Apotropaic Art: Amulets and Phallic Pendants in Ancient Cultures

Across the ancient world, we find a number of pieces that would have been worn by their owners for the sake of protection – primarily amulets. Jewellery of this apotropaic nature most often takes shape in the form of pendants, and we find them in abundance from a number of civilisations, especially Egypt and Ancient Rome. These amulets covered a broad range of subjects in their iconography.

Egyptian amulets

Egyptian amulets were both worn by the living and used on a mummified deceased to provide protection during the afterlife. They could depict living things, such as animals or parts of the body, or inanimate objects. Those that represented animals appeared from the Old Kingdom whilst those associated with specific deities, such as Sekhmet and, famously, the eye of Horus developed from the Middle Kingdom. It was believed that the amulet would bestow on its wearer powers of protection, transferred from the deity or form taken. Amulets of inanimate objects, such as headrests, were placed with the deceased so that they would have access to such important items in the afterlife. It was not just the form the amulet took that bestowed aprotropaic properties but the material, colour and any additional inscriptions were all just as important.

egyptian miniature obsidian head rest 1
Egyptian Eye of Horus Amulet 1
Egyptian Faience Amulet of Sekhmet 2
phoenician amuletic pendant

Magic and spells in Ancient Greece

We find pendants worn with amuletic purpose in Greece as well. The nature of Greek amulets extends more to the belief in magic and the art of reciting spells. They fall largely into two categories –  those that brought the wearer good luck and those that protected. They could be made from a number of materials, including bone, metal and semi-precious stones. For the power of the amulet to work, obediances and supplication had to be made to the gods.

Fascinus and the phallic pendant

In Ancient Rome we find amulets in a shape that might surprise modern viewers – the form of an erect penis. There is a large number of ithyphallic forms which we find strewn across the Roman Empire – these range from large statues of Priapus in the gardens and houses of Pompeii to smaller items, like pendants. Phallic pendants could represent the Roman god Fascinus or embody his attributes and protection. The reason for their popularity is most likely that they were associated with fertility, abundance, and health.

The range of amulets we find across the ancient world tells us a lot about its inhabitants – what virtues they hoped for and also the virtues that they valued. Although their forms are sometimes rather different than what we might expect according to modern cultural norms, they outline to us that human wishes for divine protection, fortune, wealth, and so on, have remained the same across the millennia.

Roman phallic bronze pendant
Roman phallic bronze pendant
Roman bronze phallic seal box
large roman phallic amulet

Ancient Roman Antiquities

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By Francesca,

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