Whenever I travel somewhere, I try to do a bit of paranormal research to see what magical traditions are in the area. (It’s nice to have a quest). So before I took off for Ethiopia I ran a Google search for Ethiopia + Magic and found magic scrolls. The quest was on, and I didn’t think I’d actually succeed in finding any. But a friend took me to this funky antique shop in Addis Ababa called the Zebra Gallery, where I was escorted behind a hidden panel to a secret room glittering with icons and silver crosses, and the owner dug out a plastic grocery bag full of scrolls.
Most magic scrolls in existence today are from the 18th and 19th centuries. The vellum gets cracked, falls apart, and no more scroll. Two centuries is all we’ve got.
Generally designed for protection or healing, Ethiopian magic scrolls contain a mix of text and images, prayers and incantations. Images are a mix of Judaic, Islamic, and Christian art and animism. Incantations are typically in red ink, and the writing is in Ge’ez, the language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, though the scrolls themselves are “outside” the church.
Generally, scrolls are/were commissioned, and personalized. The scroll is made from the dried skin of a sacrificed animal, sewn to match the height of it’s buyer, and prayers, incantations and images are copied onto the scroll (The Magic Protective Scrolls of Ethiopia). The scroll is then stored in a case and worn, so it is necessarily narrow. But there are scrolls for display in the household as well, and these may be wider and longer.
Scholars have divided the images into two categories: pictures and talismans. What’s the difference? Pictures are figurative and meant to represent something real, such as St. George slaying the dragon (a common theme). Talismans are more abstract, representing something hidden, for example a spirit or a demon.
The “devil’s seat” is an example of a common talisman in Ethiopian magic scrolls. The purpose is to trap or drive off a demon.There are different theories as to how it works. The image of the demon may frighten the demon off – the sight of its own visage too frightening to contemplate. And/or, the grid, called a telsem, may act as a trap, locking the demon in. If the owner of the scroll looks at the grill, any dark spirit that might have taken up residence inside him or her, will leave the host and move over to the throne – a more “regal” place for the demon. The spell in red ink above and below the image “traps” the spirit on the throne (Chernetsov, 193). My friend, Elizabeth Barton, pointed out that the demon appears to be surrounded by “Kaphs” from the Hebrew alphabet. We’re speculating here, but since Kaph can mean to tame or subdue, this makes sense for a demon trap.
About the Author:
Kirsten Weiss works part-time as a writer and part-time as an international development consultant. She writes the Riga Hayworth paranormal mystery novels. Her fifth book in the series, The Elemental Detective, will be published in December, 2013. Her last magical research quest was to Iceland, and her friends have recently begun launching quests on her behalf, such as a photo expedition for Parisian gargoyles.