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

Introduction – a hare’s foot and a Billiken

On his way home from running errands one morning in January 1665, Samuel Pepys stopped to buy a hare. Pepys was a Member of Parliament and administrator of the Navy, and is perhaps most famous for keeping a diary for almost a decade during his younger life. A few weeks earlier, despite ‘very cold weather’ he had celebrated a phase of good health, unsure whether to attribute it to his daily pill of turpentine, the fact that he had ‘left off the wearing of a gowne’, or simply his ‘hare’s foote’. Yet this good health did not last. The new year brought burning, pimples and pricks, bladder problems, headaches and ‘a great deal of pain’ to Pepys’ body (Pepys; Wheatley (ed), 1893).[1] On this January morning, however, he had run into an acquaintance at Westminster Hall – Sir William Batten, Member of Parliament and surveyor to the Navy (Pepys, Latham (ed), 2003, p xlv).[2] Batten had given Pepys medical advice regarding his latest ailment, a most painful bout of colic, for which he showed Pepys the mistake he had made with the hare’s foot and guaranteed the perfect modification to his remedy. Originally, the foot had not been cut properly, and ‘hath not the joynt to it’; this was where the problem lay.[3] Eager to try anything to alleviate his swollen belly and ‘grudgings of wind’, Pepys handled Batten’s correctly cut hare’s foot, and noted in wonder:

[Batten] assures me he never had his cholique since he carried it about him: and it is a strange thing how fancy works, for I no sooner almost handled his foote but my belly began to be loose and to break wind, and whereas I was in some pain yesterday and t’other day and in fear of more to-day, I became very well, and so continue.[4]

The next day, having obtained a new animal and taken Batten’s advice, Pepys was finally convinced: ‘To my office till past 12, and then home to supper and to bed, being now mighty well, and truly I cannot but impute it to my fresh hare’s foote.’[5] One thing was clear; the hare’s foot had worked. Pepys was cured of colic.

Figure 1

Colour photograph of a fox paw amulet

Amulet One – Hare’s foot, object number A666124

This object is not unfamiliar to us. This particular hare’s foot, which forms part of the Science Museum’s amulet collection, is originally from Norfolk and dated 1870–1920, but hares’ and rabbits’ feet can still be bought as ‘lucky charms’ and are widely available on the internet.[6]  Populist literature similarly continues to reference the use of these items; Scientific American published an article on ‘What Makes a Rabbit’s Foot Lucky’ in 2011 (D’Costa, 2011). Such objects remain a part of popular culture – that is, part of recognised cultural traditions – over three hundred years after being employed by Pepys. Yet we can observe a shift in function. In Pepys’ world, the various elements that constituted sickness and health were broad and wide-ranging. Illness, like health, could be affected by an extensive range of things from an imbalance of the bodily humours, environmental factors such as sleep, food, emotions and exercise, supernatural or preternatural forces, and even the stars.[7] Whilst Pepys sometimes consulted learned medical practitioners, the variety of people from whom he could seek counsel was extensive. In this case, he took the advice of his friend Sir William Batten.[8] Pepys’ story is part of a larger narrative of healing in which learned medicine, religion, astrology, magic, fate and fortune all played a role. As part of healing, objects could be invested with power from any one or more of these various sources, and employed to cure or protect. These objects have often been called amulets, both historically and today, although our interpretation of them has changed over time. The healing potency of amulets has not always been entirely understood, and their means of operation often hidden from comprehension. Yet within their own contexts, this functional complexity has not detracted from the items’ curative or protective effects. The narrative of healing that included amulets continued throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and only when modern medicine necessitated ‘scientific’, empiric evidence of the mechanisms of objects’ efficacy did this change. In other words, amulets were relegated from the domain of authorised healing once it became a requirement to know and explain how cures worked, not just that they did work.

The word ‘amulet’ originates from the Latin ‘amulētum’, and was used by Pliny the Elder (23–79 CE) to denote an item worn on the body for therapeutic, apotropaic or exorcistic benefit (Skemer, 2006, pp 6–7). Whilst many have noted the belief that the word can be traced back to Arabic, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has refuted this (OED, 2018, ‘amulet’). Whilst definitions vary, ‘charm’ is often used synonymously with ‘amulet’, whilst ‘talisman’ features less frequently. For instance, the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford has implied a semantic similarity between ‘amulets’ and ‘charms’, noting that an amulet is defined by the OED as: ‘Anything worn about the person as a charm preventative against evil, mischief, disease, witchcraft, etc.’, whilst a charm is described as ‘Anything worn about the person to avert evil or ensure prosperity’ – ‘though a charm may also be a spell or incantation believed to have a magical power’ (Pitt Rivers Museum, 2017). ‘Amulets’ and ‘charms’ are also used synonymously by the Horniman Museum in London, and the Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions further allude to this; one entry noting that a charm is ‘Anything worn about the person to avert evil or ensure prosperity; an amulet’ (Horniman Museum, 2017).[9]

