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In Sickness and in Health: Roman and Late Antique Amulets from Syria-Palestine

Megan Nutzman

            Inscribed amulets from Syria-Palestine have been examined from many different angles, but they lack a comprehensive study.  Two hundred and five published amulets from Syria-Palestine have been dated to the Roman and late antique periods, including both those with clear archaeological context and those with only reported provenance.  Most common among these amulets are inscribed gemstones (128), followed by amuletic jewelry (45), and metal lamellae (32).  Rolled lamellae constitute the smallest total number of amulets, yet they have been privileged in the scholarship, and little has been done to compare them to magical gems or to jewelry worn as amulets.  Major studies of the lamellae have also been characterized by a narrow linguistic scope, focusing on either Greek or Aramaic examples (e.g. Kotansky 1994; Naveh and Shaked 1985, 1993).  However, differences in language, content, and medium aside, there is no question that all these amulets shared a common purpose – to ward off diseases and demonic attacks – and that they need to be studied as part of a single matrix.

            My project eschews the traditional categories of language and medium as the best way to contextualize amulets; instead, the scope of the study is defined geographically.  I have catalogued all Roman and late antique amulets from Syria-Palestine in order to investigate the range of options available to one living in the region.  In this paper, I examine in detail one characteristic that the catalogue highlights: the use of quotations from the Hebrew Bible.  Excerpts from the Hebrew Bible appear on all types of amulets from the region, transcending boundaries of language and medium and suggesting avenues of analysis that have previously been overlooked.

            Roughly one-quarter of all Roman and late antique amulets from Syria-Palestine contain quotations from the Hebrew Bible, including excerpts from a total of twenty-six different verses.  This paper begins with an examination of the quotations, comparing them to other attributes of the amulets including gender, medium, types of protection, and language.  I argue that there is a marked affinity for certain verses according to the language in which the amulet was written.  Whereas most quotations from the books of Exodus and Numbers appear on Samaritan amulets, quotations in Aramaic and Hebrew are largely from the Psalms or prophetic books.  Furthermore, Deuteronomy 6:4 is nearly twice as popular on Greek amulets as on others from the region.  A more general principal is also in play: biblical quotations are ubiquitous on Samaritan amulets and they comprise the whole inscription in nearly every case.  In contrast, Greek and Aramaic amulets use biblical quotations less frequently; when passages from the Hebrew Bible do appear, the quotations represent only a portion of the amulet’s entire text.  I suggest that the nearly exclusive reliance on biblical texts in the Samaritan amulets reflects a deliberate rejection of the techniques and divine names popular in Greco-Egyptian magical texts.  The Greek and Aramaic amulets, on the other hand, do not maintain the same standard and frequently contain divine names and voces magicae that are absent from Samaritan examples.  Similarly, the use of symbols and iconography on Greek and Aramaic amulets reflects users who were willing to appropriate diverse expressions of power to bring about their desired outcome.  By articulating how quotations from the Hebrew Bible functioned across the corpus of amulets from Syria-Palestine, I offer new insight into the variety of amulets available in the Roman and late antique period.

Session/Panel Title

Ancient Amulets: Language and Artifact

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