Apotropaic magic (from Greek αποτρέπειν "to ward off") or protective magic is a type of magic intended to turn away harm or evil influences, as in deflecting misfortune or averting the evil eye. Apotropaic observances may also be practiced out of superstition or out of tradition, as in good luck charms (perhaps some token on a charm bracelet), amulets, or gestures such as crossed fingers or knocking on wood. Many different objects and charms were used for protection throughout history.

Medieval apotropaic marking on the inside of a church in Suffolk, England.

Symbols and objects edit

Ancient Egypt edit

Apotropaic magical rituals were practiced throughout the ancient Near East and ancient Egypt. Fearsome deities were invoked via ritual in order to protect individuals by warding away evil spirits. In ancient Egypt, these household rituals (performed in the home, not in state-run temples) were embodied by the deity who personified magic itself, Heka.[1] The two gods most frequently invoked in these rituals were the hippopotamus-formed fertility goddess, Taweret, and the lion-deity, Bes (who developed from the early apotropaic dwarf god, Aha, literally "fighter").[2]

Objects were often used in these rituals in order to facilitate communication with the gods. One of the most commonly found magical objects, the ivory apotropaic wand (birth tusk), gained widespread popularity in the Middle Kingdom (ca. 1550 – 1069 BCE).[3] These wands were used to protect expectant mothers and children from malevolent forces, and were adorned with processions of apotropaic solar deities.

Likewise, protective amulets bearing the likenesses of gods and goddesses such as Taweret were commonly worn. Water came to be used frequently in ritual as well, wherein libation vessels in the shape of Taweret were used to pour healing water over an individual. In much later periods (when Egypt came under the Greek Ptolemies), stele featuring the god Horus were used in similar rituals; water would be poured over the stele and—after ritually acquiring healing powers—was collected in a basin for an afflicted person to drink.[citation needed]

Ancient Greece edit

The ancient Greeks had various protective symbols and objects, with various names, such as apotropaia, probaskania, periammata, periapta and profylaktika.[4][5] The Greeks made offerings to the "averting gods" (ἀποτρόπαιοι θεοί, apotropaioi theoi), chthonic deities and heroes who grant safety and deflect evil[6] and for the protection of the infants they wore on them amulets with apotropaic powers and committed the child to the care of kourotrophic (child-nurturing) deities.[7] Greeks placed talismans in their houses and wore amulets to protected them from the evil eye.[8] Peisistratus hung the figure of a kind of grasshopper before the Acropolis of Athens for protection.[9]

Another way for protection from enchantment used by the ancient Greeks was by spitting into the folds of the clothes.[9]

Ancient Greeks also had an old custom of dressing boys as girls in order to avert the evil eye.[10]

Crosses edit

In Ireland, it is customary on St Brigid's Day to weave a Brigid's cross from rushes, which is hung over doors and windows to protect the household from fire, lightning, illness and evil spirits.[11] In southern Ireland, it was formerly the custom at Samhain to weave a cross of sticks and straw called a 'parshell' or 'parshall', which was fixed over the doorway to ward off bad luck, illness, and witchcraft.[12]

Eyes edit

Eyes were often painted to ward off the evil eye. An exaggerated apotropaic eye or a pair of eyes were painted on Greek drinking vessels called kylikes (eye-cups) from the 6th century BCE up until the end of the end of the classical period. The exaggerated eyes may have been intended to prevent evil spirits from entering the mouth while drinking.[13][14] Fishing boats in some parts of the Mediterranean region still have stylised eyes painted on the bows. The defunct Turkish budget airline, Fly Air, adopted the symbol nazar boncuğu (nazar bonjuk) on the vertical stabilizer (fin) of its aeroplanes.[citation needed] The apotropaic Yiddish expression, קיין עין הרע, kain ein horeh, 'no evil eye' (in modern Hebrew, בלי עין הרע, bli ein ha'ra), is somewhat equivalent to the expression, "knock on wood."[15]

Faces edit

Among the ancient Greeks, the most widely used image intended to avert evil was that of the Gorgon, the head of which now may be called the Gorgoneion, which features wild eyes, fangs, and protruding tongue. The full figure of the Gorgon holds the apex of the oldest remaining Greek temple where she is flanked by two lionesses. The Gorgon head was mounted on the aegis and shield of Athena.[16]

The Gorgon, flanked by lionesses and showing her belt clasp of serpents; the pediment of the 580 BCE temple of Artemis in Corfu. Archaeological Museum of Corfu.

