Delving Deeper. The Gale Encyclopedia of the Unusual and Unexplained. Editor: Brad Steiger & Sherry Hanson Steiger. Volume 2. Detroit: Gale, 2003.
The word “amulet” comes from the Latin (amuletum), an indication of the power Romans invested in amulets as protection against evil spells. Prehistoric amulets representing fertility and animals have been found near some of the oldest known human remains. Archaeologists have also unearthed shells, claws, teeth, and crystalline solids dating to 25,000 B.C.E.; engraved with symbols and sporting small holes, the objects were probably worn as necklaces.
Animals have been used as symbols in amulets since the earliest times. Modern amulets include a rabbit’s foot; when rubbed it is activated to bring luck. The wishbone from the breast of a bird is believed to make wishes come true to the person lucky enough to hold the larger half when the bone is broken with a partner, a common practice at Thanksgiving Day dinners in the United States. Metal representations of wishbones and rabbit’s feet have become popular amulets in contemporary times.
By the time the Roman Empire was established in the first centuries B.C.E., however, amulets had a long history of being worn for luck and protection. Egyptians considered amulets necessary for protection of the living and the dead. An amulet with a heart on it was often placed with the dead to help represent them in judgment about their fate in the afterlife. Likenesses of scarabs (a kind of beetle) were also prominent. A scarab encloses an egg in mud or dung and rolls it along to a spot where it can be warm and safe. Egyptians considered this a metaphor for the journey of the sun each day. The scarab amulet became a common emblem for regeneration and was placed with the dead.
Sumerians, who inhabited Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) and were contemporaries of the Egyptians, had amulets inscribed with images of animals and gods. They also inscribed such images on seals for everything from pottery to vaults to doors: the emblem on the seal represented a guardian spirit that would bring bad luck to those who opened the sealed compartment without permission of the owner.
The treasures of King Tutankhamen of Egypt (c. 1370-1352 B.C.E.) abound with crystals in the form of gems and jewels. They were intended for personal adornment, but they also had symbolic meaning: they were believed to possess mystical and religious powers. Today, crystals are still worn for decorative purposes in the form of gems and jewels; those who believe in the mystical powers of crystals wear them as amulets.
Many amulets have religious significance. Ancient Jews wore amulets around their necks that contained slips of parchment on which the laws of God were written. The Torah, comprising five books of the Old Testament of the Bible, is among the copies of holy books including the Bible (Christians), Vedas (Hindu), the Koran (Muslims), and the Avestar (Zoroastrians) believed by the faithful to bring good luck and to ward off evil. A favorite contemporary Muslim amulet consists of a square-inch miniature of the Koran enclosed in metal and worn around the neck. Muslims also believe they gain power by wearing amulets inscribed with a form of the name of Allah.
Amulets are frequently mentioned in Talmudic literature where they are called kemiya and often consist of a written parchment or root of herbs worn on a small chain, a ring, or a tube. Many such amulets had healing purposes: they were considered legitimate only after having worked successfully in healing on three different occasions. Another kind of parchment amulet was the mezuzah, a Hebrew word for door post. Moses (14th-13th century B.C.E.) commanded Israelites to inscribe the words “Hear O Israel, the Lord Our God Is One God” on the doorposts of their homes. An amuletwith those words continues to be attached to doors in many modern Jewish households, or worn as a gold chain around the neck for good luck.
Early Christians inscribed the word ichthys (Greek for “fish”) on their amulets because the word contained in Greek the initials for Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. The fish symbol has been important to Christians ever since.
A simple cord is perhaps the plainest amulet of them all. Wrist, ankle, and neck cords are popular in contemporary times and have a long history. Unlike other amulets, which when lost or broken are believed to end luck or protection, cords release magic to come true when they break naturally from wear. An amulet lost or broken might be a reason for despair, but a broken cord should signal the beginning of good fortune.
Bells have been associated with mystical occurrences and the spirit world since ancient times. Goddess images were frequently cast in the shape of bells. Ancient Jews wore bells tied to their clothing to ward off evil.
The ringing of bells or death knells for the deceased is an old custom. Some authorities believe that the ringing of bells at times of death originated in the practice of seeking to frighten away the evil spirits that lurk beside a corpse, waiting the opportunity to seize the newly released soul. In ancient times bells were rung only when important people died, but with the advent of Christianity it became the custom to ring death during burial services for all church members.
In medieval times, church bells were rung during epidemics with the hopes of clearing the air of disease. It was generally believed that church bells had special magical or spiritual powers, especially because of their position, suspended between heaven and Earth, guarding the passageway between the material and non-material worlds, frightening away demons. The sacred bell of the Buddhists, the ghanta, serves that spiritual expression in a similar manner, driving away the negative entities and encouraging the positive spirits to manifest. The very sound of a bell is a symbol of creative power.
People along the west coast of Africa used to tie a bell to the foot of an ill child to ward off evil, and food was placed nearby to lure those spirits away. In contemporary times, bells above the door of a shop alert the shopkeeper that customers have entered. That practical function is predated by the use of bells over doors to keep evil spirits from entering into a home or shop.
