Amulet: The Great Family Riddle

From left to right: Ulrica, Sophie, Thomas, Dennis, Eleanor (my grandmother), Margaret, Allan and Leona. Taken in Chicago 1917
The story is this:
My great-grandmother, Sophie Ayres married my great-grandfather Dennis Kelly on December 27th, 1899 - the cusp of a new century - and they proceeded to have six children. The children's names, in the order of their birth, were as follows:


Now, what do you notice about the names, other than Ulrica is a rather unusual choice? Yes, that's right, the first letters spell the word "AMULET". If that was a coincidence, what would the odds be of the letters spelling out anything, let alone a word of some mystery and magic? On the other hand, if it was intended, how could anyone at that time be sure of having exactly six children who all survived past childhood? And given that my mother remembers her Granny as a rather sharp-tongued, stern woman, it is hard to imagine Sophie as young and in love and planning her future family so poetically. (Apparently Dennis left her with the six kids - if anything, he was the romantic ne'er-do-well type.)

In any case, this little story has always been a source of some wonder in our family. I think we felt in some way blessed, even a generation or so removed. And it points to the power of naming, which brings us to the source of real magic: intention. When we focus our attention and our heart and our energy on something, we are shaping the future with our intention. I believe this how we make art*.

So my upcoming workshop on making amulets is actually a slightly subversive way of introducing the idea of working with intention, and from the heart. It is unlikely that any of my students will be shaman or priests or wiccans, but I don't think we need to come out of any of those belief systems to be able to make amulets. Amulets are objects invested with protective powers, and what greater protective power can we give than our attention, and our love? The objects we make may reference traditional amulets, and symbols and materials that have been believed to carry special powers in various cultures, but it is the intangible energy that we transfer from ourselves to the object that makes it meaningful and potent.

As stitchers we know this. With each prick of the needle, with each measuring of the thread, we give life to our cloth, we give life to the world. We connect, we hold, we honour, we protect.

Love to you all in 2015.

*(Pretty flakey, I know, especially for someone who went to art school at the height of Marxist-Feminist Post-Structuralism. What can I say? I guess there's room for more.)


  1. Anonymous7:25 AM

    I LOVE amulets, probably because I'm a ne're -do-well Catholic and if there is any group that believes in the power of crosses and medals and the like, it's the Catholics. Your workshop's going to be fascinating and charmed. By the way, I'm sure you already have it but if not, I highly recommend, Amulets, Sacred Charms of Power and Protection by Sheila Paine. Really fascinating. Jean-Pierre

  2. Anonymous7:43 AM

    Wow! Am I ever late. I just read your previous blog post and see that there are are already a couple of Sheila Paine recommendations. My bad (does anybody say that any more?).

    Japan is, as you know, a cornucopia of amulets. There are a myriad of charms and toggles that will protect and support every aspect of your life at the temples and shrines. Even the food during New Years is like an edible amulet. Everything has meaning and power.

    If you can find it, I highly recommend Symbols of Japan by Merrily Baird, Rizzoli International Publications. It's a beautiful and comprehensive guide to all the animals, objects and plants that have been used for protection and guidance in Japan. Jean-Pierre

  3. love the magic in the naming of your great aunts and great uncles Heather! those magical synchronicities in life aka the flighty nature of chance make life far more interesting!
    I wrote about this idea back in 2006-
    & this is the best quote ever -
    ” In Madasgascar, large white “goat’s eye” beads can miraculously bring the wearer things that do not actually exist, and so are deemed particularly magical.”
    from page 101 of “Amulets : a world of secret powers, charms and magic” by Sheila Paine Thames & Hudson 2004

  4. A very interesting premise, Heather. Not being shamanic or wiccan myself, i do think working with our hands and oft times scrounged/scavenged/hand made materials, we can make some connection to another power. You *know* i'm not one of the breathless many who worship any form of "goddess", but i do like the idea of *hoping* that i can make magic or create some force or power or connection of my own, with my needles and threads, my own hands and my own strange head.

  5. Anonymous4:28 PM

    the Irish in me does believe - in the little people and other unseen magic so why not amulets. love the family story, quite strange indeed. love and best wishes for the new year. "hi" to J-P.

  6. Anonymous10:55 PM

    "Hi" back at ya. Irish are you? That's grand, as they like to say over there. The Irish are a uniquely magical people. They understand the power of words, stringing them together in creative ways and fashioning stories around the fire. It's no accident Irish writers have garnered so many Nobel literature prizes. I have a feeling it has something to do with surviving on an island. Life on a rock in the middle of a tempestuous sea calls for charms and spells and powerful places. To an enchanted year! Jean-Pierre

  7. love to you too Heather, how I wish I lived a little nearer so I would be able to attend your class, however in lieu of actual attendance, I'll keep on stitching with the intention to connect, and sometimes even with your family in mind, surely the magic will rub off

  8. Anonymous3:57 PM

    wishing both you and J-P an enchanted year. can't think of any land with more charms, spells and powerful places than Japan - maybe that is why my Irish self feels so at home there.


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