Amulets are still everywhere. You might have noticed them in cabs dangling from rear mirrors, behind the serving counter in a takeaway, and worn as necklaces or rings. They go back thousands of years. I didn’t know what an amulet was until I read Edith Nesbit’s The story of the amulet, and even then I didn’t connect the object in that children’s story – Egyptian, and solid – with a pendant I was given as a child. I lost it long ago (probably stolen in a burglary) but it was a tiny hinged gold box, in the shape of two tablets of stone with Hebrew letters representing the ten commandments. I thought it was a locket and it was always empty. I couldn’t think why it was a box or what anyone would put inside it.
An eye, a blue stone, or a hand (often with an eye or blue stone inside) meant to ward off the Evil Eye are typical amulet symbols.
But the supreme magical power of an amulet was always meant to come from mystical words, especially the secret names of God, and the names of angels and demons. An amulet could be a scrap of paper or parchment, with charms and spells written around it in an intricate pattern. Amulet writing, like the selling of pardons in medieval Christianity, was once a lucrative trade.
A pendant for carrying round an amulet needed to be hollow, like this:
My favourite items in an amazing exhibition I went to a couple of weeks ago were the amulets. Discarded History: The Genizah of Medieval Cairo is in Cambridge University Library, free and on until early October. The Genizah was a store of old documents in the attic of the ancient Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo. Ben Ezra was also known as the synagogue of the Palestinians or the synagogue of the Jerusalemites. There was also a separate synagogue in Fustat (now known as Old Cairo) for the Babylonian community. Documents of all kinds, not only religious texts but letters, marriage contracts, lists, legal decisions, medical writings, charitable appeals, accounts, charms and even children’s alphabet books couldn’t be destroyed because they might contain the name of God or other holy words and letters. The store was eventually dispersed and bought up by collectors, so now teams of researchers in several universities are working on conserving, restoring and translating them. Cambridge has around 200,000 documents and they are an immense resource for historians, as they range across many countries and communities and hundreds of years. Most of the texts on display are around a thousand years old and were written in Judeo-Arabic (Arabic language written in Hebrew letters) or Hebrew. In the middle ages, most of the world’s Jewish population lived in Islamic lands and children learned to write Arabic using Hebrew letters. There are translations of all the documents, and the exhibition guide also notes the languages they are in.
The tiny ‘Scorpion amulets’ in the exhibition, intended to protect their buyers against scorpion bites, were from Egypt, 11th or 12th century. The curators wonderfully describe the language of these scraps of paper as ‘Hebrew, Aramaic and gibberish’. Carrying an amulet was normal practice even though amulets, and their writers, were condemned by Maimonides who wrote a diatribe against them. (There’s a signed letter from Maimonides in the exhibition.)
Scorpions scare me a lot. My father told me that in his youth in Mosul he had known of a five year old child who died of a scorpion bite. They can be deadly. It strikes me that the danger we face now is totally different, but there are people who say that it can be warded off through the right, powerful words. Yesterday I heard a pro-Brexit economist explaining that the economy was not in any trouble, and that he didn’t expect any damage to the economy as long as people said the right positive things about Brexit. So words are what we need, not actual plans, which is a relief if you read this month’s briefing by three Sussex professors, A Food Brexit: time to get real. If it wasn’t for the sheer, charming, magical power of positive language we would be heading for trouble.
Inspired by the Scorpion amulets I’ve created a Brexit amulet. It has names of power with a little gibberish thrown in for good measure. If we all wear one of these, nothing could possibly go wrong, could it? That’s pretty much the pro-Brexit economists’ plan actualised: the power of positive words. Seriously, I recommend reading and sharing the briefing on what might happen to the UK’s food supply in future, given that the government currently has no plan. As the authors put it,
The implications of Brexit for food are potentially enormous. This verdict applies, whether there is a ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit. The UK food system, consumer tastes and prices have been thoroughly Europeanised. This will be impossible to cut out or back by March 2019 without enormous consequences. The UK food system faces real challenges on food security.
Scarier than a scorpion.