Ethiopia: 20th century. Illuminated manuscript on heavy parchment (ca. 170 x 130 mm), altogether 8 strips of parchment, sewn together to form a manuscript folded into 38 panels, producing altogether 78 "pages" of talismanic images and magical texts, with 40 on one side and 38 on the other (two panels are adhered to the wooden boards). When completely unfurled the manuscript measures more than 4 meters in length (13 feet). An unusual backless binding, folded concertina style; the scribe then flipped the manuscript "head-over-heels" and commenced his/her artistry. Blind-tooled goatskin over heavy wooden boards at the front and back. Preserved in a red cloth protective case. Very good. Item #4089
EXTRAORDINARY ETHIOPIAN ILLUMINATED "MAGIC SCROLL" IN CODEX FORMAT, ADORNED WITH TALISMANS, PROTECTION "SPIRIT SNARES," AND MAGIC LETTERS AND CIPHERS, WRITTN ON BOTH SIDES OF THE PARCHMENT WHICH WHEN UNFURLED MEASURES MORE THAN 13 FEET IN LENGTH. UNUSUALLY, OUR MAGIC SCROLL HAS BEEN FOLDED CONCERTINA-STYLE FORMING A "BACKLESS BINDING" OF BLIND-TOOLED GOATSKIN OVER HEAVY WOODEN BOARDS.
The images in our manuscript include the ensnared face of Satan, protective eye motifs to ward off demons, archangels with drawn swords, etc. Some drawings include “letters in spectacles” i.e. letter-like forms with small circles at the end of each stroke. These are in fact not letters and have no phonetic value; they were probably inspired by Coptic and Arabic talismanic drawings (the certainly existed in Greek and Coptic magic texts and amulets as early as the 4th century). These "letters in spectacles" were never actually codified, and artists created variants on set themes.
The usual form of an Ethiopian written amulet is a scroll made of parchment of tanned hide. Sometimes these amulets may take the form of a book with wooden cover, as here. In Amharic these "books" are called Ketab. Long scrolls of ordinary size consist of two or three pieces of parchment sewn together with strips of hide. Our Ketab is composed of eight pieces of parchment; it was not made for the owner to roll up and wear, nor was it designed as a protective wall hanging. Our magic scroll is something else, possibly a MANUSCRIPT EXEMPLAR:
A number of the prayers in our magic scroll end in a BLANK where the scribe would ordinarily insert the name of the beneficiary: that fact that our magic scroll does not have them suggests that it may have served as an exemplar for the scribe (or other scribes?) in order to create other magic scrolls. Ethiopian magic scrolls serve as protective amulets, and the name of an owner must be mentioned in the text itself if an amulet is to be effective. It is therefore possible that what we have here is a type of model book or pattern book, as is suggested by its huge, unwieldy size which would prohibit the owner from actually wearing the amulet.
DIAGRAMMATIC "SNARES" FOR CATCHING DEMONS: Typically this diagram has four sides, but in our magic scroll they vary considerably. Sometimes there are lines "in saltire" connecting each corner; occasionally curving lines on each side further dividing the interior space. The texts within these spaces are oriented around the outer frame, usually containing a mixture of magic names, words, and repeated syllables or incantations. Sometimes the texts are brief prayers or invocations for protection, with a space for the name of the beneficiary to be inserted (but not accomplished in our MS). A more common form of these "demon traps" is the lattice or eight-pointed star.
TEXTS: Included herein are various prayers invoking different archangels (Mika’él, Gäbre’él, Rufa’él, Ragu’él, Fanu’él, Azra’él, Sewa’él, Ura’él, etc.) for protection from demons, devils and other malevolent forces, many incorporating magic names or names of power (or asmat, literally “names” in Ge’ez), often ending in -él and thus mimicking the Hebrew names of the archangels. Other texts in the manuscript are described as being for the “undoing of spells.” A further type of text in the manuscript are the so-called Sälams or hymns / prayers of salutation to various angels and archangels. Banishment spells often often invoke the Trinity or the “twice virgin, Mary Mother of God,” as well as so-called “homilies” (dǝrsan) of Michael, Gabriel and other archangels.
