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
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
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
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.