Amulets are personal charms that are worn in many different cultures as a type of folk magic. Many scholars believe that the English word amulet comes from the Arabic hamulet which means “something that is borne or carried” (1). The Ancient Egyptians used amulets prolifically in their personal lives as demonstrated by four different words that can be used for them within the Egyptian language:
Amulets were often forged in the form of jewellery, easy to carry on the body and imbibed with magical powers to elevate them to amulet status. Amulets came in various shapes and sizes and, as well as conferring status to the wearer, they would also be tailored to suit the specific purpose they were intended for. Various things would be taken into consideration when selecting amulets; shape, symbolism, material, color and bodily placement all played a part in the magical properties of each piece. Spell casting is what moved amulets from simple decorative possessions into the divine supernatural realm. Ancient Egyptian amulet spell casters would utter spells or inscribe the amulets, bringing them both life and power.
Egyptian symbols such as the Wadjet or Eye of Horus were popular amulets, believed to provide the wearer with protection and good health, bestowed from a mythological context where the eye could not only be restored, but loaned out to other gods as a powerful amulet for their own purposes. Likewise, the Djed pillar, the remnants of the tree in which Osiris’ coffin was enveloped and later blessed by Isis represents the backbone of Osiris and would be worn for strength and stability. The Ankh, the symbol of life, was less popular however, mostly reserved for the Pharaoh’s and others exalted to the status of living gods. The Ankh is the giver of life, reserved for the gods, and much too powerful for daily use by mere mortals.
Animals were also popular shapes, and could be used to invoke some of the animals’ more observable qualities such as strength or speed. They could also be used to represent less perceivable notions as well; the scarab, or Dung beetle for example symbolized the Sun God Ra; the dung balls they push along the ground in front of themselves as representations of the sun moving across the sky. The Scarab can also symbolize immortality, the Egyptians believing that the beetles rose from the dead when they saw the new hatch-lings come out from the ground where the completed dung ball was buried.
More literal representations could be found in miniature body parts that were also used, tiny limbs that were linked by sympathetic magic to the wearers’ corresponding body parts to either heal or protect them from harm. The more detailed the amulet the more powerful it would be. As well as artistic skill, color and material also played an important part. Green was associated with Osiris; resurrection and life and would be used to enhance amulets centered around fertility and regeneration. Red was the color of blood and could be used to symbolize vitality, while blue represented the Nile with its protection and fertile offerings. Precious materials such as Gold or Lapis Luzuli were infinitely more powerful objects, but those made out of ceramics or Egyptian faience* were suitable substitutes for those without the monetary means.
* faience is a snobby word that means : “glazed ceramic ware, in particular decorated tin-glazed earthenware”. Now you know.
While Egyptian amulets accompanied the living in their travels, they also were buried with the dead to continue to aid them in their journeys to the afterlife and were an important part of any funerary rites. Amulets were used to both help the wearer survive the journey to the afterlife, but also to protect them in the next. Funerary texts such as the Book of the Dead, placed within the death chamber, are arguably also amulets, carried by the dead as a guidebook to get them through the afterlife and into the next.
Organizing the amulets for the dead was a strategic affair, meant to give the deceased the best possible advantage in their next life. Designs were carefully planned out like the one below, a magical map of the mummified remains and amulet placement within the wrappings.
There were guide rules to be followed; for example, “The Book of the Dead contains a spell to be spoken over a gold djed amulet hung round the neck of a mummy. This spell promises that the dead person will get back the use of his or her spine and be able to sit up again like Osiris” (4).
So what is the take away?
Can an amulet, a symbol, a sigil, provide safe passage to, and through the Underworld?
Well, the Egyptians certainly thought so.
As did the Greeks (coins for Charon), the Tibetans (with their own Book of the Dead, the Bardo Thodol, more properly called “Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State”), and Vulcans from Star Trek, who happen to use Jewish hand symbols (what the Tibetans would call Mudras) as part of their life – and death – rituals:
“This is the shape of the letter shin,” Spock actor Leonard Limoy explained. The Hebrew letter shin begins many Hebrew words, including Shaddai (a name for God), Shalom (the word for hello, goodbye and peace) and Shekhinah, which he described as “the feminine aspect of God who supposedly was created to live among humans.”; he went on to make an art book on the subject, one that I am happy to own.
So what is the real take away?
Live Long, and Prosper
And always keep an amulet handy…
(1) Handbook to Life in Ancient Egypt – Rosalie David, Oxford University Press pg163
(2) Amulets of Ancient Egypt- Carol Andrews, British Museum Press pg6
(3) Amulets of Ancient Egypt- Carol Andrews, British Museum Press pg8
(4) Egyptian Mythology – Geraldine Pinch, Oxford University Press pg128