Jewish medieval magic (I) Context and sacred writing.
Before entering the medieval world, it is necessary to do a brief review of the vision of magic within Judaism. This is a complex issue, since many acts that for them had religious overtones, for us are directly and simply magical: see thaumaturgic (miraculous) acts developed by prestigious prophets or rabbis - from Moses to Ben Dosa or bar Yohai, for example. But for that we will first point out what they considered magic and witchcraft. And we will see how magic was, in general, quite tolerated, while witchcraft was condemned. The limits between one and the other were distinguished by the damage caused.
By definition, "magic" was any act that sought to modify the environment in one's favor (getting someone's love, money, health...) But all of this had to be considered in the light of divine decision. The correct way to achieve these changes, if possible, was always through divine request and intervention, when the consequences were not already predestined; Otherwise, Yahweh always had a motive and human beings had to abide by it. Performing a magical act, that is, an act that seeks to modify circumstances, becomes a direct attack on divine decision.
Regarding the use of magic, we have several passages in which it is mentioned in a negative way:
<<Do not cultivate enchantments or astrology>> (Lev. 19,26)
<<You will not leave the (woman) who practices witchcraft alive>> (Ex. 22,17).
But we can try to see some concrete reasons underlying the union mentality of the Hebrew people:
<< When you have entered the land that Yahweh, your God, gives you, do not imitate the abominations of those people. Let no one sacrifice their children in the fire, nor practice divination, lots, magic, enchantments, nor those who consult ghosts or spirits, or those who ask questions of the dead...>> (Deut. 18:9- 10)
In some way it can be thought that not making use of magic was a way to distinguish themselves as a people from the neighboring cultures, which were also polytheistic. However, as has already been said, Jewish magic did exist, both in its biblical characters and in many everyday people. There were amulets against night demons, recitations, purifications and complex spells. We have the example of the oracle of Urim and Thummim, or the numerous prophets. We have the miracles of Moses, the interpretation of Joshua's dreams or the consultation of the witch of Endor by Saul, who, ironically, had prohibited divination and necromancy.
However, this does not mean that it was well regarded, and it was especially rejected when the person who practiced it was a woman, given the 'weak and sinful' character that was understood to be the case. In Hebrew texts it is prayed that daughters and wives do not become witches (m'khaseph, conjurer). This is a direct product of misogyny in ancient times. In addition, the word chasaf was also used, which can mean poisoner. Could it be said, then, that we find ourselves in a case similar to that of the poisoners of Mediterranean legislation, where witches are feared for the social and, above all, political danger they pose?
The man who practiced witchcraft, if he was a foreigner, was also condemnable, but in the case of a Jewish man, the situation was analyzed in another way: if the acts and recitations were carried out in the name of Yahweh and had a positive purpose (mostly, to heal and purify), then said magical act was not taken as a crime. If other entities were mentioned alongside Yahweh, or if the goals pursued were evil, then he would be a witch and would also receive his punishment. There was, therefore, a certain observance of the rites, since some could be "shared", such as lighting incense.
In folklore and legends, however, there will continue to be different characters and magical possibilities that will be exploited over time: the angelic myths of the apocryphon of Enoch (where angels teach their female lovers the magical arts), or the learned biblical character of Solomon, who will undoubtedly become the model of sorcerer and exorcist of the Middle and Modern Ages. Along with him, Moses has great renown, and there was even a pseudepigraphic grimoire from ca. 13th century, The Sword of Moses, loaded with invocations and prayers for magical purposes, but also rituals. And after them will come various rabbis with extraordinary powers, shielded in God, of healings, exorcisms and various miracles.
After the destruction of the Second Temple and the diaspora, the Jews dispersed through territories where they had to coexist with Christians who still looked at them as "condemners of Christ" and also with Muslims. This provokes the search for distinction through the perpetuation of traditions exclusive to its people, but the inevitable coexistence will also cause various exchanges of legends and customs to occur, among which will be found magical traditions. For the Arabs, the Jews, as a people descended from Babylonians and Chaldeans, were predisposed to be the best astrologers and sorcerers, and they were often counted on for these tasks in the courts. The Christians did the same, and even in works of Christian magic, such as The Great Book of Abramelín the Magician (already from the 15th century), emphasis is placed on the Hebrew origin of what is stated in the text. And the same will happen with the figure of Solomon. Regarding the influence on Christian magic, the rituals of Western magic themselves, to this day, draw heavily on the religious and magical rituals of the Hebrews. Knives, invocations, symbolic numbers, candles, incense... only very recently, with the division between what we would call pagan magic (less orthodox) and ceremonial magic, is when the performance patterns have been changed by the influences of neo- Celticism. But even the clothing of the medieval sorcerer, with the tunic reaching to the feet, the cape or cloak and the peaked hat, are a reflection of the Jewish sorcerer.
