THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

6 posts from August 2020

28 August 2020

Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word

I am thrilled and delighted to inform our readers and followers, that the long awaited exhibition Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word will be opening to the public on Tuesday 1st September in PACCAR2, the newest gallery of the British Library.

The exhibition has been put together by Ilana Tahan and Zsofia Buda, who have worked diligently and tirelessly with colleagues from across the Library, to bring about its realization.

Temple implements. Harley Catalan Bible, Catalonia, Spain, 14th century (Harley MS 1528, f.7v-8r)Temple implements. Harley Catalan Bible  Catalonia  Spain  14th century (Harley MS 1528  f.7v)
Temple implements. Harley Catalan Bible. Catalonia, Spain, 14th century (Harley MS 1528, f.7v-8r)
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Showcasing 44 outstanding objects, including 39 manuscripts from the British Library’s remarkable Hebrew collection, the exhibition transports the visitor on an exciting journey of discovery, via four distinct sections:

  • The Bible and beyond
  • Living together
  • The Power of letters and words
  • Science and scholarship

What do all these treasured manuscripts have in common? They all share the same script, Hebrew; one of the oldest writing systems that has been in continuous use, from around the 10th century BCE to this day. This significant exhibition thus embraces the assiduous, unrelenting journeys of both the written word and the Hebrew script.
Micrographic masorah.  Duke of Sussex’s German Pentateuch.   Lake Constance, Germany, 14thcentury. Add MS 15282, f.28r
Micrographic masorah. Duke of Sussex’s German Pentateuch. Lake Constance, Germany, 14th century (Add MS 15282, f.28r, detail)
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Viewers will come face to face with the centuries-long culture, history and traditions of Jewish people from various parts of the world. Rare handwritten texts, spanning from the 10th to the 19th century, some handsomely illuminated or decorated, will take audiences from Europe and North Africa, through to the Middle East and China, to explore the relationships between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbours in the communities they lived in.

Calendrical calculations in the shape of a hand
Visual aid for calendrical calculations in Joseph ben Shem Tov ben Yeshu’a Hai’s She’erit Yosef (Joseph’s Legacy). Tlemcen, Algeria, 1804 (Or 9782, f.14r)
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The interplay, high points, as well as signs of conflict and discord in the relationships between these groups, are conveyed through a captivating display of writings on legal issues, calendrics, kabbalah , literature, music, philosophy, and science.

Decorative motifs in Shalom Shabazi’s Diwan (Collection of poems). Tan’am, Yemen, and Jerusalem, Land of Israel, 17th-18th century
Decorative motifs in Shalom Shabazi’s Diwan (Collection of poems). Tan’am, Yemen, and Jerusalem, 17th-18th century (Or 4114, f.2v, detail)
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Some of these works were created by prominent Jewish scholars, such as Moses ben Maimon (b.1135, Cordoba, Spain, d. 1204, Cairo, Egypt), and Abraham bar Hiyya (ca. 1065- ca.1136). The former, known in the Christian world as Maimonides , was not only a legal authority, compelling philosopher and accomplished physician, but also the most influential spiritual leader of his time. His Moreh Nevukhim (The Guide for the Perplexed), completed ca. 1190, was probably the most authoritative Jewish philosophical treatise of the medieval era. Two important manuscript copies of this work are on view in the exhibition.

Illuminated pages in Moses Maimonides’ Moreh Nevukhim (Guide for the Perplexed). Catalonia  Spain  14th century copy (Or 14061  f. 156v-157r)Illuminated pages in Moses Maimonides’ Moreh Nevukhim (Guide for the Perplexed). Catalonia  Spain  14th century copy (Or 14061  f. 156v-157r)
Illuminated pages in Moses Maimonides’ Moreh Nevukhim (Guide for the Perplexed). Catalonia, Spain, 14th century copy (Or 14061, f. 156v-157r)
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Abraham bar Hiyya , known by his Latin name as Savasorda, was an eminent Spanish Jewish philosopher and scientist, who is credited with writing the first works on astronomy and mathematics in Hebrew. Among these was his vastly popular astronomical treatise Tsurat ha-arets (Shape of the earth), a 15 th century copy of which is included in the exhibition.

Diagram of phases of the moon
Diagram of the four main lunar phases in Abraham bar Hiyya’s Tsurat ha-arets (Shape of the Earth). Byzantium, (now parts of Turkey and Greece), 15th century copy (Or 10721, f. 27v)
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Visitors will be in for a treat, particularly as many of the exhibits have never been on public view. Moreover, as part of the recently completed Hebrew Manuscript Digitisation Project, digital access to all 39 Hebrew manuscripts on display is available on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website .

Other British Library platforms, with wide-ranging Hebrew manuscript content are:

Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word is open from 1st September 2020 until 11th April 2021. Follow the link for details about opening times, booking timeslots, etc.

We are extremely grateful to the Dr Michael and Anna Brynberg Charitable Foundation for generously supporting this exhibition. With thanks to the Harold Hyam Wingate Foundation, the Shoresh Charitable Trust, and The David Pearlman Charitable Foundation.

Further reading

The following posts feature manuscripts on display in the exhibition.


Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator Hebrew and Christian Orient Collections
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24 August 2020

When you wish upon a star: The Celestial Weaver Maiden at the Star Festival

The Star Festival 七夕, the night when many of us in Eastern Asia wish upon a star and celebrate romance, is on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, and this year it falls on the 25th of August 2020. As we have mentioned in previous blog posts, this annual summer event has been a tradition since time immemorial. This year, we are focussing on a simple question: why do Japanese call the Star Festival 七夕 Tanabata? In China, it has been known as Qixi (qi = 七 and xi=夕), literally meaning seven evenings or the seventh evening. If Japanese followed the Chinese convention, it would become Shichiseki (shichi = 七 and seki=夕). But the Japanese have written the Star Festival as 七夕, and read it as Tanabata in this unusual way for a long time. We may see reasons for this in a key motif of the Star Festival - the weaver maidens who are called Tanabata or Tanabatatsume.

