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Parapsychology and Magic / Witchcraft And Magic / Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune Telling / Gypsy Amulets / 

Gypsy Amulets

With pleasant plausibility Heine has traced the origin of one kind of fairy-lore to the associations and feelings which we form for familiar objects. A coin, a penknife, a pebble, which has long been carried in the pocket or worn by any one, seems to become imbued with his or her personality. If it could speak, we should expect to hear from it an echo of the familiar voice of the wearer; as happened, indeed, in Thuringia in the year 1562, when a fair maid, Adelhait von Helbach, was carried into captivity by certain ill-mannered persons. "Now her friends, pursuing, knew not whither to go, when they heard her voice, albeit very small and feeble, calling to them; and, seeking, they found in the bush by the road a silver image of the Virgin, which she had worn: and this image told them which road to take. Following the direction, they recovered her; the Raubritter who bore her away being broken on the wheel, and the image hung up for the glory of the Virgin, who had spoken by it, in the Church of our Lady of Kalbrunn." Again, these objects have such strange ways of remaining with one that we end by suspecting that they have a will of their own. With certain persons these small familiar friends become at last fetishes, which bring luck, giving to those who firmly believe in them great comfort and endurance in adversity.

Who has not been amazed at the persistency with which some button or pebble picked up, or placed perchance in the pocket, remains in all the migrations of keys and pencils and coins, faithful to the charge? How some card or counter will lurk in our pocket-book (misnamed "purse") or porte-monnaie, until it becomes clear as daylight that it has a reasonable intelligence, and stays with us because it wants to. As soon as this is recognized--especially by some person who is accustomed to feel mystery in everything, and who doubts nothing--the object becomes something which knows, possibly, a great deal which we do not. Therefore it is to be treated with care and respect, and in due time it becomes a kind of god, or at least the shrine of a small respectable genius, or fairy. I have heard of a gentleman in the Western United States who had a cane in which, as he seriously believed, a spirit had taken up its abode, and he reverenced it accordingly. The very ancient and widely-spread belief in the efficiency of magic wands probably came from an early faith in such implements as had been warranted to have magic virtues as weapons, or to aid a pedestrian in walking.

Hence it happened that swords which had been enchanted, or which had taken lives, were supposed to have some indwelling intelligence. Hence also the names given to swords, and indeed to all weapons, by the Norsemen. It was believed that the sword of an executioner, after it had beheaded a certain number of men, pined for more victims, and manifested its desire by unearthly rattling or ringing. Apropos of which I have in my possession such a gruesome implement, which if experience in death could give it life, or make it ring in the silent watches of the night, would be a ghastly, noisy guest indeed. I once told the story in "The Gypsies" (Boston; 1881)--now I have something to add to it. I had met in London with an Indian gypsy named NANO, who informed me that in India he had belonged to a wandering tribe or race who called themselves Rom, or Romani, who spoke Romani jib, and who were the Gypsies of the Gypsies. I have in my possession a strange Hindu knife with an enormously broad blade, six inches across towards the end, with a long handle richly mounted in bronze with a little silver. I never could ascertain till I knew NANO what it had been used for. Even the old king of Oude, when he examined it, went wrong and was uncertain. Not so the gypsy. When he was in my library, and his keen black eyes rested on it, he studied it for a moment, and then said: "I know well enough that knife. I have seen it before; it is very old, and it was long in use--it was the knife used by the public executioner in Bhotan. It is Bhotani."

Mano had volunteered the explanation, and whatever his moral character might be, he was not given to romantic invention. Time passed, I went to America, stayed there four years, and returned. In 1888 I became a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Art, and was on the Central Committee. One day we had a meeting at the house of a distinguished architect. When it was over, my host showed me his many treasures of art or archology. While examining these, my attention was attracted by an Indian knife. It was precisely like mine, but smaller. I asked what it was, and learned that it had long been used in some place in the East for the express purpose of sacrificing young girls. And in all respects It was what we might call the feminine counterpart of my knife. And if I ever had any lingering doubt as to the accuracy of NANO's account, it disappeared when I saw the one whose history was perfectly authentic. A few years ago in Heidelburg there were sold at auction a great number of executioners' swords, some of which had been used for centuries. A gentleman who had a special fondness for this kind of bric--brac, had for many years collected them.

It may be here observed that the knife forms a special feature in all witch-lore, and occurs frequently among the Hungarian and Italian gypsy charms, or spells. It is sometimes stuck into a table, while a spell is muttered, protesting that it is not the wood which one wishes to hurt; but the heart of an enemy. Here the knife is supposed in reality to have an indwelling spirit which will pass to the heart or health of the one hated. In Tam O'Shanter there is a knife on the witches' table, and in Transylvania, as in Tuscany, a new knife, not an old one, is used in divers ceremonies. Sometimes an old and curious knife becomes an amulet and is supposed to bring luck, although the current belief is that any pointed gift causes a quarrel.

