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Workshop: "Transcultural talismans and the economies of the sacred"

Joint research workshop

Transcultural talismans and the economies of the sacred


May 22, 2014, 14.00-18.00

Venue: Room 112, Karl Jaspers Centre, Voßstraße 2, Bldg. 4400, Heidelberg

Cluster of Excellence „Asia and Europe“

Workshop Concept


As earlier studies of Japanese religions have pointed out, “religious sites are basically settings in and through which religious power may be accessed and diffused, and the various signs and symbols present within them are vehicles of that power, conduits through which its beneficial aspects may be disseminated and shared out."*  Talismans and amulets, as well as other small material objects produced at sacred sites or associated with certain deities or religious and apotropaic practices, can be considered as such ‘vehicles’ or ‘conduits’ of power, and are intrinsically linked to the mechanisms of storing, transmitting, and sharing a particular efficacy.

Written on pieces of silk, bamboo papyri and printed on paper, or carved from gemstones, wood, made from clay or cast from metal, such talismans may carry a number of important ritual functions and reflect on particular ritual or existential needs, often within a context of varied social interrelations. Moreover, talismans and amulets often embody a particular combination of different strands of knowledge. However, the scarcity of primary and secondary sources in any one given cultural and historical context may complicate or obscure the significance and multivalent meaning of talismans and their relation to certain religious practices and sites as well as their transcultural substance.

This research workshop will facilitate the discussion of primary and secondary sources, methodological issues related to the study of talismans and amulets, and their transcultural aspects, particularly, in the context of Ancient Egypt and pre-modern Japan. The speakers will present their current case studies and methodologies and share the ideas on how to conceptualise and deepen the understanding of such objects and their transcultural pathways.

* Ian Reader, Religion in Contemporary Japan, ‘Actions, amulets and the Expression of Meaning: Reflections of Need and Statements of Desire”, Macmillan, 1991, p. 168. (AA: italics mine).

Presentation outlines: 14.00-16.00

The speakers will explain in accessible terms what kind of talismans, amulets or similar objects are treated in their study; in what particular contexts such objects appear to be used, and how they are perceived to function; how can one approach their study methodologically.

14.00 – 14.20:    Ljuba Merlina Bortolani

The study of the so-called Graeco-Egyptian magical gems from the Hellenistic and Late Antique Mediterranean is still far from being exhaustive. In fact, despite their great number, in most cases the archaeological context and circumstances of these finds are totally unknown. However, thanks to comparison with the Graeco-Egyptian magical papyri, it has now become clear that these gems were amulets. Some spells preserved in the papyri require the ‘magician’ to engrave and consecrate a gemstone with special drawings (often syncretistic deities) and mysterious writings (often the so-called voces magicae) which are frequently paralleled by the extant gems. Exactly as the papyri, the gems often show a high degree of syncretism, with Egyptian, Greek, and Jewish traditions as their main components. So the essential question is: how much can the papyri tell us about the nature, production, use, and effectiveness of the gems? I will analyse a few examples with a special focus on the gems’ production environment and on the possible reasons underlying their syncretistic nature.

14.20 – 14.40:    Benedetta Lomi

How and why do talismans work? In his seminal work on Thai Buddhist amulets, Stanley Tambiah attributed the efficacy of sacred icons, talismans and tools to ‘the monk and lay specialist who importantly charge them with efficacy.’ In the Japanese context, ritual blessings and empowerment played (and still play) an important role in the production of talismans. However, does this mean that their power and efficacy relies on an immaterial quality only? By taking as an example a selection of different talismans used for healing purposes in twelfth-century Japan, I will reflect on the role that their material, tangible dimension has on the healing process.

14.40 – 15.00:    Svenja Nagel

I will present an overview of amulets produced according to ritual instructions preserved in the Greek and Demotic magical papyri of Roman and Late Antique Egypt (ca. 1st – 6th century CE). The recipes demonstrate that phylacteries of different kind and material were used during several magical practices, often to protect the practitioner against the strong forces of deities and demons encountered. As our project is concerned with divination rituals within these manuals, I will focus mainly on examples from this subgenre (but I will exclude the magical gems). In the course of my presentation questions of materials (e.g. substances loaded with divine power like cloth that was used in the temples/for statues), relations with other elements and the deities of the ritual, production and (trans)cultural background will be addressed.

