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Jewish Magic and Superstition, by Joshua Trachtenberg, [1939], at

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"IN THE NAME OF . . ."


OUTSTANDING among those beliefs that are universally characteristic of the religion of superstition is the conviction that "a man's name is the essence of his being" (one Hebrew text says "a man's name is his person" and another, "his name is his soul") . This doctrine elevated the process of naming a child into one of major importance. The name carried with it all the associations it had accumulated in history, and stamped the character of its earlier owners upon its new bearer, so that the choice of a name was fraught with grave responsibility. But the desire to bless a child with a richly endowed name was balanced by the fear that the soul of its previous owner would be transported into the body of the infant—a fear which stood in the way of naming children after living parents or after any living persons, and thus robbing them of their soul and their life. This dread led indeed in some cases to a superstitious refusal to adopt the name even of a dead ancestor, since this would oblige the soul to forsake its heavenly abode and re-enter the realm of the living. It must have been this line of reasoning—if reason it is—that prompted Judah the Pious to provide in his testament that "none of his descendants shall be called by his name, Judah, or by his father's name, Samuel." Such a far-fetched extension of the superstition, however, was rare; the usual procedure was to name children after ancestors.

It was often observed that his name is the mainspring not only of a person's character, but also of his fate. Certain names bring good fortune, others, bad; the "heavenly decrees" that are associated with them determine which. One can discover the latent import of a name only by a close study of the lives of individuals who have borne it. It would be the height of rashness to saddle a youngster with a name whose owners have been unfortunate, or have died young, or have been murdered. The name that caused the misfortune

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would bring bad luck with it. For the same reason a widow or widower should not marry a person with the same name as the deceased mate. "Nor is all this to be regarded as silly superstition," we are solemnly assured; the writer testified to its truth from his own wide experience.

Confronted with two individuals of the same name, the spirits were as likely as not to choose the wrong one upon whom to lavish their unwelcome attentions. An angel executing a decree of sickness or death might visit it upon the first who answered to the designated name. Such things happened, as several anecdotes attest. The superstition against naming a child after a living person was consequently strengthened, and with it an avoidance of duplicating names in one family. A marriage in which the bride or groom bore the name of one of the in-laws, or which united two families owning a name in common, was discountenanced as imprudent indeed. Nor should several families with a common name reside in one dwelling. In such cases the spirits would be absolutely at a loss to distinguish the one from the other. People went so far as to avoid entering the home of a sick person who bore their name; should it be the moment assigned for the death stroke the hale might be assaulted in place of the ill. Yet, however solicitously these precautions were observed, it was not without some misgivings about their respectability. The same writer who protested that they were by no means "superstitions" offered a half-apology for advancing them: "Although one should not believe in superstitions," he wrote, to recall a previously quoted remark, "yet it is best to be heedful of them." Well, "heedful" his readers were, whether they believed or not.1

The essential character of things and of men resides in their names. Therefore to know a name is to be privy to the secret of its owner's being, and master of his fate. The members of many primitive tribes have two names, one for public use, the other jealously concealed, known only to the man who bears it. Even the immediate members of the family never learn what it is; if an enemy should discover it, its bearer's life is forfeit. In highest antiquity and in our own day, among the most primitive and the most civilized peoples, the occult power that inheres in the name is recognized, and the name itself is known to be a mighty and awesome force in the hands of the magician.2

To know the name of a man is to exercise power over him alone; to know the name of a higher, supernatural being is to dominate

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the entire province over which that being presides. The more such names a magician has garnered, the greater the number of spirits that are subject to his call and command. This simple theory is at the bottom of the magic which operates through the mystical names and words that are believed to control the forces which in turn control our world. The spirits guarded their names as jealously as ever did a primitive tribe. "Tell me, I pray thee, thy name," Jacob demanded of the angel with whom he had wrestled, but the angel parried the question and his name remained his secret, lest Jacob invoke him in a magical incantation and he be obliged to obey.3 But a vast mystic lore of angel-names was inherited by medieval Jews, and expanded by them, so that many were initiated into these mysteries, and possessed the power to invoke the spirits. Higher than all, however, stands God—and the names of God which Jewish ingenuity invented (or discovered?) placed in the hands of the Jewish magician unlimited powers to manipulate God's world.

This belief was the source of considerable theological uneasiness, as we may well imagine. Its foremost adherents, namely Germanic Jewry, pious and God-fearing, found it difficult to square the undoubted powers which the Name accorded with the omnipotence of God, who Himself appeared to be subordinated to His name by this doctrine. All that they could do, in the effort to reconcile theology with superstition, was to evade the problem by asserting at the same time the power of the Name and the power of God. "One may not say that the invocation of God's Name obliges Him to do the will of the invoker, that God Himself is coerced by the recital of His Name; but the Name itself is invested with the power to fulfill the desire of the man who utters it."4 The Name possesses an autonomous potency. And with this the theologians were obliged to content themselves.


A characteristic feature of the evolution of magic has been its easy passage from the invocation of celestial beings to the manipulation of mere names, or words. Even though medieval Jewry insisted that it called upon the names of definite supernatural beings, it is obvious that this was nothing more than a polite bow in the direction of theological scruple. And just as in the magic that flourished on

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the periphery of other religions, so in Jewish magic, nominalism of this sort made room for the magic word, as well as the name.

Certain words come to assume occult virtues by reason of the tradition that has developed about them, or because of their fancied descent from the potent charms of ancient times or foreign peoples. As we have had occasion to note, magic is the most conservative of disciplines—like the law it clings to archaic forms long after they have lost currency. But its conservatism is not inspired by intellectual inertia. The very nature of magic demands a strict adherence to the original form of the magical name or word, for its potency lies hidden within its syllables, within its very consonants and vowels —the slightest alteration may empty the word of all its magic content. Inevitably, however, in the process of oral transmission of so secret a lore, and in its later literary transmission by all too fallible scribes, the word undergoes changes. In fact, since in time these words become unintelligible to the heirs of the tradition, often ignorant of their original sense and tongue, a process of mutilation sets in, which makes them altogether exotic and meaningless. Besides, we must give due weight to "the mystery which is thrown about magic rites; 'the wizards that squeak and gibber' (Is. 8:19) are universal; the Babylonian priest generally whispered his formulas; the solemn parts of Christian rites have likewise tended to inaudible pronunciation. There exists a tendency toward intentional obscuration of the formulas, which by psychological necessity would tend to even greater corruption."5 The peculiar logic of magic makes a virtue of this process: the more barbaric the word the more potent it is likely to be. "So little is it necessary that the magic word possess any intelligible sense that most often it is considered efficacious in the degree that it is strange and meaningless, and words from foreign, incomprehensible tongues, in particular, are preferred."6 Rashi, in the eleventh century, proved his familiarity with this phenomenon when he wrote: "The sorcerer whispers his charms, and doesn't understand what they are or what they mean, but . . . the desired effect is produced only by such incantations."7 The repertoire of the Cherokee medicine man comprises mostly archaic expressions that have conveyed no meaning for centuries; many aborigines in India, as do Tibetan and Chinese Buddhists, regard the ancient Sanskrit prayers, which are wholly unintelligible to them, as much more potent than their own. The "abracadabra"7a of the modern stage magician reflects a phenomenon familiar to us all.

