At this point the meaning of the word needs to be clarified. The term is attested in English in the seventeenth century, and in French in the second half of the sixteenth. It is derived from the Latin amuletum, origin unknown, but which is an approximation of the Greek phulakterion (phylactery). It may also be compared with the Arabic homaba/hemel, meaning 'to carry'.
The generally accepted definition is: 'Anything worn about the person as a charm or preventive against evil, mischief, disease, witchcraft, etc.' The Oxford English Dictionary.
A talisman, as distinct from an amulet, is not necessarily worn on the person. According to The Oxford English Dictionary, it is: 'a stone, ring or other object engraven with figures or characters, to which are attributed the occult powers of the planetary influences and celestial configurations under which it was made [...] also medicinally used to impart healing virtue; hence, any object held to be endowed with magic virtue; a charm.'
An amulet is thus defined as an object endowed with magical properties, and which one wears on one's person.
Let us see to what extent this definition also applies to Ancient Egyptian amulets. Pharaonic civilisation produced a considerable variety of small objects: animals, gods, objects used in daily life, hieroglyphs. Some were pieces of jewellery in their own right, others, pierced or furnished with an eyelet or loop for suspension, were elements in the composition of of a necklace or of a pectoral; still others were distributed among the wrappings of mummies.
It should first be remarked that Egyptian amulets protected the owner in his lifetime and accompanied him, still effectively, in the hereafter. There were no precise frontiers (and a fortiori no impassable barriers) between the two worlds: far from being mutually exclusive, they constantly interpenetrated one another, one heraiding or extending the other. Amulets, too, concerned the living as well as the dead.
A second, and significant, observation: the effectiveness of the amulet is not limited to the object itself. The Egyptians, as mentioned above, believed profoundly in the power of the image. From this perspective, the drawn representation of an amulet, its image, extended and even increased the power of the amulet itself. A painting of a djed pillar in a tomb, or a knot of Isis (also referred to as a girdle of Isis) as a vignette illustrating a Book of the Dead, functioned - although on a different scale - in the same way as an amulet worn by an individual.
In the context of Ancient Egypt one should thus not reduce an amulet to just an object worn by a private individual; the term should include its representation as well - painted, incised or drawn on a support of some kind (a wall, a statue, papyrus, etc.). The image of an amulet must, however, not be confused with a talisman, because it took the form, in most cases, of the representation of an object worn by the individual.
The Egyptian amulet is often a small wearable and personal version of a more generally used symbol. Thus, the lioness, symbol of all forms of power from the earliest periods, divine protectress of the king in historic times (as manifested by the large statues of the goddess Sekhmet from the reign of Amenhotep III in the XVIIIth Dynasty), finally became, in the form of an amulet, the protectress of the individual.
A final note: it is advisable to be scrupulous in distinguishing the amulet from the jewel in the sense in which that term is understood today. The jewel is thus a purely decorative object stripped of any magical or protective connotations. The amulet, on the other hand, is defined by its utilitarian prophylactic virtues, and functions as a receptacle of divine and magical forces.
Ref.: Ph. Germond, Le monde symbolique des amulettes Egyptiennes, p.17, 5 Continents Editions srl, Milan 2005.
Amulets, which are common to all cultures, have very ancient origins in prehistoric times. Numerous examples dating from the Upper Palaeolithic (beads, pierced shells, animal teeth, etc.) demonstrate that their use was directly linked to the first manifestations of the expression of a belief in magic and of funerary traditions. Egypt is no exception to the rule. But it is mainly from the Neolithic (beginning of the sixth millennium BC), when the sedentary population overcame the problems connected with agriculture, with animal husbandry and with new technologies - weaving and pottery - that the examples increase significantly in the Badarian Period. They were to diversify in course of the subsequent Predynastic and Prethinite periods (ca. 4500-3150 BC).
If excavations of prehistoric sites have produced a large number of amulets, often together with beads, they are usually without an archaeological context; attempts to study them can therefore be problematic, not to say downright deceptive. It is thus difficult to make an informed judgement as to their precise function. They are interesting above all for their remarkable diversity even in these very early periods, and which is also found to a large extent in historic times.
