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The Unwritten Chapter: Notes towards a Social and Religious History of Geniza Magic

Officina magica  essays on the practice of magic in antiquityThe Unwritten Chapter: Notes towards a Social and Religious History of Geniza Magic

By Steven Wasserstrom

Officina magica : essays on the practice of magic in antiquity, edited by Shaul Shaked (Brill, 2005)

Introduction: The present essay will not attempt to define the category “magic.” More useful for present purposes is the definition of a cultural and religious history of Geniza magic. Since it has been done elsewhere, this essay also will not review the literature on Geniza magic as such. Instead, and with reference to magic in the Geniza documents, I will raise the question: how might the historian of religions write a social and religious history of Jewish magic in the medieval Islamicate world? Thanks to the labors of Peter Schäfer, Shaul Shaked and Moshe Idel, among others, one can now proclaim that that quintessential magical act of academic transformation — the paradigm-shift — has taken place. The very notion of a religious history of Jewish magic, after all, presupposes this new view of magic as a religious system, a view that supplants older models of magic as religion’s other.

Even Gershom Scholem, for all his sophistication in these matters, could revert to such distinctions late in life. Scholem’s attitude toward the distinction between magic and religion, presented in an interview conducted in the late 1960s, may be taken as a case in point:

We know that there is magic in West Africa today, and that it works. There is a closed society there . . . [O]f course we cannot perform magic, but in West Africa they can because it is an ethnically and culturally homogeneous community… But even mysticism, the individual mystic vision, becomes coarsened, turns into magic and wild crudity…The true mystics were men of exceptional gifts. Others that came after turned it all into crude folk-magic.

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