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This same process occurred in Jewish magic, and the incantations of the Middle Ages are replete with startlingly outlandish words that look and sound as though they had been filched from the vocabulary of a stuttering visitor from some distant planet. "But magic is in its purpose a scientific exercise, and we must suppose that in general something intelligible was once expressed by the now unintelligible term. Much of the later nonsense was the survival of phrases of the lost tongue in which the charms had their rise." Sometimes, underneath the accretions and mutilations of centuries, the original Latin or Greek word may peer dimly forth; sometimes by dint of a vast erudition and a vaster ingenuity, the scholar can chisel off a letter here and there, hammer on new ones, and with an inflection all his own, announce to a breathless world the etymology of such a term. To tell the truth, the game is a hazardous one, for scholars rarely agree, and the result is hardly worth the labor—except to a scholar. These words are important to the magician just because they are what they are and as they are. Restore their original form, so that the meaning is plain, and even the boldest magician would be ashamed to conjure with them.

In Jewish magic the natural infiltration of strange words and names was furthered by a significant element in the mystical tradition. The Pythagorean concept of the creative power of numbers and letters was known in Tannaitic times; the famous Amora Rab (about 200 C.E.) said of Bezalel that "he knew how to combine the letters by which heaven and earth were created."8 The Geonic mystic lore made much of this doctrine, and in the Sefer Yeẓirah it was elevated into one of the pillars of the Kabbalah. It was especially popular in the German Kabbalah of the thirteenth century which above all insisted upon the mysterious powers inherent in the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and developed a fine art of combining and recombining these letters to evoke from them their highest potency. Itself the source of many new magical words and names, this exercise made it all the easier for foreign words to find a place in the magical vocabulary.

The distinction between the word and the name, however, is academic so far as Jewish magic was concerned. Among most peoples it is real enough—the name belongs to some supernatural personage, the word is significant in and for itself. If a process of assimilation occurs at all, it is the name that is swallowed up by the word. Jewish magic was too sophisticated (I think we may consider

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this a mark of sophistication, for belief in the efficacy of a word per se seems to be the more primitive and naïve attitude) to accord any weight to words—all had become names by the Middle Ages, and earlier. Behind each word—though in our wisdom we may be able to discern its humble origin—a celestial power was posited. Sometimes the apotheosis of the word achieved the height of extravagance, as we shall have occasion to see later; Hocus Pocus, for example, was a Prince on high—or two Princes, to be exact. The literature of Jewish magic was predominantly an anthology of magical names. In practice the point was of no importance, word or name, the magician's taste was catholic; in theory Jewish magic insisted on excluding the word as such from its purview.

The invocation of these names was the commonest feature of medieval Jewish magic. Incantations most often consisted of a name, or a series of names, with or without an accompanying action. An element of danger was recognized in the indiscriminate handling of such powerful forces—like charges of dynamite, they could destroy the unwary magician. "Wherever God's name is uttered improperly there death stalks." The practitioner was repeatedly warned to prepare himself conscientiously for his rites: to purify himself in body and soul with ritual cleansings, by abstention from women and from unclean things, by following a restricted diet, and even fasting, over a period of days. "If a man who is about to utter holy names does not properly sanctify himself beforehand, not only will he fail in his efforts, but he must expect to suffer for his presumption." "Names may be taught only to pious scholars and sages, who will not misuse them." One must not even dare utter holy names aloud; it sufficed to "meditate on them in one's heart."9 But fear of the names, however marked, did not prevent their frequent use, as our literature amply demonstrates.

The powers that were ascribed to the names were limitless. Nothing in nature or in man's fancy lay beyond their reach. To select only a few of the feats attributed to them: Judah the Pious was said to have caused a window to close about the neck of a malefactor, imprisoning him in a magic vise; the same Judah imparted all his mystical learning to a pupil by having him lick up certain names that the teacher had outlined in the sand; names were used to kill and to resurrect; and most wonderful of all, by means of a name "the heart of man may be turned to fear the Lord, so that even the most wicked may become righteous"!10

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The greatest feat to which the magician aspired was that of creation. Discussing this subject in the pages of the Talmud, R. Papa observed that the creative power of magic covered only gross and massive objects and creatures, such as the camel, but not fine and delicate things, and R. Eliezer maintained that the demons, to whom the magician owes this power, can create nothing smaller than a barley-corn. This was the standard limitation imposed on sorcerers by medieval writers, though, as the Gemara explained: "The demons cannot actually create even large beings, but merely assemble already created but unused primeval matter."11 Thus the ultimate act of genesis was reserved for God alone. It was nowhere suggested that human life could be created by ordinary magical means.