Carnelian is a red-colored variety of chalcedony that for many centuries has been known as “bloodstone” and credited with the power to stem loss of blood from wounds or excessive menstrual flow. Although some have declared that its name was derived from the Latin carne, “flesh,” most authorities maintain that the origin of the bloodstone’s common European version, carnelian, lies in the word cor, “heart.”
The blood redness of carnelian made it highly desired among ancient Egyptians who
used it to represent the blood or virtue of the goddess Isis and placed it within the body cavity of a mummy. The Egyptian jewelers also favored the bloodstone as an addition to their heart amulets and proclaimed it as a symbol of the heart-soul of the goddess.
Carnelian is called the Mecca stone by many Muslims and is carried by them as an object that may assist in fulfilling all wishes for perfect happiness. While many authorities state that the “sardis” mentioned as the first stone in the breastplate of Aaron, Moses’s brother, was a ruby, others suggest that it was a carnelian, or bloodstone.
Some bloodstones are greenish in color, with bright red flecks of jasper within them that look like flecks of blood. In folk medicine it matters little which bloodstone one employs, for in the mind of the practitioner, the stone is certain to halt the flow of blood and promote healing. And for the practical magician, the use of a bloodstone in rituals and incantations is believed to greatly increase the realization of all desires.
Candle burning has been associated with religious and magical ceremonies since earliest antiquity. To light a candle in respectful remembrance of a person who has died is a common practice in many religions. The light of a single candle is held by many to be symbolical of the illumination of the soul in the midst of earthly despair or of death.
Ancient Romans honored Juno Lucina, Mother of the Light, whenever a candle was lit to spread its light and sweet scent into the darkness. Juno Lucina controlled the sun, moon, and stars, and granted to newborn children the “light” of their spirit. Each year during the winter solstice a festival of lights was celebrated in her honor. This winter celebration became the Christian feast of Santa Lucia (Saint Lucy), which is still observed in Sweden with a young woman wearing a crown of candles and portraying the Lussibruden or Lucy Bride.
The custom of the lighting of the Yule candle also has its roots in the pagan observance of the winter solstice. Whereas Christians light an oversized candle that they hope would burn through the night from Christmas Eve to the dawn of Christmas Day to bring good luck for the coming year, the Scandinavians of old ignited a bundle of kindling and conducted a religious ceremony that was designed to encourage the sun to return from the long night of darkness.
For many centuries, candles have been very popular in the practice of certain rites of magic. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that a candle formed in the image of a woman and burned with the proper incantation could bring love to a man seeking the favor of a particular lady. According to tradition, a red-colored candle brought about the best results. First, according to the charm, the candle was to be anointed with perfume to signify femininity. Then, after the candle had burned for a few minutes a brief invocation was offered to loving spirits to bring the man’s love to him forevermore. The invocation was to be made at sunset—once over the flame of the candle, then repeated over the smoking wick. The spell was to be repeated on consecutive sunsets until the candle had been consumed.
A black candle formed in the shape of a skull was often used in ceremonial magic to dispel curses. The skull-candle was to be burned at midnight and a proclamation, which had been formally written on paper, was to be read above the flame, demanding the removal of any curse that had been set against the magician. The candle was to be anointed with oil and was to be burned precisely at midnight.
It was believed that power and success might be gained through the ritual burning of a candle with oil and setting before it an incense offering of sandalwood or myrrh. The candle was lighted, and the magician concentrated on a mental image of the goal that he or she most wished to attain.
If a Magi felt that he had become the unwelcome recipient of a candle spell, he believed that he might reverse its effect through an ancient Medieval candle burning ceremony. For five consecutive nights, the magician was careful to light two large, black candles just as the sun was phasing into dusk. As the candles burned, the supplicant recited an invocation that called upon benevolent spirits to remove the curse from his head and to redirect it toward whomever had summoned the powers of darkness to cast a malediction against him. The ritual required that two candles must be allowed to be completely consumed each night.
Cauldrons were used in various Celtic rites. Some cauldrons were believed to possess magical qualities: they would not boil the meat of a coward or an unrighteous person; they granted divine inspiration; or they provided great quantities of food. Early Celts used cauldrons in rites of fertility, and “cauldrons of plenty” were associated with abundance. The mead in the cauldron of the Celtic goddess Cerridwen gave divine wisdom, and that of the goddess Branwen promised regeneration.
Cauldrons in Celtic cultures may have also been used in acts of human sacrifice. The Gundestrup Cauldron, recovered from a peat bog in present-day Denmark dating from around 100 B.C.E., has a carved image of a victim being plunged into a cauldron.
The following ritual goes back to the early Middle Ages and has become a legendary magical method of gaining a desired lover’s affection. It requires a cauldron of the first rain water in April. As the water boils, the following ingredients are to be collected and stirred into the brew: seven hairs from a blood snake (an old colloquialism for sausage prepared in the gut and/or hide of a pig), seven feathers from an owl, seven scales from a snake, a hair from the object of love and a bit of his nail paring. When all the ingredients have been incorporated into the cauldron, the magical “stew” must be allowed to boil briskly for seven minutes. At the end of this time, the magician must permit the brew to cool before he or she sprinkles it upon the intended lover. The brew is meant to warm the lover up a bit, not to scald him or her.
