The Center for the Study of Ancient Religions
of the University of Chicago

Ancient Amulets: Words, Images and Social Contexts

a conference at the Franke Institute of Humanities and the Oriental Institute
Friday, February 15th – Sunday, February 17th

 An amulet is quintessentially an object hung about the neck, suspended over a house door or hidden in the heart of a city that is especially empowered by its medium, history, text or image to protect people and real estate or to heal sick bodies.  In the ancient world, at least, it seems to be a universal constant, which lends itself nicely to comparative inquiry.  Ancient amulets have, however, been underappreciated in academia, perhaps because of their small size, their often rough workmanship or even their gross ubiquity.  They also sit uncomfortably at the intersection of many traditional disciplines – archaeology, philology and the histories of art and religion — and are thus a central focus to none of them.  There is also a lasting misperception that amulets are typical of “eastern” cultures, both ancient and modern, but not of  “western” ones.  The goals of the conference are to bring together scholars of the ancient and early medieval worlds, both east and west, and from different disciplines and ask them to interrogate amulets from three interlocked perspectives: words, images and social contexts.

Words: Because of their often durable media, amulets preserve a variety of texts – prayers, blessings, incantations – which raise some basic questions: does the written and portable text serve as an aide-memoire for daily recital or perusal?  As a memorial of some past performance, for example, the successful cure of a dangerous disease or the completion of a rite of passage?  Or does it simple replace the spoken word with a more durable written version of a powerful speech act?  These texts, moreover, are often designed to be viewed — e.g. on the front of the neck or over the door of the owner — from the perspective of an outsider, sometimes by demons, who are to be frightened by what they see or read, sometimes by gods, who are to be persuaded to help.  What does the legibility of amulets suggest about the literacy of supernatural beings or the languages that they know? Can arcane symbols or non-native words (so-called abracadabra) be understood as a secret and supernatural language?

Under the rubric “Images” we will inquire in similar fashion into the amulet’s relationship with other images in the wider political, social and supernatural world of its owner.  When amulets appear, for instance, to be miniature versions of a cult statue, an imperial portrait or a powerful religious or political symbol, what relationship are we to assume between the copy and the original?  What is lost or gained in the process of miniaturization?  Is it a statement of group allegiance that has some claim to special protection?  Does it render portable and personal the protective power of the original image?  How so?  Since amulets for house and city are usually set at their entrances or along their peripheries, can we press this understanding by analogy to the human body with its amulets suspended from neck and wrist, its finger rings or other objects slipped into the shoe?  What, finally, is the relationship between text and image?  Does the text serve as caption or commentary?  Does the text supplicate or command the image?  Encircle and thus constrain it?

The third rubric, “Social Contexts”, seeks to return an artifact to its quotidian context, primarily by asking participants to examine an archaeologically closed system of amulets, for example, those discovered in a single house in upper Egypt or an infant burial ground in Carthage.  Especially interesting will be the question of cultural identity – to what degree do amulets – in addition to healing and protecting – announce to the world the special ethnic, political or religious orientation of the owner?  If a person is buried with an amulet that has traditionally Egyptian or Jewish symbols or verbal expressions, to what degree can we assume that the owner is Egyptian or Jewish?  Do amulets differ between adults and children?  Men and women?  Slave and free? Since most extant body-amulets are recovered from graves, one must also ask whether we can in a funerary context distinguish between amulets that protected the dead person while they lived and those that protect the already dead against the terrors of the afterlife.  Could some amulets operate in both arenas?

The following individuals have agreed to give papers:


W. Farber (NELC Chicago) “Displaced Demons: The Case of Lamashtu Amulets and Texts from the Levant.”

Nils P. Heeßel (NELC, Heidelberg): “Plague-Amulets, House Blessings, and Prayers. Some Reflections on ‘Amulet-Shaped’ Clay Tablets”

Sarah Graff (Metropolitan Museum of Art): “The Severed Heads of Humbaba as Amulets”


Robert Ritner (NELC Chicago), “Egyptian Amulets of the Roman Period”

Walter Shandruk (Classics, Chicago), “Early Christian Amulets from Egypt”

Sofia Torallas Tovar (CSIC Madrid) “A Greek Ostrakon Amulet from Montserrat”

Terry Wilfong (Kelsey Museum, U of Mich) “Format and Performance in the Egyptian Oracular Amuletic Decrees: Measuring, Writing and Speaking”

Jacco Dieleman (UCLA), “The Adoption and Adaptation of Egyptian Iconography on Phoenician Amulets”

West Semitic:

Megan Nutzman (Classics, Chicago), “Amulets in Context: The Nirim Synagogue Cache.”

Phil Schmitz, (History, Eastern Michigan University) “A Phoenician Papyrus Amulet from Malta: Text and Image”

Brien K. Garnand (Whitman College), “Amulets and Infants from the Carthaginian Tophet

Jeremy Smoak (UCLA) “The “Image” of Yahweh’s Shining Face and the Ritual Logic of the Ketef Hinnom Amulets in their West Semitic Context”

Further East:

Matt Canepa (Art, University of Minnesota): “Manichean Amulets along the Silk Road”

Paul Copp (EALC, Chicago) “’Buddho-Daoist’ Seal Amulets and Their Manuals in Medieval China.”

Donald Harper (NELC Chicago) “Inscribed Amulet Jars in Han Tomb Architecture”


Kassandra Jackson (Classics, Chicago) “Thunderstone Slices as Amulets in the Pergamon Magical Kit”

J.H.F. Dijkstra (University of Ottawa) “The Interplay between Image and Text in Christian Amulets”

Christopher A. Faraone (Chicago), “Miniature Statues as Amulets”

Jan Bremmer (Groningen), TBA

Arpad Nagy (Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest), “Constructing Magical Gems: Image, Text, Praxis”

For information, please contact Professor C.A. Faraone at