Tag Archives: talisman

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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Art Nouveau and Samurai Swords

It is well understood that there is a direct cause and effect relationship between the rise of industrialization in Japan and the explosion of an international philosophy of ‘New Art’.  By looking at the mechanisms of this influence, I hope to demonstrate the New Art was much more like a prophetic vision than an ephemeral moment to enrich antique collectors.

In the accounts of Art Nouveau and its related movements (Arts & Crafts, Craftsman, il Liberte, Jugendstil, Secession, Arte Joven, Art Nova and Stile Liberty) one is apt to run across claims that it is a spontaneous development that marked a transition period between classical academicism and modernism. But this stand-alone islander perspective hardly accounts for its genesis or its end. The genesis came with the arrival of photography and access of the West’s artists to the finer crafts of Asia, especially Japan. Previously, Chinese porcelain had long been traded, but the style was vernacular and limited to like items. The arrival of documentation relating to supremely technical metalworking methods, sophisticated print and painting techniques, and essentially an entirely different cultural take on both universal design principles and representation of the natural world set off an inevitable alchemical reaction.

Artists I’ve spoken to about the subject explain that there is a root distinction in the composition of academic European and traditional Asian art. After the rediscovery of proportion during the Renaissance, the West had until the New Art period essentially pursued rules of symmetry – especially with regards to a horizon line, with the primary divisions of fore, middle and background. The history of western art has very specific reasons for this development, and essentially it revealed the collective psyche of a broad pan-culture. The approach to composition was both taught and essentially instinctual. When it came to decorative items, we find the same absolute principles: symmetry, relief and depth.

The shockwave of cultural confluence stems from a truly novel introduction within Eastern art: the concept of “infinite space”, which essentially allows elements of fore or background to interact with void. This had also developed to an instinctual level in that pan-culture, and is found mirrored in their philosophy and calligraphy. In fact, one reason speculated for this key element of composition is the use of pictographs for writing, developing an ancient practice of ‘floating’ pictures over the top of other pictures, creating a conceptual intuition for layering that was independent of relativistic proportion.

Once Western artists became exposed to the successful break in symmetry a new dialect of visual language spread like wildfire, transforming every aspect of art. Curiously, though so distinct and widely embraced it is easily identified today, this paradigm shift was short lived, and like the swing of a pendulum modernism rose with a hard return to symmetry, replacing decoration with line and simple geometry. It was as though nature was erased completely from vernacular language.

There are many discussions on this, which make for good reading. In a nutshell, the fine craft epidemic was made possible by the last generation of traditional apprenticed craftsmen, who were widely being displaced by the rise of industry. Essentially, young inspired artists and designers found at their disposal droves of highly skilled master craftsmen, who happened to be unemployed. Little did they know they were living in a fantastic, singular moment in time. Beautiful dreams sprang up in the form of cooperative workshops, intentional artisan communities, and free schools staffed by true experts in design and the arts. This was the last generation of its kind in the West, and is the reason why the housing, furniture and countless other items are unsurpassed even today in their quality and appeal. They are haunting, specific to a time, a place, and a lineage of authorship – they are downright talismanic.

One can hardly blame the hopes many had that it seemed possible for revolutionizing and improving the quality of life in every home for the founders of the various New Art movements. Unfortunately the economy of scale would make its presence known just as quickly, particularly at its apogee of unrestrained, nearly viral transformation of life in an opposite direction – the prolific outpouring of weapons of war that came to occupy the awareness and industry of that same, once hopeful world.

Following the global wars manufacturing had completely disconnected from skilled hand-crafting, its mechanisms actually unable to incorporate it even if it wanted to. Modernism took an even more severe turn, moving from streamlined to simple, and was embraced, as Corbusier put, as a way to ‘clean’ cities and lives of the madness and ruin of revolutions. Modernism represented a desire to turn away from the past’s hopes and nightmares, and erase if possible all grandiose discussion of the big picture. It was successful, to a degree, though ask anyone about the terms ‘marketing’ or ‘branding’ and you will hear a crystalline linguistic litany that is truly global, and discover what you already knew – that the predilection for living by a totalistic view has never departed.