Crystals were prized in many ancient cultures, and they remain so today—both for their scientific and their mystical qualities. Crystals have practical uses in radios, lasers, and computers, among other devices; and traditional Native American healers and New Age practitioners of alternative medicine believe that they have marvelous curative powers.
Ancient Greeks valued quartz crystal for its beauty and believed it had supernatural powers. The Greeks thought that the mineral quartz with its crystalline structure was water frozen so thoroughly that it could never be thawed, and they called quartz, “krystallos,” from the word “kryos,” which means icy cold. Krystallos became “crystal” in English during the Middle Ages to refer to stones with structures like quartz. Atoms and molecules in crystals are always arranged in tidy rows. These repeated, orderly patterns give crystals their beautiful sparkle and special shapes.
Some crystals, when compressed, develop electrical charges (piezoelectricity) at their ends, and others develop similar charges when heated (pyroelectricity). Both of those properties are evident in quartz and make the mineral useful in sonar and radio, for amplifying electric current, and to help make possible the solar battery that converts sunlight into electrical energy.
Lithium crystals are an energy source in the popular Star Trek television and movie series to fuel the starshipEnterprise. On Earth, lithium is the lightest known metal and is often used in storage batteries.
The verifiable qualities of crystals are show-cased in numerous applications in modern technology, but the mystical qualities of crystals are more difficult to explain and depend more on belief. Since the days of ancient Egypt, crystals have been believed to have healing properties and the ability to rid the body of negative energies. Crystals are believed to be able to store images and thoughts, serving as keepers of knowledge of the past. Among other attributes reputed of crystals is the ability to store and discharge light; to receive impressions from humans, who are able to program crystals for certain functions; to emit frequencies; and to become reenergized by sunlight and moonlight. Clear quartz is said to attract positive energy, and small wands with crystals mounted at both ends can supposedly locate pain or illness in a body.
Some mystics claim that inhabitants of the legendary continent of Atlantis used crystals to produce psychic energy and establish inter-stellar communication. Some believe that a powerful crystal energy source ultimately destroyed Atlantis. The popular twentieth century mystic Edgar Cayce (1877-1945) told his followers about his visions of the great crystals that powered Atlantis, and he referred to the healing capacities of crystals. Cayce taught that crystals possessed an energy within themselves that could be transmitted to people and be of great assistance in meditation, healing, and the achievement of higher levels of consciousness.
In 1976, medium/channel Frank Alper founded the Arizona Metaphysical Center in Phoenix and began channeling spirit messages that outlined methods of crystal therapy. In Exploring Atlantis (1982), three volumes of spirit directives on the powers of crystals, Alper out-lined techniques that were followed with careful attention by New Age enthusiasts around the world. Within a very short time, crystal therapists were applying the ancient healing exercises that Alper’s channeled messages described as having originated in ancient Atlantis.
New Age believers in crystal power were told by a number of channelers that all people had within themselves a Higher Self that was the ultimate expression of their personality. This Higher Self could become a conduit between themselves and a source of divinity that had the power to activate a crystal for the purpose of healing. Those who wished to focus the healing abilities inherent in crystal were told that they must activate their crystal by breathing their “intent” to help others into the crystal. The process of activation involved their taking their crystal in the left hand. According to New Age channeling, the act of holding one’s crystal in the left hand will stimulate the creative, intuitive process in the right brain hemisphere. Once this has occurred, the supposed vortex of energy in the crystal begins interacting with the individual’s electromagnetic field and will start to increase the field energy around him or her.
When the energy field has been activated, the individual is to begin to breathe into the crystal the intention to be able to heal the physical bodies of those who request a healing. The individual healer must remember always that the crystal will magnify his or her intention and thereby serve as a powerful healing instrument.
In addition to its use in healing, crystals have always been popular as devices utilized in scrying, the ancient fortune telling technique of foreseeing future events in a clear surface. Pure quartz crystals polished into spheres became popular for divining purposes during the Middle Ages, and such crystal balls are still used by various contemporary psychic readers to obtain glimpses of the future.
In most traditions, especially in the British Isles and Scandinavia, the fairy folk were supernormal entities who inhabited a magical kingdom beneath the surface of the earth. Fairies have always been considered to be much akin to humans, yet something more than mortal person. As many of the ancient texts declare, the fairies are “of a middle nature between Man and Angel.” One factor has been consistent in fairy lore—these so-called “middle folk” continually meddle in the affairs of humankind, sometimes to do them good, sometimes to do them ill.
Tales have been told with endless modifications and variations, but it remains essentially a story of a fairy outwitting a greedy human. Less widely known are the many stories in which the person who discovers the fairies at their work is whisked away by them to the fairy kingdom, from which he or she may return much later as an old person believing that only a day or so has gone by.
In The Science of Fairy Tales by Edwin Sidney Hartland, published in London in 1891, the account is given of a shepherd who went out one day to look for his cattle and sheep on the mountain and seemingly disappeared into thin air. After about three weeks, the search parties had abandoned hope of ever finding him again. His wife had given him up for dead, and it was at that time that he returned. When his astonished wife asked him where he had been for the past three weeks, the man angrily said that he had only been gone for three hours. When he was asked to describe exactly where he had been, he said little men who closed nearer and nearer to him until they formed a small circle surrounding him. They sang and danced and so affected him that he got lost.
