13 December 2017
A handbook of Ethiopian magic incantations and talisman art
Currently on display in our exhibition Harry Potter: History of Magic are two intriguing items from Ethiopia: an amulet (Or.12859) and a magical manuscript (Or.11390). Ethiopian amulets and magical recipe books such as these are a striking and very distinctive form of Ethiopian Christian material culture, yet they remain a relatively poorly understood and understudied topic. Part of a rich magical literature of incantation, these manuscripts are also adorned with a variety of illustrations which were created for spiritual edification and for protection from real or imagined harm. While Christian icons were intended to promote spiritual growth, Ethiopian magical art consists of visual representations of the world of demons and evil spirits, making the invisible visible for all believers.
An Ethiopian magical recipe book, 1750. These pages contain talismans and geometric images used for making amulet scrolls, and are accompanied by prayers for undoing spells and charms (BL Or.11390, ff. 12-13)
Practitioners’ handbooks such as the recipe book portrayed above, are remarkably difficult to decode for the reason that they were intended as purely personal documents for personal use only. This annotated, magical recipe book is written in Ge’ez, also known as classic Ethiopic. It contains a rich collection of amulets, talismans, charms and incantations. From the marginal notes, we can guess that it belonged to a practitioner of magic, an exorcist (dabtara), who would have been a highly educated, ordained layman. Dabtaras typically study for several years or come from families of clergy. Since medieval times, they have worked in the courts or have taught in small parish schools, supplementing their income by producing amulet scrolls and practising traditional medicine.
Amulet scrolls, one with a protective cylindrical case. Ethiopia, 18th century (BL Or.12859)
Handbooks are the main source used for producing amulets and talismanic drawings. Amulets, written on leather or metal, have been worn by Ethiopians and other peoples in the Horn of Africa for thousands of years. This practice remains strongest in the northern Highlands of Ethiopia, where amulets are believed to bring health, to protect babies and to ward off the evil eye. The parchment scrolls themselves are known as Ketab, and they vary considerably in length. They are kept in leather cases, or, as shown above, in a cylindrical silver case, which can be hung up at home or worn around the neck, depending on their size. This particular scroll contains prayers for undoing spells (maftehé seray), after which the talismanic drawings were added, giving effect to its powers. The drawings have a specific purpose: they are intended to cure sickness, to exorcize demons and to protect those taking long and difficult journeys.
An example of a talisman, is the eight-pointed star below, with four vertical and horizontal arms and a human face in the centre. The magical properties of this figurative drawing lie in the hidden symbolism. The eight-pointed star is a common motif, but has no traceable roots, appearing also in Islamic and Jewish Kabbalistic tradition.
Harry Potter: A History of Magic is open in the British Library PACCAR Gallery until Wed 28 Feb 2018.
Mercier, Jacques, Art That Heals: The Image as Medicine in Ethiopia. New York: Prestel, 1997.
———, Ethiopian Magic Scrolls. New York: G. Braziller, 1979.