Gaster’s Amulets at Rylands

Our next ‘collection encounter’ at the Rylands took place in the cold storage area of the library, where most items, books and artefacts which are not on permanent display are kept in a secure and safe environment. This climate-controlled room resembles a scene from an Indiana Jones film as you first step inside, with rows and rows of metal shelves stretching into the distance, each filled with carefully labelled acid free boxes ensuring the long-term preservation of the materials inside. It is very exciting to be allowed access to such a hidden space, which is not open to the public and requires specialist curators such as our knowledgeable guides to identify then carefully handle the items we had come to see. ‘This is where the manuscripts sleep,’ said Elizabeth smiling, as we looked around the room in anticipation. ‘When there is no-one in here, we turn off the lights.’

We had come to look at the amulets from the Gaster collection at the Rylands. Elizabeth explained that Moses Gaster (1856-1939) had been a Rumanian rabbi, esteemed academic, scholar and linguist who became the Chief Rabbi (Hakham) of the Spanish and Portuguese community in London. He had also been an avid collector of Hebrew, Slavonic, and Samaritan manuscripts, and other related Jewish material. In 1954, the John Rylands Library purchased part of his collection of manuscripts, along with his collection of fragments from the Cairo Genizah as well as his notebooks, and his amulets and other objects relating to Jewish mystical practices.

‘We have about 11,000 fragments of Gaster’s from the Cairo Genizah,’ said Zsófi as she turned the great wheel on the front of the shelving area that we wanted to access, then rolled back that section. ‘The theory is that possibly these fragments were excavated as they were digging out the material from the main chamber’ said Zsófi pointing us to a row of numbered boxes labelled ‘Gaster Genizah.’ The bulk of the material inside these boxes had been gathered from the main storeroom or genizah of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo in the late nineteenth century. It is expected that the items in Gaster’s collection might have been picked up from the residue on the floor, ‘so they are just very tiny pieces.’ The Rylands Cairo Genizah Project ran for several years on the identification and digitisation of fragments and the full collection can now be viewed online. 

Elizabeth found the site of the boxes of amulets on the same shelving area and took a few of them down to a table area for us to examine. Inside the grey acid free boxes, carefully placed in their own carefully carved handmade ‘beds’ of foam, were some items from Gaster’s large collection of amulets. These tiny objects are described as sort of ‘lucky’ charms. They were originally used by folk doctors, cabbalistic rabbis, and other believers, including Jewish housewives, to ward off evil spirits, repel demons, fight against disease or other disasters, or for other types of protection and magic including the protection of mothers after birth and newborn babies. The first amulet she showed us was a triangular shaped shoulder bone, known as a scapula, ‘probably from a goat or a sheep’ with an Arabic charm written on the front and further inscriptions on the back (Gaster Amulet 48). The date and exact source of the item was unknown. ‘The problem with most of these items is that we don’t have the context,’ said Zsófi, showing us another in the form of a scarab beetle. ‘Gaster was collecting from many different places. Sometimes there is an envelope or label with a date or some other detail but otherwise we often have very little information. Here Moses Gaster himself says ‘Byzantine or Bulgarian amulet case’ she said pointing to a leather case in another box. She showed us a metal case from Yemen covered with Hebrew script, an inscribed magic silver square, and a little curled golden metal fish with engraved markings. There were many more amulets to view, some the size of a coin, with pictures and symbols, a bracelet of shells, a pendant made of a head of a great stag beetle and many more of various shapes and sizes. I could have stayed and looked at them for hours. She explained that other items in the collection include parchment and paper amulets designed for hanging on the walls of nursery rooms to protect sleeping children from evil spirits or to be carried on the person for good luck and protection from disease. The Gaster Amulet Collection contains around 270 items in total of various types: beadwork, metalwork, textile objects, paper and parchment manuscripts, jewellery, and objects. Those that contain text are mostly in Hebrew, Judeo-Arabic, or Arabic but there are also a few Samaritan and Ethiopian items. A full digital collection of the Gaster amulets can be accessed here.

She also showed us one of Gaster’s notebooks entitled ‘Hebrew Amulets’. The A4 sized leatherbound scrapbook was filled with pieces of paper and parchment, including original handwritten amulets in Hebrew and Arabic scripts, magical diagrams and prescriptions, spells and recipes for potions, drawings and scribbled notes, other pages typewritten, some of which had been pasted into the pages by Gaster himself. Whilst the book has been described as ‘a conservator’s nightmare’ with its deteriorating, brittle, faded, glued together pages, as an artist writer I found it a magical object. This scrappy notebook is a unique record of the passions and activities of a dedicated collector and his diverse interests, which include the little-known but ancient Jewish folk tradition of using amulets for magical protection. 

Gaster Amulets:

Blog on the collection by Dr Gal Sofer (BGU, Beer Sheva):

Each amulet and genizah fragment in the four Gaster scrap books have been digitised (for instance Gaster Amulet 126: but we have no images of the scrap books themselves.


You can find more on the Moses Gaster Collections here:

— Dr Rachel Lichtenstein