 a man from Oxford carried a flint on his person, that resembled a leg and swollen foot, in the belief it was a prophylactic against gout.  A woodland remedy (one of a number) in Oxfordshire “…folk-medicine prescribes against croup and whooping-cough: Go alone into the fields and find a branch which has bent to the ground and rooted to form a bow. Take the child 9 mornings and pass it 9 times through the natural arch.” (Skeats,  1912). Another rural example was a bramble obtained from Horspath Common in 1898 because of the idea that disease could be transferred to the soil while the thorns were supposed “…to prevent the disease from following.” (Bonser,  1932).  Again, a pendant consisting of a silver mounted lodestone between 1813 and 1873, owned by a MR Blaydon from Puddington, was carried suspended to the pit of his stomach.  The pendant was carried in order to avert the King’s evil and to cure fits.  The King’s Evil was ‘scrofula’ or tuberculosis of the neck.

4 (b)  England

                Amuletic homeopathic charms are found throughout England. Holed stones play a role in folk remedies such as Lincolnshire where ‘nether stones’ or adder-stones were hung round a child’s neck to cure whooping cough, as well as adder bites and the ague (Gutch,  1908).  Moreover, such amulets were also worn as a remedy for pertussis by the offspring of well educated persons (Black,  1883).  It is worth noting “…the importance of odd numbers in folklore medicine… (Rolleston,  1943),  where to cure whooping cough a string of nine knots was tied round a child’s neck in Lancashire, Leicestershire, and Worcestershire. In the west of Sussex childhood convulsions are curedd by placing an amulet consisting of peony root and mistletoe around the infant’s neck  (Black, 1883). Holed stones used as charms show widespread use throughout England.  Between 1800 and 1850 there was a popular belief on Tyneside that a stone that originated from Ireland “…possessed the virtue of curing cattle that had been bitten by an adder…” (Webb,  1969).  Again, in 1884,  another stone that came from Ireland was collected from an old woman who lived nearby the old abbey of Blanchland, Northumberland (Egglestone, 1889), for whom it was a family heirloom used many times to treat adder bites.  It is worthy to note the “…banks of the River Derwent, a tributary of the Tyne, were said to be infested with adders.” (Egglestone,  1889).  In Yorkshire a child suffering from rickets would be drawn through the aperture of a large holey stone (Wright,  1914).  As has been shown holed stones had many different names,  and magical usages, including repelling witchcraft, disease caused by spells, and the influence of the Evil Eye.  In Cambridgeshire it was custom at times to place a holed stone under the bed to prevent cramp (Porter,  1969).  Ammonites were invested with the supernatural in the belief they were petrified snakes, and the segments of fossil encrinites stems were called St Cuthberts Beads, with the fossil echini themselves called  ‘shepherds crowns, with the nummulites referred to as ‘fossil money’ (Elworthy,  1903).  Nummulites are coiled fossils sometimes called ‘little money’.  An example comes from the Whitby Snake Myth.  The geological formation of the Whitby area of Yorkshire is the Lias with large numbers of the fossil cephalopod s known as ammonites.  The myth contains the old idea that the fossils were coiled snakes that were petrified by Hilda the patron saint of Whitby.  In Keynsham in Bristol another saintly myth says “…it was believed that the Celtic virgin Saint Keyne had likewise turned the snakes into stone and these were the ammonites or snakestones.” (Hole,  1980).  James Frazer pointed out that the belief in snakestones was confined to the Celtic lands. On a maritime note holed stones had superstitious associations with fisher folk  and such “…holy stones, sea-rolled flints with a ‘natural bore’ (used to be), tied as charms inside the bows of Weymouth boats. I have watched a boatman in the act of fastening one to his craft.” (Moule,  1895). In Madron in Cornwall there is the Crick or Creeping Stone.  If a sufferer from lumbago crawls through its large hole nine times, on all fours or ‘widdershins’, as well as against the sun, they will be cured (Hole,  1980), and furthermore in the same parish is the Men-an-Tol, see Figure 16, which mothers draw their children through 9 times against the sun as a cure for rickets (Hunt, 1881).   


