Ethiopian Prayer Scroll
This nineteenth-century Ethiopian magic scroll demonstrates the synthesis of sacred and heterodox elements: figures of angels appear alongside demon-like creatures; talismanic designs derived from Islamic, Judaic and pre-Christian folk sources blend with Christian prayers.(1) It is this unique convergence that invests the manuscript with its distinctive spiritual and medicinal function.
The creation of this object would have been relegated to a dabtara, a cleric in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. For the scroll’s devout owners, the inclusion of highly individualized prayers, imagery and arcane details endowed the object with its protective or curative abilities. During periods of crisis or sickness, it would have been kept with its owner at all times.(2) It was understood that this close relationship allowed the scroll to draw out and absorb the patron’s pain or illness, which was thought to appear in the form of demons.
The script is written in Ge’ez, the liturgical language of Ethiopia. Areas that reference the specific patron have been covered and written-over, indicating that ownership of the manuscript was transferred at least once. The name Walatta, daughter of Michael, now appears, identifying her as the most recent owner.
The text and imagery relate to St. Susenyos who is affiliated with protection during pregnancy and childbearing providing evidence of how it functioned for Walatta, as well as its previous owners.(3)
Its strong palette of blue, black and red is characteristic of talismanic art produced in the northern Tigray highlands of Ethiopia. The majority of the script consists of prayers that appear in black ink while the name of the owner and other important details are presented in red.The scroll is comprised of four goatskin vellum sections that would have been originally joined vertically. The top register is occupied by a Gorgon. The figure’s origin lies in the Greek Gorgon Medusa, as signified through the depiction of snakes, however this rendition recalls a later Byzantine version. The Byzantine Gorgon-like head is associated with the prayer of Susenyos, which is present within this scroll’s text.(4) Two blue snakes outline the Gorgon’s head, coiling to emphasizing the figure’s overstated eyes.The motif of snake scales is repeated in the top-most decorative band of the scroll. A processional cross sits atop the Gorgon’s head signifying his piety. It can be surmised the Gorgon is in fact an angel masquerading as a demon. Scholars note the common inclusion of disguised angels to fool a demonic presence.(5)
The central section portrays two guardian angels that are unnamed, but could be Saint Michael and Saint Gabriel because of their association with guardianship of mother and child. Each figure wields a sword further signifying them as protectors. The lower right image contains three figures. The character to the left holds a processional cross and leans on a prayer stick. He possesses the features typical of a guardian angel.(6) As with the Gorgon, these figures also possess exaggerated eyes. In addition, stylized eyes appear throughout the ornamental border, alongside other decorative patterns, and are a crucial aspect of the object’s protective power. It is through the gaze of the owner and the illuminated eyes that the demon is ultimately defeated. (7)
Written and Researched by Karena Bennett, Part of PSU's "Gift of the Word" Exhibit, Spring, 2012.
1 Holland Cotter, “Ethiopian Magic Scrolls: Talismanic Art of Ethiopia,” New York Times, May 19, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/20/arts/design/ethiopian-magic-scrolls-ta... (accessed 1 Oct. 2011). 2 Jacques Mercier, Art That Heals: The Image as Medicine in Ethiopia (Munich: Prestel, 1997), 46.
3 Steve Delamarter, interview by Anne McClanan, 8 July 2011. 4 Mercier, Art That Heals, 99; Delamarter, interview. 5 Mercier, Art That Heals, 95, 99. 6 Delamarter,interview.
7 Mercier, Art That Heals, 94-95.
Additional Student Research on Ethiopian Magic Scroll researched by Natalie Hategan, 2011 Medieval Portland Capstone
Dr. Steve Delamarter, interview with Professor Anne McClanan, July 8, 2011. Transcript available at PSU Special Collections.
Holland Cotter “ETHIOPIAN MAGIC SCROLLS: ‘Talismanic Art of Ethiopia’,” New York Times, May 19, 2011, accessed July 9, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/20/arts/design/ethiopian-magic-scrolls-ta...
