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Studia Iranica, vol 17, Sceaux magiques en Iran sassanide.

The main strength of this book lies in the attempt, ambitiously undertaken here for the first time, to provide a complete collection, with classification and identification, of Sasanian seals that are likely to belong to the field of magic. In some cases, particularly where the inscriptions are unequivocal, or where the iconography is clearly apotropaic, the identification does not present a major problem, but in many other cases the meaning of the iconography may be in doubt. The interpretation of figurative themes is in most cases quite risky. Thanks to Gyselen's discussion of the motifs and their significance, it is now possible to feel more confident about the incantatory use of many of the themes and figures occurring on Sasanian seals, and to begin to understand the meaning behind many of the scenes depicted. One fine example of this method of analysis is the interpretation of an interesting amulet which has a representation of an eye on one side and a pair of figures on the other (figs. 43a, 43b: discussed on pp. 88f.).

The author establishes a number of plausible criteria which may help us isolate magical glyptic objects, but identification often remains tentative, and we do not always know whether a given seal was made for a practical purpose or for apotropaic use. Frequently, seals that were made for what we call pragmatic aims contain magical emblems and prayer-like texts, which makes the borderline between the two categories hazy. Ultimately, the distinction may not be very important, for seals, like pieces of jewelry, could fulfil two functions at the same time.

Given the dramatic increase in the number of Aramaic and Pahlavi spell bowls recovered from Sasanian Babylonia, a similar study of motifs and meanings in that rich material is also important. Gyselen herself has made a start on this field as well, by discussing some specimens of the iconography of the Aramaic magic bowls (pp. 77ff.). Now that Gyselen's skillful analysis is available, it will be much easier to continue this type of research.

The author attempts some generalizations regarding the character of magic and magicians in the Sasanian empire, but in view of the meager data available, her statements are mostly too general or too speculative. It is to Gyselen's merit that she avoids far-reaching speculation and sticks for the most part to solid facts. One might have expected, for example, some connection to have been made between magic practices and shamanic-type journeys, for which we have evidence in Sasanian literature and epigraphy, but it is clear from this book that there is very little to support such an association in the glyptic art (pp. 73f.).

The attempt to distinguish between Iranian and foreign elements in the available material does not promise solid results, and Gyselen approaches the subject with all due caution and competence. Gyselen - contrary to common opinion - prefers to see in the very widespread motif of the she-wolf giving milk to human infants, not a borrowing from the West, but an indigenous theme (pp. 82-83). This still seems to me an open question, but there is indirect evidence for an Iranian association. An episode among the legends of Zoroaster in Pahlavi recounts how the baby Zoroaster was placed in a den of wolves. The wolf was not there at the time, and Zoroaster was instead suckled by a sheep brought there by two deities (Zadspram 10:9-14). An Iranian topos of a she-wolf giving milk to an infant must be assumed in the background; the story of Zoroaster inverts the topos, for contact with a wolf would have defiled the prophet.

The author tends to define the function of the human-like figure occurring very often on the seals in terms of the dualism of good and evil. She opines that the figure of a disheveled person, with the two legs stretched in two directions and usually holding two poles at his sides (figs. 5-16), is an arch-demon, an evil figure (pp. 84-85). Without wishing to deny this possibility, one could observe that the extensive Aramaic bowl-texts of the period show how little the practitioners of this magic were "dualists" in their perception. There are of course good and evil powers, but the distinctions are usually not clear-cut, and the borderline between beneficent and maleficent entities is fluid.

Some points of detail, chiefly on matters of epigraphy follow. Type 2.1 (fig. 5; Gignoux 1978, no. 10.1) contains an inscription which allegedly reads: ZNH pswn [absolute value of Y/stryw(r) mswn]. On closer look, the reading of the second line of this inscription is doubtful. I would propose, on the basis of what we have learned in the meantime about magical terminology (including Gignoux's own contributions), the following reading: ZNH pswn (Y) /y twkwk (pt)gwb [= en afson i jadugog padgow], "This is the charm of the talisman (against) the (little?) sorcerer(s)." The reading of the last word is complicated by the intrusion of an object protruding from the right hand pole of the demonic-looking figure to the right. It seems to penetrate into the inscription after (pt) and before gwb. Gyselen does not offer an explanation for this fuzzy object, and it may be nothing more than an unevenness on the surface of the stone.

Type 5 contains seals depicting one or more human figures with bent knees. It is curious that most of the five seals in this category have on them inscriptions with the word drod "peace, well-being." In fig. 35 (Gignoux and Gyselen 1982, no. 10.45, where the photo was printed in negative), the inscription could be read as follows, although other possibilities of arranging the word-order may be considered (the writer does not seem to have bothered about the ezafe and the conjunction): y t l t SRM t p y n y t t [= jad rad drod ta payan jad-et], "(may there be) a generous lot (and) well-being until the end (of) your lot." In fig. 32 (Gignoux 1978, no. 9.18), I suggest the following reading: rt ([center dot])n rt sRM [= arday(an) arda drod], "the (most) righteous (among) the righteous (?). Peace." The translation offered is tentative. The inscriptions on figures 30 and 31 could contain variations or distortions of this formula.

