We talk about good luck charms, but if you’ve hung around in these parts for a while, you’ll know charms often refer to words. Whether written or spoken aloud, they’re often easy to memorise and use when needed. So what should we call objects we carry to bring us luck, protect us, or give us a confidence boost? These items are often called amulets.
W. L. Hildburgh describes an amulet as “a material object” that we keep to either divert disaster or attract a pleasing outcome (1951: 231). It needs to do so by seemingly going against natural laws. Keeping the object is essential to its protective value. Karel Černý calls amulets “part of the universal heritage” since so many cultures have used them over time (2013: 81).
Černý points out that the line between magic and rationality was more permeable in the 16th and 17th centuries (2013: 83). While we may think a belief in magical amulets is irrational now, this was not always the case.
You can wear amulets like pendants or carry them in a pocket. Then we also have talismans, believed to bestow extra magical properties, depending on what they were made for. We’re not going to get bogged down in the definitions. If scholars haven’t been able to pin down the difference between an amulet and a talisman, it’s unlikely I’m going to be able to in a single blog post.
We’re going to look at items people carried or wore to protect themselves. This differs from the apotropaic magic we covered, which defends the entire house from harm. Whereas this post will discuss amulets to protect the individual.
Many cultures still use amulets, but this post will focus on those used in northern Europe. Hit ‘play’ to hear the podcast episode of this post or keep reading!
I think we’ve all seen how quickly people will cling to misinformation in the face of a medical disaster. In the early modern period, it was no different—and I have a blog post about plague folklore here. Černý talks about medical amulets, designed to ward off the plague and other diseases. One type used enchantments or prayers from folk magic, which the bearer often didn’t understand (2013: 90). They might carry around a sealed container, the contents of which they weren’t privvy to. They couldn’t open this container because if they did, the amulet would stop working (Černý 2013: 90).
Physicians disliked amulets for medicinal purposes because they saw them as competition. These physicians decried the use of such amulets, whether they worked or not, to keep medical knowledge among themselves (Černý 2013: 90).
Černý relates a story that illustrates this perfectly. In the early 16th century (2013: 91), Jan Dubravius was working in Pilsen. A poor woman came to see him, asking for an amulet against her high fever. Dubravius thought this was nonsense, and tried to talk her out of her belief. The woman persisted, so Dubravius wrote: “beef usually makes a good broth” in Czech on a piece of paper. He folded it up and gave it to her. Away she went, happy she had her cure.
Some years later, Dubravius became Bishop of Olomouc and fell ill himself. No physicians could cure him. Eventually, someone told him about a woman in Pilsen whose amulet cured many people. Dubravius had no concept of dramatic irony and borrowed this magical amulet. Lo and behold, he got better. Once he was well, the bishop wondered what magic this amulet held. He unfolded the paper…and yes, his own mocking words stared back at him.
16th-century doctors used this story as an example as to why amulets didn’t work. To them, Dubravius must have been cured by something else, and the amulet was simply a coincidence. If nothing else, it’s a great moral not to play tricks on people. There is a context behind this story, based on the religious backgrounds of Dubravius and the writer who related the story. Yet it still illustrates both the common belief in amulets and the medical disregard for the practice.
The Ongoing Use of Amulets
In the early Middle Ages, the cross became the only accepted form of amulet, with Thomas Aquinas permitting them in the 13th century (Korsvoll 2018: 150). Yet people persisted in using them, as the Dubravius tale illustrates. The use of some amulets persists into the present day, even if people are using them as a nod to ‘tradition’ rather than actively believing in their magical properties. One need only look at the association of horseshoes and good fortune or luck.
We’ve talked about horseshoes before, and how they appear in legends about blacksmiths. Remember, in centuries past, the blacksmith’s trade looked more like alchemy. They took metal ore, applied heat and pressure, and created something else. It certainly looks like magic when my friend The Witty Smith gets to work on his latest piece!