People believed that the doorways and windows of buildings were particularly vulnerable to the entry or passage of evil. In ancient Greece, grotesque, satyr-like bearded faces, sometimes with the pointed cap of the workman, were carved over the doors of ovens and kilns, to protect the work from fire and mishap.[17] Later, on churches and castles, gargoyles or other grotesque faces and figures such as sheela na gigs and hunky punks were carved to frighten away witches and other malign influences.[18] Figures may also have been carved at fireplaces or chimneys; in some cases, simple geometric or letter carvings were used for these. When a wooden post was used to support a chimney opening, this was often an easier material for amateur carving. To discourage witchcraft, rowan wood may have been chosen for the post or mantel.[19]

Similarly the grotesque faces carved into pumpkin lanterns (and their earlier counterparts, made from turnips, swedes or beets) at Halloween are meant to avert evil: this season was Samhain, the Celtic new year. As a "time between times", it was believed to be a period when souls of the dead and other dangerous spirits walked the earth. Many European peoples had such associations with the period following the harvest in the fall (for instance the Celtic calendar).[citation needed]

Phalluses edit

In Ancient Greece, phalloi were believed to have apotropaic qualities. Often stone reliefs would be placed above doorways, and three-dimensional versions were erected across the Greek world. Most notable of these were the urban monuments found on the island of Delos. The phallus was also an apotropaic symbol for the ancient Romans. These are known as fascinum.[citation needed]

A similar use of phallic representations to ward off the evil eye remains popular in modern Bhutan. It is associated with the 500-year-old Buddhist tradition of Drukpa Kunley.[20]

Reflective items edit

Jewish apotropaic neckband sewn with coins to deflect the evil eye. 1944, Basel, in the Jewish Museum of Switzerland's collection

Mirrors and other shiny reflective objects were believed to deflect the evil eye. Traditional English "Plough Jags" (performers of a regional variant of the mummers play) sometimes decorated their costumes (particularly their hats) with shiny items, to the extent of borrowing silver plate for the purpose. "Witch balls" are shiny blown glass ornaments, such as Christmas baubles, that were hung in windows. Similarly, the Chinese Bagua mirror is usually installed to ward off negative energy and protect the entryways of residences.[citation needed]

An example of the use of shiny apotropaic objects in Judaism can be found in the so-called "Halsgezeige" or textile neckbands used in the birthing customs of the Franco-German border region. Shiny coins or colourful stones would be sewn onto the neckband or on a central amulet in order to distract the evil eye. These neckbands were worn by women in childbirth and by young boys during their Brit Milah ceremony. This custom continued until the early 20th century.[21]

Horseshoes edit

In Western culture, a horseshoe was often nailed up over, or close by, doorways (see Oakham's horseshoes). Model horseshoes (of card or plastic) are given as good-luck tokens, particularly at weddings, and small paper horseshoes feature in confetti.[citation needed]

Objects buried in walls edit

In early modern Europe, certain objects were buried in the walls of houses to protect the household from witchcraft. These included specially-prepared witch bottles, horse skulls and the bodies of dried cats,[22] as well as shoes (see concealed shoes).[23]

Markings on buildings edit

A hexafoil

Apotropaic marks, also called 'witch marks' or 'anti-witch marks' in Europe, are symbols or patterns scratched on the walls, beams and thresholds of buildings to protect them from witchcraft or evil spirits. They have many forms; in Britain they are often flower-like patterns of overlapping circles.[24] such as hexafoils. Taper burn marks on thresholds of early modern buildings are also thought to be apotropaic marks.