The Egyptians, who thought their environment was dominated by 'powers' (sekhemu), saw certain animals as receptacles for their manifestations. It is thus hardly astonishing to find, among the amulets found in burials from these very early periods, a not inconsiderable number of representations of the fauna of the Nile valley, from the smallest to the largest. The representation of a hippopotamus thus occurs, perhaps worn white the animal was being hunted. The frog, probably symbolic of birth and abundance, appears frequently, as do the fly, the bee and various beetles, as well as birds, of which a stylised type from the end of the Gerzean (3500 BC) suggests a falcon. The dog, shown couchant like Anubis, whom it perhaps represents, is also present. Highly stylised heads of bulls are likewise found, undoubtedly connected with the bull cult in the North. Crocodile figurines portend the veneration that Sobek was to attract in historic times. The list could go on.
There are also many other types of pendants from the Predynastic periods: sometimes in approximately geometric shapes, sometimes suggesting a star or a crescent moon, they were often strung as necklaces, alternating with amulets in animal form. That their role was prophylactic seems certain; it is, however, not possible to be more precise. It seems probable that each group of amulets and each group of pendants acted on a clearly defined range of objectives, and that one did not indifferently wear just any amulet. It would depend on the aim one was seeking to attain: success in the hunt, the hope of fertility, protection from illness. The selection of the raw material and its colour was itself of great importance.
At the end of the Predynastic Period, symbols of gods become more frequent: for example the falcon figurines of this period, made of faience, wood or ivory, prefigure Horus, who appears in historic times. A most significant discovery, dating to the beginning of the Thinite Period, was made at Helwan, near Memphis: two djed pillars and a tit amulet (also referred to as a knot of Isis or girdle of Isis) made of wood were found in the same archaeological context. These symbols, undeniably Osirian, attest that the origins of the funerary role of the great god of Abydos were indeed in the Delta. It was only later that it developed in Upper Egypt. Proof indeed that the discovery of small objects sometimes makes it possible to clarify a point of the utmost importance relating to funerary traditions.
Relatively little evidence from the Thinite Period has been unearthed, but the objects are sometimes of exceptional quality - the bracelet of King Djer (Abydos, Ist Dynasty), for example, which consists of twenty-seven alternating gold and turquoise elements depicting a falcon perched on a serekh (palace facade). Representations of animals, such as the oryx \96 which sometimes carnes the sa sign, the most important symbol of protection - or the bull are common in this period. The bestiary develops further under the Old Kingdom, with the appearance of representations of frogs (abundance and fertility), hippopotami (of which the male, unlike the female, mostly symbolised negative principles), ducklings (probably sustituting for food offerings) and fish.
At the end of this period, the repertory increases and other forms appear, such as representations of humans, usually male, sometimes with animal heads. The sign of life (the ankh), the djedpillar and the scarab - its own efficacy reinforced by the inscriptions sometimes found on the underside of the amulet - also appear at this time. The First Intermediate Period favoured the representation of parts of the human body, such as the foot or the fist. These objects, which accompanied the deceased, protected the parts represented, and if necessary served as substitutes for a damaged part. At this time, too, the insignia of royal power, such as the white crown of Upper Egypt and the red crown of Lower Egypt, make their appearance in the tombs of private individuals, bearing witness to the extension of funerary traditions that were originally purely royal.
Under the Middle Kingdom, technological developments included the working of semiprecious stone and the technique of cloisonn\E9, both of which on occasion gave rise to true masterpieces. The scarab became truly recognisable, and was worn either on its own as an amulet or - and this was apparently unprecedented \96 was mounted on rings and also used as a seal.
Amulets in the shape of deities were still uncommon in this period, with the exception of the minor but very popular deities Bes and Taweret (Thoeris). The important members of the pantheon were still absent. At most, they were represented in their animal manifestations, Horus appearing in the form of a falcon, or Hathor in the form of a cow. From the New Kingdom on, however, towards the end of the XVIIIth Dynasty, the trend reversed and theomorphic amulets became the most common. All the major divinities were then represented as amulets, whether it is the Memphite triad (Ptah, Sekhmet and Nefertum) or the Theban (Amun, Mut and Khonsu), Thoth or the leonine goddesses.
The Third Intermediate Period is characterised by the diffusion of new forms, among which representations of the counterpoise of the menat necklace and the aegis should be mentioned, elements linked to solar rebirth and protection. In this period as well, there was a large increase in the number of representations of the Four Sons of Horus, charged with guarding the viscera of the deceased and generally found in the netting that enveloped mummies together with the winged scarab, symbol of solar rebirth.
It is mostly from the Saite Period and the Late Period on that the Isis-Horus-Nephthys triad came into prominence, and there was an increase in such funerary amulets as the headrest and the two fingers; sometimes fashions for earlier amulets, temporarily abandoned, were revived, starting with the sun-in-horizon or the sun between two lions.
