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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

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,

and Kaspar.

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.