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The Llewellyn Encyclopedia

Talisman

This article was written by John Michael Greer on April 01, 2005
posted under Talisman

(Arabic tilsam, from Greek tetelesmenon, "that which has been consecrated") In magical lore, an object charged or consecrated with magical energies for the fulfillment of some specific purpose. Talismanic magic has had an important place in Western occultism since ancient times, and a dizzying variety of objects have been consecrated for various talismanic purposes.

Talismans can be traced in every magical tradition that has contributed to Western occultism. Ancient Egyptian priestly magicians had a wide range of talismanic methods at their disposal. For example, massive stone tablets were inscribed with healing spells and set in basins; those who were sick could pour water over the hieroglyphic carvings, drink the water, and benefit from the magic. More sinister rites were used to attack the foreign and domestic enemies of the Egyptian state; some of these made use of statues of enemy soldiers who were bound or maltreated and then buried in a secret place.

Similar traditions could be found in the magical lore of the busy city-states of Mesopotamia, and the vast palace libraries of Ashurbanipal, the last great king of Assyria, including detailed instructions for a variety of talismanic magical workings. The magicians of Sumer, Babylon, and other Mesopotamian cultures drew heavily on the astrological lore of the region, setting a precedent that has been followed by talismanic magicians ever since.

Ancient Greece and Rome had a remarkable range of talisman lore, including the making of magical statues. A very common form of talismans was the binding tablet—a lead tablet that was dropped in wells, graves, caverns, and other points of ready access to the underworld to carry messages to the powers of the unseen and accomplish various forms of magic, usually hostile.

Talismans in the form now used in magic began to evolve toward the end of the classical period, with Egypt—where the art of writing had never quite lost its magical aura—as one focal point. The Graeco-Egyptian magical papyri, sorcerers’ handbooks from the first few centuries of the common era, include instructions for making a variety of talismanic devices. It was after Egypt fell into Arab hands in the eighth century, though, that Muslim magicians began reshaping the lore they inherited from the ancient world, and evolved talismans of the sort that are still used today.

In this modern sense, a talisman is a piece of metal, paper, parchment, or some other material that can be engraved or written on. It is usually cut into a flat disk, although other shapes are known. Once made and marked with magically effective words and symbols, the talisman is consecrated in a formal ritual, and then concealed and left to do its work.

The methods used to consecrate a talisman vary widely in different traditions of magic. In medieval Arabic handbooks such as the Picatrix, and in many more recent works, the talisman is simply made of a metal with the right symbolism and held in the smoke of a specially compounded incense, then wrapped in silk and put away to work. The range of methods extends from this up to hugely complex techniques of the sort used by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, in which the magician can easily spend two hours reciting conjurations, vibrating divine names, evoking spirits, channeling energies, and putting the talisman through the equivalent of a lodge initiation ceremony. Both these approaches, and many that fall between these extremes, work well in practice.

Talismans, according to standard occult theory, work because their material basis forms a "body" for the energies placed in them at the time of consecration. With this anchor on the physical plane, the talisman keeps on working steadily and mindlessly toward the fulfillment of whatever purpose it was created to accomplish. When a talisman has finished its work, therefore, or when the situation has changed and its energies are no longer needed, it must be ceremonially deconsecrated and the physical form destroyed.

While standard talismans of the type described above remain far and away the most common approach in use among ceremonial magicians, noticeably different approaches can be found among those who draw on folk magic traditions, especially those of American Hoodoo. In this system, a mojo, toby or hand—that is, a small cloth bag filled with magically active substances—may be used for most of the purposes classical talismans might fill. Other traditions draw on various forms of natural magic to accomplish the same things.

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