Copyright © Can Göknil | All rights reserved.

The Magic of Magic: From the Tablets of Destinies to Amulets

Murat Ural

This text is from the book published by Milli Reasurans Art Gallery of Istanbul, for Can Göknil exhibition on April 6-May 6 1999.

According to an ancient Babylonian legend, the gods determined the destinies of human beings and inscribed them on tablets that they suspended from the sky. One day Anzu the Bird-Man flew up to the heavens and stole the tablets causing great consternation in the world. Terrified because their fates were now in the hands of the Bird-Man, people sought ways to protect themselves. They discovered that they could do this by engraving cylindrical or flat seals with arcane images and shapes with which they could summon the aid of supernatural beings. Some practitioners of this art became skilled magicians. After a prolonged struggle, the gods recovered the Tablets of Destinies and restored them to their place in the sky. People’s destinies were no longer in the Bird-Man’s control but as a result of this episode, mankind had discovered magic and thereafter it continued to have recourse to the mysterious world of talismans and amulets in order to seek protection from evil and to realize its hopes and aspirations of a happy, healthy, and secure life.

Can Göknil and amulets

Anzu the Bird-Man and the legend of the Tablets of Destinies have a special place in the process whereby Can Göknil came to take an interest in amulets. Nevertheless, amulets are not the first time the artist has turned her attentions to the world of mythology. An exhibition entitled Masal Tekerlemeleri (“Folk-tale ditties”) that she held at the Urart gallery in İstanbul in 1983 was the first product of her venture into mythology by way of folk-tales. This was followed in 1986 by another exhibition at the Urart gallery, this one entitled Ağaçlarla İlgili İnanışlar (“Beliefs concerning trees”). There was an eight-year interval in which the artist prepared a new exhibition on a mythological theme during which she held her Balerinler (“Ballerinas”) exhibit in 1991. In 1994 she held an exhibition entitled Anadolu Tanrıçaları (“Anatolian Goddesses”) first at the Garanti art gallery in İstanbul and then at the Urart gallery in Ankara. Her Yaradılış Efsaneleri (“Creation Myths”) exhibit made the rounds of the Yapı Kredi bank’s art galleries in İstanbul, İzmir, and Adana in 1997. For the last two years, “amulets” have been the focal point of the artist’s work. The result is the Can Göknil’den Muskalar (“Amulets by Can Göknil”) exhibition held at the Milli Reasürans art gallery in İstanbul, in which we find an assemblage of original works that are the matured product of the artist’s fifteen years of endeavor in the field of mythology.

Can Göknil, who held her first personal exhibition in 1971 in the United States, has pursued a career in art for nearly three decades. Her interest in amulets is no accident, for mythology and the beliefs of prehistoric man have long been subjects that have been the principal focus of her attention. Approaching these subjects on an artistic plane of course has required serious preparation and preliminary investigation. Asked about the reason for her interest in mythology, Göknil says:

The oneiric world of beliefs fascinates me. The transformation of primitive beliefs into art–the unaffected approach and candor of prehistoric art–appeal to me.

Göknil’s approach to her subject goes beyond merely taking inspiration from ancient cultures, beliefs, and artifacts. When you say “mythology”, the first thing that comes to many people’s minds is the gods and goddesses of the ancient western world; but this artist’s interests are clearly aimed in the direction of Central Asia and Anatolia, two regions in which the Turks have long had a historical presence. Every expedition that she mounts into the world of mythology is, at the same time for the artist, a voyage of discovery into her own past and inner world and is tantamount to a mobilization of her inner instincts and dreams as well as a revelation of her creative forces. The work that she does and the themed exhibitions that she has put together are marked by creativity and relevance in the sense that they are a reinterpretation and reshaping of ancient legends and beliefs.

Although the subject of amulets ties in with the artist’s previous work in the mythological world such as beliefs in sacred trees, mother-goddesses, and creation-myths, there are also a number of differences. Mother-goddesses and creation-myths are largely things of the past but a widespread belief in the talismanic power of amulets still persists. This means that instead of reinterpreting an ancient belief that is dead and gone, the artist this time is attempting to capture the human essence of a mythical world as she pursues a belief that is still alive. In that respect, she has come upon an excellent ground in which to reach the heart of a current mythos. Concerning the process whereby she developed an artistic interest in amulets, Can Göknil says:

I have always been fascinated by the cylindrical seals used in ancient Egypt and western Asia appearing in publications of the British Museum. These seals are like clips out of history with scenes from daily life; activities such as hunting, sports, or races; and important events such as battles. The scenes are embellished with details like fortresses, ships, kings, religious ceremonies, dancers, and musical instruments. Such images can be an important source of information for someone seeking to understand or interpret the society in which they were made. What attracted me about these images were the figures of gods, giants, monsters, dragons, and creatures that were part human and part animal. No matter how fantastic or surrealistic these figures might appear, for me they always spoke of the human dimension lying behind them and revealed a human way of looking at oneself and at the world.

Living in a world dominated by natural forces in the face of which they perceived themselves to be powerless, ancient peoples devised a fabulous mythology to explain nature and the world around them and their myths still have the power to fascinate us today despite all of our “scientific” knowledge and “technological” progress. In their curiosity about how the world and they themselves came into being, human beings fabricated stories of the world’s creation and created worlds that were populated by supernatural beings and were inspired by their own view of themselves and their surroundings. Above all, they were curious about the reasons for natural events. They struggled with nature in order to survive and in the process they gained experience and skill in contending with it. And where human strength and intelligence were insufficient, they believed that the cosmos was created and governed by supernatural, super-human forces. They enriched the world of their gods with supernatural creatures and sought to control nature or their fates by establishing a relationship with such beings. To protect themselves from disease, evil, and disaster and to realize their aspirations, from the earliest times human beings have employed magic, engaged in elaborate rituals, and made talismanic charms. Marshalling both their experience and their imagination in their struggle with nature and its hidden forces, they built up an elaborate structure of mythology capable of being expanded and developed in order to explain the universe and, by identifying perceived causes and effects, suggest measures to be taken or actions to be avoided. In the course of time, these belief-systems changed and were transformed and much of their knowledge has been forgotten or lost. What survives is nevertheless a rich cultural treasure-house.

We are in the habit of referring to these people and their beliefs may be called “primitive” but we should recognize that they were aware–or at least thought they were aware–of the world around them in the context of a system of thought that was perfect in its overall comprehension. They believed themselves to be possessed of powers to protect themselves that are perhaps far greater than anything enjoyed by their progeny today and it is quite possible that, psychologically, they actually felt more comfortable in confronting nature and the world than we might suppose. The creation and perception of a supernatural world is the one great miracle that mankind has wrought.

Concerning the progress of her own extraordinary voyage into this eldritch world, Can Göknil says:

I decided I needed to take a better look at those cylindrical seals. At the British Museum in London I was able to examine quite a few of them closely. Most were fashioned from semi-precious stones that were believed to have apotropaic powers and had been engraved. On some seals there were prayers or the names of guardian deities in addition to mythical beings and fantastic creatures. These seals had a dual function. One of these, which they still serve even in our day, is to identify the holder and things belonging to him; but in former times, they were also suspended from a cord and worn around the neck or attached to one’s garment. The stones from which these seals were made varied from place to place. According to ancient Babylonian belief for example, seals fashioned from lapis lazuli attracted the favor of the gods to their owner while those made from green marble had the power to bring their owner good luck. I tried to discover the meanings of these seals and the stories that lay behind them. I took up living in a fantastic world filled with half-human/half-animal creatures, bearded heroes that resembled animals, dancing animals, animals playing music, and supernatural beings. My first drawings based on my impressions of the seals were done there in the museum. In my mind, I was composing stories about them. As I pored over the imprints newly rolled out in fresh clay by cylindrical seals fashioned millennia ago I began seeing my own figures. Thinking that this must have been how the first talisman against disease came into being, I made a drawing of a heroic figure who combated diseases and injuries caused by wild animals and monsters. So that he might be more successful in his battle, I invested him with the attributes of strong animals. Next I came upon some spell-breaking water-gods garbed in fish-scales and after that, some squat green men who prevented madness were conjured up before my eyes. I became acquainted with Anzu the Bird-Man, who stole the Tablets of Destiny from the sky. It was the story of the Tablets of Destiny and Anzu the Bird-Man that gave me the idea for a new exhibition.

Although it was through European sources that Can Göknil became acquainted with Anzu the Bird-Man and the Tablets of Destiny and in London that she made her first ventures into designing this new world, the Bird-Man’s homeland was Mesopotamia. After returning to İstanbul, she continued working on the subject of Anzu the Bird-Man and the Tablets of Destiny and at the same time, she began investigating the world of Anatolian magic as well in order to become familiar with it. Describing the second phase of her work, the artist says:

I spent many a pleasant hour in the Osman Hamdi Library at the Archeological Museum chasing after the seals that were used in Anatolia. The setting of the library is entrancing–albeit a bit chilly. I set about examining the books I could find on the subject. I observed that flat seals are more prevalent in central and southeastern Anatolia. I read the books on this subject by Tahsin and Neriman Özgüç and by Sedat Alp. I poked around old book shops looking for publications on the subject. In one, I came across Armağan Erkanal’s study on seals. At the Robert College library I read Sir Wallis Budge and Alan Dundes’ western interpretations of the concepts of talismans and amulets. It was in Malik Aksel’s Anadolu Halk Resimleri (“Anatolian Folk Art”) that I first came across a mention of the Davetname (“The Book of Summoning”), a work of the utmost importance on the subject of magic that was written in the 15th century. I was enthralled by Aksel’s descriptions of popular beliefs concerning magic in the Muslim world and by the drawings from the Davetname. First of all there was the realization that certain beliefs had preserved their original strength despite their being thousands of years old. Secondly, I could see that magic had been made even more magical: it had been enriched with new creatures and beings, with new figures, and with Islamic iconography. Thus did the wind and flood-bringing crowned dog and the bird-headed, four-handed love-talisman enter my world. Finally I came to İsmet Zeki Eyüboğlu’s two invaluable studies Anadolu Büyüleri (“Anatolian Spells”) and Sevgi Büyüleri (“Love Spells”) which discuss amulets and charms still in use today and link the millennia-old world of magic and talismans to our own day and in doing so, I felt as if I had come to the end of a journey of five thousand years that I had begun in Mesopotamia. In ancient civilizations, beliefs were naturally transformed into art. Whenever I delved the tales that the images on the seals illustrated, I re-experienced the sincerity of these early beliefs. I fell in love with the bizarre creatures I had come across during my research and afterwards recreated them in my works according to my own inner feelings. I strove to come up with a modern interpretation of some of the oldest tales of the human race.

Five millennia of magic

Τελεσμα. Don’t let the Greek characters mislead you. Pronounced /telesma/, it’s a word and a concept that people from many different countries and cultures are quite familiar with. It appears in Arabic as tilasm; in Ottoman Turkish as tılsımat; in modern Turkish as tılsım; in Italian as talismano; and in French, English, and German as talisman. For thousands of years, words such as these have been used by people to refer to objects that are believed to house a mysterious power by virtue of the images, markings, or inscriptions that they contain. Variations of the word are to be found over a wide region ranging from Central Asia to the Iberian peninsula and from the Mediterranean to northern Europe. Variations on the concept are even more widespread and they form a basic element of indigenous folk beliefs in human communities everywhere. Although talismans may take different forms in different societies, they have been a part of human culture and are as old as mankind itself. In the form of amulets, they have been one of the most important human cultural artifacts.

Among the Arabs, the ability to express a secret power in writing or by means of a sign is known as sihr. This word appears in modern Turkish as sihir and has connotations that include “magic”, “sorcery”, and “witchcraft” in English as well as those of “charm”, “spell”, “incantation”, and even “fascination”. The native Turkish word for magic is büyü, the modern form of an ancient word that appears as bükü, bügü, and bögü in old dialects of the language. According to Kaşgarlı Mahmud’s Divanü Lügat-it Türk, an 11th-century dictionary of the Turkish language, the word bügü is defined as “one who is intelligent and wise; a sage”. [1] “Sage” in those days meant “one possessed of wisdom and expertise”. This is evidence that, in Kaşgarlı Mahmud’s day, magic and science were closely associated with one another. Similarly, the English word “wizard” is formed from a word meaning “wisdom” and a suffix meaning “one who is characterized by performing an action or possessing a quality.”

Divanü Lügat-it Türk contains another word büg–a verb that means “prevent, stop, or frustrate” an action. The suffix /gü/ meant “one who does” and thus corresponds to the /er/ suffix of English as in “sorcerer”. [2] This suggests that what the bügü was expected to do in the society documented in Kaşgarlı Mahmud’s dictionary was to “prevent, stop, or frustrate” something–presumably evils. This supposition is supported by Arabic-speakers, among whom amulets are referred to by words that convey the ideas of “protection”, “warding”, and “refuge”.

Kaşgarlı Mahmud tells us that the Oghuz Turks called amulets bitig, a word that means “written document”. [3] As the Turks came under the cultural and linguistic influence of Islam and the Arabs, many native Turkish words were replaced by Arabic ones. Bitig was one such. In its place, the Arabic word muska came to be used–the word still employed today in modern Turkish. Muska is formed from a word that means “a written copy of a document”: though the cultural context and even the word may change, the meaning itself remains the same.

Since the earliest times, the meanings of “magic” have been associated with those of “intelligence” and “wisdom”. This is evidence that among prehistoric peoples, magic formed the principal body of knowledge and that it was intimately involved with a society’s beliefs. According to The Encyclopedia of Islam, religion and magic were one and the same in the minds of primitive peoples and it was not until after the emergence of monotheistic creeds that they became separated from one another. [4] In these early societies, sorcerers were expected to be versed in magical arts and knowledge and they had religious functions as well. As a result they enjoyed great prestige and were, depending on circumstances, the objects of respect or fear.

