Amulet,Talisman,Trinket: The Lore of Blood Coral


Every morning as I drive to work, I am reminded of my maternal grandmother. Right before I had my one and only child, a son, she gave me a special gift. At the time, I never understood just how special the gift was. It must have been around July of 2005 when my grandma’s warm hand opened mine. She placed an odd shaped piece of coral on my palm. I looked at the red natural gem for a moment, and then asked “what should do with it?” She said that I needed it for protection, and after I gave birth that I should “pin it on her grandson.” My grandma told me that there would be people jealous of the baby and the attention he would get, so that I should be sure he used the coral. My grandma Corine did many things that I would never get to fully understand until I became a woman. What she believed we needed protection from was mal ojo or the evil eye.

As a child, I soaked up many of her traditions and beliefs, often unknowingly. I never took the time to learn more than that. I did know that all children were gifted with coral so of course I saved it. I made Daryn a pin, and he would wear it. I can’t remember when he stopped wearing the pin, but my grandmother passed away a little over two years after my son was born. I have only one photograph of her holding him in her arms. Naturally, I saved the precious piece. I made it into a necklace for me, and would wear it and think of my grandma. Later I decided to hang the necklace from the mirror in my vehicle. Maybe for protection? It still hangs there almost 5 years since my grandma died. For a few weeks, I have been wanting to look into the lore of coral. I finally took the time to do so this week. I was shocked to learn that the practice of gifting a child with red coral is not specific to New Mexico, yet alone to one culture.

A piece of red coral given to me by my maternal grandmother was used to make this necklace. The "horn" or "branch" was much longer at one time, but a piece broke off a few years back. Before it was a necklace, my son would wear the gem as a pin for protection. Now this necklace is hanging from the mirror in my vehicle for protection on the road.

According to Bussoletti, Cottingham, Bruckner, and Roberts, in the Mediterranean, a coral amulet has “distinctive characteristics.” These characteristics stem from “the complex mythological content that surrounds it, tying it to the blood of the head of Medusa that Perseus decapitated, blood that would color and petrify the sea.” They published these ideas in Red Coral Science, Management, and Trade: Lessons from the Mediterranean. In Documents of British Superstition in Oxford, by Ettlinger, the author concluded that folklore of coral declared the gem “one of the most popular amulets by reason of its red colour-since a white coral has never been used as an amulet.”

I also located something called Chinese Charms: Hidden Meaning of Symbols and there it is said that “red coral is considered particularly auspicious.” In Italian Folklore of Italy, red coral was “used to protect mothers and their babies, and trees that bear fruit.” In the Important Symbolism of Middle Eastern Jewelry, “a talisman which is used for the elderly, women, children and babies,” often utilized “antique Mediterranean red coral and amber beads.” Roman Sexualities by Hallett and Skinner said that “women are vigilant in protecting the babies once they are born.” Some “baby amulets” included “branches of coral.”

Thomas Forbes with the Yale University Departments of Anatomy and the History of Science and Medicine published a paper titled Chalcedony and Childbirth: Precious and Semi-Precious Stones as Obstetrical Amulets. In a section titled Gems of Biological Origin, Forbes wrote that “one of the most interesting was coral,” he called the gem a “protective charm,” and said that it was “recommended a piece of coral hung about the neck as a birth charm.”

I did locate a vast amount of information about the mythology of coral, and the origins of these beliefs runs way, way back. One of the most interesting pieces I located was a paper titled The Evil Eye in Italian Art by S.A. Callisen. The paper was published in 1937 in The Art Bulletin (Vol. 19, No. 3). In a nutshell, Callisen mentions some of the following: peoples of the earth have feared the power of the evil eye, and an earnest faith in its malign potency can be traced to the dawn of folklore; in paintings and sculptures a branch of coral can be seen hanging from the Christ Child’s neck; a branch of coral, hung about the neck of an infant, is a protection from harm as a prophylactic against the evil eye; writers on magic were insistent that an amulet of red coral was much the most potent; and some believed that the coral branch was similar to a Roman phallic charm. There are references to coral and color changing. It is said that when the wearer is ill, the blood coral will change from red to a “pale” color.

In Women’s Tales from the New Mexico WPA: La Diabla a Pie, there is a story titled Remedios that is from the 1940s. There it is written, that “babies were harmed by mal ojo (evil eye). It was said that some persons could hurt babies with evil eye or mal ojo unconsciously. When baby was made sick by anyone who had mal ojo.” It is believed that “to protect little children from mal ojo, strings of coral beads were tied around their necks.” So yes- there are local stories, however, the lore of coral is cross-cultural and much deeper than I anticipated.

In the future, I would like to study what I see as the symbolism of coral, as water is one of my power symbols. That is a whole other topic for another long night. For now, if you would like to learn more about the lore of this biological gem, you should read The Evil Eye in Italian Art by S.A. Callisen. There was a great amount of scholarly research that went into that piece. The link is below. That paper is mind blowing! It turns out, there was a significant amount of history rooted in my grandmother’s beliefs about coral and children. It just takes a little looking…


Sources:

Various online sources.

The Art Bulletin, Vol. 19, No. 3 (1937, pages 450-462)- The Evil Eye in Italian Art by S.A. Callisen- http://www.jstor.org/stable/3045692

Women’s Tales from the New Mexico WPA: La Diabla a Pie (page 29)- Edited by Tey Diana Rebolledo and Maria Teresa Marquez

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