Evidently, amulets cannot be easily and simply defined, in part because the ways in which they have been used and understood have changed from antiquity to today. What, then, is the defining feature which makes an object an amulet? The answer to this is, its power. In the most basic and fundamental way, amulets are invested with the potency to heal. Healing centres around cure and protection, but where once these two actions were closely related, now they are more distinct. Historically, healing has not been monolithic and has taken many forms, relating to and deriving from faculties of fortune, fate, astrology, religion, magic, luck and more. Healing could therefore constitute anything from curing a specific disease, to averting a malevolent force, or fostering good fortune. This functional variation is valuable, as it can tell us a great deal about the practices and cultures in which objects are situated, as well as the objects themselves. For instance, around 250 years after Pepys cured his colic with our first amulet, the hare’s foot, an amusement park opened in Paris. As part of their brand Luna Park adopted a mascot known as a ‘Billiken’, a creature devised by an American artist who reportedly saw the mysterious figure in a dream and patented it in 1908. The Billiken, known as ‘God of Things as They Ought To Be’ was said to bring the customer luck, indicated by the inscription upon our second object, the park’s token: Si tu me gardes je te porterai bonheur (‘If you keep me I will bring you good luck/happiness’) / ‘I smile at you bad luck can’t harm you’.[10] This amulet offered protection and generated auspicious effects to the person who possessed it. Evidently, it had been considered important enough to be kept. Thus whilst culturally, temporally and materially distinct, the hare’s foot and the Luna Park Billiken are nevertheless united by their curative and protective potency, and demonstrate the wide spectrum of healing.

Figure 2

Colour photograph of the front and reverse side of a coin amulet for good luck

Amulet Two – Luna Park Billiken, object number A665090/1

Yet where once healing and amulets went hand in hand, modern discussions tend to treat them as distinct. Labelling certain objects as ‘amulets’ questions their power to work, and when these items and their potency are challenged, they are ‘othered’, relegated and disassociated from the realms of healing. The hare’s foot provides an example of this. Whether situated in museum collections or referred to in common parlance, this amulet is not commonly recognised today as a curative object, nor regarded as an effective remedy for the colic. Instead, the feet of rabbits and hares are now bought, used and regarded often merely as ‘lucky’ items. This hare’s foot from the Science Museum’s collections is recorded as an amulet employed ‘for protection against cramp’.[11] To label something as prophylactic, an item ‘against’ a particular affliction exemplifies typical language employed within museum catalogues in relation to amulets. Often, protective rather than curative functions of these objects are highlighted, perhaps because of the changing place of amulets in the narrative of European healing (for instance, Rowlands, 2001). If we therefore take this into consideration, the classification of the Science Museum’s hare’s foot and Pepys’ hare’s foot are similar, colic and cramp sharing many characteristics.

We do not yet have a full history of the hare’s foot. It may be that this object has been affected by historical changes and cultural discontinues hidden by the passage of time. Yet whether vague semantics or functional progression, the hare’s foot also epitomises the modern tendency to assume we know what an object is for, as many museums catalogue hares’ and rabbits’ feet as ‘lucky’ regardless of the era from which they originated, and without acknowledging any evolution of use.[12] Historians, too, often erroneously refer to Pepys’ practice of carrying his ‘lucky hare’s foot’.[13] Through this tendency to infer an item’s purpose, assumptions are made about the power and value of objects; a trend applicable to many objects that are similarly regarded today as ‘amulets’.[14]

In short, when removed from their original contexts, amulets do not fit within modern, Western, rigidly defined notions of healing. As such, they often have their mysterious apotropaic values highlighted and sensationalised, whilst their fundamental healing power can be denigrated and trivialised. One common manifestation of this is the connection of amulets and their practices with superstition. Indeed, there seems to be a tendency to group anything vaguely esoteric, supernatural or unexplainable into the category of ‘amulets’.[15] This is in some sense prudent, as doing so provides scope for a great level of subjectivity afforded to these objects. However, to class amulets in general in this way disregards their disparate and diverse provenances and functions, undermining the fact that they were legitimate items within their own contexts, and leading to pejorative connotations being formed.[16]

