Go back to article: A history of amulets in ten objects

A wheel of fortune and a pendant against rabies

Fortune forms an important facet of healing and protection, and the ability to alter one’s fate has therefore often been accorded to amulets. Some could target specific illnesses, like our third object – the gold angel that treated King’s Evil. Others could protect against potentially harmful events, like our fifth object – the ‘hag-stones’ preserving against night-mares. In a similar way, an amulet created and used to propagate good fortune (or prevent misfortune) might attend the common human desire to control one’s own fate. Whilst there have historically been various ways in which to do this, this amulet may provide an example of one.

Figure 10

Hand coloured wood cut depicting the lady Fortuna with her wheel

Fortuna with her wheel, 1535, from Gregor Reisch’s Principles of Natural Philosophy, part of the ‘Margarita Philosophica’, image No. 10305720

The wheel of fortune was a well-known concept stemming from ancient philosophy, representing the supposedly ungovernable nature of fate. In Greek and Roman tradition, the goddess Fortuna (Greek equivalent ‘Tyche’) had the ability to spin the wheel with the means to change a person’s position on it. Under her hand some would suffer misfortune, whilst others would gain great fortune. A renowned allegory continuing throughout the medieval and early modern worlds, references to fortune’s wheel pepper primary literature, from Geoffrey Chaucer in the fourteenth century, ‘Thus Fortune guides her wheel, and turns it so, And Brings us all from happiness to mourning’, to William Shakespeare in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, ‘Fortune, good night; smile once more; turn thy wheel’ (Chaucer; Wright (trans.), 1998; Shakespeare; Hunter (ed), 2005). References to the wheel abound in medieval art, from engravings and manuscripts to the great Rose windows in many medieval Gothic cathedrals, including Beauvais and Amiens in France.[56] Physical manifestations of wheels were even created, a twelfth-century French abbot reportedly installing a mechanical wheel of fortune in his monastery, so that ‘his monks might ever have before them the spectacle of human vicissitudes’ (Roberts, 2013; Mâle, 1962).

Figure 11

A tympana in a Tudor house depicting Destiny and Fortune

Tympana depicting Destiny and Fortune, copied from Robert Recorde’s Castle of Knowledge (1556), at Little Moreton Hall, Cheshire

The popularity of the wheel of fortune in popular culture reinforced the wish of some to steer both the consequential and the quotidian occasions of life; or their acknowledgement of life’s inevitable highs and lows. This is shown here in the tympana in a gallery of Tudor manor Little Moreton Hall, Cheshire, which are decorated with plaster depictions of ‘Destiny’ and ‘Fortune’, in direct imitation of those in mathematician Robert Recorde’s Castle of Knowledge (1556), an astronomical textbook on the sphere (Lake and Hughes, 1995; Angus-Butterworth, 1970; Figueiredo and Treuherz, 1988). Many objects have been made specifically to aid ‘good fortune’, as evidenced by our second object, the Luna Park Billiken. Whilst perhaps not manifesting an attempt to control fortune, a physical wheel may have served as a material reminder of one’s powerlessness against one’s fate in the face of God. Our eighth amulet represents a French example, acquired by the Science Museum from a chapel called ‘Notre Dame Du Riollou’ in Brittany, near to St Nicholas-du-Pélem in the north-west corner of France. This is a ‘Roue saint à carillon, dite ‘Roue de Fortune’ – Saint Carillon wheel, called ‘Wheel of Fortune’, dated 1777.

Figure 12

Colour photograph of a wooden wheel of fortune

Amulet Eight – Wheel of Fortune, object number A74800

The craftsmanship of this carillon wheel is uncertain, with sources stating that the name ‘Alain Le Roux’ carved next to the date on the wooden frame relate either to the carpenter’s name, or the rector of Botoha (the district encompassing St Nicholas-du-Pélem) from 1583–1638.[57] Principally functioning as a musical instrument, carillons have typically been housed in bell-towers of churches or municipal buildings, formed of ‘at least 23’ cup-shaped bells (Nelson, 1980; Rombouts, 2014). Once a widespread feature of churches in France and across Europe, these wheels are said to have originated in Brittany, and according to René Couffon were used during services, baptisms, celebrations and pardons.[58] Tradition notes that ‘Alain Le Roux’s’ wheel also had therapeutic uses. Apparently offered in ex-voto by parents after their child was healed of muteness, this wheel went on to help other children with speech disorders. Stories record youngsters troubled with verbal ailments who were led to the wheel, where the bells were turned above their heads to promote its curative effects (Hélias, 1975).[59]

Several concepts operate in conjunction within the oak frame, brass bells and carved brackets of this object. The names by which it has been known are varied and its history is somewhat ambiguous.[60] Several forms of power are brought together by its manufacture and use; created in the form of a musical instrument, it was accorded religious status, perhaps donated as an ex-voto, and certainly used within a church. A material representation of the perennial wheel of fortune, this object drew upon long-standing beliefs in the capricious nature of fate and man’s sole lack of command over it. In combination with the reputed ability to cure certain disorders, and housed within a religious setting, this object had power. An amalgamation of forces integrated to evidence its supposed healing power. But is it an amulet?