But the Talmud recognized also a second method of creation, which required the application of the "Laws of Creation," probably an oral collection of mystical traditions relating to the original creation of the universe. The kind of magic comprised in these "Laws of Creation" was the only one that was "permitted ab initio." By means of it, "if the righteous so desired they could create a universe. Raba created a man and sent him to R. Zeira, who conversed with him but he could not answer; so he exclaimed, 'You are created by magic, return to your dust!' Rabbis Ḥanina and Oshaya used to sit every Friday and occupy themselves with the Book [read: Laws] of Creation and create a three-year-old calf which they ate." For a description of this method we must rely on the tradition preserved by the commentators; Rashi wrote, "They used to combine the letters of the Name by which the universe was created; this is not to be considered forbidden magic, for the works of God were brought into being through His holy Name." The Talmudic Laws of Creation (unrelated to the later mystical Book of Creation) appear, then, to have been an exposition of the familiar name-magic, the foremost constituent of medieval Jewish practice, but in consonance with the difficulty and the prodigiousness of its object, a very exalted and esoteric department. Medieval Jews, like their Christian contemporaries, were avid of the power to create human life, and believed implicitly in man's ability to do so. William of Auvergne (thirteenth century) wrote, "Men have tried to produce, and thought that they succeeded in producing human life in other ways than by

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the usual generative process," but the methods pursued by non-Jews were less subtle than the one proposed by the Talmud. For example, a fourteenth-century Christian writer cited the Arab Rasis (tenth century) on generating a human being by putting an unnamed substance in a vase filled with horse manure, for three days.12

The thirteenth-century German Ḥasidim (Pietists and Mystics) were especially intrigued by this problem. From them comes the use of the word golem (literally, shapeless or lifeless matter) to designate a homunculus created by the magical invocation of names, and the entire cycle of golem legends may be traced back to their interest. The earliest individual about whom such a fable was woven appears to have been R. Samuel, father of Judah the Pious, who was said to have constructed such a homunculus which accompanied him on his travels and served him, but which could not speak. Joseph Delmedigo informs us, in 1625, that "many legends of this sort are current, particularly in Germany," and we may well believe him. Among the better-known of these legends is the one connected with the name of Elijah of Chelm (middle sixteenth century) which developed during the seventeenth century. He was reputed to have created a golem from clay by means of the Sefer Yeẓirah, inscribing the name of God upon its forehead, and thus giving it life, but withholding the power of speech. When the creature attained giant size and strength, the Rabbi, appalled by its destructive potentialities, tore the life-giving name from its forehead and it crumbled into dust. These legends of the golem were transferred, not before the eighteenth century, to R. Judah Löw b. Bezalel, without any historical basis. The remains of the Frankenstein monster which he is supposed to have brought into being arc said still to be among the debris in the attic of Prague's Altneuschule.13

At least one mystic, the greatest of them all in Germany, Eleazar of Worms, had the daring to record the formula, which occurs again later in several versions. The formidable nature of the project is apparent from the merest glance at the twenty-three folio columns which the very involved combinations of letters occupy. The image was to be made of "virgin soil, from a mountainous place where no man has ever dug before," and the incantation, which comprised "the alphabets of the 221 gates," must be recited over every single organ individually. A further detail, often noted, was the incision upon the forehead of the name of God, or of the word emet ("truth"). The destruction of this creature was effected by removing

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that name, by erasing the initial letter of emet, leaving met ("dead"), or by reversing the creative combinations, for, as R. Jacob b. Shalom, who came to Barcelona from Germany in 1325, remarked, the law of destruction is nothing more than a reversal of the law of creation.14

Yet, while not doubting its possibility, medieval Jews were in general skeptical of their own ability to imbue dead matter with life, and modestly confessed that manipulation of names of such a high order was beyond them. A thirteenth-century writer scornfully castigated those who proposed to duplicate the feat of Ḥanina and Oshaya with the taunt that "they themselves are dumb calves." In 1615 Zalman Ẓevi of Aufenhausen published his reply (Jüdischer Theriak) to the animadversions of the apostate Samuel Friedrich Brenz (in his book Schlangenbalg) against the Jews on this score. Zalman Ẓevi wrote wittily, "The renegade said that there are those among the Jews who take a lump of clay, fashion it into the figure of a man, and whisper incantations and spells, whereupon the figure lives and moves. In the reply which I wrote for the Christians I made the turncoat look ridiculous, for I said there that he himself must be fashioned from just such kneaded lumps of clay and loam, without any sense or intelligence, and that his father must have been just such a wonder worker, for as he writes, we call such an image a homer golem [an unshaped, raw mass of material], which may be rendered 'a monstrous ass' [a really good pun], which I say is a perfect description of him. I myself have never seen such a performance, but some of the Talmudic sages possessed the power to do this, by means of the Book of Creation. . . . We German Jews have lost this mystical tradition, but in Palestine there are still to be found some men who can perform great wonders through the Kabbalah. Our fools [another pun on the word golem] are not created out of clay, but come from their mothers’ wombs."15 His heavy sarcasm, though prompted by apologetic motives, expressed the general Jewish attitude on the subject—it can be done, but no longer by us.


"The invocation of angelic names in Jewish magic may be regarded as in part the parallel to the pagan invocation of many deities, and in part as invocation of the infinite (personified) phases

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and energies of the one God. Both Jewish and pagan magic agreed in requiring the accumulation of as many names of the deity or demon as possible, for fear lest no one name exhaust the potentiality of the spiritual being conjured." Here we have a natural development in magic fostered by religious belief and by logical necessity. But it is possible to trace with some degree of certainty various extraneous influences which also contributed to such a development within Judaism.

The culture of ancient Israel reflected preponderantly the influence of the two civilizations that dominated the ancient world: Babylonia-Assyria and Egypt. In both the invocation of names of gods, and the multiplication of these names to ensure greater magical efficacy was well known and widely practiced. In the multiplicity of the gods of these lands (in Egypt "there were gods for every month, every day of the month, and every hour of the day"), and in such a phenomenon as the fifty names of Marduk, we must seek the source of the ever-expanding Jewish angelology and the aggregation of divine epithets to be found already in the Old Testament.

The use of barbarous syllables and words, however, was rare in Babylonian magic, and its entrance into the Jewish magical science must be traced to Egypt. "In Egyptian magic, even if the exorcisers did not understand the language from which the Name was borrowed, they considered it necessary to retain it in its primitive form, as another word would not have the same virtue. The author of the treatise on the Egyptian mysteries attributed to Jamblichus maintains that the barbarous names taken from the dialects of Egypt and Assyria have a mysterious and ineffable virtue on account of the great antiquity of these languages. The use of such unintelligible words can be traced in Egypt to a very great antiquity." Hellenistic magic, the lineal descendant of the sorcery of ancient Egypt, displayed this phenomenon prominently, and thence it was reflected to Jewish sorcery. This accounts for the comparatively late emergence of such word-magic in Judaism. It is the Talmud which first "illustrates the use of these barbarica onomata."16

We have then, a fusion of these various streams at about the beginning of our era, the ancient Babylonian and Egyptian coming together in early Talmudic times, with the accumulated deposits washed down from their passage through Hellenism and the Jewish past. This is reflected not within Judaism alone, but in the more or

