Judaism’s rich curse traditions (Defixiones, Part 8)
I hand over to you angels of disquiet who stand upon the fourth step, the life and the soul and the spirit of N son of N so that you may tie him in chains of iron and bind him to a bronze yoke. Do not give sleep, nor slumber, nor drowsiness to his eyelids; let him weep and cry like a woman at childbirth, and do not permit any (other) man to release him (from this spell).
I ran across a striking example of a curse which was to be inscribed on “a strip of lead pipe”.¹ The formula and physical form seem consistent with a defixio (lead curse tablet). In this series of articles, we’ve explored ancient Europe, the ancient Near East (ANE) and North Africa, but this example bears looking into and takes us further in the direction begun in the previous Part.
The source might be a bit controversial as the actual manuscript is dated quite late—from the late third century to early fourth CE. Still this text, the Sefer HaRazim (ספר הרזים, “Book of Secrets”, SHR hereafter), purports itself to be much older, having been given to Noah by Raziel (רזיאל), the “Angel of Mysteries”, eventually being passed down to Solomon (שְׁלֹמֹה), who was renowned for his wisdom and mystical powers. Some see SHR as belonging to Hellenistic Judaism, while others see it as merely heretical.
Nonetheless, I will attempt to establish here cursing is deeply ingrained in Judaic tradition, including some of the specific elements related to the defixio, as well as that there is continuity with the ANE praxes, which are ultimately the wellspring for this type of magic. This is to say even granting the influence of Hellenism on some of the specific content of the SHR, since Greek magic was based on ANE models, it would have easily resonated with people who had already long since been influenced by those same sources.
First a bit more about the source: the SHR was pieced together by Jewish scholar Mordecai Margalioth from a group of fragmentary manuscripts known as the Cairo Geniza in the mid-’60s. The dating is also uncertain as much of the Geniza is still more recent, leading some to push for a still later date, but there is no indication this book was original and not copied from still earlier versions. In fact, similar to a book of recipes, it was likely collecting previously extant scattered folklore and magical information into one cohesive treatise. And as we’ve seen, there is a general Western bias toward moving dates later for ANE materials. There is actually some doubt about the entire concept of Hellenistic Judaism—implying a joining of Greek mysticism with Jewish religious tradition—as relates various texts, including SHR:²
Sefer HaRazim cannot be dismissed as mere magic and superstition. Nor can evidence […] hitherto considered to be “pagan,” be ignored, especially where the documents are shot through and through with Judaic allusions and possess little or no pagan references.
By contrast, actual Hellenistic Judaism comes from figures like Philo of Alexandria (Φίλων, AKA יְדִידְיָה, Yedidia). His works represent the height of syncretization between Greek philosophies, particularly Pythagoreanism and Stoicism, with the Torah. Historian David Miano notes some elements that characterize his works are:³
[T]he idea that the first man, Adam, was a transcendent being with superhuman qualities and mystical descriptions of the ascent of the soul through celestial spheres.
The bit of biblical evidence for cursing I provided in Part 7 was really aimed at establishing the practice among the Canaanites whose land the Israelites had moved into in the Book of Judges, adopting some of their customs. In short, I was looking at it as an outlier and didn’t expect to find a rich tradition within Judaism proper. But I was wrong—it’s everywhere—so I’ll end up quoting myself a bit here. As an example of how curse-laden the religious canon is, most of Deuteronomy 28 is taken up with imprecations against those failing to obey God.
One important element of cursing both in the Graeco-Roman world and in the ANE is that of the dead mediating help from (the) god(s): I’ve laid out the practice of depositing defixiones in necropoleis and, as we saw in the previous part, Assyrian texts present remedies for when one’s figurine has been “handed over to Eresh’k’ikal (𒀭𒊩𒆠𒃲, Queen of the Underworld) in dilapidated places,” which is to say tombs, where one who is dead performs this mediative function. While this may seem to some to be at odds with Judeo-Christian values, it’s actually been there since way before Christendom’s reliquaries of saints’ body parts. The tomb of Rachel at the north entrance to Bethlehem has been a place of pilgrimage from ancient times—i.e., before Israel was subjugated by the Neo-Assyrians in 722 BCE—to this very day, with barren women visiting to pray directly to the matriarch to grant them progeny. David, Maimonides, and Rabbi Simeon Bar Yochai, apparently also fall into this category. Such a deceased matriarch or patriarch is:⁴
[…] privy to the requests of supplicants and himself has, as it were, the ear of the deity. That the deceased constitutes an active intermediary, rather than a passive instrument of communication, seems evident in that prayer may be addressed to the deceased rather than to a divine being. More properly put, the deceased has become a divine being in some serious sense, and therefore like God or an angel, may be efficaciously beseeched in prayer.
