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Amulets Talismans Charms

Amulets, talismans, charms--these words are commonly used with
something of the same significance, and for our purpose all three may
be treated in common.

Prophylactic Objects.--From the earliest ages men have worn amulets,
that is, objects often resembling jewelry, though sometimes the
remains of animals or even of men, [Footnote 10] with the idea that
they would ward off illness, or cure it when present. Rings of many
sorts, brooches, various objects suspended around the neck, ear-rings,
head-bands, belts for the waist, and rings for the wrists and the
ankles, ornamented bracelets and anklets, have at all times had a
medicinal power attached to them in some minds. Earrings are still
worn by many with the idea that they are helpful in affections of the
eyes. I have known children's ears to be pierced and earrings inserted
because the little ones were suffering from headache. Precious stones
were supposed to have this power when worn. The amethyst protected its
wearer from drunkenness; the bloodstone cured anemia; while the opal
was supposed to portend evil. Occasionally such gems were ground up
and used as internal or external remedies, because of the power
supposed to be attached to them. Their influence upon the mind, at
least, can be readily understood. The earliest prescription we have in
America is at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, among the curiosities
from Egypt (about 1500 B.C.). It calls for the use of ground up
precious stones in fumigations, probably for an hysterical person.

[Footnote 10: A king of Italy of the later nineteenth century used
to send the parings of his toe-nails to friends to be worn in rings
for luck and protection against disease.]

The precious metals were used also as powerful cures. Chaucer says,
"for gold in physick is a cordial." Some think that our own use
of chloride of gold a few years ago for many chronic ills had little
more reason than the preciousness of gold impressing itself on
patients. Inscriptions were made on the metals, and these were
supposed to add to their healing or preservative quality. Famous among
these was the abracadabra. It had to be written in a particular
triangular form, and was then very powerful. Here the amulet invades
the sphere of the charm. Prayers were written on parchment, or on
paper, or on papyrus, in the old time in Egypt, Babylon and Assyria,
and when worn about the body were supposed to do great good. It is
surprising to us now how many physicians and scientists placed
confidence in these things because they thought that they had seen
good results. Alexander of Tralles recommends a number of them. Robert
Boyle, the father of chemistry, says that he was cured of a severe
ague, that the doctors could not benefit, by the application of an
amulet to his wrists. Burton, in the "Anatomy of Melancholy," has a
series of references that show how much he, himself, and the educated
men of his time, believed in the power of amulets to help in illnesses
and Boyle, particularly, has a number of references to precious stones
and their curative virtue.

Rings in Therapy.--Under Faith Cures I mention the cramp rings blest
by the Queen of England and effective against abdominal pains. Other
kinds of therapeutic rings were used rather commonly. All through the
Middle Ages iron rings were worn, which were good for colic and
biliousness and also for rheumatic pains. There are literally
thousands of such rings worn now, here in the United States, and by
quite intelligent people. Personally, I know of more than a dozen
cases where they have been worn for years. The wearers faithfully take
them off each day, rub off the rust which collects on the inside, call
their own and others' attention to the fact that all this material has
been drawn out of the body through the supposed electrical power of
the ring, and then they replace them. Here is pseudo science obtruding
itself. Usually these rings are of polished steel and look a little
like silver. They may, however, be obtained in gold plate, and then
are supposed to be quite as efficacious. The iron or steel rings cost
two dollars each; gold-plated rings cost five to ten dollars,
according to the ability of the patient to pay, for metallotherapy has
as one of its effects the lessening of congestion of the purse. Those
who wear them would not part with them, because they feel the benefits
derived. These rings are supposed to be particularly good for vague,
painful conditions in the joints, especially the so-called rheumatic

In old times these rings were sometimes engraved with a legend that
was itself a strong suggestive element. The rings of the Middle Ages
that were supposed to be a cure for biliousness were engraved with a
command to the bile to go and take possession of a bird. Occasionally
rings were supposed to be valuable because of their origin. Epileptic
fits, for instance, were rendered much less frequent and less severe
if a ring made of money that had been given in the church were worn.
The condition was that the sufferer should stand at the church door
asking a penny from every unmarried man who passed in or out. After
sufficient alms had been thus collected the money was exchanged for
silver money that had been contributed to the church, and from this
the ring was made. It was to have a cross and sometimes a verselet
from Scripture, or an exorcism, or a prayer, engraved on it. It is
easy to understand that all of this represents strong suggestive
influence and that the standing at the church door begging alms might
well represent an enforced prolonged opportunity to get rest and air,
for many unmarried men do not go to church, and so there were also
physical factors at work in the cure noted.

