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Sunday 29 January 2012: Charming?

This is partly an extension of the ideas I mentioned yesterday regarding material possessions, but also twin to my recent blip of Mexican retablos. Alongside that exhibition at the Wellcome Collection was another called Charmed Life: the solace of objects. It focussed on the collection of one Edward Lovett, a bank cashier with a passion for folklore, in particular charms, amulets and superstitious beliefs in London in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. He delved into largely ignored working class areas to find out about their beliefs and to collect material that was otherwise disregarded. He amassed a huge collection.

The exhibition displayed a selection of Lovett's collection arranged in a long S-shaped glass case. As I examined the objects I realised that I had many similar things myself and back home I gathered some of them up. This is what I have photographed here although I was disappointed by the quality of the image. I really must get a better camera.

Some of these items will be immediately recognizable as good luck charms that persist today: the horseshoe, the wishbone, the black cat. The horseshoe is a common symbol on good luck cards, confetti and so on and they can often be seen nailed up on doors performing their original function as a barrier to witches. Black cats are usually regarded as lucky although in certain circumstances are deemed to be a bad omen instead (many of these superstitious objects are ambivalent as if to provide explanations for every eventuality.) Pulling the wishbone when you have eaten your roast chicken is a custom that goes back at least to the 17th century and was once more elaborate than it is today.

Other bones were also considered to be imbued with special powers and the sheep's bladebone (top right) was used for divination in many part of the British Isles. The dried frog on it would have been considered useful as a remedy for, or protection against, several diseases, perhaps worn close to the body. Acorns (below) were regarded as protective against lightning strikes and for that reason the knobs of window blinds were often made in that shape. There were numerous superstitions attached to teeth especially the disposal of one's own (perpetuated in the tooth fairy myth) although the one below the acorns belonged to a sheep. Below that is a sea-bean or lucky bean that I found on a local beach. They drift on the currents all the way from the Caribbean and have long been prized as amulets. Also from the seashore came the two pebbles with natural holes through them. These were known as 'hag-stones' and were tied to cows to prevent fairies stealing the milk or hung up in stables to keep witches from the horses. (Horses found sweating and affrighted in the morning were said to have been hag-ridden overnight.)

On top of my display is a necklace of amber, held to possess healing properties from ancient times. The string of turquoise beads was considered essential protection against bronchitis - prevalent in smoky Victorian London - and Lovett discovered that it was routine in the East End for these little beads to be placed around the neck of every newborn baby. People might continue to wear them for the rest of their lives. The two black lumps which look like coal are cramp balls, a hard fungus that grows on dead ash trees. Because it somewhat resembles knotted muscles it was carried as a protection against those agonizing spasms. The little shoe, top left, I found in the road probably from a key-ring and represents diverse beliefs and superstitions attached to footwear. (My mother didn't like me to clean a shoe on the table for example.)

The two owl's feet joined by a cat's head is something my father made, another talisman against cramp I think. Dried sea horses Lovett found being sold in London in bundles of three for luck but in Venice, he noted, the wives of fishermen kept one on their breasts to facilitate the flow of milk. (This one is just a brooch.) Keys were used for divination with a Bible, or as a cure for nose bleeds - dropped down your back the shock of the cold metal on your bare skin makes your muscles contract, so perhaps not just wishful thinking.

Left, coral is another ancient protective amulet, thought life-giving by its colour in sympathy with blood. I think these were given to me when a baby. Many parts of animals - feet, teeth, horns, bones - would be carried either as protection or for good luck, often the part, or the animal, standing for some quality or ability it was deemed to possess and would confer upon the wearer. The symbolism of cuckold's horns was very widespread in Europe. Above, the charm bracelet is typical of the kind still given to children today. Attached are a teapot, a lamp, a pipe, an elephant and a scallop shell.

I feel I should say that I am not the slightest bit superstitious and carry none of these charms, although a random survey by the Wellcome discovered that many people do keep some object that is special to them - see a short film about it here.. My mother would never walk under a ladder, and would always "see a pin and pick it up, all next day you'll have good luck" and so forth. My father collected and cherished stuff like this because he was interested antiquities, ethnography and anything curious or arcane.

The final object. When as a student I went travelling in the Middle East my father told me to be sure to get a Hand of Fatima. This was long before tourism made them available in every souvenir shop as plastic key fobs and the like and I searched everywhere without success. (I may just have been looking in the wrong places.) But at last I spotted one on the wall of a hardware shop in Amman doing its job keeping the evil eye at bay so I bargained for it and they unscrewed it and I proudly brought it home. That's it in the centre, the hamsa a very ancient and important symbol of protective good luck in all the major religions.

If anyone want to know more about superstitions I recommend The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Great Britain and Ireland by Steve Roud. I guarantee it will cure anyone of any tendency towards superstitious beliefs because in it you will find that everything has attracted some sort of magical thinking at one time or another and what's more, as I mentioned above, for every belief that's been held, its reverse has been held at some other time or in some other place or circumstance. There are always two sides to the lucky charm.

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