magic of food

Food ceremonies, rituals and amulets

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? I have rounded up several examples of jewellery and adornment to show you how food and personal adornment are interrelated.

Food and magic: a connection on many levels

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. Yes, you read that right….do check the reference with this, the story is amazing!

Back to jewellery: that close relation between food and magic 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. So how does that work?

Food & amulets: actual ingredients

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.

Throughout Southwest and Central Asia, red chili peppers are dried and strung on cord to protect houses from evil spirits; tiny peppers in plastic are strung in between evil eye beads (see more about those here) as a powerful amulet. Here, the general idea is that just like peppers irritate your eyes (ever rubbed your eyes after chopping a pepper? You’ll know what I mean…!), they will irritate the evil eye as well.

Food & amulets: imitations of food

Those plastic mini peppers are an example of imitations of food. Another example are silver 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: click on the image to enlarge it, they are something special!

This amulet is called arhaz, and it was believed to be bring good luck and fertility to the wearer. [4] The amulets 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. (click here to read more on numerology in jewellery) That number is repeated again on each pea of the pendant on the left, where each pea is further decorated by 4 intersecting lines and a square in the centre. That 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.

Food & amulets: names and shapes

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 name: the habbiyat (chickpea) bracelets derive their name from the many granules on them. One example is shown above: click on the image to enlarge it.

Food & amulets: embroidery, motifs and colours

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.

The power of everyday life

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. Her main field of expertise is jewellery from North Africa and Southwest Asia, as well as archaeological and archaeological revival jewellery. She has authored several books on jewellery. Sigrid has lectured for the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, Turquoise Mountain Jordan, and many others. She provides consultancy and research on jewellery collections for both museums and private collections, teaches courses and curates exhibitions. She is not involved in the business of buying and selling jewellery, and focuses on research, knowledge production, and education only.