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.

Powerful Bundles: The Materiality of Protection Amulets in Early Modern Switzerland

By Eveline Szarka

If you shop around for a protection amulet today, you will most likely stumble upon ornamental jewellery. More often than not these pieces are round in shape, and pieces featuring Kabbalistic or runic symbols are especially popular. The term ‘amulet’ is described as a “piece of jewellery some people wear because they think it protects them from bad luck, illness, etc” in the OED. However, when it comes to premodern protection practices, the efficacy of amulets depended on both the production process and the materials and ingredients used. There are two additional significant differences between contemporary and early modern understandings and applications of amulets: First, in early modern Europe, amulets were not only carried around as mobile objects but also attached to houses or buried into the thresholds. Second, amulets were often used to protect valuable livestock against diseases thought to be caused by supernatural agents.

In my research, I understand amulets as powerful bundles, often of diverse materials, which take effect through physical contact between the amulet and the object (person, animal, house) to be protected. As I discuss below, the materials commonly used include herbs, plants, food stuff, words (both spoken and written) and time. For example, it was believed that gathering plants at a certain time of the day or on a holiday enhanced the amulet’s power.

While many recipe books containing instructions on how to make amulets are now lost, it is a stroke of luck that some 17th and 18th-century handbooks are still preserved in the State Archive of the Canton of Berne, Switzerland thanks to early 20th century folklorists and collectors. Unfortunately, these books are difficult to date and connect with specific authors, owners and users. However, comparisons with court documents show that people commonly produced and applied amulets throughout the early modern period. For example, in a court case in Basel 1719, a folk healer called Friedrich Fritschi defended himself for putting hazel rods underneath a window as a way to protect the house owner from a spectre.[i] Although we do not know much about these books, the recipes and the arrangements of the instructions offer valuable insights into the contemporary relevance and ideas about the efficacy of such practices and artefacts. For instance, instructions about the production of amulets are written alongside suggestions on how to get rid of cheese-eating mice, indicating that the production of amulets against evil forces belonged to everyday house care (Hauspflege) .

Basic materials and ingredients of an amulet: linen, a cord, rods, plants, salt and bread. Source. E. Szarka

Let us now turn to an example that illustrates the concepts underpinning the efficacy of the protection amulet:

To insert into houses and barns in case of foul ghosts

Take some good vines, rods, melissa, brown periwinkles, communion bread and salt, [and bind] everything together in the three holy names with a string. Make as many as you need and drill [a hole] in both the barn and above the doors and thresholds. Put a small bundle in every hole and speak: “I put you in here in the name of God”.[ii]

This instruction exemplifies the three main production steps required to ensure the efficacy of the early modern amulet. First, people needed to gather the listed materials and ingredients. Some plants were commonly believed to be inherently powerful against evil forces, such as hazel rods. Salt and communion bread – liturgically and ritually blessed objects (so-called “sacramentals”) – were reoccurring ingredients in these kinds of recipes. Sometimes, makers also used or added slips of paper furnished with bible verses to the amulet to intensify its efficacy. Second, one had to mix the materials and ingredients, form a bundle and tie it with a string. Finally, the amulet had to be applied accordingly. It could be attached to an animal’s neck, to a door, buried into the thresholds or hidden in a drill hole above the house so that it kept malevolent entities from entering. People considered uttering sacred words both during the production and application process to be highly potent.

Drill hole in a wooden beam for a protection amulet found in an 18th century house in rural Basel, State Archive of the Canton of Basel-Land, SL 5250.5024. Source: E. Szarka

As we have seen, the gathering of materials and ingredients, the production as well as the application of the amulet were considered necessary consecutive steps to accumulate divine power. The ingredients were either inherently powerful or charged with sanctity in a liturgical context. Language, both uttered orally during these three steps or added in the form of paper slips, formed essential material ingredients that enhanced the amulet’s efficacy as it drew upon divine power. Similarly, the timing of the production could play a crucial role. For example, one had to collect the plants or apply the amulet at a particular holiday or a sacred time of the day. Time, just like language, acted as a “material” component charged with sacred power that could be transferred to the amulet through the specific production circumstances. Once applied to houses or animals, these effective little packages containing both visible and invisible materialities provided a metaphysical shield to unseen forces.

As I argue in my dissertation on ghosts and spirits in Post-Reformation Switzerland[iii], early modern people believed the world to be permeated by multiple invisible forces. Handling constant supernatural attacks from spirits and witches called for specific measures. Women and men tried to tackle and manipulate the supernatural sphere with elaborate rituals written down in recipe books. Practices concerned with amulet making disclose different concepts of causal relations in the physical and metaphysical world. Above all, they mirror a specific understanding of materiality, according to which certain plants and aliments, but also language and time, contain power that people can accumulate, enhance, and transfer to other materials, places and living beings to preserve their living environments.

[i] State Archive of the Canton of Basel, Criminalia 4, 22.

[ii] State Archive of the Canton of Berne, DQ 888, translated from the original German text by E. Szarka.

[iii] Eveline Szarka, Sinn für Gespenster. Spukphänomene in der reformierten Schweiz (1570-1730), doctoral thesis at the University of Zurich, 2020, upcoming Spring 2021.

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Academic biography:

Eveline Szarka completed her PhD at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. Her dissertation focuses on the impact of the Protestant Reformation on the belief in ghosts and specters in Switzerland from 1570-1730. This year, she was granted a scholarship from the Swiss National Science Foundation to visit Harvard University and University College London from 2020-2022 as a postdoctoral fellow. However, due to the pandemic, she will likely postpone the start of the fellowship until 2021. Eveline’s  upcoming project focuses on handbooks about magic tricks and life hacks as related to the history of knowledge and science (1650-1850). Her research interests lie in early modern world views, historical conceptions of (im)materiality, causality, and magic as well as the potentials of human manipulation of the physical world.