Drawing of loom with red, white, green, yellow and blue yarn next to a wicker basket and fabric sample
A depiction of a loom as used in Kureha (呉服) from the collection of theatre settings of Noh plays. (Yamaguchi Ryōshū 山口蓼州, Nōgu taikan 能具大観 (Kyōtō: Unsōdō京都 : 芸艸堂, 1924). ORB.40/1069 (Vol.3))
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The Star lovers’ story originated in China and deals with the weaver girl and the cowherd boy, a couple who are separated by the Milky Way in the night sky. They can only see each other once a year by crossing the magpie bridge. The weaver girl’s name is written 織女 Shokujo or 織姫 Orihime both meaning ‘the weaver maiden’, and is a traditional name in modern popular Japanese culture. However, it is likely that ancient Japanese people, who were directly influenced by the arrival of Chinese fairy tales, might have not read 織女 as Shokujo as we currently do, but as Tanabata or Tanabatatsume.

This unique Japanese reading of the name of the weaver maiden appears in The Tales of Ise (伊勢物語, Ise monogatari), a very famous work of Japanese literature which is thought to have been written and collected together sometime during the Heian period (794-1185 CE). The hero of the tale is never clearly named, but all readers assume it is Ariwara no Narihira (在原業平 825-880 CE). In the real world, he was a grandson of one of previous emperors but not a member of the imperial family. He was a notable Heian courtier and left his name as a great waka poet.

Drawing of five men in traditional Japanese dress seated in semi-circle under a tree
Prince Koretaka, Ariwara no Narihira and other hunting members resting at the river bank of Amano. (Chapter 82 of The Tale of the Ise (伊勢物語圖會, Ise monogatari zue), Naraehon manuscript, mid-16th century, Or 904, f.98r)
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In Chapter 82 of the Tale of Ise, Prince Koretaka and his followers, including Narihira, are out enjoying a day's hunting. The group come to the river bank of Amano (天野) and decide to have refreshments after their hunt. Prince Koretaka orders Narihira to compose a fitting waka for this occasion.

狩り暮らし七夕に宿からむ天の河原にわれは来にけり

Let us rest from this day’s hunt and pass the night with the Weaver maiden
as we have come to the fields of the Celestial River.

Cursive Japanese text
Above left is the page featuring the Tanabata waka composed by Narihira, which starts by the vertical yellow lines on the right-hand image. (Chapter 82 of The Tale of the Ise (伊勢物語圖會, Ise monogatari zue), Naraehon manuscript, mid-16th century, Or 904, f.97r)
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This waka poem contains references to the motif of the star lovers. They come to the bank of the Amano River – in Japanese, it is pronounced Amanogawa (天野川), the same as the Milky Way (天の川) in Japanese. Narihira elegantly composes his waka as if they were approaching the bank of the Milky Way in the night sky, so naturally, there should also be Tanabatatsume, who is the Heavenly Weaver maiden. Interestingly, Tanabata (七夕 the seventh evening) in this waka indicates the Heavenly Weaver maiden in person. Also, his waka shows us that by the zenith of Heian court culture, the Star Lovers had already been popular among the Japanese.

The oldest anthology of Japanese waka poetry books, the Man’yōshū ( 万葉集 literally the Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves) is estimated to be have been compiled towards the end of the Nara period (710-794 CE), at a time when the court and capital was situated in Nara. Donald Keen (1922-2019), who was one of the most remarkable Japanese scholars in modern times, counted the number of the Seventh Night poems, which number more than 120 in the Man’yōshū. He commented that it was about this time that the Chinese legend was absorbed into Japanese folklore, and the number of related waka in Man’yōshū helped us to judge how deeply this romantic story was widely cherished by the Japanese people.

Waka 2027

為我登織女之其屋戸尓織白布織弖兼鴨
The waka in the Man’yōshū are notoriously difficult to interpret but basically in Waka 2027 , someone (typically a man or noble) is wondering aloud to himself when his lover will finish the garment which she has been weaving for their next meeting.

In this waka, the Heavenly Weaver maiden is written as 織女, as we do in the 21st century, but it is pronounced as Tanabatatsume, not Shokujo.

Waka 2034

棚機之五百機立而織布之秋去衣孰取見
The Heavenly Weaver maiden is working on many looms – who shall look upon and receive the cloth she is making?

Interestingly, in this waka, the Heavenly Weaver maiden is written as 棚機, and the script matches the pronunciation ‘Tanabata’. Even though there is no explicit mention of the 7th day of the 7th lunar month and she is one of the star lovers in the lines, both waka undoubtedly refer to the love of the celestial couple.

It's possible that 棚機 could represent the advanced loom brought into Japan by oversea weavers. A Noh play, ‘Kureha (呉服)’, inspired by a legend of skilled artisan weavers who were invited to Japan to train the Japanese. Among them, were two foreign sisters Kurehatori 呉服織 and Ayahatori 漢服織. They wove for the Emperor Ōjin 応神 who considered to have reigned in the late 3rd century CE.

Drawing of two actors wearing Noh masks and in traditional Japanese dress kneeling next to a loom with blue, white, red, yellow and green yarn
Kureha from the collection of 200 illustrations of characters from Noh plays. (Tsukioka, Kōgyo 月岡耕漁, and Matsuno Sōfū松野奏風, Nōga taikan : nōga nihyakuban ōzoroe 能畫大鑑 : 能畫貮百番大揃 (Tōkyō: Seibi Shoin 東京 : 精美書院, 1936). Revised edition of the work originally published in 1934.) (ORB.45/153)
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We can find possibly the oldest Tanabatatsume motif in the Chronicles of Japan (日本書紀 Nihon Shoki), completed in 720 CE. The earlier chapters of Nihon Shoki describe a Shintō myth of how the land of Japanese islands are created by Shintō gods and goddesses and their activities as deities in their land, the Upper Heaven.

