Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Demon Lovers, Sword of Power: The Other Children of Adam

An oft-repeated Jewish esoteric tale of the first man, Adam, is that he separated from Eve after the death of Abel and the exile of Cain [trial separations are not a modern invention - happened to Abraham and Sarah also - see Gen. 22-23]. It was during this time that succubi came to him, seduced him in his sleep, and through him fathered demon and changeling children.

[Illustration for the article, "Jinn: Born of Fire," in the Economist - my favorite news magazine. www.economist.com/images/20061223/D5106XMJI1.jpg]

Here is one spiffy account (there are many versions of this folk tradition) from Midrash Akbir that reads like an infernal version on the list of generations found in Gen. chapter 5 and then goes on to tell of the rise and fall of Adam's demon children:
When the First Man saw that death had come upon him by the hand of Cain...he separated from the Woman and slept alone, so that a lilit that was named Piznai found him and aroused his lust with her beauty....and she bore him djinns[1] and lilin [2]. She bore him 92 thousand multitudes of djinns and lilin, and the first born [changling or demonoid child] of the First Man was named Agrimas. So Agrimas went and took the lilit Amarit [3]; she bore to him 92 thousand multitudes of djinns and lilins, and the first born of Agrimas was named Avalmas. He went and took the lilit Gofrit, and she bore for him 88 thousand multitudes of djinns and lilin. The first born of Avalmas, his name was Akrimas. He went and took Afizana daughter of Piznai (an older woman?)and...[eventually] The Holy Blessed One gave over the Wicked Ones to Methuselah the righteous, who wrote the explicit name of God upon his sword and slew 900,000 in a single moment, until Agrimas, the first born of the First Man, came to him. So he stood before Methuselah and he appealed to him to receive him [4]. And he (Agrimas) wrote and gave to him the names of the djinns and lilin [5] and [in turn] they (the sheidim) gave them (humans) iron to restrain [spirits] and they gave their letters in protection [6], so the remnant (the surviving spirits) concealed themselves in the remotest mountains and in the depths of the ocean (Margoliot, Malachei Elyon 204, translation is mine).

Sounds like the inspiration for the backstory for the plot of Hellboy II, doesn't it? Wondrous swords have appeared in Jewish tales from the moment the Cherubs got their first one in Chapter 3 of Genesis. As to why the antediluvian Methuselah might spare a clan of demons, I would suggest the following. First, there seems to be the implication that at least some of these creatures were quasi-human (and kin, to boot). And the second may be that the author thinks of sheidim more in the vein of the djinn than as demons; mischievous elemental spirits more than malignant embodiments of radical evil. Many Jewish sources about sheidim describe them in a way that is analogous to Arabic accounts of the djinn: Sheidim acknowledge God's authority, they study Torah, and even observe Jewish law. They often bring misfortune, but those wise in their ways can also get them to serve good ends.

Zal g'mor - to own the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism, go to: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

[1] I translate the Hebrew word sheid as "djinn," rather than the more conventional "demon." See the concluding discussion above. Also take a look at the useful article, "Genie", on Wikipedia.

[2] Here lilit and lilin [plural] has the connotation of a succubus, a female spirit that sexually molests men in their sleep (female djinns, known as jinniyah, are also notorious for being sexual interlopers). In other sources, the same term lilit refers to malicious spirits of both sexes who cause illness and misfortune.

[3] I am struck by the fact that the names of the female evil spirits for these two generations all end in the -rit structure. This makes me immediately think of those djinns known in Arabic as the If-rit. Why the males' names all end in -mas has no obvious association or meaning for me.

[4] I assume his appeal was based on either his status as a son of Adam, and/or on some notion of kinship to Methuselah. It has the feel of a Middle-Eastern claim to clan loyalty, otherwise I don't see Methuselah's motivation to spare him and the rest of his spirit family. In any case, what follows are the terms of capitulation to humanity that allows Adam's impish offspring to get away with their lives.

[5] The names are important because knowing the names of spirits gives one authority over them. With the list, people can now control the spirits and curb their harmful activities [SEE The Testament of Solomon]

[6] Iron has anti-demonic properties, so I think this is meant to provide an explanation for how mankind first acquired the the knowledge of iron smelting (presumably Methuselah's sword was bronze). In I Enoch it is claimed that fallen angels taught humanity everything from sorcery to iron fabrication to perfumery. Letters and words also have constructive power, so revealing either their alphabet or - more likely - their magical/angelic symbols [which became a staple of medieval amulets], now gives humanity an added countermeasure against the djinni and succubi.
Related entries:

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Sound of Sheer Silence: Silent Meditation in Judaism

[Abel, by Ephraim Moses Lilien]

Elie Wiesel once alluded to the discipline of silence in Jewish tradition during an interview. The interviewer was surprised, noting that Jews love words so much, and asking why so few people have ever heard of Jewish silent practices. Wiesel simply replied, "Well, we don't like to talk about it."