Figure 13

Black and white photograph of a holy wheel of carillon hanging on a wall

‘Holy wheel or Carillon’, ‘The Rose of Fortune’

Carillon wheels were once common within churches, especially in Brittany. But the situation of this particular ‘wheel of fortune’ within the Science Museum’s amulet collection is questionable. Through exploring the history of the amulet, we have so far identified that these objects have a clear relationship with or proximity to the body, can be materially varied – comprising of mineral, animal or vegetable and inscribed, manmade or natural – and occasionally valued as rarities. Yet most importantly (as described by Pliny since the first century CE) amulets were worn and used for therapeutic, apotropaic or exorcistic benefit. They are invested with the power to heal or protect. Just as the hare’s foot has often been uncritically labelled as lucky, does this wheel of fortune provide an example of an object that has been classed as an amulet because it could not easily be categorised within other collections? In this way, the ‘Alain Le Roux’ wheel of fortune helps us ask important questions about the position and categorisation of amulets within museums today.

In a similar vein, the relationship between amulets and religion is often inconsistent within museum collections. At the Science Museum, many amulets are connected with religion; from objects used by Hindu pilgrims, to Jewish manuscripts, to skull-caps printed with Catholic saints, as well as several items relating to less established religious practices.[61] Votive objects form a significant proportion; also known as ex-votos, these were objects acting as offerings given to a saint or divinity in gratitude, devotion or fulfilment of a vow.[62] Henry Wellcome is credited with having collected five hundred fourth- to second-century BCE terracotta votives alone, with several hundred more votive offerings in the Science Museum collections.[63] Of these, only some are credited as amulets.[64] A similar pattern can be discerned; within the collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum (Oxford), Horniman Museum (London), and British Museum (London) there are several hundred objects classified as votives or ex-votos, yet only a small proportion are also recognised as amulets.[65] Of the votive objects that are not classed as amulets, many seem to be distinctly categorised as religious objects. This group of objects therefore epitomise the problematic relationship between religion and amulets, highlighting potential mutual exclusivity. Yet votive objects only represent one facet of religious material culture. Religion has undeniably played (and continues to play) an important part in healing, exemplified materially by amulets from across different centuries, geographies and cultures. It would be foolish to disassociate religion and amulets, when both provide analogous forms of protective and curative power. This symbiotic potency is demonstrated by our ninth amulet.

Figure 14

Colour photograph of the front and reverse sides of a coin amulet to protect against rabies

Amulet Nine – Rabies pendant depicting Virgin and Child, object number A666096

This is a brass pendant, representing the Virgin and Child on one side, with the depiction of a man threatening a dog with a stick on the other. A suspension loop indicates this amulet, like many others, was efficacious when worn on the body. Another instance of the potency of inscription, this object also draws upon religious power to facilitate its prophylactic benefits, affording protection against ‘bites from mad dogs’.[66] Whilst cited as being Italian, 1870–1900, this brass amulet is Spanish. This is discernible due to the inscriptions on each side stating: ‘VIRGEN DE VALDEGIMENA’ (obverse)/ ‘ABOGADA DE LA RABIA’ (reverse); the amulet utilising the prophylactic support of the Virgin Mary of Val de Gimena, Spain.[67] Rabies has been written about for at least four thousand years, with writers in classical antiquity such as Galen, Aristotle, Pliny and Hippocrates lending their own medical theories for its cure and prevention (Tarantola, 2017). One comparative method of protection was offered by amulets known as ‘St Hubert’s Keys’. These objects, shaped like nails, were apparently hung on the walls of houses to offer prophylaxes against rabies, or heated and placed on the wound afflicted by a rabid dog as a means of remedy. St Hubert (656–727 AD) was one of several Christian saints said to cure rabies. Examples can be seen in both the Pitt Rivers and Science Museums, and show how – like the pendant depicting the Virgin – religious power was employed to remedy this disease.[68]

Marian protection against rabies is materialised by this amulet. The religious power invested within this pendant is not distinct from the physical devices of imagery, inscription and means of bodily suspension it uses to convey and facilitate its amuletic potency. These different types of healing power were synonymous in the medieval and early modern periods, until those like John Browne – who contended that a gold angel was not a necessary part of the cure for scrofula – argued that they could be divided. The conflation and symbiosis of disparate sources of potency is common within amulets, and is exemplified definitively by our final object.

Figure 15

Colour photograph of a breverl composite amulet

Amulet Ten – Breverl, object number A666092

Figure 16

Colour photograph of a breverl composite amulet in various stages of unfolding

Amulet Ten – Breverl, object number A666092


Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/191103/006