Dealing with Danger: The Practices of Keeping and Discarding Magical Letters

Pp. 24-36

  • Daria Radchenko
Keywords: apotropaios, chain letter, framing, heavenly letter, textual amulet, written folklore


Disposing of a piece of paper with a textual apotropaios might be even more problematic than storing or sharing it. A perfect example is a type of amulet named “heavenly letters”, “luck letters” or “chain letters”. Such a letter is often framed by its owner as an object or sacred/magic artifact which can act and produce non-beneficial effect on its own, without any human agency: one does not necessarily need to read or otherwise handle a luck letter to receive bad luck, while to receive good luck certain actions must be undertaken. Most often bad luck or a curse affects those who ignore or neglect a luck letter, and some of the later examples of this genre define at length different punishments for those who tear it or throw it away. Finding themselves in this situation, people turn to contemporary traditions of discarding sacred or malign artifacts. However, people often choose an intermediate strategy of giving a letter away, taking it to a specialist or discreetly passing it to a neighbor. The latter case is considered a malign magical activity. The intertwining between a luck letter as an autonomous force with a potential negative effect, “lay” senders and receivers and “specialists”, all bound together with the problem of discarding a magical object forms a complex and dynamic network of actors.