Worldbuilding: Amulets and Magic Research

The most recent logline idea for our short is:

In a world filled with strange, ancient carvings of worship, a young glyph-witch (glyph-mancer?) accidentally unleashes a realm of strangelings which can possess any object with a face. She must now travel her world and trap the most powerful strangelings who seek to conquer and spread terror.

With this rule that the spirits/strangelings are made solid in Nami’s world through faces in inanimate objects e.g. statues, masks, armour, skulls, tree faces, etc. it opens up more specific possibilities for designing the monsters, environments and costumes. Also, while some spirits are malevolent and need to be captured by Nami, others could form part of Nami’s magic system where she imbues different spirits into faces in her staff.


Looking to some real world research for inspiration, this book on amulets has lots of ideas that we could incorporate around our use of the face as a design and narrative device. The world ‘amulet’ could be replaced with ‘face’ for ideas. Some of the main points from this book that we could think of when developing our magic system and concepts:

  • The materials and forms of the amulet dictate its purpose.
  • People of different professions would require different amulets e.g. pilgrims, hunters, fish catchers.
  • Sometimes specific amulets were connected to certain Gods.
  • Amulets and amuletic decoration were used for both offense and defense. E.g. animals symbolic of fierceness and strength would adorn the hunter while decorations on shields and cloaks could be defensive.
  • The evil eye is commonly warded against. Like against like is a common way of amuletic protection.
  • The amulet commonly takes on the symbolic properties of the animal parts it contains e.g. strange, of the night, strength, ethereal, fertile, of the netherworld etc.
  • Multiple amulets are commonly carried for multiple purposes.
  • Ancestors held in amulets would answer questions and advise.
  • Faces would be left blank on certain Russian dolls so that demons would not be able to animate them.
  • The symbolic colors used in the amulet are important to the amulet’s function. e.g. red, black and white.
  • The sky is seen as the spirit realm, and the ground the nether realm. Therefore animals (birds, insects, reptiles) associated with these areas are linked symbolically.


Notes from the book: 

“An amulet is a device, the purpose of which is to protect, but by magical and not physical means.”

“A charm is something believed to bring good luck, health and happiness.”

“A talisman is something thought to be imbued with some magical property. It can both protect and radiate power and is often used in ritual.”

“The origin of the fetish was as a West African amulet but the word now describes an object believed to contain a spirit. Fetishes are found in Polynesia, Australasia, West Africa, North and South America and the Arctic. Once magical rites have been performed over it anything can become a fetish, especially if it is something unknown or not understood, but most fetishes take the form of a doll or statue. The spirit they contain is usually fed.”

The power of/belief in amulets thrive where there is rampant disease and pestilence which are caused by unknown forces in the eyes of the people.

Each amulet has a specific function which is symbolically tied to the materials and forms that make it.

Recipes for amulets were published in Le Grand et le Petit Albert by the thirteenth century alchemist and philosopher Albert le Grand.

Pilgrims of medieval Wales carried small ampullae or models of saints.

Bears were hunted in Finland, not just for food but for their mystic properties. Different parts of the bear and bronze replicas of bears could give the hunter protection.

To protect the fisherman, two pieces of birch bark are “stapled together and carved into a face with cut-out eyes and mouth and incised nose. Such amulets are pinned on a stick and set on a trap of branches where roach and dace spawn.”

“Eyes painted on Japanese (boat) bows watch for spirits of the river in the torrents ahead”.

Some amulets invoked the protection of specific Gods.

Warriors and Weaponry

Paper charms were used for protection in battle in Japan e.g. printed in red with the character for Fudo, the war God.

The King of Foumban in Cameroon wore an amuletic robe of hessian with leather amulet pouches sewn all over it.

“…for many headhunter of south-east Asia – the Nagas of north-east India, the Nias of Indonesia – it was the life-forces in the trophy skulls of their slain enemies that protected them as they went again to war. “

The decoration on a shield was thought to be as protective as the shield itself.

“As in hunting, where the power of a slain animal is invoked in its claws or teeth to help kill the next one, for the Baule of the Ivory Coast it was the faces of their enemies killed in battle and reproduced in small bronze masks that were worn or carried on their swords as amulets.

Highly revered monks can make amulets and sell them for large sums of money.

Seams, hems or any other opening on clothing is decorated or stitched with particular colors as these are vulnerable places for spirits to slip under clothes and cause disease.

Talismans are used to protect houses and their inhabitants e.g. “white hawthorn or white paint, patterning in brick, heads carved in stone (a device of Celtic origin), crosses, floral designs”.


Crossroads are widely seen as a place of supernatural dwelling.


Enter a caption

“In Romania, wooden shrines sheltering a crucifix are erected at crossroads to save the wanderer from taking the wrong path.”

An amulet made specifically for the wearer is more powerful.

