Protecting Against Child-Killing Demons: Uterus Amulets in the Late Antique and Byzantine Magical World

Protecting Against Child-Killing Demons: Uterus Amulets in the Late Antique and Byzantine Magical World

By Heta Björklund

PhD Dissertation, University of Helsinki, 2017

Abstract: This doctoral dissertation examines medicinal-magical amulets pertaining to the uterus and the protection of women and children, the accompanying tradition of magical texts, and the mythology and folktales of demons believed to kill children and parturient women. The amulets and the folktales of the demons they were believed to protect against are intertwined. The amulets cannot be studied merely as archaeological or art historical objects, but must be taken together with folktales and narrative charms. The amulets discussed in this dissertation are from Late Antiquity (250-750 CE) and the Middle Byzantine period (843-1204 CE), and they come from the areas of Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Greece, and Asia Minor. The stories of the demons these amulets protected against are even earlier; the first mentions date to the time of Sappho in Archaic Greece (6th-7th centuries BCE), and they still appear in manuscript copies as late as the 15th century CE.

The amulets discussed in this dissertation represent only a fraction of the amulets from Antiquity to Byzantine times intended to aid in pregnancy and childbirth. They must be seen as part of a tradition of amulets and narrative charms (stories that themselves acted as magical protection) against disease-causing demons. In narrative charms, the demon (who is both disease-causing and the disease itself) is depicted as animal-like, non-human, and usually rising from the sea. She meets a divine figure (Artemis in the older versions of the story, King Solomon, Jesus, or Virgin Mary in the later ones), who interrogates and banishes her.

In addition, I propose that seeing the amulets in the context of belief in the evil eye may help explain many of their features and accompanying stories. The evil eye was thought to cause all manners of maladies. Contextualized in terms of the Indo-European and Semitic wet-dry division of life, the evil eye steals the liquids of life: mother s milk, blood, and semen. By attacking the very essence of the household and its continued survival (i.e. reproduction), the evil eye was a significant element behind the amulets and narrative charms. Furthermore, the concept of the evil eye was an extremely important tool in conflict resolution in small, close-knit communities, as a specific conflict could be resolved by placing blame on an immaterial scapegoat while maintaining social cohesion by not identifying any single individual as guilty.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Helsinki

Top Image: Early Byzantine pendant – image courtesy The British Museum

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