Apotropaic magic

I’ve read more Salinger in the past week, but having been to the dentist this morning and had some unpleasantly painful work done I don’t feel up to much in the way of literary blogging today; I’ll post on the Salinger stories shortly.  Meanwhile here are some musings on one of my favourite words: Apotropaic

OED online:

Etymology:  < Greek ἀποτρόπαιος averting evil ( < ἀποτρέπειν to turn away, avert)

Having or reputed to have the power of averting evil influence or ill luck.

Middle Eastern Hamsa(meaning 'five', as in fingers)

Middle Eastern Hamsa(meaning ‘five’, as in fingers)

1883   Encycl. Brit. XV. 570/1   The sacrifice of the ‘October horse’ in the Campus Martius..had also a naturalistic and apotropaic character.

1904   W. M. Ramsay in Hastings Dict. Bible V. 115/1   The..employment of a bull’s head on..sarcophagi..evidently..had at first an apotropaic purpose.

1918   L. Strachey Eminent Victorians 230   The same doctrine led him [sc. Gordon]..to append, in brackets, the apotropaic initials D.V. after every statement in his letters implying futurity.

1945   Proc. Prehistoric Soc. 11 55   In the centre, an apotropaic ornament, a severed head between two volutes.

apotroˈpaically adv.

1956   W. H. Auden Old Man’s Road,   Apotropaically scowling, a tinker Shuffles past.

A glass 'eye' from Israel

A glass ‘eye’ from Israel

This notion of magic used to ward off evil or bad luck- whether by way of amulets, talismans or other potent symbols – is common in many cultures.  In 6th century BC Greece it was frequently found in the form of an eye, exaggerated and enlarged, painted at the bottom of drinking vessels to ward off evil spirits when imbibing.  Bad luck tended to be associated with envious looks from others, hence the use of an eye to deflect or reflect back such looks.

In most middle eastern cultures the Hamsa amulet (or Khamsa, meaning ‘five’, as in fingers of the hand) was thought to be potent in warding off envious looks.

In Turkey the Nazar eye amulet is ubiquitous still, especially on the prow of boats.


Roman-era mosaic from Antioch depicting a plethora of devices against the evil eye

Roman-era mosaic from Antioch depicting a plethora of devices against the evil eye

The ancient Romans believed that laughter could keep away evil with the use of deformed or rude images – phalluses, dwarves; deformity was thought funny.

In the mosaic pictured left: Attacking the evil eye – the eye is pierced by a trident and sword, pecked by a raven, barked at by a dog and attacked by a centipede, scorpion, cat and a snake. A horned dwarf with a gigantic phallus crosses two sticks. Greek annotation “KAI SU” meaning “and you (too)”. Roman mosaic from Antiochia, House of the Evil Eye. Hatay Arkeoloji Müzesi, Antakya, Inv.-Nr. 1024

Similarly apotropaic are silver bullets (against werewolves); garlic and crucifixes to ward off vampires; crossing one’s fingers or knocking on wood to avoid bad luck.

'Gargouille' atop NDame de Paris, construction of which began in the late 11C

‘Gargouille’ atop Notre Dame de Paris, construction of which began in the late 11C

Gargoyles on the parapets of churches were intended partly as a deterrent to witches and other evil spirits, especially when placed over doorways and windows, for such liminal positions were thought especially vulnerable; fireplaces were, too.




The Lady of Shalott, by JW Waterhouse, 1888

The Lady of Shalott, by JW Waterhouse, 1888

Mirrors were believed to have apotropaic powers, hence, perhaps, the belief that breaking a mirror brings bad luck.  The Lady of Shalott was doomed when she looked out of her window to gaze at handsome Lancelot on his horse, induced the curse against her doing so, and her mirror cracked…the rest went badly for her.  He did ok.  C’est la vie.


All images in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons