The Healing Talisman
An article by Dr Linda Heaphy
The Healing Talisman
A talisman may be generally defined as an object believed to embody magical properties, whose presence exercises “a remarkable or powerful influence on human feelings or actions”. The word talisman comes from the Arabic word talsam, a derivation of the Greek word telesma meaning “completion of a religious rite”. Talismans can be said to fall into four broad categories: lucky, protective, power attracting and healing. In this discussion we focus on the healing variety.
The origin of talismans can be traced to the very dawn of humankind. All talismans, in whatever form they occur, draw their power from three fundamental strands of human development – our need to define and control our environment, the discovery that natural objects and substances could alter our consciousness or improve wellbeing, and our ability to communicate and record experiences, particularly through the written word.
Convent de San Antón, Castrojeriz, Spain
Caption: A window in the ruins of the 15th century Convent de San Antón, Castrojeriz, Spain. The window features the Tau Cross, adopted as the signal of St Anthony the Great, considered by early Christians to be a powerful healer. Photo credit: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen.
As humans passed from the hunter-gatherer cultures of the Paleolithic to the settled communities of the Neolithic period around 10000 BCE, the need to ensure stable food supplies lead to the development of complex forms of record keeping – firstly through visual representations such as henges (standing stones precisely sited to record phases of the moon and sun), and then around 9000 years ago through the creation of written symbols (hieroglyphics) to represent everyday objects and concepts. Hieroglyphs were replaced by less laborious forms of writing around 350 CE, however many were subsequently absorbed into cultural traditions as easily recognisable symbols of important societal concepts including power, fecundity, healing and law.
During this same period of rapid cultural evolution, a combination of experimentation, serendipity and tradition established a pharmacology of substances that could measurably improve human health and wellbeing. When applied or swallowed, willow bark (aspirin) provided pain relief. Moldy bread (penicillin) and honey (an antibacterial agent) were used by ancient Egyptians to dress wounds and reduce infection; the Greeks and Romans prescribed poppy juice (opiate) to control seizures, diarrhea and fevers, while alcohol became indispensible as a disinfectant and anesthetic. At the same time, recognition of the healing potential of placebos (defined as “anything of no real benefit which nevertheless makes people feel better”) gained momentum. Examples of placebos include prayer, incantation, the use of objects that have an anthropomorphic (humanlike) aspect, and the ingestion of inactive or inert substances such as sugar pills. Since the scientific reasons underlying the success of pharmaceuticals were poorly understood, and the very occurrence of illness and disease was generally attributed to unseen forces, their success in treating illness was by extension often ascribed to magical forces, from which the power of the placebo could not be easily separated.
The sum total of these developments was an unassailable belief that significant influence could be exerted over events such as illness by judicious combination of supplication, the inscription of powerful symbols, the application of significant objects and in some cases, use of actual medicines. In time these combined, then evolved into specialised talismans and amulets, employed even as their origins were obscured by time. It is no coincidence that until only the last two hundred years or so, before the birth of modern medicine, the same people who practiced medicine also created amulets and charms, wrote almanacs, gave blessings and told fortunes.
Ankh and Sunwheel
Ankh and Sunwheel from Book of the Dead, originally created by the Egyptian write Ani, circa 1300 BCE. Scanned from the original, pigment on papyrus. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Examples of healing talismans can be found throughout history and in every human culture extant today. Prehistoric clay amulets thought to enhance fertility have been discovered side by side with the earliest human remains. Gemstones may well have been amongst the first talismans utilized by proto-humans, not only because of their beauty and the mystery associated with their creation by these early people, but because of their size – gemstones could be easily worn or concealed and encompassed a great deal of wealth in a very transportable package. Spiritual powers including medicinal and curative qualities have always been associated with gemstones (Thomas & Pavitt 1914), today more popularly known as healing crystals.
