The Latin term amuletum (“an object used as a charm to avert evil”) was possibly derived from the Arabic word hamilet (something “carried, worn”) by the first century CE because the term first appears in the work of Pliny the Elder (Nat. Hist. 29.66, 83; 37.50, 118). Amulets are objects made of various types of material, either uninscribed or inscribed, and supposedly charged with supernatural power. The magical properties believed to be inherent in particular plants, animals, stones, and metals often determined the selection of a certain material for an amulet. Amulets function like prayers; they are intended to offer protection from disease, misfortune, or attacks from supernatural beings or to guarantee wealth, success, and victory. In the ancient Near East, they were usually worn on the neck on a cord or chain, but some types of amulets were affixed to houses and places of business. Lamellae, a special type of amulet, are thin pieces of inscribed tin, lead, bronze, silver, or gold that were rolled up, placed in small tubes, and then worn on a cord around the neck. Frequently magical letters, words, symbols, or pictures were engraved on semiprecious stones (e.g., hematite, chalcedony, quartz), which are generally called “magical gems.” Amulets were also made of perishable animal and vegetable material, such as leather, bone, wax, wood, herbs, roots, linen, and papyrus, and many of these have also survived because of the very dry climate.
Amulets of various types were widely used throughout the ancient Near East, although it is frequently difficult to determine whether small uninscribed objects and statuettes actually functioned as amulets. Furthermore, some items may have had dual functions, serving as amulets in addition to their original function. For example, cylinder seals (engraved with designs, inscriptions, or both), sometimes worn suspended on a cord around the owner's neck occasionally functioned as amulets. Mitannian faience seals from the last half of second millennium BCE probably functioned as both jewelry and amulets. On the other hand, the function of two small seventh-century BCE rectangular limestone plaques with Aramaic inscriptions from Arslan Tash (between Carchemish and Harran in Syria) is clear. One depicts a winged sphinx and a crouching lioness with a serpent's tale swallowing a man and is inscribed with an incantation to protect the house of the strangling nocturnal demons, while the other depicts a person with big eyes and scorpion feet and has two inscriptions, one for protection against the evil eye, and the other to obtain rain. (translations in Beyerlin, 1978, pp. 247–250; pictured in Pritchard, 1969, p. 216, no. 662). During the Persian period (539–330 BCE), many glass amulets in the shape of human heads (both bearded male and female), have been found in tombs in Cyprus, Egypt, and the Syro-Palestinian coast (as well as Spain, Carthage, and Sardinia). This distribution suggests that they were produced and distributed by Phoenicians.
More amulets are preserved from ancient Egypt than from anywhere else in the ancient Near East. Three Egyptian terms for amulet are sa (“protection”), meket (“protector”) and uedjau (“health-maintaining object”). Amulets for the dead were essential features of Egyptian funerary practice. The Book of the Dead contains incantations that, when recited, were thought to endow the amulets with magical powers. Sometimes larger than amulets worn by the living, funerary amulets were found on different parts of the body, not just around the neck. Many amulets were wrapped under the bandages. There was an appropriate amulet for each limb of the deceased. There were at least 275 types (Petrie, 1914).
Ushebtis were small funerary statuettes inscribed with the name of the deceased and a magical spell from the Book of the Dead. These statuettes were intended to take the place of the deceased when the gods desired work in their fields to be performed. Scarabs, representing a type of beetle, made from many materials but typically stone or faience (glazed blue, green, or turquoise), were symbols of the god Khepri (the rising sun), promising the renewal of life in the next world. Other Egyptian amulets represented various parts of the human body and were intended to protect those parts from misfortune or disease.
The three general Greek terms for amulets are phylakterion (“safeguard,” “preservative” periapton, and periamma (both meaning “attached,” “tied on”). Thousands of Greco-Roman amulets from the first few centuries CE have survived, primarily inscribed on gemstones. These gemstone amulets have been frequently, though mistakenly, called “Gnostic” amulets in the past because of the use of bizarre images (such as a commonly occurring rooster-headed, snake-footed figure) and of voces magicae, that is, “magical words” made up of meaningless, though traditional, strings of vowels and consonants that make no sense in Greek (e.g., “ablathanalba”). These gemstone amulets were worn in rings, bracelets, or as parts of necklaces (Bonner, 1950; Delatte and Derchain, 1964). Some of these amulets consist of an incised image on the obverse and a magical inscription on the reverse, and others have only a magical inscription. The strong influence of Egyptian religion on Greco-Roman magical practices meant that gods like Osiris, Sarapis, Isis, Anubis, and Horus occur frequently on amulets. Favored by magical practitioners were the rooster-headed, snake-footed god and a headless figure variously identified as Iao (a divine name derived from Judaism), Seth, Atum, or Osiris (the last three of Egyptian origin). This iconography is not known from ancient cults. The strong influence of Judaism on ancient magic had a profound effect on the divine names inscribed on amulets, including Iao, Adonai, Sabaoth, and Elohim. The Greek magical papyri contains many spells in which careful instructions are given regarding how to prepare amulets properly and what should be inscribed on them.