Figure 16The ‘Men-an-Tol Stone’

4 (c)   Wales

In Wales stone charms of great repute are snake-stones referred to as Maen Magl or Glain Nadredd, which were described by Edward Lluyd as Cerrg y Drudion or Druid Stones.  Glain y Nadraedd means ‘bead of the adders’ with such snake-stones called ‘adder beads’ in England Morgan,  1983).  The  Folklore claims they are derived from snakes and bring good fortune and are in demand for eye afflictions. The word maen means stone and magl an ancient word for eye or stye.  A variation of Maen Magl is a cure for rabies called the Llaethfaen or hydrophobia stone (Davies, 1911).  The ovum anguinum is a fossil, named by Pliny, found in Wales called Wyeu’r Mor or ‘sea eggs’ which are in the “…tradition of the beads called milprev (literally a thousand snakes) used as amulets…”,  a word which can also be found in Cornish.

4 (d)  Scotland & Ireland

In Scotland were a number of names for prophylactic amulets with supposed magical properties (Britten,  1881) which included the snake-button or adder-bead and found between the Highlands and down to Wales; the Cock-knee-stone or Echinites pileatur minor a fossil found in flint; the toad-stone used to prevent a house-fire;  a snail-stone which was a small blue hollow cylinder of glass made up of four or five amulets and used to cure sore eyes; the mole-stone which were blue glass rings with a similar purpose to snail-stones; and shower-stones which are possibly a variant of meteoritic star-stones and ‘thunder-stones’. In Scotland sea urchin fossils are sometimes called “…cock knee stones…” (Dalyell,  1835) and are used for magical and medicinal purposes. In Aberdeenshire, at Fyne, there is the Shagar Stone where children are pulled through the whole beneath to strengthen them if they are weakly.  (Hole,  1980), and similarly at Coll on the Hebrides consumption sufferers have to crawl through a certain holed stone and then leave an offering.  A ‘celt’ of green quartz mounted in silver was sewn to an officer’s belt as a cure for a kidney complaint. As elsewhere beliefs and superstitions to do with magical medicine are to be found in many places and times in Scotland. In the lowlands and the highlands there are found an extensive variety of amulets and charms.  In the West of the country a child is thought most liable at risk from the effects of the Evil Eye before its baptism (Napier, 1980). As a protection against the Evil Eye the West of Scotland remedy is to bathe the child immediately after birth in salt water and made to taste it three times (Napier, 1980). Prophylactic measures for whooping-cough is to place an anodyne necklace of beads around the child’s neck whereas diphtheria is to place around the neck a recently removed cat’s fur or scratch the neck with mole’s claws (Rolleston,  1939; 1943). A spider placed in a goose quill and well sealed and put around a child’s neck will cure the thrush (MacGregor, 1891). Similarly a piece of red flannel wrapped around the neck of a child is thought to ward off the disease (Black, 1883), whereas in Morocco whooping-cough is treated with a neck amulet of a camel’s windpipe (Fogg, 1941, cited in Rolleston, 1943). Prophylactic action to prevent convulsions in childhood includes the “…biting off the head of a live mouse and hanging it as an amulet around the child’s neck.”  (Rolleston, 1943), and similarly in Upper Franconia, or modern northern Bavaria, parents or relatives also bite off the head of a mouse to use as a neck amulet to treat enuresis as well as convulsions.  Again in Moravia, the treatment of convulsions consists of a neck charm of coins or ‘blood-stones’ and then laying the child in a graveyard.