15.00 – 15.20:    SHORT BREAK

15.20 – 15.40:    Laura Willer

My research is concerned with the material aspects and the practical use of amulets – mostly made of papyrus bearing a Greek text – in Roman Egypt, which includes the production of them as also the question of how they were worn on the body. Regarding the last point as primary sources we not only have the (partly probable) amulets themselves with their foldings but also capsules in which they were worn from all over the Roman Empire respectively the so-called magical koiné. As secondary sources serve the magical handbooks (PGM) from Roman Egypt which also help to understand the process of production. I will give a short overview of these two main points of my research.

15.40 – 16.00    Christoffer Theis

I will present a short overview of my research about the “Development of the polymorphic deity in Ancient Egypt” with a special focus on the so-called magical gems. This deity is a very common motif on gems, unfortunately none of them is situated in an archaeological context. The main focus will be on the interpretation of the deity: The ancient egyptian sources vs. ongoing opinions in research. The methodological approach will be a discussion of the beliefs in research about this creature – which are not based on ancient sources, or in another case, only on one source in a broader context.

16.00 – 16.20:    Anna Andreeva

I will focus on the case of talismans written and dispensed to women during labour and childbirth in seventeenth-century Japan. The descriptions of such talismans and their ritual use occur in documents derived from one of Japan’s less studied local Buddhist traditions, the Miwa lineage, and can be found in the contexts of other Buddhist temples and mountain ascetic practices thus revealing the broad networks of their circulation and use. Employed for the protection of women’s bodies during the labour, these talismans display fixed combinations of Sanskrit syllables, Hindu/Buddhist and local deities, and imply links to the pre-existing concepts and practices deriving from China. Tracing the contents of these talismans back to a single sacred site or a specific temple agency may at times be difficult, but the Miwa-ryû specimens provide certain clues as to how their contents can be understood and interpreted. Moreover, it is possible to clearly discern the transcultural pathways and different strands of knowledge that such talismans embody and display. In my presentation, I will outline the historical, religious and transcultural background of such talismans, and will discuss more problematic aspects of their study related to the broader study of the economies of the sacred in pre-modern Japan.

16.20 – 16.40:    SHORT BREAK

Key discussion points: 16.40-17.45

The talismans (a category of apotropaic ritual objects conceived here broadly) were particularly important material objects in the contexts of pre-modern societies, such as ancient Egypt and pre-modern Japan.

•    How were they produced, transmitted, circulated and used?
•    In which particular contexts, their use was justified, encouraged, or visa versa, banned?
•    What stages of conceptualization and transcultural exchange have preceded the talismans’ production?
•    Were such transcultural aspects expressed in their form or appearance, and if so, how?
•    Does the talismans’ transcultural form or content impact on their efficacy, and if so, how?
•    Primary sources often lack data about talismans’ place and time of production, and their circulation and use. Can this problem be solved?

(1) Tsuno Daishi ("Horned Teacher"). A protective charm (Jp. gofu 護符), talismanic depiction of the Tendai monk Ryôgen (912-985). Print, Saikyôji temple, Mt Hiei, Shiga Prefecture, Japan


Workshop speakers

(in alphabetical order of the surname)

Dr Anna Andreeva (HCTS/Heidelberg, MC 3.1)

Dr Ljuba Merlina Bortolani (HCTS/Heidelberg, MC 10.1)

Dr Benedetta Lomi (SOAS/UVA)

Ms Svenja Nagel, M.A. (HCTS/Heidelberg, MC 10.1)

Mr Christoffer Theis, M.A. phil., M.A. (theo.)

SFB 933 "Material Text Cultures"
Ägyptologisches Institut

Ms Laura Willer, M.A.

Project A03UP3 "Amulets in Late Egyptian Antiquity"
SFB 933 "Material Text Cultures"
Institut für Papyrologie
University of Heidelberg