Amulets, which are common to all cultures, have very ancient origins in prehistoric times. Numerous examples dating from the Upper Palaeolithic (beads, pierced shells, animal teeth, etc.) demonstrate that their use was directly linked to the first manifestations of the expression of a belief in magic and of funerary traditions. Egypt is no exception to the rule. But it is mainly from the Neolithic (beginning of the sixth millennium BC), when the sedentary population overcame the problems connected with agriculture, with animal husbandry and with new technologies - weaving and pottery - that the examples increase significantly in the Badarian Period. They were to diversify in course of the subsequent Predynastic and Prethinite periods (ca. 4500-3150 BC).
If excavations of prehistoric sites have produced a large number of amulets, often together with beads, they are usually without an archaeological context; attempts to study them can therefore be problematic, not to say downright deceptive. It is thus difficult to make an informed judgement as to their precise function. They are interesting above all for their remarkable diversity even in these very early periods, and which is also found to a large extent in historic times.
The Egyptians, who thought their environment was dominated by 'powers' (sekhemu), saw certain animals as receptacles for their manifestations. It is thus hardly astonishing to find, among the amulets found in burials from these very early periods, a not inconsiderable number of representations of the fauna of the Nile valley, from the smallest to the largest. The representation of a hippopotamus thus occurs, perhaps worn white the animal was being hunted. The frog, probably symbolic of birth and abundance, appears frequently, as do the fly, the bee and various beetles, as well as birds, of which a stylised type from the end of the Gerzean (3500 BC) suggests a falcon. The dog, shown couchant like Anubis, whom it perhaps represents, is also present. Highly stylised heads of bulls are likewise found, undoubtedly connected with the bull cult in the North. Crocodile figurines portend the veneration that Sobek was to attract in historic times. The list could go on.
There are also many other types of pendants from the Predynastic periods: sometimes in approximately geometric shapes, sometimes suggesting a star or a crescent moon, they were often strung as necklaces, alternating with amulets in animal form. That their role was prophylactic seems certain; it is, however, not possible to be more precise. It seems probable that each group of amulets and each group of pendants acted on a clearly defined range of objectives, and that one did not indifferently wear just any amulet. It would depend on the aim one was seeking to attain: success in the hunt, the hope of fertility, protection from illness. The selection of the raw material and its colour was itself of great importance.
At the end of the Predynastic Period, symbols of gods become more frequent: for example the falcon figurines of this period, made of faience, wood or ivory, prefigure Horus, who appears in historic times. A most significant discovery, dating to the beginning of the Thinite Period, was made at Helwan, near Memphis: two djed pillars and a tit amulet (also referred to as a knot of Isis or girdle of Isis) made of wood were found in the same archaeological context. These symbols, undeniably Osirian, attest that the origins of the funerary role of the great god of Abydos were indeed in the Delta. It was only later that it developed in Upper Egypt. Proof indeed that the discovery of small objects sometimes makes it possible to clarify a point of the utmost importance relating to funerary traditions.
Relatively little evidence from the Thinite Period has been unearthed, but the objects are sometimes of exceptional quality - the bracelet of King Djer (Abydos, Ist Dynasty), for example, which consists of twenty-seven alternating gold and turquoise elements depicting a falcon perched on a serekh (palace facade). Representations of animals, such as the oryx \96 which sometimes carnes the sa sign, the most important symbol of protection - or the bull are common in this period. The bestiary develops further under the Old Kingdom, with the appearance of representations of frogs (abundance and fertility), hippopotami (of which the male, unlike the female, mostly symbolised negative principles), ducklings (probably sustituting for food offerings) and fish.
At the end of this period, the repertory increases and other forms appear, such as representations of humans, usually male, sometimes with animal heads. The sign of life (the ankh), the djedpillar and the scarab - its own efficacy reinforced by the inscriptions sometimes found on the underside of the amulet - also appear at this time. The First Intermediate Period favoured the representation of parts of the human body, such as the foot or the fist. These objects, which accompanied the deceased, protected the parts represented, and if necessary served as substitutes for a damaged part. At this time, too, the insignia of royal power, such as the white crown of Upper Egypt and the red crown of Lower Egypt, make their appearance in the tombs of private individuals, bearing witness to the extension of funerary traditions that were originally purely royal.
Under the Middle Kingdom, technological developments included the working of semiprecious stone and the technique of cloisonn\E9, both of which on occasion gave rise to true masterpieces. The scarab became truly recognisable, and was worn either on its own as an amulet or - and this was apparently unprecedented \96 was mounted on rings and also used as a seal.
Amulets in the shape of deities were still uncommon in this period, with the exception of the minor but very popular deities Bes and Taweret (Thoeris). The important members of the pantheon were still absent. At most, they were represented in their animal manifestations, Horus appearing in the form of a falcon, or Hathor in the form of a cow. From the New Kingdom on, however, towards the end of the XVIIIth Dynasty, the trend reversed and theomorphic amulets became the most common. All the major divinities were then represented as amulets, whether it is the Memphite triad (Ptah, Sekhmet and Nefertum) or the Theban (Amun, Mut and Khonsu), Thoth or the leonine goddesses.
The Third Intermediate Period is characterised by the diffusion of new forms, among which representations of the counterpoise of the menat necklace and the aegis should be mentioned, elements linked to solar rebirth and protection. In this period as well, there was a large increase in the number of representations of the Four Sons of Horus, charged with guarding the viscera of the deceased and generally found in the netting that enveloped mummies together with the winged scarab, symbol of solar rebirth.
It is mostly from the Saite Period and the Late Period on that the Isis-Horus-Nephthys triad came into prominence, and there was an increase in such funerary amulets as the headrest and the two fingers; sometimes fashions for earlier amulets, temporarily abandoned, were revived, starting with the sun-in-horizon or the sun between two lions.
Thus, towards the end of Ancient Egyptian history, amulets developed to an extaordinary extent, and their numbers increased greatly. This is mainly for two reasons: the first is a constant in Egyptian thought, which does not sacrifice an old idea in favour of a new one, but preserves and juxtaposes all possible developments of an idea or of a given theme. The second is linked to a popular and national feeling, a need for the Egyptian to affirm his identity in relation to all the foreigners and foreign influences then present in the country. In this sense, the popular success of amulets in the late periods is comparable to that which the cults of various species of animals enjoyed at the same time.