When a typical nailed-shut 5th century curse scroll was uncovered by the University of Princeton in a 1930s excavation under the hippodrome in the city of Antioch (now in Turkey), the team of archaeologists didn’t realize what a unique find they had in hand.
It would take almost another 90 years to discover that the amulet, made of thin lead, is the only known example of a curse written by Jews against a chariot horse racing competitor.
In the curse, written in a Jewish dialect of Aramaic in Hebrew lettering, the gambler beseeches God and his panoply of angels to thwart the competing horse and cause him to “drown in the mud,” said Tel Aviv University doctoral student Rivka Elitzur-Leiman, who recently deciphered the miniature 8.8 x 2.1 cm lead tablet.
Horse racing at the time had the emotional involvement and popularity of soccer today, explains Elitzur-Leiman. The doctoral student was tapped to decipher this scroll because she is studying Jewish magical amulets — for protection or curse — from the 4th-7th centuries for her dissertation. She said it was another piece of a growing body of evidence for the long and rich tradition of magical use by Jews of the era.
Under the supervision of Prof. Gideon Bohak, Elitzur-Leiman worked to decipher the lead tablet from photos taken with Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), a technology which takes images in different lighting and from different angles. Perhaps due to the nail driven through the lead scroll — placed there by the sorcerer to strengthen its magic — Elitzur-Leiman discovered that not all the lines were still legible.
The part that was clear, however, included references to the biblical story of Balaam’s ass.
“The curse calls upon the angel who stands before Balaam’s ass to block the horses of the opposing team,” she said in a Tel Aviv University press release.
Curse amulets on horse racing were common during this time, but until now were only discovered written in Greek or Latin. There has been some attempt to tie one scroll to Jews, said Elitzur-Leiman, because it referenced Pharaoh’s chariots. However, she said, Christians of the era were also well versed in the Old Testament stories, so this could not be conclusive proof of a Jewish connection.
Due to this scroll’s Jewish Aramaic dialect, the Hebrew lettering and the very Jewish content — including the Hebrew name of God YHVH — she is convinced that this amulet was indeed written by Jews.
“When a person such as this scribe writes in Jewish Aramaic, a minority language, he was most likely from that minority,” she told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.
After so many decades, the scroll was unrolled almost by chance. Dr. Robert Daniel and Prof. Alexander Hollman, who are collaborating on a Cologne University project Magica Levantina charting Greek-language magical amulets of the Levant, became interested in the Princeton University scroll and asked to read it. Once it was unrolled, however, it became clear that it was not written in Greek.
Daniel and Hollman turned to Dr. Margaretha Folmer of Leiden University for help in deciphering it and Polmer in turn tapped Elitzur-Leiman in light of her body of work on magical Aramaic amulets.
The study of amulets puts a human face on the time period, she said.
As opposed to most inscriptions still extant today, which were written in honor of kings or the construction of a large building, the amulets, she said, are a chance to look at “very human” inscriptions from the past.
There are two main types of amulets — curses, which were written on lead plates, and protection spells, which were inscribed on gold or silver. They are a window into the era’s hopes, fears and threats, she said.
Interestingly, because of the gender balance in the inscribed names of the people being protected or cursed, she has concluded that both men and women sought their power equally. There is also, she said, a scroll which uses the title “Rav” or rabbi in front of the male protection-seeker’s name.
Additionally, because the spells cost money — one would need to pay a scribe or magician to inscribe them on sheets of gold, silver or lead — it also teaches us that their use potentially stretched to the more elite members of society. Taken together, this dispels the notion that the magic was used primarily by poor, uneducated women.
Spells were very diverse in terms of their goals, she said, but incantations on horse races were among the most popular in the general population of the time. And now, with this newly deciphered tablet, we see this unsporting behavior among Jews, too.
Rivka Elitzur-Leiman will lecture on the Antioch amulet as part of a series of TED talks at Tel Aviv University on Thursday.