An Impoverishment of the Symbolic Order?

Florencia Heitzmann

Notions of the amulet as a magical object are not universal, and the attributes usually attributed to it differ from one end of the world to the other.
This is why the rabbit’s foot, a stone, a necklace, or a horseshoe do not mean or symbolize the same thing across different cultures. Perhaps this is why, when thinking about an amulet, it is often difficult for us to establish boundaries between what is and what is not an object with magical properties.

It is difficult, therefore, to carefully analyze the meanings of “magic.” To address magic as a concept we must first refer to the extensive work of James Frazer or Marcel Mauss, both great exponents of such theories.
Though crucial to anthropology, magic—in its precise definition—is not the theme of this thread of writing.


Photography and text by Florencia Heitzmann

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In our Western traditions, those objects referred to as amulets on account of their sacred nature and great magical load are, for Arab Muslims, simply objects—inanimate, lacking in value and meaning. They are simply matter, whose functionality (or functionalities) is granted by man.

In Islam, the idea of an amulet does not exist. As conceived in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, the objects themselves have neither a capacity to protect nor any magical powers attributed to them. Luck, as such, does not exist. So nothing, especially an inanimate object, could create it.
Western societies, loaded with syncretic beliefs, understand amulets as objects that anticipate our misfortunes and rework “our destiny.” In Muslim societies, only God has the ability to decide our fates as human beings. Recklessness arising from cultural fears is solved only, and exclusively, through God’s protection.

We find in those Islamic cultures without magic a protective system that interacts directly between the individual and the collective. Social functions are attributed to material objects as part of a pursuit for divine protection that guarantees the symbolic efficacy so necessary for social dynamics.
They are thus conceptual amulets, not tangible ones, that make up for fears and act as protectors of possible negative advents. Symbols that are absent due to social taboos but whose existence is not necessary to their effectiveness.

Although at first glance Islam lacks a symbolic foundation that structures society, we can see the relationships and interrelationships that exist between the social individual and the objects. These relationships guarantee the same protection that amulets do in the Western world.