Who was the first wizard? Who cast the first spell? In the Babylonian legend, the discovery of magic is linked to Anzu the Bird-Man and the Tablets of Destinies but virtually every society and culture has created its own myths about such matters. In Muslim accounts, Egypt and Babylon were famous for being the homes of sorcerers. According to one Arab tale, even Adam and Eve knew about amulets. As it is told, Eve possessed an amulet that enabled her to wield the powers of jinns. One day, as she slept, her son, Abel, came and stole the amulet but abused its powers. According to some accounts, the amulet had originally been given to Adam by God. [5] So probably the most meaningful answer to the questions of who was the first wizard and who cast the first spell must be that it was the first human being. Prehistoric man, having killed an enemy or an animal with a rock, may have attributed to that rock powers and abilities far beyond its purely physical characteristics of weight, hardness, and so on. This would be particularly true if the rock was of an unusual color or shape, or if it was distinguished by some sort of mark. He might have considered it a “lucky stone” and kept it with him. The crucial point is attributing a supernatural cause (a power concealed in a stone) to a natural occurrence (the killing of an enemy or animal), a person is in effect hoping or believing that he can influence the real world by wielding that power.

In the minds of primitive human beings, everything that they beheld on earth and in the sky was alive, just as they were themselves. Pictorially they represented the things they saw with the figures of human beings, of animals, and of composite creatures. The result was the emergence of a world of jinns, sprites, spirits, and other supernatural beings–creatures who were invisible and who inhabited an imaginary world distinct from the one that could be seen and known. This world, entirely the creation of the minds of human beings, was nevertheless firmly believed in as real.

In the relationships between humans and the beings of this supernatural world, we encounter two fundamental and opposing concepts: good and evil. As a noun, evil means something that brings sorrow, distress, or calamity or the fact of suffering, misfortune, or wrongdoing. As an adjective it has meanings of wicked, offensive, disagreeable, pernicious, and unlucky. If a person fell sick or suffered misfortune, there had to be a reason for it and for these early human beings, the reason was some supernatural evil being. The existence of evil beings however implied the existence of good ones as well. As a result, magic developed as a method of achieving the desires of an individual or society through the help of supernatural beings who might be good or might be evil. The earliest magical objects mediating this help–talismans in other words–may have been stones but may also have been things such as shells, twigs, and so on. Later, figures and images representing the supernatural beings supposedly controlled by means of such talismans were made and these became the first idols and amulets.

Wizards and amulets

In the culture of the Central Asian Turks, attitudes towards magic and talismans were essentially as described above. In their earliest forms of belief, magic and religion were inextricably linked: one could say that magic took shape in the context of religious beliefs but it would be just as correct to say that religious beliefs were shaped by magic. In one of the Altai legends, that of Yeriding pütkeni–a creation myth of the sort that Göknil made the theme of her work preceding amulets–the protagonists are Tangri (a “good” god) and the “evil” Erlik Han. [6] As related in the legend, in the beginning the universe consists of nothing but water in which only Tangri and Erlik Han dwell. Together they create earth, sky, sun, and moon and then fill the world with living things. Human beings are the last to appear. In the legend, the first creatures brought into being by Erlik Han “striking his hammer on his anvil” are animals such as frogs, snakes, bears, and pigs. Later on he creates the “evil spirits” Albis and Shulmus. At the end of the tale, Tangri dispatches his helpers to teach mankind the skills it needs to survive in the world after which he withdraws into the sky leaving human beings to their own devices. In heaven, Tangri creates a new world with the help of his sons, daughters, and angels. At the same time, a world of evil spirits takes shape beneath the earth.

In this tale, the “real” or material world inhabited by human beings is in the position of being a bridge between the “ethereal” worlds of good and evil. It is a world in which both Tangri’s angels and Erlik Han’s minions may dwell. Both are able to observe mankind and its world and both have the power to influence events that transpire in it. In order to protect themselves from Erlik Han and his evil spirits, human beings needed to establish contact with Tangri, who had withdrawn from their world, and seek his aid. Those who were especially adept at establishing this contact were known as “shamans”. One of the most distinguishing attributes of a shaman was the ability of his soul to leave his body for a while and travel freely through the worlds of mankind, Tangri, and Erlik Han. Shamans in effect were the messengers linking the non-material and material worlds.

Around this central core, other legends accrued, enriching the structure with events and other beings. One such being was known as a yayık and acted as an intermediary between Tangri and men. A yayık established contact with a shaman’s soul, discovered what the shaman wanted, and conveyed his wishes to Tangri. Yayıks had the ability to protect human beings. Having received a message from heaven, they imparted it to its recipient on earth. A yayık was a creature “formed of blood and a fragment of the sun and moon. Its hair was a red cloud. For a bridle it used a rainbow and its whip was a pale gray flame.” Another good spirit was a suyla “with eyes that resemble a horse’s eyes and can see a distance of thirty day’s journey”. When a shaman’s soul had to descend into the underworld to vanquish an evil spirit that was causing harm, it was a suyla that protected him. Another spirit called a utkuçı acted as Tangri’s emissary, conveying Tangri’s wishes to a shaman. Tangri’s sons, who dwelt in heaven with their father, also acted as the guardians of human beings. Every tribe identified one of these sons as their particular guardian. Heaven was also populated by Tangri’s daughters and female good spirits. Tangri’s “shining daughters” inspired shamans during their rituals. An umay, one of the female good spirits, protected children and young animals. One called ayısıt was the source of fertility and abundance.

In this tripartite universe of mankind, Tangri, and evil spirits, the latter two were the ones who had the power to determine and influence the course of events and this point is frequently underscored in legends. Despite the overwhelming superiority of these supernatural beings however, the shamans were the ones who mattered most to people. This was because in order to obtain the help of Tangri and the good spirits against the forces of evil, people were dependent upon the skill, experience, and maturity of the shaman since he was the only one who was thought to be able to deal with them. The autonomous status of a shaman with respect to Tangri and evil spirits guaranteed the continued existence of shamanism as a system of belief. If a shaman was unsuccessful in fulfilling the duties expected of him, the failure could be attributed to his personal incompetence, inexperience, or ignorance rather than to the system as a whole. Presumably a shaman who proved himself to be particularly inept would be driven out of the community and replaced with someone more proficient.

In addition to conducting ceremonies at particular times on matters of concern to the whole community, shamans also performed special rituals when circumstances required. The main communal ceremonies were held at the vernal and autumnal equinoxes and at the summer solstice. Shamans were also called upon to cure the sick, to divine the hidden, and to control events. They were, in other words, responsible to the community as a whole as well as to its individual members. As seers and guardians of the community they enjoyed great prestige and respect and the community strove to please them with prayers and by supplying their physical needs.

Important as a shaman was in safeguarding his community, there were times when even he was not sufficient and additional protection was needed. A shaman might not always be available when you needed one as you went about your everyday business. A top-notch shaman back in the village was of little use if you happened to be set upon by a swarm of evil spirits while traversing a remote and desolate mountain pass. For this reason, one needed fetishes and amulets–objects that resembled Tangri and his guardian spirits or were thought to house their protective powers. It is likely that such objects were a part of people’s lives long before shamanism developed as a coherent system and were simply incorporated into it.

Among the ancient Turks, the most common type of fetish was a primitive sort of doll fashioned from felt or cloth or carved from beech wood in the supposed shape of Tangri or one of his protective beings. Such fetishes were kept in leather sacks or sometimes suspended from a post. The spirits of departed ancestors were also believed to have protective powers and fetishes of these were sure to be kept somewhere in the house. Fetishes resembling or bearing the names of animals are evidence that the belief in them is very old indeed, stretching back to a time when everything in the world was thought to be alive and be possessed of an individual soul.

