This mano fico was probably made and used in Roman occupied Egypt between the first century BCE and third century CE (over two thousand years ago). It is made of bronze and was once fastened to a cord and worn on the body, possibly around the neck or wrist. It is in the form of a clenched fist with the thumb protruding through the fingers.
This is the first of our Object of the Month blogs. Every month we shall look at a new magical object from the collection...
This month it is a mano fico, excavated in what was once Roman occupied Egypt.
Shades of the dead revisit the living
Given the antiquity of this object, it is reasonable to assume that it was used in relation to a specific calendar custom in Ancient Rome. During Lemuria (in the month of May) shades or the souls of the dead revisited their old homes. It was up to the pater familias or head of the family to revere these spirits whilst making sure that they did not move back in again! The mano fico gesture was used in the following ritual:
‘When midnight has come and lends silence to sleep… the worshipper who bears the olden rite in mind and fears the gods arises…’ Going barefoot, the man walks through his house and makes ‘a sign with his thumb in the middle of his closed fingers [or mano fico], lest in his silence an unsubstantial shade should meet him.’ After washing his hands in clean spring water, he takes a handful of black beans and throws them away, making sure he doesn’t look where they fall. He says the following charm nine times: ‘These I cast; with these beans redeem me and mine’. The shade follows the man and gathers the beans. The man then ‘clashes Temesan bronze and asks the shade to go out of his house.’ The ritual is completed after saying nine times: ‘Ghosts of my fathers, go forth!’
From Ovid’s Fasti, Book V (c. 8 BCE)
Although this refers to the gesture and not the amulet - it is almost certain that a material amulet was made to constantly protect the wearer from the shades.
The mano fico is still a widely used amulet today, and is especially popular in Brazil. It is now more closely associated with female power and feminine energies. In modern Italy, the gesture is also used in a secular way - as an obscene gesture but also as a means of letting your lover know that you find them attractive - 'I make the fig at you!'
This object is now on show at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in our upstairs Protection display.