household magic

The Magic of Keys

Among the forms that are not immediately associated with amulets, is that of a key. Yet they appear as amulet in several ways, from actual keys to images of keys. You will see them dangling from necklaces, included as miniature charm on charm necklaces, and alluded to in embroidery for example. In this article, I will introduce three ways keys hold significance as amulets.

Keys and kids First off, the material that keys were traditionally made of, is powerful in itself. Jinn are known to be afraid of iron, and so anything made from iron would keep them at a distance. Keys, which for a long time were made of iron, fit that criterium perfectly. The image of the necklaces worn by a Bedouin woman from Oman shows her wearing a set of keys amidst leather amulet pouches: most likely, the keys also serve an apotropaic function. A more recent version of a key as amulet is the silver key from Oman, shown above, which is shaped after a modern key. In North Africa, tiny keys sewn on to children’s clothing help prevent an early death. [1] (see here which spirits were feared for harming children). In 1915, a baby boy in Algeria was seen adorned with a series of amulets, including two iron keys, and the author observing that practice also noticed that keys were worn commonly as a charm. [2]

Locking and unlocking There is more to keys than just the material they are made of, and is where their function comes into view. Keys, of course, lock and unlock things. The concept of locking and unlocking is closely related to a woman’s fertility: not so much in terms of chastity, but in the context of spirits blocking her from getting pregnant or causing a miscarriage. In that respect, keys function in a similar fashion to knots and knotting (see more about that here). Here, keys are often combined with locks: amulets in the shape of locks were believed to prevent miscarriage in Egypt, as these ‘lock’ the womb until the time of birth has come. [3] When a birth is difficult, the reverse principle is used, and the key to a saint’s tomb is placed on the lower back of the mother to ease the birth. [4] 

Keys in ritual Keys are also symbolic of accessing protection and knowledge. An example of that are the magical bowls of the Yezidi, where tiny amulet plaquettes are attached to its rim. These are called kilit, which literally means ‘key’ in Kurdic. [5] These amulet plaquettes can also take the form of an actual key, such as shown above. The general idea is that the key amulet would enhance the efficacy of the bowl by submerging it into the water of the bowl. [6] Bowls like these were used in informal ritual aimed, again, at securing healthy pregnancy and safe births, as well as protection from evil forces. [7]

A seemingly simple household item may hold deep significance on a supernatural level: this example of keys shows how ‘magic’ is not something alien or mysterious, but something that is expressed in forms and shapes most familiar to us.

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[1] Hansmann, L. and L. Kriss-Rettenbeck 1977. Amulet und Talismann. Erscheinungsform und Geschichte. Verlag Georg D.W. Callwey, Munchen, p. 240.

[2] Hilton-Simpson, M.W. 1915. Some Algerian Superstitions Noted among the Shawia Berbers of the Aures Mountains and their Nomad Neighbours, in: Folklore Vol. 26, no. 3, p. 233 and p. 240.

[3] Hansen, N. 2006. Motherhood in the Mother of the World, PhD-thesis, University of Chicago, p. 116.

[4] Idem

[5] Biesterfeld, H. & D. Pielow (eds) 2019. Die Geheimnisse der Oberen und Unteren Welt. Magie im Islam zwischen Glaube und Wissenschaft, Brill, Leiden. p. 469-470 for a description of these bowls.

[6] Idem, p. 469

[7] Idem, p. 472-473


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.