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Amulets, magic and miracles

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Toad made out of wax to ward off evil

From toads to magic potions and crutches: in times gone by people in need resorted to a number of different remedies and supports, as an exhibition in Einsiedeln shows.

The Zauberwahn und Wunderglaube (Magic mania and miracle belief) exhibition at the Museum Fram presents some odd-looking objects. A wooden potato-shaped item covered in spikes, for instance, which looks like something used in voodoo.

A red wax toad is reminiscent of an African sculpture, while crutches, artificial limbs, an iron chain and replicas of body parts bring to mind the dark, unenlightened Middle Ages.

But most of the exhibits stem from the 17th to 20th centuries. These are amulets and gifts given in gratitude, so-called votive offerings. Then there are the magic and miracle books.

The exhibition looks at the measures taken by people in need, how miracles were experienced and how they were allegedly proved.

“The boundary between faith and superstition is a shifting one,” said Detta Kälin, museum director and exhibition curator.

Amulets

The exhibition uses the abbey town of Einsiedeln to illustrate how people applied their religious beliefs in everyday life.

“From the perspective of theological doctrine, magic, sorcery and amulets were folk beliefs and it was a sin to practise them,” said the curator. But the religious practices of the common people did not distinguish between faith and superstition.

“The amulets often resemble sacramental objects and it is very difficult to distinguish between the two categories,” said Kälin.

To this day the Catholic Church refers to consecrated and blessed objects intended to bestow protection and blessing as sacramentals. Amulets, on the other hand, arise out of magic beliefs; they are meant to deter evil, and have been around for a lot longer than Christian sacramentals.

Amulets were a way of coping with life and were seen as having the power to subjugate nature, according to the catalogue. “Since the early Middle Ages people have distinguished between ‘white’ and ‘black’ magic. The use of amulets belonged to the category of ‘white’ magic, which was meant to cast a charm or repel evil spirits,” it says.

Madonnas

One particular amulet is the so-called Schabmadonna – from the German word meaning “to scrape” – a small terracotta replica of the Black Madonna housed in the abbey of Einsiedeln. People in need of the madonna’s help would scrape off a little of the surface and swallow it.

Until 1789 the Einsiedeln Abbey produced its own madonnas, which carried the abbey’s seal. “Only the madonnas produced by the abbey were considered to work miracles,” said the curator.

The magic books on display document a deeper belief in the power of spells. Although the Church was sceptical, the abbey had a number of these books in its possession. There is no evidence to show that they were used.

Votive offerings

“The diversity of the votive offerings indicates what the people suffered,” said Kälin. “Behind every votive offering is a vow to a saint or the Virgin Mary: if you answer my prayer, I will fulfil my vow and make a votive offering.”

These kinds of vows, known as ex-votos, were made at times of great need or despair, and the abbey in Einsiedeln accumulated a huge number of ex-votos in the course of the centuries.

The idea that a higher power can be influenced by means of a promise is older than Christianity itself.

Votive offerings did not just take the form of pictures, of which several are on display. After being healed of an illness or paralysis, crutches, artificial legs or body parts (arms, legs, eyes, teeth, ears etc.) fashioned in metal or wax would be offered up in thanks. The iron chain from the abbey was a donation from a person who had been freed from prison, Kälin said.

Even the elliptical object covered in wooden spikes was a votive offering. “The wooden item represents the womb and the spikes the pain,” said the curator. After a difficult birth or abdominal pains an item like this would be offered up.

The red toad was similarly a symbol of the womb and was used in the event of abdominal pain, infertility, breast disease and to ensure safe childbirth. “The toads were both amulets and votive offerings,” Kälin said.

Miracle books

Miracles have always been ascribed to Einsiedeln’s Black Madonna. And since the Middle Ages these miracles have been recorded in so-called miracle attestations, documents and books.

“In the Einsiedeln Abbey there was a Pater Notarius responsible for checking the miracles attributed to the Black Madonna and making a record of them,” said Kälin.

The miracles were checked against a ten-point list created by Pope Benedict XIV in 1737.

Despite the long list of criteria, the number of miracles recorded rose sharply in the 19th century, as the exhibition documents. The catalogue lists over 1,000 of them in Einsiedeln alone.

Context

Zauberwahn und Wunderglauben runs at the Museum Fram in Einsiedeln until January 6, 2012.

Around 200 exhibits are displayed, on loan from Einsiedeln Abbey, the Museum der Kulturen in Basel and private collections.

The exhibits include amulets, madonnas, votive offerings and miracle books.

Amulets are talismans used in antiquity and the Middle Ages by Jews, Christians and Muslims for their supposed protective or healing power. Amulets could be worn on the body or carried, be hung above an invalid’s bed, or be medicinal.

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(Adapted from German by Morven McLean), swissinfo.ch


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