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 i
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.