Tag Archives: amulet

German Hunting Amulets (Charivari)

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It’s a bit difficult to grasp in a country whose idea of hunting starts with guns blazing, what might take shape in terms of custom and memory if the act of seeking sustenance in the wild woods, involved in memory more of a tangle of endurance, skill, patience, luck, risk, hunger and blood.  For descendants of a pioneer family such as my own, we have the image of the Mountain Man, rugged separatist who preferred the wilderness to the city, who preferred to learn the tongues of the native inhabitants to the slick tongues of the European immigrant flood.  They were described as possessing scarce knowledge, speaking the language of the land, and in what wild wisdom they had earned by sacrificing all comfort made them into symbols of a more pure form of justice, one that was more essential, more in line with the laws of man and beast, of life, than the spearpoint of economics that most think of when squinting eyes and peering backwards at the idea of frontier justice.  So goes the story anyway.

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True Grit

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So it was told around the fireside in my family, these men who lived off their (s)kills experienced something like the tradeoff of senses, the heightened hearing in the blind, or existential insight of the hunchback who lives in the cathedral attic.  They reverted in some way, retrogressed and so became civilized, solidified in another.   Their clothing might be entirely composed of the skins and furs of the animals they had killed, laces, shoes and bedding.  But these men were also told to be rogue scholars of a sort, not a few in possession of at the least the Works of Shakespeare which served as the everyman’s library of the day, or the Compleat Angler which was truly the English speaking world’s first Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  I can remember making a beaded necklace complete with plastic bear-claws in a youth group, and being mystified by the legend of the meeting place where civilization receded into the woods, and the wild animal came to live alongside re-wild man.  I could feel, by slipping the costume claws over my neck, something of the effort and mystery involved in them.  You had to earn them.  You had to face death to wear them.

Shown worn traditionally over lederhosen.

Shown worn traditionally over lederhosen.

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All of this introduction serves to relate as best I can to a form of talisman that is at once so ordinary it needs no introduction, and so vitally spiritual, in the most minimal sense of that word, that it could be called timeless.  Charivari is a word with uncertain etymology, it appears in several languages, in France it means roughly ‘a large group shouting’ or occasionally a wedding, but with completely unknown origins.  In Germans speaking countries, it refers specifically to the hunting amulet, or a chain of them that is  draped in front of one’s crotch when wearing their leather hunting gear, or the folklore costume version of them.  I’ve encountered references to these talismans having the expected magical uses, but also as displays of wealth in that purely tribal fashion, thick silver chains and strung coins, along with mythological references such as tribal symbols, saint medallions and vanitas skulls.  Tales are painted of young hunters being initiated and receiving them as graduation gifts, pointing to a form of ornament that blended personal taste, belief and trophy.  More than a few charivari chains terminate in a nice long bit of antler or a penis bone strung right over where the manhood dangles, suggesting no shortage of humor in these low-hung man jewels.

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Women have their own charivaris as well, usually worn as an apron tie or bodice closure.  Tribal finds  throughout the ages show a widespread habit of stringing amulets along the belt in clusters or tucked into little pouches, for both men and women, surviving into the late middle ages and beyond as chatelains, buckles, watch fobs, and keychains, even today lingering in the rainbow colors of a lucky rabbit’s foot.  In modern terms, so cleaned of their practicality, it is difficult to picture the raw objective feeling beneath these traditional ornaments.

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What I find most interesting is that for the most part charivaris seem to have a kind of humility to them, they are usually small tokens just the tips of horns, a single tooth, or a seed, or the jaws of a small hunter like a weasel.  At home or in the lodge one might mount heads or racks of horns, but when one goes out to the woods to engage in death and life, wearing their leather clothes, the talismans are subtle.   Bits of fang and horn, the pincers of stag beetles, the beaks of birds, little reminders of sharp and contentious things.  In a private, liminal way they can be held in the hand to become one of the animals, a small button to press and enter on even footing into the chaotic court of the wilderness. Small tokens, humble in their recognition, unsparing in their reminders at the modesty of the greatest hunter in the face of being snowblind, or scented by ravenous wolves, or breaking an ankle on a particularly long trek in search of food, or failing to find food too frequently.  Beak and talon, tooth and fang, small reminders of the hunter’s true scale in the face of survival, the woods, and the world beyond.

