« Amsdorf, Nikolaus von Amulet Amyot »


AMULET, am´yu-let: A word first used to designate objects having a magical effect in warding off or driving away evils—the evil eye, illness, demons, etc.—and thus practically equivalent to “talisman.” By degrees it came to be employed for objects worn about the person. Used down to the seventeenth century for things forbidden by the Church, it gradually acquired a more general meaning. The limits of this article preclude the discussion of the origin of amulets, of their psychological basis, or of their significance in the universal history of religion.

In the Old Testament and Judaism.

In the Old Testament, objects of the kind are mentioned among the ornaments worn by women (Isa. iii. 16-26) and by animals (Judges viii. 21); the bells on the border of the high priest’s robe had no other primary significance (cf. “the bells of the horses,” Zech. xiv. 20). Later Judaism completely surrounded the individual with intangible spirits, but provided numerous means of protection against the evil they might effect—the presence of angels, pronouncing the name of God, amulets containing the Holy Name, and fragments of Scripture worn on the person (the “phylacteries” of Matt. xxiii. 5) or fastened 160 to the door-posts of houses. The special power over demons attributed to Solomon may also be mentioned; formulas of exorcism were referred to him, and the possessed were supposed to be healed, on the invocation of his name, by the methods prescribed by him.

In the Early Church.

The demonological conceptions of Judaism and the magic of the East had a very strong influence on the Greco-Roman world. Christianity, however, at first rejected these superstitious observances, and protested against every accusation of the use of magic arts. There came a change with the entrance of the pagan multitudes, with their material ideas of religion and their need for an external realization of the supernatural. The ideas about demons, found in the exorcisms of the second century (Origen, Contra Celsum, vi. 39, 40) were generalized, paganized, and Judaized. As the ecclesiastical writers abundantly testify (see passages quoted in Bingham, Origines, vii. 250), magical formulas began to be used again; mysterious objects, inscribed with characters often unintelligible, were placed upon the bodies of newborn infants and the sick; and Chrysostom (on I Cor. vii. 3) warns his hearers against love-philters. The teachers of the Church branded all this as actual apostasy from the faith; and the Christian civil government punished severely the use of amulets in sickness. To meet this tendency an attempt was made to give these methods a Christian coloring, or to employ elements susceptible to a Christian interpretation. The demons, who had been supposed to have special care of races or of individuals, now became angels, and protection was afforded by their names inscribed on amulets. In like manner the name of God was used. Even some of the clergy provided such amulets, though the Church forbade them to do so, and excommunicated those who wore them (Synod of Laodicea; Synod of Agde, 544). The cross (see Cross and its Use as a Symbol, § 3) took a specially prominent place among these protecting objects. Women and children commonly wore verses from the Gospels for this purpose. Chrysostom told the people of Antioch that they ought rather to have the Gospels in their hearts. That of John was thought to be particularly efficacious; it was laid on the head to drive out fever, and Augustine commends the practise (Tractatus vi in cap. i. Johannis evangelii, MPL, xxv. 1443), “not because it is done for this purpose,” but because it means the abandonment of the pagan ligatures. The whole range of sacred things was brought into service. Satyrus, the brother of Ambrose, in a shipwreck, hung the eucharistic bread, wrapped in an orarium about his neck “that he might get help from his faith” (Ambrose, De obitu fratris, xliii.). Similar use was made of oil and wax from holy places and of water and salt that had been blessed. Relics of the saints, enclosed in costly cases, were worn. Since the Church was unable entirely and all at once to drive out every vestige of heathen superstition, it did the next best thing when it took into consideration the needs of popular, unspiritual devotion, and gradually, by the conversion of the old means, forced into the background or effaced their non-Christian elements.


Lack of space forbids the discussion in detail of the diversified forms even of Christian development of the idea, as they are found in the numerous relics of antiquity, from those of the catacombs down, or to give any account of the multiplicity of objects which are commonly used among the devout Roman Catholics at the present day, with at least some remnant of the idea of the ancient amulets underlying them—scapulars, crosses, the agnus dei, rosaries, and an endless variety of medals with pictures of the Virgin and the saints. These objects may serve different purposes; they may be tokens of sharing in a wide-spread and approved devotion, or signs of membership in some pious confraternity, or souvenirs of a visit to some holy place; but in most instances the priestly blessing which they have received is distinctly understood to give them a positive power (on condition of the proper faith and other dispositions on the part of the wearer or possessor) against the assaults of evil spirits and other ills.

(Johannes Ficker).

Bibliography: W. King, Talisman and Amulets, in Archæological Journal, xxvi. (1869) 25-34, 149-157, 225-235; J. A. Martigny, Dictionnaire des antiquités chrétiennes, article Amulette, Paris, 1877; W. R. Smith, in Journal of Philology, xiv. (1881) 122-123; E. C. A. Riehm, Handwörterbuch des biblischen Altertums, Bielefeld, 1884; J. Wellhausen, Skizzen, iii. 144, Berlin, 1887; M. Friedländer, Jewish Religion, pp. 331-338, London, 1891; J. L. André, Talismans in The Reliquary, vii. (1893) 162-167, 195-202, viii. (1894) 13-18; DB, i. 88-90, iii. 869-874.

« Amsdorf, Nikolaus von Amulet Amyot »
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