Jewish medieval magic (II). Amulets, rituals, divination.


The use of minerals was prolific in the Middle Ages among all social strata and the three great cultures. Both Muslims and Christians (see Lapidary of Alfonso X) recognized the magical properties of minerals and assigned them fields of action. Judaism was no less, and, after all, the use of a mineral amulet could not, in any case, be considered idolatry. According to some scholars, the tradition of minerals in Judaism has its origin and "power" in the stones of the breastplate of the High Priest of Jerusalem. The stones were associated with the patriarchs of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, giving their characteristics to the stone in question. However, throughout the biblical texts there are multiple references to these stones and others with mentions of their properties or symbolism, so establishing a beginning of tradition in the pectoral is not so obvious, rather, the stones of said pectoral They would have been used for specific symbolism and reasons.

Many of these amulets were used for medicinal purposes, when they were placed in areas affected by wounds or illnesses, or when their shape was that of the sick limb: a foot, a torso, an ear... It was believed, for example, that Holding a lodestone during childbirth made it easier. Hematite and blood stone were also used, as well as the so-called uterine amulets, hystera (uterus in Greek), engraved on these stones. For other cures, incenses were made with tar, or water or vinegar was poured over incandescent stones. If divine names were carved or inscribed on the stone, then they became true talismans to keep for the opportune moment or to carry with one another as another piece of jewelry.

Of course there were amulets of their own value, such as the hamsa or jamsa, also known as the Hand of Fatima or the Hand of Miriam, another of the elements that, shared by the Jews and the Arabs - the origin of the hamsa is located in the Carthaginian areas. from North Africa, already attested in the 8th century BC. as a possible symbol of the goddess Tanit, for which she was previously known by the people of Africa and the Middle East -, it will become popular in its amulet form, both to be worn as jewelry and for decoration - protection of the home. The amulets with the hexagram or Star of David, and with the Pentagram or Seal of Solomon, were popular among scholars, but not so much among the people, for whom it was a symbol of power and authority against demons. However, these seals will be the main ones that fully enter the world of Western magic. Its combination with Hebrew letters and words will be the main testimony of many medieval grimoires, although they will also be linked to the "protected" demonic invocation, although many of the invocations are truly angelic. Common objects could become amulets with relative ease. Coins were also a source of superstition. Thus, it was believed that a coin that had a good destiny (a gift, charity, etc.) could become an amulet of protection until said positive objective was met. Likewise, coins intended for evil purposes (or that had belonged to bad people) could bring dire consequences to their ignorant possessors.

Animal parts were considered good amulets, especially teeth, protectors from enemies and healers of other evils, such as nightmares. Also other members, such as legs or horns, depending on the power traditionally attributed to them (as was already widespread in the West with the rabbit's foot, for example, until today).

Within healing magic we find a divinatory system that was viewed with suspicion but actually used frequently: droplets. This system basically consisted of pouring water into a small bowl or bowl and then adding drops of some liquid that could not be mixed, for example, melted lead, wax or oil. Cereal grains or seeds could also be added. The bowl was placed over the sick person and the magician-doctor interpreted the shapes that the liquid produced. He would then "capture" the evil in the bowl and get rid of it and its contents.

There were other Jewish traditions that had been carried out for a long time and had been adopted as their own, despite being able to be categorized as magic. Likewise, little by little they took elements from all the neighboring cultures. For example, the shemirá or vigil night. The night before circumcising the male baby (the seventh night of the baby's life, since he was circumcised on the eighth day), he was immersed in water with various elements that would protect him from the evil eye and bring him luck in his life. Among these elements were certain herbs and seeds, such as rue or wheat, as well as gold, silver jewelry, minerals and oils.

The night was always a time when you had to protect yourself especially. We know different popular songs and prayers against nocturnal demons, and specifically against Lilith, who attacked children and pregnant women. There were also talismans to protect the home and spells against these entities. Psalm 121-5 was especially recurring against the demons of the night and of course their boss, Lilith. Among the minerals used to protect infants were coral, charcoal and salt. Amethyst was also considered protective against demons and enemies in general.

To protect the home day and night from these haunting spirits, for some time in the Early Middle Ages, use was made of a widespread oriental tradition, the so-called Aramaic bowls. Bowls inside which different sacred texts and spells against evil entities were written, which were sometimes also drawn, and which were buried upside down in the places where said entities used to roam, see, on the thresholds of houses or in areas of passage and/or influx. Evil beings were trapped in the "dome."

Although, as could be seen in the previous article, in the medicinal world the biblical texts were preferred, other auxiliary elements were used together. We have healing, in addition to amulets and minerals already mentioned, using water, oils and mud, but not just any mud, but coming from the earth of the tomb of a holy man, or from a place considered a sanctuary or virgin. These three elements had not only healing values, but also religious ones. It was also common to use "tapes" that, by measuring the parts of the body, identified the ailment, which should be followed by recitations.

On the other hand, we know that the urine, nails or rope of a hanged or condemned person were also considered elements of magical power, sometimes also positive. For example, cloves were considered good anti-inflammatories, and the teeth of a dead criminal were thought to be able to free the living from curses.