Other types of mark include the intertwined letters V and M or a double V (for the protector, the Virgin Mary, alias Virgo Virginum), and crisscrossing lines to confuse any spirits that might try to follow them.[25]

At the Bradford-on-Avon Tithe Barn, a flower-like pattern of overlapping circles is incised into a stone in the wall.[24] Similar marks of overlapping circles have been found on a window sill dated about 1616 at Owlpen Manor in Gloucestershire, as well as taper burn marks on the jambs of a medieval door frame.

The marks are most common near places where witches were thought to be able to enter, whether doors, windows or chimneys.[24] For example, during works at Knole, near Sevenoaks in Kent, in 1609, oak beams beneath floors, particularly near fireplaces, were scorched and carved with scratched witch marks to prevent witches and demons from coming down the chimney.[26][27]

Marks have been found in buildings including Knole House, Shakespeare's Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon, the Tower of London,[28] and many churches.[24] A collection of over 100 marks – previously thought to be graffiti – was discovered in 2019 on the walls of a cave network at Creswell Crags in Nottinghamshire.[29]

Dreamcatchers edit

In some Native American cultures, a dreamcatcher made of yarn like a web is placed above a bed or sleeping area to protect sleeping children from nightmares.[citation needed]

Others edit

An ancient Egyptian apotropaic wand shows a procession of protective deities. It was used in birth rituals, perhaps to draw a magic circle around the mother and child

Items and symbols such as crosses, crucifixes, silver bullets, wild roses and garlic were believed to ward off or destroy vampires.

Peisistratus hung the figure of a kind of grasshopper before the Acropolis of Athens as apotropaic magic.[9]

In Roman art, envy was thought to bring bad luck to the person envied. To avoid envy, Romans sought to incite laughter in their guests by using humorous images. Images such as large phalluses (see fascinus), deformities such as hunchbacks, or Pygmies and other non-Roman subjects were common. Romans saw deformity as comical and believed that such images could be used to deflect the evil eye.[30]

In Europe, apotropaic figureheads carved onto the prow of sailing ships are considered to have been a replacement for the sacrifice of a thrall during the Age of Invasions by Saxon and Viking sailors, to avoid bad luck on the voyage. Dredging the Thames under London Bridge led to the discovery of a large number of bent and broken knives, daggers, swords and coins, from the modern period and dating back to Celtic times. This custom seems to have been to avoid bad luck, particularly when setting off on a voyage. Similarly, the burial of an old boot or shoe by the lintel of the back door of a house seems to have had a similar intention.[citation needed]

In Ireland and Great Britain, magpies are traditionally thought to bring bad luck. Many people repeated various rhymes or salutations to placate them.[a]

Apotropaic marks such as the initials of the Virgin Mary were scratched near the openings of buildings in England to ward off witches.[24]

Rituals and actions edit

Chalcidian black-figured eye-cup, circa 530 BCE. Staatliche Antikensammlungen

Charms edit

Hand gestures edit

Spitting on clothes edit

Ancient Greeks and Romans used to spit into the folds of clothes as a way of protection from enchantment.[9]

Dressing boys as girls edit

Ancient Greeks also had an old custom of dressing boys as girls in order to avert the evil eye. Achilles is said to have been dressed in his youth as a girl at the court of Lycomedes, king of Scyros in order to avert the evil eye.[31]

Fire rituals edit

A 12th-century sheela na gig on the church at Kilpeck, Herefordshire

Fire was used in rituals of protection in many parts of Europe up to the early modern era. The need-fire or force-fire was a special fire kindled to ward off plague and murrain (infectious diseases affecting livestock) in parts of western, northern and eastern Europe. It could only be kindled by friction between wood, by a group of certain people, after all other fires in the area were doused. The livestock would be driven around the need-fire or over its embers, and all other fires would be re-lit from it.[32] Two early medieval Irish texts say that druids used to drive cattle between two bonfires "with great incantations", to protect them from disease. Almost 1,000 years later, in the 19th century, the custom of driving cattle between two fires was still practiced across most of Ireland and parts of Scotland.[33]

Also in Ireland and Scotland, bonfires were lit for the festivals Beltane and Samhain, and 18th–19th century accounts suggest the fires, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective powers. In some areas, torches of burning fir or turf from the bonfire were carried sunwise around homes and fields to protect them.[34] In central and northern Europe, bonfires lit on Walpurgis Night and at Midsummer were also believed to ward off evil.