Stone age amulets in the shape of ax and arrow heads, pierced and designed to be worn around the neck, have been excavated across Africa and Europe. These were not only obvious symbols of power but are also thought to have protected their wearers against disease and warded against the evil eye (Thomas & Pavitt 1914). Another ancient talisman, the Tau cross (shaped in the form of a T), most likely had its origin in the double-headed axe hieroglyph used by Neolithic cultures to denote the right of rule in combination with the concept of strength (Thomas & Pavitt 1914). The authors state that it was “universally worn as a talisman of powerful efficacy to protect its wearer from diseases of an inflammatory nature and against bites of serpents and other venomous reptiles” and note its widespread use as a symbol of eternal life and regeneration: by Moses, who used the symbol to rally the Israelites during the trial by serpent in the wilderness, by Ezekiel who set the mark on the foreheads of those exempted from divine punishment, and by the Romans who used the symbol in their roll calls to record who had survived their most recent battles (Thomas & Pavitt 1914). St Anthony the Great (251 – 356 CE), an Egyptian monk famed for his miraculous healings of skin diseases, made the Tau Cross his personal signal, and it was favoured as a talismanic amulet thereafter by the Irish and the Jews who combined the symbol with magical formulas to treat erysipelas as well as epilepsy (pers. comm. the Reverend C.W. King, in Thomas & Pavitt 1914).
In ancient Egypt, the potency and importance of amulets and talismans during life and in the afterworld was universally understood. The Ankh, combining the creative power of the River Nile, a fish’s mouth and Ru, the hieroglyph meaning “a gateway”, is still in use today as the ultimate symbol of everlasting life. The Menat talisman was dedicated to Hathor and promoted healthy reproductive organs; scarab amulets, often inscribed with good wishes and mottoes, symbolised strength and virility, while the Eye of Horus was worn to encourage good health (Thomas & Pavitt 1914). The eye as a symbol of protection was utilized by many ancient cultures and is still universally recognized today in the form of the Evil Eye.
Islamic box amulet
Simple Islamic box amulet from Pakistan strung on beads, hand beaten from high-grade silver, featuring an outside design incorporating the Tree of Life, which symbolises eternal life, growth and strength. The sealed box traditionally contains a talisman significant to the owner. Photo credit: Kashgar
The Etruscans, Greeks and Romans all utilized talismans in their daily lives. Roman citizens hung wolf’s teeth around the necks of their children to assist with teething and prevent diseases associated with the teeth and gums, while images of lizards were carved into rings and used as a charm against weak eyesight. Etruscans and Romans commonly wore bullae around their necks, cases of leather, cloth or metal containing amulets, scrolls and other talismanic devices (Thomas & Pavitt 1914). Their origin probably dates to many thousands of years earlier when they were made of clay and used by traders as inventory systems. The Romans turned them into amulets in their own right, decorating then with grotesque images designed to frighten away evil spirits. To this day, amulet boxes containing prayers, inscriptions, magical formulas and Koranic verses are worn throughout Central Asia and the Middle East as talismans against sickness and ailments of the body and mind.
The lives of the Talmudic Jews were filled with amulets and talismans, called kemiya, in the form of magical symbols, letter permutations and words of power. Typical talismans consisted of one or more of the names of God and various angels in combination with roots and herbs, the entirety bundled up and worn on a chain or in a ring, or in the case of larger pieces, attached to the wall of a house (Gale Encyclopaedia 2017, Unterman 1991). The names of three powerful angels, Sanvi, Sansanvi and Semangelaf, were said to guarantee protection against Lilith, a demon who attacked pregnant women and killed children (Unterman 1991), while the repetition nine times of the word aleph, first letter of the Hebrew alphabet combining the divine, the spiritual and the physical worlds, had the power to heal the sick (Wippler 1991). Such talismans were considered legitimate only if written by a holy person well versed in the practice of Kabbalah and only after having worked successfully on three different occasions (Gale Encyclopaedia 2017, Unterman 1991)
The Gnostics, members of a loose knit group of religious sects extant up to 400 CE, incorporated several kinds of amulet in their devotions and daily life, including one featuring the image and name of their sun god Chnoubis. Generally depicted as a serpent with the head of a lion, and wearing a halo or crown of seven stars, the Chnoubis amulet was used for healing heart, chest and digestive complaints (Thomas & Pavitt 1914, Wippler 1991). The magical sign of Chnoubis, found on the back of his amulets, is considered to be a variation of the serpent and staff carried by Aesculapius, Roman god of medicine, later refined into the caduceus, modern western symbol of healing (Wippler 1991). In ancient cultures the image of a serpent or snake was universally associated with longevity, health and vitality, in part because of the snake’s habit of periodically shedding its outer skin (Thomas & Pavitt 1914).