Jacques Mercier. Ethiopian Magic Scrolls. (New York: G. Braziller, 1979).
Stefan Strelcyn. "Catalogue of Ethiopian Manuscripts of the Wellcome Institute of the History of Medicine in London.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London Vol 35, No. 1 (1972): 27-55. Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of School of Oriental and African Studies. Accessed June 23, 2011. http://www.jstor.org/stable/612793.
Wilton Barnhardt. Gospel. (New York: Picador USA,1995), 655-656.
Wolf Leslau. Concise dictionary of Geʻez (classical Ethiopic). (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2010).
This nineteenth-century Ethiopian magic scroll is constructed of four goatskin vellum sections originally connected vertically. This, like other magic scrolls, was made by a dabtara, who was a cleric in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church but also studied traditional medicine and magic. What makes the scrolls interesting is their mixture of orthodox and un-orthodox themes and images such as the inclusion of Christian prayers alongside images of talismanic eyes. The magic scrolls possess both a spiritual and medicinal purpose and would have been during times of illness carried everywhere by their patrons, 85% of which were female (as is the case with this scroll). According to Ethiopian belief, if the owner kept the scroll close to her/his body, its protective elements would remove and absorb her/his sickness and pain which were thought to materialize in the form of demons.
The script is written in the liturgical, or sacred, language of Ethiopia, Ge’ez, by a trained scribal hand. It begins with the Trinitarian Formula (“In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”), typical for the scrolls in Ge’ez. The rest of the text includes the prayer of Saint Susenyos, the patron saint of protection in pregnancy and childbearing, and describes a disagreement between a witch and the saint. It also includes the prayer of Saint Susenyos which asks for health in babies. Most of the text is in black ink, while the name of the owner and other important details are often written in red. The areas in the scroll that mention the owner’s name have been literally scratched out and written over. This is evidence for multiple owners of the scroll; the most recent of which has been identified as Walatta, the daughter of Michael.
There are three images on the scroll that occur at the beginning, middle, and end of the text. In the first, there is a figure depicted like the Greek Gorgon Medusa. The figure has two blue snakes around its head with tails that coil around its eyes and is associated with the prayer of Saint Susenyos as well as with piety as seen through the presence of the processional cross atop its head. Likely, then, the Gorgon-like figure represents an angel in disguise as a demon, which is a common motif in Ethiopian magic scrolls as it was meant to fool the demonic presence (i.e. the sickness and pain of the owner). The second scene depicts two guardian angels with their swords and who are meant to be seen as protectors. They have been interpreted as Sts. Michael and Gabriel as they are associated with guarding mother and child, a theme already established with the presence of Saint Susenyos’ prayer. In the lower image are three additional figures, the left one likely a devout figure because it holds a processional cross and a prayer stick. The right figure is very similar in depiction to the two guardian angels above, and thus can be similarly identified. All the figures have exaggerated eyes, echoed in the ornamental border of the scroll. These eyes are a further protective element of the object, meant to watch over the owner and catch sight of and fend off demons.
Karena Bennett, “Ethiopian Magic Scroll,” The Gift of the Word, catalog, Spring 2012 exhibition, Portland State University Millar Library Special Collections.
Why do you think the creator of the scroll chose to use vellum, made from animal skin? Considering this magic scroll is a composite object full of both Christian and traditional Ethiopian talismans, what are the elements you see of each? Why do you think Ethiopian culture chose to combine elements of magical belief and Christian theology? How is the gorgon-like figure related to the guardian angel figures? Do they serve the same purpose? Can you find any areas where the vellum looks scratched and text is written over them in a different ink color and handwriting? Why do you think a scroll like this would be passed between owners and reused? Look at the figures depicted on the scroll. Why do you think the artist chose to represent guardian figures and not the patron?
Written and Researched by Rachel R. Correll, Sophomore Inquiry Mentor Session Project, Spring 2012