The amulets called bitig by ancient Turks were prepared by shamans. We have little direct evidence of how these were prepared or used but most probably they consisted of bits of leather on which figures or cryptic signs would be drawn. (Letters were unlikely to be employed as the makers and users of these objects were almost certainly illiterate.) In the 15th-century Book of Summoning referred to above we find descriptions and drawings of amulets of this very type.

To summarize, in the belief-system of the ancient Turks, magic was an intimate component of people’s everyday lives. It was nourished by imagination and life and nourished both in return. As Can Göknil herself noted, primitive beliefs are transformed into art. One could say that they create art by virtue of their unaffected approach and candor. A shaman drawing imaginary creatures inspired from life on the wall of a cave or on a fragment of leather, or cutting them into the surface of a stone was also the first artist. A shaman whose soul had returned from its journey to the abode of the gods or from the depths of the underworld and who was now relating to those about him what it had seen was also the first author, however illiterate he may have been. A shaman improvising and reciting a rhymed prayer during a ritual was surely the first poet, though he just as certainly had never studied poetics. A shaman dancing, beating a drum, and chanting as he drove evil spirits away was also the first dancer, musician, and singer though he had never been to a conservatory. A shaman working a piece of beech-wood into a fetish was the first sculptor though the thought that he was making a statue might never have occurred to him. Beliefs are indeed naturally transformed into art. Life creates art and nourishes it.

Islam and magic

According to The Encyclopedia of Islam, Islam recognizes the existence of supernatural forces and spirits and acknowledges the possibility of employing magic to have dealings with such beings. It nevertheless makes an absolute distinction between magic and religion. [7] As Islam spread outside the Arabian peninsula, it encountered shamanist beliefs in many different societies. Such contacts resulted in a mutual influence: some elements of shamanism were brought back home while converts to Islam confused elements of their old shamanist beliefs with those of their new faith.

As evidence of this process we see prolonged debates on issues aimed at divorcing magic and religion from one another. In Islam, prophets are not invested with the power of working miracles directly; in Judaism and Christianity, there are numerous miracles attributed to prophets. Since Islam numbered Jewish and Christian prophets as its own, the first problem for Muslims that was related to magic was to spell out the difference between miracles and magic; this was a particularly crucial problem in the case of Solomon, who was regarded as the forerunner of all magicians. The explanation that they came up with was that certain men of evil intent colluded with Satan to work magic against Solomon. The ones who did this are called “infidels”, an accusation that is never leveled against Solomon. In other words, although it might seem that magic was strictly enjoined, a door was left open for the possibility of employing white magic–as Solomon did–as a defense against black magic. The survival of magic accommodated to the rules of Islam at the popular level provoked an extended debate from which a number of very divergent opinions emerged. In the broadest sense, these opinions are indicative of one of three main attitudes concerning magic.

According to the first, and simplest, magic is blasphemy. [8] This approach acknowledges that magic is real but utterly and completely prohibits its use in any way whatsoever: “Those who have never employed enchantment or divined the future in the flight of birds will number among the seventy thousand Muslims who shall be admitted to Paradise without being called into account or first having to suffer torment.” This view also holds that having someone practice magic for you is as blasphemous as practicing it yourself.

The second approach was adopted by Ghazzali and Ibn Khaldun and their circles of followers. In effect, it sought to legitimize magic. For Ghazzali, who lived in the 12th century, the world was full of “mysteries” and in such a world, magic was no less real than was the world of spirits and jinns. Magic was simply a “science”–one that concerned itself with certain “essences” and with the attributes of numbers arranged according to certain “astrological” conditions. To do this science, one fashioned a magical form (or “body”) with the shape of the intended object of the spell using such magical numbers and essences; one waited for the appropriate “astrological” moment to cast the spell; an incantation was recited and Satan’s aid was summoned to make the spell work. Ghazzali was quick to point out that he abhorred magic performed for malicious purposes and with Satan’s help and, if truth be told, he also looked askance upon the use of magic for good causes as well: one should after all be able to protect oneself from the effects of black magic by entrusting oneself to God. He did believe however that people needed to know about magic, even though they shouldn’t practice it themselves, in order to be able to tell the difference between the deeds of prophets and the works of devils. This, he averred, was why he studied it.

Ibn Khaldun lived two centuries after Ghazzali. In his Mukaddime (“First Principles”) he acknowledged the existence of supernatural forces and thus recognized the reality of magic. [9] According to Ibn Khaldun, there were three kinds of magic. The first was performed with the assistance of God and without using any other means or device in the process: these were in fact miracles. The second kind was sorcery and involved the use of devices and intermediaries, including the stars. The third was mere trickery or slight-of-hand: the ability to make seem real something that was not. According to Ibn Khaldun, the only admissible sort of magic was the first. Neither the second (even if it involved the use of talismans incorporating scripture) nor the third was lawful.

The third approach centered around the notion that there was magic that was canonically allowed and magic that was not. A leading advocate of this view was Ibn Ishaq, who lived in the 11th century and who set forth his ideas in his book Al-Fihrist (“The Catalogue”). In Ibn Ishaq’s opinion, the crux of magic lay in commanding the obedience of spirits and jinns. There were two ways of accomplishing this. One was to secure that obedience with the assistance of God by employing canonically admissible means; the other was to bribe spirits and jinns with gifts or to bind them to oneself by committing wicked deeds. This distinction had the advantage of partially legitimizing magic if it was done with God’s help and in order to combat baneful magic. Solomon was presented as its mentor, thus draping it with a cloak of semi-respectability.

In the main however, Islam’s attitude towards magic was negative and the practice of magic was never regarded as entirely legitimate. Despite this, a belief in magic and in the power of amulets persisted at the popular level, albeit modified in form and content by Islamic sentiments and precepts and with its ancient polytheistic concepts supplanted by Islamic ones.

Magic and amulets in The Book of Summoning

Despite the opposition of mainstream Muslim thought, there is much evidence of widespread popular use of magic and amulets in the Islamic world. One piece of evidence is a book entitled Davetname, a work by Firdevsi-i Tavil (“Firdevsi-the-Tall”), who hailed from Balıkesir in northwestern Anatolia and who lived in the second half of the 15th century. This book contains detailed information indicating that magic and amulets were widely used among the common-folk of the day. Since the book was commissioned by the reigning sultan, Bayezid II, one may conclude that the interest in such subjects extended to levels considerably higher than the common-folk. The Davetname or The Book of Summoning is one of the most important sources we have for information on the magical spells and amulets of Anatolia and it has been a major source of inspiration for Can Göknil and her work.

In his article in The Encyclopedia of Islam, Fuat Köprülü gives the title of the book as: [10]

The Book of Summoning, being an explication of the diverse manners of summoning regarded as efficacious among practitioners of the occult sciences. Done in eight chapters.

Besides being an indication of the wealth of material contained in the book, it is also an indication that, in the late 15th century, the practice of the occult arts was still considered a “science”.