Precious Stones as Preservatives.--Pettigrew, in his "Superstitions
Connected with Medicine and Surgery," mentions a number of the
precious stones and their power to heal. Garnet hung about the neck
relieves sorrow and refreshes the heart; chrysolite is the wisdom
stone, the enemy of folly; heliotrope staunches blood and acts as an
antidote; sapphire is good for ague and gout, and also gives its
wearer courage; it also stops bleeding at the nose and was an
antidote; the topaz was good for lunatics; the carnelian cured bloody
fluxes and also fluxes of anger and passion. Jasper, hematite and
similar stones had certain general powers of doing good. The Bezoar
stone had a great reputation against melancholy; the smaragdum was
infallible against epilepsy; the onyx was good for sleep; the sardonyx
prevented bad dreams. The most wonderful stone, however, was the
agate; taken in liquid it was good for any disease. It made the skin
healthy. It preserved against snakebite, and against all poisons, and
it prevented the devil from injuring one who wore it or drank it, and
also preserved him from being struck by lightning. Considering how
common agates were and how readily they could be obtained, it is
rather surprising that we should have so many stories of illness and
deaths by lightning and from poison and from venomous serpents in the
old days when its curative value was rated so high.

Amulets.--The coin given by the kings of England when they healed the
scrofulus or epileptic came to be, in one sense, an amulet. The sight
and the touch of this acted as an ever recurrent suggestion tending to
make these patients better, and undoubtedly the coin was of great
service by its renewal of the mental influence of the touch of the
king. There are traditions, also, that these coins healed others who
touched them, and sometimes for generations they were kept in families
as representing a fountain of healing and of preservation of health.
Any object that thus became invested with reverence produced healing
effects. Virchow, in the introduction to Schliemann's "Troas," tells
of going to a long distance for water, during the time when he was
present at the excavations, in order to be sure that the water would
be absolutely pure. The natives had heard that he was a great
physician from the West. They concluded that the reason why he went to
this particular distant spring for water, in spite of the trouble
involved, was that it must have some wonderful healing virtues.
Accordingly a tradition of healing grew up around it, and people came
from long distances, drank from it and were cured.

There are still people who carry horse chestnuts for rheumatism, and
occasionally a farmer carries a potato for the same purpose. The
feeling is, if they do no good, at least they can do no harm.
Doubtless in the Middle Ages the same feeling prevailed as to other
favorite objects. At present, among the better informed classes,
various pendants supposed to have some connection with electricity are
popular. I have seen a medal made of alternate discs of copper and
zinc, and confidently believed to be strongly electrical, worn even by
an otherwise sensible merchant in a country town. Electric belts still
are extremely common--and expensive. Supposed electric insoles,
one made of copper, the other of zinc, are sold in great numbers and
at good prices, though, quite needless to say, they are absolutely
inert electrically. Various electric contrivances, small batteries,
and the like, really are of the nature of amulets. People have a faith
in them that is not justified by anything in science, but that faith
helps them in their ills. Most of the supposed medicinal plasters are
in the same class. As a rule, sufficient curative material cannot be
incorporated in a plaster to be of any service, and most of them,
though widely advertised, are scarcely more than rubber adhesive
plaster. They do good partly by their mechanical effect, because they
actually support muscles, but mainly because of faith in their
efficacy. Whenever a particular discomfort occurs the feeling that a
plaster is covering the spot gives the patient assurance that he or
she must soon be better. In all of these effects there is no
manifestation of any physical or marvelous supernormal power, but
simply and solely of the influence of the mind on the body.

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