Thus, towards the end of Ancient Egyptian history, amulets developed to an extaordinary extent, and their numbers increased greatly. This is mainly for two reasons: the first is a constant in Egyptian thought, which does not sacrifice an old idea in favour of a new one, but preserves and juxtaposes all possible developments of an idea or of a given theme. The second is linked to a popular and national feeling, a need for the Egyptian to affirm his identity in relation to all the foreigners and foreign influences then present in the country. In this sense, the popular success of amulets in the late periods is comparable to that which the cults of various species of animals enjoyed at the same time.
The Egyptians used various terms to designate amulets: wedja, meket, nehet and sa. All are connected, in one way or another, with a very general idea of protection. The nuances that might have distinguished these terms originally are by and large lost: by the time of the New Kingdom, the terms had become virtually interchangeable.
Wedja was in common use from the Middle Kingdom on, and is closely related to the verb wedja, 'to be intact, well preserved'. This term is found in relation to Osiris reborn, designated as 'He who awakens intact'. The state of wedja thus implies well-being and perfect health. Conveying ideas of plenitude and physical and mental integrity in the first instance, wedja is as applicable to the amulet one wears as it is to the magic spell one recites.
Meket, used from the Old Kingdom on, derives from m(e)ki'to protect'. It is by this term that the great goddesses are designated when they are protecting the sun from its enemies. Hathor is thus called meket neb (e)s, 'protectress of her lord'. Meket appears to be linked particularly to physical protection in its specific designation as meket ha, 'protection of the body'.
Nehet, current in the New Kingdom with the idea of 'protection, shelter', derives from nehj, 'to protect'. A drink known as nehet, used in the context of magic, was considered to be a protective beverage, while the same term could also designate a 'book of protection'. The term nehet was often applied to the written amulet (a rolled fragment of papyrus) attached to a mummy.
The last term, sa, known from the Old Kingdom on, and which is often written with the sole hieroglyph, denotes a very general form of protection. Like wedja, it designates the amulet as well as the magic spell. It is frequently associated with other terms that guarantee the king a life of plenty, free of all trouble: 'may all protection [sa], life, power and health surround him'. From the Middle Kingdom on, sa appears to have a very broad meaning, since it designates both amulets that protect the deceased, the gods and the kings, and magic pictures and the labels that bear magic spells. One may note that the derivative term sau designates the healer magician - maker of amulets and close associate of the sinu, precursor of of the doctors of today.
Since the Egyptians themselves failed to establish precise distinctions between these terms, which often cover identical things, no artificial distinctions will be made between them here, and the term amulet will be the only one used in the remainder of this book.
The Egyptians imagined a world in a state of perfect equilibrium conceived by the solar demiurge. But this resplendent universe was under constant threat from a large number of malign forces that might spring from the shadows: every being, every place, even every object might at any time be prey to malevolent forces and agressive intentions. The gods themselves, in their originally ambivalent form, sometimes proved hostile and then called up innumerable cohorts of dangerous genies, messengers of illness and death. The demiurge had not, however, left mankind without resources in the face of these perils; himself endowed with unlimited power, heka, a true dynamic universal force, he had given humans the use of it so that they might combat adversity in the terrestrial world.
In Ancient Egypt there was no conflict between religion and magic; each, by its own means, contributed to the maintenance of the ideal original world. The Egyptian disposed of an entire 'supranormal' arsenal for the maintenance of this equilirium for his own benefit. If the 'official' religion assured — by the celebration of the daily rites and the festivals — that the world ran well, the heka extended and reinforced these observances at the level of individual and popular rituals. In this context, amulets — favoured receptacles of heka — contributed effectively to the prevention of any event — be it an illness, a poor harvest or a disappointment in love — that might thwart the 'normal course of events'. What then were the criteria on which the efficacy of amulets, whose number increased in Egypt to the point where one is tempted to speak of production on an industrial scale, was founded? It was only in the most exceptional circumstances that the direct intervention of the magician, the sau, was required to ensure that the amulet fulfilled its potential:
Certain texts, however, mention a spell to be recited over this or that talisman, to invest it with its full efficacy; first of all, it [usually] concerns necklaces or of strips of linen with knots at [more or less regular] intervals, which were not able, by their form atone, to ensure the protection of their wearer. S. Sauneron, Le Monde du sorcier
The object acquired its full efficacy as soon as it was made, immediately it came out of the mould. No special consecration was necessary, the amulet was operational at once, since its efficacy resided in its form, in the material from which it was made, in its colour, indeed in the very symbol which it represented.
