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Scottish Charms and Amulets
TaIismanic Brooches and Rings


In the Middle Ages the "wise men from the east" (Matt. ii. 1—12), who were guided by the star to worship Christ in Bethlehem, were changed into three kings of Arabia. "According to a variation of the legend, they ruled over Tharsus or Thrace, Sheba, and Nubia, thus representing the three continents or quarters of the earth." So early as the time of Beda they were distinguished by the names they still bear: Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, the first of whom was sixty, the second forty, and the third twenty years of age. The name Gaspar (Kaspar, Jaspar, &c.) sometimes appears as Gathaspar, and in Syriac the name is changed to Gūdophorhūm, under which guise may be discerned the name of the powerful Indo-Parthian king, Gondophares, who is said to have been baptized by St Thomas.  Melchior is said to mean "King of Light." Balthazar or Belteshazzar was the Chaldee name given to Daniel (Dan. i. 7, ii. 26, iv. 8, etc.); and as King of Nubia, he is frequently, especially in German art, represented as a negro. Thus the principal composition of the altar-piece of Cologne Cathedral, painted in 1410, "represents the Adoration of the Kings, who kneel to the right and left of the Virgin and the Child, while their attendants stand behind them with their banners, emblazoned with the armorial bearings assigned to them by the heralds of the Middle Ages. The heads, with the exception of the negro king, are German in type, and full of character." The bodies of the three kings after death were translated to Constantinople, and afterwards to Milan, from which place they were removed in 1162 to Cologne by Frederick Barbarossa.

Latterly the names of the three kings "were used in various ways to impose upon popular credulity the belief of their possessing the power, when duly consecrated, of acting as charms to cure the bites of serpents and other venomous reptiles, as well as particular diseases." The natural result of the spread of such a belief was that vast numbers of brooches, rings, and other objects bearing the names of the three holy kings were sold to pilgrims to their shrine at Cologne. The only object in the Museum bearing the names of the three kings is a plain hoop finger-ring of gold, found in excavating on the Castle Hill of Edinburgh, and inscribed Jasper - Melchior - Baltazar. Another plain hoop finger-ring of gold in the Museum, formerly in the Collection of the Faculty of Advocates, bears an inscription in two lines, the meaning of which I am unable to give. By combining a few letters from each line it is possible to make out the name "Malchior." This ring has been assigned to about 1300 AD.

The Glenlyon Brooch of silver, 5½ inches in diameter, richly jewelled, said to have been preserved in the family of the Campbells of Glenlyon for many generations, is inscribed on the back in black-letter:

Casper - Melchior - Baltazar - Consumatum [sic]

The introduction of the word "Consummatum" in the inscription is an allusion to the dying words of Christ, when the soldier held up the sponge with vinegar: "quum autem accepisset Jesus acetum, dixit, Consummatum est" (John xix. 30; Beza’s version).

A small ring-brooch, of silver, in the Museum at Forres, Elginshire, bears the reversible inscription "ANSOGANAGOSNA, which may possibly have a meaning, but I have not noticed any such word amongst Gnostic formulę.

Other and much more common talismanic formulę occurring on rnediaeval brooches are "Jesus Nazarenus Rex Judeorum," and "Ave Maria gracia plena." The former is sometimes shortened to "Jesus Nazarenus" or "Jesus Na"; and the latter frequently appears as "Ave Maria," or simply "Maria." The latter formula is a variation of the greeting of the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation. In the English Miracle-Play of the " Nativity" the form of greeting is:

"Hayle! Mare, full of grace,
Ours Lord God ys wt the
Aboue all wemen that eyuer wasse;
Lade blesside mote thow be."

where the first line is exactly the same as the formula on the brooches. Only one brooch in the National Collection bears the angelic greeting and unfortunately it is without a locality. It is a flat circular ring of silver, 2 1/8 inches in diameter, and is inscribed on the face, "IHESVS - NAZARENVS - REX - IVDEORVM," and on the reverse, "AVE - MARIA - GRACIA - PLENA - ORA." The formula "MARI - IHS" occurs on two finger-rings of silver gilt, one of which was found at Pluscarden, Elginshire, and the other in an old graveyard near Fintray House, Aberdeenshire, facsimiles of both of which are in the National Museum. On another ring of silver gilt in the Museum the inscription is "IHS - MARIA."

