Magic in Early Judaism

This is a bit afield of what I usually post on this blog, but some of you might be interested in a new book about magic in early Judaism. The book is called Jewish Magic before the Rise of Kabbalah. Blogger Alan Brill reviews the book and interacts with the author in a brief online interview.

Harari argues that the practice of magic was very much a part of early Judaism (and Christianity), even though we’re predisposed not to see it. (What I do is “ritual”; what the people I don’t like do is “magic.”) Here’s one small snippet:

Magic is may be considered as pre-scientific technology, a scheme of technical practices founded on the belief in the way reality is run. Given the traditional premises concerning what forces that reality, magic behavior was rational.

Jewish magic is founded on a belief in human aptitude to affect the world by means of rituals, at the heart of which is execution of oral or written formulas. It is not different from Jewish normative religious view, which ascribes actual power to sacrifice, prayer, ritual, and the observance of law. Magic also does not differ from the normative views regarding God’s omnipotence or the involvement of angels and demons in mundane reality. It has elaborated as a system parallel to, and combined with the normative-religious one, a system that seeks to change reality for the benefit of the individual, commonly in order to remove a concrete pain or distress or to fulfill a certain wish or desire.

Books of magic recipes from antiquity as well as from later periods show that magic was pragmatically required in every aspect of life. Magic fantasy of the kind of One Thousand and One Nights or Harry Potter is missing almost all together from recipe books, which usually offers assistance in achieving targets that may be achieved also without magic. According to these Jewish books, magic power can be implemented personally or by an expert. Expert magicians offered their help in choosing and performing the right ritual and in preparing adjuration artifacts and other performative objects, such as amulets of roots and minerals.

Brill’s review mentions connections between early Jewish magic and Greco-Roman magical practices, something I’d certainly be interested in checking out.

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Five Vampires from Around the World

vampire

I grew up on Bela Lugosi’s interpretation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. For the longest time, that was what a vampire was—and it was the only thing a vampire could be! Vampires were suave, aristocratic, and spoke with an Eastern European accent. They turned into bats, drank the blood of their victims, slept in a coffin, and were destroyed by sunlight.

Needless to say, it was an eye-opener when I learned there were other kinds of vampires out there. When I first read Dracula, I was amazed at how new and fresh Stoker’s original Count Dracula was compared to Lugosi and all of his many imitators. (Dracula can walk around in the daytime? Why didn’t I know this??)

In honor of Halloween, I thought I’d write a little about some of the unusual vampires or vampire-like creatures found in world mythology. These are not necessarily my “favorites,” but they perhaps show a little bit of the diversity of vampire lore.

Estrie

The estrie is a type of female vampire found in Jewish folklore. It is said to prey mainly on Jewish men, but it also has a taste for the blood of children. Estries are sometimes seen as comparable to succubi, seductive female demons. They are also shapeshifters, able to turn into birds or cats at will.

The earliest estrie legends describe them as demonic entities. Later stories depict them living among mortals as part of the community, possibly victims of some sort of demonic possession.

Unlike other demons or creatures of the night, estries are undeterred by holy symbols or holy places.

Neamh-mairbh

This Gaelic word signifies “the walking dead.” One famous example of a neamh-mairbh was the evil magician Abhartach, whose story is told in Patrick Weston Joyce’s The Origin and History of Irish Names of Places (1875). He says of Abhartach,

This dwarf was a magician, and a dreadful tyrant, and after having perpetrated great cruelties on the people he was at last vanquished and slain by a neighbouring chieftain; some say by Fionn Mac Cumhail. He was buried in a standing posture, but the very next day he appeared in his old haunts, more cruel and vigorous than ever. And the chief slew him a second time and buried him as before, but again he escaped from the grave, and spread terror through the whole country. The chief then consulted a druid, and according to his directions, he slew the dwarf a third time, and buried him in the same place, with his head downwards; which subdued his magical power, so that he never again appeared on earth. The laght raised over the dwarf is still there, and you may hear the legend with much detail from the natives of the place, one of whom told it to me.

In some versions of the tale, Abhartach rises from the grave to drink the blood of his former subjects. He is sometimes tauted as the (or an) inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Vetala

A vetala (also vetaal or baital) is a type of evil spirit from Indian folklore. They take possession of human or animal corpses to use as vehicles in which to hunt for blood to drink—although they are also able to move about without the aid of a material “host.” They can also possess living victims.

The vetala is not simply an aspect or residue of person it inhabits. It doesn’t possess that person’s memories. They are malicious creatures in every way. In addition to their blood-drinking, cannibalistic tendencies, they are also known to kill children, cause miscarriages, and drive people insane.

In at least one instance, however, these creatures are presented in a more positive light. In the story of Baital Pachisi, the vetala is a heroic character who saves the life of the king, the protagonist of the story.

Vetalas can be repelled by chanting and released from their undead condition by performing the proper funeral rituals on their behalf.

Ekimmu

Unlike many conventional understandings of vampires, the ekimmu (or edimmu) of ancient Mesopotamia (Assyria) do not drink the blood of their victims. Rather, they are phantom, demon-like creatures that draw sustenance from the “breath” of others, often babies or young children. (Other sources say the ekimmu drained both blood and life-force.)

