What exactly does the term “spiritually charged” mean? That’s what “Spirit into Script,” the latest exhibit sponsored by the University’s Institute for the Humanities, tries to convey through “spiritually charged” writings found in African, Asian, and Middle Eastern traditions.
To Elisabeth Paymal the exhibit’s curator, the term is a religiously conscious substitute for “supernatural.” “All these items are spiritually charged – they protect you, they do bad things perhaps, most of them here are positive.” Paymal decided to be purposely vague in labeling the items exhibited, for great stigma usually surrounds the idea of the supernatural.
“The word ‘magic’ is pretty sensitive. Your magic is my religion,” said Paymal.
Amulets and talismans line the walls of the small display room, promising the wearer blessings of every form. Though their names may conjure fanciful ideas usually found in movie scripts and fairy stories, amulets and talismans are serious business to many modern world religions. Shamans and rabbis write the word of God on pieces of wood, fabric and paper encased in boxes or scrolls. Elegant four-foot-tall rubbings are meant to protect a home from evil spirits. Amulets from Tibet serve as a portable shrine to constantly connect the owner to the spiritual world. Rooted in everyday religious practices, these spiritual objects are attempts at harnessing the power of each culture’s version of a supreme being.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the exhibit is its modern relevance. These spiritual practices, ancient in their origins, exist today throughout the world. An African amulet vest protects the wearer from six unpalatable fates, including pain in the event of horse trampling. Though it sounds like an ancient innovation, the vest was created in 1995. Precisely 111 rectangles of photocopied sacred mantras line the vest, which would most likely be worn under armor or, nowadays, under fatigues.
Phylacteries, two small leather boxes filled with important verses from the Torah, are still used by many observant Jews in daily prayer. Also called tefillin, this apparatus of two boxes connected by long leather straps is worn on the head and left arm. Phylacteries are the literal interpretation of God’s command that his word be worn on the arm and between the eyes. Another purpose, perhaps buried by time, is that of a safeguard or charm against danger.
Asian Languages and Cultures Asst. Prof. James Robson was instrumental in the conception of “Spirit into Script.” The Institute for the Humanities shares the South Thayer Building with the departments of Near Eastern Studies and Asian Languages and Cultures and the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies. Paymal wanted to find a unifying theme for this specific exhibit to herald the alliance. Originally drawn to the physical beauty of calligraphy, Paymal soon found that calligraphic techniques and purposes differ substantially from culture to culture. Robson suggested focusing on the meaning behind the text itself. Paymal then assembled a seamless mix of religious writings replete with supernatural intent.
Though this exhibit focuses mainly on the Eastern world, Paymal assures that the theme is universal.
“(It) doesn’t mean that these practices do not exist in the Western traditions,” said Paymal, “They absolutely do.”
When asked about the modern significance of these artifacts, Robson pointed out everyone has objects they have invested with power. Students walk around campus with rabbit feet hanging off their bags, good luck charms around their necks and a bevy of beliefs of their own.
Spirit into Script
Through February 22
At the Institute of the Humanities