Amulet (Gr., phulakterion; Lat., amuleta), an object generally inscribed with mysterious formulae and used by pagans as a protection against various maladies, as well as witchcraft. Pliny (XXIX, 4, 19) is the earliest writer who mentions amulets (veneficiorum amuleta). The derivation of the word is doubtful, but it probably comes from the Arabic hamala, ” to carry”, amulets being borne on the person. The Oriental peoples were especially addicted to superstitious practices, and with their absorption into the Roman Empire the use of amulets became equally common in the West. Following the example of Moses, who sought to turn the minds of the Jews from the superstitious emblems to which they were accustomed in Egypt, by substituting for them symbols of an elevating character, the Church, while forbidding amulets, permitted the use of emblems which would remind the bearers of some doctrine of Christianity. Thus St. Clement of Alexandria (Pd., III, 3) recommended the use of such symbols as the fish, the dove, and the anchor on seals and rings. A devotional medal of lead, attributed to the fourth century, represents a martyr extended on a gridiron; one of the fifth or sixth century bears the monogram of Christ and a cross between the letters A and fl; while a third represents the sacrifice of Abraham, and on the reverse a father offering his son before the confessio of a martyr. Pope St. Gregory the Great sent the Lombard queen, Theodolinda, on the occasion of the birth of her son, two phylacteria, one of which contained a fragment of the wood of the True Cross, the other a sentence of the Gospel. The custom of carrying portions of the Sacred Scriptures as phylacteries is mentioned by St. Jerome and St. John Chrysostom (St. Jerome, in Matt., iv, 24; St. John Chrys., in Matt., hom., 73). But, especially from the fourth century, when imperial favor brought large numbers into the Church, superstitious abuses in the use of devotional emblems became so common that the ecclesiastical authorities were obliged frequently to inveigh against the use of amulets. The Council of Laodicea (latter half of fourth century) prohibited ecclesiastics from making amulets and made the penalty for wearing them excommunication (canon 36). St. John Chrysostom, preaching at Antioch, denounced as a species of idolatry the wearing of amulets, which seems to have been common among his auditors. St. Augustine also denounced the numerous charlatans who dispensed charms, and a collection of canons made by St. Ceasarius of Arles (d. 542), formerly supposed to have been canons of the Fourth Council of Carthage, imposed the penalty of excommunication on those who patronized augurs (can. 89; see Hefele, Conciliengesch., II, 76). From one of the sermons (P.L., XXXIX, 2272) of St. Caesarius it appears that the dispensing of amulets was a regular profession; each disease had its appropriate amulet. These and similar superstitious practices survived to some extent, in one form or another, through the Middle Ages, and their suppression has always been a difficulty with which the Church has had to cope. The most ancient Christian amulet known, from Beirut, is attributed to the second century. It is made of gold and has a ring by which it was attached to the neck. The inscription on it, which is of more than ordinary interest, reads: “I exorcise thee, Satan (O cross purify me) in the name of the Lord the living God, that thou mayest never leave thy abode. Pronounced in the house of her whom I have anointed”. Leclercq sees in this invocation proofs (I) of belief in the virtue of the sign of the cross to put demons to flight, (2) of the conferring of extreme unction, (3) and of the use of exorcisms”, whereof we have here a formula. A favorite Christian amulet in the Orient during the fourth and fifth centuries bore on one side the image of Alexander the Great. St. John Chrysostom, in one of his Antioch instructions (Ad Illumin., Cat., II, 5), censures the use by Christians of amulets with the portrait of the Macedonian conqueror. Several amulets of this class, in the Cabinet of Medals at Paris, show, on one side, Alexander in the character of Hercules, and, on the other, a she-ass with her foal, a scorpion, and the name of Jesus Christ. An amulet in the Vatican Library with the picture of Alexander, bears on the reverse the monogram of Our Lord. Magic nails, also, with inscriptions were interred with the dead; one of them for Christian use has the legend “ter dico, ter incanto, in signv Deo et signv Salomonis et signv de nostra Art(e) mix”. The Gnostics were especially notable for their employment of amulets; the names found most frequently in their invocations are Adonai, Sabaoth, Jao, Michael, Raphael, Souriel (Uriel), and Gabriel.
MAURICE M. HASSETT