But to return to the fetish or pocket-deity which is worn in so many forms, be they written scrolls, crosses, medals or relics--cst tout un. Continental gypsies are notable believers in amulets. Being in a camp of very wild Cigany in Hungary a few years ago, I asked them what they wore for bakt, or luck; whereupon they all produced small seashells, which I was assured were potent against ordinary misfortunes. But for a babe which was really ill they had provided an "appreciable" dose in the form of three Maria Theresa silver dollars, which were hung round its neck, but hidden under its clothes. And I may here remark that all through many lands, even into the heart of Africa, this particular dollar is held in high esteem for magical purposes. From one to another the notion has been transferred, and travellers and traders are often puzzled to know why the savages will have no coin save this. From Russia to the Cape it is the same story, and one to be specially studied by those ethnologists who do not believe in transmission, and hold that myths and legends are of local growth and accounted for by similar local conditions.

The gypsies were very desirous to know what my charm was. Fortunately I had in my pocket a very fine fossil shark's tooth which I had purchased in Whitby, and this was greatly admired by the learned of the tribe. Mindful of good example, I obtained for myself specimens of the mystic shells, foreseeing that they would answer as passes and signs among the fraternity in Germany and elsewhere. Which, indeed, came to pass a few days ago in the town of Homburg, when looking from my window in the Schwedenpfad I saw two very honest-looking gypsies go by. Walking forth, I joined them, and led them into a garden, where over beer and cigars we discussed "the affairs of Egypt." These Romanys were from the Tyrol, and had the frank bold manner of the mountain-men blended with the natural politeness of the better class of gypsy. I had taken with me in my pocket, foreseeing its use, a small bag or purse, containing an assortment of objects such as would have puzzled anybody except a Red Indian, a negro, or any believer in medaolin or Voodoo, or my new acquaintance; and after a conversation on drkepen (in Anglo-gypsy, dukkerin) or fortune-telling, I asked the men what they wore. They wished to see my amulets first. So I produced the shells; which were at once recognized and greatly admired, especially one, which is something of a curiosity, since in its natural markings is the word NAV very plainly inscribed: Nav, in gypsy, meaning "the name." The elder gypsy said he had no charm; he had long been seeking a good one, but had not as yet met with the correct article. And then he begged me-gracious powers, how he did beg!--to bestow on him one of my shells. I resolved to do so -but at another time.

The younger gypsy, who was a pasche-paskero, a musician, and had with him a rare old violin in a wonderfully carved wooden case at least two centuries old, was "all right" on the fetish question. He had his shell, sewn up in a black leather bag, which he wore by a cord round his neck. Then I exhibited my small museum. Every object in it was carefully and seriously examined. My shark's tooth was declared to be a very good fetish, a black pebble almost equal to the shell, and an American Indian arrow-head of quartz passed muster as of possible though somewhat doubtful virtue. But an English sixpence with a hole in it was rejected as a very petty and contemptible object. I offered it in vain as a present to my friends: they would not accept it. Neither did they want money: my dross might perish with me. It was the shell - the precious beautiful little shell on which the Romany in search of a fetish had set his heart; the shell which would bring him luck, and cause him to be envied, and ensure him admiration in the tents of the wanderers from Paris to Constantinople. He admitted that it was the very shell of shells - a baro serskeri sharkni, or famous sea-snail. I believe the gypsies would have given me their fine old Stainer violin and the carved case for it. Failing to get the shell, he implored me to give him the black pebble. I resolved to give him both in free gift the next time we met, or as a parting souvenir. Alas for the Romany chal!

We never met again. The police allow no gypsies in Homburg, and so they had to move on. I sought them that night and I sought them next day; but they were over the hills and far away. But I have no doubt that the fame of the shell on which Nature has written the Name-the very logos of magic itself -spread ere the summer was past even to the Carpathians. Something tells me that it is not played out yet, and that I shall hear anon something regarding it.
The cult of the shell is widely spread. One day in a public-house, in the West End of London, I, while taking my glass of bitter, entered into conversation with a rather tall, decently-attired brunette Alsatian girl, who spoke French and German, and who knew a few words of Romany, which she said she had picked up by --at least she professed not to be gypsy, and to know no more. Being minded to test the truth of this, I casually exhibited one of my shells and said it was a Hungarian gypsy amulet for la bonne fortune. She began to beg earnestly for it, without getting it. On several occasions at long intervals, when I met her in the street, she again implored me for the treasure, saying that she believed "if she had it, her luck would turn to good." And, being convinced of her gypsyism, I said, "It will do you no good unless you have faith." To which she replied, in a tone which indicated truth itself: "But I have faith--absolute, entire faith in it." Which seeing, and finding that she was a true convert to the power of the holy shell, I gave it to her with my blessing, knowing that it would be a joy and comfort to her in all the trial, of life.

