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.


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