Diseases included, of course, evil eyes, bad luck, and unknown conditions. To eliminate the evil eye, for example, the intervention of a rabbi or simply an expert in the field had to be sought. In any case, it seems that the most common way was the recitation of the Psalms and the cleansing of the wounded person with blessed and ritualized water in some way. At the same time, healing could be carried out with mud (which had to be pure or holy clay), and with water - there were also prescriptions about its purity (new water), or its time (the water had to be prepared, leaving it for a few nights). in the light of the moon, mixed with salt, or with spices)

As it could not be otherwise, magical herbology also has its place in the Hebrew world. We have already mentioned rue as a demon repellent, probably due to its strong aroma, and St. John's Wort or St. John's Wort was used for the same purpose. Horsetail was admired for its anti-inflammatory properties, although, like so many other herbs, wearing it around the neck also "worked." Carrying herbs and other materials hanging, or tied to the necessary part of the body, were frequent medical prescriptions, which are even found in medical texts such as the Sefer ha-Nisyonot, Book of medical experiences attributed to Abraham Ibn Ezra, or the Sefer ahabat nashim, known as the Book of Women. In these works we find recommendations for a good pregnancy such as the following:

<< Take beeswax and knead it with mare's milk. Then wrap her in gazelle skin and wrap it around her belly, removing it at the time of giving birth.>>

Even today, on the seventh day of the Festival of Tabernacles (Sukkot), palm branches, an etrog lemon, willow branches and myrtle branches are used, and a bouquet is created that waves in the four directions , which although it has been related to the text of Leviticus:

"Take branches of leafy trees (...) and rejoice before the Lord", Lev.23:40

, seems to have previous origins in relation to harvest festivities and invocations of rain. These plants had religious, magical and medical values long before, since the willow, for example, contains the salicylic acid so common in anti-inflammatories and analgesics. Etrog lemons, for their part, are considered blessed and require great purity away from hybridization with other species, and it is believed that they serve to facilitate childbirth, as well as are used for special fragrances and liqueurs.

The mandrake, a medieval magical plant par excellence, was used among the Jews especially for amorous purposes, although in testimonies of accusations of witchcraft, the mandrake also appears as a small "idol" to feed in exchange for a request. It is likely, however, that these accusations sought to accuse both witchcraft and idolatry.

It should not be forgotten that astrology played an important role in the association of minerals and plants with celestial movements, as well as living beings, which is known as melotesia. Despite criticisms such as that of Maimonides, the truth is that astrology was part of the culture of the time and it was practically impossible to separate its influences from general thought. Astrology was intrinsically linked to medicine, so it is common to see representations of astrological plants or angels on stone or parchment amulets, as well as zodiacal elements and signs. Its position in the sky determined a good trip, a good marriage, the right moment for a pregnancy or an operation. More than a system of divination, it was a system of knowledge of the environment and prevention. However, astrology was also taken into account for physiological studies, since each sign and planet affected a specific part of the body. To cite an example, it was highly recognized, even by people of science such as Nahmanides and Arnau de Vilanova, a gold talisman in which a lion was represented, in allusion to the sign of Leo, and whose function was the medical treatment of the kidneys. .

Invocations with angels, as long as they were not framed in the studious and mystical environment of the Kabbalah, could be viewed with suspicion by some religious people and philosophers, as was the case, once again, of Maimonides. Angels should be considered simple messengers, but in amulets and spells, their intercession is not requested, but rather their action, which could imply idolatry. Kabbalah, however, was not accepted by all sectors, but it was key to the use already seen in the first part of this article of the hidden names of God, as well as subsequent connections with divinity through ecstatic union, obtained through meditation, trance, music...

Regarding divination as we know it today, palmistry, oneiromancy and bibliomancy were practiced more frequently, that is, the interpretation of the lines of the hand, dreams, and the opening of sacred books. at random, to know a divine message. Studies on palmistry also focused on illnesses and traumatic events such as trips, exiles, convictions... Something that was also useful to know the good or bad fortune of a marriage or a partner. Regarding dreaming, it had to be taken into account that the messages received could be sent by both God and demons, so you should go to an expert, and if you had received a bad omen, or wake up remembering sacred verses from negative character, purification and fasting were preferable. As for bibliomancy, the first verse to be read determined the divine response.

Homeopathic or ligation spells meet the same premises as in other cultures. Take hair or semen, or anything else from the body of the person to be cast, and mix it with the rest of the magical ingredients in the mass of a figure, or in a potion, or store it in a box or bag. Those spells that we have preserved are above all love bindings, condemned especially when practiced by women, since they caused "sexual limitations" in men.

A known spell consists of emptying an egg through a small hole made with a needle, and then filling it with the mixed blood of the two future lovers. There are also written spells here, where the blood of white birds and their feathers were used to achieve love. It was also written with ink, mud or blood on a cloth or container, and the letters were erased while still fresh by pouring water on them. This water had to be drunk later by the person who wanted to bewitched. Let us remember that in homeopathic spells, contact, real or not, is key. Stepping on the lover's footprint or drinking from the same glass was a simple mechanism to "tie" the other person. However, clay or wax figurines that symbolize men or women with tied hands are also preserved, with a clear function of erotic magical binding.

Since amulets or specific spells could not compete, at a hierarchical level, with religion, they did not pose any threat, and only small admonitions were given, with the already indicated exception of incense, given that its use was shared by the Big Three. religions, in addition to the memory of its use by pagans, and it was considered that lighting it in the home on a private basis could be idolatrous or magical, making a request or using it to purify or protect the home, instead of as an offering.

Pietro V. Carracedo Ahumada -


-Shah, Idries. Magia oriental. Ed. La Llave, 2019

- Cantera Montenegro, 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

Related Posts:

> Jewish medieval magic (I): Context and sacred writing

> History of Occultism (II): The Middle Ages

> The lapidary of Alfonso X the Wise. Minerals and Astrology in the Hispanic Middle Ages.

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