Yet people also associate horseshoes with weddings—no doubt due to the fact they represent good luck. Alex Spencer notes that in Scotland, the bride would carry a horseshoe in her bouquet to bring luck. Others might have a silver horseshoe sewn into her wedding dress. In some places, it was customary for the flower girl to give the bride a silver-coloured horseshoe as she left the church (2017). People sometimes gave horseshoes as a wedding gift.
The use of horseshoes as a protective item makes a lot of sense when you consider what they’re made of: iron. This metal has long been considered an ‘anti-fairy’ metal. If it can ward off fairies, it stands to reason it can also keep other negative entities at bay. Indeed, St Dunstan apparently used horseshoes to bend the Devil himself to his will. You do have to wonder if horseshoes can ward off a problematic husband too…
Speaking of iron, people wore iron bracelets in bed to protect themselves from visits by succubi or incubi (McKendry 2016). The late Eric W. Edwards also relates a remedy recommended to deter demons. Girls who didn’t want to lose their virtue to an incubus were directed to use herbal concoctions including St John’s Wort, vervain, and dill (2013). While these potions weren’t amulets, they were still made with protective intentions in mind.
Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud note the superstition among working-class Londoners of wearing blue beads (2003: 32). According to the tradition, people started wearing the strings of beads around their necks as children. They never took them off as they grew up, and wore the beads to ward off bronchitis.
If you wanted to protect yourself and your baby during pregnancy, you were advised to get hold of an eaglestone. These were small, brown, hollow rocks. They rattle when shaken because they often have pebbles or sand inside. According to our old friend Pliny, they were only found in eagles’ nests. Because the eaglestone seemed to be pregnant (hence the rattling), they became amulets for pregnant women. The advice directed women to wear them around the neck, or around their left arm (Simpson 2003: 102). If you want to learn more about the folklore of eagles, I’ve got an exclusive podcast episode on them! Get access by becoming a Patreon supporter for £3.50 a month.
Finally, for this post at least, toothache in earlier times was a persistent and painful problem. M. A. Denham collected a ‘cure’ in northern England in the 1840s. It started with reciting this rhyme:
Peter was sitting on a marble stone(Simpson 2003: 364)
And Jesus passed by,
Peter said, ‘My Lord! My God!
How my tooth doth ache!’
Jesus said, ‘Peter art whole!
And whoever keeps these words for my sake,
Shall never have the toothache!’ Amen.
For best results, people should write these words on a piece of paper and wear it around their neck (Simpson 2003: 364).
Items to Carry
Not all amulets need to be worn. You can carry other amulets in a pocket. Many people kept equal-armed crosses made from rowan twigs and red thread in their pockets (Monaghan 2004: 400). Here’s an example I found in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. People used them to ward off the evil eye and keep witches at bay.
Carrying a sprig of rowan in your pocket also allegedly protected against rheumatism. Meanwhile, carrying conkers in a pocket would help ward off arthritis. Even better, if you had three shiny conkers, carrying those would make sure you always had money. If you needed luck, carrying a bat bone in your pocket could apparently attract it.
An easier way to attract luck was by carrying a piece of coal in your pocket (Simpson 2003: 73). An alternative was to keep the cork from a bottle of wine or champagne opened for a special occasion. Cut a slit in it, and push a coin into the slit (Simpson 2003: 79). This created a simple ‘good luck’ object you could carry with you.
Objects to Keep Handy
Some protective items are a little harder to quantify. You don’t wear them or carry them, but you do need them nearby. One example would be bread, surprisingly. Putting a “holy crust of bread” under your childrens’ pillow would keep away “night hags” while they slept (Soane 1849: 48).
You could also hang a stone with a hole in it, known as a hag stone, above the bed (Simpson 2003: 161). This would also guard against being hagridden, whatever your age. Putting cork under your pillow protected you from cramp in your sleep (Simpson 2003: 79).
