I have always had a particular fascination with women warriors—particularly ancient and medieval ones. Joan of Arc was a favorite, as was Artemis, Greek goddess of the hunt. My father had a sword from Spain hanging on his wall in his study and I used to stare at it with curiosity and longing—and once even took it off the wall when a babysitter’s boyfriend scared me. Later on, I learned about the women warriors of Dahomey in West Africa, Mu Lan Hua of China, and the Scythian women who were the real-life inspiration for the legend of the Amazon. The story of Durga, the warrior goddess of India who combats demonic forces and destroys illusion, also compelled me. I think, having felt under siege from relatives and schoolmates early in my life, the image of the woman warrior made me feel safer, even if in real life, my college karate class made me feel uncomfortable.
In my own tradition, I explored the biblical character of Devorah, the prophetess and tribal leader who directed the Israelites in battle. Then I discovered the apocryphal Judith, who defended her city of Bethulia by cutting off the enemy general’s head–Judith is celebrated in art in a variety of European paintings and on Chanukah menorahs. Judith is also celebrated during the North African Jewish holiday ritual of Chag haBanot or Eid Al-Banat—the Festival of the Daughters, a day that honors women and girls. In addition to these legendary women, I was moved by other, non-legendary women who fought for justice and their people in a variety of ways.
I was curious about magical swords: objects not intended to fight in the physical world but to provide a spiritual defense. But I didn’t know them as objects related to Jewish tradition. So when, several years ago, I walked into an exhibit in the Museum of the Art and History of Judaism in Paris, I was astonished to see, prominently displayed as part of a wonderful and extensive amulet exhibition, a magical sword. I immediately noticed the eighteen “eyes” carved along its blade—eighteen, in Jewish numerology, signifies “life” since the Hebrew word chai or life has a numerical value of eighteen. The eyes were apparently to see into the other world, to identify the demons and ward them off.
This sword was called the Kreismesser or circle-knife, and it was used, surprisingly enough, by Jewish women. Joshua Trachtenberg, who documented Jewish magic, reports the following traditional source from a seventeenth-century book of Jewish customs:
The woman who gave birth does not leave her house till after the fourth week of giving birth and sometimes till the fifth week. How so? Firstly, you must know that the woman who gave birth must remain at her house till after der Kreis aus ist [=the Circle is completed]. That is, every night from the night of childbirth the woman who assists her in her home takes an outstretched sword and swings it around the woman several circles while saying some incantations that are well known to the women. Such is done every night for the four weeks from childbirth.
The “magic circle” within which a person is protected is an ancient ritual concept, and often the circle is inscribed with a sword or knife. In this case, a woman protects the birthgiver and the infant by using the kreismesser to complete a magical circle every night for four weeks—an entire cycle of the moon. This sword-wielding is meant to ward off demons (likely including Lilith, who was regarded are particularly dangerous to newborns). The circling was accompanied by women’s incantations which the source regrettably does not report. In a similar custom, the circumcision knife might be placed under the birthing mother’s pillow, or a sword or knife was suspended from the bed.
This circling is also done, sans sword, at a Jewish wedding: in many communities from Europe and the Middle East, the bride circles the groom seven times, likely also to keep away demons from the new home and family. In some communities, mourners circled a coffin seven times, to keep evil forces away from the dead individual making their journey to the other world.
It’s notable that it is women who wield the kreismesser, and the bride who circles the groom rather than the other way around. It seems clear that in these Jewish rituals, women are considered to have a protective role—even though, according to scholar B. Ann Tlusty, Germanic sword magic was entirely the province of men and was a kind of “hypermasculine magic.” It might have been that women were considered experts in protective magic, as they cared for birthing women and infants—or that women were viewed as sources of life, therefore containing protective power within themselves.
As I consider the kreismesser, the eyes seem particularly significant to me: they are on guard, watching, paying attention. In some way, the spiritual practice of the kreismesser is about vigilance, about paying attention to what happens to those around us. The sacred circle may be meant to keep things out, but it’s also meant to keep us in, and connected to one another. Interestingly, one protective practice Jewish women in the Rhineland did at the time of a birth was not to wield swords but to make twelve candles, or a single large braided candle, representing the twelve tribes. These candles were an indication of togetherness and witness of one another.
Faced with scary events in the last year, from government oppressions in many countries to cruel anti-immigration policies, anti-Semitic attacks, and reductions in legal protection for women, LGBT people and people of color, I’m thinking over these rituals of protection and how we spiritually and physically watch one another’s backs today. I am thinking about the advice circulating on Facebook about effective ways to intervene if you see someone being harassed. I’m also thinking about efforts to save pieces of land from being burned, or destroyed, by fire and by developers. The sword may not be our favorite metaphor, given its long association with violence and war—but the vigilance and care in these rituals feels relevant.
My friend and colleague Taya Shere often says that “protective” rituals shouldn’t be viewed as about “protection”—we can’t always keep painful things from befalling those we care about. Such rituals, she says, should be about filling ourselves up with our own essence and power so we can meet whatever comes with readiness and love. When I think about magic circles, I think about how we can work to draw circles—of defense, sustainability, peace– around what we wish to preserve and save.
Joseph Gutmann. The Jewish Life-Cycle (Brill, 1987).
Musee d’art et d’Histoire du Judaisme. Magie: anges et demons dans la tradition juive (2015).
Ann Tlusty. “Invincible blades and invulnerable bodies: weapons-magic in early-modern Germany,” European Review of History, vo. 22 no. 4 (2015), p. 658-679.
Joshua Trachtenberg. Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion (Most recent edition: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).
Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the co-founder of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute (www.kohenet.org) and the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion (www.ajrsem.org). She is the author of essays, poems, rituals and stories, and of seven books including Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons, The Omer Calendar of Biblical Women, The Hebrew Priestess (with Taya Shere, 2015), and the new volume of poetry The Book of Earth and Other Mysteries (2016).