Ekimmu were the spirits of deceased humans who could not find peace in death. It was possible to become an ekimmu in a variety of ways including dying violently from murder, dying young, being improperly buried, etc.

An ekimmu’s victims generally die after a few days. These creatures could also inflict disease or inspire criminal behavior.

Leannán Sídhe

The leannán sídhe (Scottish leannan sith, Manx lhiannan shee) or “faery lover” is another “psychic vampire” like the ekimmu. Rather than being an undead monster, however, this is a faery being. Specifically, it is a beautiful female faery that compels a mortal man to fall in love with her. In return for her love, she imparts great artistic or creative abilities. The price of this inspiration, however, is often insanity or a premature death. According to W. B. Yeats’s Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888),

The Leanhaun Shee (fairy mistress) seeks the love of mortals. If they refuse, she must be their slave; if they consent, they are hers, and can only escape by finding another to take their place. The fairy lives on their life, and they waste away. Death is no escape from her. She is the Gaelic muse, for she gives inspiration to those she persecutes. The Gaelic poets die young, for she is restless, and will not let them remain long on earth—this malignant phantom.

Although Yeats focused on the parasitic aspects of the leannán sídhe, others highlight her positive role as a muse.

Shedim: Eldritch Beings from Jewish Folklore

Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Shedim are beings from Jewish folklore. They only appear twice in the Hebrew Bible, both times in the plural (although the singular form would be shēd or sheid). Psalm 106:37 says, “They sacrificed their own sons and daughters to demons!” (CEB). In a similar context, Deuteronomy 32:17 says,

They sacrificed to demons, not to God,
to deities of which
they had no knowledge—
new gods only recently on the scene,
ones about which your ancestors
had never heard. 

Shedim are therefore obviously bad news in the Bible. Oddly enough, the term seems to be related to Akkadian shedu, the word for spirit-beings generally. In Mesopotamian mythology, a shedu might be a benevolent or protective spirit, perhaps what we might think of as a guardian angel. Perhaps they are cast in a negative light in the Bible because of their associations with foreign gods and foreign worship. The biblical writers were obviously interested in discouraging infatuation with lesser protective spirits and the kind of devotion their neighbors offered to such beings.

Despite this minimal treatment in the Bible, a good bit of legendary embellishment grew up around shedim in later times. There are, for example, a number of theories as to their origin. Some say they sprung from serpents—maybe even the serpent in the garden of Eden. Others say they were humans that God left unfinished when he rested on the seventh day of Creation. Still others say they are the descendants of Adam and his first wife, Lilith.

According to the Talmud, shedim are not fallen angels, but rather a distinct order of creation between angels and human beings:

Our Rabbis taught: Six things are said concerning shedim: in regard to three, they are like the ministering angels; and in regard to three, like human beings. ‘In regard to three they are like the ministering angels’: they have wings like the ministering angels; and they fly from one end of the world to the other like the ministering angels; and they know what will happen like the ministering angels…. ‘And in regard to three, they are like human beings’: they eat and drink like human beings; they propagate like human beings; and they die like human beings. (Hagigah 16a)

They thus look and act much more like the jinn of Arabic tradition than the “fallen angels” of Christian theology. Also like jinn, they can be defeated with iron weapons.

Although their name is usually translated “demons,” shedim are not always seen as malevolent spirits. (There is, in fact, a different word strictly used for malevolent shedim: maziqin or “harmers.”) A story is even told in Leviticus Rabbah 24 about a water-sheid who warned a holy man about the threat posed by a harmful fellow sheid.

Some Qabbalistic rituals actually invoke “benevolent” shedim, and humans can consult them about the future by means of rituals involving oil and eggshells. The Talmud forbids this on the Sabbath, however (Shabbat 101a). The revered scholars Hillel and Johanan ben Zakkai are said to have understood the speech of shedim just as King Solomon did (another overlap with Arabic jinn-lore).

Even when they are not purely malicious, these creatures’ sense of morality can be quite alien to human norms. In one story from Russia, we see shedim acting in a capricious manner befitting the faeries of northern Europe. A hunchback wandering in the forest came upon a large and festive party of shedim, who grabbed him and pulled him into their wild dance. The shedim were so delighted with his participation that they demanded he come back the next day. Furthermore, they demanded his hump as a pledge that he would return. They took it, and the man went home delighted to have been made whole.

This man had a twin brother who, jealous of his brother’s new physique, asked him how he had achieved it. The man told him, and so the twin set out to do the same thing. When the shedim appeared to him in the woods, he also joined in their dancing. Then, assuming this was the same man as they encountered before, they returned his pledge, and he left with two humps—one on his back and the other on his chest! (Carol K. Mack and Dinah Mack, A Field Guide to Demons, Vampires, Fallen Angels, and Other Subversive Spirits [New York: Arcade, 2011]).

Shedim are described in various ways—and are often shapeshifters—but they are usually invisible by default and said to have have chicken-like feet. Other birdlike characteristics are sometimes attributed to them. Their presence can be detected by scattering dust or ashes on the ground and looking for their footprints.