Type 6.2.1, fig. 41c (apparently in the Newell Collection, 622) contains an interesting inscription, which has not yet been properly deciphered. The text of the inscription is: wlxl ndwxt [absolute value of Y / d tbwlcmt<r> n ssn] AM / W ssn [absolute value of ABY W ssn] p yp y [absolute value of = warhranduxt i dadburzmih <r> an. sasan mad ud sasan pid ud sasan pay <i> pay], "Wahranduxt daughter of Dadburzmihr. Sasan is the mother, Sasan is the father, Sasan is the ultimate foundation (?)." With the exception of the last word or compound, the phrase is clear and straightforward. The ending seems to present a dvandva- compound or an ezafe- combination based on a repetition of the word pay, which could mean "foundation, basis," hence the translation given above. Gignoux reads the last word pasban "protector," an attractive proposition, but one that does not seem to be supported by the shape of the letters. The whole phrase is a kind of poetical hymn in praise of Sasan and could have formed part of a liturgy addressed to Sasan, for which we have no other information. If the interpretation is correct, this is one of the most exciting inscriptions in the corpus.

It is remarkable that the divine name Sasan, which was barely known until recently, is now attested, due to our heightened awareness of it in epigraphic sources, in an impressive number of magic objects (see the discussion on pp. 55ff.), and Gyselen may be right in drawing attention in the context to the famous rogues known as Banu Sasan in mediaeval Islam. They were reputed, among other things, to be performers of supernatural deeds, often based on sleight-of-hand. The connection of these sorcerers with the divine Iranian figure of Sasan could elucidate the origin of their name better than other such attempts (see Bosworth 1976, 1: 22ff.).

As an example for the use of this name one may take a seal of the type 6.2.2 (fig. 42), where, as on the previous seal quoted, there is a reference to the owner of the seal with an invocation of Sasan. I adopt Gignoux's reading: gwsnsp SPLA / ssn [absolute value of [= gusnasp dibir. sasan]], "The scribe Gusnasp. Sasan." The word "Sasan" is in this case written in the center of the seal, over the back of the suckling she-wolf, and looks like one of the icons of the seal. On another seal (type 8.4, fig. 48; Bivar 1969, no. ZS 3; cf. Gignoux 1977: 145), Gignoux proposes to read: s s[ny] xwp y[n] [= sasan hu-payan], "Sasan, the good preserver." If the reading is accepted (the photo is not sharp enough to be certain), this interpretation seems preferable to the one proposed by Gyselen, "Sasan le bien protege," or by Zimmer (1991: 134), "einen guten Beschutzer habend."

The attempt (pp. 89-90) to connect the name of Saint Sisinnios, who figures prominently in Byzantine magic spells, with Sasan is probably to be abandoned. We see here how a triad of entities, whose names may have been pronounced in Aramaic Sauni, Susauni and Sanigli (with several variants), was transformed in late Greek versions of the story into a triad of saints, Sisinios, Sines and Senedoros (Naveh and Shaked 1985: 111ff.). There is no evidence in any form of the story for a connection with Sasan. The earliest formulations of the story seem to have emerged in a Greek-speaking environment.

Type 8.2 (figs. 46a, 46b) contains an inscription that has so far defied interpretation, although the letters, of the lapidary type, are clear enough. I would venture, with great hesitation, the following reading, based on a combination of the inscriptions on both sides of the seal: (1) ct yx xyst y(x) bl y / p sp [= raz-et e hist e bare/pasb]. This may possibly be reconstructed as meaning, "You have abandoned a mystery, may you carry (it). Protector." The troublesome combination of letters yx, which occurs here twice, may be regarded as a phonetically written i/e. In the one case this can be interpreted as the particle that stands for an indefinite article; in the other it may constitute the optative particle. This is speculative but plausible. The separately written word p sp is quite likely to be the epithet "protector," from pasb(an). For the form of the word, one may refer to MP strp, Pth xstrp (cf. Gignoux 1972 s.vv.; Zimmer 1991: 126, 137), literally "protector of the kingdom" (cf. the Greek form satrapes, borrowed from Old Persian). It could have been pronounced in Middle Persian sahrab (perhaps an abbreviation of MP *sahrban rather than a direct continuation of the Old Persian epithet). I take it that pas(a)b is an epithet for the deity Sasan; it seems to occupy the same central position on the seal that in other seals is given to Sasan (cf. Gyselen, p. 59, although I am not convinced that pasban can be read in fig. 41c; cf. my remarks above).