The sacred form thus provided the protection sought. Taweret protected women in childbirth. Ptah protected craftsmen. Thoth protected scribes, whereas Sobek kept the crocodiles away. The regalia carried and worn by the pharaoh, such as the sceptres and the crowns, receptacles of divine and royal power, thus became a recognised means of partaking in the immortality of the king.
Certain spells from the Book of the Dead deliberately emphasise the importance of the choice of the material that will endow the object with its full potential, aside from the actual symbol represented. It is thus specified in Spell 155 that the djed pillar, symbol of stability and durability, should be made of gold:
To be said over a golden djed-pillar embellished with sycamore-bast, to be placed on the throat of the deceased on the day of interment. As for him on whose throat this amulet has been placed, he will be a worthy spirit who will be in the realm of the dead on New Year's Day like those who are in the suite of Osiris. A matter a million times true. The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead,
The importance placed on the choice of material for the making of amulets is very ancient, as attested by evidence from as early as the Gerzean Period: red jasper for a heart, carnelian for a bird, turquoise for a ram, limestone for a bull's head, ivory for a vulture.
In fact, the Egyptians used a great variety of materials to make amulets. Before the historic period, the materials were mainly of organic origin: shells, the bones and teeth of various animais, ivory. Talons and claws used as amulets have been unearthed in Predynastic burials; these were later reproduced in semiprecious stone and in metal. On the other hand wood, a more perishable material, was rarely used to make amulets. Semiprecious stones began to be used towards the end of the Predynastic Period, and their use developed significantly afterwards. The symbolism of their colours played an extremely important part in this development.
Although the list below is not exhaustive, the semiprecious stones most commonly used were:
  • Amazonite, a green variety of microcline, one of the feldspars. Like turquoise, it was a symbol of life eternally reborn. It was in use from the end of the Old Kingdom on.
  • Carnelian, a red or reddish-brown to orange transluscent variety of agate. The colour red stood for positive concepts related to blood and to universal dynamism, but also for negative concepts, manifestations of the god Seth, murderer of Osiris, lord of the desert regions and of devastating storms. Without any doubt, in using carnelian to make an amulet, the Egyptian had only the beneficent aspects of the colour red in mind.
  • asper, an impure form of chalcedony with bands or patches of red, green or yellow. Red jasper, symbol of life and of the positive aspects of the universe, was used above all to make amulets. It was imperative that certain amulets, such as the tit amulet, or knot of Isis, were made of red jasper (at least ideally), as specified in Spell 156 of the Book of the Dead. The more rarely used green jasper was especially indicated for making scarabs, particularly heart scarabs.
  • Lapis lazuli was one of the most highly prized semiprecious stones in Ancient Egypt. This 'azure stone', symbol of the nocturnal sky, comes from northeastern Afghanistan and is an aluminosilicate of sodium and calcium. Imported to Egypt since the Predynastic Period, it was worked throughout the dynastic period and in the late periods gave rise to minuscule amulets evocative of joy and delight.
  • Serpentine is the generic term for the hydrated silicates of magnesium. It came mostly from the eastern desert, and occurs in many shades of colour, from a pale green to a dark green verging on black. Used from the earliest times, it was sought especially for making heart scarabs.
  • Steatite, also known as soapstone, is a mineral of the chlorite family; it has the great advantage of being very easily worked. Steatite amulets are found in contexts from the Predynastic Period on, although in subsequent periods it was usually covered in a fine layer of faience and was used in the manufacture of numerous scarabs.
  • Turquoise, opaque stone, sky blue to blue-green; turquoise is a natural basic aluminium phosphate coloured blue by traces of copper. Closely linked to the goddess Hathor, it was extracted mainly from mines in Sinai (at Serabit el-Khadim). The Egyptians were particularly fond of the greenish shades, symbolic of dynamism and vital renewal. In the Late Period turquoise, like lapis lazuli, was synonymous with joy and delight. Many other types of stone - such as limestone, quartz, rock crystal, haematite, obsidian and basalt - were also used to make amulets.