Near Bridgend is a place where a woman is said to have lived for 10 years with the fairy folk and who upon her return insisted that she had not been out of the house for more than 10 minutes.
The Germans, the Irish, the Scots, the English, and the Scandinavians have no end of such accounts of fairies interacting with people and stealing time. There are variants of these tales in Wales, in the Slavic countries, and in Japan and China. Stories are told of men and women who returned years, sometimes even generations, after they had stepped into a fairy circle and been enchanted by the singing and dancing of the wee people. Additional anecdotes are told of those who coupled with fairy folk and produced a hybrid of human and fairy individuals.
In Scotland the story is repeated of a man who went with his friend to enter his first child’s birth in the record books and to buy a keg of whiskey for the christening. As the two men sat down to rest, they heard the sound of piping and dancing. The father of the newborn child became curious, and spotting some wee folk beginning to dance, he decided to join them.
His friend fled the spot, and when the new father did not return for several months, the friend was accused of murdering him. Somehow he was able to persuade the court that he should be allowed a year and a day to vindicate himself. Each night at dusk, he went to the spot where his friend had disappeared to call out his friend’s name and to pray. One day just before the term ran out, he saw his friend dancing merrily with the fairies. The accused man succeeded in grabbing him by the sleeve and pulling him out. The bewitched man snapped angrily because his friend would not let him finish the dance. The unfortunate friend, who would face the gallows if he could not bring the enchanted man home, told the celebrating father that he had been dancing for 12 months and that he should have had enough. When rescued from the fairies’ circle, the man would not believe the lapse of time until he found his wife sitting by the door of his home with their year-old son in her arms.
Several Native American tribes have similar stories of interactions with entities they call the “pukwudjinis,” the little vanishing people. The tribespeople also refer to the medicine or magic circle. If anyone stepped inside one, he or she could disappear for months or years or a lifetime.
Some naturally formed amulets can be worn or kept to ward off evil. Garlic reportedly keeps one safe from vampires, and also repels evil spirits. For garlic to perform that function in Mexico, it must be received as a gift. Some Roman soldiers wore garlic for extra protection when they went into battle.
It is possible that the tradition of garlic as an agent capable of warding off creatures of darkness grew out of the simple fact that heavy consumption of garlic greatly affects the breath odor of those who have liberally partaken of the herb. In the ancient mystery religions, which emphasized the goddess and fertility rites, those who had eaten heavily of garlic were ostracized from worship.
Hand of Glory
One of the most macabre of all occult preparations was the Hand of Glory, a magic light made from the hand of a dead man. Once the hand had been severed from a corpse—often taken from the body of a hanged highwayman swinging on a gallows—it was to be slowly dried in an oven. When it was judged as quite dry, it was to be soaked in the melted fat of a
black tomcat. Each finger served as a separate candle, and twisted human hair wrapped around the fingers served as wicks.
Although used as a protection against evil by those common folk who somehow managed to acquire such a grisly deterrent of the forces of darkness, the Hand of Glory was a favorite acquisition of burglars and thieves who believed that as long as the fingers burned the persons whose house they invaded would remain fast asleep and allow them to conclude their thievery undetected. There was even a little rhyme to be said when the hand was lit:
Let those who rest more deeply sleep;
Let those awake their vigils keep.
O, Hand o’ Glory shed thy light,
Direct us to our spoils tonight.
Flash out thy light, O skeleton hand,
And guide the feet of our trusty band.
The only way to stop the power of the hand once it had been ignited was to douse it with either milk or blood. According to belief, water alone was incapable of extinguishing the flames of a Hand of Glory.
Horseshoes have long been popular in folk magic as an instrument of bringing the owner good luck—provided the object is worn out and found, rather than new and purchased.
In some countries the horseshoe is hung with the open end downward as a fertility symbol, but in Ireland, Britain, and the United States it is commonly hung with the open end pointing upward, so luck won’t run out. A great debate rages: should a horseshoe be hung with its ends pointing downward, so luck can pour out in a steady, unending stream, or is it better placed upward, to collect, store, and bestow luck?
In Italy, a horseshoe is hung by the door, not above the door, as it is elsewhere, so it can be touched by whomever passes over a threshold. In Mexico, horseshoes are wrapped up in bright colored threads. In Turkey, horseshoe charms are manufactured to help ward off the evil eye.
The original cutting implements used by humans consisted of pieces of flint or other stone that had been chipped to form an edge. Such bits of stone evolved into the knife, among the first tools to be developed by humankind. Eventually, the stone blade became longer; the handle was wrapped with leather to avoid accidentally cutting the hand; and the knife was carried everywhere its owner went.
In the martial encounters between tribes, the spear, which is a knife with a long handle, and the club were favored in order to keep some distance between combatants. But when things got up close and personal, the knife came into play. Thus when the arts of warfare evolved and bronze weapons were used, the sword—a large and long knife—together with the spear and club were considered honorable implements of war. The knife was deemed the last resort of the gentleman or the sole weapon of the brigand and the assassin. In the days of chivalry, the knights bore swords and lances for self-defense while peasants and out-laws carried knives to protect themselves. The knife was a kind of secret weapon, and therefore considered base by those who faced one another with swords or lances. Men and women of any means whatsoever used knives primarily for cutting their food before they ate their meals with their fingers. Forks were unknown as table utensils until well into the eighteenth century, and table knives were a rarity until about the same time. People carried their own serviceable knives so they were always prepared to dine.
