In Africa, many ethnic groups use objects that have been set aside as sacred for the purpose of protection. Thus, an amulet in this sense is anything that can be used to bring safety to the carrier of the object. Among some African people, such as the Tamaschek of Mali and Burkina Faso, the amulet might be a tattoo on one's body. However, in most cases, it is a religious figure or some symbol that represents an aspect of the African religion that can be worn around the neck, ankle, or wrist.
The amulet is not simply worn; it is accepted as a living, vital symbol that acts as a protector of the individual wearing it. Among some African people, a stone, especially a gemstone, might be considered a guarantor of fortune, welfare, and prosperity. Indeed, the idea of the amulet is that it brings the benefits of the sacred to the living. Thus, all expressions of African religion on the continent and in the Americas rely on some form of amulets. Among the practitioners of Umbanda, Myal, Shango, Quimbanda, Voodun, and Santeria, one finds various forms of amulets. In fact, some might think of the special drawings called veves of Voodun as amulets or the various colors of cloth or candles as representing certain powers that repel evil or attract goodness. Among Africans in the Americas, particularly in the American South, it was common deep into the 20th century for children to have rabbits' feet around their necks or their ankles to ward off all forms of danger. Indeed, the African belief is that these items are endowed with special powers if the proper religious officials have authorized them.
The amulet is one of the oldest traditions in African religion. During the period of Pharaonic Egypt, the people discovered remarkable vitality in many of the arts and artifacts that were created by the priests. Nothing was so popular as an amulet as the ankh, which stood for the idea of eternal life. When one carried the ankh, it was supposed to protect the wearer from all harm and danger. Alongside the ankh was the Khepri, the scarab beetle, which served as the amulet meaning transformation or becoming. Having originated in Africa, the ankh and the scarab are now found throughout the world.
Examples of clothes decorated with amulets such as the batakari shirts of Ghana abound in West Africa where leather amulets are said to have powers to prevent the wearer from being harmed in case of warfare. Some people have believed that the amulets would protect them from bullets. There are tragic cases of many Africans being killed when relying on this idea. Nevertheless, there is evidence to suggest that people have found amulets to be useful in their own sense of personal safety and protection. But one is not just protected from supernatural forces by amulets, but from other people as well. Soldiers in African armies have traditionally worn amulets.
Amulets are also seen as means to attract personal affection, love, and prosperity, as well as means to protect against greed, envy, and disgrace. Those who sought the favor of the ancestors often carried around something that came from the ancestors' home. Therefore, a person might carry around a special tool, piece of fabric, instrument, or piece of jewelry that came from an ancestor. This was done to bring the power of the ancestor to bear on all conditions surrounding the living.
There is also the amulet used for healing purposes. It might be a medicine that is carried in a belt, on a chain, or connected to the body of the person with leather or string. Such a healing or medicinal amulet is usually organic and is made of plants or animal parts. African priests or priestesses who devote their energy and time to the description, development, and explanation of natural and supernatural powers are the final arbiters of any special energies or mysteries surrounding amulets.



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Further Reading

  • Delange, J. (1974). The Art and Peoples of Black Art. New York: Dutton.
  • Gonzalez-Wippler, M. (2001). Complete Book of Amulets & Talismans. St. Paul, MN: Lewellyn.
  • Wilkinson, R. H. (1992). Reading Egyptian Art. London: Thames and Hudson.