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The Danse Macabre

There is probably nothing more fascinating or scary than the Dance Macabre which, in a time where death was all around. Wikipedia define it as  consisting of the dead or a personification of death summoning representatives from all walks of life to dance along to the grave, typically with a pope, emperor, king, child, and laborer. It was produced as memento mori, to remind people of the fragility of their lives and how vain were the glories of earthly life. Its origins are postulated from illustrated sermon texts; the earliest recorded visual scheme was a now-lost mural at Holy Innocents' Cemetery in Paris dating from 1424 to 1425. 

In this Atlas Obscura podcast, Caitlin Doughty, from “Ask a Mortician,” gives us a dance lesson in the two-step we were all born to do.

 


Psychics and the Pandemic

Excerpted from the New York Times, this article describes how psychics are moving to more online readings and the rising popularity of consulting psychics during this stressful time.

PsychicWhat, if Anything, Can Psychics Tell Us About All of This?

Demand for their services has illuminated another kind of health crisis.

A few weeks before the U.S. presidential election, Zulema Hormaeche, a tarot reader in Los Angeles, chose a card to reflect the state of the nation. It was the one that depicts a tall building struck by lightning, with flames bursting from the top and occupants leaping to their deaths. “The Tower,” she said, “is the end of a system as we know it, the end of an era as we know it.”

Ms. Hormaeche has an intimate understanding of the ways this year upended people’s lives and sapped their optimism. She has peered into a huge number of homes during virtual consultations. Her clients tell her they are eating and drinking more, and that they feel desperately lonely. And sometimes they mention even more troubling details. One client, she said, described a dream in which she harmed her children.“All of us are feeling the fear of everybody,” Ms. Hormaeche said, and that fear, coupled with uncertainty about when it might abate, has caused demand for spiritual guidance to soar. According to data from Yelp, interest in businesses in the somewhat niche “Supernatural Readings” category more than doubled in April. Keen, an online marketplace for psychics, has reported a steep rise in customers.

These consultations function almost as armchair counseling sessions: clients can open up and have their thoughts reflected back at them through a nonscientific — even mystical — lens. And while there is good reason to doubt the material of psychic readings (the mystical realm being inherently unknowable, or at least, endlessly interpretable), these consultations provide comfort for some.

 

The Power of Circles

CirclesCircles are a very mystical form. They are considered the perfect shape and for that reason, they hold great meaning in folklore and superstition.From King Arthur's round table to chanting circles to drumming circles, even to bagels which are eaten to promote good luck on certain holidays, the circle is a perfect form to represent the full completion of the life cycle.

Circling is said to form a protective shell around the person circled. That is one explanation for the bride circling the groom at Jewish weddings.

More recently Circling has taken on a more psychological adaptation incorporating meditation, conversation and perhaps a bit of performance art.


Find Your Astrological Demon

Hakim Bashara writes in Hyperallergic about a book on Persian Mysticism located in Princeton’s Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. It is an illustrated manuscript on magic and astrology from Iran that includes 56 painted illustrations of demons and angels.

Demons, genies, and evil spirits permeate ancient occult traditions in Iran and neighboring countries. An early 20th-century Persian manuscript on magic and astrology held at Princeton’s Department of Rare Books and Special Collections provides a glimpse into this mystical world with dozens of watercolor illustrations of demonic, otherworldly creatures.

Dated to 1921, Kitāb-i ʻAjāʾib-i makhlūqāt (Wonders of Creation) includes an illustrated manuscript on magic and astrology, a book of spells listing incantation and talismans, and 56 painted illustrations of demons and angels. Several texts accompanying the illustrations in Arabic and Farsi are dated from 1911 to 1921.

A closing line at the end of the book suggests that it is composed of two main texts. It reads, “The book of the ‘Wonders of Creation’ and ‘The Seventy Two Demons’ have been completed.” It is not entirely clear which text is which, but Ali Karjoo-Ravary, an assistant professor at the Department of Religious Studies at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, tells Hyperallergic that the illustrated book of demons is most likely the second.

An early 20-century depiction of a demon from the Persian manuscript Kitāb-i ʻAjāʾib-i makhlūqāt (Images courtesy of Princeton’s Department of Rare Books and Special Collections; all images are from Princeton Islamic MSS 3rd. Series No. 349)

Demons, genies, and evil spirits permeate ancient occult traditions in Iran and neighboring countries. An early 20th-century Persian manuscript on magic and astrology held at Princeton’s Department of Rare Books and Special Collections provides a glimpse into this mystical world with dozens of watercolor illustrations of demonic, otherworldly creatures.

Dated to 1921, Kitāb-i ʻAjāʾib-i makhlūqāt (Wonders of Creation) includes an illustrated manuscript on magic and astrology, a book of spells listing incantation and talismans, and 56 painted illustrations of demons and angels. Several texts accompanying the illustrations in Arabic and Farsi are dated from 1911 to 1921.

A closing line at the end of the book suggests that it is composed of two main texts. It reads, “The book of the ‘Wonders of Creation’ and ‘The Seventy Two Demons’ have been completed.” It is not entirely clear which text is which, but Ali Karjoo-Ravary, an assistant professor at the Department of Religious Studies at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, tells Hyperallergic that the illustrated book of demons is most likely the second.

Aries
Taurus

“This text describes the different demons associated with each zodiac sign and the ailments associated with each and some remedies,” Karjoo-Ravary, who published a blog post about the manuscript in 2017, says.

The zodiac demons are introduced as a series of menacing (although somewhat endearing) beasts, some multi-headed. Each is depicted with cuffs on its clawed or hoofed limbs, suggesting that these creatures had been bound or confined.

