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6 3/4 x 9 1/2 in.
128 pp., 20 color and 80 b&w photos, 2 line drawings
ISBN 0-292-70464-X
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Amulets of Ancient Egypt

Back to Book Description

By Carol Andrews

Table of Contents

  • 1. A short introduction to Egyptian amulets
  • 2. Amulets of gods, goddesses and sacred animals
  • 3. Amulets of protection and aversion
  • 4. Scarabs for the living and funerary scarabs
  • 5. Amulets of assimilation
  • 6. Amulets of powers
  • 7. Amulets of offerings, possessions and property
  • 8. Materials and their symbolism
  • Chronology
  • Bibliography
  • List of object numbers
  • Index


An amulet, talisman or charm is a personal ornament which, because of its shape, the material from which it is made, or even just its colour, is believed to endow its wearer by magical means with certain powers or capabilities. At the very least it should afford some kind of magical protection, a concept confirmed by the fact that three of the four Egyptian words translated as 'amulet', namely mkt (meket), nht (nehet) and s3 (sa) come primarily from verbs meaning 'to guard' or 'to protect'. The fourth, wd3 (wedja), has the same sound as the word meaning 'well-being'. For the ancient Egyptians amulets and jewellery incorporating amuletic forms were an essential adornment, especially as part of the funerary equipment for the dead, but also in the costume of the living. Moreover, many of the amulets and pieces of amuletic jewellery worn in life for their magical properties could be taken to the tomb for use in the life after death. Funerary amulets, however, and prescribed funerary jewellery which was purely amuletic in function, were made expressly for setting on the wrapped mummy on the day of burial to provide aid and protection on the fraught journey to the Other World and ease in the Afterlife.

Ancient Egyptian texts give information on the appearance and uses of amulets. In particular, certain funerary amulets are the subject of chapters in the Book of the Dead, a repertoire of nearly 200 spells or chapters written on papyrus and illustrated with vignettes which were intended to help the dead pass through the perils of the Underworld and reach heaven. Indeed, Books of the Dead themselves qualify for the term funerary amulet since a copy was placed in the burial chamber either on the mummy itself, inside the coffin or within a special compartment in a Ptah-Sokaris-Osiris figure or in the plinth on which it stood. In funerary papyri the amulets in question are illustrated in the accompanying vignette, the material from which they are to be made is specified and the spell to be recited over them, together with the desired result, forms the relevant chapter.

Although Book of the Dead papyri do not predate the New Kingdom, many of their spells are first found in the Middle Kingdom Coffin Texts which were themselves largely based on the so-called Pyramid Texts inscribed inside Old Kingdom pyramids from the reign of Wenis onwards (c. 2350 BC). Some of the spells for prescribed amulets which occur in these earlier texts were not incorporated into the Book of the Dead, but examples of the amulets in question have themselves survived. Such is the case for that in the form of a lion's forepart prescribed by Coffin Text 83: examples of First Intermediate Period date are known.

A few of the spells in the Coffin Texts and the Book of the Dead were to be recited not over an actual amuletic form but over a representation drawn on the bandages which wrapped the mummy, thus rendering the bandaging itself amuletic. It was sometimes the practice, too, in magico-medical texts of the New Kingdom and later that the spell should be recited over various amuletic images painted or drawn on linen which was then set on the relevant part of the sufferer's body. Indeed, occasionally it was required that the drawing be made directly on to the patient's hand and subsequently licked off so that the potency of the image and the words pass into his body together. Most often, though, remedies involved the recitation of a spell over an actual amulet.

A well-known list of amulets is depicted on the thickness of a doorway in the complex of rooms dedicated to Osiris on the roof of the Ptolemaic temple of the goddess Hathor at Dendera. Far more informative, however, is the detailed contemporary list of amulets on the verso of a funerary papyrus, known as the MacGregor Papyrus, in which each is represented pictorially and named. Another source is a select group of amulets depicted on a wooden tablet of New Kingdom date in Berlin; of particular use is the listing of the materials from which they are made. Sometimes, too, Late Dynastic funerary papyri end with a depiction of dozens of amulets positioned in such a way that they can only reflect how they would have been placed on the mummy.

Undoubtedly the positioning of an amulet on the body must originally have had a special significance; certainly the location of the prescribed funerary amulets was always laid down. However, when mummies were first unwrapped, such information was not always recorded carefully or was even ignored. Now, though, the X-raying of wrapped bodies and re-examination of evidence are providing more and more details. Although the majority of mummies examined in this way date to the last millennium BC and in particular to the last few centuries BC, it has been possible to determine that from the New Kingdom until the Ptolemaic Period the positioning of amulets on the body does appear to follow a certain pattern and it was only after this time that they came to be scattered almost randomly.

