A Black Rooster and the Angel of Dread: Jewish Magical Recipes Against Fear

By Andrea Gondos

Illness and a desperate longing for wellness and healing defined Jewish magical recipes books, written in a thriving manuscript culture of practical Kabbalah that existed alongside printed works in Jewish communities of East-Central Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.[i] These manuscripts, many of them cherished by their compilers, played an important role in recording, accumulating, and subsequently transmitting knowledge about the natural and the supernatural worlds. As recipe compilations, they include lists of ingredients that are accompanied by detailed instructions directed at a practical goal, which in this case aimed to improve a person’s material and spiritual wellbeing. The writers of these amulets were collectively called ba’alei shem[ii] or masters of the (divine) name who deployed experiential types of knowledge in combination with traditions of angelic and divine names. These expose a holistic outlook based on the careful alignment and calibration of three interrelated spheres of human existence: the religious, derived from prayer and proper conduct; artisanal knowledge of the natural world, the unique qualities of herbs, plants, and animal substances; and the mastery of supernatural forces and processes by wielding power over demons, forces of impurity, and astrological influences.  The acquisition of this unique type of expertise, enumerated in these magical recipe books, bequeathed upon its master extraordinary powers and charisma. Here, I will survey three visually interesting amulets designed to counteract demonic forces that were believed to cause negative mental and emotional states such as fear.

Image courtesy of The National Library of Israel, MS 38 3279, fol. 109v: an amulet against fear for a child.

 

“[An] amulet for a child gripped by terror. It should be hung on the child and her/his name should be written on it; he can also hang on the child the foot of a black rooster.”

A curious ingredient and technique presented in this recipe is the use of charaktêres, or angelic alphabet, that was meant to directly command and address specific angelic interlocutors to produce a desired outcome.[iii] Defined as “an alphabetic sign or a simple ideogram which does not belong to any of the alphabets used in that specific magical text, or to any known system of meaningful symbols,”[iv] charaktêres constituted a form of linguistic magic and were frequently deployed through cross-cultural borrowing and adaptation in a variety of cultural settings, including Judaism, from Antiquity to modern times.

Another recipe that addresses fear was supposed to be written on parchment made from a kosher animal, one that was considered in compliance with Jewish dietary laws. Here the visual element is the formation of a square from the angelic name PAHAD’EL, which is a composite of the words ‘fear’ (pahad) and God (‘El). At the upper corners of the recipe, on the left and right sides, two additional angelic names are indicated: Hasadi’el (left), and Rahami’el (right). Both names are cognates of mercy, thus visually these two merciful angels flank the Angel of Dread (Pahad’el) overpowering and diminishing its negative effect on the person, who is gripped by fear. When confronted by the debilitating effects of mental distress, such as fear or dread, the Jewish shaman thus had recourse to a cache of magical modalities to affect healing. Ingredients here are comprised of a magic square, letter mysticism, alongside theoretical elements of Jewish mysticism, the Kabbalah, which invokes the mystical principle of containment. Accordingly, the demonic powers of the left side of the divinity need to be included, encompassed, and subsumed in the right, the sacred aspect of God. Kabbalistic theosophy places great emphasis on the idea of tricks and ruse to co-opt the dark forces of the left, instead of confronting them directly; this conceptualization is visually demarcated in the diagrammatic features of this recipe formula.

Image courtesy of The National Library of Israel. MS 8 1070, fol. 31r

 

In the final recipe for fear, food and plant substances, bread and garlic, are promoted as effective therapeutic ingredients to overcome this negative emotional state. This particular compilation does not contain any distinctly Jewish elements. Rather, it draws on more common cross-cultural practices, which are adopted and offered as part of a ba’alei shem’s stock of natural remedies:

“For one who goes out at night so he would not fear evil spirits even in a place of danger: He should take a loaf of bread in his right hand and in his left hand some garlic, and no harm will come to him, God willing, who saves and protects.”

Image courtesy of The National Library of Israel. MS 8 1070, fol. 11v

 

The above recipes which were offered as panacea against fear, a form of mental distress, highlight the multiplicity of approaches that ba’alei shem in East-Central Europe took to alleviate the debilitating grip of negative states of the mind. While some recipes display theoretical, particularistic, and more elite forms of knowledge, other variants for the same illness exhibit a more universal, folkloristic, and popular stance.

 

[i] See Agata Paluch, “Practical Kabbalah and Practical Knowledge: Kabbalistic Manuals and Natural Knowledge in Early Modern East-Central Europe,” History of Knowledge, April 11, 2019, https://historyofknowledge.net/2019/04/11/practical-kabbalah-and-practical-knowledge-kabbalistic-manuals-and-natural-knowledge-in-early-modern-east-central-europe/.