In the Middle Ages there are two patterns of Jewish magic: the first, the one that condemns it, that is, the one that continues with the rules prior to the destruction of Jerusalem. The second, which is intertwined and based on the visions of the cultures that surround it, attempts to give a facelift to traditional Jewish magic and thaumaturgy (miracles, considered divine and not magical: in other words, the " magic" permitted by God), and in this way ensure that there are licit and positive forms of magic.
Among the magical books that defend Semitic magic, and specifically Jewish magic, are the Book of Signs of the Samaritans and the Liber Razielis. Raziel, who is identified with an angel, means "Secret of God", and in this book, as in the Book of Signs, it was said that it came from Adam, and contained the secrets so that human beings can always be above nature. This book would have been entrusted to Noah after the Flood. The Zohar, of course, will be another key book, but its connection is more mystical than purely magical.
The first "magic" that was saved from being condemned was, as it could not be otherwise, medicine. Apart from treatments with herbs or oils, the use of amulets and recitations to heal certain illnesses was accepted without excessive consideration, including those that had unknown origin and were attributed to spirits or demons. All this due, once again, to the observation of tradition (if the ancients used jet stones for protection, wouldn't it be because they had proven their effectiveness?) and astrology. Although there was a properly Jewish study of the stars, sometimes mixed with the Kabbalah, it was through the Greek texts, transmitted by the Arabs, and the Arab astrological science itself, that an "added reason" was obtained for the use of these amulets. Astrology was characterized, rather than by predestination, by the impact of its movements on the natural world. In this way, and following Aristotle's elemental laws, it was credible and acceptable that certain minerals and plants had special energies, or that the development of a ritual at a specific astrological moment worked by channeling said energies through the different items. We keep circular talismans in which angels and planets are related for specific purposes. So the "acceptable" types of magic were those in which astrology and natural elements had positive facets.
Without a doubt the key to Jewish magic, especially as it influenced Western magic, was the fact of manifesting magical power through writing and the spoken manifestation of the names of God and spiritual entities. Although there are individual and symbolic amulets, with power in themselves, for the medieval Jew the power of the word, written or spoken, will guarantee the effectiveness of the spell. Proof of this is the Sefer Shimush Tehillim, a 15th century Hebrew grimoire in which it basically explains which psalms to use for each situation: health, discomfort, fertility, change of luck... Even change of climate. And despite being psalms, we also find some intended for cruel causes, such as the use of Psalm 137 to cause dispute between two people, or even to kill, like Psalm 69, although with the specification that the "enemy" be a Christian.
Returning to the medicinal issue, among the healing rituals there are always prayers to God and requests for intercession from the patriarchs. We know that for certain ailments or situations, people wrote on the affected part of the body what they wanted to happen, or texts with a double religious or mystical meaning in relation to said ailment. Write passages of abundance on the breasts so that breast milk rises to the breast, or write on the legs or arms passages related to healing or miracles for the healing of an injury.
Likewise, magic squares, also widespread among the Arabs, served as amulets. These squares were evenly divided into grids, in which numbers were placed that, operating from top to bottom, bottom to top, left to right and right to left, always gave the same result. Taking into account Hebrew gematria or gematria (qababalistic value of numbers) and the identification of letters and numbers, sacred names could be obtained for each occasion: childbirth, temporary illnesses, injuries... It was, after all, another way of creating magical words, and it was used with some frequency, but only by those who really studied the Kabbalah in depth. Kabbalah played a special role not only because of its written use, but because of the similarity and popularity that the search for divine names also had in the Islamic world. All creation was understood as a divine manifestation, and if Muslims worked with numbers, Jews would make use of gematria. However, it was not a typical use, beyond squares or well-known names. Complex spells, in which the letters and numerical values of different divine or angelic names were permuted, appear in grimoires, that is, their use was limited to male cabalistic circles of a certain social class.
