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Bill Thayer

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 p91  Amuletum

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on p91 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

AMULE′TUM. (περίαπτον, περίαμμα, φυλακτήριον), an amulet. This word in Arabic (Hamalet) means that which is suspended. It was probably brought by Arabian merchants, together with the articles to which it was applied, when they were imported into Europe from the East. It first occurs in the Natural History of Pliny.

An amulet was any object — a stone, a plant, an artificial production, or a piece of writing — which was suspended from the neck, or tied to any part of the body, for the purpose of counteracting poison, curing or preventing disease, warding off the evil eye, aiding women in childbirth, or obviating calamities and securing advantages of any kind.

Faith in the virtues of amulets was almost universal in the ancient world, so that the whole art of medicine consisted in a very considerable degree of directions for their application;​a and in proportion to the quantity of amulets preserved in our collections of antiquities, is the frequent mention of them in ancient treatises on natural history, on the practice of medicine, and on the virtues of plants and stones. Some of the amulets in our museums are merely rough unpolished fragments of such stones as amber, agate, cornelian, and jasper; others are wrought into the shape of beetles, quadrupeds, eyes, fingers, and other members of the body. There can be no doubt that the selection of stones either to be set in rings, or strung together in necklaces, was often made with reference to their reputed virtues as amulets (Plin. H. N. XXV.9 s67, XXIX.4 s19, XXX.10 s24, XXXVII.8 s37).

Thayer's Note:

a the whole art of medicine consisted largely of applying amulets: even hedged, this is an extraordinary generalization. It would be better to say "most of folk medicine"; since there was a large, old, active and very respected segment of medical practitioners who really were what we today would call doctors: even if their capabilities of investigation and therefore their level of knowledge were low by modern standards, the method was that of modern medicine, which is derived from the work of Greek and (to a much lesser extent) Roman doctors. Nowhere, for example, in the 8 Books of the Roman medical writer Celsus, which you can consult here, are amulets or other forms of witchcraft so much as mentioned.

The situation in Antiquity seems to have been pretty much what it is today: people with brains and enough money to afford it got themselves to a doctor, and the rest medicated themselves with folk remedies, or went to quacks who provided them with amulets; notice that our article mentions stones, which in 21c superstition run by the name of crystals.

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Page updated: 23 Aug 04