Between Fear and Fashion
BY Sigrid M. van Roode | April 26, 2012
A short history of personal adornment as protection
Ever since the first civilizations, mankind has adorned itself with jeweled amulets and talismans as protection, and many are still in use today. The symbols and colors used in these modern-day amulets can be traced back to the dawn of human civilization, creating a unbroken chain of beliefs and fears transformed into personal adornment.
Among the first items to have been used as amulets are objects that occur in nature. Living in nomadic groups and dependent on nature for sustenance, early hunter-gatherers had little or no influence on their environment. As natural resources were important for everyday life, it is very well possible that natural elements were also regarded as supernatural, and their use in a ritualizing context has been established in various occasions. Around 4000-3000 BC crystal, hematite and pebbles were, for example, used in the burials of men, women and children in Black Earth, Illinois.1
Evidence of the use of amulets and talismans became more available in the subsequent Neolithic period. During this period the hunter-gatherer societies transformed into sedentary communities of farmers. In many societies a form of writing developed in keeping records, as well as more defined religious beliefs and rituals that included a wide variety of amulets and talismans. These can be roughly divided into four categories: those that derive their power from the material that they are made from; those that function because of their color; those that exert power because of the image they represent; and finally those that contain powerful spells or words.
Aspects of amulets
As we have seen in the early hunter-gatherer societies, colors and materials were among the first criteria that turned an otherwise normal object such as a stone into an amulet. Colors often worked by association. Red was in many cultures related to blood and the heart, and channeled passion and love. To ward off evil, red was used in many types of embroideries and decorations. One has only to remember the Kabbalah red thread of wool worn around the wrist by Madonna as an example to see its use even today. The color blue is in many cultures seen as the color of the sky and water, and green is encountered as the color of natural growth and prosperity.
Materials that naturally conveyed these colors were often chosen to be used in amulets. Semi-precious or precious stones such as jade, carnelian, amber, onyx or agate are often worked into beads, pendants or ring bezels. As soon as glass-production was developed, glass inlays in various colors were used for the same purposes. These colored objects are often combined with metal, either as carrier or as inlay.
When the combination of color and material could establish a powerful amulet, it could be even more powerful by the image or symbol it represented or the writing it carried. In many early civilizations, writing was an art only mastered by a few. Signs, words or complete spells worked into an amulet by someone who could read and write contributed greatly to the effectiveness of the object.
All around the world amulets and talismans have been found in archaeological digs. Often these found items consist of perforated objects to be worn on a cord or sewn onto a garment, in other words, beads. These represented an economical value, but served as decoration as well as having ritual properties. Beads have been unearthed from the earliest periods on, and could be a simple perforated stone or shell to intricately carved precious stones or worked metal.
From prehistoric beads to modern plastic evil-eye beads, amulets and talismans have played an important role in the history of personal adornment. Caught between fear and fashion, the most beautiful jeweled pieces often have strong amuletic values. The deeply human need for confirmation, for protection, is ever-present through history and around the globe. It connects us with past generations and seemingly different cultures.
1 Price, T.D & G.M. Feinmann, Images of the past, p. 154-155.