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Talismans and Amulets

Since Antiquity, men believed that some objects bring luck or have the power to protect them against evil eye, envy, sorcery, disease and to keep negative energy away. Those objects are known as talismans or amulets.

Talismans and Amulets

Article available in: PT-BR

Last update: 11/10/2013

By: Lúcia Gaspar - Librarian of the Fundação Joaquim Nabuco

Since Antiquity, men believed that some objects bring luck or have the power to protect them against evil eye, envy, sorcery, disease and to keep negative energy away. Those objects are known as talismans or amulets.

According to the Portuguese dictionary Houaiss (2009), a talisman is an object which the bearer believes to have the magical power of making their wishes come true and an amulet is an object, a written formula or a symbol (a medal, a figa, etc.) that a person keeps close, which they believe to have supernatural defense abilities against disgrace, disease, spells, evil, etc.

Talisman are exclusively defensive, and are manufactured to create a protective aura around the person bearing it. Amulets have the function of absorbing negative energy directed at its bearer. Both work as catalyzers for good and bad vibes. They receive and accumulate positive energy and diffuse negative energy, granting immunity to the individual. They both have a psychological effect. You need to believe, stimulating mental strength.

In Brazil, it is believed that amulets are associated to afro-Brazilian religions, which is not necessarily true. The figa, for example, that was widely used by slaves, originated in Europe, more specifically the Mediterranean region, and was incorporated by afro-Brazilian culture.

Brought by African slaves, those “magical” objects were more common in Bahia and Pernambuco, states that received a great amount of black slaves, with their culture, rituals and magic.

Talisman, amulets and other objects which are believed to be supernatural were widely used, specially by African and afro-Brazilian women.

Among the most known talismans and amulets in Brazil, the following stand out: balangandã bunches; figas; mojos; rabbit feet; crystals and rocks; four-leaf clovers; rue and rosemary branches; scapulars; pendants and small pictures of saints.

The balangandã bunches are a set of charms and trinkets made from different materials, such as gold, silver, iron, rock, wood, teeth, bones and seeds. It was common among the female slaves and free slaves in Bahia. They were always used around the waist and sometimes close to the lower part of the stomach. Not all objects of the bunch are part of African or afro-Brazilian symbology; there were also Christian symbols.

Today, balangandã bunches are still manufactured; some in silver, most in German silver, some in golden brass and even copper, and they are used as adornments. Their objects are bigger and usually feature a figa, water coconuts, pomegranates, grape bunches, tropical fruit such as pineapples, cashews and several others, such as keys, coins, animal pendants (dogs, horses, donkeys, sheep, roosters, parrots, fish) and human body parts (head, arms, legs and feet). They are industrially produced in order to satisfy the demand of the tourists, that consider them one of the main typical symbols of Bahia.

The figa is one of the oldest luck amulets. It was already known and used by the Etruscans in the Roman Empire. It is represented by a clenched human hand, with the thumb positioned between the index finger and the middle finger. It was originated in Italy, where it’s called Mano Fico. Mano means hand and fico is the representation of the female genitalia, and that’s why the figa used to be associated to fertility and eroticism. Currently it’s used against evil eye, envy and negative energies, casting good luck for the person that bears it.

Mojos are plastic or fabric little bags that contain herbs for protection. They receive colors according to the symbolism of the Orishas, for example: yellow for Oshun, blue for Oxossi and white for Obatala. Some are put in fios de conta (threads with beads on them), used by the scruff or on the back, where you can also find figas, coins and other objects.

There are also secret mojos worn under the clothes, close to the breasts, the navel, the back and other parts.

Rabbit feet are usually worn on the left pocket of pants and bring the bearer good luck.

Scapulars are threads with images of Catholic saints, that the followers usually have around their neck or on their back. Scapulars, medals and small pictures of saints used for protection show be blessed.

There are several other objects that are used as talismans and amulets around the world:

• David’s star, with five points, was a synonym of luck and prevention against disease for the Greek. Later, it was taken by the Jewish and the Arabs, to evoke wisdom and protection against evil eye;

• The Greek eye, against envy and evil eye, a symbol of luck and a powerful instrument against negative energy, used as pendant in bracelets, necklaces and tattoos;

• Amber, a fossilizes organic material, derived from a species of pine tree, largely used in Europe for protection against evil eye and other evils;

• Mandinga bags, small bags were Arab verses and prayers were put, used mainly around the neck, for protection and power to the bearer. The mandinga people lived in the region of the Mali empire, in sub-Saharan Africa, and specialized in magical practices to protect their political leaders against enemies and themselves against disease, plagues and evil. They mixed traditional African and Muslim beliefs.

Recife, May 17, 2013.

sources consulted

HOUAISS, Antônio; VILLAR, Mauro de Salles; FRANCO, Francisco Manoel de Mello. Dicionário Houaiss da língua portuguesa. Rio de Janeiro: Objetiva, 2009.

LODY, Raul. Pencas de balangandãs da Bahia: um estudo etnográfico das joias-amuletos. Rio de Janeiro: Funarte, Instituto Nacional do Folclore, 1988.

PAIVA, Eduardo França. Pequenos objetos, grandes encantos. Nossa História, Rio de Janeiro, ano 1, n. 10, p. 58-62, ago.2004.

TALISMÃS e amuletos.Available at: <http://wp.clicrbs.com.br/nathanael/2010/06/23/talismas-e-amuletos-parte-i/>. Accessed: 6 maio 2013.

how to quote this text

Source: GASPAR, Lúcia. Talismãs e amuletos. Pesquisa Escolar Online, Joaquim Nabuco Foundation, Recife.Available at: <http://basilio.fundaj.gov.br/pesquisaescolar>. Accessed: day month year. Example: 6 ago. 2009