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less common culture of the entire Eastern Mediterranean basin. Gnosticism, the Greek magical papyri, early Christian mysticism, all display a striking efflorescence of this eclectic magic at the same time: a vast expansion of mystic nomenclature, and the prominence of bizarre terms. Origen believed that there is power in the words themselves, "as is to be seen from the fact that when translated into another language they lose their operative force."17

The magic of the Talmud depended largely upon the potency inherent in the form of the incantation, that is, in the word, and upon the magical action, for its most striking effects, and in consequence we find the barbaric word coming to occupy an important place. The invocation of names,18 and in particular of angelic names, came distinctly and prominently to the fore only in the post-Talmudic period. The Aramaic texts published by Montgomery and others represent an intermediary stage in the process; while incomparably richer than in the Talmudic literature, the angelic nomenclature of these inscriptions was not yet so elaborate as we find it in later Geonic and medieval works. By the eleventh century the practice of invoking names had become so widespread that the good people of Kairowan (North Africa) felt impelled to write to Hai Gaon, head of the academy at Pumbedita, Babylonia, to ask his opinion on the momentous question, "whether it is true that there are countless names by means of which the adept can perform miraculous deeds, such as making himself invisible to highwaymen, or taking them captive?" His reply proved unsatisfactory, and again they wrote, telling him they had heard from Palestinian and Italian Jews, "learned and trustworthy men, that they had themselves seen magicians write names upon reeds and olive-leaves, which they cast before robbers and thus prevented their passage, or, having written such names upon new sherds, threw them into a raging sea and mollified it, or threw them before a man to bring about his sudden death." This time Hai Gaon replied at length; the upshot of his responsum was that the natural order of the universe cannot be altered by any such means. "A fool believes everything!" he warned his interrogators. But his skepticism did not win many converts. He himself mentioned a series of works in his letter, which marked the highest development of this doctrine during the Geonic period, and proved the futility of his strictures against it. One of these works, the Hechalot, devotes considerable space to expounding these names, while another, The Sword of Moses, discovered and published by

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[paragraph continues] Gaster, consists almost entirely of mystical and barbarous names and prescriptions for their application. The Geonic period shows clearly, also, signs of that eclecticism which characterized Hellenistic sorcery; Montgomery remarks of his early post-Talmudic incantations that "what appears like a good Jewish text at times admits a pagan deity into its celestial hierarchy—somewhat as the medieval Church came to canonize the Buddha."19

This was the background of thirteenth-century Jewish name-magic, which improved upon its antecedents by multiplying the number of names, both of God and of the angels, available to the enterprising sorcerer, and succeeded in introducing into Judaism a host of pagan and Christian deities and terms, often in most confused and unrecognizable forms, and therefore all the more serviceable to the magician. Medieval Christendom, under the influence of the same Gnostic and Hellenistic tendencies, was equally well acquainted with the virtues and effects of name-invocation. The Hebrew names of God and of the angels, employed in the Greek papyri, proved especially popular, undoubtedly because of their strangeness. "Then there was the Notory Art," wrote Lea, describing the types of magic that came under the ban of the Inquisition, "communicated by God to Solomon, and transmitted through Apollonius of Tyana, which taught the power of the Names and Words of God, and operated through prayers and formulas consisting of unknown polysyllables, by which all knowledge, memory, eloquence, and virtue can be obtained in the space of a month . . . which Roger Bacon pronounces to be one of the figments of the magicians, but Thomas Aquinas and Ciruelo prove that it operates solely through the devil." During the early years of the Carlovingian dynasty the Church succeeded in suppressing a Bishop Adalbert "who taught the invocation of the angels Uriel, Raguel, Tubuel, Inias, Tubuas, Sabaoc, and Simiel." By the twelfth century manuscript works were in circulation in Northern Europe which "abound in characters and in incantations which consist either of seemingly meaningless vowels or of Biblical phrases and allusions," and in 1323 a monk was seized in Paris for possessing such a book. Despite the hostility of the Church the so-called Notory Art grew steadily in popularity during the later Middle Ages. It never achieved, however, the independent exuberance and creativeness of its Jewish counterpart, though it came in time to reflect it as a result of the introduction of the Kabbalah into Christian circles.20

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Of all the names employed in magic, those associated directly with the person of the deity were accorded first place in the hierarchy of magical terms. Instinct with the very essence of omnipotence, they were surrounded from early times with an aura of superlative sanctity and awe. Already before the beginning of our era the Tetragrammaton had become the "Ineffable Name," too sacred for expression, uttered only once a year by the High Priest; a substitute took its place in popular usage.21 During Talmudic times the number of "Ineffable" names grew; we hear of 12- and 42- and 72-letter names, which might be taught only to a select company of ultra-worthies.22 Succeeding centuries witnessed the discovery of names of 8, 10, 14, 16, 18, 21, 22, 32, and 60 letters or syllables,23 hedged around with a vast, well-nigh impenetrable mystic rigmarole which purported to unfold the esoteric significance and power of these names, all of which were supposed to derive, by a more or less devious route, from the original 4-letter name.24

Important as this secret lore was to the mystic, the pragmatic interest of the magician focused his attention upon the names themselves; though the Kabbalist insisted that a thorough grounding in theory was a prerequisite to the utilization of these names,25 the magician was prepared to take the names and leave the theory to the scholars. For he knew that "the name of God creates and destroys worlds,"26 and his preoccupation was to acquire knowledge of all the names, and to set them to work for wholly practical, if more human, ends. Nor was he deterred by bitter diatribes against "those ignorant and impious ones" who dabble in Kabbalah with no firm comprehension of its deeper significance.

There was another category of names of God in use at an early time—the names and the attributes of God which appear in the Bible. Their virtues were known during the Talmudic period to Jew and Gentile, and we find them employed in Jewish, Gnostic and Hellenistic incantations; in the Middle Ages they remained favorites of Jewish and Christian adepts in the mystic lore. The list of ten such names drawn up by Isidore of Seville (seventh century), which was in general agreement with Jewish tradition, was frequently copied and commented on by later Christian writers; despite the hazards of transliteration and transmission they remain recognizable: El, Eloe, Sabbaoth, Zelioz or Ramathel, Eyel, Adonay, Ya,

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[paragraph continues] Tetragrammaton, Saday, and Eloym.27 Another name in common usage was the Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh ("I Am That I Am") which was revealed to Moses at the burning bush. These appellations were often employed in the charms, but they did not rank so high in mystical potency as the others.