Another divine agency to which the petitioner can appeal are angels, as can be seen in the formula from SHR. This might seem strange at first blush, but as professor of Jewish studies, Philip S. Alexander notes:⁵
[A]ngels, shockingly, function like demons […] there is no moral dimension to the ill that they are required to inflict.
Again, this is not at all out of line; the distinction between angels and demons is a fairly recent one in the Judeo-Christian milieu, likely entering post-biblical Judaism under the influence of Zoroastrianism—which sees the world as a battleground between the forces of good and evil—and transforming them into the semi-divine benevolent beings familiar to us today. The word itself comes down to us from Mycenaean Greek a-ke-ro (probably angelos, similar to Modern Greek) simply meaning “messenger”, probably via a Semitic loanword with a related meaning, ’engirtā (𐡀𐡍𐡂𐡓𐡕𐡀 “message”). The term demon in fact has similarly ambivalent origins, coming from Ancient Greek δαίμων (daimon) simply meaning a deity.
As we can see from the SHR formula we started with, one cursed is “handed over” to these angels who are meant to cause physical harm. Of one such group of angels, the SHR reports⁶
There is no mercy in them but they (wish) only to take revenge and to punish him who is delivered into their hands.
Persuasive analogy is another key element of sympathetic magic, one seen everywhere in the Graeco-Roman context, as well as in the ANE, for which I provided an example in the previous Part from the third millennium BCE:⁷
May it be smashed to bits like a pot!
Which would also have had the supplicant physically break a pot.
Not only are such persuasive analogies part and parcel of Judaic cursing, as we can already detect in the SHR one, but this exact analogy is also present in the Book of Jeremiah, with the titular prophet being told by God to, “Get a potter’s earthen bottle and go to the valley of the son of Hinnom,” and:⁸
Then shalt thou break the bottle in the sight of the men that go with thee, and shalt say unto them: Thus saith the LORD of hosts: Even so will I break this people and this city, as one breaketh a potter’s vessel, that cannot be made whole again.
Here the divine agent is the divine agent, God himself:⁹
Whilst divine agency features in many curses (especially in Tanakh), in imprecatory cursing, God is explicitly addressed through prayer as the one who will inflict physical suffering in the form of a curse upon another.
The SHR also carries on the pot-breaking tradition, prescribing a rite using “unfired pottery vessels” which are to be broken:¹⁰
[A]ccept from my hand at this time that which I throw to you, to affect N son of N, to break his bones, to crush all his limbs, and to shatter his conceited power, as these pottery vessels are broken. And may there be no recovery for him just as there is no repair for these pottery vessels.
Lest you think there’s still a significant difference in character between Biblical curses and the ones from this text on black magic in spite of the similar themes and rhetoric applied to both, let’s get down and dirty. Here is one from Psalm 109. The psalmist is falsely accused by his enemies, who seek to have him tried and put to death. He begins with a direct address, “O God, whom I praise, do not remain silent”, asking for vengeance against those who have wronged him. The subsequent text resonates with the plea for justice type of defixio, where quite explicit and exaggerated punishments are called for. Further, reversals appear as well as various other persuasive analogies:¹¹
Let his days be few;
Let another take his charge.
Let his children be fatherless,
And his wife a widow.
Let his children be vagabonds, and beg;
And let them seek their bread out of their desolate places.
Let the creditor distrain all that he hath;
And let strangers make spoil of his labor.
Let there be none to extend kindness unto him;
Neither let there be any to be gracious unto his fatherless children.
Let his posterity be cut off;
In the generation following let their name be blotted out.
Let the iniquity of his fathers be brought to remembrance unto the LORD;
And let not the sin of his mother be blotted out.
Let them be before the LORD continually,
That He may cut off the memory of them from the earth.
Because that he remembered not to do kindness,
But persecuted the poor and needy man,
And the broken in heart he was ready to slay.
Yea, he loved cursing, and it came unto him;
And he delighted not in blessing, and it is far from him.
He clothed himself also with cursing as with his raiment,
And it is come into his inward parts like water,
And like oil into his bones.
It ends with a sort of ex-voto oath, telling what the psalmist undertakes to perform if the aid he asks is given: “With my mouth I will greatly extol the LORD; in the great throng I will praise him.”
