Rings were thought to have an amuletic or protective property, derived either from the stone with which they were set or from the inscription with which they were engraved. The use of stones in rings throughout the history illustrates a revival of interest in the virtue or the powers of precious stones based on early medieval lapidaries. In the Middle Ages, sapphires was said to expel envy, detect fraud and witchcraft, and cure snakebites; emeralds were reputed to be beneficial for those suffering from epilepsy; diamonds supposedly provided protection from nightmares and gave courage while turquoise was especially popular at the end of the Middle Ages in the prevention of falls while riding.
The rings distributed by the King of England on Good Friday were held to be of great value in curing cramps and epilepsy. Such rings were often referred to as a ‘cramp-ring’ in the Middle Ages. As no specimens of such rings have survived the ages, their exact appearance remains undocumented. It is, however, assumed that ‘cramp-rings’ were made as plain hoops, occasionally decorated with enamel. Other protective motifs included phallic symbols and moon-crescents and sun-wheels. The latter were used throughout the Roman Empire, but where they occur in the Celtic northern provinces, their religious significance is underlined and augmented for the mere reason that the wheel is also symbolic of a major Celtic God ‘Taranis’.
Amulets in the form of pendants with double-headed animals, frogs, and flies were discovered in great numbers in Syria dating back to 3000 BC. A gold amuletic pendant of the Old Babylonian period represents the goddess Lama who was regarded as an intercessor, able to speak with higher gods and convey petitions. Amulets from the Phoenician graves at Tharros display a typical mixture of amuletic symbols adapted from Egyptian prototypes. A necklace of gold and cornelian beads includes pendants of cats, hawks (the Egyptian sign for the heart) and the eye of Horus.
In Egypt, where most jewelry has had a magical significance since ancient times, it is almost impossible to distinguish the purely amuletic from the ornamental. Predynastic amulets are recognizable but it is not until the late Old Kingdom and First Intermediate period that amulets increased in ranges of subject and material both of which were significant: Green feldspar or turquoise was the color of new life; red cornelian or jasper the color of life-blood; blue lapis lazuli the color of the heavens.
Amulets such as the falcon or the bull gave the owner certain powers by assimilation. Others represented the very force to be avoided such as the scorpion or the turtle, both considered to be animals of death and darkness. The scarab was a significant amulet signifying regeneration. The ‘heart-scarab’ would only be produced from green material, mostly green jasper which was placed over the heart of the mummy. The scarab would have a rounded back and a human face. The legs would be made from strips of gold sheet with striations representing hairs.
This symbol was related to the ‘Book of the Dead’ and considered a spell for preventing the heart from ‘opposing the deceased!’ Apart from its special funerary use, it was often bezel-set in a ring, sometimes inscribed with additional amuletic signs. Other amulets such as the frog and the cat were both connected with fertility and mounted in bezels.
Some types of Egyptian amulets denote particular periods: Faces, legs and hands for example, are typical of the late Old Kingdom and First Intermediate Period. Oyster shells were thought to bestow their wearer with health and knot-clasps particularly denoted Middle Kingdom, worn apparently in girdles rather than necklaces, judging by a number of female statuettes. Fish amulets called ‘nekhaw’ were worn especially by children to protect them from drowning and were usually attached to the end of the side-lock or plait which symbolized their youth.
The rise of Christianity did not change peoples attitude to the amuletic function of jewelry. Christian motifs, used either for purposes of identity or for protection against sickness or ill-fortune made their appearance on jewelry at least as early as the beginning of the third century AD. After the official recognition of Christianity by Constantine the Great in the fourth century, amuletic images appeared on secular jewelry of considerable lavishness. New shapes and types of jewelry were also devised in order to satisfy the demand for a specifically Christian form of amulet: The pectoral cross and the reliquary pendant were the most notable.
