- The Long Life of Magical Objects: A Study in the Solomonic Tradition by Allegra Iafrate
King Solomon, Solomonic magic, Middle Ages, Late Antiquity, Testament of Solomon, material culture, materiality, magical objects, sympathetic magic, art history, Solomonic ring, Solomonic knot
In the short but compelling introduction to The Long Life of Magical Objects: A Study in the Solomonic Traditions, Allegra Iafrate describes her work as "the fruit of ongoing research into the pervasiveness and influence of the figure of Solomon during the Middle Ages" (2). While the figure of Solomon unites the various aspects (and artifacts) of this book, it is about much more than Solomon himself. Assuming the reader's familiarity with both the biblical figure of King Solomon and extracanonical textual sources (namely the Testament of Solomon), Iafrate poses a number of cross-cultural and diachronic inquiries about magic and materiality. What are magical objects and why do they persist in our imagery and our imagination? How, precisely, does magic [End Page 280] manifest in objects? What allows certain objects to accrue magical properties, or certain figures to become magnets for disparate traditions?
In the first and lengthiest chapter, "Magical Objects and Where to Find Them," Iafrate begins with the thorny issue of conceptualizing "magic." In rejecting comprehensive theories, she aligns herself instead with the operative, pragmatic approaches of scholars like Andrew Wilburn, considering a magical object to be "any item endowed with powers that are superior to its inherent physical conditions without discussing the agency that granted those powers or the way in which it came to acquire them" (5). The rest of the chapter functions as an incisive and interdisciplinary literature review, covering literary and anthropological approaches (Propp, Todorov, Tylor, van der Leeuw), sympathetic magic (Frazer, Durkheim, Malinowski, Mauss), object agency (Latour, Gell, Heidegger, Freedberg), and materiality/new materialism (McDannell, Hazard, Bennett). Employing a genealogical approach repeated throughout the book, Iafrate uses the chapter to articulate her own pragmatic methodology—namely, rejecting systematic theories in favor of a toolkit approach that draws on the fields of art history, religion, anthropology, and literature.
The following five chapters explore a series of efficacious objects, or "specimens" associated with King Solomon and his peculiar relationship with demons: a ring that controls demons; bottles or flasks that entrap evil spirits; a knot with apotropaic and constraining properties; the elusive shamir which can cut through hard entities without damaging them; and a flying carpet. These objects, while not quite imaginary, are not extant either, and Iafrate offers a lively investigation into their winding and often surprising trajectories throughout late antiquity, the Middle Ages, and into modernity. For each object she pursues the following aims: 1) untangling the narrative and artistic strands in order to provide a full cultural biography, and 2) interrogating its inherent, material qualities in order to determine how it attracts and manifests magical properties. None of these objects, Iafrate explains, are "born" magical, but the means by which they become magical are not random either (152). In arguing that we ought to consider materiality "not just as a precondition of magic but as one of its fundamental conditions of existence and efficacy" (157), Iafrate illuminates how magic manifests itself by being implicated in the very material of the object (the metal ring), in its function (a bottle), in its shape (an infinite knot), in its most distinctive property (the shamir), or in its intrinsic quality (the rug).
Both Iafrate's overarching approach and specific arguments are persuasive, evoking the possibility of applying a similar methodology to other groupings of objects. As each chapter seems intended to stand on its own, there are some redundancies between the sections. Overall, though, the writing is quite fluid, [End Page 281] with some particularly apt turns of phrase and evocative puns—echoing the playfulness of both Iafrate's methodology and her subject matter. The book serves as an excellent model of how to engage in diachronic, interdisciplinary work in a way that attends to questions both big and small. Iafrate demonstrates great facility in moving between...