Amulet

AMULET. An amulet is anything worn as a charm or protection against evil, disease, witchcraft, snakebite, poison, and other perils, bodily or spiritual. In fact, the wearing of jewelry and all manner of facial and bodily ornaments had its deepest origin in this superstition. The word amulet derives from the Lat. amuletum, a word found twice in the elder Pliny, and itself a Latinized form of Arab. hamalet, a noun derived from a verb meaning “to carry.” The actual word “amulet” occurs only once in ASV and RSV, in Isaiah 3:20, in a list of condemned feminine trinkets. The Heb. is lahash and means literally “whispering” or “charming,” the hissing of the snake charmer lying behind the metaphor (Ps 58:5; Eccl 10:11; Jer 8:17).

Amulets had many forms, and archeology has abundantly illustrated them. They were gems, cut, carved, or inscribed with magical formulae; stones; lunar discs associated with the worship of Astarte or Ishtar; pierced shells, the origin of the cameo; pearls; teeth, inscribed rolls of papyrus; earrings; signet rings, worn on the body or hung from door and wall for the protection of dwelling place or town.

The ancient world was addicted to the superstition, and it has not yet died out even in Christian and cultured communities. In Rome, Greece, Egypt, and all through Asia Minor and the Middle E the practice is found interwoven with every form of sympathetic magic. A divine hero in some threatening pose was an amulet of victory; a nude goddess, sometimes heavily emphasized, was a charm for childbirth or fertility. The Hitt. colored amulets red, the hue of blood—life’s vital fluid, or blue, a propitious color for protection against the evil eye.

The Hebrews seem not to have resisted the temptation to wear amulets in spite of sporadic efforts to combat the practice (e.g. Hezekiah’s destruction of the brazen serpent [2 Kings 18:4] and Jacob’s earlier cleansing of his household [Gen 35:1-4]). The host at Sinai had enough golden earrings to provide Aaron with the material to fashion the golden calf, itself a symbol of the bull’s strength and a national amulet. Judas Maccabeus was horrified to find amulets under the tunics of his dead soldiers (2 Macc 12:40). The phylacteries, small boxes containing quotations from the law (esp. Exod 13:1-16; Deut 6:4-9; 11:18), which the Pharisees wore on arms and forehead were properly amulets. The word phylactery (Gr. phulakterion) actually means a “safeguard” or “amulet,” an extension of the basic significance of “guard post” or “garrison.” These tiny scrolls were actually thought to ward off evil. The practice was an attempt to spiritualize a custom which others had found to be inveterate. The tufts or tassels, with crimson cords, which were worn at the four corners of the outer garments (Num 15:37-41; Matt 23:5) and the bells which decorated the high priest’s robe may have originated in a similar compromise or sublimation. Christian practice has frequently been invaded by supersition. Witness Calvin’s scorn for the alleged fragments of the cross and the numberless nails of Calvary and other relics of saints and martyrs.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

Modern scholars are of opinion that our English word amulet comes from the Latin amuletum, used by Pliny (Naturalis Historia, xxviii, 28; xxx, 2, etc.), and other Latin writers; but no etymology for the Latin word has been discovered. The present writer thinks the root exists in the Arabic himlat, "something carried" (see Dozy, Supplement aux Dictionnaires Arabes, I, 327), though there is no known example of the use of the Arabic word in a magical sense. Originally "amulet" denoted any object supposed to have the power of removing or warding noxious influences believed to be due to evil spirits, etc., such as the evil eye, etc. But in the common usage it stands for an object worn on the body, generally hung from the neck, as a remedy or preservative against evil influences of a mystic kind. The word "amulet" occurs once in the Revised Version (British and American) (Isa 3:20) but not at all in the King James Version.

1. Classes of Amulets:

The substances out of which amulets have been made and the forms which they have taken have been various.

(1) The commonest have consisted of Amulets of pieces of stone or metal, strips of parchment with or without inscriptions from sacred writings (Bible, Koran, etc.). The earliest Egyptian amulets known are pieces of green schist of various shapes- -animal, etc. These were placed on the breast of a deceased person in order to secure a safe passage to the under-world. When a piece of stone is selected as an amulet it is always portable and generally of some striking figure or shape (the human face, etc.). The use of such a stone for this purpose is really a survival of animism.

(2) Gems, rings, etc. It has been largely held that all ornaments worn on the person were originally amulets.

(3) Certain herbs and animal preparations; the roots of certain plants have been considered very potent as remedies and preservatives.

