Across the ancient world, there is a vast array of objects that were worn by their owners for the sake of protection, most frequently amulets. Jewellery of this apotropaic nature most often takes shape in the form of pendants, and we find them in abundance from a number of civilisations, especially Egypt. These amulets feature a broad range of subjects in their iconography, and were worn alongside or incorporated into other pieces of jewellery. Amulets found their power in a combination of iconography, material, inscription, and involvement in worship, combining to form a powerful yet accessible token of protection, both for the living and the dead.
The scarab was one of the most popular ancient Egyptian amulets. They were used as pieces of jewellery, commemorative items and seals, and magical amulets offering protection and good fortune. The scarab was thought to represent the sun god Ra. As the sun travels across the sky from day to night, the ancient Egyptians believed that the scarab beetle rolling its ball of dung across the desert mirrored this. As the beetle laid its eggs within the dung, they became a symbol of rebirth and regeneration.
Eye of Horus
The Eye of Horus is one of the most recognisable and powerful symbols from ancient Egypt. It was believed to have healing and protective power and was used as a protective amulet. Amulets in this shape were very popular in ancient Egypt for thousand of years, from the Old Kingdom to Roman times. They were worn by the living and also buried with the dead, as their apotropaic significance suited both.
Although often depicted as an Ibis, or Ibis-headed man, the Egyptian god Thoth was also embodied as the baboon. Thoth was the god of thought, intelligence, and writing, and the Egyptians coveted baboons for their intelligence, and they were often portrayed supervising scribes. Baboon imagery is also found in funerary contexts, as they were the custodians of the first door to the underworld.
Cowry shells are an example of a natural object made into an amulet, either in their natural form or manmade replicas, showcasing the wide variety of talismanic iconography used by the Ancient Egyptians. Due to the societal emphasis of the importance of childbearing, girls and women wore amulets for prosperous fertility and safe childbirth; the cowry shell was particularly popular due to its resemblance of female genitalia as well as the round belly of pregnant women. As well as protecting women from evil spirits, the shells were also used as currency and were highly prized decorative objects.
Heart Shaped Amulets
For the ancient Egyptians, the heart was the source of intelligence, feelings, and actions; therefore heart shaped amulets worn by the living confer a power of vitality and will. For the dead, the symbol is linked to the ceremony of the Weighing of the Heart, whereby the heart was balanced against a feather to determine where the deceased would spend their eternal afterlife. Therefore, heart amulets were used on the mummy to protect the owner’s organ, left inside the body during mummification, and to ensure that their heart gave a positive response at judgment.
Amulets were made of many different materials, both for their aesthetic qualities as well as supposed powers and meanings. Faience, often found in vivid shades of blue and green, represented immortality and rebirth due to the material’s lustre evoking the sun’s rays. Lapis Lazuli, a deep blue, was also popular as it was associated with the heavens, and likely imported from Central Asia. Stones and gems of a red colour, like jasper and carnelian, were linked to dangerous forces, as well as symbolising blood and the vigour of life. Gold, silver and electrum were used by the wealthy to indicate their affluence.