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date: 30 October 2020


  • H. S. Versnel


  • Religion in the Ancient World
  • Religion in the Ancient World

Amulets were magically potent objects worn (hence the Greek names: περίαμμα, περίαπτον‎) for protection against witchcraft, illness, the evil eye, accidents, robbery, etc. (hence the Greek name: φυλακτήριον‎); also to enhance love, wealth, power, or victory. Houses, walls, and towns could be protected in the same way. Any kind of material might be employed: stones and metals as well as (parts of) animals and plants, since to every sort of material could be attributed an inherent ‘magical’ virtue (see magic); parts of human bodies (especially of people who had suffered a violent death: gladiators, executed criminals, victims of shipwreck etc. ) were also used as amulets. Their efficacy might be enhanced by engraved figures, e.g. deities or symbols, especially on stones and gems in rings. Powerful names taken from exotic (especially Egyptian and Hebrew) myth and cult were popular: Abraxas, Solomon (e.g. in the formula: ‘sickness be off, Solomon persecutes you’), magical words (e.g. abracadabra) and formulae (e.g. the Ephesia Grammata), the ‘great name’ (e.g. Sebaoth), or lists of vowels understood as names of archangels (see angels). Just as amulets could be applied without inscription, magical inscriptions could be effective in themselves. Signs with the inscription, ‘sickness be off, Heracles lives here’, could be seen on house doors. Apotropaic charms of this type have also been found in papyri.

Forms of amulets varied greatly: modern collections show hundreds of different types. Notable are rings (with gems), nails, knots, Egyptian scarabs, a hand showing an obscene gesture, phallus, vulva, eye, etc. Instructions for obtaining and preparing materia medica include attention to the correct time (midnight, early morning), circumstance (stellar constellations), and place (crossways, burial places). Both materials and formulae are marked by a wide range of variation, arbitrariness, and free association. Plin. HN 28 ff. gives an extensive survey, which can be supplemented by charms from later antiquity as collected by Heim (see bibliog. below).

Belief in amulets remained active in Greece and Italy in all classes of the population throughout antiquity and into modern times.


  • R. Heim, ahrbücher für classische Philologie, Suppl. 19 (1892), 463–576.
  • C. Bonner, Studies in Magical Amulets Chiefly Graeco-Egyptian (1950).
  • F. Eckstein and J. H. Waszink, Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum 1 (1950), 397–411.
  • L. Robert, Journal des savants (1981) 3–44,
  • reprinted in L. Robert, Opera minora selecta 7, 465–506.
  • M. Waegeman, Amulet and Alphabet. Magical Amulets in the First Book of Cyranides (1987).
  • R. Kotansky, in C. A. Faraone and D. Obbink (eds.), Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion (1991), 107–137.
  • C. A. Faraone, Talismans and Trojan Horses (1992).
  • R. Kotansky, in M. Meyer and P. Mirecki (eds.), Ancient Magic and Ritual Power (1995), 243–277.