Publication Date: September 2, 2014
Formats: eBook, Paperback
Series: Rav Hisda’s Daughter
Genre: Historical Fiction/Historical Fantasy
Fantastic tales of demons and the Evil Eye, magical incantations, and powerful attractions abound in Enchantress, a novel that weaves together Talmudic lore, ancient Jewish magic, and a timeless love story set in fourth-century Babylonia.One of the most powerful practitioners of these mysterious arts is Rav Hisda’s daughter, whose innate awareness allows her to possess the skills men lack. With her husband, Rava–whose arcane knowledge of the secret Torah enables him to create a “man” out of earth and to resurrect another rabbi from death–the two brave an evil sorceress, Ashmedai the Demon King, and even the Angel of Death in their quest to safeguard their people, even while putting their romance at risk.The author of the acclaimed Rashi’s Daughters series and the award-winning Rav Hisda’s Daughter: Apprentice has conjured literary magic in the land where “abracadabra” originated. Based on five years of research and populated with characters from the Talmud, Enchantress brings a pivotal era of Jewish and Christian history to life from the perspective of a courageous and passionate woman.
Sorceresses and Talmudic Rabbis – strange bedfellows in ENCHANTRESS
I first decided to write about Dada, Rav Hisda’s daughter, after coming across a curious piece of Talmud that describes her sitting in her father’s classroom when he suddenly calls up his two best students and asks her, “Who do you want to marry?” Astonishingly, she replies, “Both of them.” More astonishingly, after the younger suitor Rava declares, “I’ll be the last one,” that is what ultimately happens. First she marries the older one, and ten years later, after she’s widowed, she marries Rava. I was so impressed by Dada’s audacity – this was 4th-century Babylonia when most girls didn’t get a choice in husbands at all, let alone between two men – that I had to tell her story.
But more surprises awaited me while researching ENCHANTRESS: A Novel of Rav Hisda’s Daughter. I learned from the Talmud that Rav Hisda cast spells, that his daughter, my heroine, knew the magic procedure to defend against demons in the privy, and that her second husband Rava was such a powerful sorcerer that he created a golem. As I delved further into the Talmud, I came across magic in every tractate. Rabbis cast spells and wrote amulets, while some fought demons in person.
On the archaeology front, I came across information about Babylonian “magic bowls” [see attached photo]. Unearthed under homes in what is now Iraq, these were common items of household pottery inscribed with spells to protect the inhabitants from demons and the Evil Eye, believed to cause illness, unsuccessful pregnancy and other misfortune. Undoubtedly of Jewish origin, the incantations are written with Hebrew letters, quote the Bible, and call upon Jewish angels and divine names. Archaeologists have also found, throughout the Mediterranean world during the first six centuries of the Common Era, a large variety of Jewish amulets, curse tablets, and magic manuals.
Yes, this was 4th-century Babylonia – land of jinni and flying carpets, where the very word “magic” originated. Still, I was amazed how prevalent, even ubiquitous, sorcery was among the same people who gave us the Bible verse, Exodus 22:18, that says, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”
It turns out that the Talmudic rabbis interpreted Exodus 22:18 to apply only to pagan sorceresses, not to Jewish women whose magic was intended for healing and protection. Indeed, they quoted and consulted these skilled professionals, one of whom was Rav Hisda’s daughter. A rabbi even asked for advice on a complicated spell from the head sorceress.
The head sorceress? How did a woman get to be the head sorceress? Was there something like Hogwarts in Babylonia?
Apparently there was a hierarchy of sorceresses, and that meant some process to train new ones and evaluate their knowledge. For how else could women in the 4th-century learn to write complicated Aramaic incantations in Hebrew characters (the same as the Talmud)? The power their community believed they wielded over angels and demons would have made them esteemed and formidable healers, not wretched back-alley conjurers, which is how most modern people might imagine them.
As explanation, the Talmud pointed to the beginning of Chapter Six of Genesis, where it is written: “divine beings saw how beautiful the daughters of men were and took wives from among those that pleased them.” These heavenly beings who came down and married human women taught them spells that called upon the angels, and these women taught their daughters, who taught theirs, and so on. This, according to the rabbis, is how women learned their healing magic. Contrary to the common view that witches were in league with the devil, Jewish sorceresses were in league with the angels.
Eventually I came to the conclusion that the women who inscribed those Babylonian magic bowls were, like Rav Hisda’s daughter, members of rabbinic families. No wonder the Talmudic rabbis never criticized sorceresses, and no wonder they consulted them. These powerful women were their mothers, their daughters, their wives.
Not such strange bedfellows after all. And sometimes, as in the case of Dada and Rava, passionate ones as well.
Praise for Apprentice:
“A lushly detailed look into a fascinatingly unknown time and culture—a tale of Talmud, sorcery, and a most engaging heroine!” —Diana Gabaldon, author of the bestselling Outlander series
Anton, the author of the acclaimed “Rashi’s Daughters” trilogy, has penned her best book to date. Using her extensive knowledge of the Talmud and other historical Jewish writings, she immersed herself in the tractates to uncover a marvelous heroine for this historical novel… Complex discussions of Jewish law and tradition as well as detailed description of the culture and customs of the times enhance truly wonderful storytelling. VERDICT This absorbing novel should be on everyone’s historical fiction reading list.” —Library Journal (starred review)
“Fascinating reading await those who dive into the vividly depicted world of Babylonian Jewry … Anton succeeds brilliantly in drawing us into the formative period leading up to the Talmud … what we have is the work of a master craftswoman set upon repairing a major gap in Jewish literature —Philadelphia Jewish Voice
“Rav Hisda’s Daughter provides a wealth of historical detail about Jewish life in Babylon and Israel in the 3rd century CE. It depicts the daily life and coming of age of a prominent rabbi’s daughter rather than propelling its reader through a traditional arc of action with a crisis and resolution. Its interest lies in its portrayal of the sorcery, incantations, and women’s customs in this exotic, faraway period of time and place, sometimes against the backdrop of war.” —Historical Novel Society
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About the author:
Maggie Anton was born Margaret Antonofsky in Los Angeles, California. Raised in a secular, socialist household, she reached adulthood with little knowledge of her Jewish religion. All that changed when David Parkhurst, who was to become her husband, entered her life, and they both discovered Judaism as adults. That was the start of a lifetime of Jewish education, synagogue involvement, and ritual observance. In 2006, Anton retired from being a clinical chemist in Kaiser Permanente’s Biochemical Genetics Laboratory to become a fulltime writer.
In the early 1990’s, Anton learned about a women’s Talmud class taught by Rachel Adler, now a professor at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. She became intrigued with the idea that Rashi, one of the greatest Jewish scholars ever, had no sons, only three daughters. Slowly but surely, she began to research the family and the time in which they lived. Much was written about Rashi, but almost nothing of the daughters, except their names and the names of their husbands. Legend has it that Rashi’s daughters were learned in a time when women were traditionally forbidden to study the sacred texts. These forgotten women seemed ripe for rediscovery, and the idea of a trilogy of historical novels about them was born.
After the success of “Rashi’s Daughters” Anton started researching the lives of women in 4th-century Babylonia, where the Talmud was being created. Surprised by the prevalence of sorcery among rabbinic families, she wrote “Rav Hisda’s Daughter: Bk 1 – Apprentice,” which was a 2012 National Jewish Book Award Fiction finalist and a Library Journal pick for Best Historical Fiction.
For more information please visit Maggie Anton’s website and blog. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.