Antique Omani silver charm
Below you find a large collection of silver amulets and an explanation of the intriguing Zar ceremony to drive out evil spirits.
The Omani princess Emily Ruete / Bibi Salme in her book Memoirs of an Arabian princess 1886 writes: "In order to protect the child against imaginary evil eye, on the fortieth day it is provided with amulets. People in our parts are fond of everything mysterious; the more secretive and impenetrable an affair appears, the more it is believed. Everybody believes in invisible spirits, good and evil . When she was 15 Bibi got a new damascened dress and got ill. The elder experienced people at once new with certainty that I was bewitched , or at least that some jealous being had cast an evil eye on the pretty material. Strictly speaking I should have had a charm said over it . There was hardly any child with us that had not been possessed once of the devil. e.g. when a new born baby cries too much it is surely possessed and steps are immediately taken to exorcise the devil (by putting a string of small onions/garlic (like pearls) around the neck of the child. Grown-up people are also frequently possessed, men only very rarely but women quite often(...)" Comment: Subsequently Bibi describes the ceremony to exorcise the evil spirit in detail (Zar ceremony) . See page 214 / 215 in the Ward and Downey English edition 1888 and or Page 72 / 73 in volume 2 of the first German edition in 1886.
Emily Ruete in Memoirs of an Arabian Princess (1888 Ward & Downey London edition page 64) writes: "Several charms are also attached to the child's body on the fortieth day (after birth) to protect it against the effects of the evil eye. They are called "Hamaje" or "Hafid" and consist of all sorts of things; the lower class using an onion, or a bit of garlic, or small shells, a piece of bone stiched up in leather and worn on the upper arm of the left arm. In the upper classes these kinds of charms are replaced by gold or silver plates worn on a chain round the neck, upon which sentences from the Koran are engraved. The boys wear them only up to a certain age, the girls generally a longer period.. the favourite charm consists of a gold or silver locket of pretty workmanship, likewise worn on a chain, two inches long by one inch wide, enclosing a miniature of the "hurs" (guardian). No person wearing a charm like this bearing the holy name of the Lord, may enter an unclean place- a proof surely of the great reference of a true Mohametan for his Lord and Creator! "
Zwemer (who worked in Oman) in his book "The influence of animism on Islam" 1920 writes: "A Zar is a sinister visitor (zara yezuru) who makes his or her abode and so possess the victim. The Zar ceremony varies by country but in all cases The Zar is propitiated by burning Incense, the Zar dance with music and the (blood) sacrifice. Silver amulets can play a role during the dance (with bells) gifts, after the blood sacrifice when the patient gets new cloths and new silver ornaments. In Bahrain possessed people would wear a signet ring with the name of the particular Zar engraved in a red stone. The ring is washed in blood to make it effective..... Bertram Thomas (advisor to the Sultan of Oman) in his book "Alarms and Excursions" 1931 p 260-262 Describes in detail the Zar ceremony lead by a priestess to exorcise the Jinns from a man. The audience of approx 100 people consists nearly entirely of women! During the ceremony the Zar wants a sacrifice of (animal) blood for the propitiation. A devotee of the Zar cult who is periodically possessed will probably have had his finger-ring washed in the blood of the sacrifice.
Osgood in Notes of Travel or recollections of Majunga, Zanzibar Muscat etc. Salem 1854 page 28 : "Over each doorway is fixed a passage from the Koran, usually written on a piece of paper. In this practice, as many others, may be noticed the superstious belief of the Suahelis in demonomy, an their implicit faith in the power of charms and amulets to keep off evil spirits. The devil, or Shatan, as the call him, is a continued source of annoyance. To relieve the sufferings of demoniacs, goats and black fowls are killed upon the seashore, with exorcising ceremonies; after which a miniature boat is launched, in which his satanic majesty is supposed to take passage. A parting salute of truly aimed stones overturns his conveyance and secures his temporary absence"
Bertram Thomas in his book "Arabia Felix" 1932 page 194-197 describes a relatively simple Zar ceremony to cure a man in the desert. The chief differences were: the audience were not women but men, who did not play a hysterical part in the proceedings: The master of ceremony was a man and not a woman and finally fire was used instead of blood. During the ceremony "the Zar" speaking via the ceremony master wanted a ring. Jenny Balfour-Paul in her book "Indigo in the Arab world" 1997 p 162 writes " The Zar - the word originates from the pre-Islamic Abyssinian sky-god - is a specifically evil spirit that gains possession of a person and causes him or her all kinds of ills, both physical and mental. The Zar is best propitiated at late night ceremonies (avoiding Thursdays or Fridays, the Muslim equivalent of the Christian Sabbath) called darab al-zar. These are presided over by a leader, or shaykha, known as umm al zar (mother of zars), who is often a negress of East African origin. After much dancing and chanting the shaykha draws out the Zar from the body of the possessed, who is usually in a trance by now, and the Zar proceeds to make demands through the shaykha´s mouth. A sacrifice of blood is usually required and other demands include gifts of silver or that the sufferer should don clothing of specific colours , often indigo etc"
The book Oman Adorned a portrait in silver 1997 contains a description of the Zar ceremony on page 210-213 and also addresses the role of silver e.g. silver belts. It is distinctly possible that the Zar belief was brought to Oman from East Africa as a side-product of the slave-trade and that black female slaves introduced it into the Harem to gain some power over their fellow slaves and masters. Even Omani ships carried large round wooden amulets, connected with a rope to its sides! For two fine 19th century examples from Zanzibar see the standard exhibition in the Afrika Museum Berg en Dal (Nijmegen Netherlands) The book Tribes in Oman by JRL Carter 1982 page 169 - page 174 Discusses Omani Folklore with particular focus on magic. He writes " It is in some sense amusing to note that so much of this sort has survived under the very nose of the Ibadiy Imamate whose strict teachings naturally frowns on it" In this context it is not surprising that the Omani silversmiths produced plenty of different silver Amulets to protect against the evil spirits. Wellsted in 1838 on page 321 writes that "the children are burdened with silver ornaments" See also the photo by Zwemer of the two children in the "Oman Photos" section.