Folk-Lore/Volume 13/The Modern Commercial Aspect of an Ancient Superstition

Folk-Lore. Volume 13
Number 4 (December).
The Modern Commercial Aspect of an Ancient Superstition
by Edward Lovett

Plate IV.


To face p. 338.


By E. Lovett.

Read at Meeting of 20th June, 1902.

A few years ago, whilst preparing a paper upon the evolution of coinage and prehistoric trading, I considered that the subject would not be complete without a reference to trade beads. With this end in view I placed myself in communication with some Bohemian manufacturers of these articles, and readily obtained what I required for my purpose. I noticed, however, in going over samples of their glass work, that there were many objects of considerable interest besides beads; and upon further inquiry I learnt that these objects were known as "charms," and that they enjoyed, from a commercial standpoint, the same value and advantages as the beads already referred to.

These specimens were very varied, and in most cases represented objects quite familiar to me. In many instances, however, the colouring was abnormal, and even absurd; but I shall consider this more fully, later on, in describing the specimens upon the table.[1] Meanwhile I will briefly deal with the subject of charms and amulets in general, and then with the very interesting differentiation of form and design which obtains in these objects.

I think we may take it as a fact that the human dread of the unknown is practically universal, though it is naturally far more general amongst primitive races than amongst civilised people. This fear may, for our purpose, be subdivided into dread of the directly mysterious, such as death by lightning; secondly, of death, or injury and disease, from intelligible causes; and lastly, of the power of one person over another by what is known in a general way as the "Evil Eye"; that is, "overlooking," and thus causing mischief of some kind. The natural result of such a state of terror prompted the seeking of an antidote, and such antidotes are to be seen in the varied forms of charms and amulets to be found in every country of the world. These charms are as diversified indeed as the superstitions themselves, or even more so, but for the purpose of the present paper they may be roughly classified under three heads, all of which may be regarded as prophylactic. Firstly, we find a group of charms and amulets representing either in a concrete or abstract form the deity, fetish, unknown power, or origin of life; secondly, objects of a sympathetic form; and thirdly, objects which from their abnormal appearance are regarded as of mystic origin, and in consequence regarded as possessing the power of warding off the Evil Eye, protecting their owner from lightning, and such like.

The charms under the first head take the form of the solar disc (sometimes the svastika, as representing the rotary motion of the sun), the lunar crescent, and the large variety of well-known phallic symbols.

Of the second type there are very numerous forms, of which we may mention for our purpose the following. Thunderbolts, as a safeguard from lightning. The sub-silicate cornelian, regarded by the Arabs as a preventive of injury to the flesh. (In Northern India, the garnet enjoys the same repute, and the turquoise, I believe, in Persia: see exhibit No. 1). In like manner, too, the teeth and claws of certain predatory animals are worn as charms against the animals themselves. I have ascertained that men engaged in menageries and wild-beast-shows wear upon their watch chains teeth and tusks of dangerous animals as a "danger charm," which brings this belief down very close to our own doors.[2]

Of the third group, I may mention such abnormal objects as arrowheads, polished celts, &c., certain fossils, such as ammonites, belemnites, &c., stones perforated (probably fossil sponges), nodules of iron pyrites, and many others, all of which, being unintelligible to the primitive mind, are usually regarded with superstitious awe, and worn as luck charms, or as a defence against the power of the Evil Eye."[3] Charms of this latter group are usually worn in such a position as to be readily seen; they act, or are supposed to act, as a sort of lightning conductor, so that the first glance of the Evil Eye, which I believe is the dangerous one, is received by the charm instead of by the individual wearing it On the other hand, amulets, which usually take the form of some extract, however small, from the holy books of the wearer, are invariably hidden from sight, as in the case of the phylacteries of the Jews and the scrolls in silver cases worn by the warriors of the Soudan. Every Neapolitan carries a charm (in some cases several), but they are likewise hidden away, and not even referred to or talked about. This has all been fully described by Mr. Elworthy in his book upon the Evil Eye.

The types, however, to which my paper specially refers are worn by the races of various parts of the African continent and the islands of the South Pacific. They are undoubtedly charms and not mere ornaments, for it is a most significant fact that an object possessing the mystic power in the eyes of one tribe has no value or meaning at all with the people of even a neighbouring part of the country or of an adjacent island.

As will be seen from the specimens before you, a considerable number of forms are symbolised; I am speaking now of the original forms selected, altered, or adapted by the natives. Large discs are cut from the great shells of the Tridacna; the apex of the shell of the genus Conus is cut so as to show the spiral of the whorl (No. 10). Both these forms seem to suggest the solar disc, the spiral pattern of the latter suggesting rotary motion. The teeth and claws of certain animals, besides the symbolism already alluded to, are, I consider, worn as a protection against the very animals represented by these teeth and claws, as in the case of the menagerie attendants already referred to. The human teeth worn so abundantly by certain tribes in the neighbourhood of Ashanti are, in my opinion, so worn with the idea of absorbing the bravery of the slain foe by the wearer. The same principle is found to exist in the case of cannibalism. The fish-charm (No. 17) is curiously interesting, as also are the arrow, or spear, heads. This latter object has always apparently been regarded as of mystic origin by those who did not understand what it was; usually under the titles of "Elf-darts" and "Thunderbolts," in Europe. It is, however, curious to find natives of Africa holding this superstition, as the knowledge of iron in a crude form seems to have been of great antiquity, and the African native was using a native-made many-barbed arrow when the North American Indians were "making arrowheads of jasper, arrowheads of chalcedony," (Hiawatha).

