The Dovekeepers and Ancient Jewish Magic
I have just finished reading The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman, a novel of the fall of Jerusalem and the siege of Masada. It was hard to get through the first 50 pages, hard to engage in such a sad story with a known ending. I was ambivalent about the long-winded detail, the dark, murky atmosphere, and the marginal circumstances and dysfunctional relationships of the four narrators. The narrators did not seem to represent a typical life of a woman at that time. At least, that is a first impression.
I noticed in the Amazon reviews, several criticisms of this book. First, it was said that there was too much magic, that these people were barely recognizable as Jews. Second, was there really an awareness of an afterlife among Jews at that time? And then, of course, one has to ask if Josephus’ account of Masada was accurate, or more of a myth or legend.
“The Dovekeepers” is the story of the Roman defeat of the Jews at Masada ~70 C.E. told from the perspectives of four women who had sought refuge there in the stronghold built by King Herod. Each narrator’s section of the story is quite long and detailed. Each contains much much much Hoffman-trademarked magic, omens, superstitions, potions, spells, witches, angels, demons, ghosts, amulets, symbols, beasts…you get the idea. I think if each of these stories had been shortened and had less of the “other-world”-ness it would have moved along better.
I was personally able to lose myself in this world, and take it on as realistic. After all, in a world devoid of modern medicine, who would not engage with potions and amulets to protect oneself through childbirth, to protect the newborn baby, and to protect those who engaged in combat? As human beings, we seek agency. We feel the need to control, to attempt, at least, to control our lives. We don’t just surrender to disease and warfare, we fight them. We fight them with both science and religion. As women, we go to the doctor, we take our medicine. In the absence of this modern response to illness, women will still take on agency, engage, act to alter the fate of those they love.
It is only when we see magic, science and religion as, all three, occupying the same space in our psyche – the need for agency in the face of disaster – that we can accept these ancient practices as filling the same function as modern medicine. Even now, if there is less that science can do, then we engage with magical cures. That still remains true.
Alice Hoffman provides as reference Ancient Jewish Magic: A History by Gideon Bohak. She depends particularly on the section which relates the views on magic expressed in Philo, the Qumran scrolls and Josephus. On the one hand, magic is demonized and seen as particular to the feminine domain. On the other hand, some practices which appear identical to the practices labeled magic, are allowed by religious leaders. Bohak labels this “licit magic” in contrast to “illicit magic.” In some cases it is simply a matter of a “harmful” potion being illicit, whereas a “healing” potion is licit.
I wonder if too little has been written about this aspect of ancient daily life. However, when I used to read about magic and divinations, it seemed too strange, alienating and other. I was raised to fear and shun the other. Now, I can freely read about magic, ancient practices, kaballah, and so on, without feeling that because I am reading about these things, they influence me negatively, or that this exposes me to something evil. My interest in early kabbalah and magic entails no belief in these things so I don’t fear them. I should add that they don’t fascinate me either, my interest simply responds to the fact that these texts are an integral part of the history of writing and the development of scientific thinking.
It is a loss to biblical scholarship, if the magical elements are ignored, marginalized, demonized or relegated to an illicit feminine domain. Where are the discourses on the phylacteries and the urim and thumin?