Medical Amulets

Sources: Primitive Psycho-therapy And Quackery

Among the various subjects which belong to the province of medical

folk-lore, one of the most interesting relates to amulets and protective

charms, which represent an important stage in the gradual development of

Medicine as a science. And especially noteworthy among medical amulets

are those inscribed with mystic sentences, words, or characters, for by

their examination and study we may acquire some definite knowledge of

the mental condition of the people who made use of them.

Satisfactorily to explain the derivation of the English word "amulet"

has taxed the ingenuity of etymologists, and its origin is admittedly

obscure. According to some authorities, the Latin amuletum was derived

from amoliri, to avert or repel; but the greater weight of evidence

points to the Arabic verb hamala, meaning "to carry." The definitions

usually given embody both of these ideas; for amulets, in the ancient

medical conception of the term, were any objects, ornamental or

otherwise, worn on the bodies of men or animals, and believed to

neutralize the ill effects of noxious drugs, incantations, witchcrafts,

and all morbific agencies whatever. To the Oriental mind amulets

symbolize the bond between a protective power and dependent mundane

creatures; they are prophylactics against the forces of evil, and may be

properly characterized as objects superstitiously worn, whose alleged

magical potency is derived from the faith and imagination of the


The use of amulets has been attributed to religious sentimentality or

religiosity. The latter word has been defined as "an excessive

susceptibility to the religious sentiments, especially wonder, awe, and

reverence, unaccompanied by any correspondent loyalty to divine law in

daily life."

Any one desirous of moralizing on the subject may find a theme

presenting aspects both sad and comical. When, however, one reflects

that amulets, in some one of their protean forms, have been invested

with supernatural preventive and healing powers by the people of all

lands and epochs, and that they have been worn not only by kings and

princes, but by philosophers, prelates, and physicians of eminence as

well, it is evident that the subject deserves more than a passing


It would be vain to seek the origin of their employment, which lies

hidden behind the misty veil of remote antiquity. The eastern nations of

old, as is well known, were much addicted to the use of amulets; and

from Chaldea, Egypt, and Persia the practice was transmitted westward,

and was thus extended throughout the civilized world. Among the great

number of popular amulets in ancient times, many were fashioned out of

metals, ivory, stone, and wood, to represent deities, animals, birds,

and fishes; others were precious stones or cylinders inscribed with

hieroglyphics; necklaces of shell or coral, crescent- or hand-shaped

charms, and grotesque images. Their virtues were derived either from the

material, from the shape, or from the magic rites performed at the time

of their preparation. According to a popular belief, which prevailed

throughout the East in the earlier centuries of the Christian era, all

objects, whether inanimate stones and metals, or brutes and plants,

possessed an indwelling spirit or soul, which was the cause of the

efficiency of all amulets. They were therefore akin to fetishes, in

the present acceptation of the term; for a fetish, as defined in the

classification of medicines and therapeutic agents in the collections of

the National Museum at Washington, D. C., is a material object supposed

to be the abode of a spirit, or representing a spirit, which may be

induced or compelled to help the possessor.

According to Juvenal ("Satires," Book III, v, 1), Grecian athletes wore

protective charms in the arena, to counterbalance the magical devices of

their opponents. It is probable that the ethics of modern athletic

contests would not countenance such expedients. But so implicit was the

confidence of the Roman citizen in his amulet, that a failure to avert

sickness or evil of any sort was not attributed to inherent lack of

power in the charm itself, but rather to some mistake in the method of

its preparation.

In the time of the Emperor Hadrian (A. D. 76-138), and of his

successors, the Antonines, the resources of occult science, known only

to the initiated few, were believed to be sufficiently powerful, through

the agency of spells and charms, to control the actions of evil

spirits. The early Christians readily adopted the pagan custom of

wearing amulets as remedies against disease, and as bodily safeguards,

in spite of the emphatic condemnation of the Church.

Origen (A. D. 186-253), a native of Alexandria, wrote that in his time

it was customary for a person ailing from any cause to write certain

characters on paper or metal, and fasten the amulet, thus improvised,

upon the part of the body affected. Passages from the books of the

Gospel (literally "good spell") were especial favorites as such

preservatives; they were usually inscribed on parchment, and were even

placed upon horses. Amulets were also employed to propitiate the

goddess Fortune, and to thwart her evil designs. So insistent was the

belief in the virtues of these objects, and to such a pitch of credulity

did the popular mind attain, that special charms in great variety were

devised against particular diseases, as well as against misfortunes and

evil of whatever kind.