The working of these various stones was still fraught with difficulties, despite the fact that the technology was becoming ever more efficient. However well developed the techniques of production, they could not fulfil an ever growing demand. Then a new technique - occasionally attempted under the Old Kingdom if not before – was to flourish on a grand scale under the New Kingdom, from the reign of Amenhotep III in XVIIIth Dynasty on. The technique in question is the mass production of faience amulets cast in moulds. The term 'faience' is commonly applied to various much later ceramic wares made in Europe. The Egyptian faience from which amulets were made, however, is not a ceramic at all. The cores of faience amulets were generally made of a sandy substance, or ideally of quartz; this was covered in a thin siliceous glaze, coloured by adding copper salts, which were varied to produce varying shades of blue or green. The production of these amulets - which were cast in terracotta moulds - expanded prodigiously, until the scale of the output bordered on the truly industrial. This technology made it possible for all Egyptians, even the most humble, easily to acquire such amulets, imitations of types ideally made of carved turquoise or other semiprecious stones. The Egyptians produced metal, as well as carved stone and cast faience amulets. Amulets were not, however, made of copper – the earliest metal known to man – until the Old Kingdom, although gold was used together with turquoise in amulets which form elements of the well known bracelet of King Djer of the lst Dynasty. Silver, which was imported from Asia Minor and was often more valuable than gold to the Egyptians, appeared during the Old Kingdom. Although silver was sometimes alloyed with gold to form electrum, it was hardly ever used alone in the production of amulets. Bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, was much used when the use of iron was restricted during the Graeco-Roman period.
Colour is also important from the earliest times. It is no accident that heart amulets were made of red jasper in the Protohistoric Period; the choice of colour was deliberate and the colour was deliberately sought. Red, symbolic of life, thus became the assurance that the deceased would continue to exist in the hereafter. As a symbol of life after death, red is not peculiar to Egypt: the Magdalenians in Europe used red ochre in some burials, attesting to comparable beliefs. From an identical point of view, green - symbol of new or flourishing vegetation - conveyed ideas of growth, flowering and renewal, whereas white – the colour of milk - conveyed notions of fecundity and abundance.
A large number of amulets drew their efficacy from the very symbol they embodied. Certain hieroglyphs thus served as amulets because of their meaning: the amulet ankh, symbol of life, would assure its possessor of a happy existence. The djed pillar would act as a receptacle of stability and durability, whereas the the hieroglyph wadj - the small papyrus column - would develop the potentiality of greenery and permanent regeneration. In general, the efficacy of all amulets was reinforced when they were 'uttered' at favourable times, and more particularly at the beginning of a new year.The rites celebratated within the temples at these times, such as that of the 'Union with the Disc', recharged the entire universe with dynamic forces. It was precisely at this time, in this favourable context of vital renewal, that one acquired for oneself or gave one's close relations and associates the small objects that were in some way themselves imbued with all the positive elements of the renewed cycle.
Arranging amulets in well-defined categories, according to precise criteria, is the expression of a modern, scientific preoccupation. No such concerns troubled the Ancient Egyptians, who believed in the powers of these innumerable images without in any way feeling the slightest need to arrange them in groups.
Peasant, scribe, or noble – all wore them, selecting them for their efficacy in relation to the situations they faced. If certain amulets – such as the wedjat eye which 'functioned' in all circumstances – appear to possess extended, not to say universal, powers, others had a more specific field of activity: a scribe would seek out an amulet representing his protector, the god Thoth, whereas a woman about to give birth would put her confidence in a small image of a hippopotamus, the goddess Taweret, effective protectress of maternity.
Certain texts, such as the Book of the Dead, or the Ritual of Embalming, give precise details of the material and colour of amulets and details of precisely where they must obligatorily be placed on the body of the deceased; however, these texts never refer to any form of classification in the sense that we understand the term today. Many Egyptologists have tried to classify amulets in groups according to varying criteria — some using aspects of religion, others relying on the function of the amulets or on archaeological criteria.
One example that could be mentioned is the classification suggested by Hans Bonnet in his book about Egyptian religion, Reallexikon der Ägyptischen Religionsgeschichte. He distinguishes eight groups of amulets: natural objects such as shells and birds' claws, knots, gods and demons, animals and part of animals, parts of the human body, symbols, crowns and insignia of power, ornaments and funerary equipment.
One of the tendencies now current, founded mainly on archaeological criteria, attempts an objective and scientific classification based on analysis of the object itself and of the use to which it was put. An example of this approach is an article by Julia Falkovitch, 'L'Usage des amulettes égyptiennes'. Although it fulfils the requirements of museology admirably, it fails to take account of the function of the amulet and in no way reflects the complex and often irrational world imagined by the Egyptian himself.
All these attempts, expressions of different points of view, have their respective merits. One is not 'better' than the other. They simply reflect different preoccupations.