Since words are God’s first creation ("Let there be light" even precedes light itself) and it is from words that diversity (known as the Olam ha-Dibur, literally "the universe of speech") unfolds (Sh'nei Luachot ha-Brit), it follows that silence, which preceded the divine speech, is more primal, more akin in nature to the higher reality of divine oneness.[1]

Given that we know that sacrifices performed by the pagan peoples that surrounded Israel were accompanied with incantations and prayers, the absence of any verbal formulae for the sacrifices (Psalms were sung in the outer precincts) of the Beit ha-Mikdash (the Temple in Jerusalem) suggests that the priests made their offerings to God in silence [2].

The Psalms teach "Silence is praise to You" (62:2). Talmud repeatedly elevates the spiritual discipline of maintaining quiet: "Words are worth a perutah, silence is worth two" (Tractate Megillah) and "What should a man's pursuit be in this world? He should be silent" (Chullin 89a). So too the mystical tradition: "Silence is the means of building the sanctuary above [the godhead] and the sanctuary below [the soul]" (Zohar 2a). "It is often more effective to fast with words than with food. As fast of words, a struggle with silence, can teach us how often we misuse words" (Vilna Gaon). The great Maggid, the disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, even declared “It is best to serve God by silence.” All praise silence as an appropriate way to worship God. Thus, silence as a Jewish spiritual practice appears both as a distinctive meditation technique and as a daily discipline of reticence.

I explored the Jewish meaning of silence in detail in an article, "Building the Sanctuary of the Heart," that now appears in the book The Inner Journey: A Jewish View, published in 2007 by the Parabola Anthology Series and edited by Jack Bemporad.

Zal g'mor - to own the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism, go to: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

1. Tishby, the Wisdom of the Zohar, vol. 2, pp. 271-272.
2. Letter of Aristeas, 95.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism Honored

Just got this notice from the National Jewish Book Council concerning the EJMMM:

Congratulations! On behalf of the Board of Directors of the Jewish Book Council, I am happy to inform you that, out of our many submissions, your book:

The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism
Rabbi Geoffrey W. Dennis

has been selected as a runner-up in the


Zal g'mor - to own the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism, go to: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

Saturday, January 05, 2008

The Secret Language of Jewish Spells II: The Music of God

[Making magic with sounds:
Close Encounters]

Some weeks ago I outlined how abbreviations function in Jewish amulets. More recently I've been asked about the seemingly endless permutations of the four-letter name of of God (Tetragrammaton in Greek, Shem ha-Meforash, Shem ha-Yah, Shem ha-Miuchud in Hebrew) that appear in all forms of Hebrew spells, talimans, and rituals of power.

The name, four letters, yud-hay-vav-hay (without vowels), which appears frequently throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, was already considered a topic of occult concern by the time of the Talmud, which states the proper pronunciation should only be transmitted orally, between master and disciple (B.T. Kiddushin 71b). That it has constructive power has been construed from the wording of Ps. 33.6, which literally reads, "By the word 'YHVH' were the heavens made." So the Name is a potent thing.

What really inspired the use of permutations of the Name was probably, as Naomi Janowitz notes, a merging of this ideology of the Name of power with a Greek belief in the divine meaning of vowels! As the Greek philosopher Nicomachus wrote, "And the tones [vowel sounds] of the seven spheres, each of which by nature produces a particular sound [seven vowel sounds in Greek, corresponding the the seven heavens] are the source of the nomenclature of the vowels. These are described as unpronounceable in themselves and in all their combinations by wise men...However, when they are combined with the materiality of the consonants...they have potencies which are efficacious and perfective of divine things. Thus theurgists...make invocation symbolically with hissing, clucking, and discordant sounds" [1]

The Church father Eusebius also recorded a teaching that the Four Letter Name was actually the seven vowels reduced to four (Preparation for the Gospels 11.6). Once there was circulating this ideology that the Four-Letter Name was really compounded of all vowels (yud is a dipthong - 'y', 'i', 'ee'; vav can serve double duty as an holam - 'oh,' 'oo'; and hay, which can also do double duty in Hebrew as a marker for 'ah'), then all these ideas (the power of the Name, the divinity of vowel sounds, the Name as divine expression of the cosmic vowels) came together so that the theurgic and ritual power possibilities of the Tetragrammaton began to be fully exploited. In Hebrew rituals of power, combining the divine letters with cycles of vowel sounds harmonizes the material and celestial spheres and activates divine forces to respond to the earthly adept. A dangerous venture, but one that promises access to power and wisdom.

Think of this in light of the tonal series used to communicate with the aliens in Close Encounters. Spielberg was taping into this very ancient belief in universal sounds and musicality, a process that (like magic) invites disintegration (how distressing was it from those who initially experienced it?) but, when done with the right intention, ends in harmony, initiation, and enlightenment!

Zal g'mor - to learn more, read the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

1. As quoted in Janowitz, Icons of Power