Medieval astrology was a chief factor in promoting the use of amulets.

Magic lent its aid to such an extent that, in certain lands, a chief

part of Medicine consisted in the selection of suitable amulets against

disease, and in their preparation.

The almost universal dependence upon amulets, as prophylactics or

healing agencies, originated through popular ignorance and fear.

With the advent of Christianity, many former superstitious beliefs were

abandoned. Yet the process was very gradual.

The newest converts from paganism, while renouncing the forms which they

had of necessity abjured, were disposed to attribute to Christian

symbols some of the virtues which they had believed to inhere in heathen

emblems and tokens. The amulets and charms used by prehistoric man

were silent appeals for protection against the powers of evil, the

hostile forces which environed him.

The doctrines of the Gnostics have been held by some writers to be

responsible for the introduction of many amulets and charms in the early

centuries of this era. Notwithstanding the fact (says Edward Berdoe in

his "Origin of the Art of Healing") that the spirit of Christianity in

its early day was strenuously opposed to all magical and superstitious

practices, the nations which it subdued to the faith in Christ were so

wedded to their former customs that they could not be entirely divorced

from them. Thus, in the case of amulets, it was found necessary to

substitute Christian words and tokens for their heathen counterparts.

Amulets and charms were much in vogue in ancient Egypt, and so great was

the traditional reputation of the people of that country, as expert

magicians, that throughout Europe in medieval times, strolling

fortune-tellers and Gypsies were called Egyptians, and by this name

they are still known in France. A written medical charm usually

consisted of a piece of skin or parchment, upon which were inscribed a

few words or mystic symbols. This was enclosed in a small bag or case,

which was suspended from the wearer's neck.

The physician of the fifteenth century was wont to write his

prescription in mysterious characters, and bind it upon the affected

portion of the patient's body.

In the rabbinical medicine, occult methods, involving astrology and the

wearing of parchment amulets and charms, were more in evidence than the

use of drugs; and among the inhabitants of ancient Babylon, traditional

spells for driving out the demons of sickness were much employed.

The forms of words embodied in charms and incantations were originally

intended to be sung, and usually contained some rhyme, jingle, or

alliterative verses.

The origin of these may be ascribed to the use of lullabies and

cradle-songs, as a means of soothing infants, and lulling them to sleep.

But formerly sick persons of all ages were comforted by these simple

melodies. Dr. Joseph Frank Payne, in the "Fitz-Patrick Lectures,"

delivered at Oxford in 1904, remarked that many of the nursery rhymes

of to-day are relics of literary forms which had formerly a deeper and

sometimes a more formidable meaning.

For a goodly proportion of these magical therapeutic formulas had

evidently a definite purpose, namely, the expulsion of the demons, who

were believed to be the originators of disease.

Charm-magic, or the cure of disease through the instrumentality of

written medical charms, may be properly classed as one method of

utilizing the therapeutic force of suggestion. In ancient Assyria sacred

inscriptions were placed upon the walls of the sick-room, and holy texts

were displayed on either side of the threshold.

The Roman writer, Quintus Serenus Samonicus, author of "Carmen de

Medicina," is said to have recommended as a cure for quartan ague, the

placing of the fourth book of the Iliad under the patient's head.

Charm-magic has been regarded as a survival of animism, the theory which

endows the phenomena of nature with personal life. It has also been

defined as the explanation of all natural phenomena, not due to obvious

material causes, by attributing them to spiritual agencies.

According to this view, the majority of superstitious fancies are of

animistic origin. These include, not only many methods of primitive

psycho-therapy, but also the belief in goblins, haunted houses, and the

veneration of holy relics.

Magic writings have been and often are efficient psychic remedies for

functional affections, in direct proportion to the user's faith in them.

A certain sense of mystery seems essential. Given that, and plenty of

confidence, and it matters not whether the inscriptions are biblical

verses, unintelligible jargon, or even invocations of the Devil.

