I was recently asked by the Horniman Museum in London to write some text for them about their collection of charms which will soon go on permanent display, together with a cloutie tree which visitors will be able to use as a wish tree. As always with any writing project you learn something new. I discovered that Yoko Ono has created an extraordinary ‘wishing well’ in Iceland which projects light high up into the sky, carrying with it the wishes visitors have made to her artwork ‘Wishing Trees’. You can watch a video of her talking about this below. After you’ve read this post, do let me know via the comment box if you have a charm or amulet. Does it have a story attached to it? Do you carry it with you, or does it stay in a special place in your home?
Here’s what I wrote for the museum:
Charms, amulets and talismans may seem to be just quaint relics of former, more superstitious, times. But scratch the surface of our modern hyper-rational world and there they still are – in the lucky charm bracelets for sale in jewellery shops, in the way wishing wells and trees continue to be used. How come we still turn to charms? We might not believe that throwing a coin in a well or tying a piece of cotton to a tree will make our wish come true, but still we do it, and a little part of us secretly hopes that by some miracle we will get what we want.
It is the most natural thing in the world to wish for healing, safety on a journey, the relief of material or emotional distress, for love, for peace on Earth. By utilising a charm our minds are able to channel our desires through something tangible – something we can see and touch. This activity comes so naturally to us that by 2007 nearly half a million people had written wishes on cards for Yoko Ono’s art installation ‘Wish Tree’, and these were buried beneath a wishing well of powerful lights called the Imagine Peace Tower on Viðey island, Iceland. The monument projects a pillar of light up into the sky at certain times of the year, such as the Winter Solstice, and the words ‘Imagine Peace’ are inscribed in 24 languages around the walls of the well.
Virtually any object could be seen as a talisman to bring comfort in times of distress: feathers, stones, sea shells or leaves found at special times, prayer beads or rosaries, an old photograph of a loved one long gone, a locket of hair. But certain objects were often favoured as charms: stones with holes in them, and the feet of animals such as rabbits, moles and birds were common. Charms seem ubiquitous – it is likely that no culture exists without them. In some cases one particular object is adopted universally within a culture – like the waving cats of China that bring good luck, or the saint’s relic, a piece of human bone, that is sealed within or beneath a Catholic altar. In other cases, the charm is uniquely personal, meaningful and useful only to the person who found or fashioned it. But for many, throughout history, charms, amulets and talismans would have been obtained from professional charm-merchants – often known in Britain until the early 20th century as ‘cunning men or women’ – who would sell objects they claimed had protective or healing powers. Many were charlatans, to be sure, but some would have believed in the work they were doing as they cast spells or sung magical invocations over their charms. After all, the word ‘charm’ comes from the Latin carmen – a song or incantation, and by singing over the chosen object, the cunning person believed they were awaking its magical properties, which would then begin to influence whoever held or carried the charm. Whether the influence was in reality psychological – triggering the placebo effect in the charm’s owner – or whether a magical force had indeed been unleashed is up to the reader to decide!