Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Solomon the Sorcerer

(Solomon [with a horned Jewish aide] binds demons to his service. From Jacobus de Teramo's Das Buch Belial, 1473)

The literate Greco-Roman would have been familiar with the legend of the wizard-king Pharaoh Nectanebus. A combination of Merlin and Uther Pendragon, the legend ran that Nectanebus used his skills to seduce Olympia, the wife of Phillip of Macedonian and so, secretly, Nectanebus fathered the quasi-enchanted Alexander the Great.

Royal wizardry of a somewhat less lecherous focus was also ascribed to Solomon, the son of David, by the peoples of the Mediterranean basin. As was a common motif for other kings of the Ancient Near East, the Hebrew Scriptures styles Solomon as a patron of all forms of wisdom (I Kings 5:11). The post-Biblical work The Wisdom of Solomon elaborates on this theme:

May God grant that I [Solomon] speak with judgment and have thought worthy of what I have received, for he is the guide even of wisdom and the corrector of the wise….For it is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists, to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements; the beginning and end and middle of times, the alternations of the solstices and the changes of the seasons, the cycles of the year and the constellations of the stars, the natures of animals and the tempers of wild beasts, the powers of daemons and the reasonings of men, the varieties of plants and the virtues of roots; learned both what is secret and what is manifest…(7:15-21)

By default, 'knowledge of what exists' would have included the science of magic, a standard branch of learning in the ancient world. Later writers would particularly pick out the themes of Solomon's mastery of zoology and demonology (See: Jewish Demonology: Demon Origins). In Jewish sources, Solomon could talk with and command animals (Midrash Tanhuma B, Mavo; Ruth Rabbah 1:17; Eccl. Rabbah 2:25). In both Jewish and Gentile writings, Solomon could bend djinns to his will (Talmud, Gittin 68a-b; Antiquities 8:45; Testament of Solomon). He also manufactured magical devices. His ring was the key to his authority over beasts and spirits (See: Jewish Magical Rings of Power).

These traditions were bequethed to the medieval world. Thus in Nachmanide's introduction to his commentary on the Torah he notes:

[Solomon] was better versed in divination and enchanting then they [the fabled "children of the East," I Kings 5:10]..and Solomon [also] was better versed in sorcery, which is the wisdom of Egypt."

In time, Solomon's standing as the scholarly magician par excellence came to eclipse the similar tradition regarding Moses (see my prior blog entry). There arose a proliferation of magical and alchemical texts presented as being in the Solomonic magical tradition: The Key of Solomon, The Letter of Rehoboam, and Sefer ha-Razim, in addition to the aforementioned Testament of Solomon; a veritable library of esoteric powers credited to the Israelite king.

Zal G'mor: To learn more, consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism - http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Moses the Magician

It was already an established trope of religious polemics in antiquity: My religious wonders are miracles, your religion has mere magic (Antiquities 2:284). The licit Roman civic cults said as much of the wondrous feats of the mystery sects.

[Moses begins his training]

The Church fathers accused Jews of being wizards (Dialogue with Trypho 85:3; Sermons of Chysostomus; Coun. of Laodicaea, Canons 35-37), and rabbinic literature sporadically argued Jesus was really a magician whose feats derived from his time in Egypt (Matthew 2:13-19), the wellspring of witchcraft (Talmud Sanhedrin 104b; Kiddushin 49b; Toldot Yeshu).

While the distinction seems clear to those embrace a particular faith, defining what is a miracle vs. what is sorcery is more problematic than believers might think. Mesopotamian theurgists performed their rituals by the authority of the gods Enki (patron of magicians) and Asalluhi (patron of exorcists). Greeks believed magic powers were the gift of Asclepius or Apollo. Egyptian court sorcerers also derived their power from their gods. So how is that different from what Moses did with the power granted him by his patron, the God of Israel (Ex. 7:1-6)? The paradigmatic battle between Moses and the wizards of Egypt (7:8-8:15) ends with the wizards admitting that Moses' wonders were unparalleled, but a reader in the ancient world would just as reasonably understood this story as a contest between theurgists and their patron deities, where one magician and his god proved more powerful, but the powers themselves were of a kind. The distinction between Moses and the courtier sorcerers was one of scale, not of a different order.

Because the distinctions are really quite subtle, there arose in antiquity an interpretation of Moses as a scholar/magician in the classical mould of Pythagoras, Pancrates of Memphis, and Empedocles. The fact that Moses came from Egypt was suggestive, just as it was for Jesus. All the peoples of antiquity saw Egypt as the locus of occult and esoteric knowledge. Even the NT books of Acts refers to Moses as wholly steeped in the 'words and deeds' of Egyptian wisdom (7:22). 'Deeds' would mean magical feats to many Greek listeners. The Roman historian Pliny describes Moses as the founder of a 'sect of magic' (i.e., Judaism). This idea of Moses the theurgist appears in individual incantations (PGM 5:109) of Late Antiquity and gets enshrined in both Hebrew (Charba de-Moshe) and pagan (The Eighth Book of Moses) magical manuals. A dominant motif concerning Moses in these books is his power to command angels (See: Angel Adjurations:Drawing Down Divine Power , Moses: Torah Warrior, Master of Angels), a power that others can learn and use.

Zal G'mor: To learn more, consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism - http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050