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The Signet

Seal of Roman Emperor Augustus (the Imperial “Whelping Sphinx”)

One of my favorite subjects of jewelry, the signet or intaglio ring can act like a time-capsule of personal identity.  They were once so common they are like the signatures of ghosts left to sprinkle ancient dwelling houses.  Like a stone fingerprint, or the 3-digit security code on the back of your cards, they were used to seal documents or sign them by pressing their mark into a patch of wax.  Their designs were usually carved intaglio into a gemstone, so their impressions left a raised relief design.  Later, as they fell into disuse, their metal would be melted down or reused, the carved stones tossed aside having little practical value, to be discovered in abundance by archaeologists or traded endlessly as pocket curios of the Classical world.  Throughout the later middle ages they became prized treasures of nobility, reset and collected, maintaining a reputation with their lost languages and mysterious figures to be magical.

These seals were often worn as rings, in order to conduct routine business, and are remembered today as the signet ring.  The contemporary signet frequently bears an inscription or a seal of some significance – though rarely in modern times are they a reverse imprint designed for wax, and if so purely nostalgic.  Signet rings still retain the suggestion of a claim to some kind of authority (if only the spectre of masculine authority), whether a masonic ring, a class ring or a family crest,  or at its most minimal, a heavy ring with a large flat and undecorated stone.

Minoan Signet Ring

The origins of signature seals are very ancient, dating back thousand of years.
In Mohenjo Daro, the neatly planned city on the Indus River sophisticated clay seals with writing have been found dating back nearly 5,000 years.  Ancient Mesopotamians sometimes preferred a cylinder seal that pressed or unrolled a small vignette onto wax and clay plates.  Ancient historians describe a Babylon where not a person was without a seal hanging around their neck.

Assortment of early seals.

In ancient Egypt, a glittering example of their characteristic design sense, scarabs served the same purpose.  The scarab, a symbol of the heart and the sun, served as one face, while the other served for carved intaglio writing and was typically flat.  Perhaps this served some religious significance – there was a strong belief that one’s name, ren, was a sacred thing to be protected – the rotating scarab-heart might have served to ‘cover’ the name.  The hole drilled for the purpose of making these rotatable led to a popularity, and continued production today, of using them as beads.  These are so abundant, typically in the sky blue faience color with crude approximations of hieroglyphs stamped on the back, that each of us has likely seen at least one in gift shops around the world.  The ancient form are so common that a person can find the real thing in virtually any art history museum’s collections.  

Egyptian Scarab Rings

The scaraboid gem form of a ring seal was spread throughout the Mediterranean world by the long trade rule of the Phoenicians, and became the business standard.  For non-Egyptians the rotating stone had no significance, and we find the seals mounted in fixed settings that did not move.  Signet rings became widespread among many cultures surrounding the Mediterranean, and deep into Central Asia, while seals in general are found in use throughout the world.  

Their function in business affairs created specialty shops in every trading port and city, the gem carver being a discussed occupation in the literary Classics.  A skilled carver’s quality and style enhanced security by being easier to authenticate visually, much the way engravers were physically responsible for the level of security in printed banknotes in more recent times.  The best seals were elaborate works of art usually cut in fine grained, quartz based gemstones, such as agates and jaspers, more inexpensive ones cut into softer scratch-able stones like hematite or calcite.   Many were also cut into glass.  Roman glassmaking was at one time traded throughout the known world, including seals, introducing waves of generic signs and intaglio stones that were purely decorative for trade.  Some gems served as signatory objects in a different way, as devotional objects, inscribed with a donor’s name, with the purpose of leaving one’s name at temples and shrines, others were bought pre-made with the temple’s image, to take away as a commemorative souvenir and a source of income.

