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Early Christian Amulets

9th September 2015
Posted by S Taylor

In the early years, the Church tried to ban the use of amulets on account of their known pagan origin and association.    Although by 400 AD the old pagan religion of Egypt had officially been proscribed by the Coptic Church, age-old customs died hard.

img185Despite all the efforts of the hierarchy, people continued to carry about on their persons some small mementoes of their faith. In the Latin world, in Arabia and in Ethiopia, abbreviations for the name of Christ became popular.  From this came the Chi-Rho monogram. Together with the Alpha and Omega, these marks became widespread on seals, plaques and embroidery. Later, Gospel verses, liturgical prayers (e.g. the Paternoster or Lord’s Prayer), the names of the Evangelists and Gnostic figures would be added to these motifs.

Early Christian symbols were especially prominent in the Roman catacombs.  Over time both the Egyptian Ankh and the Indian Swastika became accepted forms of the Cross in Christian piety. This was as true in ecclesiastical decoration as it was in popular devotion.  Indeed, it appears that almost any device basically cruciform in design might bear religious significance – and thus develop into a generally accepted, conventional symbol, with amuletic potential.

As an example of this ease of association, there is in the British Museum an amulet depicting the Blessed Virgin Mary holding an Ankh in one hand and a Greek cross in the other.  During the 4th century there was a steady growth of the Christian Church in Egypt and elsewhere. It seems inevitable that symbols with arcane associations should retain their popular appeal despite being frowned upon by the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the day.  Despite all the efforts to play down the use of amulets this popular use has never departed from the Christian Church in certain parts of the world.

More detail is to be found in The Fylfot File [2006].

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