In the chapter which deals with the reign of Ashihara no Nakatsukuni 葦原中国, which literally means ‘The middle country of reed beds’ and which represents the physical land of Japan, the name of a sister of a god is known as Tanabata 多奈婆多 who is the Heavenly Weaver maiden in the Upper Heaven.

Printed Japanese text in rows consisting of kanji
Above left is the page showing a part of the waka dealing with Tanabata, 多奈婆多indicated by a vertical blue line on the right-hand image. (Prince Toneri 舎人親王(676-735) [editor], Chronicles of Japan. Chapters on the Age of Kami (日本書紀神代巻, Nihon shoki. Jindai no maki), Movable type print edition published by command of Emperor Go-Yōzei 後陽成天皇 (慶長勅版, Keichō chokuhan), 1599, Or.59.bb.5, f 057r)
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Weaving cloth dedicated for Shintō deities have been treated as an important activity since the very early legends of the Upper Heaven. There is an earlier famous episode in the Upper Heaven, in which the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu, hides herself in the Heavenly Rock cave (Ama no iwado 天の岩戸) so that the all of the worlds lose her rays of light. She is extremely upset by her brother who has disturbed her or her weaver maiden. He throws a dead horse into the special workshop where the ladies are weaving. His action not only destroys the building but also injures the ladies and stains their clothes. Amaterasu rages at her brother and goes into the cave to hide herself.

Printed Japanese text in rows consisting of kanji
Above left is the page showing the episode of ladies weaving in the special workshop. The keywords ‘weaving for gods at the special holy workshop’ (織神衣居斎服殿) is indicated by a blue line on the right-hand image. (Prince Toneri 舎人親王(676-735) [editor], Chronicles of Japan. Chapters on the Age of Kami (日本書紀神代巻, Nihon shoki. Jindai no maki), Movable type print edition published by command of Emperor Go-Yōzei 後陽成天皇 (慶長勅版, Keichō chokuhan), 1599, Or.59.bb.5, f 031v)
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The legend of the heavenly weaver maidens has passed their ancient name as Tanabata down through the ages to the Star Festival. This occurred long after the Star Lover’s story became very popular and their romance was celebrated annually on the 7th day of 7th lunar month. In this way, their curious legacy remains just barely visible beneath the surface of later traditions.

Yasuyo Ohtsuka, Curator, Japanese Collections
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References

Keene, Donald, and McMillan, Peter, Translator, Writer of Added Commentary, The Tales of Ise, (UK : Penguin Classics, 2016). (YKL.2018.a.8090)

Keene, Donald, The Manyoshu : The Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkokai Translation of One Thousand Poems, with the Texts in Romaji . Records of Civilization, Sources and Studies ; 70. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965). (Ac.2688/45.(70.))

Manyoshu [Book 10] Japanese Text Initiative, University of Virginia Library

Related blogs

The Star Lovers

‘Tanabata (七夕) Star Festival’ - is it 7 July or 2 August 2014? (1)

‘Tanabata (七夕) Star Festival’ - is it 7 July or 2 August 2014? (2)

With special thanks to Mr Stephen Cullis, Lecturer at Nagasaki University of Foreign Studies, for providing the summarised interpretations of the waka in the Ise Monogatari and the Man’yōshū.

19 August 2020

The Tree of Knowledge: magic spells from a Jewish potion book

One of the items in our postponed exhibition Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word is a tiny little codex from sixteenth-century Italy. It is entitled The Tree of Knowledge (Ets ha-Da’at) and contains a collection of some 125 magic spells for all sorts of purposes: curses, healing potions, love charms, amulets. There are a good number of such magical-medical manuscripts in the Hebrew collection, but this volume is special for at least two reasons. First, because of its neat layout and accuracy in its execution. Secondly, because it has an introduction in which Elisha the author tells the story of how he collected these spells.

Title page in Hebrew with architectural design
Title page of The Tree of Knowledge by Elisha ben Gad of Ancona. (Safed, 1535-1536 (Or 12362, f. 2r)).
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According to his introduction, Elisha is overcome with a great thirst for knowledge, and he starts on a journey to satisfy it. He is wandering from town to town until he arrives in Venice, the great city full of wise and knowledgeable sages. There, thanks to God’s mercy, he wins the trust of Rabbi Judah Alkabets, and gains access to the rabbi’s library. He soon discovers that the Rabbi’s collection contains precious kabbalistic volumes “that emerged for fame and praise, and all written with the finger [of God – Ex. 31:18].” So he swears in his heart that he will not leave the library until he has collected all its secrets. As he is looking through the books, he notices “a book hidden and sealed, in a chest within another chest covered with a cloth and sealed.” When he opens this hidden book, he finds in it all sorts of magic spells, and decides to copy them. After the death of Judah Alkabetz, Elisha leaves Venice and continues his journey, and eventually arrives in Safed, in the Land of Israel. He spends there a long time before he gains the trust of the sages of Safed, but at the end they share with him their secret wisdom. His book, which he calls the Tree of Knowledge, is based on the secrets he acquired in Venice and in Safed.

After relating his painstaking efforts to obtain such precious hidden knowledge, Elisha explains the way he organized the collected material and structured his book. He provides a table of contents for the users to facilitate their access to the spells they are looking for. The table of contents is divided into four sections:

1. Spells that use divine names;

2. Spells that use names of the “Spirit of Impurity” and those of the “Other Side” (that is, references to evil powers);

3. Medicines based on nature and experiment;

4. All the rest.

So what kind of secret knowledge did Elisha ben Gad acquire in Venice and Safed? Let’s see a couple of spells from each section. Oh, it is so difficult to choose!