Magic circle edit

A magic circle is a circle of space marked out by practitioners of some branches of ritual magic, which they generally believe will contain energy and form a sacred space, or will provide them a form of magical protection, or both. It may be marked physically, drawn in a material like salt, flour, or chalk, or merely visualised.

Apotropaic names edit

Amulets for specific purposes on sale at a Shinto shrine in Japan

Ashkenazi Jews' apotropaic names were often given not at birth but during serious illness. In the case of a family who had already lost a child, the parents may name the next child Alter and Alte (both meaning "old" in Yiddish)[35] in an effort to confuse the Angel of Death.[36] Another example is Nekras (Некрас, "not handsome" in Russian) which was given with the hope the child would be handsome.[37]

Among Serbian names are many apotropaic names (zaštitna imena, "protective names"), such as Vuk ("wolf") (and its many derivatives) and Staniša[38] ("stone").

Historical Chinese given names sometimes had apotropaic meanings, such as in the case of Huo Qubing (霍 去病, "Qubing" meaning "away with illness"), or Xin Qiji (辛 棄疾, "Qiji" meaning "abandoning disease"). Some traditional Taiwanese names referenced domestic animals such as "buffalo" (水牛) and "dog" (狗, 犬), or humble elements of the landscape such as "soil" and "water" (土, 水). They conveyed contentment with a peaceful and low-profile life.[citation needed]

See also edit

Explanatory notes edit

  1. ^ The children's TV series Magpie preserved these rhymes as its theme song into the 1970s.

