Sword of Moses and Barbarous Names

This evening I’m sitting down in the stifling heat (why isn’t summer over yet???) to read through a new translation of “The Sword of Moses,” which is a compendium of magical recipes from Jewish antiquity. The translation that is usually sold in occulture is by Moses Gaster from the 1890s. In occulture (and in Christianity, wonder if that’s an accident that they have the same attitude), older is equated to better. But in scholarship, the reverse is true. The fact is that we now know much more about this time period and its language and the culture that produced this work than was known at the time that Gaster made his translation. There’s just been a ton of research done since then. Also, the Gaster translation (see pic for old edition commonly run across) leaves out a ton of the magical names (which Joseph Peterson put back in a version on archive.org).

The very first thing that hit me about this work (as some other early books of magic) is how tremendously long many of the magical names are. I know that a number of Jewish magical words used in amulets, for instance, are actually acronyms of verses from the Hebrew Bible or lines from prayers. But I have often wondered if these acronymic magical names were intended to be simply read as those verses (given that the reader or magic worker would understand/recognize them) or if they were meant to be vocalized in some way, and if so, how. I have certainly seen how some names of God (which are traditionally written without the vowels that actually went with them, so written as consonants only) are vocalized using the vowels of other words. So for instance YHVH is written with the vowels of Elohim (and is pronounced as an altogether different word traditionally). I’m interested if the translator has addressed this or if this is one of those things that scholars of this type of work just know. We’ll see if he discusses it.

Sort of – the text refers to them as “letters,” not as words. There are an awful lot of “hays” in there, which, given that there are no vowel markings, would work to supply some vowels (and it’s also the word for “the”). But I wonder if these were simply meant to be recited as strings of letters. Unlike “barbarous names” in other languages, Hebrew doesn’t typically include vowels, so a barbarous name is just a string of consonants–unpronounceable unless you read them as a string of letters–the letter names including a vowel.

Or maybe it just doesn’t matter which vowels are attached to these letters. The modern theory among magic workers about barbarous names is that the actual meaning should not be sought and instead, the intention should be embedded in the pronunciation of the names.

Still, that does leave the magical practitioner kind of a up a creek with what to do with these strings of consonants. OTOH, some I recognized as legit abbreviations, like יה (YH), which is an abbreviation for יהוה (YHVH). (And today I learned how to insert Hebrew words into an English post without having to rewrite the world!)

I happened across my copy of The Book of Seals & Amulets by Jacobus Swart this morning, and over and over there are strings of letters that represent sentences from the Hebrew Bible, Hebrew prayers, or that are abbreviations for the names of angels (and demons). So I guess they are indeed to be read as letters and the abbreviation or acronym quality not only helps with magic but helps more stuff fit on a talisman. 🙂

I’ve been thinking of bringing back talismans on Alchemy Works because I’ve had ideas about making them and because I got a couple of requests for them recently. I ordered a bunch of parchment scraps to practice with and to start with making small ones. Looking forward to it! But I think this time around I will be making various talismans of my own accord and then offering them for sale as opposed to waiting for commissions. This would allow me to incorporate more art and decoration if I want to. And there are so many more talismans out there than the relative few people are familiar with from Solomonic magic. Like how about a wealth talisman from Sefer Raziel ha-Malakh?

Meanwhile, I thought I would practice Hebrew cursive as well as work on the grammar, because I’ve run across a couple books that have handwriting in all or part. I started that today and was surprised by how much I remember. I first learned Hebrew cursive when I self-studied Yiddish from a YIVO book way back in 1971. I can still see the pages before me. Writing the letters brought me back to that time so strongly, like the scent of a perfume can bring you back to a particular place and time with great intensity. And that led to a series of other memories.

It’s a truism that as one ages, past moments become more and more clear. I now remember events and places and people from 1971 with a great clarity–things I have not remembered for decades. There is something magical about it–and about how memory can be opened by the simple act of writing some letters.


My New Projects: Tarot and Translation

I am no longer gardening to the extent I was for decades. The main reason is that I just didn’t have the energy as I aged to keep up with a large garden. That’s why when I moved from NY to RI two years ago, renting a place that had only a few raised beds available for tenant gardening didn’t seem problematic. In fact, as it turned out, it was a relief. I just kept remembering digging mandrakes out of their heavy, wet soil in November and my knuckles hurting and hurting from the cold.

