What are Amulets and Talismans?

Although amulets and talismans are some of the most commonly used magickal items, there remains much ambiguity as to what exactly they are and how they differ. Today we will briefly explore the most common definitions, how useful they are and how they differ, in order to arrive at a clearer understanding of these staples of magickal practice.

There are three common definitions for amulets and talismans. The first, the most common dictionary definition, is that they are synonymous and refer to any item which exerts an ‘occult influence,’ such as protection or good luck.  A second definition popular among some magickal practitioners is that an amulet is used against certain influences, such as an amulet against illness, whereas a talisman is used for a specific influence, such as a talisman to attract love. Finally, a third definition favored by other practitioners is that an amulet is natural, such as a stone or herb (worn in a ‘medicine bag’ for instance), while a talisman is man-made, such as a pressed metal disc with symbols on it.

Now, since these three definitions are all in common usage, it cannot be said that one right or wrong, but it can be argued as to which is most useful. First of all, there are contradictions between the definitions; so, we cannot just accept them simultaneously and move on. A single example will illustrate this. Take the stone carnelian, which is traditionally worn for courage. According to definition one, it is both a talisman and an amulet; definition two would say that it is a talisman because it is for courage, while definition three would say that is an amulet because it is a natural stone. So, which is it?

Since practitioners (i.e. those who actually use talismans and amulets), prefer the second two definitions, we will assume that there is some reason for differentiation between the two terms and move quickly past definition one. Now, as for definition two, this definition is often contradicted in the traditional literature. For instance, The Key of Solomon, one of the primary texts of Renaissance talismanic magick, lists many different talismans which are explicitly used against certain influence, such as “the sixth pentacle of Jupiter” which is used against earthly dangers. Also, whether an item is for or against something is often only a matter of phrasing. For example, an “amulet” against danger could just as easily be considered as a “talisman” for protection. Given these contradictions to the source material and the issue of phrasing, the second definition is not particularly useful.

Coming now to definition three, the natural vs. man-made dichotomy, consider a rune stone, tiger’s eye, for instance, which is engraved with the rune Uruz. Is it an amulet or a talisman? Well, in that tiger’s eye is a natural material, it is an amulet, but since it is inscribed, it is also a talisman. Since all natural materials have their own magickal properties, and since all symbols, likewise, have their own properties, it is useful to be able to differentiate between the “amuletic” and “talismanic” properties of a thing. In the instance of our tiger’s eye Uruz, it has the amuletic properties of tiger’s eye, being confidence and willpower, and the talismanic properties of Uruz, being virility and power, among other things. In this case, we can say that the amuletic and talismanic properties are harmonious. This allows us great subtlety and layers of definition. It also puts amulets/talismans on a spectrum; a stone or herb is obviously an amulet and a sigil or symbol is obviously a talisman, but where they combine, we can say why it is both and how these layers may affect one another, and whether they are harmonious or discordant. Clearly, this is the most useful of the three definitions.

By Adam Schaab, Arch-Minion