Excerpts from Ritual Practices to Gain Power

Hekhalot adjurations and ritual practices of late antiquity

The Hekhalot adjurations do not stand in isolation; they participate rather in a larger phenomenon of incantation, adjuration, and use of amulets in late antiquity. Rituals similar in structure and purpose to the Hekhalot revelatory adjurations exist in Egyptian texts for ritual power in Greek, Demotic, and Coptic, and in the Jewish collection of adjurations, Sefer ha-Razim. The Hekhalot rituals of ascent to the Merkabah are also similar to ascents to heaven occurring in Gnostic literature and the Greco-Egyptian ritual texts. Hekhalot images of the world of the divine throne and the angels recur in Jewish Aramaic amulets from Palestine and Babylonia and in a Jewish visionary text known as the Visions of Ezekiel.

Revelatory adjurations form only one part of the ritual literature of late antiquity in Greek, Latin, Demotic, Coptic, Hebrew, or Aramaic. The Greco-Egyptian papyri, for example, contain many spells for healing from various diseases, gaining love, improving memory, overcoming one's enemies, ridding a house of insects, and consecrating amulets. Sefer ha-Razim similarly includes spells to influence nobles and powerful people to help the adjurer. In addition to the texts on papyrus, numerous amulets inscribed on metal strips, earthenware bowls, gemstones, or papyrus have come to light in archeological excavations. These texts include erotic spells, spells against one's enemies, incantations seeking victory in the chariot races or court, success in business, protection of children, and expulsion of demons. This literature is concerned both with the transcendent goals of contact with divine or semidivine beings, and the mundane problems of everyday life. The goals of these texts may vary widely, but their techniques are related, especially the use of mystical names consisting of divine and angelic names or strings of incomprehensible letters.

Showing seals (hotamot) to angels

The Hekhalot adjurations differ significantly from the Sefer ha-Razim and the Greco-Egyptian adjurations in the use of material objects, offerings of various kinds, and the killing of animals. Symbolic use of objects, offerings, and slaughter of animals are ubiquitous in the Greco-Egyptian adjurations; the written or spoken adjuration is only one part of the entire ritual. Materials used in the rituals include bowls or lamps for divination, amulets or seals, altars or tripods or tables, and statues of the gods. The only object that is mentioned frequently in the Hekhalot literature is the seal, mentioned both in connection with the adjuration of angels for wisdom and in connection with the ascent to the Merkabah. Meir Bar-Ilan interprets those passages that prescribe 'sealing oneself' for protection at the time that angels descend as a physical writing or engraving of names or symbols on the limbs of the body.

In the adjuration of the Angel of the Presence in Ma'aseh Merkabah, for example, R. Ishmael says: "Seven seals I sealed on myself when Padqaras the Angel of the Presence descended." He gives different names to protect the different parts of the body: "on my feet," "on my heart," "on my right arm," "on my left arm," "on my throat," "for guarding my soul," and "above them all, 'P PT YHW YW YW ZHW YHW TYTS above my head." Bar-Ilan says, "It is not clear how exactly they (the seals) were made, but it seems that different seals were engraved on the limbs of the praying mystic, and were an inseparable part of his methods for the attaining of the divine vision." In his discussion he points both to Jewish precedents for the writing of letters or symbols on the body as a sign that the person was a slave of God, and to the same phenomenon in the magical literature.

If you are interested in magic and ritual power in late antiquity in general, Gideon Bohak has put up an extensive on-line magic exhibit.It has text and pictures of various kinds of amulets and Aramaic incantation bowls.


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Last revised January 4, 2006