The magical powers of Ancient Egyptian amulets

Updated: Dec 4, 2021

Let’s look at what draws us to these highly personal and yet mass-produced miniature objects, so important for a charmed life - before and after death.



Far and wide

Lucky charms

A trouble-free Afterlife

Manufacture

Let's focus - on individual amulets

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References & further information


Far and wide


Amulets were used throughout the Ancient Egyptian region and time periods, from Pre-Dynastic to Roman. They were made in huge abundance and were inexpensive to most when crafted in faience, which made them available to nearly everyone, from poor farmers to royalty.


This Egyptian amuletic culture was also used outside Ancient Egypt.

Egyptian amulets could be exported, but also locally made amulets in Egyptian style were produced throughout the Mediterranean region. Whether the Egyptian meaning and function of these amulets were shared outside of Egypt can be debated, but clearly they were seen as potent magical objects in other cultures as well.

Isabel Stünkel Department of Egyptian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, February 2019


Lucky charms


Egyptian amulets were often small; and are fascinating for their miniature depictions both weird and wonderful, quaint and sophisticated, charming and spooky! They automatically evoke a sense of magic and mystery, and although mass-produced, nevertheless can be imagined as full of personal meaning to their original owners, both in life and death. They were essentially ancient lucky charms.


An amulet is an object endowed with magical properties, which one wears on one’s person and although often small and personal, is usually representative of a more widely known symbol. Ancient Egyptian amulets protected the owner from disease or disaster in his/her lifetime, much as people today might use representations of the evil eye, carry lucky charms or icons, or perhaps wear a St Christopher necklace for safe travel.


The magical power of these little objects, worn close to the body, derived from their physical properties such as shape, colour, material and from their decoration and/or inscriptions. Amulets represented a variety of recognisable symbols, deities in different forms, animals or objects, and might be used ritualistically.


Amulets could have a variety of meanings. Deity amulets for example might have carried a single special significance, or they might have had several powers due to the multiple properties that Egyptian deities often represented.


A trouble-free Afterlife


Amulets worn in life were also used in death, and were placed on the mummy, or perhaps within its bandages, chosen according to wealth, status and individual preference.


There were also exclusively funerary amulets, which peaked in the Late Period, and were specifically made for the purpose of placement on the wrapped mummy on the day of burial to provide protection and assistance on the hazardous journey to the Other World and an easy time in the Afterlife. Some of these funerary amulets could be quite large, and often invoked a positive judgement after death. They included the two-finger amulet, and the heart scarab, which depicted a large scarab beetle, was inscribed underneath with the text of a spell and was widely used.

The heartscarab was placed over the dead person’s heart to protect it from being separated from the body in the underworld. The heart, which contained a record of all the person’s actions in life, was essential for the ‘Weighing of the Heart Ceremony’ as it was weighed against the feather of the goddess Ma’at. If the scales were balanced, the person passed and entered the afterlife. For those who were concerned about this test, they could recite the spell inscribed on their heartscarab to prevent their heart from ‘betraying’ them.

Australian Museum: The Jeweller in ancient Egypt, updated 2/11/18


Manufacture


Amulets were mostly made from faience, although stones and some precious metals were also used. As well as the wonder of the techniques in mass producing such often intricate and dainty little objects, much of the beauty of amulets comes from the variety in their colours and glazes.

Faience was the most popular material for man-made amulets. It could be produced in green and blue colors, favored for their association with life and regeneration. Semiprecious stones were common as well, and their color often had a specific meaning. Red, for example, was associated with dangerous forces but was thus also considered to be protective. Expensive materials such as gold, silver, and electrum, appreciated for their durability, were employed for amulets by the higher classes of Egyptian society. Bronze, a material that was very popular for temple donations, was rarely used for amulets, though the reasons are unknown.

Isabel Stünkel Department of Egyptian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, February 2019


Other small objects found naturally such as shells were also used as amulets, along with written spells, folded and tied with string. These don’t survive so well for us to come across today.


We often find that smaller amulets were pierced or had a built-in loop for some kind of suspension; but they were also wrapped in fabric attached to string; and of course in funerary rites, they were placed on the mummy.


Let’s focus – on individual amulets


The subject of Egyptian amulets is quite vast and often complex and has been explored far more thoroughly than we can do here (see our reference section below), but here are some of the more common and/or interesting amulet types that we are likely to come across.


Anubis – the jackal


Egyptian amulet of god Anubis the jackal in turquoise faience
Amulet of Anubis the jackal

Anubis amulets with the head of a dog, probably a jackal, were reserved for the dead. This link with jackals may have been to protect the body from being eaten or disturbed by jackals, as the destruction of the body was a barrier to the Afterlife. Anubis was deemed the god of embalming, supposedly practising first on his father Osiris.


Bastet – from lioness to cat


A gold amulet of Bastet the cat from Ancient Egypt
Amulet of Bastet as a cat in gold

Bastet was protector of women, goddess of fertility. She started off depicted as a lioness but became less fierce as a cat, after cats were domesticated in around 1500 BC. It is thought that her various cat, or cat with kittens, amulets were mainly worn in life by women to place them under the patronage of the goddess and perhaps endow them with her fecundity.


Bes – defender of the good


Egyptian amulet of Bes
Front face of amulet of Bes

Although as a minor deity he had no temples, Bes the dwarf god enjoyed enormous popularity throughout Egypt in the later Dynastic period in particular, and beyond. His image decorated countless decorative art objects with which the body routinely came into contact, such as beds and head-rests.




Ancient Egyptian amulet of dwarf god Bes
Reverse side of amulet of Bes


He was commonly shown full-faced rather than in profile, naked, with lion’s mane and tail, wearing tall plumes, as in this example. The Bes amulet was very popular with women, worn for good luck to keep them safe in childbirth, and as general protection of households.





Djed pillar – the backbone of Ancient Egypt


Egyptian amulet of the Djed pillar in faience
The Djed pillar - the backbone of Osiris

The djed pillar is an amulet in the form of the hieroglyphic sign which means 'enduring, stable' and similar. It came to represent the backbone of the lord god Osiris, and the Djed amulet was placed with the deceased to help ensure rebirth.


A spell in the Book of the Dead activates such an amulet, saying 'Raise yourself up Osiris! You have your backbone once more, O weary-hearted One; you have your vertebrae!'


Eye of Horus – the healing gaze


Pale green faience amulet of Wedjat or the Eye of Horus
Openwork faience amulet of the Eye of Horus

Also known as the wedjat or ujat, ‘whole one’ and ‘all-seeing eye’, the Eye of Horus was one of the commonest amulets. Its restorative healing powers for the individual wearer derive from the tale of the god Horus, whose eye was stolen by the god Seth, then restored by the god Thoth. These beautiful and often intricate amulets, carved, moulded, glazed in a variety of ways, but with a consistent depiction that is sensual and intense, represent a combination of a falcon (Horus was associated with the falcon) and human eye.


Fly – courage and tenacity


Ancient Egyptian red jasper amulet of a fly