References edit

  1. ^ Robert Ritner (1988). The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practice. Chicago: The Oriental Institute of Chicago, 14-28.
  2. ^ James F. Romano (1978), The Origin of Aha (also called Bes). New York: College Art Association, 1978.
  3. ^ Hartwig Atlenmüller (1965). Die Apotopaia und Die Götter Mittelägyptens. Munich: Ludwig-Maximilians University.
  4. ^ Lesley A. Beaumont (2013). Childhood in Ancient Athens: Iconography and Social History. Routledge. p. 62. ISBN 978-0415248747.
  5. ^ Louise A Gosbell (2018). The Poor, the Crippled, the Blind, and the Lame: Physical and Sensory Disability in the Gospels of the New Testament. Mohr Siebeck. pp. 105–107. ISBN 978-3161551321.
  6. ^ Gilleland, Michael, ed. (26 June 2008). "Averters of Evil". Translated by Jones, W.H.S. Archived from the original on 15 June 2013. Retrieved 3 July 2010. Hippocrates, Regimen 4.89: So with this knowledge about the heavenly bodies, precautions must be taken, with change of regimen and prayers to the gods; in the case of good signs, to the Sun, to Heavenly Zeus, to Zeus, Protector of Home, to Athena, Protectress of Home, to Hermes and to Apollo; in the case of adverse signs, to the Averters of evil [apotropaioi], to Earth and to the Heroes, that all dangers may be averted.
    Pausanias 2.11.1 (Corinth): Before the altar, a barrow has been raised for Epopeus himself, and near the grave are the gods Averters of evil [apotropaioi]. Near them, the Greeks perform such rites as they are wont to do in order to avert misfortunes (πρὸ τοῦ βωμοῦ δὲ αὐτῷ μνῆμα Ἐπωπεῖ κέχωσται, καὶ τοῦ τάφου πλησίον εἰσὶν Ἀποτρόπαιοι θεοί: παρὰ τούτοις δρῶσιν ὅσα Ἕλληνες ἐς ἀποτροπὴν κακῶν νομίζουσιν.)
    {{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  7. ^ Lesley A. Beaumont (2013). Childhood in Ancient Athens: Iconography and Social History. Routledge. p. 64. ISBN 978-0415248747.
  8. ^ Alan Dundes (1992). The Evil Eye: A Casebook. University of Wisconsin Press. p. 182. ISBN 9780299133344.
  9. ^ a b c d A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1890), Fascinum
  10. ^ Apollodorus, Library, note 10
  11. ^ Danaher, Kevin. The Year in Ireland: Irish Calendar Customs. Mercier Press, 1972. pp.22-25
  12. ^ Danaher, Kevin. The Year in Ireland: Irish Calendar Customs. Mercier Press, 1972. pp. 207–208
  13. ^ Hildburgh, Walter Leo (1946), Apotropaism in Greek vase-paintings
  14. ^ "apotropaic eye (art)". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 22 March 2014.
  15. ^ "knock on wood". Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary. Retrieved 16 December 2020.
  16. ^ Harrison 1908, pp. 196ff.
  17. ^ Harrison 1908, pp. 187ff, "The Ker as Gorgon".
  18. ^ Tschen-Emmons, J.B. (2015). Artifacts from Medieval Europe. Daily Life through Artifacts. ABC-CLIO. p. 72. ISBN 978-1-61069-622-7. Retrieved 11 May 2018.
  19. ^ Ayres, James (2003). Domestic interiors: the British tradition, 1500–1850. Yale University Press. p. 24. ISBN 0-300-08445-5.
  20. ^ "Bhutan's phalluses ward off evil". BBC News. 25 March 2005. Archived from the original on 13 December 2009. Retrieved 1 January 2010.
  21. ^ Lubrich, Naomi, ed. (2022). Birth Culture. Jewish Testimonies from Rural Switzerland and Environs (in German and English). Basel. pp. 34–35. ISBN 978-3796546075.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  22. ^ Hoggard, Brian (2004). "The archaeology of counter-witchcraft and popular magic", in Beyond the Witch Trials: Witchcraft and Magic in Enlightenment Europe, Manchester University Press. p.167
  23. ^ "Artifact". Archaeology Magazine. November/December 2016. Page 68.
  24. ^ a b c d e Kennedy, Maev (31 October 2016). "Witches' marks: public asked to seek ancient scratchings in buildings". The Guardian. Retrieved 31 October 2016.
  25. ^ antlassco (29 October 2013). "Here be Witchcraft - LASSCO - England's prime resource for Architectural Antiques, Salvage Curiosities". LASSCO. Retrieved 11 March 2024.
  26. ^ Wright, James (19 October 2015). "Ritual Protection Marks and Witchcraft at Knole, Kent". Gresham College.
  27. ^ Kennedy, Maev (5 November 2014). "Witch marks fit for a king beguile archaeologists at Knole". The Guardian. Retrieved 5 November 2014.
  28. ^ "Tower of London staff 'used magic to repel the forces of the Devil'". The Independent. 16 October 2015. Archived from the original on 8 May 2022. Retrieved 31 October 2016.
  29. ^ "Cresswell Crags: Witches Marks Found In Cave Network". 15 February 2019.
  30. ^ John R. Clarke (2003), Art in the Lives of Ordinary Romans
  31. ^ Apollodorus, Library, note 10
  32. ^ Frazer, James George (1922). The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Chapter 62, Section 8: The Need-fire. Internet Sacred Text Archive.
  33. ^ Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford University Press, 1996. pp.218–225
  34. ^ Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford University Press, 1996. pp.365–369
  35. ^ Alexander Beider (29 October 2015). Origins of Yiddish Dialects. OUP Oxford. pp. 183–. ISBN 978-0-19-105981-0.
  36. ^ Joseph, Jacobs (1908). The Jewish Encyclopedia. Retrieved 24 December 2022.
  37. ^ Alexander Beider (2009). Handbook of Ashkenazic Given Names and Their Variants. Avotaynu. ISBN 978-1-886223-43-1.
  38. ^ Grković, Milica (1977). Rečnik ličnih imena kod Srba. Belgrade: Vuk Karadžić.

Works cited edit

Further reading edit

External links edit