Magical knowledge

who knows what
levels of knowledge

Magical knowledge

There are effects of jewellery that everyone knows about and that practically go without saying, and there are effects for which more specialist training is needed. But who knows what, and how did they learn? There is a shifting amount of information on the part of both maker and wearer. And what is more: what do we miss?

Levels of knowledge

1 – General protection. This is the most widespread level of knowledge: literally everyone recognizes these, no secrets to be found here. General protection comes in general shapes, like triangles, circles, dots, hands, eyes, main colours and tassels, to name but a few. Their use in jewellery is so self-evident that they are present as standard part of a set decoration scheme: they are not adapted to individual requests but rather form the backbone of the visual language of jewellery.

2 – Reaching a general goal. When a person runs into problems of a general nature, the knowledge of someone who has dealt with these is needed. Here, we enter the world of wise women. They will know which colour stimulates breastfeeding, how to avert chronic headaches, what to do in case of jaundice and what to in case of infertility, fever or matters of the heart. [1] They keep and share the stories and songs that go with each remedy, colour and pattern. The reputation of these women as healers may extend through word of mouth to considerable distances, but is in general limited to family and wider social circles only.

3- Reaching a specific goal. Finally, when a specific goal is to be reached, we shift into the world of purpose-made amulets. For these types of adornment literacy is often required, a wider knowledge of the calculation of spells and numbers, of ingredients and celestial constellations.

Transmitting knowledge

These three levels of knowledge come with their own way of transmitting them. [2] Information about general protection is so common that you would be immersed in this while growing up in your community. This is called horizontal transmission. The level of knowledge elder women had accumulated, would be passed on between generations, from mother to daughter: a vertical transmission. And finally, specific knowledge requires talent, years of training and study that only a few complete.

The local factor

The second type of knowledge, which is used to combat challenges of a general nature, is the most difficult to interpret as a cultural outsider. A cultural outsider in this case is not just someone from a different country, but could be someone from as nearby as the next village. This is because this type of knowledge is characterized by a high degree of locality. It is shared within the family, or in wider circles within a village or clan. Local knowledge also incorporates the natural environment: trees, wells and other prominent features of the landscape often form an intrinsic part of the remedy. A certain stone for example must be sourced from a particular wadi, while wells and trees are said to possess powers that could amplify the efficacy of an amulet.

Vanishing worlds

It is also the type of knowledge that is vanishing the most. For general patterns in jewellery, early descriptions sometimes mention their explanation and meaning. Written amulets are based on magical works that are centuries old and continue to be available. Local knowledge however has not nearly as often been described or even paid attention to. [3] For my current PhD-research, I have been working through the jewellery collections of a number of museums. In the few instances where the precise uses of amulets have been documented, an incredibly wide world opened up that would not have revealed itself by its materiality alone. Thousands of seemingly insignificant pieces like pebbles, bone fragments or pieces of wood alongside coloured beads, coins and pendants protected their wearers and helped them heal from a variety of conditions such as joint aches, back aches, deafness, eye diseases and possession.

Similar, but not the same

It is this local factor that is often underestimated when amuletic jewellery is described. What carries meaning in one place does not automatically carry the same meaning in another: it is a bit much to claim the entire Arab world, with all its variety in peoples, religions and lifestyles, attaches the exact same meaning to a particular material. Of course, there are colours and materials that are broadly recognized for their capacities, such as red and blue or silver and gold. There is however another world beneath the surface of beaded necklaces, headdresses and natural materials set in silver where local knowledge makes all the difference. I’m working on an article on these locally used jewellery items: it’s through the magical capacities of jewellery items that the unwritten stories of a local community reveal themselves!

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[1] An example is how women in Siwa oasis, Egypt, keep a collection of useful stones that remedy a variety of conditions, as described in Vale, M.M. 2011. Sand and Silver. Jewellery, Costume and Life in Siwa Oasis. York Publishing Services, York

[2] For an overview of knowledge and transmission, see the exhibition publication Secrecy: who’s allowed to know what. Museum der Kulturen, Basel

[3] See for example Popper-Giveon, Abu Rabia & Ventura 2014. White stone to blue bead, in: Material Religion Volume 10, issue 2, pp. 134-136 where this problem is designated

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.