Page with writing in Hebrew and title in ribbon
The First Section of the Tree of Knowledge. (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 5r))
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Among the 52 spells using divine names contained in the first section, there are many amulets providing protection against illnesses like nose bleed, fever, and ear ache; spells for the enhancing intellectual capabilities such as facilitating learning, understanding, or improving memory; and various other spells.

Amulet in Hebrew with text in stylized scrolls
An amulet for fever. (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 11r))
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The very first entry is an amulet against fever:

Av avr avra avrak avraka avrakal avrakala avrakal avraka avrak avra avr av – “The people cried out to Moses. Moses prayed to the LORD, and the fire died down.” (Num. 11:2). Cure from heavens for all sorts of fever and consumption and fire for such and such [here to put the name of the specific person]. Amen a[men] a[men] selah.

It is easy to discover the well-known magic word “abracadabra” in this spell. It appears first in a second-century Latin medical poem by the physician Quintus Serenus Sammonicus. The origin of this word is not clear. It may come from Aramaic avra ke-davra, meaning “I create as I speak”, but there are several other theories around.

Text of spell in Hebrew with floral illumination
A spell for shortening one’s journey (no. 39). (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 27r))
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Spell no. 39 is for shortening a long road, and goes like this:

Shortening the road: write on a piece of kosher parchment made of deer and sew it into your robe. When you see the countenance of the town, mention these names and say this: “I adjure you, Kaptsiel, Malakhel, shorten for me the road and the country as you shortened them for Abraham. Cafefiel – and in the name of the Lord of the whole earth. Amen S[ela]”

Text in Hebrew of contents of section with title inside stylized ribbon
The second section of the Tree of Knowledge. (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 7v))
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The second section is supposed to contain spells that use the names of evil spirits “the spirit of Impurity and the Other Side”, as Elisha puts it. To be honest, I did not always find such names in the charms of this section, though it may just be due to my limited knowledge and experience of the Other Side. Still, the section contains many useful spells – 19 altogether –, among others some that make you invisible, help you find scorpions and snakes, make you “snake-proof” or “sword-proof”, and quite a few that help you catch thieves. Here is an example of the latter (no. 80):

To find the thief write on a piece of kosher parchment these names [see words at the end of the spell], and hang them around the neck of a black rooster. Then circle around the suspects with the rooster, and it will jump on the head of the thief. And this has been tested.

Kematin kanit kukeiri ve-hikani yazaf

Text of spell in Hebrew with title inside ribbon
A spell for identifying a thief (no. 80). (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 37r))
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While I was not able to identify these magical words at all – could some of them be names of evil spirits? – I had better luck with spell no. 97 for burns by fire:

A wonderful incantation, tried and tested many times. For small and big burns. With these words complete recovery without pain! Say these names [i.e. the incantation] seven times:

Agrifuk agrifar agripyri chi vol tu fer di pyro nocesti di acaro fosti generato, e elo fonti fosti portato, all'acqua fosti gettato, non fossi far più male qua (?) chi fai la!

And then blow on the burn with the breath of your mouth and repeat again the incantation seven more times, and the fire will not damage him.

As you can see, the actual incantation addressing Fire itself is in Judeo-Italian, that is, Italian written in Hebrew characters, and it reads something like this:

"Agrifuk agrifar agripyri whom did you want to hurt with fire? You were generated from an acarus [probably from Greek akarḗs, meaning “tiny”), you were brought forth from such a source, [and] you were thrown into the water. You cannot do any more harm...!"[1]

Text of spell in Hebrew with title in stylized scroll
A spell for burns (no. 97). (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 41r))
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Text of section contents in Hebrew under title inside ribbon
The third section of the Tree of Knowledge. (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 8v))
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Elisha tells us that in the third section of his work we can find “remedies based on nature and experiment”. Among these 31 remedies, there are a few for fevers, suffering from worms, cancelling witchcraft, complications related to pregnancy and childbirth, and so on. He also discusses the magical properties of snake skin. It seems, however, that quite a few of the remedies listed here are not based on nature but use some sort of incantation or magic words instead.

Text of spell in Hebrew under illustration of nude woman
A spell for a woman who does not have milk (no. 104). (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 42v))
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Remedy no. 104 is a good example of the latter. It is a spell for a woman who does not have milk. The title of the spell is inscribed in a ribbon and it is illustrated with the bust of a naked woman.

To bring milk to the woman write the name of the woman or her brother or her son [on a piece of parchment?], and write on the woman’s right breast: AV SU SAS, and on her left breast write: AV HU SIA, and she will immediately have milk in abundance, and it will spill onto the ground as water.

Text of spell in Hebrew under title inside stylized ribbon
Spells using snake skin (no. 116). (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 45r))
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Entry 116 is about the magical qualities of snakeskin, and according to the title, this spell is based on “the words of Solomon the physician of Tulitul” (Tulitula is the Arabic name of Toledo). Elisha says that he read in an Arabic book that if you burn the skin of a snake during a certain period in March, you can use the ashes of the skin for all sorts of purposes. Then he lists the 12 magical qualities of snakeskin based on important Arabic magic spell books (number 12 is missing). Here are some of the best ones:

Hebrew textHebrew text
Text about the magical qualities of snake skin (no. 116). (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, ff. 45v-46r))
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No. 1 If you sprinkle some of the dust into your eyes, you will see but you will not be seen (invisibility!);

No. 6. If you hold some of the dust in your hand when you appear before a king or princes, and they will heed your words;

No. 10. If you put some of the dust into a plate and leave it on the table, if the elixir of death, or “poison weed and wormwood” [Deut. 29:17] gets there, the dust will scatter on the table and [then you would know to] avoid eating there.