The thought also spread that the miracles worked in the sacred texts were a combination of acts and words that provoked the mention of the appropriate divine name for each situation. So the sacred texts are analyzed to the millimeter to exchange letters with numbers and mystical values, in the belief that their correct enunciation could cause a repetition of the prodigy. However, the search for "big changes" was sought by a few and privileged scholars, and the most useful and small changes (health, fortune) were much more common objectives. This is, let's say, a revision and refinement of traditional medicinal magic.
Just as the main amulets were inscribed, the main Hebrew "spells" consisted of the incessant repetition of sacred words, specifically the names of God and his angels. This way he could ward off demons (including in exorcisms), diseases, the evil eye, harmful people, ghosts, etc. Following the thought expressed in the previous paragraph, the repetition of specific passages or sentences could also allow one to be successful in a company, obtain a good marriage, get rid of an enemy, and any other "interpretable" option of the sacred texts.
In the case of amulets and talismans, the most common were pieces in which sacred texts were inscribed, such as psalms or different names of God. Although the materials vary, we can assume that they would have some type of esoteric value, or that at least some type of purification or consecration was carried out in their manufacture. They have been found made of brass, but also of coral and different minerals, which had different associated properties, derived especially from the Semitic tradition and astrology. Much cheaper and simpler were the texts written on papyrus, parchment or on thin metal sheets, which could be rolled or folded and carried in a box or leather bag, and also among clothes.
We preserve few cloth talismans - due to their fragility - on which we basically wrote what we wanted, from eliminating an enemy to achieving the love of a person. Some of these pieces were folded or rolled like those we mentioned before, and others were probably tied to some place or person, for example, those intended to prevent abortion or facilitate childbirth, at which point writing the word "puk" (to come out) in the womb or on a scroll was as effective as a complex invocation. Of course, the ideal was a combination of both.
Mezuzot and tefilim are two religious elements that, despite the warnings of rabbis, in the Middle Ages also ended up becoming amulets valued for their sacred writing. Mezuzot are scrolls that used to be placed on door jambs or at entrances, and on them were written the word Shadday (Omnipotent) and different biblical texts, especially from Deuteronomy. They were considered blessings, but the people often used them for superstitious and protective purposes, such as household amulets. The tefilim, for their part, are small phylacteries ("protection", in Greek; these are leather boxes with passages from the Torah inside) joined by straps of leather or other material, whose use continues today exclusively ritual, being used by men in religious ceremonies. Aided by straps, one box is placed on the forehead and the other near the heart, and one strap is wound seven times around the dominant arm. This is the prescription for praying. However, in the Middle Ages it seems that it was common to carry out the same procedure for magical rites, as an element of protection and petition, which breaks religious tradition.
Two important questions will emerge from all this: the first, the Tetragrammaton, the Four Letters of the name of God (יהוה, YHWH), as the word of greatest power. The Jews used it in extremis, in the most difficult situations, as a guarantee of the divine presence. Its written value was even higher than its spoken value, hence its frequency in talismans. The Tetragrammaton will be combined with other amulets, and will later be used in Western magic, this time as a guarantee for the functioning of spells and maximum protection in the case of spells invoking spiritual beings.
The second issue will be precisely the mention of these spiritual entities. While the angels mentioned by the "Jewish magicians" are names taken from tradition and Kabbalah, little by little they will also be related to astrology, and for Christian and Muslim territories, the help of said angels, increasingly numerous and with more concrete uses, it will vaguely remind idolatry; Not to say, as happened in Christian Europe, that they would be directly identified with demons, since the names were not always the best known or popular. The astrological or cabalistic explanations set forth in the different treatises will not do much to alleviate this vision, since these works will quickly enter the category of grimoires.
Pietro V. Carracedo Ahumada - email@example.com
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- Cantera Montenegro, E; Los judíos y las ciencias ocultas en la España medieval. En la España medieval, 2002 (25), pp. 47-83.
- Caballero Navas, C; El saber y la práctica de la magia en el judaísmo hispano medieval. Clio & Crimen: Revista del Centro de Historia del Crimen de Durango. 2011.