Magic of the Skies

heavenly amulets
heavenly power

The Magic of the Skies

The image of the crescent with one or a few stars is undoubtedly one of the most iconic visual elements of North Africa and South West Asia. It is present on banners, but also on jewellery: rings with this very same image have been around in the region for at least 2,000 years. Amulets in the shape of crescents, depictions of stars and even the name of some jewellery items testify to the importance of the skies in both everyday life and magical tradition. But where does that importance come from? 

Sun and moon

First of all, both sun and moon were attributed with particular capacities based on their properties. Following analogous magic, the power of the warm life-giving rays of the sun was transferred to a person by wearing jewellery that carried an image of the sun, or was made of material that mimicked the colour of the sun, like gold or amber. The moon cycle was believed to be related to the female cycle, both of them being 28 days, and thus the imagery of the waxing moon carried notions of fertility and growth. Silver, the colour associated with the moon, by analogy also held these same capacities. The combination of both silver and gold in a bracelet type from Morocco reflects these ties: it is called ‘sun and moon’.

Lunar calendars

When it comes to jewellery, moon imagery takes precedence over that of the sun. One of the most obvious reasons for this is that the majority of North Africa and South West Asia makes use of a lunar calendar and has done so for millennia. In a lunar calendar, each month starts with the appearance of the new moon: the crescent marks a new beginning. This significance of the lunar calendar is also reflected in jewellery. One type of pendant with a crescent moon and a star is called Hilal as-Shawwal. It visualizes the crescent moon that officially ends the month of Ramadan and ushers in the following month of Shawwal. The crescent itself is often featured in jewellery, such as in these pendants from Tunisia.

Single stars

With the crescent often one or three stars are depicted. In the region, several bright stars are particularly important for the definition of the agricultural calendar. The rising and setting of these stars marks the start of rain or drought seasons, and the beginning of sowing, planting and harvesting. The most well-known of these is of course the planet Venus (technically not a star), which is clearly visible at dusk and dawn. Another important bright star is Sirius. Already in ancient Egypt, the moment when Sirius was first visible on the eastern horizon just before sunrise in August marked the start of the inundation season. In Yemen, Sirius is an indicator of the hot dry season. [1] The appearance at sunrise of the bright star Canopus, called Suhayl in Arabic, halfway October marked the start of the rainy season after summer and the start of dropping temperatures. [2] There is more to the age old image of crescent and stars than just a rendering of the sky: observing the stars was essential for everyday life.

The Seven Sisters

A star cluster that is of particular importance is the Pleiades. This group of stars is called al-Thurayya in Arabic and its appearance in the sky, related to the path of the moon, formed a clock for the passing of the seasons. When the Pleiades rise at sunrise on the eastern horizon, halfway May, the date trees start forming the green date buds. They are ripe when Sirius appears on the eastern horizon just before sunrise, in early August. [3] Another marker is when Pleiades rise in late October on the western horizon, at dusk. This is the best time to plant the winter grains, after Suhayl had announced the start of the rainy season two weeks earlier, so the soil would be saturated enough to receive them. [4] It should therefore not be surprising to see this star cluster in jewellery. The seven dots as shown on the image below, in the ower left corner on a bracelet from Siwa oasis, Egypt, are a representation of the Pleiades: Siwa oasis is famous for its date palms.

Connection between heaven and earth

This importance of stars in everyday life is reflected in the connection between the celestial and the terrestrial. Bedouin in the Sinai and southern Palestine believed that every person had a corresponding star in the sky that exerted influence on that person’s fate. When a baby was sickly, this was expressed by saying that its ‘star is weak’. [5] The rainy season that the Pleiades announce by their rising, and which brings prosperity for crops, makes this star cluster very auspicious. From this point of view, their appearance on jewellery also transfers some of that prosperity to the wearer.

The realm of magic

The lunar calendar, in combination with the appearance of stars and planets such as discussed here, also was very important in the creation of amulets. Just like the sun follows its path across the zodiac, the moon has its own path and also its own zodiac. There are 28 stops on its path, in which the moon stays for circa two weeks, and each stop is governed by a star or constellation. Each stop or station was believed to have positive or negative energy, and was associated with its own fragrance or bukhūr. Just one example to show you how that works: the Pleiades are housed in the third house, associated with bukhūr of flax seed, and when the moon traveled through this section of the sky this was seen as an excellent time to get together (as the Pleiades form a cluster of several stars), for travel and to bring matters to the attention of higher-ups. [6]

The magic world of the skies

If all this talk of stars, star clusters and lunar trajectories confuses you, don’t be surprised: studying the heavens is both an art and a science with intricate calculations and observations. A glimpse of this world is visible in jewellery. What I wanted to show you very briefly in this post is that the depiction of the moon and stars in jewellery and beyond is not just ornamental or a simple rendering of the celestial bodies: there is an entire world, both practical and spiritual, behind these. Pendants, rings, necklaces and other forms of jewellery form a material expression of both practical and magical knowledge of the heavens that is slowly fading.

References

[1] Varisco D.M. 1993. The agricultural marker stars in Yemeni folklore, in: Asian Folklore Studies 52, pp. 110-142

[2] Bailey, C. 1974. Bedouin Star-Lore in Sinai and the Negev, in: Bulletin of the School of Oriental and Asian Studies Vol. 37 No. 3, pp. 580-596

[3] idem, p. 587

[4] idem, p. 590

[5] Abu-Rabia, A. & N. Khalil 2012. Mourning Palestine. Death and Grief Rituals; in: Anthropology of the Middle East Vol. 7. No. 2, 1-18, pp. 12-13

[6] Varisco, D.M. 2017. Illuminating the lunar mansions (manāzil al-qamar) in Shams al-ma’ārif, in: Arabica 64, pp. 487-530, p. 497, 503