[ii] On ba’alei shem, see Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, “The Master of an Evil Name: Hillel Ba’al Shem and His Sefer ḥa-Heshek,”AJS Review 28.2 (2004): 217–248; and Immanuel Etkes. The Besht: Magician, Mystic, and Leader, translated by Saadya Sternberg (Hanover and London: Brandeis University, 2005).

[iii] Gideon Bohak, “The Charaktêres in Ancient and Medieval Jewish Magic,” Acta Classica Universitatis Scientiarum Debreceniensis, 47 (2011): 25-44.

[iv] Ibid., p. 25.

 

 


About

Andrea Gondos’s scholarship has focused on knowledge organization and transmission reflected in early modern study guides in the field of Kabbalah. Currently, she is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the DFG-Emmy Noether Research Group “Patterns of Knowledge Circulation” at the Institute of Jewish Studies, Freie Universität Berlin, where she examines the conceptualization of the female body, gender, and reproductive health as expressed by Jewish male healers in early modern manuscripts of magic in East-Central Europe.

A Recipe for Music: Notating Domestic Singing in Seventeenth-Century England

By Sarah Koval

Mary Chantrell and others, recipe book, f.92v, 1690, MS 1548. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Mary Chantrell’s book of recipes for food and medicines (1690) is typical of the manuscript recipe genre: a handwritten, bound book full of instructions for making common foods, preserves, and medicinal cures such as “pills to cure a consumption,” (f.63r), “the green oyntment,” (f.30r) and “a purge for sharpe humours” (f.50r). On the last folio, however, we find an unusual entry: written out twice on either side of a recipe “for the chin cough [whooping cough],” is the text to “Madam Roda Cliffords Song,” a metrical verse with four stanzas that lacks any conventional music notation, apparently received from Mary’s personal acquaintance (f.92r92v). What could a single song be doing among such practical household directions? 

Musical entries can be found in several of the hundreds of surviving household recipe books from this period. These musical inscriptions are highly personalized, reflecting the private, domestic context in which they arose and were used. The number of musical entries, their physical placement within the book, and even the presence or absence of a more conventional musical notation—one that indicates at the very least pitch and rhythm—all vary from book to book. At one exciting extreme we find, in the commonplace book of John Ridout ([16–], see the image below), thirty-two pieces for the cittern (a guitar relative), notated with tablature, nestled between hundreds of recipes for food and medicines.(1) However, most of the musical entries in recipe books are not so easily reproduced or heard today due to their lack of notational specificity, forestalling the traditional work of the musicologist. 

John Ridout’s commonplace book, f.79v-80r, [16–], MS Mus 182. Image credit: Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. The top page features a piece called “Orlando,” the bottom a table of note values.

 

Nevertheless, there is a telling parallel between the sparse notations of these songs and the utility-driven written recipes that dominate these manuals. A recipe, writes historian William Eamon, is “a prescription for taking action,” a notion that could apply equally well to a notated piece of music.(2) Indeed, the songs, hymns, psalms, and other musical items found in recipe books form part of a family’s “memorial archive,” gathered alongside other ritualistic instructions as prescriptions for action in a family’s daily routines.(3)

We might call such ambiguous, text-only notations “purposely incomplete,” following musicologist John Butt.(4) Similar to their tandem recipe notations, song texts were likely compiled to be sung by their collectors, their family members, and close friends. While Madam Clifford’s song may have been used for entertainment, titles like those in Martha Hodges’ recipe book (1675-c.1725) show that many pieces were used for private worship at the hearth or in the prayer closet: “Evening song, Vespers” (f.34r); “A Morning Hymn” (f.43v); and “An Hymn in Sickness” (f.43r). Not meant as casual reading material, recipes and musical texts were most likely taken off-page in the daily care of the bodies and souls of the household.

Music notation, as with any form of writing, is a way of extending memory across time. In the case of such household inscriptions—either for food, medicine, or music—writing served as an aid to practice within the memorial micro-archive of the family unit. This archive is the musical and performance knowledge of a single family, a small social network, or a few generations at most. Recipe books show us that the memorial archive of household knowledge not only included concerns of feeding and healing its members, but of creating musical sounds that served the material and sacred needs of the family. Difficult for those outside of the family unit to access, the memorial archive of domestic musical practices remains enigmatic but full of possibility. 

Recipe books containing music, such as those of English householders Mary Chantrell, John Ridout, and Martha Hodges, stand to reveal much about the role of music making and practices of worship in the sometimes inscrutable space of the seventeenth-century English home. Musical, culinary, and medicinal inscriptions have much in common: they present a sparse textual representation of an experiential and dietetic practice that allows for individual expression within a written family archive. Their textual markings tap into an aural, memory-powered tradition of both sacred and secular singing. The parallel gap between written text and off-page outcome in both recipes and music is just one aspect of these two seemingly disparate practices that reveals their interconnectedness in this period, pointing to larger resonances between music and bodily health that emerge in the study of domestic spaces. 


