To start with a metaphor or an image can be a rich and productive way to explore a complex set of ideas – more appealing to the imagination and less rooted in any individual’s point of view than less figurative ways of talking.

During this project, a wide range of people have participated in discussion, research, and creative activities, all focusing on their own language and their use of it in everyday life. Participants included school children, young people using the local youth service, adults in community groups, youth and literacy workers, artists, writers, teachers, and university researchers from different subjects. Rather than starting with an academic account of language, we used a particular metaphor as a catalyst to get the conversation going: the metaphor of ‘language as talisman’.
For many of the participants, academic accounts of language were not especially appealing to the imagination and even the university researchers tended to use different ones, depending what department they were from! Using the image of ‘Language as Talisman’ allowed us to talk about language in sophisticated ways by exploring how well the metaphor itself worked. The image of ‘Language as Talisman’ is productive because it captures a range of different intuitions that a lot of us have about role of language in everyday life.

Power and Authority

The purpose of talismans is to influence the flow of power and protect the wearer from harm. Describing the work of the Renaissance magician Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, the historian Alistair Kwan says: “Agrippa … suggests making images to draw down beneficent celestial influences and offers an overflowing (and only minimally organised) thesaurus of information whence to design them.” (‘Tycho’s Talisman’, in Early Science and Medicine)  The image and text below are taken from Agrippa’s guide to making moon talismans.


Language too can provide a way of exercising power and protecting yourself from harm, if you know the right thing to say in the right situation … and the right way to say it too.




This fortunate moon being engraven on Silver, renders the bearer there of grateful, amiable, pleasant, cheerful, honoured, removing all malice, and ill will. It causeth security in a journey, increase of riches, and health of body. 


Talismans appear in many traditions. In contrast to Agrippa’s astrological talismans, Medieval Christians often carried symbols of their faith to protect themselves from harm. “The most common of these amulets was the agnus dei, a small wax cake, originally made out of paschal candles and blessed by the Pope, bearing the image of the lamb and flag. This was intended to serve as a defence against the assaults of the Devil.” Keith Thomas (Religion and the Decline of Magic)


Language use is also influenced by the traditions of the communities in which we live.  How we employ language to protect ourselves and exercise power depends upon the specific practices that surround us and the ways in which individuals draw upon them.




Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

Narrative and Stories

Talismans often appear in stories. Wise old characters offer them to young heroes as they undertake the dangerous journey of life. The psychoanalyst Carl Jung says this about the place of talismans in folk narratives: “Often the old benefactor in fairy tales … gives the necessary talisman, the unexpected and improbable power to succeed, which is one of the peculiarities of the unified personality in good or bad alike.” (The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious)


Language also has an important place in the narrative of a person’s life – to many participants, the language of the playground, the lyrics of old songs, the words associated with rites of passage like marriage or funerals were all important aspects of their sense of who they were.




To the girl looking for her brothers he gives a ball of thread that rolls towards them. The prince who is searching for the kingdom of heaven is given a boat that goes by itself.

Materiality and Craft

Talismans are objects. They are made of materials like metal, wood or paper. They are worked on and carefully crafted into the right form. The French anthropologist  Marcel Mauss writes poetically about these processes:“Magicians prepare images from paste, clay, wax, honey, plaster, metal or papier mâché, from papyrus or parchment, from sand or wood. The magician sculpts, models, paints, draws, embroiders, knits, weaves, engraves.”

(A General Theory of Magic)


Language often takes material forms: people hold on to love letters and choose the text to adorn a headstone carefully. Language can also be crafted – into a poem or a speech for a wedding or a story to share with others.




The magician makes jewellery, marquetry and heaven knows what else. These various activities provide him with… his symbols. He makes gree-grees, scapulars, talismans, amulets, all of which should be seen as continuing rites.