It may be a product of our literary history. Or, it may just be a part of our DNA. Whatever the genesis, we humans expect that objects or magic talismans will keep us safe, secure and free from threat real or imagined. Recently, I found myself on the Riverwalk in San Antonio – wonderful place, by the way – and during a short ride on a water taxi to a restaurant the affable and tip-expecting driver was regaling those assembled of various factoids about the buildings and historical elements along the passageway. In the 1920’s, it seems, a regional insurance company elected to build its headquarters as a rather unusual combination of gothic-revival architectural elements and a highly aspirational skyline-dominating tower. The creators included elaborate entablatures and heavily carved limestone details meant to evoke the European designs of religious and institutional buildings of the period.
The young captain of our vessel elected to focus his attention on the various grotesques and gargoyles that ring the massive edifice. Each of them, we were told, was installed to keep the building safe from evil spirits that might seek access to harm the occupants of the company’s new home. Of all the important and historic elements, his attention focused in the firm’s use of object to intervene in some eternal struggle between good and evil. Whether these stone faces are supposed to actually prevent a metaphysical infestation or were only considered a period-appropriate decoration may be lost to history.
We see scores of such symbols of protection each day. But do they have transcendent powers or do they simply serve to remind us that our beliefs are more powerful than any incantation? Does the object dangling from a chain on our neck really protect us from vampires or is it most effective in reminding us to defend ourselves?