Richard Stupart takes a look at the phenomenon of the continued use of talismans.

AS AN UNDERGRAD, I ended up in archaeology class. It was by accident really, since I needed an extra course credit and the departmental signup stands during orientation were alphabetically arranged. Although ancient human history was, for the most part, a dry and stone-tool filled affair, it’s stuck with me how many really difficult questions were raised the moment our hominid ancestors decided to wear jewelry, carry talismans of various kinds, and started believing in things bigger than themselves.

Somewhere in the past our species crossed a line from basic, animal consciousness to being altogether more preoccupied with the supernatural. It’s something that’s stayed with us ever since.

The emergence of dreaming

It was explained to me once by a professor that this awakening might have something to do with our biology changing a few thousand years ago to produce an ability to dream. An extra fold in the brain somewhere, or something evolutionarily similar. All of a sudden sleeping meant an alternative universe would open up for our ancestors. One that felt emotionally real at the time, even if it would drift away physically on our waking.

All of a sudden sleeping meant an alternative universe would open up for us.

It was a natural step for our ancestors to wonder whether the world of things-not-physical and the ‘real’ world weren’t perhaps somwhow related. Could we influence events and objects in the real world when in this different mental state? Or perhaps see things that might be, will be, or which lie already concealed in the world?

And so, from that fundamental question, came shamans, religion of various kinds, metaphysics and superstition, dream journals and voodoo, charismatic churches and drug subcultures.

And if the metaphysical world can have an influence on the physical, then why could the process not work in reverse? Physical objects could influence metaphysics, bring luck, curse a foe, or offer protection.

As universal as metaphysics itself

Even if you consider yourself a rational, secular citizen, you can’t escape your superstitious biology. Bruce Hood, author of the book Supersense, delights in asking who in his audiences would like to wear a jersey belonging to Jeffrey Dahmer.

Nobody ever does.

All cultures have superstitions and physical objects of some sort or another associated with them. Often, amulets or other worn items are intended to produce luck, or protect the wearer from harm.

Watching you. Nazars on sale in a market. Image from Wikipedia

Who are you looking at?

Throughout history, many parts of the Mediterranean have embraced the nazar, an amulet created to ward off the bad effects of the ‘evil eye.’ Depending on your region and history, the evil eye can be a directed, intentionally evil wish, or a less acute fear of bad luck brought by envious stares more generally. In its acute understanding, the evil eye bears some resemblance to the usog hex on children, feared across the ocean in the Philippines.

While the usog curse can be mitigated through applying saliva to an afflicted child’s forehead, shoulder or abdomen, the evil eye is warded against through the wearing of the nazar. The eye insignia has proved so popular, that there is even an airline carrying it on the tails of their planes.

Spreading good fortune on the wind. Photo from Pra-Yudi

Spreading good on the wind

The perceived relationship between physical objects and the world of intangible things is superbly demonstrated in the Buddhist prayer flags that travelers to Nepal so often encounter on their treks.

Carrying prayers and symbols wishing long life and good fortune, it is believed that as the wind rushes over the lines of flags, it carries the prayers and their divine power on the air to all of the corners of the earth. The writing fading over the years serves to reinforce the poetic idea that the prayers are being transferred from their cloth homes and into the world at large.

(ex) Saint Christopher as he might have looked when ferrying a young traveler across his famous river. Photo by Lori_NY

Take Chris with you

Closer to home (if you live in the West), many travelers can be found carrying pendants and other items inscribed with the image of Saint Christopher. Legend has it that he dedicated his life to assisting stranded travelers to cross a fearsome river, making his a particularly popular talisman among ferrymen.

The church de-cannonised him in the late 20th century — the theological equivalent of losing your corner office. Regardless, thousands of travelers carry Christopher on their journeys still. Our desire to influence the order of things remains strong.

The talismans we carry on our travels

As much as I like to think of others’ lucky charms as endearingly idiosyncratic, I am hardly immune from the psychological history of my species. Whenever I travel, I reach for a tiny key that I discovered years ago outside the oldest Presbytarian church in South Africa, and an allegedly magical silver Senegalese ring that was a gift from my partner on her return from Dakar.

Are they magical? I don’t think so. Not seriously at least.

But the more I travel with these things, the more they have come to represent years of memories made concrete. When I am on the road, the ring reminds me of who I am coming back to, and the life that my travel-self suspends when stepping out. When home, the key reminds me of the strange things that are out there waiting to be discovered, in the right place, with the right eyes.

The more I travel with these things, the more they have come to represent years of memories made concrete.

And from the look of it, I’m in good company. There are plenty of other Matadorians out there with an attachment to physical reminders of the things that are close to them. We asked the question on Facebook, and our readers responded.

Lady Ra carries the teddy bear that her son gave her to take with on her first journey abroad. Many years have passed since, and she admits not being sure if its necessarily *lucky*, but that it is “a little piece of my son and keeps me company”.

Christine Caruso has carried her grandfather’s dog tags on her travels since she was twelve, while Mary Furness never travels without a pair of earrings that her son once gave her.

Others carry more magical items on their journeys.

Lauren Fitzpatrick was given a jade albatross tear necklace, blessed by her Maori co-workers. Intended to protect those who travel, it’s her good luck charm whenever she heads out.

Vanessa Caron-Cantin carried a piece of fabric she received in a Japanese temple as a lucky charm when she spent a year traveling on standby as an airline employee. She was never denied a single flight.

Finally, Elizabeth Sisco carries a necklace of Ganesh — the remover of obstacles — as a good luck charm.

The value of a talisman, it seems, can come from the rules of an orthodox metaphysical system, a vague association between having it and enjoying good luck, or simply the association it has with treasured memories. Whether they work or not is less important than that they are important to us, and that they can influence our perceptions of the world and the way we act in it. As my professor pointed out all those years ago, but for the happy accident of experiencing things that are intangible, we would have no art, no culture, and no puzzlesome souls and fickle luck to protect. And how much richer life has been for them.

Are there particular items that you carry with you when you travel? Where did they come from, and what do they mean to you?