The practice of wearing amulets existed in the ancient world among all peoples, but especially among Orientals; and it can be traced among most modern nations, especially among peoples of backward civilization. Nor is it wholly absent from peoples of the most advanced civilization of today, the English, Americans, etc. Though the word charm (see Charm) has a distinct meaning, it is often inseparably connected with amulets, for it is in many cases the incantation or charm inscribed on the amulet that gives the latter its significance. As distinguished from talisman (see TALISMAN) an amulet is believed to have negative results, as a means of protection: a talisman is thought to be the means of securing for the wearer some positive boon.

2. Amulets in the Bible:

Though there is no word in the Hebrew or Greek Scriptures denoting "amulet," the thing itself is manifestly implied in many parts of the Bible. But it is remarkable that the general teaching of the Bible and especially that of the Old Testament prophets and of the New Testament writers is wholly and strongly opposed to such things.

(1) The Old Testament.

The golden ear-rings, worn by the wives and sons and daughters of the Israelites, out of which the molten calf was made (Ex 32:2 f), were undoubtedly amulets. What other function could they be made to serve in the simple life of the desert? That the women’s ornaments condemned in Isa 3:16-26 were of the same character is made exceedingly likely by an examination of some of the terms employed. We read of moonlets and sunlets (verse 18), i.e. moon and sun-shaped amulets.

The former in the shape of crescents are worn by Arab girls of our own time. The "ear-drops," "nose-rings," "arm chains" and "foot chains" were all used as a protection to the part of the body implied, and the strong words with which their employment is condemned are only intelligible if their function as counter charms is borne in mind. In Isa 3:20 we read of lechashim rendered "ear-rings" (the King James Version) and "amulets" (Revised Version (British and American)). The Hebrew word seems to be cognate with the word for "serpent" (nechashim; "l" and "r" often interchange), and meant probably in the first instance an amulet against a serpent bite (see Magic, Divination, and Demonology among the Hebrews and Their Neighbours, by the present writer, 50 f, 81; compare Jer 8:7; Ec 10:11; Ps 58:5). Crescent-shaped amulets were worn by animals as well as human beings, as Jud 8:21,26 shows.

At Bethel, Jacob burned not only the idols ("strange gods") but also the ear-rings, the latter being as much opposed to Yahwism as the former, on account of their heathen origin and import.

In Pr 17:8 the Hebrew words rendered "a precious stone" (Hebrew "a stone conferring favor") mean without question a stone amulet treasured on account of its supposed magical efficacy. It is said in Pr 1:9 that wisdom will be such a defense to the one who has it as the head amulet is to the head and that of the neck to the neck. The words rendered in the Revised Version (British and American) "a chaplet of grace unto thy head" mean literally, "something bound to the head conferring favor," the one word for the latter clause being identical with that so rendered above (chen). The Talmudic word for an amulet (qemia`) denotes something tied or bound (to the person).

We have reference to the custom of wearing amulets in Pr 6:21 where the reader is urged to "bind them (i.e. the admonitions of father and mother) .... upon thy heart" and to "tie them about thy neck"--words implying a condemnation of the practice of trusting to the defense of mere material objects.

Underneath the garments of warriors slain in the Maccabean wars amulets were found in the shape apparently of idols worshipped by their neighbors (2 Macc 12:40). It is strange but true that like other nations of antiquity the Jews attached more importance to amulets obtained from other nations than to those of native growth. It is probable that the signet ring referred to in So 8:6; Jer 22:24; Hag 2:23 was an amulet. It was worn on the heart or on the arm.

(2) The Phylacteries and the Mezuzah.

There is no distract reference to these in the Old Testament. The Hebrew technical term for the former (tephillin) does not occur in Biblical. Hebrew, and although the Hebrew word mezuzah does occur over a dozen times its sense is invariably "door-(or "gate-") post" and not the amulet put on the door-post which in later Hebrew the word denotes.


It is quite evident that phylacteries have a magical origin. This is suggested by the Greek name phulakterion (whence the English name) which in the 1st century of our era denoted a counter charm or defense (phulasso, "to protect") against evil influences. No scholar now explains the Greek word as denoting a means of leading people to keep (phulasso) the law. The Hebrew name tephillin (= "prayers") meets us first in post-Bib. Hebrew, and carries with it the later view that phylacteries are used during prayer in harmony with the prayers or other formulas over the amulet to make it effective (see Budge, Egyptian Magic, 27).

See more fully under CHARM.

LITERATURE. In addition to the literature given in the course of the foregoing article, the following may be mentioned. On the general subject see the great works of Tyler (Early History of Mankind, Primitive Culture) and Frazer, Golden Bough; also the series of articles under "Charms and Amulets" in Hastings’ Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics and the excellent article "Amulet" in the corresponding German work, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart. See further the article "Amulet" in Jewish Encyclopedia, and on Egyptian amulets, Budge, Egyptian Magic, 25 ff.

T. Witton Davies