As an illustration of the attitude of the clergy towards the practice of

heathen medical magic in Britain during the seventh century, we quote

the words of an eminent French writer, St. Eligius, Bishop of Noyon

(588-659), as recorded by the English ecclesiastical historian, Rev.

Samuel Roffey Maitland (1792-1866), in his series of essays, entitled

"The Dark Ages":--

Before all things I declare and testify to you that you shall

observe none of the impious customs of the pagans, neither

sorcerers, nor diviners, nor soothsayers, nor enchanters, nor

must you presume for any cause, or for any sickness, to

consult or inquire of them; for he who commits this sin loses

unavoidably the grace of baptism. In like manner pay no

attention to auguries, and sneezings; and when you are on a

journey pay no attention to the singing of certain little

birds. But whether you are setting out on a journey, or

beginning any other work, cross yourself in the name of

Christ, and say the Creed and the Lord's Prayer with faith and

devotion, and then the enemy can do you no harm. . . . Let no

Christian place lights at the temples, or the stones, or at

fountains, or at trees . . . or at places where three ways

meet, or presume to make vows. Let none presume to hang

amulets on the neck of man or beast; even though they be made

by the clergy, and called holy things, and contain the words

of Scripture; for they are fraught, not with the remedy of

Christ, but with the poison of the Devil. Let no one presume

to make lustrations, nor to enchant herbs, nor to make flocks

pass through a hollow tree, or an aperture in the earth; for

by so doing he seems to consecrate them to the Devil.

Moreover, as often as any sickness occurs, do not seek

enchanters, nor diviners, nor sorcerers, nor soothsayers, or

make devilish amulets at fountains or trees, or cross-roads;

but let him who is sick trust only to the mercy of God, and

receive the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ with

faith and devotion; and faithfully seek consecrated oil from

the church, wherewith he may anoint his body in the name of

Christ and according to the Apostle, the prayer of faith shall

save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up.

From very early times, says Lady Wilde, the pagan physicians of Ireland,

who were famous as skilled practitioners, were prominent among the

Druids. Although thoroughly conversant with the healing properties of

herbs, they appreciated keenly the influence exerted upon the minds of

their patients by charms, fairy cures, and incantations. Therefore their

methods of treatment were of a medico-religious character, the psychic

element being utilized in the form of various magic rites and

ceremonies, which were important healing factors. The ancient Druidic

charms are still in use among the Irish peasants, the titles of pagan

deities being replaced, however, by the name of Christ and words of the

Christian ritual. In this form they are regarded as magic talismans,

when repeated over the sick, and the peasants have a strong faith in

these mystic formulas, which have a powerful hold upon their

imaginations, having been transmitted to them through many generations

of a credulous ancestry.

The peasants of Ireland do not wholly depend upon the skill of their

fairy-women. On the contrary, every housekeeper has an intimate

knowledge of the healing virtues of common herbs. The administration of

these is always accompanied with a prayer. After domestic resources have

been exhausted, especially if the ailment is believed to be of

supernatural origin, recourse is had to the witch-doctress.

In a volume entitled "Beware of Pickpockets" (1605), being a warning

against charlatans, occurs this passage:

Others, that they may colourably and cunningly hide their

grosse ignorance, when they know not the cause of the disease,

referre it unto charmes, witchcrafts, magnifical incantations

and sorcerie. Vainely and with a brazen forehead, affirming

that there is no way to help them but by characters, circles,

figure-castings, exorcismes, conjurations and others impious

and godlesse meanes. Others set to sale at a great price,

certain amulets of gold and silver, stamped under an

appropriate and selected constellation of the planets, with

some magical characters, shamelessly boasting that they will

cure all diseases and worke I know not what other wonders.

The employment of amulets involves the idea of protection against divers

kinds of malicious spirits, including the demons of disease, ghosts,

fairies, and evil-minded sprites, surly elves, fiends, trolls, pixies,

bogies, kelpies, gnomes, goblins, witches, devils, imps, Jinn, et id

omne genus. Amulets served as preventives against bodily ailments or

injuries, misfortune and ill-luck generally.

