Friday, June 17, 2011

What Real Clerical Spell Scrolls Look Like. Ge'ez and Amharic Examples.

Here are some fascinating examples of real Ge'ez clerical scrolls from Ethiopia. They are currently on display at Elizabeth Street Fine Arts gallery in New York City. The gallery website has pictures and descriptions of several scrolls dating to the 19th century, although some extant scrolls date back to the 16th century. Most of the scrolls described on the website contain multiple spells related to protection and healing. It's striking to me how many of these spells are recognizable from our favorite fantasy roleplaying games. It's also interesting how many Ge'ez spells fit onto a single scroll.

Historical background from the website:
So called “Magic Scrolls” are long rolls of parchment, illuminated by talismanic and figurative images and texts, usually in Ge’ez (Ethiopian liturgical language), of protective prayers, invocations of secret names of God, or sometimes demons. They are produced and used for varied purposes, healing, protection from spells, exorcisms etc. Scrolls are referred to as “ya’ branna kitab”, “written on skin” in Amharic, “asmat” or “names” in Ge’ez or “ta’lsam”, “talisman” in Tigrinya.

Scrolls are made for a specific individual by  “dabtara” (an unordained “priest” who studied scriptures, singing and poetry, a practitioner of traditional medicine, magician) and are carried and used by that person extensively. They rarely survive through a few generations of use. The oldest known scroll is recently dated to16th century, while majority of great surviving scrolls date between late 18th to early 20th century, as do the scrolls in this exhibit.
Here are some magic scroll pictures. More thorough details, which I paraphrase here, are available at the original website:

Tigre magic scroll. Three sets of incantations: (1) "The Prayer or Legend of Susenyos, used for the protection of children and infants from illness, followed by an invocation of magical names for the protection of the scroll owner from demons.", (2) "prayers for protection from the demon Shätolay, blacksmiths, buda, etc.", (3) prayers against rheumatism and stomach ache.

Magic scroll contains: (1) Prayer of Susenyos, (2) Prayer for the “expulsion” of disease and the demon Shotalay", (3) prayer against the evil eye, (4) prayer against rheumatism and sciatica, (5) prayers against haemorrhage, (5) another prayer against demon Shotalay, (6) prayer against Zar Wellaj.

Gorgon scroll of Wälättä-Gabriel contains: (1) An invocation against unclean spirits, (2) prayer of saint Susenyos for keeping away sickness from babies sucking the breast of their mothers, story of Susenyos killing Werzelya, (3) names of God against Shotelay (4) names of God said by Mary against devils. ‘Yosamer, Armosadek√©l…’, (5) speech of Moses against barya, devils, people of Legion, (6) prayer of Susenyos, (7) prayer against belly pain, (8) prayer against side pain, (9) prayer for undoing bewitching, (10) prayer against the eye of Mejer and Tegrida, (11) prayer against the Evil eye, (12) salutation to Fanuel expeller of devils.


  1. That's pretty cool. Next time my lot find some scrolls, maybe I should give them more evocative names too. Why should wizard spells get all the fun names eh?

  2. That last one's a color spray scroll. I can tell it.

  3. Wow. Those are very pretty. Thanks for posting those.

  4. Great find! I never really thought about illustrated scrolls like this.

  5. I agree Dan and christian. Excellent find! Thanks for posting!

  6. Interesting. The specificity of the spells (as times) against particular diseases is something no games really emulate.

  7. Really very cool. I'm stealing these for homemade Magic Item cards.

  8. Wow, I love that people once carried real magic scrolls, something that I hope people still do today... but seriously, not for games, although that's cool too.

    Interesting that the color wheels are a similar theme in both the first and last scroll. I wonder what that element represents; besides color that may be sprayed, which of course it is.


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