First among the names, both in time and in occult power, was the four-lettered yhvh, the original name of God. Its powers were ascribed also to a wide range of variations upon it, from the particles yah, yahu, hu,28 etc., to the twelve forms which it could assume by the transposition of its letters: yhhv, yvhh, hvhy, etc. The particle yah in particular occurs constantly in the magical texts. The mystics went to great pains to prove that these surrogates for the Tetragrammaton were its exact equivalents in every respect, though their evidence is mainly of a formal nature. As we have seen, even the term Tetragrammaton assumed the power of the name itself. Not satisfied with the possibilities thus provided, the vowel points, too, were altered and transposed in order to create new variations of the Great Name, and such forms as yahavaha, yehavha, yahvah, yeheveh, etc., were added to the magician's portfolio. This practice was adopted in connection with all the names, for, as it is explained, "The consonants are the 'body' of the name, the vowels its 'garments,' and the body takes the form of the garments which clothe it . . . therefore the vowel is really the more important element, and the vocalization, which marks the transition from potentiality to actuality, determines the specific virtues of the holy names," i.e., their powers and even the times when they are especially potent.29 The uncertainty that prevailed concerning the vocalization of these names, and the varying traditions concerning their pronunciation, made for a certain freedom in their use, and opened the way to an expansion of the possibilities afforded by any one name. But the powers of all the variations derived directly from the original name which constituted their base.

Of the multi-lettered names I shall discuss here only those of 22, 42, and 72 elements, which are the only ones that possess any constancy of form and content in our literature.30 The others were the product of individual ingenuity, and made no lasting impression upon the practice of Jewish magic. All men felt free, granted the requisite skill and training, to extend the traditional magical nomenclature for private use by the application of the approved methods.31 But these three names (in addition to the Tetragrammaton) were

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the foundation-stones of the magical structure; no self-respecting magician could afford to disregard them.

The name of 12 letters, mentioned in the Talmud, was a dead-letter in post-Talmudic times. It was unknown to the mystics, and although a tradition appears to have persisted relating it to the Priestly Benediction (Nu. 6:24-26), and some efforts were made to reconstruct it,32 it played no part in Jewish magic. Its place, however, was taken by two new names, of 14 and 22 letters, the first of which was comparatively little used. It consisted of the words ‏‎, from the Shema‘, and by means of Temurah (described in Appendix I), it appeared as ‏‎. Though recognized as a legitimate name of God,33 and occasionally employed in incantations and amulets, its primary use was as an inscription on the back of the mezuzah.

The name of 22, however, is another matter, more interesting and puzzling—and much more important for the magician. Its debut was made in Sefer Raziel,34 which, while largely ascribed to Eleazar of Worms, drew extensively upon Geonic mystic sources. It is therefore likely that the name is older than the book which introduced it to a larger Jewish public. More than this we cannot say concerning its age. It achieved a wide popularity very rapidly, was employed in many invocations and charms as an especially potent name, and in the seventeenth century it was introduced into the ritual of the synagogue, in a prayer which was attached to the reading of the Priestly Benediction.

The respect with which it was regarded was undoubtedly merited by its bizarre composition:

‏אנקתם פסתמ פספסים דיונסים‎,

[paragraph continues] Anaktam Pastam Paspasim Dionsim (the vocalization is doubtful, but it was probably read something like this) and by the fact that the Hebrew alphabet, itself invested with mysterious potencies, likewise contains 22 letters. Sefer Raziel offers no interpretation of this name. It bears no discernible relation to anything in the Hebrew or Aramaic tongues. Despite the hazardousness of seeking to trace such terms back to foreign origins, efforts along this line have been made, with the usual success and unanimity. By dint of emendations and distortions such classical deities as the Greek Anaxos and the Zoroastrian Anahita, Hephaestos, Pistus, Poseidon, Priapus, and Dionysos have been variously discerned hidden behind

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these disguises.3" The Greek gods masquerading in pious Jewish garb!

These scholars have gone too far afield in their zeal to discover the progenitors of this strange name. Its source may be sooner sought right at home, in Jewish tradition, which offers a clew that they have overlooked. Some scholars36 have, indeed, derived this name from Jewish origins, pointing in particular to the acrostic of the initial letters of certain prayers in the liturgy, which spell it out. These prayers, however, were composed post eventum and display the inventiveness of late writers rather than the original source of the name. The seventeenth-century compiler of a Kabbalistic prayer-book, Nathan Hanover, who first introduced this name into the liturgy, was the author of a series of such acrostic prayers (based not only on the 22-letter name, but also on those of 42 and 72 letters), and also engaged upon a scholarly venture of his own in breaking down these terms into Hebrew words which he more or less obscurely related to Biblical passages. But these exercises are even less rewarding than those of the classicists; a cursory inspection shears them of any degree of plausibility.

Nathan Hanover, however, in inserting this name into the prayers in conjunction with the Priestly Benediction showed himself responsive to the most persistent tradition relating to it. The Blessing had long occupied an important place in mystical speculation, primarily because it was believed that during the existence of the temple the priests, while uttering it, had "swallowed" a secret divine name. The first appearance of the 22-letter name was made in association with that Benediction; two of the four instances of its occurrence in Sefer Raziel place them both together. Their relationship is rendered much more intimate by illuminating comments in two works which are especially close to the mystical tradition. One37 informs us that "the name of 22, which is Anaktam, etc., is derived from five words which comprise 22 letters, namely, ‏יאר יהוה יברכך יהוה וישמרך‎ 1 "; and the other is equally specific: "The name of 22 comes from the Priestly Blessing, according to the Kabbalistic tradition, by means of many 'alphabets.'" Knowing as we do the infinite possibilities opened up by the methods of transposition and substitution of letters in transforming divine names, and the popularity of such methods in Jewish mysticism, there is no reason to doubt the veracity of these writers. Not only do the total number of letters in the five words of the Blessing, and in the name, correspond,

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but there is an exact correspondence between the words and the component parts of the name. Both Sefer Raziel and Nathan of Hanover insist on reading the last term of the name as two words. We have then this parallel:

‏יברכך יהוי וישמרך יאר יהוה‎
‏אנקתם פסתס פספסים דיו נסיס‎.

