What is an Amulet? | The Kelsey Collection |
| The Amulets and their Cultural Context | Other Amuletic Traditions |
What makes an amulet an amulet is truly in the eye and mind of the beholder. To some, a four-leaf clover is just a plant; but to someone who believes it to be magical, it is an amulet.
Most of the amulets are made of simple, organic materials--animal skins, or other animal parts, pottery bits or shells, plant matter. In many cases we do not know what is inside the leather pouch that we call an amulet. Another kind of amulet consists of written charms. None of the amulets are made to look like something else, so we say they are nonrepresentational.
Many parents used amulets to protect their children against the "evil eye." The evil eye, called "salty eye" in Persian, refers to a traditional belief that certain people, if jealous, have the power in their gaze alone to injure or destroy possessions or persons dear to someone else. The word for "evil eye" in Arabic means simply "envy." Because children were important to this society, as they are in most societies, they were as likely as anything else to inspire envy and needed to be protected. According to Edward William Lane, who wrote an account of the practices of Egyptians in the last century (1833-35), parents would sometimes cut off a piece of a child's clothing and burn it with a little salt (to which coriander-seed or alum might be added), if they noticed a person staring or seeming to envy the child. The parents would then fumigate the child with smoke from the fire, or sprinkle him with the ashes (An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, p. 252). The ingredients in amulet 29--salt, alum and clover seed--pr obably bear a connection to the practice described by Lane. This amulet is put on a baby on the seventh day after birth.
Amulets were probably in use long before the ancient Egyptians, however. Shells, arrowheads and the like buried with the dead in prehistoric graves most likely served amuletic functions.
Amulets similar to those in the Kelsey Museum appear in ancient Greek vase paintings, including some worn by small children and infants. Passages from ancient Greek texts show that while many people believed in them, educated people associated them with superstition and ignorance. See this link for examples.
There are many amuletic traditions specific to children throughout the world. In China, children's festive clothes are often red, a color believed to bring good fortune. Protective amulets also exist in China. For example, "tiger's claw" protects child ren against fear by giving them the courage of the tiger. Some materials used as protective amulets are teeth in Nepal, green beads in Egypt and Palestine, and cowrie shells in El Salvador. Young girls in Yemen wear coral bracelets for protection, while in Lithuania a baby wears an amber necklace to ward off croup. Herbs were also sometimes used as amulets. The Pennsylvania Dutch, for example, use rue in children's amulets; its strong smell is thought to ward off illness.
For more information see the sources listed below or visit the internet sites here.