In his book Anadolu Halk Resimleri, Malik Aksel interprets the “summoning” of the title in the sense of “summoning spirits” and adds that the book reveals ways to control objects and spirits by means of magic and talismans. [11] In his foreword, Firdevsi tells us that The Book of Summoning is based on “his translation of other rare books of summoning that were originally composed in Persian and whose information had been tried and attested to.” In those days, works were not so much translated from one language to another as interpreted–often reinterpreted to the point of rewriting. In the hands of a knowledgeable, prolific, and creative author such as Firdevsi was, the result is as much a piece of original writing as it is a translation. Because of this, his The Book of Summoning incorporates not only the “occult sciences” of Iran but also beliefs prevalent in Anatolia in his day. Another unusual aspect of this book is the inclusion of illustrations of popular beliefs and practices: something that is all but unprecedented so far as we know. Most likely these images were done by Firdevsi himself. In Aksel’s opinion, they bear “the attributes of ancient folk art.”

As quoted by Aksel, in the foreword to The Book of Summoning Firdevsi refers to his sources for information on the world of the supernatural as “all skilled in the occult sciences and in the science of summoning. Enoch, peace be upon him, was the peer of them all. God Almighty created their world and then populated it with spirits and jinns, beings of light and of fire.” The author goes on saying that these spirits are of different kinds: some are Muslims, some are Jews, some are fire-worshippers, and some are Zoroastrians. Among these spirits there are also angels of which some are viziers, some are judges, some are teachers, some are public servants, some are preachers, and some are translators. Again according to Firdevsi, some of these spirits dwell in the air and some within the earth; some in lofty mountains and still others in ruins, baths, clouds, hearths, and mosques as well as in the holy places such as the Holy Kaaba, Jerusalem, and the Holy Cities.

In attributing the creation of the supernatural world directly to God and populating it with supernatural creatures some of whom were Muslim, Jewish, Christian etc, Firdevsi was departing from orthodox Islamic thought. By doing so, he was in effect legitimizing them by acknowledging they held “righteous” beliefs. The parallels that he draws between the supernatural world and the natural one are also evidence that the real world is the source of people’s inspiration for the supernatural one.

What Firdevsi has to say may seem naive but in fact it represents an important turning-point and is an expression of a holistic truth that took thousands of years of human experience and creativity to appreciate. The “realness” of the links between our own world and the world of imagination is precisely what makes formulating the latter a possibility. It not only avoids loose ends in explaining things but also provides flexibility: by adhering to a common framework, the imaginary world can be accommodated to changes that take place in the real one. Different constructions can be added one to another and, from their combination, a more comprehensive and generalized explanation may emerge. The similarities between the two worlds also provide the objective grounds by which the imaginary one may be rendered believable. It is easier to believe in the existence of an unseen world that somehow resembles one’s own.

Besides reestablishing the links between magic and religion, The Book of Summoning also preserves for us some of the supernatural creatures and other phenomena of the supernatural world. Firdevsi for example quotes Ibn Sina’s reference to a being named Sahrennar that God created before Adam “with a head like that of a man, and with two hands and two feet like those of a man, but covered from head to foot with faces on his hands, his feet, and his belly such that its eyes numbered four thousand. And every face had eyes, eyebrows, a nose, and a mouth like those of a man.”

An interesting aspect of The Book of Summoning is the connection it makes between the amulets whose preparation for various purposes it describes, jinns, and the houses of the zodiac, each of which is associated with a particular creature. To be effective, every amulet requires the assistance of a particular creature in the world of the jinns. The constellation Hydra, for example, is associated with a serpent. The purpose and use of an amulet formed from the letters of that word and from serpentine lines is described thus:

Inscribe this charm on the skin of a girl with musk and saffron and also seal it in wax and let her carry it in her cap and she will be beloved and respected in the eyes of all. And to him who inscribes this charm in musk, saffron, and rainwater on a piece of white silk when the sun enters the seventh degree of the House of the Serpent and then conceals it in his cap, learning the arts of chemistry and alchemy will come easy.

We apparently have quite a handy amulet here. Not only is it associated with a supernatural being but, depending on circumstances, it can render its user attractive and respected and also facilitate learning. The relationship between the creature and the amulet’s functions are not made clear but we may suppose that the creature was perceived to possess powers that enable it to carry them out either inherently or at prescribed times. If that is so, then there ought to be some account of how the creature acquired these powers but no mention of this is made by Firdevsi. Perhaps it had been forgotten or the author thought it unimportant. As things stand, the creature has ceased to be a concrete reason for the amulets existence and has become an abstract symbol that is a part of the talisman itself.

In another example of the same sort of thing, the author describes a creature with two heads, one resembling the head of a man with long hair descending to the shoulders and the other resembling the head of a stag. The creature is shown standing behind a cypress tree holding a reed-flute in one hand and a tambourine in the other. The use of an amulet containing this figure together with certain letters and lines is described thus:

Inscribe this charm on the skin of a fox when the sun enters the seventh degree of the Serpent and let [the user] take it away. And he will seem pleasing to the whole world and all his affairs will go well.

Again, the relationship between the power of the amulet and the images–in this case the two-headed creature, musical instruments, and a cypress tree–is not explained.

In both these examples the serpent appears to be associated with one’s outwardly appearance and the prosperity of one’s endeavors. In another however the serpent appears as a symbol for quite a different function. This amulet has a figure resembling two intertwined snakes each with two heads and two hands and it is said to have the power to separate two people and make enemies of them. Another image of a crab holding a human head between its claws is said to have the power to turn someone aside from his chosen path. The image of a crow standing before a dragon-like creature with two heads and a pair of wings is used in amulets whose purpose is to torment someone or get rid of him. For a charm said to create affection there is a barefooted human figure dressed in a long, layered garment. It has a bird’s head and four hands in which it holds flowers and talismans. Concerning this amulet the author says:

Whosoever would have women give their affection to him, let him draw this figure on paper and let him write their names over the figure. Then let him place this on his breast and recite this prayer. Then let him burn incense and recite this prayer. And finally let him recite his invitation, having donned fine clothes and adorned himself with gems and jewelry.

Presumably the admonition to wear fine clothes, gems, and jewelry was made just in case the aid of jinns proved to be less than effective.

Other amulets are prescribed The Book of Summoning to allay one’s fear of the sea, prevent seasickness, and to prevent damage caused by the winds or by floods. Indeed the talismans in the book have little if anything to do with God or religion and focus instead on the individual or on relations between individuals. Their purpose is to resolve people’s worldly problems and to realize their aspirations. This suggests that at the time this book was written, religion and magic had already diverged substantially from their common roots. Furthermore, the stories associated with the figures used in the talismans themselves had been lost in most cases and the talisman itself had become simply an object whose creation no longer required someone (a magician) with special abilities and powers but which could be made by anyone with the knowledge contained in the book. (This is not to say however that practitioners of magic never came from religious circles.)