In Ballymena and Antrim flint arrowheads were boiled in water as a cure for cattle ‘grup’ – the superstition being that arrowheads, regarded as ‘thunderbolts’ or ‘elf-shot’ or ‘elf-darts’, supernaturally make the water palliative (Ettlinger,  1943).  An Irish custom is a twig of ‘muggwurth’ or twigs of wild wormwood are carried as protection against the Evil Eye “…which had been singed in St John’s fire…” (Ettlinger,  1943).  Seeds of Entrada scandens (a tropical forest giant bean) drift on the Gulf Stream from the far west.  Some eventually wash up on the west coast of Ireland where the locals call them ‘Virgin Mary Beans’ or ‘nicker beans’ and appreciate them as charms to aid in childbirth (Lovett, 1925).  Also known in other places as sea-beans, sword-beans, Mackay beans, and Queensland beans, examples can be seen in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Case 143a, 1926.23.60. (Edwards, 1980), see Figure 17.


Figure 17Sea beans

5.  Amulets and Charms in the Pitt Rivers Museum.

The amulets and charms in the Pitt Rivers Museum are displayed as a demonstration of superstitious customs.  An example the collection of horse brasses shows objects once regarded as amulets.  However, with the passage of time “…the original idea has been forgotten and they have degenerated into mere ornaments.” (Ettlinger,  1943).  The same could be said of the charms and amulets which comprise part of the Sympathetic Magic display, see Figure 18.  An example of  stone implement and regarded as a thunderbolt is a cast presented by Dr Marett .  It was found in 1897 at La Maye, Jersey where it was “…built into a house to prevent lightening.” (Balfour, 1939 b).   Prophylactic stones include: a piece of amber (1911.75.9) carried by a fisherman from the Suffolk coast as a cure for rheumatism;   a veined water-worn stone (1911.75.10) from south Devon carried as a cure for toothache; a stone (1911.75.11) for rubbing on warts from south Devon and an example of the ‘transfer of virtue’ from patient type of charm.


Figure 18.  Pitt Rivers Museum tooth charm

From Suffolk a knuckle bone or astragalus from a sheep carried as a cure for cramp and rheumatism. A popular charm against rheumatism was to carry a potato in the pocket but to be curative the potatoes had to be stolen, see Figure 19. However, there may be a logical explanation to such apparently superstitious practice. The eyes of potatoes contain atropine which is reputedly a cure for rheumatism and may justify the belief, see also Figure 20.


Figure 19  Potato charm for rheumatism.


Figure 20Anti-inflammatory onion charm.

Another charm against cramp is the cramp-nut or the “…woody outgrowths, common on beech or ash tree…” (Ettlinger,  1943), and carried in the pocket for effect.  Cramp-bones have to  worn near the skin as possible and lose their power if the touch the ground (Black, 1883;  Elworthy,  1895).  An eel skin from Carlisle (1911.75.13) prepared and sold as a cure from cramp and rheumatism. A touch-piece (1909.60.1) is represented by an Elizabethan gold coin which was given as a cure for the King’s Evil.  This was seen as a potent object for the transfer of virtue.  Natural vegetable amulets include a large bryony root from 1916 bought by a Headington labourer because of its resemblance to human shape who believed it to be “…a mandrake and have magical potency.” (Ettlinger, 1943).

A child’s caul (1911.75.16) or foetal membrane (amnion) left in situ on the infant’s head, was seen as a good omen and charm against drowning.  It is from Oxford having been found in St. Ebbe’s in 1906 and originally part of the Balfour Collection.  A caul or ‘kell’ has amuletic value for sailors and the term is derived from ‘silly how’ or ‘sely or holy how’.  In France it is called a ‘etre ne coiffe and means the person is very lucky. In Nelson’s time there was a limited sailor’s trade in cauls based on the belief it was a sure charm against death at sea by drowning (Lovett,  1917). Children’s cauls belong to the sub-group of amulets that include human body parts or the representation of such part. Other such charms include the dried tip of a human tongue from the collected by E. B. Tylor before 1897 and known “…to have actually been carried for a considerable time before 1897 as an amulet against disease in Tunbridge Wells, Sussex.” (Ettlinger, 1943).  However, it was thought more usual to carry the tips of dried anmal tongues to bestow good luck or to prevent the pocket becoming empty.” (Henderson,  1979).  A very interesting prophylactic amulet is the feet of a mole that were used originally to help erupt the first teeth of small children. Moles feet were later used for all toothaches (1911.75.16 from Norfolk), and even to ward off cramp (1911.75.17 from Sussex).   It was the shape of the mole’s feet or specifically “…the front feet, or digging feet…how strongly they are curved…this permanent curve is regarded by the folk as due to cramp and therefore ‘like cures like’, it must be a cure from cramp if carried in the pocket (or in a bag round the neck).”  (Lovett,  1928). The efficacy of the mole’s foot charm depended on it being cut from the animal while still alive, which was then allowed to go away, see Figure 21.


