Today I want to look at a spell from the PGM (The Greek Magical Papyri). This book is filled with fascinating rituals and charms, and today’s example is no different. Let’s look at this charm for favour and victory:
*Favor and victory charm: Take a blood-eating gecko that has been found among the tombs and grasp its right front foot and cut it off with a reed, allowing the gecko to return to its own hole alive. Fasten the foot / of the creature to the fold of your garment and wear it.
*Tr.: R.F. Hock
As far as this spell goes, it’s fairly simple. Whereas others tend to include inscriptions, incantations and general tasks that must be performed, this is a simple matter of use of material magica to procure results.
The gecko foot, regardless of its more occult uses, is a fascinating thing. The majority of species have toes allow them to adhere to most surfaces. Humidity helps with the adhesion, but water does not. There’s some fascinating information out there about the amount of weight their little sticky paws can support!
So why would this foot be considered a charm for victory, or in the very least, lucky? You might recall hearing about (or even seeing) rabbit feet being toted around as a good luck charm. A much more enduring convention than gecko feet, certainly, and one that is prevalent around England and America. But what is the deal with these weird traditions?
There are some older academic theories that these practices are rooted in primitive Totemism, involving guardian spirits and related to the idea that rabbits, as underground-dwelling creatures, are somehow connected to the underworld. You might find an explanation like this in R. Brasch’s How Did It Begin? Customs & Superstitions and Their Romantic Origins (1965). I’ll take a page out of Bill Ellis’ book, or rather article, entitled Why Is a Lucky Rabbit’s Foot Lucky? Body Parts as Fetishes: “Such an explication perpetuates the idea that ’superstitious’ practices have little or no meaning in contemporary culture but are simply survivals of illogical thought; furthermore, Brasch’s argument implies that modern superstition should be shelved with other meaningless ideas from humanity’s childhood.”
The dwelling place of the gecko, inside a tomb, is reminiscent of lore surrounding the lucky rabbit’s foot as many of these objects were sold with promises of the circumstances under which the rabbit was captured, and most (if not all) will be found in a graveyard. One idea behind this may be that the attainment of a fetish object – that is, some small token that is given significance through a belief of its magical power – from a place of death would give a person power or protection from death. The gecko, living as it would in and among the dead, would become associated with them and imbued with their power. Perhaps wearing the creature’s foot would make you immune to the influence of the dead – much like holding one’s breath while sneaking across the river Styx alive (I can’t recall where I heard this – some myth or maybe modern story?) In any case, surely protection from death/the dead would be important in a charm of favor and victory.
So why a gecko specifically? As far as I can find out, there are no species of geckoes that eat blood. Pliny discusses the Tarentola (which he calls Stellio) that he notes eats only insects, and modern biology agrees with this. This species is also called a wall gecko, and is widespread across the Mediterranean and North Africa. It lives in a wide variety of habitats, including rocky cliffs, stone walls, and rocky outcrops. It seems in terms of location it would be appropriate, but blood-eating it is not. Leopard geckoes will consume newborn baby mice, which would perhaps qualify as blood-eating, but they are native to the desert regions of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of India and Iran. Certainly this does not disqualify them as candidates for the spell, but would place them in the realm of ‘luxury imported goods’, and since the spell says to let the gecko go, it would likely need to be found in situ. As far as I can find through google investigating, some geckoes can be fed small amounts of meat, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call any of them ‘blood-eating’. I will have to leave this point as inconclusive.
Consider that it is the right foot that is being removed: the latin dextra for right, and sinistra for left. The left was considered an inauspicious direction and the language reflects this. The right, on the other hand (pun intended) was synonymous with fortune and skill. It is simple to see the reason for the right foot being chosen. It may also be the front foot because the front limbs of the gecko are more representative of the human hand, and the victory indicated through this charm was in regard to some manual task. That’s just my speculation, however.
So it seems that there’s some logic behind this particular spell. A cultural belief in a transferable power of the dead, the harnessing of this power through a fetish object, and the positive implications of the right foot all give some meaning to this seemingly silly charm. In the very least, it would have made for a great discussion starter – “Is that…a tiny severed foot on your brooch?!”