“[To gain] favour and grace, write on your right hand these seals [ḥotamot], then wipe them with olive oil, and anoint your face with them.”
Magical manuscripts in the JRL Gaster collection offer an abundance of such spells with elaborate drawings of unusual characters. In Hebrew they are usually referred to as ḥotamot, that is, seals. Another term for them is charaktêres that comes from the Greek word χαρακτήρ (character) meaning a mark engraved on a seal or a coin. In Jewish context, we can find the distorted form of the Greek word kalaqtiraia (in Aramaic) or carateras (in Judeo-Spanish).
What do we know about these charaktêres? Where do they come from and how are supposed to work?
Magical charaktêres are not a Jewish invention. The exact origin of these quasi-alphabetical signs composed of strokes with circlets at their ends – and therefore also called ring letters – is unknown but they probably originate from ancient Greco-Egyptian occult traditions. They came to existence sometime around the 2nd or 3rd century CE, and according to some scholars their invention might be connected to the Greek reception of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Their forms suggest that originally they may have been based on letters of the Greek alphabet.
A common feature of the charaktêres is that they are unutterable. That is to say, they cannot be pronounced, not because it is forbidden or dangerous (though it would probably be!), but because they do not have a phonetical value. They are purely visual symbols. Their unutterability was often seen as a sign of their immense power. They are also incomprehensible, at least for humans. In Jewish context, they were usually considered as symbols from scripts of various angels, and they provided the means to communicate with the divine world. To put it simply, you would summon the help of supernatural beings by talking or rather writing to them in their own language!
In the John Rylands Gaster collection, many manuscripts containing charms, recipes of magic potions, and instructions of how to make amulets use charaktêres for obtaining protection (apotropaic magic), for healing, and so on.
Protecting someone from evil spirits, illnesses, or enemies often involved summoning supernatural beings, most often angels. An eighteenth-century Italian manuscript (Gaster Hebrew MS 444) containing numerous magical and medical recipes, charms and amulets has a whole section on apotropaic magic (see also our Weekly Potion Twitter thread). One of the charms says (Fig. 2):
“Whoever carries this amulet, no one will be able to harm him; no murderer and no robber, and there will be no stopping of him. He should uncover his right arm and write them on a kosher parchment and in righteousness; and these are the lines: ATNIEL, MICHAEL, HODRIEL, HAMDRIEL, SHOVRIEL, OZRIEL, SHORIEL, MICHAEL, GABRIEL ⨷⨷⨷
[Unfortunately (or fortunately?), computers do not have fonts for charaktêres and cannot communicate with angels, so I will use ⨷ instead].
Another early modern magical manuscript, probably from Germany, tells us how to make an amulet that will protect you from any armed attack (Fig. 3):
“Write on a kosher parchment these names and hang it in your neck, and these are the names: ATINEL, PIKAEL, HIZRIEL, HAMDRIEL, SHOVEVIEL, ODNIEL SHOVRIEL MICHAEL GABRIEL, ⨷⨷⨷…”
You can also extract the truth from someone by their help (Fig. 4):
“To uncover the secrets of your wife, and what she does, write these ḥotamot and hang them on her when she is asleep, and she will tell you everything. And these are the ḥotamot: ⨷⨷⨷.”
After this follows a long list of angels beginning with Sophiel, the Prince of Wisdom. Notice the Greek component of this angelic name!
Using charaktêres can also come very useful when you want to enamour the object of your desire (Fig. 5):
“Take a white rooster and slaughter it when the stars are disappearing, and write on your palm with its blood this [i.e. the charaktêres listed after the instructions] and touch whoever you desire. Do not talk to her, she will come after you: ⨷⨷⨷.
This charm appears in another manuscript with entirely different charaktêres (Fig. 6). This may make you wonder whether these signs possess a specific and permanent meaning. The answer is probably no.
Browsing the huge variety of charaktêres raises another question: were they simply improvised by crafty amulet makers who exploited the fact that most of their customers were illiterate or semi-illiterate and would not have been able to distinguish between real writing and these imitations. The way most of them was constructed – bent or crossed lines with circlets at the end – however suggest some sort of system.
Coming soon: read more on alphabets compiled from these charaktêres in Part II of this blog.
Bohak, Gideon. Ancient Jewish Magic, 270-274. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Bohak, Gideon. “The Charaktêres in Ancient and Medieval Jewish Magic.” Acta Classica Universitatis Scientiarum Debreceniensis 47 (2011): 25-44.
Frankfurter, David. “The Magic of Writing and the Writing of Magic: The Power of the Word in Egyptian and Greek Tradition,” Helios 21, no. 2 (1994): 189–215 (espec. 205-211.
Gager, John G. Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Gordon, Richard. “Charaktêres between Antiquity and Renaissance: Transmission and Re-invention,” in Les savoirs magiques et leur transmission de l’Antiquité à la Renaissance, ed. Véronique Dasen and Jean-Michel Spieser, Micrologus’ Library 60 (Florence, 2014), 253–300.
Harari, Yuval. “Functional Paratexts and the Transmission of Knowledge in Medieval and Early Modern Jewish Manuscripts of Magic.” In The Visualization of Knowledge in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, eds. J H Chajes, Adam S Cohen, Marcia Kupfer, 183-210. Turnhout: Brepols, 2020.