Apotropaic magic

Apotropaic magic


"Apotropaic" is an adjective that means "intended to ward off evil" or "averting or deflecting evil" and commonly refers to objects such as amulets or other symbols. The word is of Greek origin: "apotrope" literally means "turning away" or averting (as in "averting the evil eye"). The Greeks propitiated the chthonic "Gods of Aversion"—the "apotropaioi".

Apotropaic symbols

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. [Harrison, pp 196ff.]

Curiously, eyes were often painted to ward off the "evil eye". An exaggerated apotropaic eye was painted on Greek drinking vessels in the 6th century BC to ward off evil spirits while drinking. Fishing boats in some parts of the Mediterranean region still have stylised eyes painted on the bows. A Turkish budget airline has adopted the symbol (known as "Nazar boncuğu" or "Nazar bonjuk") as a motif for the tailfin of its aeroplanes.

The doorways and windows of buildings were felt to be particularly vulnerable to evil. On churches and castles, gargoyles or other grotesque faces and figures such as Sheela na Gigs and Hunky Punks would be carved to frighten away witches and other malign influences. Those other openings, fireplaces or chimneys, may also have been carved. Rather than figural carvings, these seem to have been simple geometric or letter carvings. Where a wooden post was used to support a chimney opening, this was often an easier subject for amateur carving. To further discourage withcraft, rowan wood may have been chosen for it.cite book
title=Domestic interiors: the British tradition, 1500 - 1850
publisher=Yale University Press
pages=page 24

Similarly the grotesque faces carved on 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 and, as a "time between times", it was believed that souls of the dead and other dangerous spirits walked the earth at this time. ("See also:" Celtic calendar)

Mirrors and other shiny 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, even to the extent of borrowing silver plate for the purpose. "Witch balls" are shiny blown glass ornaments, like Christmas baubles, that were hung in windows.

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

In Ireland and Great Britain, magpies are thought to bring bad luck and many people repeat various rhymes or salutations to placate them.The children's TV series Magpie preserved these rhymes as its theme tune, into the 1970s]

In ancient Greece, phalli were believed to have apotropaic qualities. Often stone reliefs would be placed above doorways, but there were also many three-dimensional renditions erected across the Greek world. Most notable of these were the urban monuments found on the island of Delos. Grotesque, satyr-like beaded faces, sometimes with the pointed cap of the workman, appeared often over the doors of ovens and kilns, to protect the work from fire and mishap. [Harrison, pp 187ff "The Ker as Gorgon".] A similar use of phallic representations to ward off the evil eye remains popular in modern Bhutan and is associated with the 500 year old Buddhist tradition of Drupka Kinley, and is paralleled by other south Asian uses of the lingam symbol. [cite web|url=http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/4381893.stm|title=Bhutan's phalluses ward off evil]

Good luck tokens and charms

It is difficult to differentiate between items supposed to avert evil and items intended to attract good fortune.

Cast-off horseshoes are often nailed up over, or close by, doorways, normally with the ends pointing upwards (said "to collect good luck" or "to stop the luck falling out"; but 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.

White heather is often sold by Irish travelling people and Roma "to bring good luck". (Frequently this turns out to be not heather but white sea-lavender, a species of "Limonium".)

In Ireland, rush St Brigid's crosses were kept indoors (in houses and animal houses) to keep away illness for the year.

ee also



*Frazer, Sir James, "The Golden Bough",
*Graves, Robert, "The White Goddess",
*Jane Ellen Harrison, "Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion"
*Roud, Steve (2004). "A Pocket Guide to Superstitions of the British Isles". London: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-051549-6.

External links

* [http://users.compaqnet.be/cn111132/Frazer/ "The Golden Bough":] on-line text, 1922 abridged edition
* [http://www.folkplay.info/Gallery/Coleby2004.htm] Pictures of a revival team of Plough Jags
* [http://www.luckymojo.com/luckyw.html The Lucky W Amulet Archive] An exceptionally detailed archive of information about amulets and tokens

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