Londinium Lite

IN-DEPTH ANALYSIS:

Superstitions

Amulet of jet in shape of Medusa
This snake-headed Medusa was placed in a female burial to ward off evil spirits

The use of amulets and the representation of divine powers and natural forces in jewellery illustrate the deep religious influence that extended into the everyday lives of Roman Londoners. What people wore provides tangible evidence for the beliefs and aspirations held by individuals living in Roman London.

Gold rings were probably worn as protective amulets to protect the life of the wearer and wearing symbols provided mental reassurance. Some symbols were carved onto stone or glass intaglios worn on finger-rings and one such symbol was the snake or serpent which features widely on bracelets, pendants, finger-rings and brooches in Roman London.

Demetrius' lead plaque with inscription in Greek
A charm against the plague

One pendant, a lead plaque with a supplication written in Greek, would have been worn around the neck. The plaque calls upon various named deities, including Apollo, to protect Demetrius, the wearer, for protection from the plague and other contagious diseases, perhaps hopeful that his prayers would be heeded by the gods (see also in Disease and old age in Roman Londoners). It was found on the foreshore at Vintry (VRY89).

Other pendants, carved from Whitby jet, were selected to combat dark underworld forces. Its black colour and electrostatic qualities gave it the power of attraction and endowed jet with mystical properties designed to protect the wearer against evil spirits.

 Jet was especially beneficial when worn by women and jet amulets, as well as other items of jet, have been found in female graves where it would seem that they were deliberately placed to protect the dead and ensure a safe passage to the after-life.

Chalk phallus carved with 'felix'
Good luck charm

Carvings of male genitalia, a universal good-luck charm, were worn on the person either as pendants or as studs worn as decorative mounts on leather belts. As well as bronze examples, others were carved from deer antler, a symbol of human virility.

One example from Monument Street (MFI87) carved from chalk has the motto ‘Good Luck’ scratched on it and its owner may have been hopeful of sexual prowess or was seeking help from the gods for impotence, infertility or a sexually-transmitted disease. Such anatomical offerings seem to have been particularly popular in Gaul and Britain.

Pipe-clay Venus figurine from London
Venus figurine, a cheap import for use at a shrine

Pipe-clay figurines of deities were manufactured in moulds in the Allier region of central France and near Cologne. Goddesses, rather than gods, were favoured and in London the most popular was Venus, represented naked and braiding her hair. The superficial impression is that of an imported deity, whose popularity might suggest that love was one of the principal interests of Londinium.

It is clear, though, that the figurines were part of a Gaulish cult which was probably concerned with general fertility rather than love and beauty. As many have been found in watery contexts it is possible that this Gaulish figure may also have been goddess of springs and streams. In a similar nurturing vein single Mother Goddesses are depicted seated in wicker chairs nursing one or two babies, while others figurines depict birds or animals.

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