Biblical Archaeology Review 44:5, September/October 2018

Archaeological Views: Christian Amulets—A Bit of Old, a Bit of New

By Theodore de Bruyn

In the ancient Roman world, people would commonly protect themselves from illness and harm by wearing amulets. They would also resort to such devices to drive out a preexisting illness or to remedy an acquired affliction. You may think that the advent of Christianity put an end to the pagan practice, but it didn’t—at least not immediately. Rather, the new faith brought an adaptation of the existing pagan practice.

Much of what we know about the practice of making and using amulets comes from the literature of the time. Sophisticated writers of antiquity mocked people who called upon the help of the “old women,” who traditionally were one of the sources of these amulets. For example, the fourth-century Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus describes how common-place occult practices put people in danger during a time of heightened political tension. He mentions those who “used some old woman’s charm to relieve pain”a remedy that he considered foolish but harmless.1

With the spread of Christianity, Christian preachers reprimanded the faithful for relying upon amulets. They urged their congregations, instead, to make the sign of the cross or to apply water or oil that had been blessed by a priest or a monk. Athanasius, a fourth-century bishop of Alexandria, comments about a person who would use amulets:

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