The Evil Eye

“The evil eye is the most powerful of superstitions throughout the Indo-European and Semitic worlds, and its power is based on jealousy.”


“..the Greek word for amulet, khalitikhi, means eye, the Italian jettatura, the eye that throws or casts spells.” The strongest amulet against the evil eye is the eye itself “and the mirror from which the evil eye flees in horror or lingers in self-admiration”.


Like protects against like. The symbol of the eye protects against the evil eye.

“Mirrors have an element of mystery: they show the true image of both human and demon, and yet reverse it. The soul can escape through them, and they are thus covered at death, or during a storm, or even for the vulnerable forty days after marriage.”

Reflections can act as a diversion to the eye or demon as it might stop to admire its own reflection. Mirrors are often in amulets, house gables, and sewn into clothing and fetishes for this reason.

Capture Magic

There is universal symbolism attached to the materials and forms that the amulets take. Specific materials are usually dependent on what animals and resources are local.


Amulets are often made of magical materials encased in some sort of container. The shape and material of the container is connected to the type of contents and also to your status e.g. a rag would be associated with poverty.

“The talismanic scrolls of Coptic Ethiopia are rolled into snakeskin; the paper charms of Japan are tied in red thread and sold on a piece of card, or wrapped in brocaded silk”.

The cimaruta of Italy is an amulet made of a combination of amulets. It consists of a silver sprig of rue with an amulet on each branch.

“In Morocco, a clustered pendant of amulets would include miniature guns and daggers to fight the jinn, a candle to see them by, a hand to protect from the evil eye, a goblet to represent water as the source of life, and stars to protect against darkness”.

The two broad functions of the amulet is to attract or repel. If something sparkly attracts the evil eye then it is diverted from the wearer.

Goddesses and Dolls

Many human shaped amulets personify ancestors and would not only protect from wizards and invisible danger but would also answer questions and advise.

Grotesque masks, such as Medusa’s face during strangulation, are used to frighten away spirits.

Russian dolls were sometimes made of linen and clothed but their faces would be left blank to prevent being animated by demons. The place of their heads could be stuffed with different items to protect different members of the family e.g.linen for women, masticated bread for children.


Dolls are frequently used in black magic but are also believed to be “vehicles of evil spirits”.

Buttons, beads and blue

A single bead e.g. painted with an eye or a mass of beads e.g. arranged in a sunburst are often used as protective amulets.

Red, White and Black

These three colors are said to be basic to the human state for their traditional symbolism.

White traditionally denotes purity, black denotes chthonic creatures and decay, and red denotes the vibrant life force of blood which can repel darkness, demons, witches, wizards and the evil eye. These symbols are usually why these colors are used in amulets. Decorating thresholds with red rags, outlining doorways and windows with red (Welsh) and sewing red thread into the hems and seams of garments are a few example of using the amuletic properties of red.

Teeth Claws and Paws

“Animals can be jinn in disguise or an actual witch , as the hyena is known to be; they can be inhabited by evil spirits, as in the case of the jackal; they can be people killed by witches and turned into lions, dogs and bush animals, as in Cameroon, or – as for the Ostyaks of Siberia – they can be totemic protector animals like the bear, from whom the family is descended.”

Animal teeth are common as an amulet for strength a warning to stay away.

The teeth of wild boar and pigs are also associated with mental health and absorbing evil directed at the wearer.

Horns and Bones

Antlers are associated with the power of regeneration, while pointed horns are capable of piercing evil, especially the evil eye.

Horns and horseshoes are a classic favourite for protecting houses.

“The Uzbeks of Khorezm kept a ram in the courtyard of their house, knowing that the evil eye would be attracted to the horns and so lose its potency”

In Tibet, human bones are made into flutes and are played to keep evil spirits away.

Bones are often inscribed with incantations.

Birds, feathers and hair

Birds are almost everywhere considered part of the spirit realm, a link between man and the heavens. In Slavic belief, witches and also girls who died before bearing children turned into birds.”

“Loose unkempt hair is a symbol of the chthonic world and an attribute of witches and sorcerers, while neat hair, particularly plaited, is a symbol of belonging to organized society.”

Snakes and fearful creatures

“As birds link man with the spirit world, so snakes, toads and various bizarre creatures remind him of his closeness to the nether regions and waters of the earth.”

Insects are thought to be metamorphoses of jinn and are used in amulets to protect against disease or cure illness.

Amulets made from chameleon’s are popular among thieves for their ability to change color and swivel their eyes.

Water and the moon

Frogs are associated with rain and the rain Gods while toads, being nocturnal, are associated with witches, the devil and the dark side of female sexuality.

Seahorses, being delicate and beautiful, divert the evil eye.

The Gods, both benign and evil, are said to dwell in water.

One thought on “Worldbuilding: Amulets and Magic Research

  1. Pingback: Audience versus Magic | Natasha Crowley

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