Text of contents in Hebrew under title inside ribbon
The fourth section of the Tree of Knowledge. (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 10r))
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Section four is the shortest with its 17 items. It has several love spells and potions, spells to make a positive impression on rulers, on how to gain someone’s trust, and how to defeat your opponents. No. 58 is a spell that helps you to make a reluctant person answer your questions:

If you ask a question and they do not give you a reply, wash your hands in fresh water, and then write on your palm these words and characters. Then put your palm on the palm of the fellow, and ask your question. And this is what you have to write:

Here you can see a drawing of a palm with a same word written three times, and two characters from a cryptic alphabet. Two ribbons coming out from behind the palm. The inscription in the upper one contains further instructions:

Write this with a new pen.

The ribbon at the base of the hand contains the title of the next entry: no. 59, a spell about how to win a court case:

It is tried and tested many times. How to defeat your opponent in court even if he is a king. Take the tongue of a hoopoe and hang it on your right side close to the heart at the time when you go to speak with him.

Text of formula in Hebrew along with diagram of a human palm
Spells for extracting an answer and defeating the opponent at court (nos. 58 and 59). (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536.) (Or 12362, f. 32r))
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You can certainly see even from this small selection of spells how valuable the Tree of Knowledge is! Elisha’s long journey from Italy to Galilee through the Mediterranean, his painstaking efforts to acquire hidden and ancient knowledge, were not in vain. And you, dear reader, are only one click away from all this treasure!

Disclaimer: We do not take responsibility for the endurance of these spells. Even strong magic can lose or modify its power over the centuries! Please, do not blame us if you turn into a frog. Try these spells only at your own risk.

Zsofi Buda, former Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project Cataloguer, Asian and African Collections
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Further readings:

Continuity and Innovation in the Magical Tradition, ed. Gideon Bohak, Yuval Harari, and Shaul Shaked. Leiden: Brill, 2011. (YD.2011.a.4537)

Ortal-Paz, Saar. Jewish Love Magic: From Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages. Leiden: Brill, 2017. (OIC 133.4)

Harari, Yuval. “Magical Paratexts: Ms. London, The British Library Or. 12362 (Ets ha-Da‘at) as a Test Case.” Kabbalah: Journal for the Study of Jewish Mystical Texts 42 (2018): 237-268. [Hebrew] (WZOR.1998.a.24)

Harari, Yuval. “‘Practical Kabbalah’ and the Jewish Tradition of Magic.” Aries: Journal for the Study of Western Esotericism 19 (2019): 38-82. (ZA.9.a.2272)



[1] Thank you to Giulia Baronti for helping me with the translation!

14 August 2020

How Should We Write Yorùbá? Diacritics in Modern Yoruba Writing

Chart of letters with diacritics in Yorùbá in black and white
A version of Yorùbá letters for the computer.
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Working in the British Library collections — as Chevening British Library Fellow in the Asian and African Collections — has given me a unique insight into some issues in the orthography of Yorùbá. Having spent close to a year working with the printed materials in the language from the very first published texts to the modern day, I have as much familiarity with some of the problems as many new questions of my own. As my fellowship wraps up, I consider this an opportune time to engage with relevant stakeholders in a conversation on this subject with a view to providing direction to the future of the language. And with COVID-19 keeping everyone at home, an online conversation provides a good opportunity.

The proposed event — an online symposium on Yorùbá Orthography in the 21 st century — will be held on Wednesday 2 and Thursday 3 September 2020, 15.00-17.00 (details below).

Writing in Yorùbá with the computer has always been an issue. I first noticed it as an undergraduate at the university in the early 2000s, where my Microsoft Word underlined my name with a red wriggly line because it was not recognizable in English; but also when I couldn’t find the diacritics under the symbols menu to properly write the name. Yorùbá, being a tone language, uses diacritics (special symbols under and on top of vowels and some consonants) to differentiate words that have similar spellings but different meanings. (I spoke more about this problem in a recent essay on a new writing script for Igbo.)

Names in Yorùbá are given with the express purpose of couching meaning, cultural values, ambitions, prayers, and aspirations for the child, among others. If they are written in a way that doesn’t convey their meanings, perhaps because of the lack of diacritics, then their purposes have been defeated. Yet many writers have had to write Yorùbá names without diacritics, mostly for the lack of computer technological resources to write them in any other way; but also because over time, literacy in reading and writing Yorùbá also had begun to wane, leaving many to assume that the language can be written in official publications without the use of diacritics.

As an adult graduate of linguistics, I found that the issue was not limited to Yorùbá or Nigeria at all, but to many minority languages in the world, especially ones with special characters.

Three books at an angle over a book stop with a toy-sized man
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But there are other issues in Yorùbá orthography that are worth discussing. Since Bishop Àjàyí Crowther first wrote the language down in 1843, there have been very many changes made to the writing of Yorùbá, most notably in 1967 by Ayọ̀ Bámgbóṣé, a Professor of Linguistics. There have been others, from formal critiques and reviews to informal suggestions and creative use in literature and social media. And scholars working in the language — even writers using it in code-switching instances in their literature — have had to grapple with the many complications arising from using Yorùbá in the 21st century, not least how it is supposed to work on the web – where young writers are circumventing the old orthography with words like “oshey” or “wayray” or “jor” showing up to replace “oṣé” (thank you), “wèrè” (a mad person) and “jọ̀ọ́” (please).

That’s why the British Library, in partnership with the Lagos Studies Association and Africa Writes, is organising an online conversation to discuss these issues. It is titled:

How Should We Write Yorùbá?

A Two-session Online Symposium on Yorùbá Orthography in the 21 st century

(Wednesday 2 and Thursday 3 September 2020

15.00-17.00, West African and UK time).

The event brings together experts in the field to share their experience and thoughts. There will be plenty of time to discuss issues raised by our panels as well as by audience members, who we hope will come from all around the world.