Magic and amulets today

İsmet Zeki Eyüboğlu has written two books, Anadolu Büyüleri (“Anatolian Spells”) and Sevgi Büyüleri (“Love Spells”) based on his research and studies in his native province of Trabzon. [12] These books provide extensive information about the magical beliefs of people of Anatolia in the last quarter of the 20th century and about their use of amulets and they make it clear that in Anatolia, magic is used principally to make a wish come true, foretell the future, and influence the course of events. The most common vehicle for working such magic is the amulet. Spells fall into a number of different categories. One group is concerned with problems in people’s lives and relations with others: curing illness, protecting against evil, realizing one’s wishes, binding a girl’s affection, binding a young man’s affection, looking beautiful, finding a husband, abducting a girl, becoming pregnant, regaining someone/something lost, warding the evil eye, and separating two people. Another group is concerned with one’s relation with the world of jinns and demons: divining the hidden, binding demons, and controlling jinns. [13]

When we compare the diversity and richness of the spells that Eyüboğlu describes in his books with the scope and content of The Book of Summoning, written about five and a half centuries earlier, one may get the impression that the use of magic has proliferated greatly over the years. On the other hand, the creatures described by Firdevsi have vanished.

In some of Eyüboğlu’s talismans we find only letters from the Arabic alphabet or sometimes bits of scripture or prayers written in that alphabet along with numbers and a few markings of sometimes ancient origin. Sometimes these are scattered randomly on the surface of the amulet and sometimes they are neatly arranged in “magical” rectangles, squares, triangles, and circles. In the case of the amulet to prevent snoring for example, the first seven verses of the Sura of Mary are written out carefully on a piece of paper. For another amulet, which is supposed to have the power to release the user from some force preventing him from doing what he wants to do, there is a large square containing smaller squares filled with various marks. A “traveler’s amulet” that is designed to prevent someone setting out on a journey from being benighted and from assaults by evil spirits contains nothing but a few sacred names and some numbers; in form it looks remarkably like a modern triangular traffic-sign. With the possible exception of the last one, there is no obvious connection between the purpose of an amulet and the shape it takes.

In some cases, we find symbols that are directly related to the amulet’s purpose. An amulet that is supposed to protect its owner against profiteers for example contains a verse from the “The Slanderer” sura: Woe to all the back-biting slanderers who amass riches and sedulously hoard them, thinking their treasures will render them immortal! Eyes placed at the beginning and end of the verse transform it into a simple but quite unmistakable human face. The eyes presumably are those of greedy profiteers.

Figures are not common in amulets, perhaps because of the avoidance (sometimes more honored in the breach than in the observance) of images in Islam but quite often the letters, numbers, and markings used are calligraphically arranged to suggest a figure. In the amulet to prevent hair-loss, they form an eye; in the amulets for good luck, for a happy marriage, for one’s first-born to be a healthy and handsome boy, for warding off evil, and for binding one’s son or daughter-in-law, they form a human face. In a few cases, the letters and symbols are arranged to form figures so abstract it is not always possible to assign them with a meaning. Some of these may be calligraphic renditions of truly ancient amulets in which figures were actually used. Some amulets however are in the tradition of Islamic calligraphy in which letters are arranged in compositions to resemble the word, phrase, or subject they spell out. One example is the amulet to change one’s luck, which is used by girls who have been unable to find a husband: in the center is a figure that resembles a girl with open arms.

Although they are not common, figures do occur in some amulets and these quite often hearken back to the pre-Islamic period. The amulet whose purpose is to separate two lovers or a husband and wife from one another for example contains two eyes and abstractly-drawn figures. It also includes an inscription in Arabic but according to Eyüboğlu, this is a late addition for there are indications that the talismanic symbols are of ancient Egyptian origin. Another amulet with the same purpose contains the very abstract figures of three fire-breathing serpents and a dragon. With the exception of the Arabic numbers for “7” and “9”, there is nothing in the composition to suggest it is of Islamic origin. Another interesting example is an amulet intended to divert someone from a course of action he is taking: according to Eyüboğlu, there is one resembling it in The Book of Summoning but its meaning has changed over the centuries.

What these examples show is that magic and amulets today have become entirely a personal matter and have been changed in form and content. The pre-Islamic elements cited in The Book of Summoning have either disappeared or else have become so abstract that their meanings have been lost. In most cases the old figures have been replaced by scripture, prayers, and sacred names in the Arabic alphabet and by sacred symbols. Despite the use of Islamic elements however it is clear, in view of the fact that the employment of magic and amulets has become entirely a personal matter, that the ancient bonds between religion and magic in which each naturally nourished and encouraged the other have been severed. Their areas of concern seem to have been split apart too, with religion being more concerned with the “next” world and magic more concerned with “this” one. This transformation or separation explains why amulets have become divorced from the tales that led to their creation and nourished their power and why their components have become steadily more abstract. Neither the negative attitude of Islam towards magic and amulets nor even outright prohibition have had any effect on their continued use and spread.

Another thing that Eyüboğlu’s studies demonstrate is that there are very different and detailed methods of casting each individual spell. Knowledge of the rules governing magic and amulets is a matter that demands expertise. However it is an expertise that can be acquired and does not demand special powers such as those required of a medium, a soothsayer, or a sorcerer. It may be magic, but it’s also democratic.

This has the effect however of trivializing magic to the point of absurdity, such as depilatory amulets for women. What it demonstrates is that the dimension of belief in the magician, which was once so crucial, has lost its importance and that the whole business has become commercialized. Of course the person employing or wishing to employ a spell must believe in its effectiveness but the sincere relationship of belief that used to exist between the spell-caster and his client has today given way to mere deception. The survival of magic and amulets in society today is in part evidence of the enormous influence that both have had over the human mind for thousands of years as well as of the fact that scientific rationalism is not as widespread as might be thought; but it also shows that in dealing with the problems of the world in which they live, people are less than confident that the same world offers the means and opportunities for resolving those problems.

The design of Can Göknil’s world

On the basis of our survey of the highlights of the five-thousand-year-long journey that Can Göknil undertook into the world of amulets when preparing and setting up her “Amulets” exhibition, we can say that where amulets and magic are concerned, people today are just as likely to seek their own realities in such chimerical relationships as they have ever been and that both amulets and magic continue to entice the human mind with their primordial fascination.

Ultimately, spells and amulets are vehicles whereby people seek securer and happier lives for themselves in this world. In the past however, they were fraught with a dimension of public or social belief–specifically, they were a point of reference in the formation of the religious aspects of a community’s general framework of beliefs. This public dimension obscured the true human dimension–the search for a securer and happier life–that underlies spells and amulets. This obscuration comes from the contradiction caused when reality is perceived as imagination and imagination as reality.

Spells and amulets today continue to be draped with a quasi-religious garb but they have been entirely excluded from the realm of public beliefs and have been relegated to the domain of personal relationships. The human dimension of the world of spells and amulets today becomes even more apparent when we examine lists of amulet names. At the same time however, the relationships between the imaginary and the real nowadays somehow lack their erstwhile naturalness and sincerity. The world of the imagination, deprived of the wellsprings that once nourished it, has become instead a world of illusion. No longer nourished by life, it has ceased to nourish life in return. This too is a contradiction, but one of a different sort: the human dimensions of a culture that has developed in the course of millennia may have emerged to the fore at last but the culture itself has become decadent. The roots of this drama undoubtedly lie in the fact that, since the very beginning, that culture has in fact been based on an illusion. That is of course unavoidable but in view of the fact that human beings have for thousands of years continued to structure their lives around these illusions turns these contradictions into something more than ordinary drama: they become elements of one of the most fundamental tragedies of human life.

