Scrolling through the ethnographic collections allows you to enter into a whole world of objects – from ant-belts, spirit houses, machetes, masks to musical instruments, dolls, camel saddles and even more. But among the more ‘fantastical’ objects in the collections are also some seemingly ordinary. Cutlery from different parts of the world tell stories of everyday life, plastic mugs from Papua New Guinea show how objects travel and settle in new places – and then there is this aptly named ‘CD with accessory’. On a first look it, it appears to be just that. But looking more closely at the imagery of the mosque on the left and the Kaaba on the left tells us a different story – of something more than just a CD with accessory.
This seemingly ordinary CD functions as an amulet, protecting its owner from harm, accidents and ‘the evil eye’ especially. Protecting yourself against the evil eye is a widespread custom, especially around the Mediterranean and West Asia. Amulets are used to ward off the malicious gaze of those that would do you harm – but it can also harm you if you let too much praise get to your own head. The amulet CD comes from a souq in Manama, Bahrain, where similar amulets are purchased to be placed in car windows or homes where they take on their duty to protect their new owners – from others and themselves.
Amulets come in an endless variety of sizes and shapes, but the ‘CD’ as a shape, is not the first thing that comes to mind. The ethnographic collection holds other amulets that lead our thoughts more towards the world of mysteries, spirits and the forces of good and evil rather than towards our favourite Britney Spears album.
EA57-0016 Buddha figure in silver amulet from Mongolia. Collected in 1962
EA95-245 Amulet from Nigeria to ward off thieves in the night. Collected in 1964
EA510-0033 Amulet necklace, ‘a symbol of love’ from Siberia. Collected in 1992
EA598-95 Wooden amulet from Pakistan meant to bring luck and good fortune to the animal that wears it. Collected in 1995
EA732-0080 Amulets from Afghanistan. The cylinder holds a folded-up inscription to protect its wearer. Collected in 2002
So why is this CD the subject of this blog post and not those wonderful amulets above (which all deserve more than one blog post of their own!)?
The CD serves as a reminder of time. A lot of objects that come to museums lose the context that they came from. They become mystical, bearers of exotic cultures far away from our own. They become strange and they become part of different contexts of collections, exhibitions, curators and museum visitors. The CD is undeniably contemporary (though kind of outdated, but there are no MP3 amulets in the collections yet). It reminds us that ethnographic objects, no matter how strange looking we think they are, are just everyday objects to people living alongside us in the same world. It reminds us to critically rethink what we deem ‘exotic’ or ‘strange’. And perhaps most importantly, it reminds us that our own ways of doing things are just strange. That we too have objects that seem exotic to other people. That we too have amulets in the shape of lucky coins, pants, necklaces, and so on.
As the small collection above show, we have been fashioning amulets for a very long time to protect ourselves and others or used them to bring about luck, good fortune, love and good health. The archaeological collections at Moesgaard Museum might even tell us that we have always carried and believed in the power of amulets.
Do you have an amulet yourself? What for? Where did you get it from?
We would love to hear your stories in the comments below!
//Katrine Mandrup Bach