Skip to content

The Dovekeepers and Ancient Jewish Magic

January 27, 2013

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.

One reviewer wrote, 

“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?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. January 28, 2013 1:40 pm

    Great post, as usual. I read Bohak’s book (back when it was only in hardcover!) and it is a fantastic source. Bohak distinguishes magic from kabbalah; but Biblical Judaism has always had multiple perspectives on magic (compare, for example, the “Witch of Endor” with Leviticus 19:31).

    In kabbalah, terming something feminine is not marginalizing it; for example, many of the sefiros are considered female attributes and the standard diagrams of the sefiros is anthropomorphized to have portions corresponding to both male-specific and female-specific anatomy.

    In any case, the vast majority of references we have to both kabbalists and magicians in both Talmudic sources and Zoharic writings is to men. I’m not certain that the reaction against magic was a gender-based reaction as much as it was a turning away from magical thinking.

    However, to the extent that Hellenistic thinking thought of rationalist reasoning as “male” then Greek writers such as Philo and Josephus may have adopted that. I’m not sure of the specific references Hoffman is thinking of here (because I haven’t read her book!) so I’m not sure I can say anything more specific.

  2. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    January 29, 2013 12:43 am

    Hi Kurk,

    Thanks for the great comments. The Dovekeepers is pure fiction, and only from the perspective of women, much of it around childbirth, so the magic remains basically in that domain. I would actually have to go back and see whether men used magic in the same way …

    Here is Bohak,

    If in Philo’s world “magic” is divided into the “true” magic of the Magi and a counterfeit, “false” magic of cheats, women, and slaves, for some Jews in the Second ATemple period “magic” was an evil affair of demonic origins. page 81

    “In many other cases, the rabbis explain that certain illnesses are the result of keshaphim – in some cases, the ultimate source of these ivils is identified as women who dabble in keshaphim, while in others it is left unidentified. Page 392

    I would definitely have to agree that kabbala is addressed to men. The difficulty is that “magic” is a very fluid term. Hard to know what to include.

    In any case, I think some find the amulets and spells to seem antithetical to the Jewish culture and the theme of Masada. But I felt that it was based on valid research and depended on Bohak’s work.

  3. January 29, 2013 7:43 am

    Hi Suzanne,
    To be clear, the great comments are from Theophrastus. But I wholeheartedly agree with him that this is another great post of yours! And you have given me another book to read!

    Did you see the short review at Brandeis University, where Hoffman works in the Women’s Studies Research Center?

    Hoffman’s newest novel turns the story of Masada on its head, by granting its narrative to four powerful female voices. The Dovekeepers replaces the epic myth of first century stoic martyrdom with a nuanced and dramatic tale of how the subtleties of human relationships matter, even in the face of unspeakable violence. Hoffman wrote the book as a resident scholar at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center. Simon and Schuster

    This review/ synopsis actually comes from the Brandeis International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life and is mentioning the book among several notables on ethics:

  4. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    January 29, 2013 10:31 am

    Oh dear! I answered this from my email and only noticed “Aristotle” in the URL line.

    I was interested in the fact that some reviewers on Amazon felt that the “magic” was overdone and made the book inaccessible. I might have thought this way in the past, but now I was simply influenced to read Bohak, as a scholarly treatise on the subject. The Dovekeepers drew me into a new aspect of the past.

    The thaumaturgical elements of the Hebrew Bible, both licit, for example, by Moses, and illicit, the witch of Endor, have a fairly low profile in biblical studies. OR, more likely, I am simply unfamiliar with this area of research.


  1. Speaking with Alice Hoffman via facebook: Review: “The Dovekeepers” « My Life in my 60's
  2. Obsession or Passion? | The Edmonton Tourist
  3. Suzanne McCarthy: No more crankypants! | BLT

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: