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By Annie Thwaite on

5 amulets for 5 senses

Throughout history, amulets have been used to heal and protect the body from different evils and illnesses. What can these five objects tell us about their place in medicine?

Across time and space, amulets were believed to possess the power to protect against illness or misfortune, or to heal certain afflictions. These five objects, each relating to a bodily sense, show that just as their materials, designs and functions could vary enormously, their use in medicine was also varied and broad-ranging.

1. Sight

Brooch to avert the evil eye, Europe, 1900-1914
Brooch to avert the evil eye, Europe, 1900-1914
© The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

First up, the (wonderfully creepy) eye miniature. This amuletic brooch, made in Italy between 1900 and 1914, may have been used to protect against the ‘Evil Eye’ – the widespread belief in the harmful force conveyed by a malevolent glance from an enemy. Recorded by the Ancient Greeks and Romans, who were known to confront this injurious force with another ‘counter’ eye, the ‘Evil eye’ remains a renowned and feared power throughout parts of the Mediterranean. This brown eye, painted on shell, is mounted with a suspension loop indicating that it can be worn on the body for protection.

2. Touch

Four Gold Angel coins. Touchpieces in the ceremony of healing by touch.
Four Gold Angel coins. Touchpieces in the ceremony of healing by touch. © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

These fantastic little gold coins known as ‘Angels’ represent touch. In certain curative practices it was believed that English and French monarchs had the power to heal through touch, and so many of these were given and used as touch-pieces. This procedure was performed by monarchs in the hope of curing ‘scrofula’, also ironically named ‘King’s Evil’. Originating in the 11th century and continuing until the end of Queen Anne’s reign in 1714, one particular Angel from the image was issued by Henry VII (1485-1509). Whilst retrospective diagnosis remains a bit of a contentious issue amongst historians, if we were to do so with this disease, it would most likely be what we now know as tuberculosis. Angels such as these were often pierced so that they could be suspended and worn around the neck.

3. Taste

Spherical bezoar stone from unknown animal, 1551-1750
Spherical bezoar stone from unknown animal, 1551-1750 © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

You may recognise the name of our next object, the bezoar stone, from Harry Potter. (Read Curator of Chemistry Sophie Waring’s recent blog post about Science Museum objects and their connection to the wizarding world.) But what does this stone have to do with taste? Well, this rather boring-looking yet edible stone was in fact used widely in early modern medicine, revered as an antidote to most poisons and an all-round panacea. Bezoars are stony concretions that can be found in the stomachs and intestines of both animals and humans, made from indigestible materials including hair, vegetable and fruit tissues which form a hard, solid stone in the gut. Believed to be from a range of different animals including goats, hogs and monkeys, in the early modern era these stones were often ground up and added to drinks as tinctures. Delicious.

4. Hearing

Circular filigree earring with floral design and decorative blue beads, amuletic, Palestinian, 1880-1930
Circular filigree earring with floral design and decorative blue beads, amuletic, Palestinian, 1880-1930 © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

Decorated with fine filigree, a floral design and decorative blue beads, this ‘amuletic earring’ was made in Palestine between 1880-1930. Whilst we don’t know exactly what this object was used to protect against or heal, Palestinian objects made at the same time are made from similar materials. Particularly recurrent are the blue beads, shown in this object to protect children against the evil eye. Indeed, blue beads of this kind have often been used to heal and protect the body across time and space. For example, one amuletic necklace from Croydon (1871-1916) was said to save the wearer from colds. Perhaps the blue beads in the Palestinian earrings were to protect against a disease of the ears, or even hearing loss?

5. Smell

Silver pomander, in the form of a book, containing 6 compartments, with a rat engraved on the side, and chain for suspension, c. 1601-1700
Silver pomander c. 1601-1700 © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

Last but not least, this bizarre little object represents our final sense. This is a silver pomander, formed in the shape of a book, comprised of six compartments and engraved with a rat on the side. Pomanders were essentially glorified containers, capable of holding different substances such as herbs and spices. At the time in which this object was created (1601-1700) pomanders would have been used both as decorative items, and to protect the wearer against foul, potentially disease-causing air. Different scents within the pomander could combat these foul and dangerous odours knows as ‘miasmas’. Whilst the important part rats played in the spread of the plague was not fully recognised before the end of the 19th century, they were associated with biblical pestilence and corrupt air, and thus the rodent on the side of this pomander may therefore hint at the objects’ specific function. [Pomanders more commonly assumed a spherical form, their segments opening like an orange. This gilt pomander opens out into eight segments, some of which are inscribed with the name of the contents, including ‘rosen’ and ‘moscat’].