The conversation will be of interest to anyone interested in Yorùbá, writing in any tonal language that uses diacritics, publishing, code-switching, language scripts, language evolution, and challenges in African language writing in the 21st century in general.

Day 1: Yorùbá: From Mission Field to Web Page

Wednesday 2 September, 15.00-17.00 West African/UK time

Day 2: Using Yorùbá Today: Literature, Leisure and the Academy

Thursday 3 September, 15.00-17.00 West African/UK time

Register here to attend.

Head shot of man outdoorsHead shot of woman outdoors
Presenters Dr Túndé Adégbọlá (left) and Professor Karin Barber (right). (© Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún)

Confirmed speakers include:

• ● Professor Adélékè Adéẹ̀kọ́,Humanities Distinguished Professor, Ohio State University

• ● Dr Túndé Adegbọlá, Human Language Technologist, and Executive Director, African Languages Technology Initiative

• ● Mosúnmọ́lá Adéọjọ, doctoral student and Writing Instructor at the University of Florida

• ● Àrẹ̀mú Adéọlá, the Yorùbá scrabble inventor

• ● Professor Karin Barber (CBE), cultural anthropologist and academic; currently London School of Economics Centennial Professor

• ● Dr Carli Coetzee, editor of the Journal of African Cultural Studies and Research Associate, African Studies Centre, University of Oxford

• ● Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún, Nigerian linguist, creative writer and currently a Chevening British Library Fellow working in the Asian and African Collections

• ● Mọlará Wood, writer, cultural activist and critic

Host: Dr. Marion Wallace, Lead Curator, Africa, at the British Library

I look forward to seeing you there.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is a Nigerian linguist, scholar, and writer, author of Edwardsville by Heart, a collection of poetry. He is 2019/2020 Chevening Research Fellow at the British Library.
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10 August 2020

Magic and Divination in Ethiopian Manuscripts

Inset of amulet scroll focusing on image of rider with lance
One of the most beautifully illustrated 18th-century amulet scrolls featuring a rider bearing a lance fighting a horned demon armed with a sword. (Or 12859)
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With the exception of a few works, magic, medicine, talismans, and divination in Ethiopian manuscripts have received little serious scholarly attention. Research on the subject has so far been mostly restricted to the texts found on manuscripts. The scholarship on Ethiopian magic is very small and not fully investigated; the subject is still in its infancy.

This short illustrated blog will explore some magic and divination in Ethiopian manuscripts and other items, such as amulets from the collection, making use of images from some of the best examples of the manuscripts and amulet scrolls in the British Library’s collections. As well as containing spells, charts, magical squares and numbers, these manuscripts are adorned with rich illustrations. For an introduction to the amulets, see my previous blog post.

Collection of illustration in red and black ink from practitioner's handbook
An 18th-century practitioner’s handbook. This manuscript is decorated with over 200 illustrations of magical pictures, squares and lines of magical and talismans. (Or 11390, f. 47v)
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The English term "magic" is a cultural construct rooted in Western thought and in a particular ethnocentric history, more specifically in the complex of Greco-Roman culture overlaid with Judaeo-Christian theology. Thus, the late 19th-century Western approach to the study of magic was, to a large extent, shaped by its inheritance. Consequently, the term "magic" has been problematized, and has become the focus of endless scholarly debate leading to a situation in which both its definition and its relation to religion has become contingent upon the interest and research area of each particular scholar. Nevertheless, there is a fair amount of agreement that one of the main characteristics of magic can broadly be described as having an immediate goal, while the purpose and function of religion is long term.

Close-up of charts and magic squares in Ge'ez script in red and black ink
While most divination treatises are usually just texts, this example has an elaborate drawing of charts and magic square. (Or 12034, f.64v)
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There are many factors distinguishing the Ethiopian tradition of magic from its Near-Eastern counterpart. One aspect is the strong connection between the divination and amulet scrolls. Only the Ethiopian tradition has a firm, established, and attested connection between the amulet writers and the Church; this is not found in either Near-Eastern Christianity or Judaism.

We must therefore be cautious when discussing "magic" in general outside of its cultural construct in Western scholarship, since the difference of terms changes their meanings from culture to culture. In order for us to understand Ethiopian magic and what constitutes it, it needs to be contextualized by its historical and cultural heritage and characterized in reference to a variety of areas of study.

Divination cycle arranged as a wheel in red and black ink
Another example is this 17th-century divination manual Awda nagaśt “Cycle of the kings” (Add MS 16247, f. 14v)
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Ethiopian magic and divination books are a striking and very distinctive form of Ethiopian material culture. Part of a rich magical literature of incantation, these manuscripts are also adorned with a variety of illustrations that 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 the supernatural, making the invisible visible for all believers.

Inset of illustration in red, yellow and black inks from amulet scroll
An 18th-century amulet scroll composed of three strips of parchment measuring 1570 X 70 mm. It features an incantation against various diseases, accompanied with talisman and magical characters. (Or 5424)
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The British Library's collection of magic, divination, and magico-medical writing that fits into this group of manuscripts numbers over 40, making it the largest in the UK. The Wellcome Trust possesses 16 manuscripts, and the Cambridge University Library holds 14 manuscripts.

The majority of the Scrolls were acquired after the Maqdala collection catalog's publication in 1877. The provenance preserved in some of the manuscripts themselves or in the library register allows us to confirm their origin; however, the vast majority of the Scrolls contain no mention of where they came from.

Eyob Derillo, Ethiopic Collections Engagement Support
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Further reading:

Derillo, Eyob, “Case Study, Traveling Medicine: Medieval Ethiopian Amulet Scrolls and Practitioners' Handbooks,” in Toward a Global Middle Ages: Encountering the World Through Illuminated Manuscripts , edited by Brian C. Keene (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2019), pp. 121-124. (Document Supply on order)

Mercier, Jacques, Art That Heals: The Image as Medicine in Ethiopia. New York: Prestel, 1997. (LB.31.b.15213)

05 August 2020

At the crossroads of cultures: a Hebrew manuscript of Johannes Sacrobosco’s De sphaera mundi

The first printed books were often imitations of manuscripts in their layout: the same types of letters and the same letter combinations (ligatures) were used, and often the same illuminators added the decorations by hand in the same style they used in manuscripts. Handwritten books however did not just disappear with the introduction of printing. What is more, sometimes printed books influenced the layout and decoration of manuscripts.

