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Use and Abuse of Amulets

The origin of the word amulet does not seem to have been definitely established. ( See AMULET.) The thing itself has been used as a safeguard against mishap or danger, or witchcraft, and invoked as a guarantee of success in enterprises. Among the Greeks, it was variously known under the designations phylacterion, periamma , and periapton , whilst to the Arabians and Persians it was familiar as talisman, possibly derivable from the later Greek, telesma . Amulets have had quite a general vogue among all people of all times and have been characterized by a bewildering variety as to the material, shape, and method of employment. Carved stones, bits of metal, figures of gods, strips of paper, or parchment bearing enigmatic phrases, blessings, and maledictions have done service in this way. Among the Egyptians the primacy among amulets was held by the scarab. This was commonly a gem made in the form of a beetle, and curiously engraved upon one side with many devices. Among the Greeks and Romans amulets seem to have been largely employed as a defense against certain evil powers to whom they attributed no inconsiderable part in the government and control of the world.

The Jews, so far as escape from this superstition was concerned, enjoyed an advantage not possessed by the pagan peoples of antiquity. They had the knowledge of the true God, and the Mosaic law, which gave such minute directions for the government of their religious and social life, contained severe prohibitions of magic and divination. That nevertheless, even in patriarchal time, they were not altogether free from this contamination seems fairly deducible from some passages in Genesis, xxxi, 19, xxxv, 4. Later on there is no doubt but that through their contact with the Egyptians and Babylonians, amongst whom the use of amulets was widespread, they had recourse to talismans in many ways. Whether the tephillin , that is, the small leathern pouches containing passages of the law, and later known as phylacteries, were regarded as amulets at all times, is not susceptible of determination from the references to them in the Pentateuch. In the beginning, at any rate, they do not appear to have had any such purpose; subsequently, however, they unquestionable were employed as such, as is proved by the Targum (Canticle of Canticles, viii,3) as well as Buxtorf (Synagoga Jud., ed 1737). There is no doubt that but some of the ornaments used in the apparel of Jewish women were really amulets. This seems to be the proper interpretation of the phrase little moons which occurs in Isaias, iii, 18, as well as in the earrings mentioned in verse 20 of the same chapter. This superstition dominated even more strongly the Jews of post-Biblical times, partly as a result of their freer intercourse with other people, and partly because of the extreme formalism of their religious life. The Talmud contains evidence of this.

The reliance placed upon amulets, like other forms of superstition, grew out of popular ignorance and fear. With the coming of the Christian religion therefore, it was destined to disappear. It would have been too much, however, to have expected the victory of Christianity in this matter to have been an easy and instantaneous one. Hence it is intelligible that in the newest converts from paganism there remained a disposition, if not to cling to the forms they had of necessity abjured, at all events to attribute to the Christian symbols of worship something of the power and value of the amulets with which they were so generously supplied in heathenism. From the beginning the Church was on the alert to detect the first signs of this abuse and set her face sternly against it. Thus, for instance, we find the Council of Laodicea, in the fourth century, after forbidding the clergy to be sorcerers, conjurers, etc., or to make amulets, deciding that those who wear amulets are to be excommunicated. Epiphanius ( Expositio fidei Catholicæ , c. 24) witnesses pointedly to the prohibition by the Church of amulets. Objects dear to Christian piety, such as in the early days the representation of the Good Shepherd, the Lamb, palms, relics of the martyrs, and in later days, pictures of the saints, medals, Agnus Deis, etc., were venerated in a relative sense. They were, in the mind of the Church, in no wise thought to have any latent power or divinity in them, or to be calculated to assure, as of themselves, to their possessors, protection against harm or success in undertakings. The Council of Trent (Sess. XXV) is at some pains to formulate the authoritative teaching of the Church with regard to the honour paid to images of Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Saints. It does not deal professedly with the subject of amulets, but the words in which it sets forth its mind upon the worship of images describe with a peculiar appositeness the attitude of the Church towards all that array of pious objects, approved or tolerated by her, which have so improperly been stigmatized as amulets. The Holy Synod commands that especially are images of Christ, of the Virgin Mother of God and of the other Saints to be had and kept in churches; and that due honour and veneration be accorded to them: not because it is believed that any divinity or virtue is in them for which they are to be revered; or that anything may be asked form them; or that any confidence can be placed in the images as was done of old by the Gentiles. . . but because the honour which is exhibited to them is referred to the prototypes which they represent, etc. Thus they are sharply and definitively differentiated from the amulets and talismans of popular superstition whether of antiquity or of a later periods.

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