Lovers Enticed, Demons Trapped by Jewish Magic Charms: Review

A 2,300 year old voodoo doll
A voodoo doll, 2,300 years old, is included in the ``Angels & Demons, Jewish Magic through the Ages'' exhibition at Bible Lands Museum, Jerusalem. The doll, with its hands tied behind its back, was used in erotic rituals. Source: Bible Lands Museum via Bloomberg

Take some incantation bowls, turn them upside down and bury them under the threshold of your home. Believe they have a little magic and watch them trap demons from entering, and keep the place safe.

The clay and bronze bowls from about 1,500 years ago are among items of superstition on display at the “Angels & Demons, Jewish Magic Through the Ages” exhibition at Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem. A bronze doll, hands tied behind its back, was probably used in erotic practices 2,300 years ago.

In the entrance hangs a more recent amulet personally inscribed for a friend of the curator to heal an illness. According to instruction, she dipped the amulet in water every day for a week and drank the liquid. After the first seven days, she wore the amulet around her neck until she recovered.

“This woman is healthy today,” said museum director Amanda Weiss. “Did the amulet do it? You tell me. It is a fascinating concept. What we wanted to look at in this exhibit is what drives us to look for that extra power.”

The primary motive is fear, Weiss said.

Some superstitions have transcended the centuries, such as framing amulets made of paper or parchment and hanging them on walls. About 1,900 years ago, mothers tried tying small sacks containing items to a child’s tunic. Now parents pin charms to baby carriages. The items are said to ward off fire, rats and evil.

Weiss says she has hung several hamsas, the sign of a hand that keeps out evil, in her home. “Does that mean my home won’t be safe without them? No. But I happen to think that they add to the positive energy,” she said.

Election Amulet

Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Shas party has used amulets in its election campaigns, prompting in 2000 an amendment to the election law prohibiting the lobbying to vote or not to vote “via oath, excommunication, promise to bless or giving amulets.”

Magic, or mysticism, has a permanent place “in popular Jewish spirituality, which has elicited everything from vociferous opposition to quiet consent, to an actual endorsement,” said Jeffrey Woolf, a Jewish-studies lecturer at Bar-Ilan University.

Throughout the centuries, Judaism has allowed for the practice of forswearing “heavenly hosts to do your bidding, especially for something good,” he added. Even in medieval texts there are references to the enlisting of angels to help drive a miscreant out of a community.

Items displayed come from private collections, other museums, the Israel Antiquities Authority, and other Bible Lands exhibits.

They include books containing recipes for love potions, or for concoctions “to get rid of a lousy neighbor,” said Weiss.

“Angels & Demons, Jewish Magic Through the Ages,” runs through May 5, 2011, at Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem, Museum Row, 25 Granot Street, Jerusalem.


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