Talisman & The Tangible

by Tibbs Jenkins

Protection and healing: two things the world is collectively screaming out for. And both elements that a talisman provides. The word Talisman comes from the Medieval Greek telesma, meaning completion, or rite, and has been applied across a multitude of civilizations to objects thought to have religious or magical powers. If only we could wrap a giant talismanic cloak around the globe, provide her with a protective bow and arrow or place upon Mother Nature’s wrist a weighty gold bangle, powered with magic, to help her to fight this battle. If only. Alas, life isn’t that simple. 

But what’s to stop us from feeding our own fires with a little medicine of sorts? For just as a bronzed engraved ‘magic bowl’ could be turned to in 12th century Syria to ease the sting of a scorpion or pain of childbirth, right now we need something to help soothe the open wounds of a society on the edge of collapse - economically, environmentally, even morally. And, for many of us, we need something that affirms our identity, bolsters our fragile souls and – with luck – brings luck. 

Photo by Wanda Orme

Dancing, sure. Meditation, why not. A walk in nature, if allowed, definitely. But not to be sniffed at are the curing powers and strength found in people’s personal belongings – their lucky charms, their talismans. Just as a child will create an attachment with a favourite teddy bear or want to wear their Batman outfit day in day out for a month, our stuff becomes an extension of us, providing us with comfort and helping us to assert who we truly believe ourselves to be. How materialistic, some might cry, but who’s to say that possession is always a bad thing? Research carried out by L.J. Shrum has found that items associated with a sense of pride, belonging, affiliation and self-reward will improve well-being. 

Many items we’ll grow out of, just like those suede knee high platform boots you begged your parents to let you buy and wore stubbornly, and painfully, as a teenager. Others we’ll keep forever. Like jewellery. Take, for example, that ring you bought yourself as a treat and have worn ever since. Putting it on daily, as if it’s part of your armour, or indeed another layer of your skin. Wearing it makes you feel complete - if that’s not talismanic, then what is?  As for a pair of earrings passed down through generations - the touch of those can evoke both soothing memories and bring physical comfort, as they stroke your earlobes softly whenever you turn your head. 

The nose is under the archway at the top of Pall Mall where it meets Trafalgar Square (Admiralty Arch) and is a cast of Queen Victoria’s. You are supposed to rub it for luck. Image found in Atlas Obscura, by Suzanne Plunkett. Teotihucuan serpentine mask from a superb collection sold at Christie’s Paris on 9th February 2021 for €437,500. This is a treasured funerary masked from the 14C, held in the collection of the great collector Pierre Matisse until his death.  This is now being disputed by the Mexican government who urge for the pieces to be returned to Mexico as they are considered so culturally and emotionally important to its history. Image courtesy of Christie’s. 

For the sense of touch is just as important in helping us to feel. Healing even. Particularly when so many of us are living in isolation, cut off from the world we once knew – a world full of physical interaction. Instead we survive in a digital bubble of Zoom calls, Instagram and Netflix. We’re lacking the tangible, indulging only our senses with sight and sound. But touch, just like smell and taste, is key to our daily functioning, and necessary for our physical and emotional wellbeing. Touch, after all, induces endorphins, helping to alleviate pain, and reduces cortisol, the stress hormone.  To not indulge our sense of touch, our largest and first sensory organ to develop in the womb, is to starve an essential part of our being. 

No wonder so many people have taken up knitting, enjoying the tactile feeling of the bamboo sticks slipping through their fingers as they stitch the softest natural yarn. Others have found pleasure in making sourdough bread – working with the dough, they fold and shape it, all the while observing the texture with their hands. The entire process is dependent on touch, and the feeling of the dough between their fingers so very real. And so very rewarding. And so talismanic. Because that knitting, or that kneading, becomes part of your essence. It forms you, and it guards you. 

Photo by Wanda Orme

It’s not just through ‘activities’ like baking that we look to engage the physical and feel the tangible – some hug their pillows at night, spooning them as one might once have done a lover. Others have invested in weighted blankets, thought to help with anxiety and insomnia – sales have soared during 2020 and continue to do so.  Yet more opt for silk pyjamas - the material soft, slinky and sensuous upon their skin. 

One thing is certain: wherever we are currently looking for our own sense of protection - be it from the cool touch of gold on our skin, weighty and strong in a seemingly fragile world, or the feeling of clay in our hands - we need these elements to heal, to survive, and to keep us both sane and alive. To be, if you like, our talismans.


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