BY George Pendle in Opinion | 01 JAN 12
Featured in
Issue 144

The Power of One

The strange allure of amulets

BY George Pendle in Opinion | 01 JAN 12

An amulet from the exhibition 'Charmed Life: The Solace of Objects' at the Wellcome Collection, London, 2011. Courtesy The Wellcome Collection, London

The wonderful thing about belief is how uncritical it is of its surroundings. Take amulets, for example. These can be man-made (coins, dominoes, glass beads) or naturally occurring (fossils, shark teeth, mole paws), but in general an amulet’s physical attributes are worth much less than the faith placed in them.  Amulets can be held for an almost infinite number of reasons: for good luck or for love’s satisfaction; for protection against disease or for defence against malignant personalities; for wind or to safeguard against storms. However, all amulets have one salient characteristic: they’ve got to be able to fit in your pocket. For although amulets communicate with forces beyond our ken, their range is limited. They must be carried close to the flesh in order to work their magic.

‘Charmed Life: The Solace of Objects’, an exhibition of amulets and talismans currently on display at the Wellcome Collection in London, pulls together a number of these ‘much-touched’ objects from the thousands amassed by the Edwardian amateur folklorist, Edward Lovett. A bank worker by day, Lovett spent his hours away from the ledger exploring the numerous charms sold by the city’s hawkers. As he noted in his genial book Magic in Modern London (1925), he was surprised to find how nearly everyone – from navvies to ‘City men’ – seemed to carry at least one such object in their pockets.

The amulets he found generally operated in two ways – through the ‘law of contagion’, which states that two objects that have once been in contact with each other carry a magical link between them, or the ‘law of similarity’ by which any effect can be produced simply by imitating its cause. Thus acorn amulets protected against lightning, since the oak was thought to be the home of the thunder god, while the curved paws of moles were carried to prevent cramp, because they looked like cramped hands. Some amulets, such as the hermetically sealed phials of mercury used to cure rheumatism lacked even this thin reasoning to bolster their claims. Yet amulets still retain an aura of influence, a conceptual heft that sets them apart from becoming simple jewellery.

Of course, jewellery has its own brashpower. While Lovett’s amulets were generally meant to be kept out of view, sewn into shirts or tightly gripped in a pocket, jewellery gains its power from being seen by others. This is a watered-down magic, one relying less on supernatural allusions than on the tenets of social mobility, yet an exception to this rule can be found in the work of Otto Künzli, one of the leading proponents of autorenschmuck (auteur jewellery).

Künzli’s jewellery resists the typical social-alchemical transmutations that, say, a gold necklace affords, instead hearkening to a deeper conceptual aesthetic that shares many of the tropes of Lovett’s amulets. For instance, Gold Macht Blind (Gold Makes You Blind, 1980) is a bangle of black rubber that encases a small golden ball. The inability of the wearer to see the gold is a pointed comment on the arbitrary and interchangeable forms used by the mainstream jewellery industry. Similarly, Chain (1985–6) is as freighted with awful physicality as any of Lovett’s bone or tooth charms. Consisting of interlinked unwanted wedding rings – which Künzli gained by advertising in his local newspaper – it is both beautiful and strangely repulsive. Since each ring comes with a small biography (for example, ‘A ring, 8 kt, not engraved, from her first husband. Her comment, “He was a brutal dog.”’), the associations render it nigh unwearable.

Yet it is industrialized products that have most successfully co-opted the promises that Lovett’s amulets once offered. The cigarette, for instance, is probably the most popular votive offering ever created. It is highly portable, its use is eminently ritualistic and it acts as the ultimate ‘well-touched’ item, famously giving you ‘something to do with your hands’. Of course, rather than being a bulwark against disease or bad luck, it tackles such modern neuroses as ennui, loneliness and even unfashionability. As the tagline for Strand cigarettes put it in 1959: ‘You’re never alone with a Strand.’

However, as smoking has declined in the western world, a new and more powerful amulet has risen to take its place. Sharing the same rectangular shape and size as a cigarette pack, and thus being supremely pocketable, it prompts the same compulsive, ritualistic qualities that all objects of superstition hold. Its owners can be seen lovingly sweeping their fingers over its face and muttering imprecations to it. Should such an amulet be lost, the lamentations are dreadful indeed. Yes, many have praised the iPhone for its technical functionality, but what greater deeds is it performing, unbeknownst to us, on our behalf?  

George Pendle is a writer based in Washington D.C., USA.