Some rare examples of original stringing have survived which suggest that, in the First Intermediate Period at least, amulets were well spread out over a length of intricately twisted and knotted thread made from flax fibre. The tradition continued into the Roman Period, when some bodies wore over the chest a palmfibre frame twisted around with flax thread to hold well-spaced-out amulets in rows. However, in the case of many Egyptian amulets, threading holes or suspension loops were not necessary since funerary examples intended purely for the tomb could be laid on the mummy or within its wrappings.

The first recognisable amulets occur as early as the predynastic Badarian Period, which predates the beginning of the First Dynasty in 3100 BC by more than a thousand years. All of them were found in burials, yet it is evident that their magical properties were primarily intended to provide aid in life; it was only subsequently that they were taken to the grave. Although very limited in form and material, these earliest amulets give a good indication of the dangerous forces which the early Egyptians felt were present in their world and needed to be harnessed by magical means. In some instances, too, they mark the first appearance of types which were to continue in use throughout dynastic history. Hobbled hippopotamus shapes, sometimes just the heads alone, suggest that, as in historic times, the river horse was considered a creature of unpredictable moods, most of them malevolent. An amulet in its form, especially an incapacitated one, was presumably intended to act apotropaically, rendering harmless this most dangerous animal by means of its own tethered representation and thereby affording protection to its wearer.

Another equally early representational amulet appears to have the shape of an antelope's or gazelle's head. In historic times, in one context at least, this creature was considered an embodiment of evil. Consequently an amulet in its shape might have been intended to avert ill-will or malevolence. However, at such an early date perhaps it was only hoped that by a kind of sympathetic magic its wearer might be given the animal's fleetness of foot or at least rendered a great hunter of this desert creature. Other early amulets in the shape of an animal's head, such as that of a panther or lioness, a dog and a bull, may also have incorporated the idea of protection by aversion. Yet they too might just as well have been felt capable of endowing their wearer with the ferocity of the big cat, the fleetness or slyness of the wild dog and the savage strength and virility of the bull. A definitive interpretation of an amulet's function in any period is often difficult; in the preliterate Predynastic Period only speculation is possible.

Other recognisable amulets of predynastic date are the couchant jackal and the archaic-form crouched falcon, which in historic times would represent respectively the gods Anubis and Horus, both with protective capabilities. But how are early fly and hedgehog amulets to be interpreted? A final category of predynastic amulet is formed by natural objects such as birds' claws and shells of various types including the cowrie which, in particular, was to retain its amuletic significance until the end of pharaonic history. In dynastic times all such forms would come to be imitated in materials such as precious metal and semi-precious stones.

By the end of this early period, stone pendants were a fairly common adornment. Usually they are little more than smoothed pebbles, presumably chosen for their colouring, but occasionally it is clear that they have been shaped and it is tempting to see a resemblance to amuletic forms. In one instance at least, long flat scutiform pendants may imitate a palette-shaped amulet with the knob at the top representing a stylised animal--or bird-head, just as in contemporary full-sized palettes on which eye-paint ingredients were ground down.

Surprisingly little has survived of amulets and amuletic jewellery from the Early Dynastic Period, but what there is shows a great advance in the quality of workmanship and the range of materials employed. In particular, to the early repertoire of glazed steatite and composition, ivory, shell and stones, some of them semiprecious, was added gold, perhaps the most characteristic of all Egyptian materials. A fine illustration of all these points is one of the four bracelets which miraculously survived on a wrapped arm found in the tomb of the First Dynasty pharaoh Djer at Abydos. It is composed of twenty-seven alternating gold and turquoise amuletic beads, each in the form of a serekh, a rectangular plaque decorated with characteristic palace façade panelling and surmounted by a falcon (in this case the crouched archaic type) which usually contained that element of the royal titulary termed the Horus name, thus associating the king with and placing him under the protection of the ancient falcon-form sky god. Of similar date are three hollow gold amulets found in a woman's burial at Nag ed-Deir. One comprises a foil elaterid beetle, its top surface incised and inlaid with the emblems of the goddess Neith, and would presumably have placed its owner under the goddess's protection. The second, an oryx with a Girdle Tie of the goddess Isis (tit) about its neck, and the third, a bull lacking horns and wearing a Bat-amulet, fetish of the goddess Hathor, were also probably protective.

