Speaking to angels: Charaktêres in Jewish magical manuscripts – Part II

In the first part of this blog, I introduced the magical signs called charaktêres that you can encounter in Jewish magical manuscripts. Originally these symbols were not arranged in any sort of order or alphabet. However, later, particularly since the late fifteenth-early sixteenth century, discovering “ancient” and exotic alphabets has become popular among some intellectuals.  

Incidentally, one of these inquisitive intellectuals was the famous polymath John Dee (1527-1608), the court astronomer of Elizabeth I, who wished to learn the divine language of God to be able to communicate with angels. To help him in his quest, he allegedly summoned Satan himself, whose hoof print is still visible on Dee’s desk in Chetham’s Library Manchester. The Library is housed in the building in which Dee lived when he served as the Warden of the Collegiate Church of Manchester (now the Cathedral). You can see a neat representation of Dee’s Enochian alphabet in one of his diaries held at the British Library (Sloane MS 3188, folio 64v).

Fig. 1. Manchester, John Rylands Library, Gaster Hebrew MS 177, folio 44a

Early modern manuscripts in the John Rylands Gaster Collection offer you a wide range of alphabets made of charaktêres. The scribe of an early modern magical notebook (Gaster Hebrew MS 177) presents several sets of alphabets that he collected (Fig. 1). In four consecutive pages (folios 44a-45a), there are altogether nineteen alphabets! Some of them are attributed to angels, such as Uriel, Michael, Gabriel, and “the Princes who serve above” (that is, the angels in heaven). Some have unknown origin, and the scribe introduces them as follows: “And this one I do not know whose [alphabet] it is.” There are also two versions of the alphabet of The Holy One Blessed be He, that is, God Himself!

As you can see, in the first three cases, the scribe uses the word ḳolmos and not alfa beta. The primary meaning of ḳolmos, is ‘reed’ or ‘quill’ (writing pen) but in this context it can be interpreted as ‘writing,’ ‘script,’ or ‘alphabet.’ The scribe of this magical compilation explains that these alphabets are used by the ministering angels. One of them – says he – for instance was used to write the inscription on the wall for the Babylonian king Belshazzar: Mene mene tekel u-farsin (see the story in Daniel 5:5 and 12). Since Daniel was familiar with this angelic alphabet, he could read the text and interpret it: (see folios 45a-45b; Fig. 3).

Fig. 2. Manchester, John Rylands Library, Gaster Hebrew MS 177, folio 45b.

In some instances, the scribe tells us what an alphabet is good for. We learn that the alphabet of Gabriel is useful in protecting children from early death, and the alphabet of Uriel is good for the same things as that of The Holy One Blessed be He, which, as we read on the next page is good for all things. When you are clean and have fasted, write it on a deer parchment and cover it in virgin wax, and it will aid you in finding love and mercy. 

Fig. 3. Manchester, John Rylands Library, Gaster Hebrew MS 177, folio 34b.

So how are we supposed to apply these alphabets to get results? They are clearly used when making an amulet, but do we have to write out the entire alphabet or do we only have to spell out the name of the person we wish to affect in some way (making them fall in love, keeping them away, finding favour in their eyes, etc.)? The instructions are not clear.

You may have noticed that in some cases the scribe added Hebrew letters above the charaktêres. This suggests that the symbols stand for letters and in this way when preparing an amulet you can spell out relevant names using charaktêres. You may also have spotted that the number of symbols in these sequences varies. It is most often 22 or 27 probably depending on whether the final forms of five Hebrew letters (five letters have two forms depending on where they are located within a word) get a separate sign or not.

Fig. 3. Manchester, John Rylands Library, Gaster Hebrew MS 177, folio 45a.

What sources did our scribe use when he collected all these alphabets? We do not know exactly, but by the 17th and 18th centuries, the time period when this manuscript was produced, there was a range of useful material on the market. Apart from the numerous manuscripts containing recipes of charms and amulets, and other magical texts such as the Sefer Raziel, there were Hebrew and Latin printed editions, which dealt with this topic.

Fig. 4. Mikneh Avram by Abraham de Balmes (Venice, Bomberg: 1523). Credit:

The famous Venetian printer Daniel Bomberg published a work in Hebrew and Latin called Mikneh Avram – Peculium Abrae (The Flock of Abraham) by Abraham de Balmes in 1523, which contained an alphabet called Ketav ever ha-nahar (Script beyond the River) composed of charaktêres. Though this work was a grammatical work, and Abraham presented this alphabet as an example of the derivative alphabets of the original “Ashuri” script, it quickly was picked up by the enthusiasts of magic. One of these was the German polymath Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, for instance, published the very same characters as “Scriptura transitus fluvii” or “The writing called the passing of the River” his influential work, The Three Books of Occult Philosophy published between 1531 and 1533 (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5. Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, Three Books of Occult Philosophy (London, 1651)  Credit: The Warburg Institute CC BY- NC 3.0

In Agrippa’s book, the Passing of the River was preceded by another alphabet “The writing called Malachim.” We find the same term in Jewish sources, such as a 17th- or 18th-century collection of magical and medical recipes and charms (a manuscript once owned by Moses Gaster, today held at the British Library; Fig. 6). However, if you compare the characters in the two alphabets, you will find that they are not entirely identical.

Fig. 6. British Library, Or 10161, folio 21v.

You can see already from these few examples that the world of magical signs called charaktêres is not monopolised by one culture, and that traditions circulated beyond cultural boundaries. However, for the systematic study of these charaktêres and alphabets and for tracking of their circulation, we will have to wait for a comprehensive database. Sadly, this will not happen with the wave of a magic wand…

Further reading

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.

On the various alphabets: Campanini, Saverio. “The Quest for the Holiest Alphabet in Renaissance.” In A Universal Art. Hebrew Grammar across Disciplines and Faiths. Leiden: Brill, 2014.

Charaktêres: Ancient Magic and Ritual Practice Knowledge Hub

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.

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