In various systems of magic, from the times of human and animal sacrifice to ceremonial rituals, the knife has played an extremely important role. The magic circles of protection that surround the magus and the sorcerer must be drawn with the magician’s special knife, blessed by an invocation to a deity. In witchcraft, the ceremonial knife is referred to as the athame.
Knives are used in various divination practices simply by spinning them and seeing toward which object, number, person, and so forth, the blade points. Other traditions believe it is bad luck to spin a knife on the table, fearing that it symbolizes death for the one to whom it points.
While magicians use their magic knife to stir their potions, many individuals believe that those who use a knife to stir their tea, coffee, or food will summon strife. To drop a knife while eating, some people believe, is a sign that unexpected company will soon arrive. Others fear that to drop a knife will bring illness to the household. With the knife having played such an important and integral role in the societal and spiritual development of humankind, it is little wonder that there should be many superstitions regarding its use and misuse.
The expression “tying the knot” when one speaks of the marriage vows seems to have almost universal meaning. Africans tell of similar “knot-tying” love spells in their own tribes. Somehow it seems the most natural kind of symbolism to visualize the binding of one’s self to the object of one’s love while the fingers weave the knots and the lips chant a soulful litany. Here is how the ancient love spell of the seven knots was woven:
The magician would take a length of cord or ribbon that would sustain seven knots strung out at a distance of about an inch from one another. According to the ritual, the first knot was to be tied in the middle of the cord with the admonition that the two lovers remain bound to each other from that moment and that their love was in the circle that bound them.
At about the distance of one inch, the conjurer formed the second knot to the right of the first, telling the lovers that their love would endure with the strength of steel. The third knot was tied to the left of the first knot and the lovers were told that they would not be able to break away from one another, even though from time to time their passion might waver. The fourth knot was placed to the right with the message that all good spirits and the Holy Light would always keep the image of the other in the lovers’ mind. The fifth knot was done to the left, assuring fidelity throughout their lifetimes. The sixth knot was bound on the right, binding the exclusivity of their affections, one to the other. The last knot, the seventh, was secured to the left and the officiator declared that the two should stand always within the circle of their love and happiness, unable to be separated by any power of Earth.
The incantation completed, the maker of the ritual would then bind the two ends of the cord together and wear it in the manner of a garter upon her or his left arm above the elbow. The “seven-knot-love-garter” was to be worn to bed for seven alternate nights. Upon the fourteenth day, the charm was either to be burned in offering to good spirits or to be hidden in a secret place.
Mandrake, also known as mandragora officinarum, has a long tap-root that resembles a human form. This resemblance created the superstition that it literally shrieked when it was uprooted. Those who heard the scream were to die, or, if it didn’t kill them, it caused them to go insane.
This relative of the potato family was a popular anaesthetic during the Middle Ages. In the Elizabethan Age it was used as a narcotic.
The ancients in Great Britain and Northern Europe believed that May 1 was the boundary day between summer and winter and that on this day a war took place between the two seasons to determine which would prevail. It became customary to stage a mock war between two people, one to represent winter; the other, summer. Summer always managed to win and was promptly crowned King of the May. In triumph he held aloft green branches decorated with beautiful May flowers and sang an old folk song, the essence of which seems to have been, “I have won, I bring you summer!”
Later, as the custom evolved, a young tree was cut down and decorated with ribbons and flowers. This tree was set up triumphantly in the village and everyone danced around it. The Druids worshipped the tree, and it is possible that the Maypole originated with them. But long before the time of Charles I (1600- 1649) in England the tree had given way to the pole. Huge poles were planted in the ground and decorated with green branches and flowers. Long streamers were attached to the top, and each dancer held on proudly to his or her end of the ribbon.
The first mirror was quite likely a quiet pool in which one caught a fleeting reflection of an image of oneself. The early Greeks had mirrors that were made of circular pieces of polished bronze, sometimes with richly adorned handles. The early Egyptians also had bronze mirrors, highly polished dishes, usually with graceful and decorative handles.
Since early times the mirror has been used in divination, in attempts to read the future or the past. In ancient Greece divination performed by means of water and a mirror was so popular and so widely practiced that it was given a definite name—”catoptomancy.” There are still seers and fortune-tellers called “scryers” who “see” the past and the future in crystals and mirrors.
An early belief was that one saw the will of the gods in the mirror. To break a mirror accidentally, therefore, was interpreted as an effort on the part of the gods to prevent the person from seeing into the future. This was construed as a warning that the future held unpleasant things.
It was not until 1688 that glass mirrors were invented. In that year, a Frenchman, Louis Lucas, invented plate glass that, backed with the proper alloy, formed a mirror that for the first time gave both sexes a true reflection of their appearance.