Every tragic situation signals the existence of a human conundrum and for that reason, it is also a legitimate subject of art. Every tragedy begs to be expressed in terms of art; indeed it deserves to be so expressed. Despite the cursory references of the fabulous names they may bear, Can Göknil’s amulets are an artistic expression of a human tragedy.

But although Can Göknil delves the illusionary aspect of magic and amulets, we should also make it clear that she is not the skeptical Quesalid, whose belief in magic was questionable as mentioned in the tale in Claude Lévy-Strauss’s book Religion and Magic. [14] Neither positive nor negative, Göknil’s approach to her subject extends beyond both to an artistic attempt to become familiar with the artistic world that magic and amulets have created. By redesigning amulets that are thousands of years old, in a sense she carries their story to a new plane, offering an artistic context in which they may restate themselves in addressing the human situation.

In designing her amulets, the artist has tended to take as the point of her departure names such as those that Zeki Eyüboğlu assigned to such charms: “Curing sickness”, “Reuniting the beloved”, “Inspiration”, “Protecting babies”, “Looking for a spouse”, “Appearing attractive”, “Pregnancy”, “Shepherd”, “Eliminating differences”, “Bravery”, “Ripening crops”, “Happiness”, “Remaining attractive”, “Hunting”, “Protecting against wind and flood”, “Potency”, “Success”, “Increasing a cow’s milk”, “Affection”, “Warding off evil”, “First beard”, “Separating two people”, “Preventing madness”, and so on. In addition, she has also created amulets against supernatural creatures: “Warding off jinns”, “Deceiving jinns”, “The devil’s knot”, and the like.

All the names of Can Göknil’s amulets immediately conjure up a story that can be associated with them. In recreating these modern-day charms, she is inspired by the amulets of yore but in doing so, she employs dream-like depictions of figures and images that conform to the story behind each amulet. She reunites amulet and story and the result of her artistic conception and expression is the emergence of a fantastic world whose mythological and supernatural beings immediately lure a person into it.

In her artistic searching and in her efforts to express herself, Can Göknil returns amulets, which have been severed from the sources that nourished them and have become decadent, to the primordial world in which they were first created and there she expresses them anew. In a sense, she purges them and restores them to their state of nature; and as a result, she lays bare the purity of the supernatural world and startlingly reveals not only the human dimension behind the amulets but also the contradiction between humanity and its own reality.

In addition to the artistic dimension that they bear, Can Göknil’s amulets are also interesting from the standpoint of the artistic plane through which they range freely. To be honest, the world of ancient Turkish mythology has not been a source of inspiration for Turkish artists to the same degree that it has been for Turkish jewelry-makers: shop-windows and counters are graced with necklaces, earrings, brooches, and rings fashioned after ideas plucked from that mythology but, with a few exceptions, there have not been many artists who have approached that world artistically. In Renaissance Europe (to take but one example) on the other hand, artists discovered the artistic inspiration they required in the mythologies of ancient Greece and Rome and recast it in terms of their own notions of art and beauty. The role of so-called “primitive” African art in the development and emergence of modern art in Europe is well-known. By her work, Can Göknil shows that the pure, innocent, and colorful world of mythology can always be an endless source of new inspiration.

The enchantment of Can Göknil’s world

In designing her own amulets, Can Göknil is as much influenced by the technical aspects of old ones as by their content. From the shapes of old amulets she creates new and rich forms of her own, implementing them with her own techniques and materials and producing sculptures, canvases, engravings, and terra-cotta tablets.

Each of her amulets is a work of art in its own right; but taken all together, one perceives a thematic continuity among them. Each amulet tells a tale of its own; but when they are brought together, the tales join like the pieces of a puzzle revealing a world of amulets five millennia old. This is why the “Amulets” exhibition for the Milli Reasürans art gallery was designed so as to relate a story as a whole. The gallery’s setting and exhibit possibilities in turn influenced the form and variety of the works to be displayed.

The Legend of Anzu the Bird-Man and the Tablets of Destinies is one of the central themes of the show. Sketches done on paper were transformed into three wooden sculptures–one large, and two small–at the workshop of Serkis, a master carpenter, thus creating “Anzu and his family”. On the largest of the three, the artists created images of the different mythological creatures that she imagined dwelling in his world, turning the Bird-Man’s body into a landscape of her dreams. Anzu resembles a Seljuk eagle somewhat and at first sight, standing there with his offspring, we almost seem to recognize him. Looking more closely, we realize that the mythological world that he carries on him has turned him suddenly into a mythical being. The alienation experienced when confronted by Anzu proclaims the illusion that mythical beings are “real” and not imaginary.

The Tablets of Destiny, the other component of the story, were inspired by the imprints of cylindrical seals that the artist saw in the British Museum. The clay tablets with their stark figures worked into them were fired at Nasip İyem’s studio and became the Tablets of Destiny for this exhibition.

The spells and amulets for their part are extremely rich in the forms they incorporate. During excavations of the ruins of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur in 1924-1926, vessels containing tiny figures of apotropaic animals were discovered buried among the foundations or within the walls of dwellings. For this show, the artist presents her own interpretations of these talismanic objects.

The artist’s zinc engravings are another medium for her work on the subject of amulets. After printing, the engravings are hand-tinted. As befits their theme, the engravings bear titles such as Hunting, Ensuring progeny, Journey, Protecting the home, Changing one’s luck, Wedding, and Divining the future.

In their most ancient form, amulets were inscribed on walls, leather, tree-bark, and stone. Much later their mysterious figures and symbols were executed on paper. For amulets of this sort, the artist has chosen canvas as her medium. Inspiration was provided by the figures in Firdevsi’s The Book of Summoning, concerning which Malik Aksel wrote:

Like the folk-tales contained in the book, the images are indistinguishable from folk-art. Despite the somewhat stencil-like appearance of the equally-sized round faces, the images resemble watercolor-sketches. It is quite possible that the author executed them himself, the reason being that Firdevsi-i Tavil was an accomplished calligrapher, as we should call him today; and, because drawing was for him a form of writing, it would have been possible for him to have produced these images. The images incorporate none of the delicate details typical of the miniaturist’s art. These figures have the attributes of ancient folk art, yet Firdevsi refers to his work as “elegant”–a quality that is not to be discerned either in the style of expression or in the images themselves. The term “folk” is associated with this great and valuable work because it is based on folk beliefs and the images bear attributes that put them in the category of folk art rather than that of miniature-painting. Although the figures were done in color, the exact tones can no longer be ascertained. Most are in shades of olive green. Here and there, the colors spill beyond the contours. Facial details–and in some cases stances–are identical from one figure to the next or are perhaps stylizations of older folk-art. [15]

Aksel also points out that no attention is given to proportion in the images that appear in The Book of Summoning, that there is an absence of any scenic details, that the figures appear to be suspended in space, and that the facial features of men and women resemble one another.