The New Art appeared to our most creative thinkers to be the obvious direction for a new, international visual language and they threw themselves towards it with magnificent energy. That their prediction was shut down so abruptly should not be regarded as failure. They were absolutely right about the most critical of concerns:

1. The viewpoint of New Art was genuinely better. It was altruistic and holistic – a model that provided meaningful, enriching work for laborers, a clear and signature identity for artists, and affordable works of art for the everyday home.

2. The connection between tradition and technology was possible, and even likely. The only thing the model requires is an abundance of free time that was once standard in agrarian life, and the related family-community basis of living that integrates work, leisure, social belonging, house living, cultural distinctiveness, and allows for lifetime learning.

3. The motivation of holistic artistry is infectious and inspiring.  Life is better when the things we do, make and own have something we can relate to and enjoy. Inspiration from holistic sources generates tremendous energy. The evidence is in the record of New Art – for just a few decades time, their artifacts are everywhere, and are still repeated throughout the diaspora of information.

For your enjoyment, and as an aid to reflect on the impact and prophetic properties of visual language, I give you a few of the innumerable sword hilts of the Japanese samurai, called tsuba. Each instrument of death is the record of the love and life of a village metalsmith.  Japan is an archipelago whose transformation from feudal life by the sword to nuclear accident in less than a century can help us create a clearer model of modernity. It can help to reconsider the Western spaghetti soup story of industrial transformation that leads to all manner of complicated and unfortunate conclusions. For all the talk, well, just look at these sword hilts and decide if we’re doing our best today.

The Talisman

As long as I’ve known it, the term has felt closer to me than any other description for my craft’s purpose.  Jeweler, goldsmith, silversmith, designer, craftsman… all of these cross over somewhere in my work, but to be sure what I make, and why I make them, has little to do with the full sense of any of these trades.

I create and track talismans, phenomena that appear in fiction or historical reproduction, but are incredibly rare as an active product in this culture.  The talisman truly blurs the line between craft and art as it is viewed in those distinct ‘markets’.  It’s also an uncommon word.  If anything, it suggests an object of belief, like an amulet, or an object of power, like a fetish.  But that’s not quite right – a talisman is at once something special, completely unique, and functionally essential: somehow reflecting the spirit or person of maker and even the wearer.  The easiest way to explain why I prefer the term talisman is to say that you will find a lot of intelligence woven into my work:  backstory, magic, a distinct life in and of itself.  And my motivation, the thing that makes me a talismonger (now there’s a word that is nearly extinct)  has everything to do with seeding the world with droplets of this peculiar brand of intelligence, and ultimately achieving a degree in my work where this cultural function is the first thing that is apparent in any given piece.

My question in making the talisman is one of substance – what is the difference between intrinsic value and perceived value?  Where do they overlap, as with craftsmanship, and where are distinctions made?  Why does perceived value appear more frequently than the intrinsic in our culture?

The heritage of the word talisman is interesting.  It’s been all over the place, borrowed and repurposed, which is proof of a long life serving up a special meaning that never quite had another match.  Here’s the entry from the Online Etymology Dictionary:

1630s, from Fr. talisman, in part via Arabic tilsam (pl. tilsaman), a Gk. loan-word; in part directly from Byzantine Gk. telesma “talisman, religious rite, payment,” earlier “consecration, ceremony,” originally “completion,” from telein “perform (religious rites), pay (tax), fulfill,” from telos “completion, end, tax”.

So the sense of this definition seems to be a ceremonious or customary payment.  A bit inadequate, this doesn’t seem to match our modern usage that well…  The Arabic participation makes sense – you still find antiquarian tribal wealth jewelry featuring thalers riveted into their fabric, especially among the Arab tribes.  Still, this doesn’t get close enough to our use of the word.  Let’s pull in the cognates – other words in use at the time that sound similar and resemble the meaning.

Talers on Qu'aiti Woman

Talers on Qu'aiti Woman

First off, we have thaler or taler, which is the origin of the word dollar, and describes large silver coins (equally well-known as crowns) used for trade throughout Europe and in other lands for hundred of years.   At some point, thaler was a word nearly anyone would know.  It also stood for the rise of stability through the great merchant leagues, the legendary free cities, and the decline of the dark ages.  Another cognate from this time, teller, means one who keeps count of money and ‘tells’ the count.  No doubt there were little jokes about the tellers that count the talers.