PROHIBITED BY THE ETHIOPIAN CHURCH: The very practice of writing "amulets with names" was officially prohibited by the Church at the Councils of Ephesus and Galata. Nonetheless, such "forbidden" written amulets were (and are) extremely popular in Ethiopia. "The main interest of this particular literary field lies in the fact that it, being no less bookish than all the Ethiopian literature, it reflects more often than other works the popular views and ideas [of Ethiopian peoples]" (Chernetsov, p. 93). It has been argued that these magic scrolls represent a synthesis of "Christian Magic" and indiginous non-Christian (pagan) views and attitudes, a kind of "double faith" in which the so-called common Ethiopians did not renounce their native heritage.
Our manuscript is completely digitized; each panel of the magic scroll is briefly identified and arranged below according to numbering system:
1-11: selected images;
12: blind-tooled goatskin over wooden board (one of two);
13: an angel holding the sun and the moon;
14: a spirit snare with magic text within and above, as well as the face of the sun;
15: the Lamb of God within a double ouroboros;
16: a rectilinear snare diagram;
17: an unusual drawing of the head and shoulders of a figure within a diamond frame and serpent heads;
18: a spirit snare of four quadrants filled with magical text;
19: the Lamb of God within two ouroboros serpents with magic letters and ciphers;
20: various magic letters and ciphers within a solid frame;
21: a group of seven angels;
22-26: prayers of salutation to angels and protective spirits;
27: the archangel Ragu'él;
28: Satan ensnared and six winged heads;
29: ensnared demons and protective eye motifs and the serpents in the second image;
30: Solomon (?); a combination of protective eye motifs;
31: nine angels and a protective eyes;
32: a composite of angel faces surrounding that of a demon; the panel on the right is affixed to the wooden board;
33: detail of blind-tooled goatskin that covers the wooden board;
34: a similar composition of angel faces surrounding that of a demon;
35: a composite design of crosses and an unusual serpent figure with wings;
36: two designs of faces and protective eyes, the second within a cruciform;
37: St. George and the dragon along with the maiden Bertawit, who in Ethiopian tradition is the victim of the dragon; cruciform design;
38: spirit snare with magical text for the four cardinal directions and an ouroboros design;
39: magical ciphers and two facing serpents (not an ouroboros);
40: Virgin and Child with Michael and Gabriel; the Lamb of God within an ouroboros;
40a: three-headed eagle and crucifixion scene;
41: spirit snare with magical text and an ouroboros design with magical letters and ciphers;
42: edges of the MS when folded into its concertina form;
43: the figure of Christ standing next to the cross with the spear and sponge of his crucifixion, opposing an ouroboros;
44: two ouroboros figures, both surrounding the Lamb of God;
45: an ouroborus facing the Trinity as three bearded old men, with the four zoa or symbols of the evangelists in each corner;
46: a lion beneath which the text refers to the prophet Daniel, opposing a spirit snare;
47: talismanic drawings;
48: a spirit snare diagram, and an angel with a drawn sword;
49: an ouroboros surrounding the Lamb of Got, opposing an angel;
50: two snares with magical text;
51: snare opposing entwined serpents surrounding texts;
52: two protecting angels with a drawn swords; the panel on the left is affixed to the wooden board;
53: backless concertina structure of the manuscript as shown from above.
PROVENANCE: Ethiopian antiques dealer Tekaligne Besepa (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia), sold in 2006 to --> Private Collector, Switzerland, sold in 2023 to --> Michael Laird Rare Books.
Selected bibliography: Jacques Mercier, Ethiopian Magic Scrolls (New York, Braziller, 1979). Musées de France, Le roi Salomon et les maîtres du regard. Art et médecine en Éthiopie (Paris, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1992). Jacques Mercier, Art that Heals. The Image as Medecine in Ethiopia (New York, Prestel Verlag for The Museum for African Art, 1997). Sevir Chernetsov, "Ethiopian Magic Literature" in: St. Petersburg Journal of African Studies (1994, no. 3), pp. 109-117. We are grateful to David Appleyard for his kind assistance in the cataloging of this manuscript.
For further information about Ethiopian Magic Scrolls, see Princeton's 450-page finding aid of their astounding collection of Ethiopian Manuscripts, including many Magic Scrolls, none of which are bound on the concertina / accordion format, as here.