Spiritual protection in the Greco-Roman world

This was this week’s hot topic, so I’m using the opportunity to make some things clear from a purely hellenic and historical perspective. Needless to say I am tired of seeing modern magical concepts being slapped on ancient beliefs and I am not writing this post unbiased.

Amulets
Etymologically, the word amulet probably means “something that can be carried”. It’s, personally speaking, my favorite type of protection. Technically speaking, an amulet could, therefore, be a lot of different things as long as they serve two main purposes: tutelage (protection) and prophylaxis (preventive).

Let’s go through some of the most common types:

  • Bulla: typically given to male roman children 9 days after birth. It is worn like a locket where other amulets are placed (typically phalluses).
  • Lunula: a crescent moon pendant worn by little and young roman girls until their mariage.
  • Fascinum, tintinnabula and other phalli: the symbol of protection par excellence, found in many shapes and forms. The tintinnabula is more potent, as it also has bells, which are considered apotropaic as well. Bells could also be put around children’s and animal’s neck for a similar protective effect.
  • The Eye (mati): still widely in use, it appears as soon as the 6th century BC on Greek cups. Sometimes added on the phallus for a double protective effect (also true for wings).
  • Gorgoneion: Often worn simply as a pendant and easily found a bit everywhere, to house tresholds to carved on bullae.
  • Hercules’ Club:  late Antiquity amulets shaped like wooden clubs and most common in Roman Germany between the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. An examplary speciment bears the inscription “Deo Herculi“, thus confirming its link to Hercules hero worship.
  • Amulet strings: Mostly seen for Athenian children. It is a cord with several amulets attached to it that is worn diagonally (or on the chest) instead of around the neck so the child can’t choke on it.
  • Garter and waist amulet strings: Mostly worn by Greek women. Their function is debated, but it seems that amulets that were worn this way might have had something to do with easing childbirth, menstruation and sexuality in general (eg. to avoid miscarriages or, the opposite, as a contraceptive).
  • Coiled snake ring/bracelet: Common protection for young Roman women.
  • Depiction of gods on medaillons and other objects: quite a straightforward way to put yourself under the protection of a deity. Helios and Semele together seem to both have been a popular choice.
  • Coins: Especially old reused coins, sometimes pierced in the middle but not always. This is especially the case for coins which have the image of a deity or hero (Alexander the Great got very popular for this function). Other notable examples include Fortuna, Nike or Helios. The image on the coin matters more than the coin itself.

This is not even an extensive list, but it’s worth noting that when we’re talking about the ancients, we’re talking about people who have been put under some kind of magical protection since their first days of life. I personally have used 2 types of amulet cited above so far, a silver coiled snake ring which I worn until it broke, which I replaced by a fascinum. This one travels with me, as I keep it with my apartment keys but I have 2 consecrated phalli in my apartment that also serve a purpose: one to Dionysus and one to Priapus. The latter being by definition, a protective deity.

Protection starts at the threshold

I know this can be hard to pull off, but in ideal conditions, you’d want to have a small altar or shrine by the main door of your place. Amulets are meant to follow you around, but protecting your space is just as important. In one of the ridiculous arguments I’ve witnessed this week, someone said, and I paraphrase, that “you could have negative entity living in your house and fucking your life up” when trying to honor the gods, which is “why you should banish“. The problem here is banish against what? If the answer here is “negative spirits”, then, by hellenic standards, this is a whole other process that:

1) Doesn’t happen at the altar
2) Protects the household on the long term instead of a one shot thing

This, alongside other elements of ancient greek theology, is why you don’t need to “protect yourself when you approach the gods” and other ridiculous claims I’ve seen. If you need to protect yourself in such manner, it means you never either 1) developped kharis with a deity to protect you or 2) took care of protecting your place.

The first protection for a typical greek door would be an aniconic pillar dedicated to Apollo Agyieus aka “of the street” because that pillar was outside of the house. This Apollo, protector of entrances is also called Thyraios in later sources:

Apud Graecos Apollo colitur qui Θυραῖος vocatur, eiusque aras ante fores  suas celebrant, ipsum exitus et introitus demonstrantes potentem.
The Greeks worship Apollo under the name Thyraios and tend his altars in front of their doors, thereby showing that entrances and exits are under his power.

Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.9.6

It’s important to note that the same epithet is attested for Hermes, which makes total sense since he and Hekate are also traditionally linked to the protection of thresholds (represented by hekataia and herms).

Why am I insisting so much on doors? To quote Johnston:

“Divinities who guard the entrances to cities or private dwellings would be expected to avert all sorts of dangers that might threaten those dwelling within, from burglars to mice, but in ancient Greece (like many other places), they were particularly expected to ward off unhappy souls and other demonic creatures, who were believed to congregate at entrances for two reasons. First, because inhabitants vigilantly used protective devices to keep them out, these creatures were imagined to lurk near entrances, patiently awaiting those rare moments of laxity when they might dart back inside.”

It’s important to note that the protection granted by threshold deities, whether it is Hecate, Hermes or Apollo is that it concerns both the mundane and the spiritual, restless spirits are one thing but it seems to extend to general ills.

Conclusion

I should add, before wrapping this up, that there is an evolution in time with how the Ancients considered their protection to work. As such, between the 8th and 5th centuries BC, amulets weren’t so prevalent. The gods were considered the only ones who had the ability to protect. After the end of the 5th century onwards, there is a gradual shift towards a more “DIY” approach to protection, where human action is considered impactful, thus making the use of atropopaic amulets relevant.

Further reading: 

  • Faraone C., The Transformation of Greek Amulets in Roman Imperial Times, 2018
  • Habib R. R.,  Protective Magic in Ancient Greece: Patterns in the Material Culture of Apotropaia from the Archaic to Hellenistic Periods, 2017
  • Johnston I. S., Restless Dead: Encounters between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece, 1999
  • Kerr M. D., Gods, Ghosts and Newlyweds: exploring the uses of the threshold in Greek and Roman superstition and folklore, 2018
  • Porto C, V.,  Material Culture as Amulets: Magical Elements and the Apotropaic in Ancient Roman World in: Philosophy Study, 2020

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