One of the items in the British Library’s postponed exhibition Hebrew manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word contains the Hebrew translation of Johannes Sacrobosco’s De sphaera mundi (On the Sphere of the World). The Hebrew title of the work is Sefer mareh ha-Ofanim (The Appearance of the Heavenly beings). The manuscript (Or 10661) was copied sometime in the sixteenth century, and its illustration program was heavily influenced by early printed Latin editions of the same work.

Johannes Sacrobosco or John of Holywood (died 1256) was an Augustinian monk and scholar, probably from Halifax, Yorkshire. He taught mathematics at the University of Paris. In 1220, he composed a short introduction to astronomy entitled De sphaera mundi that was based on the geocentric model of the universe with a stationary Earth in its centre. The Sphaera soon became the standard textbook on the subject up until the mid-seventeenth century. It is worth noting that though Nicolaus Copernicus (died 1543) published his On the Revolutions on the heliocentric cosmos in 1543, his theory gained acceptance only gradually.

Sacrobosco’s Sphaera is divided into four chapters: Chapter 1 is on the general structure of the universe; Chapter 2 is on the circles of the celestial sphere; Chapter 3 is on the daily rotation of the heavens and the different climates of the Earth; and Chapter 4 is on planetary movements and eclipses. Some manuscripts of the Sphaera did contain a few illustrations, but diagrams became a prominent feature of the work only in the early printed editions. The Sphaera was first published in Latin in 1472. This first edition had no printed illustrations, but the printer left some space in the text for the readers to add their own diagrams by hand if they decided to do so. The first printed diagrams were added to the 1478 Milan edition by Filippo da Lavagna, and the full set of illustrations appeared a decade later in the 1488 edition published in Venice by Johannes Santritter.

Printed title page of Sphaera
Title page of De Sphaera mundi by Johannes Sacrobosco (Ingolstadt: Petrus Apianus, 1526.) (Source: MDZ Digitale Bibliothek; NoC-NC)

Arabic and Latin scientific works were not unknown to medieval Jewish scholars. Some could read them in the original language (mostly in Arabic but some also in Latin); others accessed them in translation. In the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, Provence and Italy were especially important centres of Jewish translating activity. These multilingual Jewish translators played a significant role in providing access to Greco-Arabic and to a lesser degree Latin scientific literature for those who did not read these languages.

One of these scholar-translators was Solomon ben Abraham Avigdor, a Provençal scholar who prepared the first Hebrew translation of Sacrobosco’s work in 1399. Solomon’s father Abraham, who was himself a translator and a physician, studied medicine in Montpellier, and translated mostly medical works from Latin into Hebrew. As he says in the preface to his translation of Bernard Gordon’s Introduction to the Practice: “I went up on the mountain therefore, that is to say, the city of Montpellier, in order to study the medicine from the mouth of the Christian scientists and erudites.” Father and son worked together on the translation of Arnaldus de Villanova’s Capitula astrologiae, a work on the application of astrology in medicine. Just like his father, Solomon studied medicine. Later in his life he converted to Christianity.

Close up of text from preface of Hebrew translation
Preface to Sefer mareh ha-Ofanim by Solomon Avigdor. (Hebrew translation of Sacrobosco’s Sphaera, Italy, 15th century. Add MS 17106, f. 103r)
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Not much more is known about Solomon, but his translation of the Sphaera has survived in some 40 manuscripts. Apart from the manuscript included into the exhibition (Or 10661), the British Library has two more complete copies of this Hebrew translation ( Add MS 27106 ff. 103r-130v, Add MS 27146 ff. 1r-10v) and a fragment (Or 10498). We have chosen Or 10661 not only because of its fine layout and beautiful diagrams, but because it is an excellent representation of cultural encounters. On the one hand, it demonstrates how non-Jewish scientific knowledge reached Jewish scholars through crossing language borders; on the other hand, it shows how the world of manuscripts meets the world of printing.

Inset of table of contents in Hebrew
List of the four chapters of the Sphaera in Solomon Avigdor’s Hebrew translation. (Italy, 16th century. Or 10661, f. 1v)
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One of the images which became part of the Sphaera’s illustration program at a very early stage was the armillary sphere. It was added to the illustrations in the 1488 Venice edition. This device was invented over 2000 years ago for instruction and observation, and was developed further by medieval Muslim astronomers. Sacrobosco does not mention it explicitly in the Sphaera, but some commentators assumed that in certain places in the text he is describing this astronomical device rather than the universe itself. The discussion of the celestial circles in Chapter 2 can especially be read as a description of the armillary sphere.

Image of metal armillary sphere Printed illustration of armillary sphere
(Left) An armillary sphere cast by Carlo Plato in Rome in 1578. (Source: Wikimedia; CC-3.0)

(Right) Armillary sphere illustrated in Sacrobosco’s Sphaera printed at Venice in 1488 (Source: Wolfenbütteler Digitale Bibliothek; CC BY-SA) and in Solomon Avigdor’s Hebrew translation (Or 10661, f. 7v).
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It is not surprising, then, that in our Hebrew manuscript we find the armillary sphere at the beginning of Chapter 2. This image and the image in the 1488 Venice edition are very similar. Both depict a geocentric sphere modelling a universe with the Earth at its centre. The set of rings represents a series of moving spheres around a stationary Earth. The wider band with the signs of the Zodiac represents the annual journey of the sun through the heavens.