Reverse side of a digestive amulet
The reverse side of a digestive amulet dedicated to an unknown snake and ibis double-headed god, the inscription is a slightly mutilated version of a well-known palindrome (magic square reading the same forwards a backwards), as well as the command, "Digest! Digest!'' the divine name of Chnoubis, and the zzz sign, which often accompanies Chnoubis' name. The amulet would typically be carried in a pouch as close as possible to one's ailing stomach. See Bonner, Studies, no. 264. Carved from haematite, Egypt, Kelsey Museum Ref 26059. Photo credit: Gideon Bohak
Goa stone and container
Goa stone and container, late 17th–early 18th century. The egg-shaped gold container enclosing this stone consists of hemispherical halves, each covered with a layer of pierced, chased, and chiselled gold foliate openwork. An arabesque surface pattern is overlaid with an ogival trellis containing a variety of beasts, some highly Europeanised, including unicorns and griffins. A British officer in the East India Company brought this example to England in the eighteenth century. Photo credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art
Marcellus Empiricus was a medical writer from Gaul at the turn of the 4th and 5th centuries. He is famous principally for his textbook De Medicamentis, in which he recorded the observations of other medical and scientific practitioners as well as recipes for pharmacological preparations, folk remedies, and what today would be called magic. The book provides an interesting bridge between the ancient western world and the medieval one. Described by historian George Sarton as a mixture of “traditional knowledge, popular (Celtic) medicine, and rank superstition” (Sarton 1927), it perfectly demonstrates the blending of medicine and magic at a time when even respected medical practitioners regularly proscribed talismans for healing (Oslan 2006). Empiricus describes rings fashioned from melted gold thread engraved with images of fish, which could protect against “coli and watery diseases” (Thomas & Pavitt 1914), while the direct application of bloodstone to wounds (a type of green and red flecked jasper) was thought to stem bleeding (Gale Encyclopedia 2017). Perhaps the best known of medieval talismans is the forked root of the mandrake plant, which contains poisonous alkaloids and resembles the human form. The root has long had medicinal and magical properties associated with it. Genesis 3:14-16 mentions it as a cure for sterility, while Pliny (23-79 CE) and Dioscorides state that it was given to patients before surgery (Blakemore and Jennett 2001). Mandrake root was used to relieve pain, for its soporific properties, as an emetic to induce vomiting and as a purgative (Blakemore and Jennett 2001). However during the Middle Ages, its use extended to sympathetic magic. A dried mandrake root, called a poppet, was embellished with organic material or artfully carved to enhance it’s man-like form, then placed on a mantelpiece to protect a household, bring about happiness and prosperity or cause money to multiply (Morganstern 2002). When placed under a mattress, it was believed to cure sterility and impotency.
From the 16 - 19th centuries, bezoars (naturally occurring gallstones found in the digestive systems of large ruminants) were very popular throughout Europe as both talismanic and medicinal objects. Slivers were shaved from the stones and drunk with tea, water or wine to treat a range of different illnesses and mitigate the effects of poisons – a very real fear amongst European upper-class families during the Renaissance as poisoning was a favoured method of assassination. The stones were so popular that demand exceeded the natural supply, and Jesuit monks operating out of Portuguese Goa generated a brisk trade in fake bezoars. These so called Goa Stones were created from materials as diverse as narwhal horn, shell, musk, resin, amber, coral, precious gems and even occasionally pieces of natural bezoar. Because of their value, both natural and manmade versions were regarded not only as status symbols but also as protective talismans, and they were often prominently displayed encased in elaborate and costly chalice-like containers of gold and silver, encrusted with precious gems.
A Palindromic Amulet
A palindromic amulet, silver, India. A palindrome is a word, phrase, number, or other sequence of characters that reads the same backward as forward, and is often considered to have magical properties. Photo credit: Kashgar
Perhaps the most interesting talismans can be found within the traditional historic Islamic cultures of central Asia, the Middle East and northern Africa. Here talismans have many names, depending on their purpose, and include simple as well as complex devices - beads, stones, symbols such as the Hamsa, relics from holy places, depictions of supernatural beings and symbols of power, pieces of paper inscribed with the names of God, angels, saints and jinni, passages from the Quran (or in some cases, the entire Quran in miniature form) and drawings of magic squares or palindromes containing combinations of numbers, astrological symbols and letters (Campo 2009). Depending on an individual’s requirements, various combinations of these magical objects would be placed in a pouch or a case made of gold or silver and worn on the body. In the instance of illness or injury, talismans were worn as close as possible to the source of ailment, however in some cases magical formulas were written down and the inscription either washed off with water, which was then drank, or the paper burnt and the resultant smoke inhaled (Campo 2009). Talismanic charms were sometimes wrapped in cotton, dipped in precious oil and burnt. It was common for parents to give their children an empty amulet case made from gold or silver, which was gradually filled with relics, incantations and other talismanic objects throughout the course of a lifetime (Campo 2009).