Medieval practitioners, while utilizing material remedies to some

extent, relied more on the resources of occult science, whether in the

form of incantations or the revelations of astrology. The adept

consulted the stars to determine the prognosis of a case of fever, for

example. If he prescribed drugs only, his reputation suffered in the

popular estimation. In order to be abreast of the times, the shrewd

medieval physician needed to be well versed in star-craft, or at least

to make a pretense thereto. It is probable that many patients would have

despised a practitioner who looked only to his Herbal and store of

drugs, and neglected Capricornus and Ursa Major.

In "Chambers's Cyclopaedia," published in 1728, an amulet is defined as

a kind of medicament, hung about the neck, or other part of the body, to

prevent or remove disease. And a charm is described as a magic power or

spell, by which, with the assistance of the Devil, sorcerers and witches

were supposed to do wondrous things, far surpassing the power of Nature.

According to popular opinion, medicines were of some value as remedies,

but to effect radical cures the use of magic spells was desirable.

John Atkins wrote, in "The Navy Surgeon, or a Practical System of

Surgery" (1737), that the best method of employing medical amulets

consisted in adapting them to the patients' imaginations. "Let the

newness and surprise," wrote he, "exceed the invention, and keep up the

humor by a long roll of cures and vouchers; by these and such means,

many distempers, especially of women, who are ill all over, or know not

what they ail, have been cured more by a fancy to the physician than by

his prescription. Quacks again, according to their boldness and way of

addressing, command success by striking the fancies of an audience."

Edward Berdoe, in the "Origin and Growth of the Healing Art," comments

on the universality of amuletic symbols and talismans. They are peculiar

to no age or region, and unite in one bond of superstitious brotherhood

the savage and the philosopher, the Sumatran and the Egyptian, the

Briton and the native of Borneo. When a medical written charm is wholly

unintelligible, its curative virtue is thereby much enhanced. The

Anglo-Saxon document known as the Vercelli manuscript by some means

found its way to Lombardy. Its text being undecipherable, the precious

pages of the manuscript were cut up, to serve as amulets.

Apropos of this subject, Charles M. Barrows, in "Facts and Fictions of

Mental Healing," remarks that whatever acts upon a patient in such a way

as to persuade him to yield himself to the therapeutic force constantly

operative in Nature, is a means of healing. It may be an amulet, a

cabalistic symbol, an incantation, a bread-pill, or even sudden fright.

It may be a drug prescribed by a physician, imposition of hands,

mesmeric passes, the touch of a relic, or visiting a sacred shrine.

Dr. Samuel McComb, in "Religion and Medicine," remarks that the

efficacy of the amulets and charms of savages depends upon the fact that

they are symbols of an inner mental state, the objects to which the

desire or yearning could attach itself--in a word, they are

auto-suggestions, done into wood and stone.

Professor Hugo Muensterberg has said that the less a patient knows about

the nature of suggestion, the more benefit he is likely to experience

therefrom; but that, on the contrary, a physician may obtain the better

results, the more clearly he understands the working of this therapeutic


It is also doubtless true that much good may result from the employment

of suggestion by a charlatan, in the form of a written medical charm,

both parties being alike profoundly ignorant of the healing influence


In the Talmud, two kinds of medical amulets are specified, viz: the

"approved" and the "disapproved." An approved amulet is one which has

cured three persons, or which has been made by a man who has cured three

persons by means of other amulets. A belief in the healing power

of amulets was very general among the Hebrews in the later periods of

their history. No people in the whole world were more addicted to the

use of medicinal spells, exorcisms, and various enchantments. The

simpler amulets consisted of pieces of paper, with a few words written

upon them, and their use was quite general. Only one of the approved

kind was permitted to be worn abroad on the Sabbath.

The Talmud therefore permits the use of superstitious modes of healing,

the end sought justifying the means, and the power of mental influence

being tacitly recognized. This principle is faithfully carried out

to-day, says a writer in the "Journal of Biblical Literature," in

all rural communities throughout the world. The Hebrew law-makers did

not make a concession to a lower form of religion by endorsing magical

remedies, but merely shared the contemporary belief in the demoniac

origin of disease. The patient was regarded as being in a condition of

enchantment or fascination,--under a spell, to use the popular phrase.

To dissolve such a spell, recourse was had to amulets, written charms,

or the spoken word of command.