Search This Blog

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Mixture of Hebrew and Hellene--Two Books of Ancient Magic and Folklore

A while back Jewish historical fiction author Maggie Anton shelved a few books on Goodreads . I saw them on my feed because she friended me after I reviewed her novel Rav Hisda's Daughter:Apprentice  on my previous blog The Unmasked Persona's Reviews.  That review was But Is It Really Jewish Magic?  I am now very much anticipating the second book Rav Hisda's Daughter: Enchantress which will be released September 2.  I received it from Net Galley this morning, but I expect to review it in the first week of September because I am part of the blog tour.

Since I had read the first Rav Hisda's Daughter novel, I recognized that two of the books that Maggie Anton shelved had content that was definitely related to her latest book series.  So I decided to review them together.  They are Sefer Ha-Razim and Divination, Magic and Healing.


In the introduction to Sefer Ha-Razim, I read that it was compiled from fragments in the Cairo Genizah which is an archive of Egyptian Jewish writings.  Even though I already knew this, I said to myself "What did I just read?" after I finished reading the book.  I needed some context for it.  When was this material written?  So I consulted The Jewish Virtual Library which said that it was written no later than the Talmudic period.  This would mean that it was contemporary with Rav Hisda and his daughter who were Talmud personages.  Yet it felt more ancient to me.  The Encyclopedia Mythica suggested that it resembles ancient Greek magical texts.  A news article from 1964 that was archived at is much more specific.  It states that it was written in the 2nd century C.E. by members of a gnostic sect.  Wikipedia's Article on Sefer Ha-Razim  says that Mordechai Margalioth, the scholar who discovered it at Oxford in 1963,  dated it to the late 3rd century C.E. or  the 4th century C.E.

Regardless of when it was written, it's very syncretic. I could easily see this being written in Alexandria by Hellenized Jews because the names of Greek deities are included in the text side by side with Jewish angels.  If it had been written in Persia in the time of Rav Hisda's daughter, I would have expected to see Zoroastrian influence. 

 One of the angels named in a spell in Sefer Ha-Razim is probably Bar Kochba according to a footnote.  Bar Kochba was the leader of a revolt against the Romans in 132-135 C.E.  This implies that it was believed by Jews that the dead become angels.  To my best knowledge, this has never been a Jewish teaching.  I was taught that Jews believe that the dead go to Sheol which is underground, and not to the heavens where the angels reside.  The ancient Greeks believed in the dead going to an underworld ruled by Hades and Persephone.  Yet they also believed in dead heroes going to the Elysian Fields or Elysium.  So Hellenized Jews might believe that a Jewish hero went to Elysium after his death, and that Elysium is where the angels live. 

Divination, Magic and Healing by Ronald H. Isaacs also makes reference to an instance of notable Hellenistic syncretism.  There was a mosaic on the floor of a Byzantine synagogue that depicts the Greek sun god, Helios, driving his chariot surrounded by the signs of the zodiac.  There's an image of this mosaic on Wikipedia which turned out to be public domain.  So I'm going to show my readers what it looked like.


I am accustomed to thinking of Hebrew and Hellene as being in conflict.  The Mycenaean Greek Philistines were at war with the Hebrews for generations. (For the connections between the Philistines and Mycenaean Greeks, see the section titled "Material Culture and Mycenaean Archaeology"   in the Wikipedia article on the Philistines .) The Macabees fought the Hellenized Syrian King, Antiochus, who desecrated the Jewish Temple.  This is the struggle commemorated by the holiday called Chanukah.  It's interesting to see this sort of Hebrew-Hellene rapprochement in the folklore and practices of  Jews in ancient times.


No comments:

Post a Comment