[paragraph continues] The famous Safed Kabbalist, Moses Cordovero (sixteenth century), has indeed left us a table of alphabetical permutations explaining in detail the derivation of this name from the Benediction.38

The name of 42 letters was known to Hai Gaon, who did not hesitate to indicate clearly just what it was, though he did not give it in full. He wrote, "Although the consonants of this name are well known, its proper vocalization is not rendered by tradition. Some pronounce its first part Abgitaẓ, and others Abigtaẓ, and the last part is sometimes read Shakvaẓit, and sometimes Shekuẓit, but there is no definite proof."39 His doubt concerning its proper reading is, to my mind, an indication of its antiquity; in a language such as Hebrew, written without vowel signs, the consonants are the constant element, while the vowels would tend to shift and change in the course of centuries of transmission, especially when, as in this case, the secrecy that surrounded the process and its oral nature tended to perpetuate individual variations. If it had been a comparatively recent creation such confusion would not yet have arisen, for the prime consideration in handing on such terms was to safeguard their form and pronunciation, and thus to conserve their potency. The medieval texts which give this name in full omit the vowel signs, and we can no longer reconstruct it as spoken; the variations in vocalization, which continued to be handed down by word of mouth, must have increased as time went on, so that in fact the name was employed in many versions. Limiting ourselves, then, to the consonants, the name of 42 was composed as follows:

‏אדגיתץ קרעשטן נגדיכש בטרצתג חקדטנע יגלפזק שקוצית‎

[paragraph continues] Great virtues were attributed not only to the name in full, but also to its constituent parts, by the application of the allegorical or mystical rules of interpretation. For example, the fifth term "equals, by Gematria, the angel Gzrel [both add up to 241]; by uttering the name one invokes this angel to countermand any evil decree [gezerah]

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that has been issued against one in heaven"; the second, which may be read as two Hebrew words signifying "rend Satan," "is good for one who has gone mad or has been attacked by an evil spirit or demon; this name is to be written upon an amulet and hung around the neck of the victim, who will be cured by it." The parts of the name assumed the dignity and power of names in their own right. Some went even further and employed each letter as the basis of a separate name so that this one name became forty-two.40

It has been generally assumed that this name was derived from the acrostic of a prayer beginning Ana Bekoaḥ, ascribed to a rabbi of the second century, Neḥunya ben HaKana.41 While it is highly improbable that this prayer was the source of the name, or that it dates back to the second century, this theory constitutes a recognition of the antiquity of the name. It no doubt represented the same sort of enterprise as was exemplified by Nathan of Hanover's efforts with the 22-letter name. The medieval mystics, however, possessed a tradition according to which this name is derived from the first forty-two letters in the Bible. This statement occurs several times and was accepted even by the famous Talmudist of the twelfth century, Rabbenu Jacob Tam.42 There is no reason to doubt the truth of this report.

The "holy and awesome" name of 72—this time it is not letters, but syllables or triads—is the most powerful (Raziel43 goes so far as to suggest that no magic can be effectively consummated without its aid) and at the same time the least mysterious of these artificially created names. Its composition was well-known in Geonic times, though the pronunciation of its elements was in doubt, and the renowned exegete, Rashi, felt no hesitation in disclosing its make-up.44 The method adopted to construct this name was simplicity itself; perhaps the theory was that after a series of thoroughly mystifying terms, the analytical powers of the student would be too numb to penetrate this one. At any rate it is based on the three verses of Exodus, 14:19-21, each of which contains 72 letters, and was made up by joining the first letter of verse 19, the last letter of 20, and the first of 21, to form its first triad; the second letter of 19, the penultimate of 20, and the second of 21, to make the second triad, and so on until we have 72 three-letter terms comprising all the letters of these verses.

At first glance one might be tempted to pooh-pooh so obvious a performance, and the power attributed to its product—it seems to

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lack the most elementary attribute of a wonder-working name—mystery, strangeness. But we must remember that, leaving aside the mechanics of its construction, the name as employed was strange enough to satisfy even the most exacting:

[paragraph continues] And, in the end, belief in the occult forces that resided in these names was the consequence of a hoary mystical tradition, which, in this case, encrusted the name so thickly that none but the most skeptical could have had the temerity to laugh it off. Rashi traced the tradition concerning this name, and its mystical employment, back to Talmudic times, and the tradition itself had it that this was the name which Moses learned at the burning bush and which he utilized to split the Red Sea before the fleeing children of Israel, and that at a later time the High Priest uttered it in the temple when he blessed the people. Granting the effect of such a teaching upon the receptive mind of the mystic, it is not difficult to understand how it could be believed that "whoever pronounces this name against a demon, it will vanish; at a conflagration, it will be quenched; over an invalid, he will be healed; against impure thoughts, they will be expelled; if it is directed against an enemy, he will die, and if it is uttered before a ruler, his favor will be won," and so on and on, realizing all those dreams of omnipotence that have tantalized men from the beginning of days. "But whoever pronounces this name while he is in a state of uncleanness and impurity will surely be struck dead."45

The printed text of Sefer Raziel, which gives this name of 72 in full, omits the vowels; a manuscript version of this work which I have examined, in including the vowels, proves that the same confusion existed concerning the pronunciation of this name as of the others.46 After concluding the text of the name, the scribe appended a note to the effect that "there is another tradition of vocalization of the particles of this name, and I studied it carefully in connection with the text of the Biblical verses, but I found the one I give the better." A later student of this manuscript did not agree with him,

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however, and jotted down in the margins many variant vocalizations which he considered preferable.

The component parts of this name, too, were accorded special powers, and here also there seems to have been a considerable difference of opinion. The printed Sefer Raziel, for instance, divided the name into ten parts, nine containing seven triads each, the tenth comprising the last nine. The first part "has the power to conquer evil and to drive off evil spirits" and is therefore a prime remedy for serious ailments; the second is good for acquiring wisdom, and for protection against demons and the evil eye; the fourth will protect travellers; the fifth sharpens the mind and makes one a good student; the sixth is good for divination; the eighth ensures a favorable response to one's prayers, etc. The manuscript version, on the other hand, broke up the name arbitrarily into fourteen sections, ranging from three to nine triads, and distributed individual powers as follows: the first "causes love to enter one's heart and anger and hatred to depart," the second is "for enmity," the third is "for intelligence," the fourth can "silence those who speak evil," the fifth is "to find favor before a king or ruler," the seventh is "to make peace between disputants," the tenth "eliminates distance so that one may be miraculously transferred from one place to another," the eleventh is "to kill one's enemies," the fourteenth is to be used "against a demon, or to uproot a man from his city, or for any difficult enterprise."47 Evidently this name was so powerful that any combination of its parts might be utilized to achieve a given purpose; the magicians apparently adjusted these combinations to suit their ends.

