Judaica DH at the Penn Libraries Blog //DataDeepDive: Charakteres
Blog //DataDeepDive: Charakteres

In this series, we take a deep dive into the Talk boards tags to look at how volunteers classify the fragments. You can read an overview of our Talk boards tags in the Sorting Phase Data review.

Charakteres is a term used for ancient ritual signs. These magical signs appear in all languages, with inscribed artifacts (amulets), ritual instruction manuals, and literary sources. Researchers find them across the ancient Mediterranean world — The Charakteres Project, led by Kirsten Dzwiza at the University of Heidelberg, focused on Greek, Demotic, Latin and Coptic sources dated between the 1st and the 12th centuries CE.

Finding fragments with charakteres in the Cairo Geniza tells us how widespread magical practice was among Jewish communities, and how these signs crossed geographical and linguistic boundaries to be a part of different cultures. Many researchers have taken interest into the charakteres of the Geniza, paying particular attention to how these signs were used and for what purpose/function on these fragments.

In the sorting phase, 71 subjects were tagged as having #charakteres. You can see all the subjects by volunteered with charakteres here — we have highlighted a few of interest below.

Subject 21714563 is one of Geniza amulets included in Amulets and Magic Bowls: Aramaic Incantations of Late Antiquity by Joseph Naveh and Shaul Shaked. Made of cloth, this amulet reads below the charakteres:

“You holy characters and all praiseworthy letters, kindle and burn the heart of trskyn son of Amat-Allāh (in longing) after gdb daughter of Tuffāha Amen.”¹ Subject 21714563: MS-TS-AS-00142–00174, Genizah Research Unit, Cambridge University Library

We’ve previously featured this subject on the blog before, but it’s too cool not to share again as part of this series! As volunteer @noamsienna noted, these charakteres are surrounded by a serpent (ouroboros), while the opposite side includes instructions for making amulets for different purposes. Subject 11619493: ENA 3682, Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary

According to notes from the University of Cambridge University Digital Library, this is an amulet for Hannah bat Rebecca. Most magical fragments in the Cairo Geniza do not name specific individuals, but those that do typically end consist of the name of the individual (in this case, Hannah) followed by the name of the mother (in this case, Rebecca). ² MS-MOSSERI-VI-00009–00002, Genizah Research Unit, Cambridge University Library

A magical recipe! Gideon Bohak, head of the Friedberg Genizah Project Magic team and professor at the University of Tel Aviv, identified this fragment. In his book Ancient Jewish Magic, he cites it as an example of the creative use of verse Exodus 11.8, in which Moses warns Pharoah that God is about to kill all the first-born of Egypt: ‘“Come out you and all the people at your feet, and then I shall come out.” In reinterpretations of the phrase (like this recipe), the verse is used in connotation with aiding a woman having trouble with childbirth. ³ Subject 12505242: ENA 2699, Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary

Subject 12507562 is one of a collection of subjects (ENA 3084) containing magical recipes. Moshe Lavee, one of our content specialists relayed to us from Gideon Bohak that this is written in a post-Classical Genizah period (after 10th-13th centuries CE), and may be a copy of S efer Raziel HaMalakh (a magic textbook of Practical Kabbalah.) Subject 12507562: ENA 3084, Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary

👉 Read more Talk conversations or start your own by participating in Scribes of the Cairo Geniza on Zooniverse!


[1] Joseph Naveh and Shaul Shaked, Amulets and Magic Bowls: Aramaic Incantations of Late Antiquity (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1998), 216–217.

[2] Read more about this practice in Gideon Bohak and Ortal-Paz Saar, “Genizah Magical Texts Prepared for or against Named Individuals,” Revue Des Études Juives 174, no. 1–2 (2015): , doi:10.2143/REJ.174.1.3082879.

[3] Gideon Bohak, Ancient Jewish Magic: A History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 311n33.

By Judaica DH at the Penn Libraries on .

Canonical link

Exported from Medium on April 14, 2020.

Cite this post: admin. “DataDeepDive: Charakteres”. Published April 30, 2019. https://judaicadh.github.io//blog/2019-04-30-datadeepdive/. Accessed on .