Religious medals are used by people in many cultures for protection and to garner good fortune. While the conflation of luck, protection, and religious devotion is not condoned in orthodox monotheistic religions, in theological systems that include many deities, it is common to identify specific gods or saints with specific requests, such as money-drawing or prevention of certain diseases.
The medals shown on this page depict some popular Hindu deities, but they were not made in India. Instead they originate in Thailand, a country where finely detailed brass castings are a speciality in the amulet markets. (For other Thai amulets, see also the page on palad khiks (penis amulets).
These two medals depict Kali, an Indian goddess who is particularly popular in the region around Calcutta. Although records of her worship date back less than 2,000 years, it is widely assumed by scholars that she represents a survival of a Dravidian (pre-Aryan) goddess. Kali is typically shown as a deranged or wrathful half naked woman, and is often -- as here -- depicted dancing upon the corpse of her consort, the god Siva. She is multi-armed; her tongue protrudes; she wears a garland of skulls, holds a severed head in one hand, and brandishes a hooked blade called a kartri, along with other weapons. Yet to most of her devotees, she is a loving Mother, despite her ferocity. These medals are about 1 1/2 inches high, cast in brass, and have hanging loops soldered onto their flat backs.
The medal to the right depicts Durga, an ancient warrior-protector goddess who in modern times is often equated with the goddess Kali. Actually, the worship of Durga shows traces of her once having been a grain goddess and patroness of married life. (For example, in many villages, her effigies are placed on mounds of clay into which five types of grain have been pressed and embedded.) In any case, Durga is a multi-armed Dravidian (pre-Aryan) goddess, and there are many contradictory popular accounts of her origin and exploits. This medal shows one of her most famed feats, the killing of the man-monster Mahisha, who took the form of a bull and attacked the gods. Durga, riding her lion (alternatively, her tiger) -- here reduced to house-cat size -- and carrying the weapons of all the gods (the discus, noose, arrows, goad, and so forth) eventually cut the head off the demon with her kartri and then stabbed him to death with a spear, sometimes, as here, shown to he identical with the trident or trisula of the god Siva, her husband and consort. This medal is about 1 1/2 inches high, cast in brass, with a hanging loop at the top.
The goddess Sarasvati, shown on the medal to the left, is of ancient origin. She was originally the tutelary deity of the Sarasvati River, but when an as-yet-unexplained ecological tragedy overtook that body of water and it dried up in prehistoric times, the civilization that honoured her was absorbed by those of neighboring regions and she became instead a goddess of music and song. Thus she is depicted here in her contemporary form, playing a musical instrument called the vina. As was the case with most of the regional Indian goddesses, Sarasvati was paired off with an appropriate god, and in her case, the deity with whom she is associated is Brahma, the Creator. Their union is more of a formality than a cosmic marriage, though, for Brahma is not the focus of much popular worship these days, while Sarasvati is considered to be the particular benefactress of singers and musicians.
Ganesha, shown on the next two medals, is among the most beloved of Indian deities. The elephant-headed son of Siva and his consort (the goddess Parvati in most of the tales, but also sometimes identified as the goddess Durga). Ganesha is often shown reclining hedonistically, as befits a bringer of good luck, wealth, fine foods, and luxury. However, as the son of Siva, who is sometimes called Nataraja ("Lord of the Dance"), Ganesha sometimes assumes the same dancing pose taken by his father when Siva dances to destroy the world. In this form, Ganesha is an opener of the way and remover of all obstacles. His identifying weapon is an elephant goad, to move stubborn people, but he is not always shown bearing it. Sometimes, he carries a conch shell, or receives offerings of sweet foods. The brass medal at left is 1 1/2 inches high and shows Ganesha dancing; the one at right is 1 inch high and depicts the god reclining with a basket of food-offerings at his feet.
Most Christians are familiar with Catholic holy medals, which are typically oval in shape, cast in pewter or sterling silver, and depict a different saint on each side. Except for the fact that it is cast in copper, this Hindu medal is the cultural equivalent of such a holy medal. One side shows Lord Siva, the creator-destroyer god, and the other depicts his son Ganesha. Four-armed Siva is iconographically recognizable by his yogic posture, his near-nakedness, the tiger-skin on which he sits, and his characteristic trident and double-headed drum. He also wears a necklace of skulls and holds a skull malla (the Hindu equivalent of a Catholic rosary) at his left knee, encouraging his devotees to worship him by the recitation of prayers. The image of Ganesha on the reverse of this medal is unusual in that the normally hedonistic elephant-headed god is seated in a yogic posture on a throne of skulls, thus identifying him closely with his ascetic and renunciatory father.
Hindu gods and goddesses appear or are described on the following Lucky W Amulet Archive web pages:
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