Byzantine-period Demon Repellent Returned to Israeli Authorities After 40 Years

The amulet usually associated with the gnostics was found by ancient Arbel synagogue in northern Israel. Could its bearer have been a pregnant Jewish woman?

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The amulet found in the Arbel moshav featuring four Greek letters: I A W Θ.
The amulet found in the Arbel moshav featuring four Greek letters: I A W Θ.Credit: Dafna Gazit / IAA
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

A gruesome pendant designed to protect its bearer against demons 1,500 years ago has been returned to the Israel Antiquities Authority some 40 years after its discovery in the lower Galilee community of Arbel.

The amulet had been found near the ancient synagogue of Arbel by early moshav member Tova Haviv and was belatedly turned over to the authorities by her family after her death, the IAA says.

Inscribed in Greek, the device is made of bronze. One side shows a presumably saintly figure, judging by his halo, straddling a horse. He isn’t turning the other cheek, though: he’s stabbing a woman lying on her back with a spear.

Engraved in a crescent above the horseman is a Greek inscription: “The One God who Conquers Evil.” Below the horse’s legs are the Greek letters: I A W Θ.

Those letters, IHYH, stand for the Jewish divine name YHWH, or Yahweh.

A close-up of the demon repellent, dating back some 1,500 years.Credit: Dafna Gazit / IAA

The other side shows an eye – the evil eye – pierced by arrows and a pitchfork. Also lining up to subdue the demonic force are two lions, a snake, a scorpion and a bird. That side of the amulet also bears the abbreviated Greek inscription: One God.

All of which begs the question, who wore this? Was it a Jew?

“I can’t determine that. On the contrary! Anti-demon pendants of this type were used by everyone at the time – Jews, Christians and gnostics – who existed here,” says Dr. Eitan Klein, deputy director of the Antiquities Theft Prevention Unit.

The gnostics were mystic cults related to early Christianity who believed in the war between good and evil – as did the Jewish sect at Qumran centuries earlier. In fact, general belief in that struggle was held throughout the region, from Palestine to Persia.

Amulets of this ilk were therefore also used widely, though the ones in Palestine dating from the fifth and sixth centuries are usually thought to be associated with the gnostic cults, Klein tells Haaretz. Likely the necklaces were manufactured in the Galilee and Lebanon, he adds.

A man holding the ancient amulet.Credit: Dafna Gazit / IAA

“This group of amulets is sometimes called ‘Solomon’s Seal’ and the rider is depicted overcoming the evil spirit – in this case, a female identified with the mythological figure Gello/Gyllou, who threatens women and children and is associated with the evil eye,” he says.

Not all demon repellents associated evil with female, it bears adding: Note the symbology of St. George battling the dragon (who was demanding human sacrifices), Klein points out. No points for guessing which is the evil one there.

Because the demon in this case is depicted as a woman, he speculates that this particular amulet – they were all specific in intended use – aimed to protect pregnant women and children from evil. It may even have been borne by a pregnant woman, he suggests.

But … was she Jewish? The mention of Yahweh isn’t definitive in that respect. “Gnostics used Yahweh’s name,” Klein explains. “The name of the Jewish god was accepted by everybody who lived here then. It was a powerful name in its divinity. One didn’t have to be a Jew to believe in the power of the name.”

On the other hand, the object had been found in Arbel, which was a Jewish town replete with sages even in the Byzantine period.

The ancient amulet.Credit: Dafna Gazit / IAA

Arbel is often mentioned in historical sources from the talmudic period. Moreover, in the Talmud and Jewish liturgical poetry (piyutim), and in salvation texts from the sixth and seventh centuries, the valley of Arbel inspires rabbinical thoughts of the Redemption of Israel. Hiyah Rubah the Elder and Shimon ben Halafta were reportedly walking in the valley at daybreak, the Talmud tells us; as the sun rose, Hiyah compared the dawn with Israel’s redemption – as in, this is how it will happen: a little bit at a time, slowly, gradually getting brighter as it progresses.

Ironically, Arbel is not that far from Armageddon, where everything is supposed to end according to Christian tradition.

So, for all the centuries of teachings against iconography and imagery, it is plausible that Jews resorted to amulets for protection. Superstition knows no boundaries in geography or time.

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