John Brolley, University of Cincinnati program director for Religious Studies, has been at work for more than a year translating four little books of Syriac charms that are among the rare collections at Harvard University. Brolley believes the leather-bound books, dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries, may have once belonged to a priest who would have lived in Urmia, a region in Kurdistan that is one of a handful of Aramaic-speaking regions worldwide. Syriac, though now used almost exclusively in church liturgy, is one dialect of Aramaic.
Brolley points out that near-eastern literature dating back thousands of years shows that religions would use incantations to ward off "demons" blamed for illness and other troubles. Brolley says he is translating and analyzing the 17th and 18th century books of Syriac charms in hopes of placing them in the context of 5,000 years of ritual texts. Each book – the texts so fragile that they cannot be microfilmed – contains about between 50-100 written charms.
"Two things appear to have happened with the Syriac charms. First of all, the incantation formulas have been 'Christianized,'" says Brolley. "You don't see references to Zeus here – if anything, deities other than the God of Judaism and Christianity are demonized. This is all about invoking the power of God and Jesus.
"What's also interesting, because this tradition is so late compared to the others, is that there are charms that are not just against the 'Evil Eye' or some sort of illness, but there are also charms designed to correct a disobedient child. There was a charm to ward off gunfire, and a charm to make the judge favorable to you when you had a court appearance. So, the notion of protection really expands as we get closer to the modern era."
And because the majority of the population could not read or write, Brolley says the charms were thought to give them protection just because they were wearing amulets containing the Christian Word of God. "So, for example, if I were a farmer who had somehow ended up with a sick cow or a sick spouse, the priest, probably for some small amount of money, would copy down a charm from one of the books and the farmer would take it and wear it as an amulet. Many of the local villagers may not have been Christian, but they appear to have considered the local priest what you and I would call a medicine man, and were able to trust him."
Compared with more ancient charms dating back several thousand years, Brolley is noticing that although the Syriac Christian charms involve less ritual, it's the "Word of Power" that has survived.
"But now it's a Christian 'Word of Power.' Instead of demonstrating to the demon, 'I may be just a mortal human, but you can't hurt me. I have the national God of Babylon on my side,' they'll be wearing a biblical text that protects them with the Power of the Word, often represented by a brief Bible quote.
"In later traditions, what we call the cult aspect of the charms is gone, meaning there doesn't seem to be any accompanying physical ritual. So it really becomes the power of the words themselves that are thought to drive the demon away. The word of power is one of the most durable features of this religious tradition."
Once he has translated and analyzed these particular charm texts, Brolley says he doesn't plan on stopping there. "There's a lot of similar material out there, and there are some excellent scholars working in this field. Every incantation or charm formula tells us something about the relationship of magic, ritual and religion."
In the meantime, does Brolley believe these formulas carry any power? "No comment," he says, with a smile.