Brooches inscribed with the legend "Jesus Nazarenus," either abbreviated or in full, are much more common than those bearing the angelic greeting. The frequency of this inscription on brooches, &c., is probably due to the fact that it was the title affixed to the Cross at the Crucifixion (Matt. xxvii. 38; John xix. 19). The National Museum possesses thirteen specimens, of which six have been found in association with coins by which their date may approximately be determined. One of circular form, 2 3/16 inch in diameter, inscribed "IHRSVS - NAZARENVS - REX," was found in 1864 at Woodhead, Canobie, along with three other silver brooches, and fifty pennies of Edward I. and II. of England, one of Alexander III. of Scotland, and two of John Baliol. The date of this brooch may therefore be assigned to the end of the thirteenth or beginning of the fourteenth century. Another found at Langhope, Roxburghshire, was accompanied by two other brooches, a pin of silver, a tripod pot of brass, and a hoard of coins of Edward I, II., III. It is simply inscribed "IESVS NAZR." Two brooches were found in January 1892, along with 143 silver pennies of the English Edwards, four of Alexander III., and one of Baliol, in an earthenware jar, within the area of the old fort of Ayr. One of the brooches is circular, and is inscribed "IHESVS NAZARENVS REX IVDEORVM" the other is octagonal, and is inscribed "IHESVS NA." Three finger-rings in the Museum also bear the legends abridged. One of the rings is a plain hoop of silver, inscribed "IHESVS NAZARENVS"; the second is panelled and inscribed "IHESVS"; and the third, a thumb-ring of silver-gilt, found at Restennet Priory, Forfarshire, is inscribed "IESVS NAZAR." These brooches and finger-rings were worn as charms to preserve the wearer from sudden death, the falling sickness or epilepsy, etc. In a curious work entitled The Revelation to the Monk of Evesharn, edited by Prof. Arber, from the unique copy in the British Museum there is an account of an interview between the monk and a goldsmith in Purgatory, in the course of which the monk inquired "yeffe hyt were possyble by any thyng that the folke myght schonne and eschewe soden dethe." The goldsmith replied—

"O he seyde Sothely and yf y hadde knowyn whenne that y was in the world leuyng suche thyngys as y knowe nowe y wulde haue taughte and defende all the world fro that grete hurte and dammage. howe the pepulle and folke myght be sewre and safe fro the fallyng of soden dethe. Trewly and verily and the crystyn pepulle wolde wryte dayly on her [= their] forhedys and aboute the placys of her herte wyth her fyngur of [or?] in any other wyse. these ii. wordys that conteynyth the mysterye of the helthe and saluacyon of mankynde that ys to wytte and to say Ihesus Nazarenus wythowtyn dowte the trewe pepulle of oure sauyur ihesu cryste schuld be harmeles and preserued fro suche a grete peryll and hurte."

It is but a step from this to engraving the words on a brooch or a ring to be worn on the person.

Small brooches of silver in the form of a heart, such as were in common use in Scotland at the end of the seventeenth century and throughout the eighteenth as personal ornaments, were also believed to be endowed with the property of protecting children from witchcraft and enchantment. An interesting account of the manner in which such brooches were used in the beginning of this century is given by the Rev. James Hall, who states that he saw one fastened to an infant’s clothes in a clergyman’s house in Speyside, and adds, "This was done by the nurse; the clergyman was certain it could be of no use, but allowed it to continue, as one and all the females in the house were of a different opinion. They always fix it to girls, somewhere to the clothes about the left hip, and on boys about the middle of the left thigh, to protect his powers of generation." Hall also mentions having met an old woman near the source of the Spey, "with a large brass brooch, in the form of a circle, about five or six inches in diameter, fixed on her clothes upon the left hip, which she had worn night and day for more than half a century to preserve her from mischief." Two small brooches from Rosehearty, Banffshire, similar to those described above, have been presented to the Museum through Dr Gregor, of Pitsligo; and another is exhibited by Mrs Mitchell, of Perth, through Dr R. de Brus Trotter. In a letter to me, Dr Gregor states that one of the brooches presented through him "was worn on the breast of the chemise by the grandmother of the donor when she was nursing, to prevent the witches from taking away her milk," and that "such charms were also used to keep off evil from infants. They were stuck into their petticoats behind." The other specimen is only stated to have been worn in the breast of the chemise. The brooch exhibited by Mrs Mitchell "belonged to her grandmother, and was worn on some part of the dress of all her children, for the purpose of averting the evil eye and keeping away witches." Mr J. Christie of Bolfracks, Aberfeldy, informs me that he has one of these small brooches in his possession, which was pinned under the petticoats of his grandfather "when, as an infant, he was taken out for an airing by his nurse. It bears his initials and the date 1792."


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