This is another offering in the wonderful series of scholarly books about different areas of medieval magic by Professor Lecouteux.

This time, the topic is talismans and amulets. Lecouteux starts with a thorough review of medieval literature’s references to these. He picks through the differences between amulets and talismans, and the various names that these items have been called. The lists of items and the different names they’ve been called are fascinating! There are several definitions of “talisman”, as over the years writers have sought to clarify just what distinguishes an amulet from a talisman.

It boils down to construction and purpose. Most amulets are objects or crafted symbols worn or carried for protection. Talismans are constructed for many different purposes and ideally charged at an astrologically favorable moment.

Lecouteux also covers some of the problems that the medieval Church had with the practice of making talismans. Books that were transferred from the Middle East into Europe were the source of much talisman-making advice, and the Church inevitably slapped the “demonic powers” label on it. Several Catholic authorities wrote on the subject, and quotes are included. Since priests were some of the best-educated people, there were cases of priests making talismans; in some cases, charges of demon-summoning were leveled against priests.

Talisman-makers adapted to the pressures and the times and began to incorporate bits of the Psalms and the Bible in their talismans. Talismans were also part of medical practices, and highly popular for charming swords or gaining protection against being wounded in battle, so the practice of talisman-making was nearly impossible to stamp out.

In Part Two, the use and making of amulets and talismans is discussed. There are descriptions of simple, compound, and complex amulets, and the various materials with which they can be made. The shift from amulets to talismans is explained. Chapter Six covers talisman-making and includes some discussion of the Law of Correspondences. A few lists of planet/gemstone correspondences are provided (and of course, none of them are in agreement). Lecouteux shares some information from the Picatrix, although it appears he was using the Pingree/Warburg Institute edition, which isn’t all that good.

He outlines the main points, but since the author isn’t an astrologer, some of the extremely precise instructions for selected timing are garbled or omitted. There are numerous kinds of astrological talismans that can be constructed to harness the essence of planets, stars, lunar mansions, decans, etc. but the author doesn’t quite manage to sort that out. He mentions the angelic sponsors for planetary talismans, but doesn’t give the names for all seven traditional planets, which would have been helpful. The Lunar Mansions are referred to as lunar “houses.” This might have been translation problem between Lecouteux’s French to English, or from Lecouteux’s original Latin or Greek sources, but the misnomer will confuse a lot of people.  

Otherwise, this is an excellent book on a complicated topic. Far too little scholarly research has been done on medieval and ancient magical practices, and rarely by scholars sympathetic with the topic. We’ve come a long way since the days of Frazier’s “Golden Bough.”

Recommended to anyone interested in this topic. It doesn’t explain all the secrets of talisman-making, but it does sort out the specifics of materials, methods, and the evolution of talisman-making practices through the Middle Ages in Europe.

~review by Elizabeth Hazel

Author: Claude Lecouteux
Inner Traditions, 2014
(originally published in French in 2005 by Editions Imago)
264 pgs, $24.95