Traditions of Magic in Ancient Antiquity

Protective Magic

Amulets and Gems

Amulets -- protective devices worn around the body, or placed next to other objects, to protect them from various evils -- were common in all societies and all periods of antiquity, and their use was accepted as normal by secular, religious, and "scientific" authorities (i.e., the physicians). Almost anything could serve as an amulet -- a red string wound around the wrist, a stone carried in a small pouch around the neck, or a piece of iron tied to one's bed. Such amulets could be prepared at home, and called for no special knowledge or technical skills. Given their mundane nature, such amulets often are hard to identify -- for when we come across a decorated ring, for example, how can we tell whether it was an amulet or merely a piece of jewelry?

The items presented in the next two cases, however, are of a very different nature. On a technical level of execution they range from the crude to the exquisite, but are mostly too elaborate to have been manufactured by mere amateurs. In their contents -- both visual and textual -- they disclose their manufacturers' access to the technical literature (such as the recipe-books in cases 1 and 2), and familiarity with the images, methods, and idiom of the other media of the "international" magic of late antiquity. Thus, one can fruitfully compare the instructions embedded in various recipe-books with the thousands of ancient amulets and gems which have come down to us. Unfortunately, such studies are hampered by the fact that such artifacts often surface in the antiquities markets rather than in documented archeological excavations, leaving us without any external indication of date and provenance, and with the additional difficulty of separating the authentic pieces from modern fakes and forgeries. Given these difficulties, no attempt has been made to assign specific dates to most of the gems and amulets presented here.

Go on to the Amulets and Gems display.

Recipe-Books | Amulets and Gems | Babylonian Demon Bowls | Aggressive Magic
Introduction | Acknowledgements | Abbreviations | Further Reading