At the same time, signs and symbols continued to be used in personal ornaments, but were given special significance for Christians such as the Chi-Rho monogram seen on some late Romano-British pieces, silver crossbow brooches from Sussex and others. Although direct representations of pagan deities were unacceptable to Christians, there was nevertheless a shared iconography. The Palm-branch of Victory, the peacocks of Juno and the doves of Venus are examples of the many images, which were used symbolically, even though they were perceived differently by pagans and Christians simultaneously.
Jewelry with magical or amuletic properties, often associated with specific hard stones, had important significance for the pagan Germanic folk of Northern Europe and continued to be produced and worn well into the Christian period. The latter can be seen on the magical inscriptions of gold and agate rings of the ninth and tenth centuries. Germanic jewelers of the period incorporated Bohemian garnets and other semi-precious stones such as beads of amethyst, rock crystal and agate, the latter available to them locally. Some Germanic tribes produced amulets using the teeth of various carnivores mostly the dog, the wolf, the bear and the boar.
Relics of Christ and the saints were objects of devotion in the Middle Ages and there had developed a tradition of wearing relics on the person, resulting in the incorporation of them into jewelry. In the same way that relics came to be worn rather than exposed, a prayer was inscribed as a talisman, rather than in the spoken form. Ave Maria was often inscribed on jewels, brooches, purse mounts and other objects and the Coventry ring included the Three Kings in its inscription together with the word ‘ananyzapta’ a charm against the falling sickness. Verses from the Bible were occasionally used in prophylactic inscriptions and the wearing of a gold noble of Edward IV as a pendant was most probably for protection against the dangers of travel by sea and land, especially against attack by robbers. Travelers have for centuries continued to seek protective intervention from saints like St. Christopher, their images have often been introduced into jewelry of modern times.
Great amuletic powers were ascribed to coral in the ancient world. According to Greek mythology, it was said to have originated as the ‘spurts of blood’ gushing forth after Medusa’s head had been severed by Perseus. At an early stage, coral was thought to be a protection against magic spells and in Italy, especially around Naples, it was carved in a wide variety of symbolic forms, such as the bull’s head, to promote strength. The talismatic agate ‘eye’, found in jewelry of the Roman period was not infrequently recreated in glass and other forms in modern jewelry and the vogue continues to the present day. A pendants with the hand in the characteristic position of the thumb and first finger, forming the ‘mano cornuta’ was another gesture against evil. Several fine Spanish examples have survived, including a wood and enamel silver pendant that has been considered an ‘ex-voto’ of Charles V of Spain and several portraits of Spanish ‘Infantas’ record the wearing of this particular form of amulet, alongside gold enameled crosses containing holy relics, coral, a horn, even an animal’s foot.
The use of amulets continues to be widespread in Buddhism just as it is in various religions of the East, including Islam and Hinduism. The purpose of wearing amulets varies considerably from country to country in the Buddhist world, from protection against malignant spirits, as in Tibet, to Japan where, amongst many other uses for amulets, certain types help to protect motorists on the road. Tibetan Buddhism is notable for the great prevalence of magic deriving from native tradition about malignant spirits responsible for all misfortunes. The imported Tantric Buddhism of Eastern India itself enshrined practices of a magical nature and charm boxes designed as miniature shrines reflect this profound belief. In Thailand, Burma and other parts of South East Asia, amulets can range from diagrams or pictures on paper, to clay, metal or stone images, tattoos of sacred symbols, fragments of old manuscripts , and many others. The holiness of the amulet-maker himself, usually a monk, is of special importance in making the amulet effective; the blessing of an amulet by holy monks also assists the power of the object to aid the wearer.
The ancient kingdom of Gandhara, roughly equivalent to the valley of the Kabul River in modern Pakistan, lay on a long-established trade route, which linked China and the Far East with the Mediterranean world. Buddhism reached Gandhara as early as the third century BC at which time cylindrical amulet-cases began to appear on Gandharan sculptures.
In Islam, the most potent amulet is the written word; verses from the Quran, miniature Qurans, the names of attributes of God. Charms written on paper are inserted into amulet cases and worn by men, women, animals or anything needing protection. They are also inscribed over doors, household objects and on to the amulet case itself.