Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Object(s) of the Month: Coin Magic

Coins in the Collection

Coins were widely used in magic down the centuries and they continue to be carried as charms by people today.  Coins as magical objects often derive their power from the planets (especially the moon), angelic powers, saints, the King or Queen, or from their inherent material potency (gold, silver, copper).  The ‘lucky coin’ is the most common form of coin magic today: this was often a sixpence found in Halloween cakes (used in divination) and Christmas puddings, where it was then kept or carried as a lucky token.

Some coins are inherently potent.  In England, ‘touch pieces’ or ‘angels’– coins given by the monarch at a special ceremony – were used as talismans to counter scrofula (an intensely painful skin condition).  These special pieces were applied to the areas affected, and then later hung around the neck on chains.  The appearance of angels (usually the Archangel Michael) on these coins may have increased their potency, given the importance of angelic powers in ritual magic.  This Elizabethan silver sixpence in the Museum collection (note the hole) may have had a similar use.

Object No. 2331

Coins were 'set apart' as lucky or efficacious by simply bending them (see below):  this probably goes back to the medieval  'English custom' where coins were bent in prayer to a saint, and then the same bent coin deposited at the saint's shrine when the donor went on pilgrimage.  Bending coins later became a means of remembrance, but the idea of bending or breaking something of value for ritual purposes (a sword or shield for example) goes back as far as the Bronze Age.  

Object No. 2335.  A bent (and perforated) gold piece from the reign of Edward VI (1547 - 1553)

In the 1500s, Theophrastus Paracelsus used gold in many of his crafted pieces, fashioned in the shape of coins.  He treated a client for another skin disease, leprosy, using balsam, aurum potabile (liquid gold) together with a small coin of beaten gold inscribed with astrological symbols:

“Let this kinde of Sigil be made of pure Gold, and wrought into a Lamen in the hour of Saturn, but the Characters ought to be ingraven in the hour of Sun, when Moon is in and Sun in the same sign; which usually happens in July.”

Once engraved, the sigil was activated, but it only had a limited time-span:  “It ought to be renewed every year in July, for this Sigil loseth its force in a year”. The movement of Saturn, moon and sun, out of a particular alignment ended the efficacy of the sigil, reminding the patient of the origin of its power. When activated however, the entire object was efficacious: it was recommended that the sigil should be steeped in wine which the patient then drank.

This early remedy is echoed by a folk charm collected by Cecil Williamson in the twentieth century which links the feminine with both the moon and silver:

“Silver water, the ever popular cure all drink. The silver coins placed in the water must have an impression of a female head on them. The[se] ... were used by Charlie Wallace, of Rockcliffe, near Carlisle. Charmer Wallace charged a fee of a penny a glass and the coins had to be left in the water overnight. The water had to be drunk as the dawn sun came up.  A case of sun up water down.”  [CWOLC 7095]

Object Nos. 2346 and 2338.  The first depicts the female form of  'Provedentia', c. 276-282 CE.  

The immersion of coins in water overnight by the light of a new moon was also efficacious in the treatment of cattle, as this charm from twentieth century Dorchester shows:

“A small hoard of Roman coins, discovered when and where goodness only knows. But we do know that this hoard was treasured and used by a wise woman of Dorchester for making her cattle and horse medicine. Her method was to get smithy water and immerse the coins, in a little cloth bag, in the water over night at the time of the new moon.” [CWOLC 8040]

A selection of coins discovered in the Museum this year may turn out to be the charmed coins collected by Cecil Williamson in the mid-twentieth century:

From the high magic of the early modern period, to the folk remedies of the rural South West, it is clear that the planets were hugely significant in coin magic.  These charms all shared the same notion that the power of the moon and other cosmic forces could be harnessed and impressed into small pieces of metal for the protection and healing of human beings. 


CWOLC (Cecil Williamson Object Label Collection), Museum of Witchcraft & Magic, Boscastle Cornwall
7095, 8040

Herbert Appold Grueber, Handbook of the Coins of Great Britain and Ireland in the British Museum, (London: 1899)

Peter Hewitt, ‘Making and using magical objects in early modern England: apotropaia and objects of folk-belief in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust collection’, in Hewitt The material culture of Shakespeare’s England: a study of the early modern objects in the museum collection of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Unpublished Ph.D thesis, 2015.

Ralph Merrifield, The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic, (Batsford: 1987)

Theophrastus Paracelsus, Of the supreme mysteries of nature. Of [brace] the spirits of the planets. Occult philosophy. The magical, sympathetical, and antipathetical cure of wounds and diseases. The mysteries of the twelve signs of the zodiack. / Englished by R. Turner, philomathes. (London: 1655)

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