Other illustrations show the monstrous demons in action, attempting to inflict harm on humans with inscriptions of spells and incantations in Farsi. These latter drawings, according to Karjoo-Ravary, describe ailments and the demons associated with them, together with instructions on how to exorcise them. For instance, one inscription instructs sorcerers to take a handful of soil from underneath the feet of the possessed person and repeat the following sentence seven times: “God of the heavens and the earth, hurry, hurry, bring back, bring back, bring back the love for virtue.”

By contrast, the manuscript also includes illustrations of winged angels like Michael and Gabriel, who are summoned to expel demons and malign spirits.

The author of the demonology book attributes his knowledge to the court of Biblical King Solomon, who was believed to possess power over demons and spirits. However, the author’s identity remains a mystery. “We don’t know much about this figure other than the fact that he wrote this book, that he had some artistic skill,” Karjoo-Ravary says.

The author signs the book as “Rammālbāshī, the son of Ja’far.” However, “Rammālbāshī” is not a name, but rather a profession derived from the Farsi word rammāl (healer, sorcerer).

“A rammāl was a type of occult expert to whom people would frequently turn in the event that they had problems that couldn’t be solved by normal means, such as sicknesses that appeared incurable,” says Karjoo-Ravary. “They could do many things, primarily divination (which their name alludes to), types of magic, breaking spells, exorcisms, spirit summoning.”

Persian demonology has a long tradition that predates Islam. The Shahnameh (“Book of Kings”), a 50,000 verse epic poem written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi, is teeming with descriptions of battles between humans, devils, and demons.

Practicing rammāls still exist in Iran, typically performing palm-reading, faith-healing, and exorcism, but they have been outcast to the fringes of society.

“Rammāls are ridiculed by a good chunk of society,” says Karjoo-Ravary. “The official clerical establishment is mostly against them and magic, and even recently conservative critics of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad [former president of Iran] accused him of associating with rammāls and magicians.”

In his book, The Iranian Metaphysicals: Explorations in Science, Islam, and the Uncanny, Islamic studies scholar Alireza Doostdar writes that secularizing officials and intellectuals in Iran of the early 20th-century disparaged rammāls as charlatans, and blamed them for Iran’s “backwardness” in comparison to the developed West on superstitious beliefs.

Sagittarius
Capricorn
Aquarius
Pisces

This negative attitude towards rammāls continued throughout the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. Shi‘i clerics found the sorcerers’ use of the Islamic notions of the “world of the unseen” (Gheyb) and of genies (Jinn) as a threat to their spiritual hegemony.

And yet, these occult practices continue to thrive not just in Iran, but also in neighboring countries, according to Karjoo-Ravary. “Magic, the world of the jinn, demons, and exorcism are still around in most Muslim and other societies, even if they’ve been pushed into the peripheries by polite society.”

Leo
Libra
Inscriptions in Farsi include instructions to cast out the demons
Occult practices continue to thrive not just in Iran, but also in other societies

 


Signs and Symbols: The Zodiac

If you are in New York and have an interest in astrology, you may want to check out this exhibit at The Jewish Museum;

ThumbnailThe Jewish Museum will present Signs and Symbols: The Zodiac  from November 15, 2019 through September 14, 2020, featuring works from the Museum’s collection that depict the astrological signs. Jewish communities, adapting and adopting local practices over the centuries, incorporated these symbols into ceremonial objects, synagogue architecture, and art even though rabbinic authorities reject astrology as part of Jewish practice.

TO LEARN MORE: <https://thejewishmuseum.org/press/press-release/zodiac-scenes-release>

WORKS IN THE EXHIBITION: <https://thejewishmuseum.org/exhibitions/scenes-from-the-collection#signs-and-symbols>

Signs and Symbols: The Zodiac

 



A frequently heard congratulatory expression, mazal tov literally means “good luck” or “good zodiac sign,” the Hebrew term mazal signifying both “luck” and “zodiac sign.” (Justin’s note: More accurately, “mazal” means “luck of the stars” and “tov” means “good.”) Decorated Jewish marriage contracts often include the saying, as do Torah binders fashioned from the swaddling cloth used at a male infant’s circumcision. The boy’s name, followed by the phrase “born under a good sign” and his zodiac symbol, is also painted or embroidered on the binder.

In the Bible, Israelites are forbidden to practice divination and soothsaying. The Talmud recounts that, when aged Abraham learned that he was going to have a son, he said: “I looked at my astrological [map] and I am not fit to have a son.” To this God replied “there is no constellation for Israel,” implying that Jews should not look to the stars to know their fates. In medieval Spain, where Christianity, Islam, and Judaism converged for a time, astronomical works were translated, studied, and authored by Jews who were also versed in astrology. Yet the great rabbinical authority Moses Maimonides repudiated astrology, which he viewed as falsehood and star worship.

So how do we explain the popularity of the theme of the zodiac in Jewish art? Jews adopted and adapted local practices early on. Ancient synagogue mosaics featuring the zodiac were allowed as long as they were not venerated. Divested of human representations, the cycle appeared in painted interiors of Polish wooden synagogues, which were later destroyed during the Holocaust. Depictions of the signs both display distinctive traits and emulate other traditions. The zodiac was incorporated into richly decorated works, as seen in this gallery, used to safeguard the Torah or emphasize its majesty, and to mark life-cycle events and holidays

COME SEE THIS EXHIBITION AT THE JEWISH MUSEUM TO LEARN THE WIDE-RANGING USES OF THE SIGNS OF THE ZODIAC AROUND THE WORLD.

The Jewish Museum
1109 Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street
New York, NY 10128
(212) 423-3200
<https://thejewishmuseum.org/>