The reasons for this anachronistic categorisation could be multifarious. As discussed, objects such as hares’ feet do not align within the modern Western boundaries of healing, and the fact that objects’ value and power evolves and changes over time is often forgotten. In part, sensationalising ‘things’ is attractive; the idea of looking back on the objects and practices of a mystical past is captivating. Maybe scant information about distinct items or groups of objects and their contexts means that a term like ‘amulet’ simply becomes a useful catch-all category when specific functions, provenances or meanings cannot be inferred. Moreover, whilst amulets are necessarily defined by collectors and museum curators, often the descriptions they give are promulgated uncritically. Both within the Science Museum and within similar institutions that hold a substantial collection of amulets such as the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, the debt owed to twentieth-century collectors cannot be overstated. Men including Henry Wellcome (1853–1936) and Edward Lovett (1852–1933), who both harboured a passion for collecting alongside other occupations, amassed objects from across geographies and temporalities which went on to form part of the Wellcome Trust’s and Science Museum’s collections[17] (Cadbury, 2012). However, the sheer volume of their stock often led to vague and questionable cataloguing, and it appears that dates given to Science Museum amulets often relate not to the object themselves, but rather to the dates of the collector (usually around 1870–1930).[18] Ultimately it is likely that these are self-perpetuating actions, in that once the purpose of an object has been misinterpreted or disassociated from the realms of healing, this then continues amongst other institutions and individuals until it becomes the default, primary function of the item in question.

All of these possible reasons affect the way that amulets are thought of and defined today by academics, museums and members of the public. How far are such approaches necessary to allow audiences such as museum visitors to more easily engage with and relate to such seemingly unfamiliar objects? And how far is this approach intrinsically condescending, by patronising these things, their users, and the world from which they originated? Museums want visitors to be able to respond to their material, but in doing so they may sacrifice some of the ‘truths’ of some of the objects’ lives (see Kopytoff, 1986). Research on these items is rich and wide-ranging. Their analyses range from their situation within a particular culture, region or time-period, to more broad ranging studies of amulets within the disciplines of archaeology or anthropology.[19] Other articles examine specific amulets, whether as an object-study or as a means of elucidating a facet of ritual or practice.[20] Fewer historicise them, or consider their changing definitions or functions over time or space.[21] Yet this facet of study is crucial for museums that deal with a large, disparate group of objects all labelled as ‘amulets’. They are complex, ambiguous and subjective objects that have differed and continue to differ according to social, spatial and temporal geographies. As such, their functions, materials and cultural significances vary enormously. However, this interpretative challenge is concurrently what makes amulets so rewarding and worthy of study, as their examination can reveal facets of a particular culture or time’s methods of healing that cannot be afforded by reference to textual sources alone.

Just as the boundaries of what comprises an amulet are open enough to allow for a wide definition of healing, museums and academics should accept and recognise amulets and their contextual evolution as part of the history of healing. It is important, as far as possible, not to ‘other’ amulets – not think of them as bizarre, folkish pieces of the past, and instead recognise that they form parts of the broad and varied history of healing. The Science Museum is helping to lead the way. During my time as a Wellcome Trust Secondment Fellow, I was afforded the opportunity to work closely with this museum’s amulet collection, building upon my doctoral research on magic and the material culture of healing in early modern England. The Science Museum has over two thousand amulets, many of which were donated by collectors like Lovett and Wellcome, providing an invaluable source base. My interest in this group of objects arose after I had noticed that many of the seventeenth-century medical objects I was studying were categorised as amulets and also disassociated from healing, whether by scholars, museums, archaeological organisations or populist literature. While institutions such as the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford house an equally significant collection of amulets (see their ‘Small Blessings’ project), the Science Museum is one of the only organisations which actively and explicitly recognises the important relationship between amulets and healing. In fact, amulets are being spotlighted in the new Medicine galleries opening in 2019, as an integral part of the institution’s motives to situate these objects within ‘scientific’ milieu. Amulets from across cultures and times are shown as real, potent facets of healing – even if not what we expect. They are challenging our (perhaps pre-formed) assumptions, and making us think. In the same way, this study explores how this complex, heterogeneous group of objects can help us understand the curative and protective worth and potency amulets had and continue to have.

This article aims not to give a comprehensive history of amulets, but to present one of many possible histories in order to show how amulets form an important part of healing. The hare’s foot, the Billiken, and the eight remaining objects that form the focus of this paper are classed as amulets within the collections of the Science Museum, and were chosen for their material, functional and contextual variability. All were created and used from around the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, a more limited temporal trajectory allowing for a closer study. Due to the remits of this article and the fact that many non-Western objects have different histories and contexts, European items form the focus of the examination. In what follows, I will demonstrate what these ten amulets can show us about changes and continuities in European healing from the early modern period until the present day.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/191103/002