Apotropaic magic (from Greek apotrepein “to ward off” from apo- “away” and trepein “to turn”) is a type of magic intended to turn away harm or evil influences, as in deflecting misfortune or averting the evil eye. The Greeks made offerings to the averting gods (Ἀποτρόπαιοι θεοί: Apotropaioi Theoi), chthonic deities and heroes who grant safety and deflect evil.
Apotropaic magical rituals were practiced throughout the ancient Near East and Egypt. Fearsome deities were invoked via ritual in order to protect individuals by warding away evil spirits. In ancient Egypt, these household rituals (performed in the home, not in state-run temples) were embodied by the deity who personified magic itself, Heka. The two gods most frequently invoked in these rituals were the hippopotamusiform fertility goddess, Taweret, and the lion-demon, Bes (who developed from the early apotropaic dwarf demon-god, Aha, literally meaning “fighter”).
Objects were often used in these rituals in order to facilitate communication with the gods. One of the most commonly found magical objects, the ivory apotropaic wand (see also Birth Tusk), gained widespread popularity in the Middle Kingdom (ca. 1550 – 1069 BCE). These wands were used to protect expectant mothers and children from malevolent forces, and were adorned with processions of apotropaic solar deities. Likewise, protective amulets bearing the likenesses of gods and goddesses like Taweret were commonly worn. Water came to be used frequently in ritual as well, wherein libation vessels in the shape of Taweret were used to pour healing water over an individual. In much later periods (when Egypt came under the Greek Ptolemies), stele featuring the god Horus were used in similar rituals; water would be poured over the stele and—after ritually acquiring healing powers—was collected in a basin for an afflicted person to drink.
Mirrors and other shiny objects were believed to deflect the evil eye. Traditional English “Plough Jags” (performers of a regional variant of the mummers play) sometimes decorated their costumes (particularly their hats) with shiny items, to the extent of borrowing silver plate for the purpose. “Witch balls” are shiny blown glass ornaments, like Christmas baubles, that were hung in windows.
In Ancient Greece, phalloi were believed to have apotropaic qualities. Often stone reliefs would be placed above doorways, and three-dimensional versions were erected across the Greek world. Most notable of these were the urban monuments found on the island of Delos. Grotesque, satyr-like bearded faces, sometimes with the pointed cap of the workman, were carved over the doors of ovens and kilns, to protect the work from fire and mishap.
In Roman art, apotropaic imagery was a common theme. Envy was thought to bring bad luck to the person envied. To avoid envy, Romans sought to incite laughter in their guests by using humorous images. Images such as large phalluses (see fascinus), deformities like hunchbacks, or Pygmies and other non-Roman subjects were common. Romans saw deformity as comical and believed that such images could be used to deflect the evil eye.