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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Ancient Egyptian Amulets

People everywhere want to avoid disease and other misfortune, and to that end, many use amulets to ensure well-being. Today, an individual might wear a bracelet made of beads with a concentric circle design to combat the evil eye, or keep a lucky penny in his or her pocket. A favorite for centuries in some parts of the world is a pendant with a depiction of Saint Christopher (30.95.107). In ancient Egypt, amulets were abundant and most were probably inexpensive, which made them available to nearly everyone.

An amulet is an object believed to have certain positive properties that, as the amulet’s main function, can magically be bestowed upon its owner. In ancient Egypt, this magical power was often derived from a combination of several aspects, such as the amulet’s shape, decoration, inscription, color, material, and words spoken over the piece or acts performed with it. Amulets were usually worn or placed on the body to transfer their powers directly to the owner. Often amulets were pierced or featured a loop, which allowed their use as pendants on a necklace, for example. Among many other possibilities, they could be incorporated into rings or enfolded in a piece of fabric that was then attached to a string. This means that amulets could be worn without having any means of suspension themselves. When used for the dead, they were  placed on the mummy or in between the mummy’s bandages. While amulets are often small, on average ranging from two to six centimeters (about 1/2 to 2 1/2 inches) (1984.176), funerary pieces such as winged scarabs (25.5.1a–c) can be as large as twenty-five centimeters (nearly ten inches) wide.

Ancient Egyptian amulets represented animals, deities, symbols, or objects in miniature. In addition, certain things found in nature, such as a claw or shell, were thought to be imbued with magical power and therefore could function as an amulet as well. So-called textual amulets also occur; these usually consist of a short magical spell written on a piece of linen or papyrus that was then folded and put on a string. Theoretically, anything could be made into an amulet through a magical act. Today, we often identify an ancient Egyptian object as an amulet based on its shape and size, and—in some cases—its use as a pendant. However, outside of their original context, many amulets, especially those created in nature, can no longer easily be recognized as such.

Faience was the most popular material for man-made amulets. It could be produced in green and blue colors, favored for their association with life and regeneration. Semiprecious stones were common as well, and their color often had a specific meaning. Red, for example, was associated with dangerous forces but was thus also considered to be protective. Expensive materials such as gold, silver, and electrum, appreciated for their durability, were employed for amulets by the higher classes of Egyptian society. Bronze, a material that was very popular for temple donations, was rarely used for amulets, though the reasons are unknown.

The use of amulets can be traced throughout all of ancient Egypt, from the Predynastic to the Roman Period (ca. 4400 B.C.–fourth century A.D.). Early amulets often take the shape of animals (59.101.1), while only a few amulets that clearly represent deities predate the New Kingdom (ca. 1550–1070 B.C.). Funerary amulets peaked in the Late Period (664–332 B.C.), when many new types appear that are only beneficial for the dead, such as the two-finger amulet (66.99.182). Strictly funerary amulets often refer to the belief that after death, the heart of a person would be weighed against maat, the principle of truth and justice. Only if the individual had lived a righteous life before his or her death was the person allowed to live on in the afterlife. Understandably, the Egyptians feared a negative outcome, and special amulets were designed to ensure a positive judgment, such as heart scarabs. These depict a large scarab beetle and were inscribed with text on the underside that linked the amulet to the weighing of the heart (36.3.2).

Amulets often carried more than one meaning, and thus more than one possible function. Headrest amulets (04.2.80) depict a piece of furniture that supported the neck of a sleeping person and was often decorated with protective images. From early times on, full-size headrests were placed in tombs to protect the dead. Additionally, their function of raising the head was associated with the deceased rising and being revived, and further significance resulted from the formal resemblance between the round head on the curved headrest and the sun rising between two hills, which evoked a powerful symbol of resurrection and rebirth. An amulet depicting a headrest in miniature was not meant as a simple substitute for the actual furniture item, but rather to ensure its functions; it was thought to protect the head of the deceased and also to guarantee his or her rebirth. Headrest amulets were used exclusively as funerary amulets, and thus usually do not feature any means of suspension, since they could be held in place by the mummy’s wrappings. They belong to the very few amulet groups for which an assigned position on the body can be established: under the mummy’s neck, reflecting the use of the actual furniture.

In addition to strictly funerary types, amulets worn by the living were generally used for the dead as well, since their benefit also applied to the afterlife. Amulets representing a goddess or god (1984.176), for example, occur in both spheres, as they were meant to invoke the deity’s specific powers. It is possible that a deity amulet was used with a very specific hope, but since a god or goddess usually had multiple meanings, several functions might have been addressed at the same time.

One of the most common amulets used by the living and the dead is the wedjat-eye (89.2.415). It depicts the healed eye of the god Horus and is actually a combination of a human and a falcon eye, as Horus was associated with the falcon. In Egyptian mythology, Horus’s eye was injured or stolen by the god Seth and then restored by another deity named Thoth. The wedjat-eye embodies the healing power used on it and thus symbolizes regeneration. Appropriately, its ancient Egyptian name means “the one that is sound (again).” A wedjat-eye amulet was thought to transfer the power of regeneration onto its wearer and to generally protect the individual.

A special category of amulets is the so-called seal-amulet, which functioned as an amulet but could also be used as a seal. Many take the shape of an animal, such as scarabs (26.7.470). The scarab beetle was believed to generate itself spontaneously in the ground, and its behavior of rolling large dung balls was associated with the sun’s daily movement across the sky. This made scarabs symbols of life and regeneration, and as amulets they could transfer these powers. Most commonly, their flat undersides were incised with very short inscriptions or with symbols or other images, which had further magical meaning. Scarabs inscribed with the name and title of the owner were often used as a seal by pressing the underside into a lump of clay that would then bear an impression of the incised decoration (22.1.120).

Egyptian amulets could be exported, but also locally made amulets in Egyptian style were produced throughout the Mediterranean region. Whether the Egyptian meaning and function of these amulets were shared outside of Egypt can be debated, but clearly they were seen as potent magical objects in other cultures as well.