Simpson and Roud discuss the phenomenon of the charm wand. These pretty glass items sometimes take the shape of rolling pins or walking sticks. The glass might have a multi-coloured twist inside (like a marble). Sometimes, people filled them with coloured items, like threads or beads. People used these wands for protection against the evil eye. If you wiped yours down every day, it could protect against sickness (2003: 57).
Daniel Harms discusses them on his blog, having found one in the Wayside Museum in Cornwall (2014a). This one takes the form of a walking stick, made of glass and hung over the fireplace. The idea was that anything that came down the chimney would end up so transfixed by counting the bubbles in the glass that they wouldn’t enter the home. The homeowner would wipe them off in the morning and then burn the rag. George Soane describes them as a peculiar superstition from Devon, specifically used to draw disease away from the occupants of a house (1849: 206).
In a second post on charm wands, Harms notes that the breaking of a charm wand was a bad omen. Misfortune or illness would surely follow (2014b). Given the link between the wand and its magnetic powers for infections, that’s hardly surprising. That said, it’s more likely that people originally used these items as decorative ornaments. They only gained their magical associations later.
We Still Use Amulets…Of Sorts
Whether we believe in their magical properties or not, we still have items we use as amulets. It might be your favourite pendant that you always wear for job interviews. Or your ‘lucky’ bracelet for first dates.
We tend to imbue objects we own with meaning, so it’s no surprise that we’d continue to view certain items as lucky. True, we’re less likely to keep an item to protect us from harm or ward off witches.
But perhaps our travel-sized bottles of hand sanitiser have become the newest protective amulets…
Do you have any lucky objects? Let me know in the comments!
Černý, Karel (2013), ‘Magical and Natural Amulets in Early Modern Plague Treatises’, Sudhoff’s archive, 91:1, pp. 81-101.
Edwards, Eric W. (2013), ‘The Succubus and the Incubus’, Eric Edwards Collected Works, https://ericwedwards.wordpress.com/2013/10/20/the-succubus-and-the-incubus/.
Hallvard Korsvoll, Nils (2018), ‘Official Teaching and Popular Practice: Are Church Opinions on Magic Reflected in the Surviving Amulets from the Early Middle Ages?’, in Sarah Kiyanrad, Christoffer Theis and Laura Willer (eds), Bild und Schrift auf ‘magischen’ Artefakten, De Gruyter, pp. 149-164.
Harms, Daniel (2014a), ‘Charm Sticks and Charm Wands: A Little-Noted Item of Folklore’, Papers Falling From An Attic Window, https://danharms.wordpress.com/2014/06/04/charm-sticks-and-charm-wands-a-little-noted-item-of-folklore/.
Harms, Daniel (2014b), ‘More on Charm Sticks and Charm Wands’, Papers Falling From An Attic Window, https://danharms.wordpress.com/2014/06/09/more-on-charm-sticks-and-charm-wands/.
Hildburgh, W. L. (1951), ‘Psychology Underlying the Employment of Amulets in Europe’, Folklore, 62: 1, pp. 231-251.
McKendry, David Ian (2016), ‘Killer Cats and Iron Shackles: Weird Superstitions to Help You Sleep’, The 13th Floor, http://www.the13thfloor.tv/2016/04/12/killer-cats-and-iron-shackles-weird-superstitions-to-help-you-sleep/.
Monaghan, Patricia (2004), The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore, New York, Facts on File.
Soane, George (1849), New Curiosities of Literature: And Book of the Months, volume 1, London: E. Churton.
Spencer, Alex (2017), ‘Five famous Scottish Wedding traditions’, Wedding Horseshoes.co.uk, https://www.weddinghorseshoes.co.uk/five-famous-scottish-wedding-traditions/.
Nutty about folklore and want more?
Add your email below and get these posts in your inbox every week.
You'll also get my 5-step guide to protecting your home using folklore!