This reminds me that I have seen, and indeed possess, a pearl-shell bearing the image of Saint Francis of Assisi, such as is sold by thousands at his shrine, and which are supposed to possess certain miraculous innate or intrinsic virtues. Thus, if worn by children, they are a cure for croup.--Ah--but that is a very different thing, you know."

An idol is an object, generally an image, worshipped for its own sake--being supposed to not only represent a god, but to have some immanent sanctity. The Catholic priest, and for that matter all Brahmins or bonzes, assure us that their sacred images are "only symbols, not regarded as really dwelling-places of divinity." They are not, so to speak, magnified amulets. Yet how is it that, if this he true, so many images and pictures are regarded and represented by priests as being able of themselves by the touch to cure tooth-ache, and all other ills which flesh and bones are heirs to. Why is one image especially good for tooth-ache, while another of the same person cures cramp? Why, if they are all only "symbols," is one more healing or holy than another? How can our Lady of Embrun be of greater aid than our Lady of Paris? The instant we ascribe to an image or a shell real power to act, we make of it an inspired being in itself, and all the sophistry in the world as to its being a means of faith, or a symbol, or causing a higher power to act on the suppliant, is rubbish. The devotee believes tout bonnement that the image works the cure, and if he did not, any other image of the Virgin or Saint would answer the same purpose. This chaff has been thrashed out a thousand times--or many tens of thousand times in vain,--as vain so far as effects go as is the remarkably plain First Commandment. And it will last, while one fetish endures, that the hierophant will call it a mere "symbol," and the ignorant worshipper, absolutely unable to comprehend him, will worship the symbol as the thing itself--as he is really expected to do.

According to J. B. FRIEDRICH, "Symbolik der Natur," the seashell, on account of its being a product of the sea, or of the all-generating moisture; and much more probably from its shape, is an emblem of woman herself. Therefore as 'Venus, Love's goddess, was born of the sea," shells are dedicated to her. ("Museo Bourbonico," Vol. vi. p. 10. KUGLER, "Handbuch Geschichte der Malerei," Berlin, 1837, Vol. iv. p. 311. Also translated by Sir H. AUSTIN LAYARD). Being one of the great emblems of productive Nature, or of life and light, and opposed to barrenness, absence of pleasure, darkness, or negation, it was of course a charm against witchcraft or evil. That the gypsies have retained it as a powerful agent for "luck," is extremely interesting, showing to what a degree they are still influenced by the early symbolism which effectively formed not one but many mythologies. Among the Hungarian gypsies the virtue or magical power of a shell is in proportion to the degree of resemblance above mentioned, which it possesses, as Wlislocki expressly declares.

This association of shells, with the mysterious and magical, is to be found among gypsies in the East, as is shown by the following: from my work entitled "The Gypsies." It describes something which I saw many times in Cairo

"Beyond the door which, when opened, gave this sight, was a dark, ancient archway, twenty yards long, which opened on the glaring, dusty street, where camels with their drivers, and screaming sas or carriage-runners and donkey-boys and crying venders kept up the wonted Oriental din. But in the archway, in its duskiest corner, there sat in silence and immovable, a living picture-a dark, handsome woman, of thirty years, who was unveiled. She had before her on the gateway floor, a square of cloth and a few shells. Sometimes an Egyptian of the lower class stopped, and there would be a grave consultation. She was a fortune-teller, and from the positions which the shells assumed when thrown she predicted what would come to pass. And then there would be a solemn conference and a thoughtful stroking of the beard, if the applicant was a man, and then the usual payment to the oracle, and a departure. And it was all world-old primval Egyptian, as it was Chaldan, for the woman was a Rhagarin, or gypsy, and as she sat so sat the diviners of ancient days by the wayside, casting shells for auspices, even as arrows were cast of old, to be cursed by Israel.

"It is not remarkable that among the myriad manteias of olden days there should have been one by shells. The sound of the sea when heard in a nautilus or conch is marvellously--like that of ocean surges murmuring far."

"Shake me and it awakens - then apply Its polished lips to your attentive ear, And it remembers its august abodes And murmurs as the ocean murmurs there."

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