AMULETS, SYMBOLS AND FOLK-LORE

The study of the folk-lore has in recent years been receiving greater attention, its object is to collect and classify the survival of popular beliefs and traditions and to trace their original source. Much of their meaning has been lost during the centuries.

Around every stage of life, a variety of symbols were used although some of them appear meaningless nowadays. The belief that certain objects sometimes possess powers against danger, disease ,is found throughout the world and has always existed.

Such objects that were worn round the neck to prevent disease or to protect the person from danger or misfortune, are often called talismans or amulets.

The Arabs have a legend, that when Pharaoh's army had been drowned in the Red Sea, the Egyptians elected a woman called Dalukah as queen, because she was wise and prudent and also skilled in magic. During the course of her reign, she filled Egypt with her temples and with figures of animals. In the temples she collected all the secrets of nature and all the attracting and repelling powers which were contained in minerals, plants and animals. She performed her sorcery, at the moment in the revolution of the celestial bodies when they would be amenable to a higher power. The figures of the gods and men were supposed to be magical figures.

In Egypt over 275 different varieties of amulets have been discovered and classified as e.g. Amulets to give confidence and faith, or to protect.

The amulet of the heart was made in the shape of a scarab, for the scarab is believed to possess remarkable powers. The Eye of Horus was used to confer on the dead the power of seeing out of the coffin. The Ankh was the amulet of life. The frog symbolised fecundity and resurrection, the scorpion to make the wearer invulnerable to the bites and stings of venomous reptiles and insects. Shells of various kind, cowries in particular, threaded and worn as necklaces, were regarded as a protection against the "evil eye".

Amulets in the shape of a crescent, which originated from the new moon, symbolised protection of the Moon god. The lizard amulet was used to preserve from fever.

The ancient Babylonians and Assyrians hung amulets modelled in clay outside the doors of their houses to keep away and prevent the entrance of negative energies, and they suspended tablets of gold inscribed with certain characters around the neck of their children to preserve them from harm.

The Romans used stones and metals as talismans. Bronze in particular was believed to have the power of driving away evil spirits. Coral necklaces were originally worn on account of the belief that they would prevent bad dreams. Solomon's ring, which was said to possess a variety of occult virtues is celebrated by the Arabs. His seal and the hexagonal star are believed to have powerful magical properties both by the Arabs and the Abyssinians.

Amulets were usually worn for the purpose of protection, whereas Talismans consist of certain symbols or characters either written or engraved on meta. These were carried in order to protect the owner from danger and help him in bringing good fortune. Their powers was believed to be derived from the stars and constellations annd were seen as s more magical in character.

The Berber people of North Africa are the original inhabitants of that area. Nowadays there are Berber ethnic groups found from Mauritania to Egypt.

The word itself comes from an Latin and ancient Greek barbari , meaning the non-Latin/Greek speaking peoples of the Maghreb (the Arabic name of this area, meaning "the Sunset" or the West. Barbary Coast was another name given to North Africa). The Berbers inhabit the mountain regions and parts of the Sahara Desert. Throughout history they have maintained their identity and culture .Berbers refer themselves as the Imazighan meaning "The Free People". Today there are around 25 million Imazighan in North Africa and Europe. Morocco has the largest Berber population.

The Berber symbols, designs, motifs and tattoos originated from pre-Islamic beliefs influenced later by Islamic geometric patterns and ornamentation.

The belief in animism (that all animals and objects do have a spirit) is reflected in objects used as a source of magic, power and protection from negative energies.

In the urban tradition textiles and other objects are created as an act for worship and tribute to Allah. Many objects are valued not only because of the way they have been decorated but because they may contain a baraka. Although the term Baraka has various meanings it is mainly the positive power of the saint and the Sufi brotherhoods. The religious faith of the artisan and his belief in supernatural forces connect him with the object he is making. The baraka does not exist only in amulets or talismans but in any kind of objects, such as ceramics and textiles, plants such as henna, incenses, such as myrrh. In the case of jewellery the rings and amulets found in necklaces and talismans worn around the neck, are decorated with words or phrases from the Koran. baraka is also important in order to deal with darker forces, curing illnesses.

In North Africa there is still some symbols, motifs and tattoos to be found such as magic numbers, magic squares, verses of the Koran, geometric figures (triangles, spirals, crosses, eight pointed stars, circles, diamonds).

There is a long tradition of interest in numerology in the Arab world especially in number three, five, seven, nine and their multiples, which are believed to have magical power. A talisman can be made of leather or cloth inscribed with symbols as crescents, crosses, stars and hand. It is a piece of paper on which may be written a short prayer or verses from the Koran.

The symbols and motifs representing animals are mostly found in textiles, embroidery, ceramics, woodwork and jewellery. The representation of dangerous animals such as the snake, scorpion is intended to act as a symbolic protector. The fish symbol in jewellery represents water and rain and the fertility of the earth. The bird often mentioned in the Koran as a messenger between heaven and earth is associated with destiny, whereas the eagle represents power. The lizard and the salamander symbolise the human soul searching for the light. The snake is associated with the phallus, itself a symbol of fertility is thought to have healing powers. Turtle and tortoise represent the saints and symbolise protection from evil forces.

Two parts of the human body, such as the eyes and the hand symbolise protection.

The Hand, called khamsa is a symbol of human creative activity, power and dominance. It does mean five in Arabic and symbolise also the number five with its magical properties to protect from evil forces.

The eye motif is represented as a triangle or as a row of triangles. The eye can appear in all kind of ways, in inverted triangles representing eyebrows, and lozenges representing the eye. All these designs possess magical powers against evil and are believed to protect people, animals and objects. Such protection is the only action a human can take in the face of the mektoub (destiny).

Tattooing mainly of women is a widespread practice among the Berbers and Arabs in North Africa. It is believed that the body orifices were vulnerable and need to be protected from evil forces. Tattoos are never figurative but rather simple geometric formations. The range of design for women and the parts of the body on which they are located are the forehead, chin, cheeks and neck as well as the chest, arms, feet and sometimes thighs.

Click here to read about Berber symbols

 

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