Thursday, December 06, 2007


When a man believes himself to be threatened by demons, or by magic of one sort or another, an appeal to God should win him safety. In an extremity he can resort to extemporaneous prayer. The most direct method is recommended in dealing with a demon who unexpectedly confronts one: "Don't run, but drop to the ground before him; so long as you are prostrate he will not harm you; and pray in the name of God that he do you no hurt." However, the provident man fortified himself with one or another of the many petitions especially composed for such needs--prayers which besought protection against demons, illness, magic, the evil eye, the whole catalogue of perils that beset the superstititious--prayers that concentrated on only one of these dangers, or, more often, lashed out against all of them together, in long-winded, iterative supplication. The Kabbalists, toward the close of the period, were especially prolific of such prayers. Already in the pages of the Talmud we read that "the demons keep away from everyone who recites the Shema' before retiring." There grew up an increasingly elaborate scheme of prayer around this nocturnal recitation of the Shema', to reinforce its protective powers, and coupled with straightforward pleas for deliverance from "the terrors that threaten by night" were potent Biblical verses and Psalms, magic names, appeals to the angels, three- and sevenfold repetitions, prayers with obscure mystical connotations, etc. There was no attempt to disguise the purpose of this prayer-service; it was frankly admitted time and again that "it exists only because of the demons."

This night-prayer offers an interesting illustration of the tenacity of magical and superstitious forms. One of its constituents invokes the protection of the angels: "at my right Michael, at my left Gabriel, before me Uriel, behind me Raphael." This is nothing more than a Jewish version of the ancient Babylo9nian incantation, "Shamash before me, behind me Sin, Mergal at my right, Ninib at my left," or, "May the good Shedu go at my right, the good Lamassu at my left," etc. And across millennia and continents Ireland provides us with a doggerel Catholic version:

O! Holy Mary, mother mild,
Look down on me, a little child,
And when I sleep put near my bed
The good Saint Joseph at my head,
My guardian angel at my right
To keepo me good through all the night;
Saint Brigid give me blessings sweet;
Saint Patrick watch beside my feet.
Be good to me O! mother mild,
Because I am a little child.

Isn't this a category into which St. Patrick's Breastplate fits like a hand in a glove? It's not, of course, necessarily a night prayer, but still...

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