Type 9.3 incorporates two seals showing a curious pouch-like object with five protrusions, previously identified as representing a hand. The new interpretation, which I find inconclusive, makes this figure into a stylized uterus. Gyselen omits to mention that there is also a cross in one of the two seals (fig. 54), on the right-hand side. This seal contains an inscription in Pahlavi, which was not interpreted by Gignoux 1978: 64, no. 7.10. My suggested reading, on the assumption that the Pahlavi is somewhat bungled, is the following (in an attempt to improve upon my earlier proposal in Shaked 1995a: 247): bl YWM(g) r [= bar rozgar], "The Lord (of the) world." This is an inscription with a distinct Christian color. The word rozgar, like awam and zamanag, means both "time" and "world" (for awam, cf. Shaked 1980: 23-28, and the addenda in Shaked 1995b; Shaked 1986: 38, n. 31; differently, MacKenzie 1984: 388-89). For bar, attested chiefly in combinations like bar xwaday, see Shaked 1995c: 179-80.

Type 9.4, fig. 56, has an inscription which seems to contain the word for seal or inscription, as recognized by Gignoux. To my mind, however, he did not read it quite correctly. My reading is: ZNH dcky ZY bwlc wndy ZY / pwdk n [= en dazag i burzawand i poyagan], "This is the mark [i.e., seal (?)] of Burzawand son of Poyag." The reading dcky seems imposed by the shape of the second letter, which is not h, and by the fact that dxky makes no sense. If we read, as proposed here, dazag or the like, it could be derived from the root dag- "to burn, cauterize, brand," which has given rise to several words in Iranian, e.g., NP dag "scar, brand mark," Av. daxsa-, daxsara-, and probably Av. daxsta- "sign, distinguishing mark"; perhaps even daxma- "burial place" (if it originally meant "a marked place"; cf. Medieval Hebrew siyyun, literally, "mark," which designates both a tombstone and a tomb). "Poyag" as a proper name seems to mean "runner." Even if the interpretation of the motif on this seal is correctly given as a uterus, it is not entirely clear that it should be classified as a magical object.

It is to be regretted that there are no indices. One would wish to have an index of deities and demons and an index of the objects discussed. This detracts somewhat from the usefulness of an otherwise fine book.


Bivar, A. D. H. 1969. Catalogue of the Western Asiatic Seals in the British Museum: Stamp Seals, 2: the Sasanian Dynasty, London: British Museum.

Bosworth, Clifford Edmund. 1976. The Mediaeval Islamic Underworld: The Banu Sasan in Arabic Society and Literature. 2 vols. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Gignoux, Philippe. 1972. Glossaire des inscriptions pehlevies et parthes. Corpus Inscriptionum Iranicarum, supplementary series, 1. London: Lund Humphries.

-----. 1977. Cachets sassanides du British Museum. Acta Iranica. Leiden: E. J. Brill; Tehran: Bibliotheque Pahlavi. Pp. 125-48.

-----. 1978. Catalogue des sceaux, camees, et bulles sasanides de la Bibliotheque nationale et du Musee du Louvre, 2: Les Sceaux et bulles inscrits. Paris: Bibliotheque nationale.

Gignoux, Philippe; and Rika Gyselen, 1982. Sceaux sasanides de diverses collections privees. Cahiers de Studia Iranica, 1. Leuven: Peeters.

MacKenzie, D. N. 1984. Some Pahlavi Plums, Acta Iranica, 23. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 383-91.

Naveh, Joseph, and Shaul Shaked. 1985. Amulets and Magic Bowls: Aramaic Incantations of Late Antiquity. Leiden: E. J. Brill; Jerusalem: Magnes Press.

Shaked, Shaul. 1980. Mihr the Judge. Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 2: 1-31.

-----. 1986. From Iran to Islam: On Some Symbols of Royalty. Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 7: 75-91.

-----. 1995a. Jewish Sasanian Sigillography. Au carrefour des religions: Melanges Philippe Gignoux, ed. R. Gyselen. Res Orientales VII. Bures-sur-Yvette: Groupe pour l'etude de la civilisation du Moyen-Orient. Pp. 239-56.

-----. 1995b. From Zoroastrian Iran to Islam: Studies in Religious History and Intercultural Contacts. Collected Studies Series, 505. Aldershot: Variorum.

-----. 1995c. A Persian House of Study, a King's Secretary: Irano-Aramaic Notes. Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientarium Hungaricae 48: 171-86.

Zimmer, Stefan. 1991. Zur sprachlichen Deutung sasanidischer Personennamen. Altorientalische Forschungen 18: 109-50.

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Author:Shaked, Shaul
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1997
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