The figures and compositions appearing in Can Göknil’s canvases are by nature quite remote from ancient folk-art. In her engravings and terra-cotta tablets she prefers the simple lines of folk-art, reinterpreting using modern techniques. In her canvases on the other hand, she eschews the stencil-like qualities of The Book of Summoning’s figures in favor of a rich figuration. The resulting tension between old and new surpasses the purely artistic plane and creates an impression of standing outside time. It is an effect that the artist has employed successfully before in her canvases in which she exploits all the opportunities afforded by the art of painting. In that respect she continues here the line of development that she displayed in Creations Myths and Anatolian Goddesses. In some other aspects however her images resemble Firdevsi’s: the absence of scenic elements in which the figures appear to be floating in space, for example. Similarly the use of predominantly pastel tones creates a dreamlike effect that befits the artist’s subject. With titles like Sickness amulet, Amulet to reunite loved ones, Inspiration amulet, Spouse-finding amulet, Amulet to look appealing, Pregnancy amulet, Amulet to allay disagreements, Courage amulet, Happiness amulet, Hunting amulet, Amulet against wind and flood, Potency amulet, and Attainment amulet, these paintings are all amply worthy of being deconstructed in terms of their iconographic elements as well.

The containers for amulets have also occasioned works of art. Amulets may be worn on one’s person but they may also be placed in a receptacle of some sort. In the course of their history, such receptacles have taken the form of pouches, medallions, and boxes. Depending on the owner’s circumstances, they might be made from silver or gold or from much more modest materials. Amulets were sometimes folded and wrapped in waxed paper or oilcloth to be suspended from a cord around one’s neck, concealed in one’s armpit, or attached to one’s garment. Bedouin girls wear some amulets like brooches. Another type of amulet is worn like a baldric, taking the form of a cross-shoulder strap.


Can Göknil has designed amulet-receptacles resembling the cases for ancient Mesopotamian cylindrical seals in which zinc plates are rolled up into cylinders and decorated with engraved figures. Baldrics could often be quite elaborate and so she has decorated their amulets with lead spangles that are stamped with a barely discernible star-and-crescent motif. Appearing on spangles resembling, from a distance, the ones that used to appear on old women’s headdresses, this symbol suddenly transforms the object it decorates into something from our own time as if it were making a reference to the cryptic currency of amulets today.

Another medium in which the artist enjoys working is acrylic and gold leaf on wood, examples of which appeared in her previous shows (such as the “baker’s paddle” in Creation Myths). The figures are executed austerely like those in her canvases and are framed by a lead frame embedded in the wood. Lead itself, a material that the artist has employed in previous works, is of course an important element in the world of spells and magic, especially in molybdomancy, a form of spell-casting still practiced and widely believed in today. In her works with titles like Amulet to increase milk, Amulet to deceive jinns, Affection amulet, Lead amulet, Devil’s knot, Amulet to ward off evil, and First-beard amulet, the artist combines wooden panels with zinc cylinders.

In terms of their contemporary and compassionate interpretation and of their rich forms derived from different techniques and materials, the original works that Can Göknil has come forth with on the theme of “amulets” are a superb display of her artistic skill. At a time when the world is preparing to embark upon a new millennium and all our attentions are focused on the future, her work is proof that visions thousands of years old can still inspire artistic creativity to such a degree and an indication that, despite all the changes and development that may take place, the vast, deep river flowing through the human race will continue to nourish art in the future as well. Like an amulet, the realization of this inspires confidence; and that feels good.
[1] Divanü Lügat-it Türk Tercümesi, trans Besim Atalay (Ankara: TDK Yayınları, 1986), III:228.

[2] Atalay II:19.

[3] Atalay III:96.

[4] İslam Ansıklopedisi (Ankara: MEB Yayınları, 1993), X:599.

[5] İslam Ansıklopedisi V/1:172-173.

[6] For the information in this section, see Abdülkadir İnan, Tarihte ve Bugün Şamanizm: Materyaller ve Araştırmalar (Ankara: TDK Yayınları, 1972), 14 et passim.

[7] For the information in this section, see İslam Ansıklopedisi X:599 et passim.

[8] İslam Ansıklopedisi, Müslim, “Kıtab al zühd ve kitab al-salam.”

[9] İbni Haldun, Mukaddime, trans Turan Dursun (Ankara: Onur Yayınları, 1977), 137 ff.

[10] For the information in this section, see Fuat Köprülü, “Firdevsi”, İslam Ansıklopedisi IV:649 ff.

[11] For the information in this section, see Malik Aksel, Anadolu’da Halk Resimleri (İstanbul: İstanbul University Faculty of Literature Publications, 360, 1960).

[12] İsmet Zeki Eyüboğlu, Anadolu Büyüleri (İstanbul: Der Yayınları, 1987), Sevgi Büyüleri (İstanbul: Der Yayınları, 1995).

[13] Under “curing illness” we find these spells: “eliminating jaundice”, “getting rid of warts”, “preventing vomiting in babies”, “curing hiccups”, “curing rheumatism”, “stopping chest pains”, “stopping coughing”, “eliminating trembling”, “curing ear-aches”, “curing eye pain”, “curing backaches”, “curing headaches”, “curing stomach-aches”, “curing mooniness”, “curing leg-cramps”, “making children sleep”, “restoring sight”, “restoring speech”, “curing aching joints”, “curing neuroses”, “facilitating teething”, “facilitating childbirth”, “preventing a child’s death”, “curing whooping-cough”, “curing stuttering”, “stopping nose-bleeds”, “preventing madness”, “putting on weight”, “preventing miscarriages”, “preventing hair loss”, “curing hangnail”, “preventing pregnancy”, “curing boredom”, “getting rid of distress”, “preventing insomnia”, “preventing rabies”, “curing tinnitus”, “reducing stomach bloat”, “preventing snoring”, “healing wounds”, “curing mange”, “stopping nausea”, “eliminating pains”, “encouraging a baby to nurse”, “preventing fear of cemeteries”, “preventing fear of unemployment”, “preventing fearfulness in children”, “preventing bed-wetting in children”, “encouraging one’s beard to grow”.

Under the heading “protecting against evil” we find spells such as “protecting babies”, “protecting a mother immediately after childbirth”, “confusing enemies”, “protecting one’s home”, “protecting against lightning”, “vexing enemies”, “binding enemies”, “preventing harm”, “protecting against snakes”, “warding off accidents”, and “protecting crops” that are intended to ward off dangers to one’s life and property that may come from other people, living things, or nature. In addition, there are spells offering protection against dangerous jinns and demons such as “protecting the home against jinns”, “binding monsters”, “purging evil”, “unbinding spells”, and “warding off bewitchment”.

Spells in the “realization of wishes” category consist of matters related to one’s expectations of the world such as “becoming eloquent”, “being happy”, “being knowledgeable”, “growing up”, “knowing one’s destiny”, “reading astrological signs”, “ensuring success”, “finding a spouse”, “giving birth to a beautiful girl”, “making two people love one another”, “remaining beautiful”, “eliminating longing”, “changing one’s luck”, “ensuring progeny”, “ensuring fidelity in one’s daughter-in-law”, “causing fruit to ripen”, “making a chimney smoke properly”, “eliminating damp”, “making the sun shine”, “increasing one’s earnings”, “increasing a cow’s milk”, and “becoming rich”.

[14] Claude Lévy-Strauss, Din ve Büyü (İstanbul: Yol Yayınları, 1983).

[15] Aksel, 171.