Precious metal amuletic jewellery is also found, although rarely, in the succeeding Old Kingdom. A necklace discovered around the neck of a woman buried at Giza is composed of fifty hollow gold elaterid beetles, emblem of Neith, and again would have placed the owner under the goddess's protection. However, most contemporary amulets are of less precious materials, the most common being glazed composition, and are often so crudely formed as to be barely identifiable. Indeed, it is a curious fact that many early Egyptian amulets occur in what can only be called a debased form when they first appear.

Most of the new amuletic types which make their appearance during the later Old Kingdom represent animate objects. The frog, always connected with fertility, was probably worn by a woman, as must have been the amulet in the shape of the upright female hippopotamus, which would come to represent the goddess Thoeris, protectress of women in childbirth. An amulet shaped like a duckling perhaps acted as a substitute food offering, but was this also the function of those in fish shape? Cows' heads with gracefully shaped horns represented the goddess Hathor, and the vulture was perhaps the manifestation of the goddess Nekhbet, patroness of Upper Egypt. A lion symbolised ferocity and regenerative powers; the double lion represented the region where the sun rose. But what was the function of an amuletic grasshopper or locust and a hare? An amulet shaped like a turtle, a creature of darkness, took the form of the very entity its wearer wished to avoid and thus acted apotropaically. Such was probably also the purpose of carefully shaped scorpions rather than that they were emblems of Serqet, even if she came to be a protective goddess. Crocodile amulets too were most likely used aversively rather than as animal manifestations of the god Sobk. For the first time amulets occur in the form of a human with an animal head: a jackal-headed deity is presumably Anubis. A kneeling man holding palm ribs can only be Heh, 'god of millions'.

The earliest amulet shaped like an ankh--today often erroneously called 'the key of life'--dates to the Old Kingdom. Now too the wedjat-eye makes its first appearance. Representing the left moon-eye of the falcon-form sky god Horus, it was one of the most powerful of all protective amulets. New also is the djed-pillar, though at first barely recognisable, one of the most important prescribed funerary amulets which gave stability to the mummy's backbone. Just as early is the first appearance in an incredibly stylised form of the best known of all types of Egyptian amulet, that in the shape of the scarab or dung beetle. Considered symbolic of new life, regeneration and resurrection, it would come to be provided with even greater magical potency by the hieroglyphs and scenes added to its flat underside.

Throughout this early period a considerable number of human-form amulets were produced, generally of very crude manufacture. Most appear to be male, a few female and fewer still children, the last so identified purely because they hold a finger to the mouth, the standard way of representing children during the Dynastic Period. However, further categorisation can only be arbitrary: some suggestions have included 'crouched', 'hatted', 'bearded', 'plain', 'walking' and 'kilted', though the last named can also be seen as ithyphallic, depending on the viewpoint.

But it was essentially during the succeeding First Intermediate Period that amulets buried with the dead (and sometimes worn by the living) increased greatly in numbers and expanded yet more their range of forms. Especially characteristic of the period are those shaped like parts of the body, which not only endowed their owners with their particular bodily functions, but could also even act as physical replacements should those parts be damaged. Now too amulets in the form of royal regalia appear, evidence of the democratisation of funerary beliefs which were once exclusively royal.

The Middle Kingdom saw a further increase in the repertoire of amuletic forms, although some, such as the precious-metal oyster-shell, cylinder amulet and knot clasp and the hardstone crouched proto-Ba or female sphinx, are virtually exclusive to the period. Particularly characteristic are amuletic cloisonné-work motto clasps from contemporary royal burials in which good-luck wishes or protective statements are spelled out in hieroglyphs made of inlaid gold. At this time the scarab also attained its fully recognisable form, often being worn on a cord purely as an amulet, its potency rendered even greater by an amuletic design carved on its underside. The greatest number of all, however, bore instead the title and name of their owners, sometimes too the name of the pharaoh they served; and, set for the first time as a finger-ring bezel, the scarab served as a seal. Until the introduction of the solid-metal signet ring in the Eighteenth Dynasty, the scarab was pre-eminent as a seal, at one and the same time functional because of its inscription and amuletic because of its shape.

