Contemporary soldiers add religious medals and prayer beads to their dog tags.
Contemporary soldiers add religious medals and prayer beads to their dog tags.

Humans have always adorned themselves with decorative representations of deeply held beliefs. Bone and feather, bronze or gold, religious medals and pendants are constant reminders of the qualities of a pictured deity, or a protective amulet to keep the wearer safe from harm. The Zuni people, direct descendants of the mysterious Anasazi of the American Southwest, wore heishi necklaces with powerful animal and bird fetish-bead pendants. Early Catholic colonists in Maryland wore silver religious medals imprinted with images of the saints.

Miraculous Medals, Silver Saints

Christians wear pendants in the shape of crosses and crucifixes to declare and define their faith and Catholics, in particular, use medals struck with images of saints and sacred shrines to protect them from harm or temptation. A Miraculous Medal is a Marian devotional medal, said to have been designed by Mary, the Mother of God, and given to a nun in a Catholic convent in Paris in 1830. The Blessed Virgin promised that all who wore the medals around their necks would experienced extraordinary blessings. The miracles attributed the the medal earned it its name. Medieval Christian pilgrims, who set out for a holy shrine seeking indulgences and salvation, wore scapulas, two squares of cloth or leather, suspended around the neck and embossed with pictures of Mary, Jesus, a sacred heart or other religious image. At the shrine, they might receive a religious medal as a souvenir.

The Om and the Lotus

Buddhists and Hindus share some religious iconography that may be worn as a medal or pendant on a necklace, or attached to a mala, prayer beads. The lotus stands for purity. It is the image of a being with roots in the mud -- or the profane -- and exquisite blossom reaching for the sky -- or the divine. An Om is a Sanskrit symbol for the primordial sound, the seed sound from which all creation is born. The shape of the Om also replicates the dancing Shiva Nataraj, with arms extended and one foot lifted in the exultation of existence. A devout Buddhist might wear a medal impressed with Buddha or Guan Yin, goddess of compassion. A Hindu medallion could feature Ganesh or the fierce goddess Kali.

Mezuzah and Magen David

The Star of David on a pendant is a symbol of Judaism and of the Jewish state of Israel. The shape of the six-pointed star, composed of two, entwined, equilateral triangles, has been strongly associated with Judaism since the 17th-century. Today, the Magen David is on the Israeli flag -- and around the neck of some devout and patriotic Jews. A mezuzah is an amulet of protection, traditionally attached to the front door of a Jewish home. The mezuzah -- the word actually means "doorpost" -- is a small, rolled parchment inscribed with Hebrew verses from the Torah, including the prayer "Shema Ysrael." It is prepared according to age-old ritual and contained in a decorative case. A miniature version of a mezuzah may be worn as a pendant on a necklace as both protection and declaration of the Jewish faith.

Sacred Scarabs

Scarabs were sacred emblems to the Egyptians -- tiny, carved amulets with protective powers, meant to be worn on cords as pendants. Heart scarabs and winged scarabs were especially auspicious for gaining a soul entry to the underworld after death. But the living wore them as talismans against evil and as invitations to the gods to bestow good fortune in this life and the next. The clay or precious stone carvings bore images of sacred animals, names of pharaoh-gods, inspiring phrases and magical prayers to Amun, Re, or another deity. Today, copies of antique scarab amulets are worn as jewelry.