Thus far concerning Princess Budur
Thus far concerning Princess Budur; but as regards her father, King Ghayur, the world was straitened upon him when he saw what had befallen his daughter, for that he loved her and her case was not a little grievous to him. So he summoned on it the doctors and astrologers and men skilled in talisman-writing and said to them, " Whoso healeth my daughter of what ill she hath, I will marry him to her and give him half of my kingdom;” From the Tale of AIf LayIah wa Laylak, The Thousand and One Nights, Richard F Burton translation. Photo credit: Kay Nielsen 1922
Islamic talismans were generally obtained from a person of importance or a religious figure claiming specialized knowledge, were often prescribed for use by a physician, and were very popular amongst Muslims and non-Muslims alike (Campo 2009). While Muslims inscribed turquoise stones with holy words to protect against the evil eye, Russians came to use these stones as talismans against wounds and death in battle (Burton 1885). In northern Africa, particularly Ethiopia, pharmacological knowledge, magic and religious beliefs were combined to endow specific objects, called healing scrolls, with talismanic powers to cure illness by purging evil spirits and demons from the sick. A pan-religious phenomenon immensely popular between the 2nd and 19th centuries amongst Jewish, Christian and Muslim populations, the scrolls utilized words written in Ge’ez, a 2,000-year-old indigenous Semitic language, along with images imbued with magical protective power (Windmuller-Luna 2015). During the 19th century a women's religious movement emerged in the Nile Valley that combined traditional elements of Islam with local tribal beliefs. Known as the Zar cult, it utilised a class of specialised amulets that identified and appeased certain jinni and were designed to heal women of “psychoses” and bodily ailments (Campo 2009). More recently, Muslim scholars and reformers have greatly discouraged the use of amulets and talismans as unnecessary superstition that has the potential to dilute true faith (Campo 2009).
Today in tribal cultures it is still common to see talismans and amulets in everyday use to help explain and treat such conditions as mental illness, as well as a wide range of general and specific health issues including migraine headaches, Parkinson’s Disease and epilepsy, since these are thought to be the work of discordant spirits entering the body or domestic spirits leaving it. In remote regions where people can find themselves far from assistance and without any means of communication, it is considered imperative not only to protect an individual from coming to harm, but also in the case of accident, to prevent the spirit from leaving the body until help can arrive. But talismans have a further purpose in these cultures. They are a way of bringing about all the reassurances and benefits of group consciousness to individuals – a means of validating the value of each and every society member with constant symbolic reminders that emphasise the individual’s worth. The spirit locks of the Hmong hilltribes of eastern China, northern Thailand and Burma, are a good example of such sympathetic magic. Padlock shaped talismans fashioned from high-grade silver, spirit locks are designed to lock the soul into the body in case of illness or accident. Thomas & Pavit (1914) state that in 19th century China it was the custom of a father, when a son was born, to collect hundreds of coins from the heads of various families and exchange them for silver, which was then fashioned into a spirit lock for the child. In modern day Southeast Asia these amulets are placed on both boy and girl children as protective and preventative devices and are also used in “soul calling” ceremonies to heal the sick.
