There has been a sort of exorcism going on in the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem over the past few months. An exhibit called “Angels and Demons” – curated by gifted Assyriologist Filip Vukosavovic, whose life story would make a great novel – tells the story of this young Montenegrin’s love for Israel and his decision to join his fate to that of Jerusalem, by researching incantations and amulets related to Jewish tradition.
The exhibit displays the entire history of Jewish magic, from the early Middle Ages onward, in the form of objects, some of which you wouldn’t suspect of being useful for sorcery if it weren’t for the explanations provided. These items embody humanity’s fears, past and present, in the face of danger. A seemingly shapeless lump of clay turns out to be a little sculpture of a person with its hands and feet tied, signifying the desire of its owner to symbolically bind evil so it won’t harm him. And there are angels for all seasons, whose names are no less strange than the powers attributed to them. Their role? To defend people in difficult times, whether from the evil eye, bad health or other problems.
For instance, the angel Serfial, drawn on a Mesopotamian bowl, inscribed with text in Judeo-Aramaic, from the early Middle Ages, looks as though he came straight from painter Paul Klee’s brush. Serfial was a “personal” angel, hired to defend Kafnay, son of Imma, and his wife, Immay daughter of Anai, from ghosts in their home. And how poetic and musical are the names of a trio of guardian angels from the kabbalistic Book of Raziel: Senoy, Sansenoy and Semangelof.
Inscriptions are written on strips of leather, paper, human skulls, coins and knots. What did they protect one against? Scorpions, primarily. “Human” scorpions, no less. This is where black magic enters the picture – a phenomenon as widespread in the Jewish world as it was in general. One of the most famous inscriptions from the biblical period is a curse found at the entrance to a Judean cave from the 7th century B.C.E., which says: “Damned be the cockroach son of a grasshopper by the hosts of God,” apparently referring to some unwanted personage in entomological terms.
If visitors to the Israel Museum may be thought to be wandering through the recorded history of the Jewish people, in “Angels and Demons” one walks through its subconscious.