An amulet is a small object that a person wears, carries, or offers to a deity because he or she believes that it will magically bestow a particular power or form of protection. The conviction that a symbol, form, or concept provides protection, promotes well-being, or brings good luck is common to all societies: in our own, we commonly wear religious symbols, carry a favorite penny, or a rabbit’s foot. In ancient Egypt, amulets might be carried, used in necklaces, bracelets, or rings, and—especially—placed among a mummy’s bandages to ensure the deceased a safe, healthy, and productive afterlife.
Egyptian amulets functioned in a number of ways. Symbols and deities generally conferred the powers they represent. Small models that represent known objects, such as headrests or arms and legs, served to make sure those items were available to the individual or that a specific need could be addressed. Magic contained in an amulet could be understood not only from its shape. Material, color, scarcity, the grouping of several forms, and words said or ingredients rubbed over the amulet could all be the source for magic granting the possessor’s wish.
Functions of Amulets in Ancient Egypt
The word ‘amulet’ has Arabic origin and means to bear or to carry. It also finds its roots in the dynastic period when it was referred as mk-t, and it signifies protector. Amulets formed an important part of ancient Egyptian culture, and it was believed to invoke the powers of gods, goddesses and other magical forces. The amulets were worn by people from all social classes, and hence the materials that were used to make them were also varied. Amulets were made right from precious stones to more conventional material like crushed stone or sand.
The amulets were used in both daily lives and funerary rites. It was believed that the power of an amulet was activated by magical practice. In fact, many spells recorded on papyrus carried instructions to be spoken over amulets in different forms. Once the charm was activated, it would be worn by the owner to reap the benefit from the magic that the amulet embodied.
Professional magicians were referred as the ‘amulet man’ who decided which one an individual may need and performed their activation as well. Amulet men were believed to be in close connection with the physicians as there was little distinction between magic and science in ancient Egypt. For example, prevention of illness or accidents were addressed by the spells spoken over the amulets worn by the person. These recitations are related to mythology, and the amulet was associated with the like gods to heal the injury.
History of Amulets
In ancient times, priests and holy men recited prayers to strengthen the amulets with supernatural powers. The earliest name on these amulets was found in the form of hekau or words of power which were used to empower the deceased and the departed souls.
Here is an example of one such hekau. Homage to you, Osiris, Lord of eternity, King of the gods, whose names are manifold, whose forms are holy, you being of hidden form in the temples, whose Ka is holy. – Hymn To Osiris.
Ancient amulets came in different shapes, sizes and were made of various materials and symbols including those of animals. The early ones were green colored schist. They were mainly used in funeral procedures where the priests placed them on the chest of the dead bodies. Such amulets were quite common and had been found in the ancient graves of Egypt.
Around 3rd millennium BC, people discarded animal shaped charms and opted for regular-shaped, often rectangular, with animal and plant symbols etched on them. Egyptians also used papyrus sheets to record and wrote down the words of power. They also inscribed them on the walls of the pyramid or the surface of the amulets. An old pyramid of Unas which belonged to one of the early kings of Egypt (3300 BC) mentions that a book of magic verses was laid along with the body of the king.
The usage and different types of amulets spread extensively for four to five millennia before the advent of Christ.
Types and importance of amulets
The amulets are of different shapes, sizes and materials. Each of them is believed to carry a different meaning and unique powers. Each charm was designed to serve a particular purpose. Based on their goal and significance, they are worn in various parts of the body. Some are worn from infancy through death. Breaking the Color Code mentions that different gemstones are used to create the amulets, and they are as important as the shapes or images that are carved on them.
The power of the gem, when combined with the symbolism on the amulet, worked as a robust protection against harm and evil both on earth and in the afterlife. To give a charm its power, it had to be made in strict accordance with the instructions written in the Book of the Dead. Only then, the appropriate gods’ spirit will energize the amulet. The amulet is a sacred object and had to be treated concerning ensure that the God continues to bestow his/her blessings on the wearer.
Here are some of the most famous amulets and their associated meanings:
The Scarab amulet
The scarab amulet resembles the beetle and is known to offer protection to both living and the deceased. It is considered as the most important amulet in ancient Egypt. The scarab symbol derived from an Egyptian dung beetle that deposited its eggs in a ball of clay or dung. The burial of its ball symbolized the setting sun from which new life arises with each dawn.
Often scarab amulets were buried with a mummy. It is placed over the body’s heart, with magic, protective spell inscribed on its back. The Egyptians believe that when a person died, their heart is weighed by Ma’at, the goddess of truth. If the heart is found to be heavy with sin, they cannot go on to the afterlife. However, if it is shown light, then they can safely move on. The scarab beetle protects the wearer against the weighing of the heart ritual.
Wedjat Eye Amulet
It is one of the most popular amulets in Egypt and is the representation of the healed eye of the God Horus. It is a combination of a human and a falcon eye because Horus was associated with a falcon. The word wedjat means “the one that is sound (again).”
Ancient Egyptians believe that Horus’ eye was injured or stolen by the god Seth. It was later restored by Thoth. The wedjat eye is thought to possess healing power and symbolizes rebirth. An amulet in the shape of a wedjat eye is thought to protect and transfer its power of regeneration onto the wearer. It is used by the living as well as for the dead.
There are two types of wedjat eye amulet; one facing right and the other facing left. In conjunction, both the eyes represent the twin Eyes of Hours, indicating eyes of the sun and the moon or the god of Ra and Osiris, in mythological terms.
The Djed or the pillar amulet is one of the oldest symbols of Orisis. It is considered as the backbone of Orisis and helps in the resurrection. It represents hope and new life and symbolizes stability, firmness, balance and preservation. This amulet is a potent symbol of regeneration and always accompanies the mummy on its journey.
This amulet is immersed in the ankhem precious water and is laid on the dead person’s neck or the place where the body’s spine would rest. It is believed that the amulet offers immense power to reconstitute the body to form a Khu or a spirit in the underworld.
Tyet Amulet or the Amulet of the Buckle
The tyet amulet is also known as the Knot of Isis symbolizes the power and strength of the Goddess Isis. Although the origin of this symbol is not known, the amulet with this symbol is believed to possess magical powers to protect its wearer, both living and the dead. It also shields the person from all types of negative forces and illnesses.
Words from the chapter of the Buckle is chanted continuously as the amulet of the buckle is dipped in the ankhem flower water before being worn by the wearer or placed on the dead. This amulet is believed to share a close connection with the CLVIth chapter of the Book of the Dead.
The Bes amulet signifies the dwarf guardian God of Egypt, the protector god of childbirth. This amulet is believed to protect the family from harmful and evil spirits. It is said that this amulet protects the women, especially during childbirth. The ugly face of this god is supposed to scare the enemies of Egypt.
The fish amulet represents Synodontis, a type of catfish that swims upside-down at the surface of the water. The ancient Egyptians wear the amulet in a belief to stay afloat in the water and considered it as a powerful charm to keep one from being submerged. It is also believed that this amulet offers joy and happiness to the wearer. They were placed along with the mummy to protect the person in the afterlife.
Depicting a god between two birds, this charm is supposed to be the most complex. It is often a part of a jewelry piece like a necklace or a brooch.
It is unclear why the Egyptians used different types of ornaments over their bodies, however, many such jewelry pieces or amulets were designed to serve different purposes; some to protect the wearer while there were others to preserve and protect the dead.