This observation applies to all the magical names of God; though in particular cases they were prescribed or employed for specific effects, in general we cannot assign a definite sphere to any of them. The magicians exercised great freedom of choice, selecting in a given case the name or names which they believed to possess the greater power, and determining their use by the specific request or magical act which accompanied the utterance of the names.


While the names of God in themselves were effective for the prescribed ends, often it was through specific angels that the given task was carried out. In employing the great name of 72, says Sefer Raziel,48 the incantation must run in this wise: "I command

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you, Ḥaniel and Ḥasdiel and Ẓadkiel, by this name, to do thus and thus"; in other words, the name of God places within the magician's hands the power which God Himself exercises over His servitors. To know the names of the angels who are immediately concerned expedites matters. In fact, the intermediate powers represented by the angels are most often sufficient for the magician's purpose.

The angels, of course, are legion, and, in the practice of magic, the more that are set to work, the merrier. There are "seventy names of angels which are good for protection against all sorts of dangers" (the figure seventy occurs often, as for instance, the seventy attributes of God, the seventy names of Metatron, etc.); a typical incantation opens with fifty-six angelic names, and contains twenty-one more besides. Often, names of angels and of God are lumped together in one charm in grand profusion. An incantation which includes eighty-three angel names employs also, for good measure, the name yhvh, repeated three times unaltered, and again in eight of its twelve possible transposed forms, and the names of 42, of 72, and of 22. This prodigality of names to effect a single end owns a hoary precedent in the Geonic and Hellenistic magical literatures. At times, the magician's confidence was centered upon a single name, but one name alone seemed hardly potent enough, so he repeated that name: reciting "Uriel" 242 times is guaranteed to improve the memory!—that word at least will probably never after be forgotten. Most often, however, the magician's patience was not so long, and he contented himself with a mere mouthful of names, a good-sized one, that is.49

The names that appear most frequently are those of the three archangels, Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, often mentioned in Talmudic literature. They were called upon to perform every sort of function imaginable, usually in conjunction with lesser assistants. An old tradition, dating back at least to Geonic times, had it that there are seven archangels, each of whom is associated with a planet: those already mentioned, and Aniel, Kafẓiel, Ẓadkiel, Samael (occasionally Ḥasdiel and Barkiel are substituted for two of the others) . The archangels are also brought into connection with the signs of the Zodiac.50

These angels were inherited, by and large, from preceding centuries. A much larger group was called into being to perform specific functions. Their names were usually concocted of a root indicating the function, and a theophorous suffix, usually "el." So we

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meet Shamriel, a guardian angel; Mefatḥiel, the "opener" of doors (the thieves’ favorite); Ḥasdiel, Ḥaniel, Raḥmiel, angels of "benevolence," "grace" and "mercy"; Zachriel, who rules over "memory"; Morael, the angel of "awe" or "fear" who rules the month of Elul, preceding the New Year and the Day of Atonement; Paḥadron, the angel of "terror" who governs the month Tishri, in which these holidays fall; Naḥaliel, who presides over "streams," etc. Frequently the root term seems to have been chosen at random, having no apparent relation to the function of the angel as given, though it is likely that at the time of the creation of such names the word employed was intended to indicate the angelic character. Such are some of the names of angels assigned to the months: Ẓafniel, Amriel, Pniel, Bezachriel, Romiel, Barkiel, etc. Again we have angelic names composed in this manner whose first parts are hardly distinguishable as Hebrew roots at all: Daghiel, Duhael, Puel, Simusiel. The possibilities of this method were limited only by the resources of the Hebrew language, and if they were not exhausted it was only because so many other means of creating names were open to the mystic.

The products of these methods (Gematria, Notarikon, and Temurah) are only rarely recognizable as such. Sometimes, as with a name like Ẓmrchd, which is made up of the final letters of the first five verses of Genesis, we may hear the machinery creaking; usually one cannot tell whether they have been "legitimately" arrived at, or whether they are nothing more than random jumbles of letters which serve the purpose equally well. We must take them "as is," no questions asked; the attempt to discover some meaning in them, interesting as it may prove, is essentially beside the point—these terms possessed significance because they were "names" and not because they "meant something." Schwab's work, Vocabulaire de l’Angélologie, which dissects some thousands, often fails to be convincing when it attacks such bizarre names, and in the end adds little to our understanding of the psychology of magic by its rationalistic approach. What sense, for instance, can possibly be made of the names whose bearers are assigned by Sefer Raziel to supervise the months: Arinaor, T‘azbun, Lrbg, Arbgdor, Tḥrgar, Tshndrnis? The ease with which they become something else a few pages further on shows that they cannot have meant much, if anything, to the compiler of that work. And then, which version shall we accept for analysis, the first, or the second: Didnaor, T‘achnu, Ylrng, Antgnod,

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[paragraph continues] Tuḥrgr? The effort to decipher them is pointless. "Names" are "names," and that is their sole explanation, so far as their rôle in magic is concerned. And since each of these month-angels is accompanied by his special retinue of 36, or 43, or 65 angels, as the case may be (Sefer Raziel is not chary with the figures), and there are countless angels presiding over every feature of our natural universe, and there are seven heavens, each with its "chief" and his "host," all bearing magical names, where is the end of such an etymological enterprise?51


Some of the names in use clearly betray a non-Jewish origin, but in their Hebraized form they were unrecognizable to the medieval Jews who were altogether unacquainted with the mythology and the languages of the Græco-Roman and Christian worlds from which they came. In the opinion of one scholar, "It is possible to construct, out of the names that appear in Sefer Raziel alone—allowing for the processes of reconstruction that were applied in this field—an entire pantheon of gods of the most diverse peoples." As we have seen, the names of various Greek gods have been suggested as the sources of the 22-letter name. While this interpretation appears doubtful, other names are clearly identifiable. Aphrodite put in an appearance as one of the angels of the planet Venus, appropriately enough, and Hermes was one of the guardians of the sun.52 Despite the view of Blau that there is not "a single reliable instance" of the occurrence in Hebrew of the name Abraxas (the original form was Abrasax), famous in the annals of magic, it does make its appearance quite unmistakably in Jewish documents in both forms. Montgomery and Myrhman have discovered it in post-Talmudic incantation texts, Gaster has found it in the Geonic Sword of Moses, it occurs at least once in Raziel, and I have come across it again in a sixteenth-century text of an amulet published by Grunwald.33

