"object-idea": is your product a talisman?

One evening Father Steven, the elderly priest who baptized more than one of my nephews and nieces, came over to my mother’s house for dinner. I was there, too.

Father Steven is a lovely guy. Deeply spiritual and very smart. Very learned in theology and the history of the Roman Catholic Church, though not Catholic myself I always looked forward to discussing “The Big Stuff” with Father Steven for hours on end.

That evening over wine and cheese, I was telling Father Steven how during a particularly rough patch in my twenties, somehow I got into the habit of carrying a small Bible around with me everywhere in my day pack. Not quite sure why. Being the good former choirboy, I’ve always read the Bible in bits and bobs, here and there, all my life. I told Father Steven I thought it was rather odd, even though at the time the Bible accompanied me everywhere, I didn’t read it any more than I did in my non-day-pack days. I just liked having it around, as it were.

“Ah, that’s quite common,” said Father Steven. “People have always carried The Bible around as a talisman.”

From Wikipedia: A talisman (from Arabic ????? tilasm, ultimately from Greek telesma or from the Greek word “telein” which means “to initiate into the mysteries”) is an amulet or other object considered to possess supernatural or magical powers.

Basically, a talisman is an object that has been given meaning that far exceeds any actual function. A good luck charm. Or a crucifix. A St. Christopher’s medal. A Star of David. Or that friendship bracelet your girlfriend gave you when you took off to France without her for six months “in order to find yourself” or whatever. A reminder of an idea or an identity.

As is that $150 pair of sneakers that you think are going make your exercise more often, that too is a talisman; that too has totemic power. Or that $400 smartphone that’s going to get you more organized and focused about your career. Or the author’s signature inside the jacket of your favorite book. Or yes, that gapingvoid print that’s going to hang in your office and help you to stay upbeat and motivated when you’re having a blah day. Or getting “Linchpin” tattooed on your arm.

And this is no different than watching some well known tech blogger like Scoble walking out of an iStore, waving his latest Apple gizmo to the video phones and cheering crowd, after he spent three night waiting in line, in order to be fist in the store to buy one. Right then and there, the Apple gizmo has tremendous talismanic power.

And of course, so does your “Object-Idea”, if you’re fortunate enough to have one. Huge power.

Why do we seem to have this insatiable and irrational desire to surround ourselves with talismans, totems and Object-Ideas? Because they represent meaning to us. And like the the cartoon above says, we have an infinite need for that.

[The Object-Idea archive is here.]


  1. I don’t have any talismans, Hugh, but am fascinated by the idea of them. I just received two rosaries of my grandma, who died a few weeks ago. I’d say rosaries were a talisman for her, as they are for a lot of Catholics.

    I discovered this Buddhist reliquary at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts not long ago. It was this tiny ornate metal container that held a small glass ball of colored stones. The colored stones were a replacement for reliquaries that originally held Buddha’s ashes and bones.

    Do you think that a talisman, ideally, is something a person can easily carry around, or can it be something bigger?

    Thanks for your post.

    • I think traditionally talismans have always been considered small. But I’m not an expert.

      Certainly totems can be large. Totem poles are quite big, for example 😀

      Or “For only two years’ wages, I can transform my life with this new Mercedes!” I’ve actually seen people do that, often.

    • I’d somehow fallen into the habit/superstition that I had to wear a certain necklace, as a talisman, such as a St. Christopher, when I went on trips. That way the plane wouldn’t crash, the car wouldn’t wreck, no fairies would appear out and swerve into me, no monsters would jump out from under bridges… you get the picture.

      Last trip I took, just a couple of weeks ago, I decided that I was NOT going to default to that silly talisman around the neck. That it had all become rather burdensome, not to mention just an absurd premise – granting an object magical powers it, nor I, would ever possess.

      But, like Gollum, it became almost a physically exertion for me to take the necklace off and leave it on the counter, at home. I literally had to stand there holding the silly thing for a minute or so, talking myself into departing the house without it.

      But I managed. I left the “dependency” on the counter and hopped into the perceived greater safety of my Volvo, the only car product I will own. Traded up to a totem, eh?

      *whew* I felt safe that way… and motored right on over to another state just fine.

      Now leaving my iPhone at home on the counter? Ha! Like that’ll ever happen.

  2. Realized my talismans are all the animation books I buy from Amazon. Like they’re going to vicariously impart me with the skills necessary to give Disney a run for their money.

  3. Correct, we have an odd need for “things” to provide meaning in our lives, don’t we?
    Why, I can only surmise, but I’m guessing they provide some sort of security blanket in a world that craves certainty and predictability against the storm of time. Of course our mission is futile, but we somehow fail to notice that — by choice, or by circumstance. Think I want to stick with less is more, for now, except when it comes to wonderful books and art … the best good luck charms of all. (p.s. Talking about chickens today in SunnyRoomStudio — don’t see an instant connection, but thought I’d mention it anyway! :)

  4. Jumping off of something SpaceyG said about having a talisman for trips. When my children were babes, I was not comfortable leaving them with relatives while Hubby and I went on trips because I was always worried something would happen to us. How would our children be taken care of. Once we bought life insurance, I wasn’t so uncomfortable. In a sense, that is a talisman for me.

    In thinking more about the Buddhist reliquary I mentioned above, doesn’t having such a reliquary go against the tenants of Buddhism? You know, the no-clinging, it’s all impermanent anyway tenants? Seems kinda strange for them to want relics, eh? Perhaps a practicing Buddhist could explain that conundrum for me.

  5. It’s funny I tend to get tattoos of key events, ideas or emotions in my life…and it’s absolutely a social object because i myself find that it’s meaning changes and evolves along the way. It’s almost always a topic of conversation and it eventually leads me into sharing something that i otherwise wouldn’t have with this person/stranger etc.

    Great post. Thanks!

  6. I’ve never had a talisman and I think its because i’m too practical to put faith in anything which serves no real purpose. Everything I carry around with me has a specific purpose (phone, wallet, keys). I put my wedding ring in a box a few years ago and it has stayed there since – marriage is going great – I just didn’t feel I needed to symbolise it. Am I understanding the true meaning of a talisman and am I alone in not needing one?