One of the most common of modern superstitions is that to break a mirror invites death, or seven years of bad luck. This old folk belief originated with the Romans about the first century C.E. They believed that the health of a person changed every seven years, and as the mirror reflected the health or the appearance of the person, to break a mirror would be to shatter one’s health for a period of seven years. Among highly superstitious people the breaking of the mirror came to be looked upon as a death omen. Somehow this superstitious belief has prevailed and still exists even among educated people.
Mistletoe is another natural amulet. It is commonly hung in homes during Christmastime; the custom of kissing under the mistletoe goes back to ancient Europeans, who believed mistletoe brought fertility, healing, and luck. They hung it in homes and barns. Mistletoe was sacred as well to Celts. It is a parasitic plant that grows on trees without forming roots in the earth. This quality led Celts to venerate mistletoe as a divine substance.
For many centuries, people around the world have created many folklore beliefs about mistletoe:
- Central Australian aborigines believed that the ratapa, spirits of unborn children of their tribe, lived in trees, rocks, and sprigs of mistletoe.
- The Japanese chopped mistletoe, leaves, and millet, and offered prayers for a good harvest.
- Swedes hung a mistletoe besom (broom) in the house as a charm against lightning.
- Swedes used mistletoe rods to locate treasure in the earth. The rod was supposed to quiver, like a divining rod, when it was over the treasure.
- Austrians hung mistletoe over the doorstep to protect people in the house from nightmares.
- Since ancient times, a kiss under the mistletoe was a pledge of love and a promise of marriage.
- The kiss of friendship was given under a mistletoe to signify a truce. Enemies who met under the mistletoe in the forest were to lay down their arms, exchange friendly greetings, and keep a truce until the following day.
The ring as a pledge can be traced back to great antiquity. “And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, ‘See I have set thee over all the land of Egypt.’ And Pharaoh took off his ring from his hand, and put it upon Joseph’s hand” (Genesis 41:42).
Similar use of signet rings as symbols of respect and authority is mentioned in several parts of the Bible, and it would appear that rings were commonly worn by persons of rank at that period, and that rings were bestowed upon others either as gifts or for the purpose of transferring authority.
Rings worn only as ornaments were common in early Egypt, in Greece, and even among less civilized peoples. In antiquity, it was the custom among people of the lower classes to break a piece of gold or silver to seal the marriage pact. One half of the token was kept by the man, the other half by the woman. This custom came before the exchange of rings. In ancient Ireland, for instance, it was the custom for the man to give the woman he wanted to marry a bracelet woven of human hair. Her acceptance of it was symbolic of accepting the man, of linking herself to him for life.
It appears that the ring as a love pledge existed at an early period. It was customary in the early Middle Ages to make a solemn betrothal by means of a ring to precede matrimony. In England, rings were exchanged to seal the verbal contract of betrothal. In Italy the use of the ring was widespread, and the diamond was the favorite gem. The diamond remains the favorite gem for the engagement ring in modern times. Indeed, many people think only of the diamond in connection with rings of betrothal. According to an old superstition, the sparkle of the diamond is supposed to have originated in the fires of love. Therefore the diamond engagement ring is considered by many persons as the only true engagement ring, portending love and happiness throughout life.
In Finnish mythology, the mighty god of the sky, Ukko, struck fire in the heavens. A spark from this celestial fire fell into the ocean and turned to salt. Another old legend is that the oceans are made up of the tears of all those who have suffered since the world began; and as tears are salt, the oceans’ waters are salt.
Salt was used long before the contemporary era, and it was highly valued by those who included it in their diet. Salt was probably being traded even in Neolithic times. The Israelites believed that no meal was complete without a bit of salt to help digest it. Homer (9th-8th century B.C.E.) called salt divine, and Plato (c. 428-348 or 347 B.C.E.) described it as a substance valued by the gods.
At one time salt was regarded as being almost as valuable as gold, and soldiers, officials, and working people in Greece and Rome received all or part of their pay in salt. Money paid for labor or service was termed “salarium,” the origin of the word “salary,”—money paid for services rendered. From this custom of paying with salt comes also the popular phrase “to earn one’s salt.”
It was a custom in early times to place salt before strangers as a token or pledge of friendship. “Take a pinch of salt with me” was the popular method of inviting a friend or acquaintance to one’s home to partake of one’s hospitality.
In many Asian countries salt was offered to guests as a token of hospitality, and if any particles fell to the ground while being presented it was considered an omen of ill luck. The belief was that a quarrel or a dispute would follow.
Among the Germans there is the old saying, “Whoever spills salt arouses enmity.” The ancient Romans believed that to spill salt was to cause quarrels or disputes, and when salt was spilled it was the custom to exclaim, “May the gods avert the omen!” Another old tradition says that if salt is thrown over the left shoulder, it will appease the devil, who will otherwise make enemies of friends whenever salt is spilled.
According to some authorities, the wide-spread notion that the spilling of salt produces evil consequences is supposed to have originated in the tradition that Judas overturned a salt shaker at the Last Supper as portrayed in Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1519) painting. But it appears more probable that the belief is due to the sacred character of salt in early times.
These old salt superstitions are found in many widely separated countries. Long ago they captured the public fancy, and they have survived. There are still many people who believe that to spill salt is an omen of a quarrel or bad luck, and that to toss a bit of the salt over the left shoulder is to cancel the negative consequences.