Petrus Apianus’ 1526 Ingolstadt edition was another milestone in the development of the illustration program. Several of the diagrams in our Hebrew copy follow the tradition established by this edition. Let’s have a look at the diagram at the section explaining why the sphere of the water must be round. The diagram in the earlier BL Hebrew manuscript (Add MS 27106) is very confusing, and even the one in the 1488 edition is a bit vague. The Apianus edition introduces a much clearer diagram: the sphere of the water is round because, travelling in a ship, the person at the top of the mast sees the buildings on dry land sooner than the person on the deck. You can see that the visual ray from the person at the top of the mast reaches the coast without obstacle, while the visual ray from the person on the deck is intercepted by the bulge of the water. The diagram in the 16th-century Hebrew manuscript is almost the mirror image of that in the Apianus edition with small differences. The shape of the dry land and the buildings are slightly different, and it looks as if some of the towers had a crescent on top.

Manuscript diagrama of why water is round Printed diagram of why water is round
(Left) Manuscript diagram “That the water is round” (Add MS 27106, f. 108r)
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(Right) Printed diagram “That the water is round” from the 1488 Venice edition. (Source: Wolfenbütteler Digitale Bibliothek; CC BY-SA).

Later printed diagram of why water is round Manuscript diagram of why water is round
(Left) Printed illustration “That the water is round” from the 1526 Ingolstadt edition (Source: MDZ Digitale Bibliothek; NoC-NC)

(Right) Manuscript illustration “That the water is round”. (Or 10661, f. 5v)
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The Hebrew copyist borrowed some more of Apianus’ diagrams with slight modifications. At the discussion on why the celestial bodies look larger when rising and setting from when they are in the middle of the sky, there is a compound diagram. Both in Apianus’ edition and in our Hebrew manuscript, the right side of the diagram shows a coin under water: when we look at it through water, the coin will appear larger than it really is (the effect of refraction). The same happens with the heavenly bodies, and this is what the left side of the diagram illustrates: the vapours in the atmosphere create an optical illusion and show the sun and the stars larger than they really are. Notice that while the inscription on coin (“tanova”, that is, moneta nova) in the Latin diagram is curling around a Greek cross, the Hebrew depiction omitted this symbol (probably to avoid any visual reference to Christianity) and has only the inscription (matbea, Hebrew for coin).


Printed diagram of why the heavens are round Detailed manuscript diagram in Hebrew of why the heavans are round

(Left) Why the sun and the stars seem to be bigger when rising and setting, from the 1526 Ingolstadt edition (Source: MDZ Digitale Bibliothek; NoC-NC).

(Right) Why the sun and the stars seem to be bigger when rising and setting. (Or 10661, f. 4v)
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Some of the diagrams in our Hebrew manuscripts are based on later Christian editions. The diagram to demonstrate why the sphere of the heavens cannot be flat is practically identical with that in the 1538 Wittenberg edition. It shows a tiny (or giant, in relation to the globe) human figure standing on earth looking up to a flat sky. There are three stars in the sky: one is directly above him, and one on each side. If the sky was flat – the argument goes – then the celestial bodies directly above our head (in case of the sun this would be midday) would be closer and thus would seem bigger than when they appear low in the sky (when rising and setting). We know from experience, that this is not the case. The celestial bodies actually seem bigger when they are rising or setting than when they are directly above us. Consequently, the sphere of heavens cannot be flat.

Printed Latin diagram of why the heavens are roundHebrew manuscript diagram of why the heavens are round
(Left) If the sphere of the heavens was flat, an explanation from the 1538 Wittenberg edition (Source: MDZ Digitale Bibliothek; CC)

(Right) If the sphere of the heavens was flat, an explanation in manuscript form. (Or 10661, f. 4v)
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There are many more fascinating illustrations in our Hebrew copy, but these few examples are perhaps enough to demonstrate how much these early printed Latin editions of Sacrobosco’s work influenced our copyist. Since the copyist does not tell us when (or where) he produced this manuscript, finding the models of the diagrams can also help in the dating of the manuscript. Based on the origin of these few illustrations, our manuscript must have been copied sometime after 1538. Of course, a more thorough study of the entire illustration program may lead to different results. Whenever it was copied, by then these diagrams had become part of the textual tradition of Sacrobosco’s Sphaera, so much so that our scribe felt the need to include them into his copy.

Zsofi Buda
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Further reading:

On Sacrobosco’s Sphaera:

De Sphaera of Johannes De Sacrobosco in the Early Modern Period: The Authors of the Commentaries, ed. Matteo Valleriani. Springer Open, 2020.

Gingerich, Owen. “Sacrobosco Illustrated.” In Between Demonstration and Imagination, ed. Lodi Nauta and A.J. Vanderjagt, 211-224. Leiden: Brill, 1999.

Pantin, Isabelle. “L'illustration des livres d'astronomie à la renaissance: l'évolution d'une discipline à travers ses images.” InImmagini per conoscere. Dal Rinascimento alla Rivoluzione scientifica, 3-41. Firenze : L. S. Olschki, 2001.

The Sphere: Knowledge System Evolution and the Shared Scientific Identity of Europe https://sphaera.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/

Thorndike, Lynn. The Sphere of Sacrobosco and its commentators. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949.

On Abraham and Solomon Avigdor:

Iancu-Agou, Daniele. “La pratique du latin chez les médecins juifs et néophytes de Provence médiévale (XIVe–XVIe siècles).” In Latin-into-Hebrew: Texts and Studies, vol. 1, 85-102. Leiden: Brill, 2013.

Shatzmiller, Joseph. Jews, Medicine, and Medieval Society. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994 pp. 29-30.

Steinschneider, Moritz. Die hebräischen Übersetzungen des Mittelalters und die Juden als Dolmetscher, pp. 643 and 782. Berlin, 1893.