Monday, May 30, 2011

Ethiopian Magic Scrolls as Memorials

In New York, a group of scrolls from the 18th and 19th centuries are being exhibited at Elizabeth Street Fine Arts until June 30. Maybe you read about them in the article in the New York Times. They are called magic scrolls, but as Jacques Mercier writes in his highly informative book Ethiopian Magic Scrolls, "In the West many people speak rather too quickly of 'magic' in connection with these scrolls.…Ethiopian concepts are rather different…" (12). Bunnies, scarves, and wands do not figure into these pictures.

The scrolls contain a combination of words and images derived from many religious traditions: "Greek, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Iranian, and Jewish…," although Christianity eventually became the official religion and showed a prominent and dominant hand. Even so, the scrolls hold figurative images and/or talismanic ones. The figurative style "according to one dabtara" (24) was mostly derived from Christian painting traditions and was meant to evoke "what has been seen" and it would tell about the person on earth, while the talismanic ("talisman" comes from the Tigrean word tälsäm) style showed "what is hidden" or perhaps "an ordinary world that is threatening and inhabited by invisible powers" (24-27). What is revealed, what is concealed. What is physical, what is spiritual. But always personal.

Art That Heals: The Image As Medicine in Ethiopia (African art)
The scrolls are personal because the text, the images, and the material are all intertwined with the sick person's life. Mercier goes into excellent explanatory detail about the use of these scrolls including protection against evil spirits, as healing medicine, and as a shield against danger (such as for a pregnant woman). His book is thorough, written in clear language, and has good color plates. The author occasionally imparts the information as a story, which makes the book interesting to read. 

My first response was how can these scrolls be adapted or incorporated into my and other people's bookmaking practices. The scrolls have images, they have words, they are personal. I liked that they were made to be the height of the owner. But the more I read, the more I wondered how one could adapt them but at the same time respect them and their people for what they are as religious medicine. The owners, of course, are deceased. A memory scroll came to mind. I had found it healing to make books after I had suffered a loss (see Expressive Handmade Books), and I wondered if this approach might be more proper, more reverential. As I read Mercier's book further, I realized that these scrolls connect death with life in a way that Westerners may not be aware.

The article in the New York Times and the gallery itself neglect to mention why the scrolls are or were so personal, aside from the height, quite possibly because of the complex and rather bloody ritual behind the making of them.

Here is a summary of Mercier's description of the process. The dabtara, the maker, was the "unordained cleric who has studied singing, poetry, and literature; a cantor, a scribe, a teacher, he practices traditional medicine in its most varied aspects…" (14).The dabtara determines the kind of animal needed. The animal is brought to the sick person and carried three times around her, then the animal's throat is slit and the blood collected in a gourd. The dabtara washes the sick person in the blood and chants prayers. The dabtara soaks the hide of the animal, then stretches it, scrapes it, and prepares the parchment by cutting it into three strips of equal width. The strips are placed end to end and cut to the height of the sick person. "This will mean that the client is protected against demons from head to foot" (16). In the Amhara culture, once the scroll was finished, the sick person was never parted from her scroll.

The dabtara writes on the parchment with a reed pen or one made "from asparagus" (!) using primarily black ink, but using red ink for "introductory [usually Christian] formulae" or "important words" (17). It is written most often in Geez, the Ethiopian liturgical language. The contents could include, "magic squares, the ciphers, the names of angels and of God, the seals, become a knotwork of lines and letters in which eyes and faces appear" (10). The scrolls could also contain eight-pointed stars, angels with swords, all with a focus on eyes. I wonder if in addition to thoughts about the evil eye or a protective eye, the focus on sight might also reinforce the portrayal of what is hidden and what is seen, or maybe it is more about who sees.

Making a replica of this kind of scroll here and now is probably not possible, feasible, or desirable. Additionally, the scroll is considered "in connection with medicine" and "not with the making of a 'work of art'" (33). We can appreciate the process and the story behind it, research more, and learn. Perhaps by creating a memory scroll of our own, we can also make a scroll in homage to this culture. The scroll can contain what was seen about a person as well as what was hidden, a way to help us preserve the loved one's spirit. Our bookmaking and artmaking can embody a different kind of healing practice.

(If you want to see more scrolls, the Manuscripts Division of the Library at Princeton and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington have collections that are open to researchers. Mercier also wrote a book called Art That Heals: The Image As Medicine in Ethiopia.)


Diana Trout {} said...

Fabulous. Just stumbled over here looking up Ethiopian book structures. Thank you.

Linda said...

ALISA-I really enjoyed this blog today. I am taking a cross-cultural class for my art therapy program and we are discussing the healing methods of other cultures. Thanks for introducing me to this incredible story of a healing book. Linda Race