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Warding Off the Evil Eye at the Mathers Museum

An exhibit at the Mathers Museum displays objects from different cultures that are believed to protect the user or owner from harm and to promote good luck.

Warding Off the Evil Eye at the Mathers Museum

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If you’ve ever thrown rice at a wedding, worn a rabbit’s foot on your key ring or a cornicello around your neck, or wrapped yourself in a prayer shawl, then you’ve been using an object to protect yourself or others from harm and to promote good luck.

An exhibit at the Mathers Museum called Safe and Sound: Protective Devices from Around the World brings together such objects from different cultures that are believed to protect the user or owner from harm.

Suzanne Ingalsbe, a doctoral student in the IU Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, curated the exhibit.

“There are lots of different kinds of items that cultures from around the world use for protection,” she says.

“Protection from disease, from dangers during travel . . . these are concepts that are common to lots of cultures. There are things that we may be familiar with that we don’t even think about that are also used as protective items. [The exhibit] is a comparative look at these types of things.”

The twenty objects on display include an amulet containing verses from the Koran from Nigeria, a horseshoe talisman from Turkey, a figurine from Brazil of St. Benedito, a St. Brigid’s cross from Ireland, a Japanese mask, a family god from Zaire, a reliquary from Nepal, and a dreamcatcher from the United States. Most of the objects came from the museum’s permanent collection.

An item called “War Jacket” in the exhibit is a vest from Liberia that was worn by a hunter or warrior for good luck. The vest is made of a woven fabric adorned with horns and nails from animals that are considered powerful. From the vest dangles dozens of small, square brown leather packets that contain verses from the Koran on parchment.

According to Ingalsbe, the sacred verses and other talismans give the wearer a feeling of power and protection.

“The interesting thing—lots of different religious traditions have important meaningful sacred texts, and so that’s what we’re seeing with the Koran. But I’m not completely certain whether this wearer would have been wearing this because the Koran was particularly meaningful to him, or, whether knowing that that was particularly meaningful to a large group of people it was incorporated as a sacred charm, which often does happen. So people who are maybe not particular adherents to a religious belief will take some of the elements of protection from other religions and incorporate it into their practice as well.”

A baby’s hat from 20th century Peru, made of red crocheted wool, is believed to protect an infant from the evil eye. According to Ingalsbe, infants and small children are given extra protection from evil because they’re so vulnerable, and because they’re the objects of affection and attention from others.

“Many cultures believe that if you say very positive, complimentary things about someone, then you alert evil powers to them, and they’re more likely to be attacked. So, there’re lots of things that go to counteract that. Everything from saying the opposite of what you mean—’Oh, what an ugly baby that is!’—to actually having amulets or other items.

One object in the exhibit suggests that some of us twenty-first century dwellers still believe in the power of talismans to protect us from harm. The object is a Guardian Bell, a silver-colored trinket about the size of a thimble, that’s meant to be hung on a motorcycle to protect the rider. You can buy it for about twelve dollars at motorcycle shops, complete with a description of the bell’s magical powers.

“The idea is that if you hang one of these underneath your motorcycle, it protects you from road gremlins,” says Ingalsbe. “Road gremlins are nasty little creatures that would do bad things to you while you ride. They would harm your bike, make you fall—all kinds of things.”

The legend, which may have been invented by someone employed by the bell’s manufacturer, includes an idea that conveniently increases the salability of the bell as a gift.

“What they say about these is that it’s twice as protective if you give it to someone you love,” says Ingalsbe. “And it’s really interesting because it has all of the hallmarks of these other kinds of items, where there’s a backstory to it. It tells you that the gremlins will hear the ringing of the bell and jump up into it and be driven insane by the noise.”

Visitors to the exhibit have left some rather amusing comments in the Visitors’ Book. One man wrote that he wears a medical alert bracelet, mostly, as he put it, “for the bling factor.”

Another wrote that she’s collects protective items from around the world, such as a pouch containing Koranic verse from West Africa, and a Hand of Fatima from Morocco. She commented, “so far, seems they actually work.”

Safe and Sound: Protective Devices from Around the World is on display at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures to August 14. The museum is located on Indiana University between Eighth and Ninth Streets.

Adam Schwartz

WFIU Arts and Culture Producer, Editor "Directions in Sound"

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