Beads, although generally regarded as merely ornaments, are also charms. Indeed, I am of the opinion that all beads were originally worn as such, for I think & may take it that the first bead worn by prehistoric man was simply a stone with a hole through it, which being in his opinion uncanny and unaccountable, was at once invested with mystic power; besides, many naturally perforated stones are exceedingly suggestive of eyes, and even now holed stones are worn as charms against the Evil Eve. The cretaceous fossil organism Porosphora globularis, has been found in France as a necklet associated with a burial of the Neolithic period; and portions of the stems of Encrinites, sometimes called St. Cuthbert's beads, help to throw light upon the origin of modern beads. But this is too wide a subject to discuss in this paper.

Having thus referred to the various charms and amulets bearing upon the remarkable revelation which I came upon with such surprise, and at the same time with such real regret, I will now proceed to describe the collection of specimens before you.

It seems to have occurred to some dreadfully ingenious individual that if he could only get a quantity of the highly-prized objects worn by the natives of countries where such things as ivory, skins, gold-dust, and similar trifles were obtainable, it would be uncommonly good business. So original specimens were got and copies carefully made—in Bohemia, of course! Curiously enough, the native took to the innovation, although with that keen sense of his he must have known that his tiger-tooth or his shell-disc was not of the orthodox material.

But now comes a still more remarkable point. Not content with really beautifully-made facsimiles of these charm objects, in which even the colours showed that those who copied these teeth and shells were real artists, fancy colours became introduced, so that we find cone-shell tops, cowries, tiger's teeth and claws made up in variously coloured glass—blue, green, pink, &c., &c.

And what is still more remarkable, the natives, I understand, positively prefer this novel idea! Again, glass is giving way to celluloid, also in varied colours! and also to the, apparently, great satisfaction of the native. In respect to amber, however, this material is very effective as a substitute, and I very much question if a native, unaware of the electric test, would be able to detect the fraud. Real amber beads of large size are of considerable value, so that here we have an appreciable example of the advantage to the trader in such a cheap substitute as the example before us.

Perhaps, however, the most interesting examples of the collection are to be found in the series of arrowheads. Some of them are really large enough to be regarded as spearheads, but I think this merely an exaggeration in size. This form seems to have commenced as a fairly accurate copy in glass of an arrowhead of white chert, chalcedony, or red cornelian, but with the curious addition of a hole, which, I understand, is for the finger, these charms being worn on the hand. A very important feature, indeed the only mark of decoration, consists of three parallel lines across the base of the arrowhead, doubtless a survival of the lashing by which its prototype was fastened to its shaft. We next find this arrowhead merging into blue and other coloured glass, quite unlike any natural stone, and therefore becoming devoid of meaning (Plate IV., fig. 12a). The next type is of white glass, bearing the Ottoman symbol of the Star and Crescent in gold (fig. 12b.) Then we have gorgeous colouring of no apparent motive, one bearing the picture of a horseman, another a view of an African settlement, another a star arrangement, another the sign of the Christian Cross, two others again have the Crescent mixed up with other designs. Then we get still further advanced types in metal to imitate gold, one of which has a sham diamond let into the Star and Crescent device. Now in all these remarkable ramifications in which the arrowhead has run riot, one thing remains persistent throughout, and that is the three lines symbolical of the lashing to which I have referred. This persistent retention of an obsolete part of an object undergoing a process of evolution is very interesting and has been observed in many other forms, and indeed may be seen in designs of decorative art common around us.[4] Again, we have here also the introduction of the celluloid article, and undoubtedly in a very degraded form. The shape is becoming confused, the colours are unnatural for the most part; they bear no decorative ornament, and even the three "fibre" lines are absent (fig. 13). I should have mentioned that most of the glass forms bear notches on their cutting edge; this I consider to be a survival from the serrated chipping of the original arrowhead of flint.

There are one or two points for consideration suggested by this curious collection. We have seen, even in this small series, how a type differentiates, and how such changes and innovations meet with the approval and even the encouragement of the natives. When and where will it stop? Will it be possible, in a few years, to say what a certain charm originally was? Will the native, if he remains as he is long enough, be able to recognise the rubbish made for him in the European markets, or will these charms, as is usually the case, become degraded into mere ornaments to be worn by the natives upon the inartistic European clothing which seems to be the inevitable costume of the future? Another regrettable feature is the lamentable destruction of aboriginal design by these cheap European trade goods. Already our museums are gradually acquiring specimens illustrating the influences of the European markets; and necklets and ornaments chiefly composed of German beads, but of native arrangement, are commonly met with. The traveller of the near future will, I fear, find in his anxiety to obtain collections illustrative of aboriginal art, that his most valued examples will prove to have simply been "Made in Germany."

  1. See list of exhibits, supra, pp. 337, 338.
  2. A marine-store dealer, who looked out for curious things for me, ha some teeth roughly mounted as pendants. He told me that they were purchased by wild-beast-showmen, who wore them for luck and to save them from being attacked by the animals.
  3. I once heard of a collector of flint implements who labelled all his specimens with oil colours upon the flint itself. He was overhauling his collection and threw several specimens away. The country people found these, and not understanding the mysterious marks upon them, regarded them as charms, and treasured them accordingly.
  4. An interesting illustration of this exists in the two buttons fixed to the back of a man's coat. These have, now, no meaning or use whatever, although they formerly were for buttoning up the tails of the coat when on horseback.