Figure 21.  Moles foot.

The Pitt Rivers Museum specimen was carried in an old man’s pocket in 1902, who lived in Staffordshire who believed it would permanently free him from toothache.  In Case 30 b there is a collection of silver sirena or mermaids and they are  charms especially dedicated to infants and protect from the Evil Eye, see Figure 22.  The superstitious belief in the influence of mal-occhio (evil eye) in Neopolitan terms requires amuletic protection against jettatura (jettatori are bringers of ill luck). Neapolitan for evil eye is maluocchje.


Figure 22.  ‘Syrena’ charm against the ‘Evil Eye’.

In the Sympathetic Magic Case 61 b is a stone from Newbiggin (1908.11.1.).  One of a number that hung around a fisherman’s cottage in Newbiggin, Northumberland, and is a prophylactic charm against ill-luck and witches (Edwards, 2011), see Figure 23.


Figure 23The ‘lucky stone’ from Newbiggin.

In Case 126 a (1884.58.74) is a small blue amuletic figurine Ptah-Sokaris.  The figure represents the dwarf god Pataikos.  These dwarf amulets of Ptah-Patakoi guarded the living, particularly children, and what appears to be an insignificant glazed turquoise figurine is really a magical amulet, see Figure 24.


Figure 24.  Ptah amulet.  Source: Public domain.

6.  Conclusion

From the foregoing it is obvious that homeopathy “…is a cardinal principle of magical medicine….” (Halliday, 1924).  The ‘magical’ artefacts, amulets and charms have become a “…silent witness…to countless narratives…” (Powell, 2012).  These objects were, and are still, embedded in their communities, the milieu of their social relations.  Amulets and charms in museums are part of a matrix through time and space which “…highlight the ways in which various objects…act as ‘social glue’, affirming a variety of relationships between people and objects…” (Hill, 2007;  Gell, 1998). Amulets and charms, as material objects have a history that is layered, and forms a sort of palimpsest, especially as meanings have changed over time. What was once a vital and magical object is now for many a mere curio.  In essence once the belief in a charm is lost it does lose its power, its meaning in terms of modernity has indeed been lost.  In other words amulets and charms, many of which are inanimate, or are made from, dead objects, had life invested in them by generations of people who believed misfortune could be circumvented by using sympathetic and homeopathic magic.  This implies, as far as displays are concerned, that these folklore beliefs spread far beyond the locus of the museum.  In this context it has been stated there these “…objects are enactments of strategies, and actively participate in the making and welding together of social relations.” (Pels, 2002).  Recent debates show a tension between modernity and the display of ‘magic’ artefacts especially in the context of museum collections.” (Bouquet, 2005).   The scenario becomes one where museum displayed amulets and charms, despite modernity, still exert their magic through wonder, curiosity, and continuing belief for some.

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All illustrations are from the public domain, the Pitt Rivers Museum, or otherwise credited.

Written text of a lecture entitled “The Self-management of Misfortune by the Use of Amulets and Charms”. Given at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Oxford in February 2012. Part of the “Small Blessings” Project.  Eric W. Edwards, BA Hons (Oxf), MA (Oxf), MPhil.  February 2012.


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