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Apotropaic Magic & Hair Talismans

Lately I've been thinking about talismans; good luck charms, wards against evil and sickness, objects imbued with some kind of magical power. These are typically intended to protect and heal, keep us from harm. As a kid, I had a score of talismans. A white rabbits foot (I think my Irish granny gave it to my sister and I), favourite rocks, other special objects from nature. A very anxious child, I received a "worry doll" from my mother, purchased from a store which sold incense and crystals. I could argue a child's favourite toy, which they carry to new experiences and places of uncertainty, is a talisman. They feel protected when it is near. I had a white cat toy named Lucy, a small plastic lizard named Jewel, and probably many other childhood talismans, which I carried everywhere with me.

Speaking very generally -- as magical objects of importance exist all over the world -- talismans are usually portable; small. You need to be able to carry them in order to be protected, so the size is a utilitarian parameter. There are many different talismans though, and some can be installed rather than pocketed. You can have a special object exist on a chain, or it can be installed above your door or at a gate, such as a Brigid's Cross in Ireland, or a Gorgon's face above a door in Greece. Talismans can include markings on cups, to ward off the evil eye, mirrored balls to hang in your garden and keep away witches, buried animals beneath your foundation or old shoes in the walls.

This ties into what I've learned is called Apotropaic magic - protective magic that is intended to help one avoid harm. This can include talismans, but also small rituals or gestures, such as crossing your fingers or knocking on wood, or a special fire.


I've just completed a sculpture which I have begun to think of as a talisman. It is not small enough to pocket, and will not be installed above a door - but its meaning to me is one of protection. Beds are a place of safety and warmth; they are places for conversation and affection. However, they can carry more difficult meanings too. When ill, this is the place you must retreat to, and the bed can represent a place of sickness and bad dreams. The bedroom, for many with depression, can become a place of apathy and despair.

In reviewing different talismans globally and personally, I came across an evocative version of a rabbits foot which I hadn't seen before.

The strangeness of the rabbit's foot interpreted as the body of the creature, with a cast metal head closing off the end of the amputated foot, is both repellant and beautiful. I was interested in the symmetry of the form, and how the foot becomes disassociated from its placement on the body, becoming instead the soft, legless torso of the rabbit.



This led me to a sketch for a new sculptural piece; my own lucky rabbits' foot. As is my inclination, I've doubled the figure/creature. The fur, rather than being a rabbit foot, will be human hair. This will be an entirely different blog post in the future, but human hair in art is of interest to me. Hair is waste; beauty; virility; dead/alive. We are obsessed with grooming our hair, it's a signifier of status and heath. We fight against the signs of its loss or change (dyeing our hair; trimming rough ends; pursuing hair growth serums and treatments). Hair is an earmark of femininity, too, and there are many women artists who work with hair.

Those who know my sister and I also know that our relationship to hair has been complicated with a family history of cancer and chemotherapy treatments. For many people who go through treatment of this type, hair loss is only one of dozens of side effects; but it is one of the most visible signs which is heavily psychological.


Hair has been used in jewellery as a memento mori and memento vivere, (Remember you must die; remember you must live): an object of remembrance. Victorian Mourning jewellery had loved one's hair braided into rings, purses, pendants, and on the back side of portraits.


There are a few hundred years of accounts in the UK where trichobezoars, accumulations of hair in the stomach, were preserved as counter-measures against witchcraft or as antidotes to poison. Conversely, witches used hair in their own spells and hexes. Hair lies between these dichotomies, of preservation and wild growth; curse and protection; femininity and gross excess.

I'm looking forward to creating more personal talismans for different purposes and needs. I will probably consider them each having different functions; "a ward against illness" "a ward against guilt" "a ward against imposter syndrome" and so on.

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