In general, biblical scholars are clearly uncomfortable with these passages and attempt to dismiss them in various ways—these things are not meant literally, they belong to magic and not religion, the curses are actually those of the psalmist’s enemies—but their objections ring false. Here’s another quite explicit curse formula taken from the Qumran version of Deuteronomy:¹²
They shall begin to speak and shall say: “Accursed are you for all your wicked, blameworthy deeds. May God hand you over to terror by the hand of all those carrying out acts of vengeance. May he bring upon you destruction without mercy, according to the darkness of your deeds, and sentenced to the gloom of everlasting fire. May God not be merciful when you entreat him. May he not forgive by purifying your iniquities. May he lift the countenance of his anger to avenge himself on you, and may there be no peace for you by the mouth of those who intercede.”
Just to put a fine point on it, let’s date the sections of the Bible we’re looking at here: Jeremiah’s ministry was active from around 626-587 BCE and the eponymous book of the Hebrew Bible was set down soon afterward—at the latest by the end of the same century. The last of the Psalms likely come from the post-Exilic period, that is the fifth century BCE, so the one quoted above would be some time before then. Finally, Deuteronomy, meant to be authored by Moses, is generally agreed to date from between the seventh and fifth centuries BCE, with the actual Qumran manuscript coming from somewhere between the last two centuries BCE and the first century CE, but almost necessarily drawing on earlier material. Meanwhile, the period of Hellenism is 323-31 BCE, so only the Qumran Deuteronomy and the Geniza SHR have actual overlap. Also, despite Graeco-Roman curses presenting numerous, colorful persuasive analogies, I haven’t seen pot-smashing appear except in the ANE and the examples above.
So while there may have been some Hellenizing influence on the SHR, it seems the Judaic curse tradition was already present, much of it drawn directly from that of the same culture that influenced those Western praxes. This is likely why, assuming there were any Greek materials introduced, they would have resonated with those clearly already in existence among Jewish mystics, found favor, and been incorporated into the SHR.
As to the idea the SHR is a heretical text, according to professor of Jewish thought and folklore, Yuval Harari, it seems to have been quite popular…¹³
[…] during the Byzantine period [395–1453] and the subsequent centuries. Near the turn of the millennium it was mentioned by Karaite leaders as a paradigm of the “Rabbanite books of magic.” It was repeatedly copied in both Europe and the Muslim world and was partially embedded in the most influential magic compilation Book of the Angel Razi’el.
So those wishing to denounce it today are really just trying to rewrite history.
Read Previous Articles in This Series
Part 1: The Curses of Aquae Sulis
Part 4: Bargaining with the Gods
Part 6: More Than Money Can Buy
- Michael A. Morgan, Sefer HaRazim: The Book of Mysteries, 1983.
- Jack Lightstone, “Christian Anti-Judaism in its Judaic Mirror: The Judaic Context of Early Christianity Revised”, Anti-Judaism in Early Christianity, Volume 2: Separation and Polemic, Peter Richardson, David M. Granskou, Stephen G. Wilson eds., 1986.
- David Miano, “Who was Hermes Trismegistus? The Hermetica Explained”, World of Antiquity, April 2021.
- Lightstone, 1986.
- Philip S. Alexander, “Sefer Ha-Razim and the Problem of Black Magic in Early Judaism”, Magic in the Biblical World: From the Rod of Aaron to the Ring of Solomon, T. E. Klutz, ed., 2004.
- Morgan, 1983.
- Deliver Me from Evil: Mesopotamian Incantations, 2500–1500 BC, Graham Cunningham, 1997. I have used my own transliteration and translation.
- Jeremiah 191-15, The Holy Scriptures According to the Masoretic Text, a New Translation, Jewish Publication Society (JPS Tanakh), 1917.
- David Raymond Smith, “‘Hand this man over to Satan’: Curse, Exclusion and Salvation in 1 Corinthians 5”, 2005.
- Morgan, 1983.
- Psalm 109, JPS Tanakh.
- 4Q11:1-6, Dead Sea Scrolls.
- Yuval Harari, “Sefer ha-Razim (the Book of Mysteries) (Jewish magical text)”, The Encyclopedia of Ancient History, Roger S. Bagnall, Kai Brodersen, Craige B. Champion, Andrew Erskine, and Sabine R. Huebner, eds., 2012. Not anthropologist and historian Yuval Noah Harari—this is a different guy.