Angelic Songs of Death

One of the issues Jewish mystics obsessed about during the Late Antiquity was the Merkabah, or God’s throne-room. Based on the vivid description in the first chapter of Isaiah. The first chapters of Revelations fit pretty well into the genre – a rightous person, through prayers, mystic knowledge or magic, manages to traverse the heavens and reach the seat of God, where he hears words of prophecy or is given a chance to engage in angel politics.

The Merkabah literature itself mostly consists of endless lists of angels, of locations within the seven skies, and the passwords needed to pass each of the celestial guards until one reaches the Merkabah. Once in a while, the lists give way to short narratives. This one, from the Hechaloth Rabbati (“The Great Chambers”), I found especially interesting. In it, Rabbi Ishmael, who ascends to the Merkabah, hears about the exploits of the previous Merkabah-visitor, Rabbi Akiva.

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A Short Talmudic Grimoire

The Talmud is the large corpus of Jewish law, compiled in the first centuries C.E. in Jerusalem and Babylon. The word Law should be used here in a very loose sense; the text is essentially protocols, ordered by vague association into smaller books called Tractates. The Talmud list endless disputes disputes on such inane subjects as the amount of white hairs that can appear on the body of a red heifer before it can no longer be called a red heifer; or the exact size of a woman’s breasts before she can be considered an adult.

In short, the Talmud contains every bit of knowledge its many authors thought might be of some use; and in a world populated with demons and other such malevolent creatures, you simply have to know some ways of warding them off. So, for the benefit of our readers who might otherwise be irreversibly damaged by disease and ill fortune, I present to you a short list of useful chants and incantations found in the Babylonian Talmud.

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The Two-Headed Gentleman from the World Beneath the Earth

With the possible exception of weird alien civilizations, cultures don’t exist in vacuum. People, communicative and receptive creatures as they are, tend to absorb ideas, symbols and images from other cultures. This phenomenon is known as syncretism. Early Christianity, for example, forbade the worship of Pagan gods, but it didn’t destroy them: it instead renamed them as saints and demons. Judaism too absorbed its fair share of many of the gods, monsters and heroes of Near Eastern and Hellenic cultures. Fortunately, Jewish cosmology found a neat dumping ground for such creatures: the World of Tevel.

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The Jeweler-Demon and the Angel Hanging Upside-Down

Much like early Christians, Jewish writers were often obsessed with the idea of angels: primordial creations of God, perfect beings whose only purpose was to help Him create Man, the woefully imperfect crown of creation.

According to a very popular Midrash (=an exegetic text based on a verse from the Bible), the angels weren’t as willing to help as you might have thought. Some artful persuasion was required.

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What Lies Beyond the Golem, and Why You Should Be Interested

The Golem is probably the most famous Jewish monster out there. He got his first film role in the 1920s, and has had guest appearances in almost any long-running series with a “Monster of the Week”  plot-structure. Whenever an author creates yet another bland kitchen-sink fantasy world, the Golem is there, representing thousands of years of Jewish superstition.  If the number of appearances in the Dungeons&Dragons Monster Manual is any indication of a monster’s success and infamy, the Golem really did fulfil the age-old Jewish dream of making it big in the USA.

This blog is not about the Golem. It’s about the underdogs. Over millennia, Jewish writers created a vast, imaginary world filled with demons, fabulous beasts and demi-human monstrosities, a world where vast deserts cover the open gates of Hell, and where singular individuals can traverse planes of existence and wield awesome powers. Compared to all this, the Golem is just a clumsy block of clay.

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