Silver is said to offer protection and enhance one’s psychic qualities. Silver was associated with the moon in Roman and Chinese cultures, and was considered divine (rather than a naturally formed metal) by Incas of South America. Egyptians coveted silver because it was not found in their region.
Silver bullets are reportedly good for killing vampires, werewolves, and ghosts. Another metal, brass, is especially good for amulets since it is believed to repel evil spirits.
Stones for Healing and Energy
Perhaps the most popular amulets in folk magic are the 12 birth stones. These semi-precious gems, mounted in rings and pendants, have enjoyed widespread appeal for centuries. Because most people are familiar with these stones, the magic powers of each is as follows:
- Agate. This stone may appear as striped or clouded quartz, and is astrologically associated with the sign Gemini. An agate amulet is believed to promote good health. An agate ring bestows wealth and honor; also, it can be used to obtain favors from people in high positions. Legend has it that any person who gazes upon this gem will be compelled to speak the truth and cannot maintain secrecy.
- Amethyst. This gem, a purple variety of quartz, is traditionally considered to be the Aquarian birthstone. An amethyst ring is usually worn for protection against sorcery and the evil eye. An amethyst pendant prevents depression and supposedly bestows spiritual visions.
- Bloodstone. Also known as heliotrope, this variety of quartz is the Piscean birthstone. Worn as a pendant, it allegedly prevents mis-carriage and other illness during pregnancy. Mounted in a ring, the amulet reportedly promotes creativity. Worn to bed, bloodstone may bestow pleasant dreams and clear visions of the future.
- Diamond. This precious gem is astrologically associated with the sign of Aries. A diamond amulet traditionally symbolizes enduring love and happiness in a marriage. Given as a gift, the gem is believed to strengthen emotional bonds and promote loyalty. A diamond pendant may be worn to obtain honor and friendship. Mounted in a ring, the amulet insures lasting marriage and financial success.
- Emerald. Traditionally associated with the astrological sign Taurus, this precious green gem has several unique properties. An emerald pendant is thought to afford women protection against assault. Mounted in a ring, the stone promotes domestic stability and fortune. According to legend, this amulet may be used to combat epilepsy, depression, and insanity.
- Garnet. This semiprecious gem is the birthstone of Capricorn people. Early Egyptians and Phoenicians used the stone extensively. It reputedly healed snakebite and food poisoning by absorbing foreign chemicals in the blood through the skin. A garnet pendant is usually worn to arouse the passionate love of the opposite sex. A garnet ring reputedly combats fear and pessimism. Argument and eventual separation of two lovers is thought to result when garnet is given as a gift.
- Opal. This semiprecious gem is associated with the astrological sign Libra. Worn as a ring, this amulet reputedly alleviates indigestion and other stomach disorders. Also, it instills tranquility and joy. An opal pendant is worn to attract happiness in love, fortune and favorable judgment in court. The opal amulet is believed to take on a dull gray appearance when minor illness is forthcoming. A sickly yellow hue presages injury by accident.
- Ruby. This popular birthstone, which is associated with the astrological sign Cancer, reputedly promotes mental health and tranquility. A ruby pendant is thought to combat depression and enable the wearer to overcome sorrow. A ruby amulet worn as a ring bestows knowledge, health, and wealth. This stone should never be given as a gift, as it is thought that discord and broken relationships will result.
- Sapphire. This deep blue corundum is astrologically associated with the sign Virgo. A sapphire pendant is a reputed cure for fever, seizures, and delusions. Mounted in a ring, the gem bestows wisdom and compassion. When danger is imminent, this amulet reportedly takes on a chalky appearance, which remains until the hazard has subsided.
- Sardonyx. The birthstone of Leo people, this gem is a popular remedy for impotence. Ancient occultists believed that a sardonyx amulet could be worn to alleviate this affliction in less than a week. Mounted in a ring, sardonyx has no power; however, worn as a pendant, the stone combats sterility. Given as a gift, the sardonyx amulet is thought to guarantee the recipient’s fidelity.
- Topaz. This gem is the birthstone of Scorpio people. Some medieval occultists insisted that a topaz amulet promoted psychic sensitivity and facilitated control of destiny. A topaz pendant reputedly bestows honor, happiness, and inner peace in addition to the above benefits. Mounted in a ring, the gem insures promotion and financial success.
- Turquoise. The birthstone of Sagittarians, turquoise has been worn in amulets since the earliest times. Native Americans considered the stone sacred, and medieval sorcerers used it in various magic rituals. Modern authorities claim that a turquoise amulet is an effective deterrent against illness and injury. Worn as a pendant, the stone also protects its bearer from a violent death. A turquoise ring is said to have the power to allow the wearer to rekindle old love affairs.
In addition to the 12 birthstones, other gems of magical and healing significance warrant consideration. These are:
- Amber. This gem, which has been used for magical purposes from time immemorial, is primarily a health aid. An amber pendant reportedly cures diseases of the blood, poor circulation, and prevents heart attack. Mounted in a ring, this stone is believed to combat malfunction of the kidney and protect the wearer against heat stroke and suffocation.
