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Superstitions and Apotropaic Magic: From Ancient to Modern Times

Crouching female figure, ca. 5800-4500 BCE. Gift of Elisabeth French. Benaki Museum.

In the ancient world, superstitious beliefs were an important part of everyday life and a serious concern for all members of society. The ancient Greek term for these superstitious beliefs was deisidaimonia. The superstitions were grounded in the belief that people, both living and dead, had the capacity to send bad luck and negative energy to other people. For the living, they could choose to do this to an enemy or someone who had offended them in some way. For the deceased, if they had not been granted proper burial or due respect, they may choose to haunt those who wronged them and bring them bad luck as punishment. Such vengeful characters and spirits are a common theme in ancient Greek tragedy.

Apotropaic magic was any form of magic designed to turn away such harm, ward off evil and deflect misfortune sent by vengeful beings. This figurine, depicting a crouching woman, was worn as an amulet for this exact purpose. An amulet (apotropaion) was any object believed to possess the power to protect its owner from negative energy, much like a good luck charm. This female figurine would have been threaded on a necklace to be worn around the neck or worn on a sash across the body. The crouching position recalls dances performed by women in ancient Greek religious rituals. In addition to being displayed on them, women often used amulets themselves for the protection of their own children, as many vases have been found that depict children wearing a variety of different talismans. Ancient Greek women therefore both participated in and used the powers of apotropaic magic.

These superstitious beliefs and their associated amulets did not perish with their ancient adherents. Rather, many have persisted into the modern world and remain an important part of numerous cultures across the globe. A number of examples can be observed here in Melbourne, particularly among the communities of Greeks and Italians. For example, a human glare intended to curse the recipient with misfortune or bad luck is known as the Evil Eye and can be averted by wearing various different amulets, usually featuring the eye symbol and the heavenly colour blue. Wearing black clothing at funerals is also an ancient superstition still observed in the modern Western world. It is believed that wearing black shows respect to the deceased and their family, while wearing bright colours would insult the deceased because it is symbolic of the light of life, which they no longer enjoy. Lastly, good luck charms and gestures are abundant in modern times. Horseshoes, acorns, four-leaf clovers, coins, crossing our fingers, ladybugs, dice, lucky numbers, the list goes on! Evidently, superstitions and apotropaic magic were important in the ancient world and still are today.



  • Cartwright, M. 2016. “Magic in Ancient Greece.” Ancient History Encyclopaedia.

  • Chryssanthopoulou, V. 2008. “The Evil Eye among the Greeks of Australia: Identity, Continuity and Modernization.” In Greek Magic: Ancient, Medieval and Modern, edited by J.C.P. Petropoulos, 106-118. London and New York: Routledge.

  • Collins, D. 2008. “Binding Magic and Erotic Figurines.” In Magic in the Ancient Greek World, 64-103. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

  • Johnston, S.I. 2008. “Magic and the Dead in Classical Greece.” In Greek Magic: Ancient, Medieval and Modern, edited by J.C.P. Petropoulos, 14-20. London and New York: Routledge.

  • Marinatos, N. 2008. “Magic, Amulets and Circe.” In Greek Magic: Ancient, Medieval and Modern, edited by J.C.P. Petropoulos, 10-13. London and New York: Routledge.


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