Amulet is an object worn or carried on the person in the belief that it will bring good luck or ward off evil. It represents a kind of personal magic--often sympathetic or imitative magic. Used frequently to protect persons or livestock specifically against magical attack (for example, the evil eye), amulets may be thought of as counter magic.
Some anthropologists differentiate between magic and religion. Whereas magic operates automatically and impersonally, religious practices such as prayer and sacrifice are effective only contingently, as appeals to higher powers. In anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski's view, religion is directed toward collective goals while magic is designed to serve individual ends. This last characteristic is illustrated by belief in amulets.
Amulets are used to protect persons who are particularly vulnerable: children, the sick, and women in childbirth; persons in dangerous or frightening occupations; or persons with occupations in which luck plays a major role (the gambler, the hunter).
Like many elements of magic, amulets seem to be associated with situations and activities over which man's control is slight or nonexistent. Hence the use of magic to deal with specific problems has decreased as man's rational control over his environment has increased.
Amulets must be distinguished from talismans. A talisman is believed to have the power to work wonders. Thus the legendary lamp of Aladdin is a talisman, because it could do far more than ward off evil or bring luck.
Although magical practices have long been decried by the Christian churches as superstitious, amulets are still very widely used in the Western world--for example, the rabbit's foot, the lucky coin, birthstones, St. Christopher medals, the horseshoe, and the four-leaf clover. Personal, nontraditional amulets may be in any form from a string of beads to a Phi Beta Kappa key.
Amulets have been made of such...