Gerhard Richter, Seestück (Seascape), 1975. Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.
- I must have bought the garlic necklace about the same time I first came across the word apotropaic, “believed to protect against evil or bad luck.” It was my first or second year of university, and the word was used to describe the carpet pages typical to Insular illuminated manuscripts, the intricate patterns of which were intended to ensnare demons and sins from entering the holy text that lay beyond. Exorcisms and demons were a regular feature of my childhood, and so this word and its plosives had hooked me; like the djinns tangled in the carpet pages, apotropaic had me in its teeth.
- The garlic necklace was an out of character gift to myself, after finding it in a temporary shop crushed between two franchises. It was the only kind of necklace they sold, a tiny head of garlic, smaller than my smallest fingernail, made of then-bright, now-tarnished silver, strung on a long thin chain. I’d never been attached to a piece of jewelry before, but I wore this necklace every day for the next five or six years, telling anyone who asked that the bulb was intended—of course—to protect me from vampires.
- I’m not quite sure how I arrived at this conclusion; it seemed more like it had arrived at me, fully formed, when I first laid eyes on the bulb. And, to be sure, though there were many difficult, disappointing encounters with men in the years that followed, I always emerged relatively unscathed. I suppose at some point in my mid-twenties I must have found the necklace and its projected significance embarrassing or childish, so I took it off.
- About a month later, a man started turning up at events I was at or had organised. We’d had dinner earlier in the year—just dinner—after which I’d inelegantly ghosted him due to a feeling I couldn’t place. Nothing happened, I told my friends, unsure whether to put emphasis on “nothing” or “happened,” because something had definitely happened, with this man twice my age, beneath the level of conversation and fact and dinner. He was charming and seemed to wear his wounds lightly. It was useless trying to keep my own hidden; he seemed to have caught their scent before I’d crossed his threshold.
- But spring and high summer had passed since the dinner. It was the dog days of August, and there he was again with canine devotion. I was raw from having just cut off a difficult parent, and so this man’s reappearance in my life—and insistence on licking my wounds—was flawlessly timed. Soon I was in deep; he called it love, we both did. I told him about the garlic necklace and he laughed—clearly, he said, I’d taken it off in advance of meeting him, as I would soon be safe, and never again in need of its protection.
- About a month in, he suggested we set up a joint bank account. I had already emptied most of my savings account to pay off his debts, so it didn’t really occur to me to notice that this joint account consisted almost entirely of my earnings. When he remortgaged his flat and put my name on the mortgage for a new one, he told me it was in my best interests, that he wasn’t obliged to, but he wanted me to know I had a home, for good.
- I continued to be bound to that home, and financially drained by it, long after I realized it was hell, long after I had left.
- Of course, I am not trying to suggest that had I continued to wear the garlic necklace I would have escaped this particular bloodsucker, or my own naivety or poor choices. At least not in the sense of cause and effect, one action or its lack setting another in motion. But I do mean it in the sense that I don’t believe a person lives entirely within the confines of their own body, cut off from haptic and relational attachment to the world around them. I think wisdom can pass into folly, and vice versa; I think a person can deposit aspects of what they know or trust into objects or words, in case they themselves ever cease to be a safe vessel.
- In retrospect, perhaps this is the story of my necklace. My younger self suspected I might be vulnerable to vampires, and so the necklace had served an apotropaic function, not by magically keeping monsters at bay, but through physically and symbolically keeping that knowledge about my person. Perhaps in taking off the necklace I was also deciding, on some level, that I was no longer as vulnerable or suggestible as I once was. In trying to puritanically excise magical thinking from my life I was also rejecting such thinking’s vestigial intuition, rendering myself disarmed.
- In Chelsey Minnis’s short poem “The Skull Ring,” the speaker undergoes an internal transformation connected to the silver skull ring they have just been gifted:
Now, when I am rude to those who oppose me, I can just look down at the skull ring. It has ruby chips in the eyes! Ruby chips like the nasty flame in my own eyes when I am insulted or reviled. No one will dare oppose me now in my hometown.
- I see the transformation as internal because the skull ring doesn’t tangibly alter the speaker’s external world. Instead, its ruby eyes reflect back “the nasty flame” that already burns in the speaker’s. The skull ring is a mirror to the speaker’s pre-existing power, a picture through which the speaker can recognize, and thereby summon, their capabilities. As Minnis puts it: “A skull ring is actually a good complement to my diabolical will.”
