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New Discovery Highlights How Jews and Christians Were Once Naughty with Magic

·6-min read
Dafna Gazit/Israel Antiquities Authority
Dafna Gazit/Israel Antiquities Authority

The Israeli Antiquities Authority recently released an announcement about their acquisition of an ancient magical amulet, reportedly from Arbel in Northern Israel, that bears the Divine Name of God. The fifth-sixth century CE magical device, which was worn to ward off evil, was apparently found at the site of an ancient synagogue. The discovery is making waves because—in popular understandings at least—ancient Jews were not supposed to participate in magic.

According to the press release, the bronze amulet is inscribed with four Greek letters “I A W Θ, representing the Jewish Divine Name (Yahweh, IHYH).” The teardrop shaped amulet was designed to be worn as a pendant around the neck. The front of the pendant shows a haloed rider on a galloping horse. The rider holds a spear that he is moves in the direction of a female figure, who lies on her back on the ground. The woman is thought to be Gello, a demon who was sometimes associated with infertility or infant mortality. The divine name appears beneath the horse’s hooves and above the rider a Greek inscription declares “The One God Conquers Evil.”

The reverse (back) of the pendant shows an eye being pierced by arrows and a trident shaped object while a menagerie that includes a snake, scorpion, bird, and two lions attack. The eye is a common representation of the “evil eye,” a malevolent force that many who lived around the ancient Mediterranean attempted to ward off with talismans, protective objects, and other ritualized protective measures.

Dr. Eitan Klein, Deputy Director of the Antiquities Theft Prevention Unit, said in the press release that “Although scholars generally identify the wearers of such amulets as Christians or Gnostics, the fact that the amulet was found within a Jewish settlement containing a synagogue in the fifth and sixth centuries CE may indicate that even Jews of the period wore amulets of this type for protection against the evil eye and demons.”

While the amulet was certainly used to protect the wearer from hostile supernatural forces, and for most people this will be news, the IAA’s framing of the discovery as novel is overstated. The collection of images shown attacking the evil eye on the amulet is remarkably similar to a mosaic from ancient Antioch. The second century Antiochene mosaic employs what University of Iowa history professor Sarah Bond has called “the ‘kitchen sink’ approach to protecting oneself”: a small statured man with a large phallus, trident, sword, scorpion, dog, snake, raven, and panther are shown attacking an eye. It’s the inclusion of a centipede that really overwhelms the eye. This collection of imagery, therefore, is pretty stock and familiar to scholars of ancient religion and magic.

Jeremiah Coogan, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oxford, told the Daily Beast that there is plenty of evidence to suggest that late ancient Jews used this kind of technology to protect themselves from evil. “Rabbinic texts like the Mishnah and the Palestinian Talmud also discuss the production and use of amulets.” We don’t have more physical evidence of Jewish amulets, Coogan explained, because most of the ancient discussion involves “amulets written on material like parchment or papyrus which tend not to survive in the Galilee because of periodic rains.” Scholars like Gideon Bohakl and Ra’anan Boustan have been working on the technologies and practices of ancient Jewish “magic” for a sometime, while others like David Frankfurter and Shaily Patel emphasize that the distinction between “magic” and “religion” is something that we often project into the ancient world. The term ‘magician,’ Patel told me, was an ancient slur that was about rhetoric and bluster rather than reality and description. But in practice reading a religious text and wearing a religious text might have been just two ways that ancient Jews and Christians used scripture.

What the discovery actually shows, Coogan told me, is that “the late ancient Mediterranean shared a repertoire of apotropaic symbols, images, and terms drawn from a number of languages and contexts. Appeals to ΙΑΩ or (as here) ΙΑΩΘ appear in a wide range of amulets and ritual texts, from across the Mediterranean, and they often appear on the same apotropaic objects that employ words and symbols with roots in other languages and religious traditions as well.” It’s very much a mix-and-match affair.

Chance Bonar, a doctoral student at Harvard, who recently delivered a paper on late antique condemnation of Jewish “magic,” agreed. Bonar told me that “All across the Galilee, Lebanon, and Syria, we've discovered amulets that depict the holy rider spearing a dragon or a woman. Jews, Christians, and pagans all commissioned and used this same amuletic template, sometimes labelling it as Solomon or Saint Sissinos.” What’s of interest to Bonar, Coogan, and others, isn’t that Jews were using “magic” but rather that Jews, Christians, and pagans were all using the same templates to ward off evil. “Late ancient Jews” said Bonar “had many of the same concerns as their eastern Mediterranean neighbors and sought out many of the same solutions.” There may have been some ancient competition for clients or condemnation of the practices of one’s rivals, but there doesn’t appear to have been doubt about whether or not the images and objects actually worked.

One thing that’s difficult to establish, however, is where the amulet came from. The report states that the item was found close to the ancient Arbel synagogue by the late Tova Haviv, a resident of the village of Arbel, which was founded by demobilized Israeli soldiers in 1949. A family member admirably donated the amulet to the National Treasures Center, but because it was not found as part of a licensed excavation it is difficult to know exactly where it was originally discovered. Moreover, as Bonar, pointed out, the popularity of the imagery on the pendant makes it difficult to prove that the wearer of the amulet was an ancient Jew. The popularity of the iconography means that it could easily have belonged to a Christian or pagan instead.

Around the Aegean the evil eye is most commonly associated with light colored irises sometimes green but usually blue. The association led to the creation of blue eye-shaped or circular glass amulets that can be hung in homes or worn as jewelry. The popularity of this image persists to this day. Just as in the ancient world the modern day use is fairly ambiguous: whether you paid $10 or over $3500 for your evil eye jewelry your use of it says less about your religious affiliation than it does your religious aesthetics and sartorial choices.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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