We have noted the appearance of "Tetragrammaton" as one of the names of God; it occurred fairly frequently in the Hebrew charms. Similarly, other Christian forms made their way into Jewish exorcisms unrecognized: ‏אַלואי שבאוטּ‎, a literal transliteration of Eloë Sabaot, masqueraded as two legitimate names of God alongside the Hebrew originals, though occasionally a keen-eyed reader had the wit to see through the deception, and jotted down on the margin of

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a manuscript the caution, "this should read ‏אלהי צבאות‎." "Alpha" is another word which assumed godlike proportions in the charms.54

One prescription suggests that when a man feels that he is being overcome by the powers of evil, they may be dispelled by the utterance of the name Pipi; again, written on a shelled hard-boiled egg and consumed, it is warranted to "open the heart" to wisdom and learning. Pipi—the name itself is intriguing, but even more so is its tortuous etymological career. Before the beginning of our era Hellenistic Jews had adopted the custom of substituting a yod for the vav in the Tetragrammaton, making it ?yη?yη. "In the older manuscripts of the Septuagint the Tetragrammaton was retained in Hebrew letters. In Greek circles these Hebrew letters, yod he yod he, were not recognized as such, but read as the Greek letters, πιπι."55 Thus Pipi became a magic name, and is to be found in Greek incantations. Jewish tradition, having borrowed this name from the Greeks, rendered it back into Hebrew—the Ineffable Name restored to its original tongue, but in how altered a form!

Three widely used angel-names, first prescribed by The Alphabet of Ben Sira56 as a potent prophylactic against the depredations of the demon Lilit, and since accepted as a specific, have aroused much interest and speculation. They are spelled Snvi, Snsnvi, Smnglf (sometimes Snmglf), and were probably read Sanvi, Sansanvi, Semangelaf. Schwab illustrates the inadequacy of his approach by describing the first two as onomatopoeic simulations of the twittering of birds (because these names are often accompanied by crude bird-like figures in amulets); the third he reads lamely as "poison découvert" (sam niglaf) . Gaster, on the other hand, regards them as Hebraizations of three names of saints which played a similar rôle in Slavic legends of the child-snatching witch. The first was originally Anos, or according to Caster's later revision of his opinion, Syno-doros or Sisyno-doros; the second, Saint Sisynie; the third, Satanael. To reach this conclusion the famous folklorist was obliged not only to emend the Hebrew forms of these names, but also to derive their originals from several versions of the legend belonging to different East-European peoples and languages, and from a figure who played a prime rôle in third-century Manichæism (which Gaster considered to be the ultimate source of the legend). The Jews, then, are to have drawn these three names from diverse sources, any one of which could have provided them with three effective terms,

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combined them for this special use, and so altered them as to require a feat of the imagination and of scholarship to discern their origins. Here we have the two extremes of etymological enterprise; the result of neither can be said to inspire much confidence. Gaster himself was quite well aware of the ultimate folly of such efforts; "nothing is more fallacious than to try etymologies of proper names," he wrote in another connection.

Another illustration of the difficulties encountered in determining the origins of mystical names is provided by the discussion that has centered about a well-known charm against forgetfulness, which is recited at the close of the Sabbath and on other occasions, with appropriate magical rites. It runs in this wise: "I conjure you, Poteh (or Purah), prince of forgetting, to remove my stupidity from me and to throw it onto the hills and the high places, by the holy names, by the name of Armas, Arimas, Armimimas, Ansis, Yaël, Petaḥel." (Another version gives these names as: Arimas, Abrimas, Armimas, Asiel, Ansiel, Ansipiel, Patḥiel, Patḥa.) Certain scholars have distinguished here the corrupted forms of three names: Patḥiel, the "opener," Ansiel, the "constrainer," names fashioned along orthodox lines, and a certain Armimas, who may be Hermes or Ormuzd, according to one view, or Arminius or Remus, following another. Greek, Zoroastrian, Teuton, or Latin—the range of possibilities is certainly wide enough! As to Poteh, or Purah, the dispute is just as lively, the suggestions even more ingenious, and the results even less convincing. I may add that this incantation was also recited by a child when it first entered school, with the additional tenfold repetition of: Negef, Segef, Agaf, names which were ascribed to the "angels of destruction."57

There are instances of entire phrases and sentences from the Latin and the Greek, transposed into Hebrew and employed as a series of names. Most often, of course, it is no longer possible to recompose the original passage, though its origin may be fairly obvious; occasionally one may reread the words as they were once pronounced. A charm guaranteed to heal a split tree contains two sets of "names" which Grunwald has read, quite plausibly, as "patriæ pax corona evocatur Dei" and "ut arcus offensionum submotus est, ita cave emovere."58 Indeed, Güdemann has very ingeniously and convincingly reconstructed an entire paragraph in Latin out of a fifteenth-century German-Jewish manuscript. He surmises—and this is the only possible explanation—that this magical formula, composed by

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[paragraph continues] Christians, was transposed into Hebrew characters, probably by Italian Jews, and was then adopted by German Jews, who, not understanding the language, took it to be a collection of mystical names and so employed it. This manuscript is particularly rich in such transliterations. One of the incantations in it, incidentally, contains the names "Akos Pakos," the earliest literary occurrence of the terms which, with slight orthographic variations, have become the hallmark of pseudo-magic in a dozen European tongues—our Hocus Pocus. It is known in European literatures only since the beginning of the seventeenth century. The origin of the term is uncertain—it has been claimed as of both Jewish and Christian derivation—but whatever its origin there is no doubt that it has been preserved for us by German Jews.50

A love charm has it that if three names, which have been read as the Greek words ieros laos filos, are written with ink on one's left hand "when you see the one you desire he will love you."60 And, to cap the story, a "name of interpretation," employed by a preacher to gain special inspiration for his homily, is made up of terms which are probably Greek in origin, and among them may be recognized, of all things, the names of "Maria" and the "Parakletos," Jesus of Nazareth himself!61

Next: 8. The Bible In Magic