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Israeli archaeologists celebrate gift of Talmudic era ‘magic’ amulet

Forty years ago, a resident of the Israeli town of Arbel, made an incredible find.

By the ruins of ancient Arbel’s Ancient synagogue, he uncovered an amulet with Greek writing – including the four Greek letters which parallel the Hebrew letters of the Tetragrammaton, the ineffable name of God.

Now, his family has handed the artifact over to the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) where archaeologists believe it provides new insights into ancient Jewish life in Israel.

Dating to around the fifth century AD, a period when the land was under the control of the Eastern Roman Empire — who are today known as “the Byzantines.” In the Galilee, the codification of the Jerusalem Talmud was being finished by local Jewish sages.

One side of the amulet depicts a galloping rider encircled by a halo and thrusting a spear toward a fallen female figure. Above the rider are the words: “The one God who conquers evil.” Beneath the horse’s legs is the Greek version of the Tetragrammaton. On the back is an eye pierced by an arrow and threatened by wild beasts.

The archaeologists think that its original owner believed that the trinket would ward off demons and the evil eye.

“The amulet is part of a group of fifth – sixth-century CE amulets from the Levant that were probably produced in the Galilee and Lebanon,” said Eitan Klein, who has researched the amulet. “This group of amulets is sometimes called ‘Solomon’s seal’ and the rider is depicted overcoming the evil spirit — in this case, a female identified with the mythological figure Gello/Gyllou, who threatens women and children and is associated with the evil eye.”

According to Klein, similarly styled amulets were common among other religious communities in the region, but the discovery near the ancient synagogue of Arbel shows that they may have filtered into Jewish community as well.

“Although scholars generally identify the wearers of such amulets as Christians or Gnostics, the fact that the amulet was found within a Jewish settlement containing a synagogue in the fifth – sixth centuries CE may indicate that even Jews of the period wore amulets of this type for protection against the evil eye and demons,” he said.

While the particular style had never before been found among Jewish remains, Jews of the era were no stranger to superstition, and had an arsenal of magic amulets and incantations of their own, according to Jessica Rosenberg, who researched the history of Jewish magic at Harvard Divinity School.

“Amulets are found scattered around the Talmud and ancient Israel,” Rosenberg told the Forward. “Essentially it is an object that one wears upon themselves to dispel evil in some way or heal you in some way.”

Such so-called magic amulets existed across the Middle East; uniquely Jewish ones would often be inscribed with the divine name, biblical quotes and even the names of angels.

“These amulets are just things people would wear for practical issues,” Rosenberg said. “If you are sick you would wear one to heal you, if you are going on a journey you would wear one to protect you. Children and pregnant women would wear them.”

Ultimately, Klein thanked the family for turning the object over to the IAA and urged others who have come into possession of such artifacts to do the same.

“I wish to thank the amulet’s donor for demonstrating good citizenship and I appeal to anyone who has previously found ancient artifacts to hand them over to the National Treasures Center,” he said. “Objects of this kind tell the story of Israel’s history and heritage and they belong to all Israel’s citizens, both legally and in terms of their cultural value.”


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