Notes

1. A cittern is a plucked, fretted, wire-string instrument, similar to a mandolin and related to the guitar, that was most popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Its tablature is similar to guitar tab today. Horizontal lines with letters between them representing the various strings of the cittern show where on the fretboard each string is to be held down. Music notes above the fret markings indicate the duration of the pitch. 

2. William Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 131.

3. “Memorial archive” is a term Anna Maria Busse Berger uses to describe all the resources we draw on to understand and utilize the written word on the page. Medieval Music and the Art of Memory (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005), 45.

4. John Butt, Playing with History: The Historical Approach to Musical Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 106.

Drinking the Ink of Prayer

By Genie Yoo  [1]

Sometimes historians dream of moments of recognition in the manuscripts they encounter. The act of reading or reciting, writing or copying, can trigger a distant memory, allowing one to draw a line connecting two seemingly unrelated points on the plane of history. I experienced something of this moment as I sat in the National Library of the Republic of Indonesia, reading an untitled and undated manuscript of Arabic prayers and their Malay prescriptions. That morning, Mas Bambang, a familiar face behind the counter, had handed me a manuscript labelled ML469. It was a prayer book, shorter and thinner than expected, and the first folio, glued tightly to the marbled cover, began with a list of recipes.

“For those who wish to memorize the Qur’an,” I copied into my notebook, “take ambergris, musk, and turmeric.” There was a hint of recognition in the order of these three ingredients, common since antiquity. “The three are to be moistened,” I copied, “to make the ink.” Suddenly, an inkling of recognition blended into memory. Two years prior, I had sat in Prof. Michael Laffan’s office in Princeton, reading out loud my transcription of the same lines from another manuscript, one which he had photographed in Simon’s Town, South Africa. “Write this prayer on a white bowl,” I wrote, “and drink for seven days.” I circled the Malay word for “bowl” (mangkung), a variation of its modern standardized form (mangkuk). Minute differences also beckon the memory. When I had given Michael a puzzled look about another variation of this term (mangku), he had pulled out the Wilkinson dictionary, an invitation to join the exercise of word hunting. Putting my pencil down, I gingerly flipped through the folios of ML469 until I arrived at the Arabic and saw that this copy of the prayer, too, like the one from Simon’s Town, was the prayer of ‘Akasa.

The earliest extant copy of Malay-language explications for the prayer of ‘Akasa in Europe is a late 16th c.-early 17th c. manuscript from the Scaliger Collection, initially mislabelled to be in the Turkish language. Or 247, Special Collections at the Leiden University Library.]

So began my fascination with two nearly identical copies of a Malay-language recipe for drinking the ink of prayer, now preserved in two manuscripts on opposite sides of the Indian Ocean: one in Jakarta, Indonesia, and the other in Simon’s Town, South Africa. While the former was a compilation of prayers in the same hand, its provenance an unmarked mystery, the latter was a shorter fragment copied into a communal notebook full of other recipe fragments. Variations between them left doubt as to their direct link in transmission; however, there were too many of the same lines in a string of recipes in the same order for the same prayer, to presume they were merely incidental. The question of a possible “original” seemed less relevant; they were likely copies of similar eighteenth-century copies circulating in the archipelago. What interested me more were the possibilities of bringing the two together into one frame: it allowed me to see that handwritten copies of similar prayer books circulated across vast distances and that prayers and their recipes for ritual use were copied, at times, in selective fragments.

The fragment in Simon’s Town was distinctive. The hand that wrote it, Michael assured me, had belonged to the famous eighteenth-century figure Imam Abdullah ibn Qadi Abd al-Salam, known as Tuan Guru (lit. “Master Teacher”). He was a nobleman from the eastern island of Tidore whom administrators of the Dutch East India Company had exiled to their Cape colony in 1780, just before the beginning of the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War. As Dr. Saarah Jappie has written, Tuan Guru’s fame is linked to his founding of the first Islamic school or madrasah in Cape Town in 1793.[2] There, he taught a diverse community of Muslim students and championed the rote-learning system in Malay and Arabic, which later madrasah teachers continued in Afrikaans.[3] Memory was essential to practicing the faith of Islam through recitation; and perhaps teaching how to commit something to heart, to preserve it within the body, inspired more than mnemonic instruction.

