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.


A New Coptic Spellbook

Coptic isn’t exactly “Ancient Egyptian,” as it is called in this Atlas Obscura post title, but this is still an interesting development. A Coptic spellbook from the 7th or 8th century AD has recently been translated into English.

Researchers in Australia have decoded an Ancient Egyptian ritual codex containing spells to cure demonic possession, treat black jaundice, and find success in business and love. The complete 20-page illustrated parchment booklet, thought date to the 7th or 8th century, contains 27 spells and “a lengthy series of invocations that culminate with drawings and words of power.” The translation, by Macquarie University professors Malcolm Choat and Iain Gardner, is called “A Coptic Handbook of Ritual Power.”

According to the publishers,

This volume publishes a new Coptic handbook of ritual power, comprising a complete 20 page parchment codex from the second half of the first millennium AD. It consists of an invocation including both Christian and Gnostic elements, ritual instructions, and a list of twenty-seven spells to cure demonic possession, various ailments, the effects of magic, or to bring success in love and business. The codex is not only a substantial new addition to the corpus of magical texts from Egypt, but, in its opening invocation, also provides new evidence for Sethian Gnostic thought in Coptic texts.

Sadie Kane, call your office!


Ten Latin Spells from Harry Potter

Because you should never pass up the opportunity to learn something!

The magical world of J. K. Rowling is known by millions (if not billions) of children, teens, and adults. Especially  those who grew up reading the books and then watched the magic come to life of the silver screen later on. J.K. Rowling created the world of Harry Potter from her vast imagination (and personal experience) and perhaps from other sources.  These included Dickens and Tolkien, which she says filled her free time during her college years.

J. K Rowling attended University of Exeter and received her BA in French and Classics. It is evident that she received a degree in Classics, because the Harry Potter series is filled with Latin words and ancient mythology. While the mythological references may be easier to see in character names (i.e Minerva McGonagall as in Minerva the Roman goddess of wisdom); the Latin reference may not be as discernible.


The people of the British Isles tended to blame unexplained illnesses on the malevolent work of elves. As early as the tenth century, medical books discuss elves afflicting both humans and livestock with death and disease via “elf-shot.” In Scots Gaelic, this phenomenon was called a saighead sithe (“faery arrow”). In Irish Gaelic, it was a gae sídhe (“faery dart”).

Elf-shot might be compared to the supposed druidic ability to “send” misfortune by putting a curse on an object (say, a handful of straw) and then throwing it at the intended victim. Elf-shot does the same thing, but delivers the magical “payload” via arrows or darts. In fact, people appealed to the neolithic flint arrow heads they sometimes found on their land as evidence of the activity of elves.

Elf-shot “payloads” can be quite diverse. Apparently many types of curses and hexes could be embedded on the projectile. Some of the more commonly encountered types of elf-shot curses are:

  • Sudden shooting pains, which might be diagnosed as rheumatism, arthritis, muscle stitches, cramps, etc. The Old English medical text Wið færstice provides a remedy for this sort of elf-shot.
  • Sudden paralysis. We call cerebrovascular accidents “strokes” because they were formerly believed to be the result of the stroke of an elf or faery’s hand.
  • Sluggishness, hard breathing, and loss of appetite associated with the opening of the peritoneum in livestock (as described in America Bewitched by Owen Davies, p. 39).
  • Bad dreams (referred to in German as Alpdrücken, “elf-pressure”). Also, the phenomenon known as sleep paralysis was often explained as the work of elves, demons, etc.
  • Blackleg (aka black quarter, quarter evil, or quarter ill), an acute infection of cattle, sheep, and goats characterized by crepitant swelling of the muscles of the infected part (see T. Davidson, “The Cure of Elf-Disease in Animals” in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 15/3 [1960]: 15:282–91).
  • Tumors. Like paralysis, tumors were often considered a curse inflicted by elves.
  • Death of animals as suddenly as if they had been struck by lightning (referred to in Swedish as skot “shot” and in Danish as elleskud “elf-shot”).

Though several years old, Richard Scott Nokes discussed elves, faeries, and elf-shot in a nice, brief post at his Unlocked Wordhoard blog. He makes some interesting observations about how we deal with unexplained illness today—and how we may not be quite as far removed from our ancestors as we might like to think.