mad in pursuit notebook


Ethiopian Healing Scrolls


Ethiopian Magic Scrolls[>>>cont'd] So I found the scrolls. What are they about? What do they mean?

Each scroll is custom-designed for an individual who is suffering from an ailment. In conjuntion with herbal cures and other interventions, spiritual counsel is sought from a dabtara. The mind-body-spirit healing process begins with a sacrificial meal and the resulting goat or sheep skin is ritually stretched and dried to a thin vellum. The vellum is cut into strips as wide as the client can afford and stitched together as long as the client is tall (so that he or she can be protected from head to toe).

The scroll is then filled with text and drawings. They may be permanently sealed into a leather pouch for wearing or stored in a metal phylactery or amulet case for handy availability [like the one in our photo]. Or they may be hung on the center post of the house facing the door, to warn away evil spirits.

I should back up to say that Ethiopia is a well-cooked stew of religious traditions -- Christian (since mid 4th century), Jewish, Islamic and Pagan. And each of these traditions have historically made use of the services of the dabtara and the protective power of the scrolls. From what I can gather, the traditional dabtara is an unordained cleric in the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition. He goes through the same religious training as priests, but goes on to study singing, poetry, literature and folk medicine. He is expected to work within the confines of Christian dogma, but finds ways of blending in astrology and unorthodox talismans, according to the patients' needs.

The paintings below are from our widest (4-3/4") scroll. I'm looking at a book from our Africa shelf: "Ethiopian Magic Scrolls" -- to see what I can learn about them. [Continued below images]

fragment of Ethiopian scroll

1. At the start of the scroll is a 16-box composition, with additional design elements above and below. There are 4 4-petal rosettes which can be seen as coptic crosses; 4 X-motifs; and 4 faces. Four is a common number in talismanic symbolism: 4 Evangelists, 4 directions, etc. The X-motif, combined with prayers, is said to have the virtue of undoing spells. The faces might be angels... they look just like the pleasant face in the next image.

2. A guardian angel, brandishing his sword.

3. A lion. The only lions mentioned in my book are those associated with the hermit Abba Samuel, who took care of them and removed splinters from their feet.

4. The last drawing on the scroll is obviously a cross but I can't quite read the symbolism. Looks like it is on an anchor. Has it broken the spear? Or is it a three-part (trinitarian) symbol?

I get fascinated with these things, but can only take them so far.

Why are the scrolls precious to me? I guess, like antique beads, they are portable treasures. The scrolls are intimate possessions, fabricated by a learned and skilled hand, prized by their 19th-century owners as sources of protection and connections to the divine spirit, and preserved by collectors who respected their origin and their sacred value. Jim and I are now protectors of the protective.

A second factor: visually pleasing. I like the graphic art dimension. I jumped when I saw #1 above because it reminded me of an index card I labored over in 2009 [shown here]:

The other factor is mystery... something to ponder, to meditate on -- with complex, multi-layered meanings, spanning many belief traditions. I am an outsider, wanting to get "in," wanting to understand, but at the same time lacking confidence and slightly fearful. I am a modern rationalist, after all, right? But still...


Ethiopian Magic Scrolls by Jacques Mercier (NY: George Braziller, 1979)

Healing with Art lengthy discussion by Jacop Gnisci (March 2010)

Elizabeth Street Fine Arts


Aug 31, 2012