Ester Krumbachová, Untitled, polaroid (10.75 × 1.85 cm). Photo: Francis McKee.
- “The Skull Ring” is from Minnis’s 2001 collection Zirconia. Zirconia is the common name for Zirconium dioxide, a white crystalline material that is frequently used to simulate diamonds, and the cover of the book is accordingly studded with fake-looking jewels that glisten cartoonishly, evoking a gem-studded reliquary or the luxurious “treasure-bindings” that housed sacred medieval texts. The book’s contents are similarly lapidary, with poems titled “The Aquamarine,” “Supervermilion,” and “Uncut.” As a title, Zirconia invokes themes of superficiality in relation to the value of “real” diamonds, but I read it also as a state of being; kin to its sibling euphoria, zirconia might be a state of wild materiality, the self melted down with its ornaments and distributed between them, as in the last sentence of the book’s final poem:
If you put on an aquamarine choker and look in the mirror and don’t see anything, then you must be the sea.
- Writing about Christian saintly relics, medievalist Caroline Walker Bynum notes the flourishing of holy materials that “bleed, flower, or shine with light when fragmented” in the later Middle Ages. Although verbal blessings would have been infinitely easier to distribute, the clergy found that instead of “mere words,” people had an unquenchable desire for sacred, transformative, apotropaic objects: “(herbs, water, bread, salt, prayer cards, pilgrim badges).” Relics of Christ and the Virgin Mary were the most sought after in an economy that included the body parts and intimate possessions of saints and martyrs, such as the hairs of the 13th-century holy woman Mary of Oignies, which, “preserved apart from her corpse, supposedly came alive for an hour and cured the sick,” or the foot of Agnes of Montepulciano, which “rose from her bier to salute her saintly visitor, Catherine of Siena.”
- I think of these anecdotes when I consider human attachment to objects of significance. While apocalyptic capitalism undoubtedly feeds off and warps our capacity for materialism, I am dubious about capitalism being the bitter root cause, rendering all material attachments inherently corrupt. I think of the witchy, radical artist and costume designer Ester Krumbachová, prominent in the Czech New Wave Cinema of the 1960s, and a frequent collaborator with director Vera Chytilová. In 1966 they worked together on the cult film Daisies; two years later Czechoslovakia was invaded. Many of Krumbachová’s collaborators fled, and she found herself expelled from the unions of art, film and theatre. For the next twenty years she was forced to live under the censorship of the authoritarian regime.
- During this time Krumbachová occupied herself with the creation of magical, protective amulets for herself and her friends, evidence of which has only emerged since the donation of her archive four years ago. In a text reflecting on these archival objects, letters and ephemera, curator Francis McKee writes that Krumbachová worked from her flat, baking clay shapes in her oven to add to amulets that were often heavily researched and personalized for the intended owner or purpose. Her interest in alchemy and the transmutation of materials is evidenced by historical texts in her archive, and connects to her philosophy of costume design, in which she believed that costume was “a carrier of thought.” A statement from a friend, Elisabeth Wennberg, provides an insight into Krumbachová’s method:
I was at a very confusing stage in my life and Ester noticed, she saw… She said: You have a lot of energy and you move very quickly, a vulnerable soul. You are going to need protection and I will send you something that will shield you…
After sometime I received a necklace. It contained objects that I realized had meant a lot to Ester; parts of a rosary, coral pieces from earrings, little magic knots…
It was made with such gentle care and personal effort. To me it became very special and I have always kept it with me during trying moments—in my private life or during work. Sometimes the necklace will attract so much attention that I have to keep it hidden. […] This necklace has a magic essence—it speaks.
- These protective amulets, charms carved out of Krumbachová’s heavily restricted circumstances, are simultaneously craft, magic and healing. They are instructive in how a practice might become a calling, sacred to oneself and others.
- In addition to chronicling the diverse powers of relics, Walker Bynum notes instances of saints who “even seem to have thought of themselves as healing bodies analogous to relics while still alive.” There’s more than just delusion, fetish or sentimentality here. There’s also zirconia—a belief in the power of relation that, in its intensity, dissolves the boundary between self and object, allowing wisdom and intuition to exist fluidly between the two. A person is not an absolute vessel, and your wisest self might just be speaking to you from that charm around your neck.