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Amulets are items worn to protect their wearer by their religious associations, a religious equivalent to armour. In ancient Egypt any item of jewellery is likely to have some amuletic function in addition to its aesthetic, economic and social values. The religious significance may have varied from user to user, and for each individual according to the moment in their lives. It is difficult to assess the relative importance of the amuletic or religious aspect against these other aspects of the item worn. In Egyptology the word amulet is therefore generally reserved for bodily adornments of unambiguous religious form or context.

Thematic subjects in amulets of various periods

parts of human body
parts of animals
sun and stars
symbols of power
tools, insignia of power
UC 2417
UC 22523
UC 30525
UC 38654 UC 38589, date: 6th dynasty - First Intermediate Period
UC 7067

the occurence of amulets in tombs at Lahun

Funerary amulets

In the New Kingdom, especially in the Ramesside Period and later many objects were produced for elite burials with a mainly amuletic function.

heart scarabs
UC 12577, heart scarab found at Gurob
UC 69862, pectoral

The Petrie typology of amulets

In 1914, W M F Petrie published his monograph Amulets, illustrated by the Egyptian Collection in University College London (Petrie 1914). The introduction proposed a general theory for classifying amulets according to the following five classes, further divided into 275 different kinds of amulets:

  • homopoeic or 'similars', or sympathetic magic (the principle that an object enable a wearer to have power over the property of the object depicted, for example an eye amulet gives the power of sight, a hare gives the power of speed)
  • dynatic or 'amulets of powers' (giving the powers of qualities, conditions or authority)
  • ktematic or 'amulets of property' (objects deposited in the tomb, as offerings of food and drink, and furniture)
  • phylactic or 'protection' (amulets evoking general superhuman powers)
  • theophoric, amulets of gods (amulets evoking the power of a specific deity)

This outline demonstrates an ambitious undertaking, a typology of the type relished by Petrie. However, the classification rests on assumptions concerning the evolution of human societies over time; for example, the 'similars' are said to be typical of the least developed societies, while the amulets depicting deities are said to 'belong to the age of a developed theology'. Such assumptions may be symptomatic of the social Darwinism and associated racism of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Western science. In practice these amulet 'classes' are not easily separable; it seems awkward to distinguish between an amulet of similars such as the hand amulet (supposed to confer the power of the hand) and an amulet of powers such as the was-sceptre amulet (supposed to confer the power of the sceptre held in the hand). Equally the flexibility of ancient Egyptian religious iconography complicates any attempt to draw a line between an 'amulet of protection' invoking 'some external agency which is not as definite as a divinity' and a 'theophoric amulet' where the divinity is supposedly explicit; Petrie himself had to allow for amulets being either 'Sekhmet or Bastet' as his amulet group no.194.

Look at the five amulets below, one for each of the five Petrie classes, and, from them, consider other methodological problems with the classification.

UC 20504, amulett found at Qau UC 20504, amulett found at Qau UC 20504, amulett found at Qau UC 20504, amulett found at Qau UC 20504, amulett found at Qau

Amulets of similars

Carnelian leg amulet

First Intermediate Period

Amulets of powers

Faience counterpoise

Late Period

Amulets of property

Glass model vessel

Roman Period

Amulets of protection

conus shell

Third Intermediate Period

Amulets evoking gods

faience falcon head

Roman Period

Click here for a page outlining two of the more serious methodological objections to the classification system.

Although in detail the Petrie system may not be endorsed today, its extraordinary scope in time and material stimulates current research towards greater understanding of these object categories.



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