• Sigrid van Roode

A hidden fear

Jewellery regularly doubles as protection, as it is worn so close to the body. Often this form of protection is of general nature, but every now and then it makes uses of specific elements to ward off a particular evil. This pendant from Oman hides such an element on its reverse side.

The disc-shaped pendant is known by several names. The most often used name is somt, which is also used for other round pendants of the same size. [1] In one publication it is called kirsh kitab. [2] A similarly shaped pendant with a comparable reverse side is called kokh, again in one publication: this pendant is decorated with gold leaf on its front side rather than an inscription. [3] The pendant carries an inscription on its front side. This is the Throne Verse, one of the most powerful verses of the Quran and often used for protection. On the reverse side, a stylized depiction of a human-shaped figure is engraved. Mostly, this figure is explained as a jinn, held captive by the power of the Throne Verse. As such, the pendant offers protection from evil spirits in general. The figure however is in some cases said to carry a name, and this allows us to catch a glimpse of a very particular fear.

The Bahla Witch

Forster explains the figure as a representation of the Bahla Witch.[4] Bahla, a fortress town in Oman, has a reputation for the presence of both jinn and witches. [5] The pendant would protect the wearer from witchcraft and jinn alike. As this pendant was worn in a much larger area than just Bahla however, this interpretation may well be true for the inhabitants of the town itself, but there is another possibility that would make sense to many women.


Umm as-Subyān

This other explanation is that of the human figure as Umm as-Subyān, ‘Mother of Children’. [6] This female jinn is well known beyond Oman and appears also further on the Arab Peninsula. But who is Umm as-Subyān? In the most benign version, she is said to cause nightmares in children and uncomfortable wet dreams for boys in particular. But, there is more to her than just a night filled with bad dreams. Anne Regourd has researched how this jinn features in Yemeni oral traditions. [7] These tales share a more gruesome side to Umm as-Subyāns character: she lures young children away from their mothers and eats them, and she also takes newborns. Another tale records how she is capable of possessing young men and women, who then can’t seem to marry, no matter how much they try. Regourd concludes that Umm as-Subyān is intent on preventing the arrival of children. She tries to prevent marriage altogether, and if a union does succeed, she takes and kills the offspring. In short, Umm as-Subyān embodies what every woman feared: the inability to have children. [8]


Fertility and magic

Fertility was one of the most fundamental aspects of a woman’s life. Having children was important: they assisted from a young age in the daily running of household and work, and would take care of their parents when these grew old. Not having children could be reason for divorce. Add to that a high infant mortality rate, and the pressure becomes apparent. All over the Arab world, jealous jinn were thought to obstruct attempts at getting pregnant and bearing healthy children. In this respect, Umm as-Subyān is comparable to for example the Qarina in Egypt [9] and La Taba in Morocco [10]. All three target newborns and young children, and cause infertility or miscarriages in young women. Many women took precautions to make sure these jinn were rendered harmless, and these precautions often took the form of personal adornment. In the case of Umm as-Subyān, two ways of averting her are in both the name humans use when talking about her, and the way she is depicted on the pendant. The name ‘Mother of Children’ uses reverse magic. She is called by the exact opposite of her actions, a form often seen in informal magical practices around the world. In the depiction on the pendant, the stylized figure is shackled around her ankles and wrists. Immobilized, she is not able to come for the wearers’ children or prevent her from getting married.


A world of worry

As with anything jinn-related, there is not one definitive identification or final explanation. With the presence of the Throne Verse, the pendant protects against evil influences in general. The tiny shackled figure, in the story of Umm as-Subyān, reveals a world of worry for women, and so the pendant protects them from what well may have been one of their worst fears.


References

See the book chapter on these amulets by James Redman, which discusses the texts and context of precisely this pendant type in much more depth. This chapter was published in Nov 2020, after the writing of this blog post. Highly recommended reading!


[1] A. Forster 2000. Disappearing Treasures of Oman. Archway Books, Somerset, p. 38-39

[2] P. Shelton, R. Richmond & M. Morris, Oman Adorned.

[3] J.S. Rajab 1998, Silver Jewellery of Oman. Tareq Rajab Museum, Kuwait, p. 63

[4] Forster 2000, p. 40

[5] See L.J. Borger 2011, By the Pricking of My Thumbs, Something Wicked This Way Comes: Omani Perceptions of the Supernatural. Independent Study Project (ISP) Collection. 1039., for a discussion of the supernatural in Omani society.

[6] P. Shelton, R. Richmond & M. Morris, Oman Adorned, p. 102; L. Mols, Kunst uit Zilver. Traditionele sieraden van Oman, in: L. Mols & B. Boelens (red) Oman, p. 137

[7] A. Regourd 2012, Représentations d'Umm Sibyan dans les contes yéménites : de la dévoreuse d'enfant à la djinniyya possédant les humains, in: A. Caiozzo & N. Ernoult (eds), Femmes médiatrices et ambivalentes. Mythes et imaginaires, Paris, Colin, pp. 63 - 72

[8] Regourd 2012, p. 72

[9] See my article in RAWI Magazine for the qarina

[10] J. Bois, La Sorcellerie au Maroc, nouvelle édition 2014, Dar al-Amane, Rabat p. 198.

Materiality of Magic-series

In the Materiality of Magic-series, I will be sharing more on these capacities of jewellery and personal adornment. It is in these expressions that we learn about the people themselves: what they feared, hoped and wanted, what their life looked like. In this way, jewellery offers us a view from within, an intimate glimpse on the life of its wearer. To me, that is the true power of jewellery and personal adornment.