2 feb 2011

Solomon Islands Amulet

Name: Woven cane amulet
Origin: Santa Isabel Island, Solomon Islands, Melanesia, Oceania;
Museum: Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford (UK)
Materials: cane, shells, animal bristles
Reference code: PRM 1904.29.
This is a narrow bag of woven cane, with four shell rings placed around the middle, and a plait of pig’s bristles tied to the looped end.
It contains the relics of the maker’s ancestors, and was probably used with a magical spell intended to cause the death of an enemy. The Solomon Islanders held their ancestors in great reverence, and also believed very strongly in magic. Both their magical beliefs and their religious system were based on the concept of mana, which has been defined by Starzecka and Cranstone as ‘Supernatural power which can be present in varying degree in man and objects but always derives from spirits. It is associated with anything ... outside the natural order of things: exceptional success in business or talent for carving are caused by mana, and an unusually shaped stone has mana’ (Starzecka and Cranstone 1974: 13).
Amulets and charms in the Pitt Rivers Museum
The Pitt Rivers Museum has almost 6,000 amulets and charms in its collections; though not all of them are on display. They have been collected from all over the world, including England, and demonstrate the wide array of methods for using magic employed by different cultures.
An amulet is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as: ‘Anything worn about the person as a charm preventative against evil, mischief, disease, witchcraft, etc.’ The definition of charm is very similar: ‘Anything worn about the person to avert evil or ensure prosperity’, though a charm may also be a spell or incantation believed to have a magical power.
Some of the objects on display are technically not amulets or charms but objects that were used in a ritual or instilled with a supernatural power. Some have been taken directly from the natural environment, and assigned a magical function by a single person, while others have been carved or painted to create an object with a meaning that would be recognised by most members of the culture.
The underlying theme that unites all amulets and charms is that the people who created and used them believed in them; almost any object may become a charm or an amulet, so long as someone believes it has the power to affect or alter the world around them.
Some amulets and charms are examples of ‘sympathetic magic’, which generally means that the appearance of an object resembles, in some way, the cure or protection it is believed to offer.
Unlike some of the objects on display in this Museum, amulets and charms are still widely used in many cultures today. You may have an object yourself that you trust will bring you luck! The amulets and charms on display at the Pitt Rivers Museum are material evidence of the hopes and beliefs that are shared by all of humankind.

© Photos and text: The Pitt Rivers Museum

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