The amulets of the Tharu people of the Tarai region of Nepal, until the mid 20th century one of the most remote and isolated areas on earth, are correspondingly many and varied. The eyeteeth of musk deer are commonly worn to ward against snakebite, while multipurpose amulets consisting of teeth, seeds, dried animal skin and other fetishes are worn to protect against common ailments. Throughout Nepal and Tibet, the endless knot, one of the eight Auspicious symbols of Tibetan Buddhism, is worn as a talisman for longevity, the knot being considered effective to bind that which is good and provide an obstacle against that which is evil (Thomas & Pavitt 1914). In India, the navaratna, or “nine stones” amulet is worn to protect the individual against every possible inauspicious alignment of the planets. In Burma and China, frogs made of amber or metal are worn by children as amulets to protect their health, while Japanese villagers wear ball shaped amulets carved from rock crystal to prevent dropsy and other wasting diseases (Thomas & Pavitt 1914). Today as in the past, the Chinese employ many interesting talismans to promote good health and longevity including the Pa-kwa based around the ying-yang symbol and images of the Phoenix bird, considered particularly potent when carved from jade, a health promoting stone in its own right. In the past it was also the custom of children to present aged parents with a particular type of “longevity” gown. Woven from auspicious blue silk by young, unmarried and presumably healthy girls in a year containing an intercalary month, then embroidered all over with the word “longevity”, these robes were wearable talismans designed to promote the health and vitality of the owner (Thomas & Pavitt 1914).
Only in the past decade has the reliance on talismans, amulets and sympathetic magic declined in tribal, vestigial and remote cultures across the world. With easier access to communication and the resulting spread of western values, medicines have replaced magic and there has been a marked decline in the value assigned to traditional belief systems. The old religions based on shamanism and animism are all but extinct. The western world, in contrast, has undergone something of a spiritual reawakening, fueled in part by an increasingly wealthy middle class searching for “new age” meaning, even as traditional monotheistic religions lose their appeal. Scholars now classify amulets and talismans as a form of magic — a way of looking at the world based on the belief that a person can manipulate natural and supernatural forces for good or bad purposes (Campo 2009). But for most of our history, talismans have played a vital role in the chronicle of mankind.
References and Further Reading
Al-Saleh, Yasmine 2010. Amulets and Talismans from the Islamic World. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed 20th July 2017.
Amulets. Gale Encyclopedia of the Unusual and Unexplained. Accessed 6th July 2017.
Blakemore and Jennett 2001. Oxford Companion to the Body. Oxford University Press, Oxford. eISBN: 9780191727511
Bohak, Gideon 1995. Traditions of Magic in Ancient Antiquity: Protective Magic: Amulets and Gems. Accessed 29th July 2017.
Burton, Richard 1885. The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night.
Campo, Juan E 2009. Encyclopedia of Islam. Accessed 15th July 2017.
Mandarake (Plant) 2008 New World Encyclopedia. Accessed 7th July 2017.
Mandrake. Witchipedia. Accessed 7th July 2017.
Marcellus Empiricus. Wikipedia. Accessed 10th July 2017
Morgenstern, Kat 2002. Mandrake in Profile. Sacred Earth Ecobotany and Ecotravel. Accessed 25th July 2017
Nelson, Felicitas H. 2000. Talismans & Amulets of the World. Sterling Publishers, New York.
Olsan, Lea T. 2003 Charms and Prayers in Medieval Medical Theory and Practice. Soc Hist Med (2003) 16(3): pp. 343-366
Sarton, George 1927. Introduction to the History of Science. Carnegie Institution of Washington Publication no. 376. Williams and Wilkins, Co., Baltimore.
Thomas, W & Pavitt, K 1914. The Book of Talismans, Amulets and Zodiacal Gems. Kessinger Publishing Company, Montana. ISBN 9781564594617.
Talisman. Wikipedia. Accessed 9th June 2017.
Unterman, A 1991. Dictionary of Jewish Lore and Legend. Thames and Hudson, London.
Windmuller-Luna, Kristen, 2015. Ethiopian Healing Scrolls. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Wippler, Migene Gonzalez 1991.The Complete Book Of Amulets And Talismans. Llewellyn Publications, Minnesota.
About the Author, Dr Linda Heaphy
Dr Linda Heaphy
Linda Heaphy holds a degree in Marine Biology and a PhD in Ecology. She is a reformed environmental manager who now runs Kashgar, a philosphy as well as a store in Sydney, Australia.
Through Kashgar Linda is committed to supporting traditional artisans and small village communities by selling their collectibles, jewellery and textiles created using traditional methods of production. This encourages local cottage industries which have a low impact on the environment as well as helps ethnic minorities maintain their self-sufficiency into the 21st Century. She is particularly committed to assisting women in tribal communities around the world.
Linda is also passionate about writing on subjects as diverse as womens' issues, ritual symbols and objects, tribal culture and history. You can find more of her work here.