As good a storyteller as she is, Maggie Anton doesn’t begin new projects yearning to write.
Instead, Anton – the author of the “Rashi’s Daughters” trilogy – most loves the research that goes into each of her books.
What she found when she researched her new novel, “Rav Hisda’s Daughter,” literally was magic.
Rashi and his daughters lived in a fairly well-documented time and place, 11th century France, she said in a phone interview from her home in Los Angeles. Rav Hisda’s daughter – whose name appears to have been Hisdadukh, which means – wait for it – Rav Hisdah’s daughter – lived in third-century Babylonia. Although we have some understanding of that time from the Mishnah, until recently there have not been many physical objects to allow us to visualize it with any accuracy.
When there is no real information, imagination has much room to flourish.
“People have preconceived ideas about it,” Anton said. “It doesn’t matter even if you have a great Jewish or classical education; this isn’t on anybody’s curriculum. But we do have preconceived notions about this time and pace, this land of flying carpets and genies in bottles.
“We think of it as the land of magic – and in some ways it really was,” she said. The Three Magi in the Christmas story are magicians – the resemblance between the words is not accidental – who came from the east – from Babylonia, and astronomers who claimed to foretell the future flourished there.
For some time, the occasional bowl inscribed with incantations would turn up in the area that was ancient Babylonia – modern-day Iraq – but “at first scholars ignored them, as weird and exotic outliers,” Anton said. But during the war in Iraq in 1991, looters – “I prefer to think of them more as adventurers,” she said – “flooded into Iraq, where they could get into all these sites, and do whatever they wanted, with no adult supervision.
“They found these incantation bowls” – ancient pieces of pottery marked with writing, often in a spiral – “under just about every house. They were ubiquitous.”
When archaeologists and linguists began translating the writing, “they realized that each bowl was unique.” This is unlike amulets, which often were more formulaic and low-level – and because they generally were made of organic materials, they are more likely to have rotted away by now.
“The language was the same language as used in the Talmud,” meaning Aramaic, Anton said, and researchers realized that the writers “were educated, literate people.”
Scientists came to realize two more things about the bowls: The incantations on them were written mainly by Jews, and many of those Jews were women.
“There were about a million Jews in Babylonia, and they lived there for a thousand years,” Anton said. “Now it’s a desert; back then, between the Tigris and the Euphrates they dug canals, and planted all sorts of crops. The phrase ‘open sesame’ came from there – they grew sesame. And roses. They developed peaches and apricots.”
After a digression on the nature of Talmud study, which she adores, and which she said has opened up to people who cannot read it in the original only in the last 20 or so years, she talked about some of the many supernatural, phantasmagorical stories the Talmud includes.
Some of what we think of as magic is folk medicine, she said.
The Talmud is adamant that sorcery is evil, she continued – but that is foreign sorcery. Jewish sorcery is “not only absolutely permitted, but if it’s for healing, for protection, it is more than permitted, it is encouraged.
“The Talmud talks about how you need an amulet for healing, not just if you are sick but to prevent you from getting sick,” she said. “Then it covers everything from whether you are permitted to wear it on Shabbat to how you find an expert. It’s quite amazing – there is no question that they take it seriously.
“They talk about various diseases; they give you five ways of curing rabies, incantations and procedures for different kinds of illnesses, headaches, and getting rid of the demons that cause bad dreams.
“There were love spells. When they first found those bowls” – the ones with incantations for love – “they were all blackened and burnt. The archaeologists at first thought it was accidental, but the incantation would say, ‘Just as this bowl burns, so should the heart of so-and-so burn for the daughter of so-and-so; may she come to his bed at night.’
“One of my favorite incantations on an amulet was to win at chariot races. You do wonder if everyone at the stadium had an amulet.”
There is a great deal that researchers can learn about daily life from the incantations. A tablet found under an ancient synagogue urged the angels to ensure that congregations listen to one particular group and not a rival one. “Shul politics 2,000 years ago!” Anton said.
“This field of history is cutting-edge, Anton said. The Israel Museum had a big exhibit on ancient Jewish magic in February 2012. Meanwhile, Jewish magic, at least in a vestigial form, still is a part of Jewish life.
“The traveler’s blessing is an incantation from the Talmud,” Anton said. She has one. “This one is short” – the original Talmud wording has been expanded – “with the verse on one side and the hamsah,” – the familiar open-palmed bangle – “a blue eye, and three fish on it.
“The Talmud tells us that fish are immune to the evil eye, because they can’t see through water.
“You can go into any synagogue bookstore and you will find the traveler’s blessing, and a number of people wear amulets around their necks even if they don’t know it – a hamsah, or a mezuzah.
“Do people still believe in it? Well, as someone told me, ‘it can’t hurt.'”
Because the incantation bowls and the Talmud come from the same time and place, Anton ties them together in “Rav Hisda’s Daughter.” Did that tie really exist? “I don’t know,” Anton said, but it easily could.
Then there is the question of women. “I look at this through a feminist lens,” Anton said. “It is women who are doing these incantations.
“They’re not old hags in pointy black hats, witches like we know them from Disney. These are respected professionals, who you could go to for help.
“There was a way that women could interact with the unseen world, with angels and God, and help others interact, that we lost when the Christian world started demonizing witches in the medieval period.
“It was during the time of the Black Death, when Christians started pointing fingers at witches” – which is what they called learned women. “That was the time in the church when Christians were starting to venerate the Virgin Mary, and the church fathers were threatened, so they started demonizing women.
“But in the Jewish world, sorceresses are in league with the angels.
“According to the Talmud, it was in the sixth chapter of Genesis that the heavenly beings looked down and saw that the daughters of man were fair, and they married them. That’s how the great heroes were born.
“The Talmud says that when they came down, they taught their wives all those spells, and the wives taught their daughters, and that’s where incantation and healing and sorcery came into the world.
“Talk about empowering for women!”