Last time I wrote about pocket shrines and ended with a portrait miniature in pendant form. In this post, I’ll talk about talismans as jewelry, and this weekend I’ll share a final post on my own talismanic creations and the meaning they have for me. Religious and personal talismans are often worn as ornaments, a custom as old as humanity. Even before human beings became civilized, they used pendants of shell, stone, seed, and bone, many of which must have had special significance for their wearers.
The ancients favored a wearable form of the talisman known as an amulet. Amulets have a protective function and are thought to ward off danger, disease and/or the evil eye. They may also bring good luck. Etruscan and Roman boys wore the bulla, a hollow pendant with a protective symbol (often a phallus) or substance inside. Girls were not provided with bullae, since these were emblematic of male citizens-to-be, but they had amulets of various types too.
Amulets were often made of gemstones and set into rings, like this engraved crystal with an image of the sun god Helios.
The ancient Egyptians prized amulets very highly. Often they fashioned gemstones in the form of animals, plants, ritual objects or hieroglyphs. Amulets were used in healing, and placed in mummy wrappings to protect the deceased.
My collection of devotional/talismanic objects includes a number of items intended to function as jewelry.
From the Spanish and Latin American tradition, relicarios are an especially beautiful form of devotional jewelry. The relicario was originally a reliquary, a case designed to hold a relic such as a tiny piece of cloth or sliver of bone belonging to a saint. The type quickly expanded to include miniature paintings of the saints. Peru is famous for its relicarios, often produced and worn by nuns.
Relicarios are part of a long European tradition that was particularly strong in Spain. They were carried to the New World by Spanish settlers.
Talismanic and devotional jewelry is found in every tradition. Here are three modern pieces from my collection: (1) Locket of low-grade silver with the face of Christ (Russian Orthodox). This represents a famous icon known as the Mandylia, a piece of cloth on which the face of Jesus was miraculously imprinted. (2) Hand-painted watercolor Buddha in a silver frame from Keliki-Kawan, a noted artists’ village in Bali that is famed for its miniatures. Signed by I Wayan Sugita. (3) Thai Buddha amulet in a silver case on a string of peridot beads.
I wish I could say I owned this stunning bracelet in 14k gold. It’s a piece from the 40s or 50s. Here is the (edited) description from Ruby Lane:
The beautifully hand made 14K gold Torah scroll case has been set with Persian turquoise and red coral and been enameled in blue. The doors of the amulet open up to reveal a hand written parchment which can be read through turning the scroll handles. The scroll contains verses from the Tanach (Torah – Old Testament – Nevi’m – Prophets – Ketuvim – Writings). Such קמיע / Kamea /amulet parchments were written by Kabbalists (Jewish Mystics) and placed inside pieces like this for different purposes; mostly to protect the wearer from harm or grant them luck and good fortune.
Thai amulets form a special category. There’s an entire market in Bangkok devoted to them. The most popular are images of Buddha and Buddhist monks, but many other types are available, including the ever-popular Palad Khik or phallus amulet, worn by men and women for protection.
Cultures that use phallic amulets typically do not see them as sexually suggestive. Rather, they symbolize protection, the warding off of evil, and good luck. Who couldn’t use a little more of those? Perhaps some day amulets depicting vaginas will be as highly prized. But I’m not holding my breath.
For a fascinating collection of religious iconography and material culture, check out All Things Religious on Pinterest.