I’ve greatly decreased the amount of work I put into gardening. The first year here, I started only a few annuals from seed and the rest I bought as transplants, and these were mostly peppers. This year I did start a number of witching herbs and got some as transplants and simply cultivated volunteers that came up from the previous neighbors’ tomatoes. But I have also pretty much given up on indoor cultivation of henbane and mandrake. I find that I do not have the time to care for them properly and am encouraging some friends in that past-time.

Meanwhile, I’ve got some other projects to work on. I’ve been wanting to create a tarot deck for a while now. I settled on an overall theme and collected ideas for the suits. This weekend I completely designed the suit of Cups. Now I have to actually paint the designs. I’m going to try using watercolor, since these paintings will be fairly small size and for me, it is difficult to manipulate oil paints on small supports. I am figuring on a medium-sized deck. I’ll start the paintings this week and see how it goes. I would love to complete two paintings/week, which means it would take me about ten months to complete the deck, but I suspect it will be more like at least a year. This is a big project, and I want it to be right.

So that I can then go on and design ANOTHER tarot. 🙂

Also meanwhile, though, I’ve been wanting for some years to return to studying Hebrew. For a long time I have wanted to work on translating some medieval Jewish magical texts. I think these are of interest in occulture, and some of the translations that are available are not the best. But it does mean a lot of language study on my part. I used to be a regular Torah reader in my synagogue, so I am familiar with Biblical and prayer Hebrew, but it is not a fluency by any means. And medieval Jewish texts are a jumble of Hebrew, Aramaic, and various local languages. So it should be…interesting. Right now I am starting to study Biblical Hebrew in earnest so that I have a starting point. There is a ton to learn, but I am already scouting out possible texts for me to work on.

I was thinking that I was not up to this task, that my brain is too old. But I think I was just a bit depressed. I think this is exactly the sort of task that will work well with making art, since it enlivens a completely different set of brain cells. And of course I hope that some years down the road, these projects will help supplement my meager income from Social Security benefits. So stay tuned.


Sketch of the wormwood mug designOn Monday I sketched the wormwood design for the next mug, and yesterday I painted it. It was very difficult to get a color that looked right to me. That kind of Moon waxiness of “glaucous” leaves like wormwood’s is for me difficult to capture in watercolor. I had to add some white to the blue/green I’d mixed up and then go over it with very small amounts of white acrylic ink. Cleanup of the image in digital form took me hours because of how cut wormwood leaves are. That’s a lot of edges to straighten out. But it came out okay.

I’m trying to create some kind of visual unity between the different mug images. I think that’s better in terms of general design. But I haven’t done this sort of thing before (except on a small scale, like with designing labels for Alchemy Works products). So it’s interesting, and I’m learning. Here’s what the mug looks like. I like the sort of freshness that I am getting by using the white background, so I am going to keep working with that. I am trying to emphasize the graphicality of the leaves and other plant parts of the witching herbs.

At customer request, I looked into getting these designs put on dishes and bowls. I think it can be done, but I would have to re-do the designs to different proportions–the mug designs are a long strip that is 9 x 3.8″. So I’m going to wait on that. I’d like to build up a good-sized body of mug designs, say, 50, and then open up a separate non-Etsy site and perhaps try selling them on Amazon as well.

Even though I have not sold jillions of mugs in the one month I’ve been doing them, I have already grossed more from these mugs than from an entire year of selling my art prints on Etsy (my stand-alone art site has made more than ten times as much as my art print site on Etsy, but that’s mostly from original paintings, not prints).

Alchemy Works has needed a major reworking for years, and to that end I finally got a decent web editor, Dreamweaver. Adobe woke up and realized that they could get a lot more users by offering it as a subscription for twenty bucks a month then selling it for $400 or whatever ridiculous sum it was. I’ll work on the Alchemy Works site over the summer. There’s a lot of information on it that I would like to organize, and a lot needs to be fixed. Other things need to be weeded out and features need to be added. So a ton of work needs to be done, and the creaky old web editor I’ve been using for 15 years could in no way handle it. I thought Dreamweaver would be difficult to work, but it has not been so at all. I am surprised. I tried it years ago and it baffled me then.

Today I’m going to start putting plants out in my raised beds out back. Should have pics tomorrow.