The primary Hebrew term for amulet, qm῾ comes from a root meaning “to bind”, “to tie.” The Hebrew Bible has surprisingly few real or imagined references to amulets (Gn. 35:4; Ex. 32:3; Jgs. 8:21, 26; Is. 3:18–20; Zech. 14:20); only in the fourth reference are they viewed pejoratively, but nowhere are they forbidden. Although most surviving Jewish amulets are from the Roman period, two silver amulets dating from the late seventh century BCE were found at Ketef Hinnom in the vicinity of Jerusalem (Davies, 1991, p. 72, 4.301, 302). [See Ketef Hinnom.] One contains the entire priestly blessing in Numbers 6:24–26, and the other has an abbreviated form of the same text, which contains the divine name YHWH three times, a text often used or alluded to on later Jewish amulets (Schrire, 1966, pp. 82, 97).
According to 2 Maccabees 12:40, when Judas examined the bodies of Jews who had fallen in battle, he discovered that “all” of them were wearing hieromata, “sacred objects” or “amulets” consecrated to the idols of Jamnia. Phylacteries (from the Greek word phylakterion, “means of protection”) or tĕfillîn, from tĕfillâ, “prayer” (Ex. 13:9, 16; Dt. 6:8; cf.Mt. 23:5) are containers holding four Biblical passages: Ex. 13:1–10, 11–16; Dt. 6:4–9, 11:13–20. The phylactery that is placed on the upper part of the left arm contains just one roll of parchment on which all four passages are written, and that put on the upper forehead contains four separate rolls of parchment. They are traditionally worn by Jewish males during prayer, except on Sabbaths and holy days. Although tĕfillîn are distinguished from amulets in the Mishnah (Shab. 6.2; 8.3; Sheq. 3.2), they are called phylacteries, and they were assumed to exert protective powers on the wearers. The mĕzûzôt, which still function as apotropaic amulets, are small containers fixed on doorposts (Dt. 6:9). They contain the Biblical texts Deuteronomy 6:4–9 and 11:13–20, which mention the name of God ten times, including the tetragrammaton (the four consonants of the Hebrew name for God—YHWH) seven times. Two Jewish magical handbooks, the first from the Talmudic era and the second not later than the eleventh century, are the Sefer ha-Razim (“Book of Mysteries”), and the Harba de Mosheh (“Sword of Moses”) containing instructions for the preparation of amulets.
- Andrews, Carol. Amulets of Ancient Egypt. Austin, 1994.
- Barkay, Gabriel. “The Divine Name Found in Jerusalem.” Biblical Archaeology Review 9.2 (1983): 14–19. Popular, illustrated discussion of the two silver amulets covered in more detail in Yardeni (below).
- Benoit, Pierre, et al. Les grottes de Murabba῾at. Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, vol. 2 Oxford, 1961. See pages 80–86 for phylactery and mezuza from Wadi Murabba῾at, with references to earlier publications of phylacteries among the Dead Sea Scrolls.
- Beyerlin, Walter, ed. Near Eastern Religious Texts Relating to the Old Testament. Philadelphia, 1978.
- Bonner, Campbell. Studies in Magical Amulets, Chiefly Graeco-Egyptian. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1950. Important discussion of Greco-Roman amulets and magical gems dating primarily from ca. 100–500 CE.
- Bonner, Campbell. “Amulets Chiefly in the British Museum: A Supplementary Article.” Hesperia 20 (1951): 301–345.
- Budge, E. A. Wallis. Amulets and Superstitions. London, 1930.
- Dauphin, Claudine. “A Graeco-Egyptian Magical Amulet from Mazzuvah.” ῾Atiqot 22 (1993): 145–147.
- Davies, Graham I. Ancient Hebrew Inscriptions: Corpus and Concordance. Cambridge, 1991.
- Delatte, Armand, and Phillippe Derchain. Les intailles magiques grécoégyptiennes. Paris, 1964. Important study of Greco-Roman magical gems.
- Gager, John G., ed. Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from Antiquity and the Ancient World. New York, 1992.
- Lise, Giorgio. Amuleti Egizi/Egyptian Amulets. Milan, 1988.
- Montgomery, James A. “Some Early Amulets from Palestine.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 31 (1911): 272–281.
- Müller-Winkler, Claudia. Die ägyptischen Objekt-Amulette. Freiburg, 1987.
- Naveh, Joseph, and Shaul Shaked. Amulets and Magic Bowls: Aramaic Incantations of Late Antiquity. Jerusalem and Leiden, 1985. Collection of and commentary on all Hebrew and Aramaic amulets from the first to the fourth centuries CE from Syria-Palestine, except those published in Montgomery (above).
- Petrie, W. M. Flinders. Amulets: Illustrated by the Egyptian Collection in University College, London. London, 1914. Important study of Egyptian amulets, lavishly illustrated.
- Pritchard, James B. The Ancient Near East in Pictures Relating to the Old Testament. 2d ed. Princeton, 1969.
- Reiner, Erica. “Plague Amulets and House Blessings.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 19 (1960): 148–155.
- Schrire, Theodore. Hebrew Amulets: Their Decipherment and Interpretation. London, 1966.
- Trachtenberg, Joshua. Jewish Magic and Superstition. New York, 1939. Contains a chapter devoted to late Talmudic and medieval Jewish amulets (pp. 132–152).
- Waegeman, Maryse. Amulet and Alphabet: Magical Amulets in the First Book of Cyranides. Amsterdam, 1987. The Cyranides is an ancient encyclopedia of magical lore composed in the first or second century CE.
- Yardeni, Ada. “Remarks on the priestly Blessing on Two Ancient Amulets from Jerusalem.” Vetus Testamentum 41 (1991): 176–185.
- Zwierlein-Diehl, Erika, ed. Magische Amulette. Opladen, 1992.
David E. Aune