Maria Theresa Thaler with Arab Counter-Stamp

The Famous Maria Theresa Thaler with Arab Counterstrike

Thaler means ‘from the valley’ and it is said this meaning was first attached in the silver-mining regions of Bohemia, where the early silver coins were stamped with a design representing the valley it originated from.  Even today, independent bullion mines stamp their locations on their produce.  So here we can glean a little extra information – enhancing its role as a ceremonious payment, it is accountable, straight from the source.   The otherwise anonymous bit of metal gains implied value through the imprinted decorations, that indicate its origin and a guaranty of quality standards.  By the thaler’s other common name, crown, we know that the implied value is doubly connected to the eminence of its ‘maker’, with source and a noble’s ‘seal of approval’.

Wildermann Thaler

The Woodwose (Wilder Mann) Thaler

A great example of this double guarantee of source and approval is the ‘Woodwose’ thaler, an archaic word for a ‘wild man of the forest’ that came from folklore, and is unique to the region of Brunswick.  We might be able to taste a bit of the trustworthy character of this creature in his descendant, the ‘Jolly Green Giant’.  There are many designs.  On the flip ‘crown’ side one would find the issuer’s coat of arms.  Around our Wild Man we find various telling inscriptions in Latin, the language of church and king, imploring people to honor their value – “Recto Decius” – The Right Choice;   “Honestum pro Patriae” – Honor for my Country; “Deo et Patriae” – God and Country, and even “Alles mit Bedacht” – Think Everything Through.  So we have a coin that is not merely silver, but assured by crown, religion and commonwealth, and a hint at why talisman today means so much more than just a worn decorative object.

The thaler-crown was not only a trade unit, but such a fact of life that it was fractioned to make smaller coinage for daily use.  Well known in folklore today as the pirate’s currency, the ‘pieces of eight’ were a crown that was cut four times to produce eight wedges or chunks which were then hammered into crude coin shapes.

Pieces of Eight Dr M Lee Spence

Pieces of Eight

Finally we have one more cognate, surviving in the form of atelier, which is French for workshop, specifically describing a trade guild system of education and production that lasted for centuries.  It is connected to the occurrence across Europe of using taller to describe a workshop, especially a metalsmith, which seems a perfect hybrid word for ‘fancy’ as it could lend a suggestion of French sophistication to the shop’s name, and just happens to sound close to thaler, and so synonymous with a crown standard of quality, as with the implied meaning of a ‘sterling’ reputation.  I would imagine a successful taller would take the talers they earned straight to the teller.

So the talisman was once a substantial piece of silver whose markings assured reliability, and was the medium of customary tribute and borderless trade far beyond the known world.  A shining fruit that grew on the trees of the guilds, harvested from the workshops and scattered in the ships of the merchants.  A rising moon (the brightness of polished silver was since ancient times compared to the moon) that shed a light of prosperity on the dark ages.

And the talismonger was a maker and seller of talismans, precious metal workshop objects that were sophisticated, fancy, beautiful and of quality.  Something so good, as good as a thaler, and worthy for paying tribute.  The talisman was not simply a magical amulet, it was an exceptional and hand-crafted thing that captures something of the good and common law, of justice in pan-society.

Maria Theresa Thaler as Tribal Jewelry

Thaler transformed directly into wearable tribal wealth.

And this my friends is the origin of talisman; we had to abandon the cliff notes, blow the dust from a few older memories, and arrive at the personal motives behind this term.  It has come to be used almost purely for a fantastical end –  describing a mystical symbol-object one wore around their neck for protection, erroneously connected to early Europe but really stemming from more recent Colonial times.  This is precisely how memory becomes myth, and lives its life in the common use (the reflection of how it is breathed among everyday people).  What else would one indigenous to the Spice Islands, a Bedouin trader, or a Native American do with the exotic concept of this universal trade unit of Europe, but string the thaler or tilsaman around their neck like an amulet?

Taler as Tribal Ornament in Sudan

If the history of the Silver Thaler as a global trade unit interests you, check out this comprehensive history page about the Maria Theresa Taler, minted 300 million times:

The Maria Theresa Taler / Walter Hafner

(A golden hue is the effect of tarnish on 'frosty' proof minted silver. A proof originally was a specimen, struck twice on new dies to test them, but later became a kind of product with special dies for a mirror background. This is a very modern version of a very common, but enduringly beautiful Austrian thaler.)