Sources: Primitive Psycho-therapy And Quackery
A talisman may be described as an emblematical object or image,
accredited with magical powers, by whose means its possessor is enabled
to enlist the aid of supernatural beings. Frequently it is a precious
stone, sometimes a piece of metal or parchment, whereon is engraved a
celestial symbol, such as the representation of a planet or zodiacal
sign; or the picture of an animal or fabulous monster. Mystic words and
occult phrases are oftentimes substituted, however, for such devices. It
is essential that talismans should be prepared under suitable
astrological conditions and planetary influences; otherwise they are of
no value. Like amulets, they were formerly worn on the body, either as
prophylactics or as healing agents. Tradition ascribes their invention
to the Persian philosopher Zoroaster, but their use was probably coeval
with the earliest civilizations: descriptions of cures wrought by
medical talismans are to be found in the works of Serapion, a physician
of the ancient sect of Empirics, who lived in Alexandria about 250
B. C.; and in those of Almansor (born 939), the minister of Hesham II,
Sultan of Cordova.
Talismans were fashioned out of various metals, and their mystic virtues
differed according to their forms and the symbols which they bore.
Silver moon-shaped talismans, for example, were much in vogue as
preservatives from fleshly ills; and they were also believed to insure
travellers against mishaps.
In medieval times talismans and amulets were generally used as remedial
agents. A mystical emblem, representing the inexpressible name of God,
which was preserved at the Temple in Jerusalem, is found on many
engraved gems. And two triangles, crossing each other, are said to have
been the diagram of the Gnostics, with which many marvellous cures were
The pentacle, or wizard's foot, a mathematical figure, used in magical
ceremonies, was considered to be a defence against demons. We read in
Sir Walter Scott's "Marmion":
His shoes were marked with cross and spell:
Upon his breast a pentacle.
This symbol, says C. J. S. Thompson, in "The Mystery and Romance of
Alchemy and Pharmacy," consisted of a five-rayed star, and was often
chalked upon the door-steps of houses, to scare away fiends. Thus it
served the same purpose as the familiar horse-shoe, when the latter was
placed with the prongs downward.
The belief in the pentacle's demon-repelling power has been attributed
to the fact that it resolves itself into three triangles, and is thus a
triple emblem of the Trinity. Paracelsus, according to the
above-mentioned writer, ascribed a similar, although less marked virtue,
to the hexagram.
The Tyrolese physician, Joseph Ennemoser, in his "History of Magic"
(1844), observed that in his time a peculiar influence was attributed by
mesmerists to certain metals and precious stones. And he expressed the
belief that the popular faith in talismans, prevalent in the early ages,
originated through similar ideas. The Buddhists credited the sapphire
with magical power. Probably the magnetic polarities of jewels, rather
than their brilliancy, constitute their chief potency as talismans. Yet
the latter quality doubtless strongly influences the imagination.
Talismans were formerly divided into three classes, astronomical,
magical, and mixed.
The first-named consisted usually of a magical figure, cut or engraved
under certain superstitious observances of the configuration of the
It has been defined as the seal, figure, character, or image of a
heavenly sign, constellation, or planet, engraved on a sympathetic
stone, or on a metal corresponding to the star, in order to receive its
Magical talismans were inscribed with mysterious symbols, words of
superstitious import, and the names of unknown angels; they were well
adapted to inspire with awe the minds of the ignorant. The so-called
mixed talismans bore various unintelligible devices and barbaric names.
Some of the most ancient protective and healing charms were fashioned
out of roots, twigs, and plants. Whatever its form, the talisman was
believed to exert an extraordinary influence over the bearer, especially
in warding off disease or injury.
In its widest sense, the word talisman is synonymous with amulet.
The Dutch historian, Johann Busch (1400-1477), told of his meeting a
woman, the wife or daughter of a soldier, on some public festal occasion
at Halle in Prussian Saxony. Observing that she wore a little bag
suspended from her neck, he asked her what it contained. Thereupon the
woman showed him a bit of parchment bearing divers mystic inscriptions,
and the statement that Pope Leo guaranteed the bearer thereof against
bodily injuries, fainting spells, and drowning. Then followed the words,
Christus vincit; Christus regnat, together with the names of the
twelve apostles, and those of the three Wise Men, Balthasar, Melchior,
This doubtless was a fair specimen of the inscribed amulets, worn by
German peasants in the fifteenth century.
Even nowadays the names of the three magi are often to be seen, as
talismanic symbols, upon the doors and walls of dwellings in certain
Roman Catholic countries; a fact noted by the present writer, while
sojourning in the Austrian Tyrol a few years ago.