Go back to article: A history of amulets in ten objects
An astrological sigil
Whilst the value and potency of the amulets we have encountered so far lay in their very form and matter, others functioned due to the way they had been materially modified. Evidence for this lies most clearly in objects inscribed with symbols, words and pictures. Amulet number seven is a circular metal disc known as a ‘sigil’, invested with power due to the inscriptions made upon its surface. Whilst this object is dated 1850–1920, there is no firm evidence of its provenance, although designs for amulets like this date from at least the sixteenth century. The manufacture of sigils enabled the power of the stars to be represented and harnessed materially, for curative and protective benefit. Engraved with images or words, these amulets were often worn on the body – indicated in this example by a suspension hole (Kassell, 2005a, pp 43–57, esp. pp 43–4; Roos, 2008 pp 271–288).
© Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
Amulet Seven – Sigil, object number A657575
In early modern England, two main medical theories prevailed. The predominant theory (based on principles passed down from Galen, 130–210 AD) decreed that the balance of a person’s four humours was key to preserving health and understanding disease. The opposing Paracelsian theory dictated that disease was a result of impediment to the ‘spirits’ of the body. Within both theories of medicine, the malign powers of the stars and planets could cause disease, and a physician skilled in astronomy and astrology could identify the source of illness and thereby devise a necessary remedy (Kassell, 2005b, pp 6–8). According to Paracelsian cosmology, through what was known as ‘astral magic’, sigils were one of several objects (along with rings, images and swords) that via association with the power of the stars could be made to remedy diseases, enhance health, triumph over enemies, protect, or improve one’s fortune (Kassell, 2005b, p 48). As stated by astrologer-physician Simon Forman, sigils were believed to enclose ‘som parte of the virtue of heaven and of the plannets according to the tyme that it is stamped caste or engraven or written in’. That is, the knowledge of astronomy and judgements of astrology came together in the creation of sigils, made according to particular positions of the heavens, at significant moments, with the virtues of the stars and planets physically stamped upon them.
Sigils and their many functions and powers were explained by sixteenth-century German polymath and physician Henry Cornelius Agrippa, in a book detailing different facets of Occult Philosophy (Agrippa, Tyson (ed), 1993). Described as ‘the magical encyclopaedia of the Renaissance’, this work brought together Greek and Roman occultism drawn from classical sources with medieval Jewish Kabballah, aiming to provide technical explanations and procedures for practical magic. Occult Philosophy explained in detail how magic could be employed practically, laying bare the secrets of the natural world including stones, herbs, trees and metals, the celestial and mathematical world encompassing the influence of planets, stars and numbers, and the intellectual world of pagan gods, spirits, angels, devils (Agrippa, Tyson (ed), 1993, pp xl-xli). The heavens were seen to move according to a strict mathematical and geometric relationship, and so were considered part of mathematical magic. As such, magic tables were attributed to each of the seven planets (as they were known at this time), which could in ‘no other way be expressed, than by the marks of numbers, and characters’ (Agrippa, Tyson (ed), 1993, p 318).
This sigil, our seventh amulet, expressed and employed the power of Jupiter. Imprinted on one side are the planet’s sign, seal and ‘intelligence’, the other revealing its table, surrounded by Hebrew names relating to Jupiter’s numbers. Agrippa noted that if these symbols, words and numbers were impressed upon silver plate at a time when Jupiter was powerful and ruling, ‘it conduced to gain and riches, favour and love, peace and concord, and…appease enemies, confirm honours, dignities, and counsels’. Sigils relating to other planets had other specific functions – with he who wore the table of the Sun becoming ‘potent in all his works’, and Mars stopping blood and chasing away bees (Agrippa, Tyson (ed), 1993, p 319).
Sigils present a different method of healing to the previous amulets we have analysed, as they harnessed the force of the stars and magic for cure or protection. Objects utilising this form of healing power have often been classed as amulets. Yet most significantly, items like the sigil demonstrate how material alteration (in this case inscription in the form of words, numbers and symbols) can imbue an object with power. This is similarly true for many different amulets across time and space; our second object – the Luna Park Billiken – also evidences material modification in the form of words and images, yet rather than employing astrological power instead uses its inscription to draw upon the faculties of fortune and luck.
Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/191103/005