I am at RWA today, so I am writing to you FROM THE PAST!!!
(Not as impressive as writing to you from the future, but hey.)
While revising The Sea May Burn, I found myself stymied by the question: what would a working-class Sussex girl do to ward off evil, since crossing herself would be...*gasp*...Catholic!?
This turned out to be a real rabbithole. Most common types of amulets and luck charms seemed to have specific purposes, often involving sympathetic magic (i.e. "like working on like": a rabbit's foot in Regency England was carried to ward off arthritis or cramps, since rabbits are swift and agile and bouncy on their feet!). Stones with holes were believed to keep away witches, but their use often relied on specific contexts (like tying them to a key, or hanging them in a horse's stall).
I might be overgeneralizing, but most charms I found that were carried on the body were designed to protect the body (literally, from illness), whereas general protective charms were more commonly used to protect places (hung on the wall or over a door, set on a windowsill, or put in the walls during construction).
But I feel like there MUST have been charms people carried for non-specific "luck" or "protection"! You can't stay in your house all the time! Or maybe the charm on a place was understood to go with the place's inhabitants when they left, like a mezzuzah?
Unfortunately for me, detailed explanations of folk practices are rarely written down, and when folklorists ask for explanations they're often stonewalled (possibly because it would break or disrespect the charm, possibly because poor people don't trust or like folklorists for fairly obvious reasons, possibly because it's fun to troll...).
Most of the good information I found came from Edward Lovett, a turn-of-the-last-century collector. I yearn for his book Magic in Modern London! It must have had a tiny print run because I can barely find it in libraries and all the secondhand copies cost a fortune. Maybe it's time for an ILL request...
One promising amulet type is a lump of iron pyrite, called a "thunderbolt". You can see a great example at the Southwark Museum website.
At first, like the museum curator who wrote that description, I assumed the name meant the charm warded off lightning. Iron pyrite makes sense as sympathetic magic for lightning: for a while, it was used as part of the striking mechanism in guns (ie. it strikes sparks, like lightning), and it visually resembles, at least in an abstract way, rock or earth that has been struck by lightning (possibly also drawing on the idea that "lightning never strikes twice in the same place").
But after reading more, I've started to wonder if that may be too literal or simplistic, since I've come across very different kinds of amulets also described as "thunderbolts."
For example, the Royal Albert museum says of belemnites that, "People believed that the pointy fossils were cast down from the heavens during thunderstorms. Regional variations like Devil’s Fingers or Saint Peter’s Fingers existed across England."
Maybe this is actually a trace of Odin and Thor-worship?
Anyway, in the end I went with ammonites. You've probably seen these very common fossils around (either in the wild or for sale). They look like this:
Despite having zero connection to actual thunder or lightning that I can find, they were ALSO lumped in with "thunderbolts" according to Edward Lovett.
Link goes to Pinterest but here is the relevant text: "In Wiltshire and Gloucestershire I remember seeing ammonites and other fossils placed on the outside window ledges of cottages. The mischievous village boy never interfered with these, although so invitingly placed. I found the reason was that they were thunderbolts! That was quite enough."
To way oversimplify, ammonites are basically prehistoric giant snails, but working-class English people called them "snakestones". They frequently show up with adorable little snake heads carved into them! Examples:
Clearly some people believed the fossils were petrified snakes (for example, a local legend in Whitby had it that St. Hilda turned an infestation of snakes to stone), and the faces were sometimes (how often?) intended to be passed off as genuine by scammers (or at least souvenir salesmen, which can be a fine line).
But some of those faces look REALLY fake (or at least, artistic!). Again, I think it doesn't do to be overly literal with cultural beliefs. There's always vast variation in interpretation within a tradition--and just because a design was added to a natural thing doesn't mean it was intended to look natural! I've bought cameos and polished seashells at tourist stands, and no one pretended they came out of the sea looking like that. No one thought horseshoes or crosses GREW that way, either.
It's possible that snakestones were only meant to ward off snakes or snakebite. But if they were kept on windowsills, at least their action must have been understood to be symbolic rather than physical. (I assume snakes are more likely to enter by the door than the window, anyway?) Symbolic is probably the wrong word, but I mean, it must have been more like hanging dice or a St. Christopher medal in your car than like burning a citronella candle for insects or wearing garlic to keep away vampires. And since snakes were commonly associated with the devil, I decided ammonites made sense as a general "ward off evil" charm for my story. They also come in all sizes, which means one could easily be carried in a pocket!
Some more cool and/or beautiful amulets:
- early-modern numerological amulet, possibly Jewish [British museum]
- another one
- operculum of a univalve shell, supposedly carried for long life
- a charm against witches that conveniently doubles as a pincushion
- a large brown seed washed up from the ocean (probably from Jamaica), believed to be a "lucky bean"
Hang in there. Your week's half over!