associative magic

The magic of food

Not turning this jewellery blog into a foodie feed…but did you know there is a strong relation between food, ritual and personal adornment in North Africa and Southwest Asia? In this article, I will show you several examples and explore how food and personal adornment are interrelated.

Food is something we depend on. We can’t live without it, and so it is hardly surprising to find the importance of growing, raising and preparing of food resonating in the realm of magic and amulets. This is often related to growth, wealth, health and having children. The opposite is also true: poisonous foods or animals feature in magic, too, with the aim of fighting evil influences. Another link between food and magic is medicine: many ingredients used for food preparations are also found in medicine, a field originally closely linked to magic. There are countless rituals involving beans, sprouts and such aimed at becoming pregnant or keeping spirits away from the house, and everyday acts from the culinary domain take on new meaning in ritual, such as the pounding of coffee beans [1] referring to sexual relations.

That close relation can take material form in personal adornment in several ways. First, there are actual edible things that may be worn on the body, but you could also think of imitations of those, both lifelike and in abstract shapes, the names given to jewellery elements and even more indirect connections such as through colours.

Starting with actual ingredients, to protect children in Egypt, a small pouch filled with bread and salt would be worn as an amulet to keep spirits away, a practice recorded up until the last century. [2] A naming ceremony for a baby among the Bisharin, living in Sudan, had visiting guests write down a name suggestion and put that in a dish containing milk, bread and sugar. [3] The fragrance of cloves was believed to be an aphrodisiac throughout North Africa and Southwest Asia, and so adornment made of cloves was regarded as a powerful means to attract the love of a husband.

An example of imitations of food are amulets from the area of Tetuan, Morocco, in the shape of peas in a pod. It’s the first image in the photo gallery with this article. This amulet is called arhaz, and it was believed to be bring good luck and fertility to the wearer. [4] They are very recognizable as pea pods, with a slight curve and bulging peas inside. What makes them stand out as an amulet is visible on the example on the right: the zigzag-border is characteristic of amulets and talismans. Each pod is shown with 5 peas. Renderings of the number 5 in jewellery are known to bring good luck in general, as 5 is the most powerful number. That number is repeated again on each pea of the pendant on the left: each pea is further decorated by 4 intersecting lines and a square in the centre: this is also a rendering of the number 5. This repetition of the number 5 and the imagery of the pea pod bursting with fat peas is what would bring good luck and abundance to the wearer. The peas in the pod also serve as fertility amulet. That is a rather obvious metaphor of course, and one that is used in many cultures.

In other cases, the relation is more subtle. Oak leaf lettuce (ifrawen ukerush) is rendered in the shape of Kabyle pendants from Algeria, and other pendants from the same region are named after melon seeds (iyes afeqqus). [5] These are regular pendants on necklaces. They have not separately created as amulet, but still work their magic: melon seeds, as there are so many of them, are often associated with fertility beliefs as well. Sometimes it is the visual similarity between food and jewellery that is reflected in the choice of words: the habbiyat (chickpea) bracelets derive their name from the many granules on them.

Food finds its way into personal adornment in other forms as well. In Siwa Oasis, Egypt, the colours chosen for embroidery on dresses, pants, shawls and scarves all reflect the colour palette of the dates that Siwa is famous for. The life cycle of date productions directs the rhythm of everyday life in the oasis, and so the embroidery on personal adornment brings that cycle of growth and abundance to the wearer. Palm branches themselves form part of the pattern repertoire. The Palestinian tatreez elements of wheat stalks, coffee beans, pomegranates and more all form part of the connection with the land [6].

In some cases, it’s impossible to tell whether a magic connotation of an element is related to food, or that that is entirely by coincidence. Doves and fish for example are featured often in jewellery, and are related to blessings, happiness and abundance, but they appear equally often in delicious regional dishes.

That close connection does show one thing, though: forms and shapes chosen in personal adornment are rooted in everyday life to a level where distinguishing ‘magic’ as something different from regular existence is impossible. Incorporating food themes in jewellery shows how its wearers aligned themselves with the rhythm of nature, with the endless cycles of sowing and harvesting, the same cycle that is at the basis of many amulets. It is in motifs like these that we not only catch a glimpse of the most fervent wishes of women, but also of how they thought of themselves: connected with their world.

More on amulets, charms and magic in jewellery? Download your free e-book here, read other posts, or enroll in the e-course on Magic of Jewellery!

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[1] See a fascinating article about female Bedouin poetry here, including the reference to pounding coffee beans

[2] Hansen, N. 2006, Motherhood in the Mother of the World, pp. 222

[3] Hansen 2006, p. 241

[4] These three silver amulets are in the collection of the Museu Etnològic I de Cultures del Món in Barcelona, where I photographed them on their Montjuïc location.

[5] Camps Fabrer, H. 1990. Bijoux berbères d’Algérie, Edisud, pp. 44-45

[6] Ghnaim, W. 2018. Tatreez and Tea

Sigrid van Roode

Sigrid van Roode is an archeologist, ethnographer and jewellery historian. She considers jewellery heritage and a historic source. She has authored several books on jewellery from North Africa and Southwest Asia, and on archaeological jewellery. Sigrid has lectured for the Society of Jewellery Historians, the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden and the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center, among many others. She curates exhibitions and teaches online courses on jewellery from North Africa & Southwest Asia.

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