Assorted Roman gold signet rings.

 

Silver Roman signet ring

Signet rings can give a more personal glimpse of economic activity than coins can provide.  They show that during periods of heightened trade where they will appear in greater number, the variety of similar amulet stones also increases, and this is where the story grows interesting.  During the particularly syncretic time period (300 BC-300 CE) of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt, centered around Alexandria, many cultures lived side by side, where familiar cultural motifs of writing and themes of religion and myth began to merge and also form new colloquial, magical and cult themes.  We see fine examples of inventive figures alongside numerous rough replicas of them, peak examples of the gem carver’s craft alongside soft stones that are crudely cut with incantations, psuedo-writing, magic diagrams, incantations and palindromes.  There were symbols of newly forming religions, hybrids of converging cultures, including Christianity.  It is as though the intaglio signet had for many become a kind of personalized charm or amulet, an emblem of relocated  authority, or a statement of membership in a group, perhaps a kind of continuation of the Egyptian culture’s reverence over the wearing and display of one’s identity.

Typical Greek-Egyptian fusion, here of Anubis and Hermes with incantations.

Early Christian Intaglio

One of the greatest mysteries of antiquity is the multitude of Alexandrian signet stones that bear the unusual word ‘Abrasax’.  The meaning of the name remains unclear, though the letters add up to 365 (they did not have numbers yet) and it may simply mean ‘everything’.  These gems frequently depict an array of unusual characters that do not directly tie to any established religious context.  These appear with a variety of different figures that have in common only an appearance of being invented, or combined, as though the results of an effort to form a sort of catch-all multicultural figure of devotion.  The frequent inscription may be the reason the word ‘Abracadabra’ still lingers today, carrying with it the magical connotation of these gems. The Abraxas stones are uncanny and unique, and mixed in with their contemporaries comprise such a magical pile of jewels they have attracted ages of mystique and curiosity for the time they were created.

An anguipede, unique  to its specific region and time.

Signet stones continued to be in use for a few centuries after the decline of Rome.  At the end of the Sassanid empire, the rule of Islam produced its own abundance of carved rings using Arabic script, which is well suited to ornamental gemstone carving.  Among these stones carnelian was especially favored from North Africa to Mughal India.  The Mughals took gemstone carving like all arts quite seriously, most famously with the enormous 5×4 cm ‘Moghul Emerald’.  

 

The Moghul Emerald

The Moghul Emerald

 

Solomon Iran XV Glory to He who does not die

Through the middle ages elaborate seals continued to be used in by nobles and clergy but the use of gemstones in regular trade use, and signet rings in general declined.  Beginning in the Renaissance ancient intaglios, widely collected as curiosities, resurged as an enduring fad in jewelry, strung together in necklaces, remounted in rings, and put together as ‘charm’ bracelets.  Collectors also traded plaster imprints of the stones from their elaborate cabinets to expand their collections.

Intaglio collection remounted

Even as professional habits and modes of expression have changed, the signet ring’s mystique, suggestion of antiquity, or pedigree, and air of importance has retained a certain validity in use.  It lives on as the well known style of ring with its broad flat face, often still serving as a stock engraving blank or bearing a suggestive yet anonymous seal design, or a trophy of membership.

Contemporary Onyx Signet by Stephen Einhorn

The popular black onyx blank slate has its own curious place in the story, apparently inspired in some way by Victorian mourning jewelry, today the black stone is the most typical for a modern signet ring, though in history not much evidence of its use appears before this time.

All in all, the signet is a multi-cultural survivor carrying on a 4,000 year sense of meaning as its place among ornament endures.  When an actual insignia is used today, etching directly into the metal is the preferred signet, leaving the lost ancient trade of cutting intaglio gemstones to be practiced strictly as a preservationist art.

Adone T Pozzobon hand engraved masonic caduceus ring