“For those who wish to memorize the Qur’an,” Tuan Guru had copied into the untitled notebook, “take ambergris, musk, and turmeric.” The handwriting is identical to a Qur’an Tuan Guru had copied from memory on Robben Island, now preserved at the Auwal Mosque (lit. “First Mosque,” est. 1794). “The three are to be mixed,” he wrote, “on a Friday night to make the ink.” The other manuscript had not mentioned the day and time for making the ink. If context can fill the gap, it may be noteworthy that Tuan Guru’s madrasah also functioned as the community’s first mosque, where followers of the faith congregated on Fridays, the sacred day of worship. “Write onto a white bowl this prayer,” he continued to copy, “and drink for seven days.” To write and to drink—the recipe called for a ritual assimilation of two common physical acts of learning in Islamic education.[4] Using the ink and the bowl to write and to drink, one was to absorb into the body the power of prayer, as a supplicatory means to achieve the memorization of the sacred Word.

Did Tuan Guru copy this recipe for his students in the context of the madrasah? He wrote it into a communal book full of other recipe fragments in different hands, for instance, of writing a talisman for healing. Copying it ensured that the prayer would again be copied then imbibed. The book was instructional, and the recipe meant to be used, preserved, and transmitted through the act of copying, not only on paper but also in the body. Can the manuscript in South Africa reveal something about the manuscript in Indonesia and vice versa? While the two raise more questions than answers, they also open up ways to reflect on the link between memory and the physical acts that aid it, whether in the secular context of a library or in the sacred context of a madrasah. They allow us to see the point where the plane of memory intersects with that of history, in the past and in the present.

Biography

Genie Yoo is a PhD Candidate in History at Princeton University. She specializes in the early modern and modern history of Southeast Asia and works at the intersection of science, medicine, religion, and empire. This blogpost is based on chapter two of her dissertation-in-progress, titled “Mediating Islands: Ambon Across the Ages.”

Notes

[1] My gratitude to Dr. Saarah Jappie and Michael Laffan.

[2] Saarah Jappie, “From the Madrasah to the Museum: the Social Life of the “Kietaabs” of Cape Town,” History in Africa 38 (2011): 375-376.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Prof. Rudolph T. Ware III writes about the epistemology of embodiment in Islamic pedagogy, particularly in the context of West Africa. See Rudolph T. Ware III, The Walking Qur’an: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

Worst Housewarming Ever

By Lisa Smith

The Editorial Team debated whether or not to join the digital #ClimateStrike. The team was divided: should we make a political stand at all? In the end, we compromised. Rather than shut down the site temporarily, we decided to have a banner supporting #ClimateStrike week (September 20-27) and a blog post to explain our position.

To pick up on a theme of ‘hospitality’ that is so often a part of the history of food, I chose a banner for the week that suggests a big party–but one that has gone very badly wrong. What can we do to be better guests?  There is no Planet B for us to move onto for our next party once we trash this one.

Although we don’t often directly address it, many of us who work on recipes came to it through an interest in the natural world. What knowledge about plants’ medicinal properties have been lost over time as we became detached from our environments? How have modern agricultural practices reshaped what foods we can taste, and how we taste them? How can historical practices inform a need for agricultural sustainability?

Take, for example, work by Ryan Kashanipour that highlights the overlapping relationship between body, society, and nature. Or by Carla Nappi that describes the ways in which recipes encapsulate medical ingredients, embodiment, and time flows. For pre-modern Europeans, stewardship of the earth even had a religious imperative, as Marieke Hendriksen has argued. Religion was not the only reason, though; seasonality framed day-to-day experience. Our issue on seasonality from May 2017 has a range of posts that consider how seasons and availability affected foods, medicines, and artisanal crafts. I wonder how recipes of the future will be shaped by a hotter climate, fewer seasons, more deadly weather, and rapid change.

I will not hark back to the good old days (always bad historical practice), but we might consider how we can restore a sense of our human bodies and cultures as being part of nature rather than separate from it–or, masters of it. (Carolyn Merchant’s analysis in The Death of Nature seems more pressing than ever.) The work of some contributors offers, perhaps, more hope.  Anne Stobart’s work, for example, encourages us to look around more carefully at plants in our daily life.   Zara Anishanslin has a useful exercise for thinking about how things we use everyday have a global history: everything is connected. Sharing food helps to build cultural bridges and to build a sense of international community, as Megan Daigle describes. And one of our contributors, David Shields, is bringing back old crops, which expands our culinary AND agricultural possibilities.

If you want to know more about the climate crisis, I encourage you to read coverage in The Guardian. A good starting point is today’s article on “The Climate Crisis in Ten Charts”.

There is, of course, no easy answer. But one starting point might be to think more about our interconnected world, whether we are looking at the relationships among humans, animals, and nature, or across geographical regions. It is only by acting together that we can stop the housewarming guests from completely wrecking our home!