The second in our guest blog series by Classics expert and Classics Abroad tutor Florence Forte.
- Eduardo De Filippo
“Being superstitious is a sign of ignorance, but not being superstitious brings bad luck” – It’s a quote that captures the typical Italian attitude towards superstition. When I told my Sicilian friend that I was writing an article about the Evil Eye, she exclaimed: “Why are you doing that? Even believing in it is bad luck!” But then, the ancient Romans were a superstitious bunch too, and with an empire that once stretched over much of the modern Mediterranean - plus influence from the East and Northern Africa – new beliefs and objects were circulated and passed down the generations.
There are thousands of amulets that survive from the ancient Mediterranean. Then, just as now, lucky charms were an effective way of warding off “evil” because they could be carried with you wherever you go.
You might be familiar with some of the modern lucky charms from the Med, or even have your own, but did you know about their ancient equivalents?
1. The Crescent Moon
The “selenis” in Greek or “lunula” in Latin [from “moon”] was a crescent moon-shaped pendant, worn primarily by women and girls. It was an apotropaic amulet (believed to protect against the “Evil Eye” or similar forces) and one of the most popular geometric shapes for surviving ancient amulets. Why the moon? Fertility and the menstrual cycle were commonly linked to the lunar cycle in the ancient world. The goddess Artemis/Diana was also associated with the moon and chastity, making her a ‘suitable’ protector for women.
2. The Gorgon
The Gorgon’s head was another popular apotropaic amulet in ancient Greece. It was officially called a “gorgoneion” and even the Greek gods, Zeus and Athena, are said to have worn the protective pendant. In Greek mythology, a Gorgon was a mythical creature depicted with a grotesque frontal stare and snakes for hair. The most famous, of course, was Medusa –who could turn whoever beheld her to stone.
3. The Scarab
The below image shows an amazing Scarab Gem engraved with a two-horse chariot and driver.
The use of scarab beetles as amulets can be traced back over 5,000 years ago! The ancient Egyptians associated the scarab with the Sun god (Ra) and the idea of rebirth. It became associated with good fortune, as shown by the underside of scarab amulets often bearing inscriptions such as “good luck” “life” or “health”. Etruscan examples exist (as above) and they were used as good luck charms by many civilisations such as the Persians, Macedonians, Romans and Phoenicians.
4. The Eye
Left: Gold Amulet, Rome c. 2nd Century AD depicting an eye being attacked by several animals (John Hopkins Archaeological Museum) Centre: Blue glazed amulet, pierced longitudinally, from ancient Egypt (British Museum).
The second most common Egyptian amulet (after the Scarab) was the so-called Eye of Horus, which was a symbol of protection in both life and the afterlife. The Phoenicians also produced a large number of amulets on blue pottery depicting an enlarged eye, often on the side of an animal.
These eyes may be linked to the concept of the “Evil Eye”, which was widespread across the ancient Mediterranean and Near East. Eye-shaped charms were one method of diverting the hostile gaze that could bring destruction to innocent victims. Some ancient Roman amulets even depict the Evil Eye being attacked by other protective symbols!
Above: Detail of baby Jesus wearing a red coral pendant in Piero della Francesca’s Madonna di Senigallia (1470).
One distinguishing feature of my Nonna’s jewellery collection is red coral. I thought it was a Neapolitan thing, but it turns out that coral has long been used as protective and decorative jewellery. Pliny the Elder claimed that the people of India believed coral was a good preservative against all dangers. According to Ovid, red coral was created by the blood of Medusa’s decapitated head touching seaweed, which might help explain why the ancient Romans used it as a charm. Even the Church did not oppose this particular superstition during the Middle Ages (unlike the phalluses, up next) and Christ is often portrayed with coral protection in Renaissance art.
6. The Phallus
Picture above are Gallo-Roman examples of the fascinum, the top one is a “fist and phallus” (see below), made from bronze.
The ancient Romans were almost obsessed with the erect phallus as an amulet. It was thought to be particularly effective against the Evil Eye, as it shocked or threatened “the envious one” into stopping any harm that they were about to inflict. It was common practice to adorn babies with a phallus necklace, as children were particularly vulnerable to the Evil Eye. A huge number of these amulets have been found in amber, gold, silver, bronze, bone and glass and many are winged. In Latin, “fascinum” means both the Evil Eye itself and the Phallus that protects you from it.
7. The Fist or “Fig Hand”
Right: Egyptian amulet of a clenched first, Roman period.
The fist or “manus ficus” [Latin for hand and fig] is a fascinating amulet and still an offensive gesture in some cultures today. The fist-shaped amulet, with the thumb between the first and second finger, is a common ancient representation of the vulva. It is often depicted as a parallel to the phallus, with presumably the same protective powers against the Evil Eye. Johns argues that the vulva, unlike the phallus, was difficult to draw and so it had to be portrayed “symbolically rather than realistically” e.g. as a clenched fist or fig [the word for fig was a metaphor for vulva in ancient Greek “sykon” as it is in modern Italian slang “fica”].
References  Faraone, A. C. (2018) The Transformation of Greek Amulets in Roman Imperial Times: 42.  Pliny, Natural History. XXXII, ii (2).  Ovid, Metamorphoses. IV, 706-752.  Johns, C. (2000) Sex or Symbol? Erotic Images of Greece and Rome: 73.
For more amazing Classics themed content by author Florence Forte (pictured here with MADE IN THE MED's founder Zoe in Tuscany), visit the Forte Academy website where you can enjoy the blog, check out their online course,and browse their brand new collection of Latin meme greeting cards!