- Beryl. This opaque stone usually comes in yellow, pink, green, or white. Worn as a pendant, it is claimed to promote happy marriage and honesty. Given as a gift, it is a popular deterrent to unfaithfulness. A beryl ring is frequently worn to insure good health during pregnancy.
- Carnelian. This reddish quartz gem was highly popular with Old World occultists. Early Chaldeans gave their stone to enemies and thereby rendered them harmless.
- Chrysocolla. This stone is recommended for treatment of diabetes and asthma and is said to build inner peace and strength and to attract prosperity and good luck.
- Coral. This stone occurs in a variety of colors and is allegedly invaluable to careless people. As an amulet, it is said to take on a chalky white appearance when in close proximity with sick people. A coral ring or pendant may also be worn to promote health and wisdom.
- Jade. Throughout history, magicians have used this gem as a deterrent to sorcery and demonic possession. Jade is therefore considered to be one of the most potent protective device known to humankind. Modern occultists claim that a jade pendant may be worn to achieve these effects, and that a ring combats tragedy and depression.
- Jet. Perhaps one of the most powerful amulets known, this lustrous black gem holds an important place in the legends of various cultures. In ancient Greece, occultists believed that it was a sacred substance, and in Assyria it was considered to be the gods’ favorite jewel. Medieval legend credits the jet amulet with supernatural powers. The person wearing this stone supposedly attains complete control of the natural elements—fire, air, earth, and water.
- Lapis Lazuli. This stone has long been valued as an aid to cleanse the mind and body of toxins and promote psychic abilities.
Many trees and plants are used as objects of power. Hazel, the wood of choice for magic wands, was commonly used for divining rods as a means for locating sources of underground water so that wells could be dug. A hazel rod was used by St. Patrick (fifth century C.E.) to draw out the snakes of Ireland, which he then cast out to sea.
To the Druid and other magicians, trees are a good source of radiant vitality and may be drawn upon for relief, and even cure, of backache conditions. Many who are attuned to nature seek to create a tree charm to bring them strength. The prospective charm maker selects a suitable tree, strong, upright, free from distortions, and of good size. Ash, spruce, and birch are recommended. For best results, the tree should be situated as far away from human contamination as possible.
Once a proper tree has been selected, the magician makes friends with it by touching it, talking to it, and thinking into it. The tree should be circled nine times while the magus touches it gently with his or her fingertips. Upon the completion of the encirclement, the magician takes a final position to the north, leans back against the tree, and reaches his or her hands behind so that they might touch the bark of the tree. In this position, the magus chants:
Strong Tree; King Tree:
Take thou this weakness of my back.
Give me strength instead.
That I may be as upright as thyself
Between the Heavens (look up)
And the Earth beneath (look down).
Secure from storm
And blessed in every branch.
May this be so!
The magician repeats the incantation until a feeling of rapport is established with the tree. When it is felt that the treatment is over, the magician breaks contact gently and thanks the nature spirits for their help.
To accomplish the placing a curse or a spell upon an individual, many magic traditions utilize a wax or cloth image to represent a hated enemy or a desired loved one. To properly effect such a spell or curse, it is generally required to obtain some personal bit of the object of one’s intentions, i.e., nail parings, hair, excrement, saliva; and mix this in with soft wax or sew it in the cloth. Once this has been accomplished, the wax or pieces of cloth may be shaped into the form of either a male or female figure.
In the popular mind the so-called voodoo doll is the most well-known of such effigies, and many tourists have brought such souvenirs home from their visits to New Orleans or Haiti where Voudun (Voodoo) is practiced as a religion. Over the years, the portrayal of a voudun priest or priestess sticking pins into a doll that represents someone who has incurred their wrath has become so common that such effigies or puppets are known collectively as voodoo dolls. Actually, such figures have no role in the religion of voodoo, and the practice of sticking pins in dolls or poppets (puppets) is a custom of Western European witches, rather than the Haitian or Caribbean practitioners of voudun. Perhaps the misunderstanding arose when outsiders who witnessed certain rituals saw the followers of voudun sticking pins in the figures of saints or guardian spirits. Such acts are done not to bring harm to anyone, but to keep the good force of magic within the object.
One method of effigy cursing calls for the magician to fashion a wax or cloth skeleton and to inscribe the name of the intended victim on its back. The image is then pierced with a thorn or a sharpened twig in the area corresponding to the victim’s body part that the sorcerer desires to inflict with pain. Once pierced, the skeleton is wrapped in a shroud and prayed over as if it were a deceased person. When the death-rites have been accomplished, the effigy must be buried in a spot over which the intended victim is certain to walk.
Waxen and cloth images may also be used to bring about unions of love, as well as terrible deeds of hatred and revenge. In order to weave a love spell with wax effigies, the magician fashions two hearts of wax, baptizes them with the lovers’ names, and then joins the hearts together with three pins. The images are then given to the one who desires such a union so that she or he might press the wax hearts to her or his own heart.
When magicians are convinced that they themselves have been cursed, they might form an image, or puppet, to represent the one who has cast the malign spell. Once the magicians have fashioned such a puppet, they bury the box containing the puppet under a thin layer of soil. Over the soil, they light a bonfire and chant their wish that the curse set against them will be consumed along with the flames that burn the puppet representing the one who cursed them.