For hundreds of years, talismans were used to ward off disease. Through examination of seventeenth century medical literature Baldwin reveals the “widespread acceptance of amulet therapy”.
“A talisman is a special kind of charm on which is cut or engraved a magical figure, worn to avoid disaster to the wearer”
– T. Sharper Knowlson, The origins of Popular Superstitions and Customs (1920)
When COVID-19 first hit South Africa in March of 2020 I fear-scrolled the web, pressing refresh on the John Hopkins COVID-19 dashboard hundreds of times a day, obsessively watching the numbers grow.
Another way to quell my anxieties was a newfound interest in pandemics – especially historical ones. While reading up on the Black Plague I came across some of the listed “cures” of the time. Among them: Talismans.
Talismans were prescribed by Medieval healthcare practitioners as a widely accepted treatment (Skemer, 2014: 128) for the bubonic plague. For hundreds of years, this treatment was used to ward off disease. Through a thorough examination of seventeenth century medical literature, for example, Baldwin reveals the“widespread acceptance of amulet therapy”(Baldwin, 1992: 227). So much so, that learned German physician, Jacob Wolff, wrote a tome of some four hundred pages which catalogues diseases that were deemed treatable by talismans at the time. The book was said to be of interest to “physicians, philosophers, theologians, and lawyers” (Baldwin, 1993: 227).
Being a sceptic, I found this practice amusing: Imagine being deathly ill and a doctor giving you necklace with pictures and words…as medicine!
At the same time, as we had so few answers around COVID-19 and its effects on the body, I began to understand the psychological power of these objects. I realised that I too, with a healthy dose of belief, wear my husband’s late grandfather’s St Christopher pendant around my neck when I travel.
Talismans are universal and transcend cultures and beliefs: there is the Christian crucifix, the Jewish tallis, Catholic icons, Native American amulets, the Muslim Ta’wiz, the West African grisgris, pagan amulets, and then our own heirlooms which we pass with great significance through generations.
Over the many months that I could not physically be with family or friends, I wanted all of my loved ones to know that I wished for their health and wellness.
I could comprehend the positive power of an object that represented that. And I realized a lot of people would share such a sentiment. The “talisman” project emerged from a desire to create a contemporary talisman for our COVID-19 times.