Before the New Kingdom amulets of deities, whether human, animal-headed or in sacred animal form, are conspicuously few and at first the repertoire is narrow. The minor deities Thoeris, goddess of childbirth, her leonine helper Bes and dwarfish pataikos are most popular. Only a few of the major deities such as the falcon-form sun god, Isis suckling Horus and Hathor as cow are found. However, from the end of the New Kingdom until the end of dynastic history, such figures are the most numerous and diverse in range. All the great gods and goddesses, as well as some of their less well-known divine colleagues, appear as amulets. Thus among lion-headed figures are found not only Sekhmet, Bastet and Wadjyt but Pakhet and Mehyt and the fierce god Mayhes. Certain deities are characteristic of a partitular period. Groups of the Four Sons of Horus, protectors of the mummified internal organs, do not appear before the Third Intermediate Period because of a change in embalming practices. It was in the same period that cat-form amulets representing the goddess Bastet and elaborate amuletic counterpoises surmounted by an aegis were most popular. Plaques with a high raised relief triad of Isis, Nephthys and Horus-the-Child do not occur before the Saite Period. This was also the time when funerary amulets increased significantly in number. In some instances this was because forms such as the headrest amulet, which before had been placed only in royal burials were now available to the non-royal dead. In addition, in line with the archaising trends of the period, some types of amulet which had not been used for fifteen centuries were revived. One such example was the double-lion amulet. Moreover, new forms were invented, like the two-fingers amulet, which it was felt perhaps ought to have existed earlier.

When W.M.F. Petrie published his seminal work Amulets in 1914, he divided the 275 types known to him into five great classes for which he coined the terms homopoeic, dynatic, ktematic, phylactic and theophoric.

By homopoeic Petrie meant amulets of similars: that is, those in the form of a living creature or part of a living creature which by assimilation would endow its wearer with the creature's characteristic powers or capabilities. His dynatic category is closely connected, except in this class the amulets are in the shape of generally inanimate objects invested with particular powers whose use could be transferred to their wearers. Petrie termed ktematic (from the Greek word for property) amulets which represented on the one hand the possessions of the living, such as clothing and personal accoutrements which were taken to the tomb for use in the Afterlife, and on the other hand funerary goods such as equipment for the mummy or food offerings which were connected purely with the burial and funerary cult. Should the actual objects be stolen, destroyed or, in the case of the food offerings; not presented, the amuletic representations of them would magically act as substitutes. If proof were needed of the difficulties inherent in attempting to classify amulets into even as few as five broad categories, it can be provided easily here. Amulets in the shape of human bodily parts could substitute for those members or organs should the mummy be damaged. However, the chief function of such amulets is, of course, to be found under the heading of homopoeic.

The fourth class of phylactic (protective) amulets comprises those which can be animate or inanimate in form. But it is Petrie's final category of theophoric (or, better still, theomorphic) amulets--that is, those in the shape of deities or their animal manifestations--which is the most contentious although the easiest to identify. Most theomorphic amulets would be worn to place their wearer under the protection or patronage of the deity depicted and are thus phylactic. The remainder are surely homopoeic in function since their wearer would hope to assimilate the person of the deity represented and thus gain access to the deity's particular powers or characteristics.

In addition to these difficulties Petrie's work was published before most of the site excavation reports which were to be the sources for a great number of well-dated and closely identified examples of amulets. Those of Matmar, Mostagedda, Qaw and Badari have proved indispensible. Of course, Tutankhamun's treasures and the royal burials at Tanis were unknown to him. Yet Petrie's general system of classification remains usable and so the layout of this publication follows it, if only in broad outline. His illustrations of the positions of amulets on twenty-four Late Period mummies also remain of great value. It must always be remembered, moreover, that although virtually every Egyptian collection, whatever its size, can claim to contain amulets, often in considerable numbers, until very recently only a handful of 'star' or typical examples were published. It is only now that attempts are being made to produce and publish in a systematic manner comprehensive catalogues of small antiquities, including every amulet however unlovely or damaged. Only in this way can comparative studies be carried out to reveal whether known amulets are correctly dated or even representative in form or material. On this basis, of course, the present publication cannot pretend to be comprehensive. Its main source is the amuletic collection in the Department of Egyptian Antiquities of the British Museum used in conjunction with W. M. F. Petrie, Amulets (London, 1914), G. A. Reisner, Amulets (CG), 1/11 (Cairo, 1907/ 1958), C. Müller-Winkler, Die Ägyptischen Objekt Amulette (Freiburg, 1987) and B. Schlick-Nolte and V. V. Droste zu Hülshoff, Liebieghaus-Frankfort am Main,Ägyptische Bildwerke I, Skarabden, Amulette and Schmuck (Melsungen, 1990).


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