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Ethiopia, Africa




Ink on parchment


46 1/16 ✕ 3 3/4 in. (117.0 ✕ 9.5 cm)

Credit Line

Bequest of David P. Harris ('46), 2020

Accession Number



Purchased by David P. Harris possibly from Maria Teresa O’Leary (Nuevo Mundo) in Alexandria, Virginia on February 28, 1976.


A portion is missing from the upper edge of the scroll; remnants of the pink ink used on the missing illustration(s) are visible. The upper edge also has a series of pinpricks, with a row of spun thread still attached. There is extensive damage to the left side of the scroll — and less severe damage to the right — likely a result of wear and tear as the scroll was rolled closed for daily use.


Brad Hostetler, and Lynn Jones, eds., Ethiopian Objects in the Blick-Harris Study Collection: Art, Context, and the Persistence of Form, Peregrinations: Journal of Medieval Art & Architecture 8, no. 1 (Spring 2022): pp. 5–25, 112–27, 165–76, 194–205, cat. 35.


This parchment scroll was created for a woman, either to enhance her fertility or offer protection for herself and her unborn child. The scroll’s prophylactic function is created by the specific combination of texts and images inscribed on it.

The text begins with an opening standard in Ethiopian protective scrolls, “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God,” and then details the object’s purpose: to capture demons and protect the mother and fetus from their threats.Several prayers for protection against the Evil Eye and a historiola — a type of spell which describes a mythical or religious narrative in order to provide a precedent for the spell’s request — are also included on this scroll.The historiola describes the story of Sissinios, an Orthodox saint who killed his sister when she was possessed by a demoness and attempted to murder her own children.

The scroll is comprised of three sheets of parchment stitched together with parchment thongs.The uppermost edge of the scroll is torn and contains traces of a pink ink, suggesting an image was originally at the top opening of the scroll.

The rest of the scroll is filled with single-columned lines of Gəʿəz text and two talismanic images, one near the center of the scroll and the other at the lower edge. Both images are executed in pink and black pigments.

These images do not illustrate the text, but rather are talismans that supplement the scroll’s protective function. The central image depicts the heads of four angels, each projecting from a side of a central rectangle. The angels are outlined in black and painted pink. Each features a set of large eyes which gaze out at the viewer; the facial features are indicated by black lines. A set of two pink wings, also outlined in black, surrounds each angel’s head. The central rectangle is filled with a wash of pink ink and features a face, similar to that of the angels, with large eyes and eyebrows, as well as a nose and mouth.

The lower edge features a cruciform design. At the center is a pink rectangle with a similar face: large eyes and features that are delineated by black lines. The cross is made of two intersecting arms of equal length, each outlined in black (exterior) and pink (interior) lines. The terminals of each arm curl away from each other. Each arm has a decorated central strip, composed of pink and black wavy lines ending in a terminal conical shape, in which there is a single tear-drop design. Four double-armed crosses, each made of a single black line, extend from the junction of the cross-arms.

Both of the extant images on this scroll are variants of an image commonly found on healing scrolls: magical geometric designs.These designs are intended to trap demons, sealing them inside the scroll. They are said to derive from the seal of King Solomon, which was revealed to him by God and used to command and trap demons. Together, the designs supplement the healing power of the text, in order to confront and trap demons.Similar motifs can be seen on healing scrolls in the collections of the Bodleian Library (MS Aeth. f. 4 and MS Aeth. f. 10) and the Menil Collection (CA 64051.02).

The oldest surviving Ethiopian healing scroll dates to the early sixteenth century, but they are believed to have been first produced in the Aksumite period (ca. 80 BCE – ca. 940 CE). The scrolls are produced by däbtära — itinerant, unordained clerics.A däbtära was traditionally a teacher and scribe until the education reforms of Ḫaylä Śəllase I in the early twentieth century.Today, they serve as singers and musicians in the church and as healers outside the church.

Each scroll is tailored to the needs of a specific client, and is created according to a standard ritual. The process begins with the selection and sacrifice of an astrologically determined animal. The client is then purified by being washed with the animal’s blood. The animal’s skin is then used to produce the parchment for the scroll. Healing scrolls typically consist of three strips of parchment, stitched together to create a scroll equal in height to the client. This ensures the client is protected from head to toe.The scrolls are then inscribed with the owner’s name and a collection of texts and designs that together provide its protective role. While the majority of extant scrolls were created for women, to aid in conception and pregnancy, they can be produced to counteract any ailment. The däbtära selects appropriate prayers and protective spells and inscribes them in black ink on the scroll. The baptismal name of the client, incipit phrases of prayers, and important words from scripture are then inscribed in red ink.These scrolls can then be worn by the client in a cylindrical case or hung from the walls of their home until they have served their purpose.Once the client is healed, the scroll can be stored in case the ailment returns.

Caitlin Mims, in Peregrinations: Journal of Medieval Art & Architecture 8, no. 1 (Spring 2022): 194–95.

2020.209.pdf (356 kB)
Purchase Receipt and Supporting Materials

2020.209.complete.pdf (11713 kB)
Complete Scroll

2020.209-front.jpeg (1808 kB)

2020.209-back.jpeg (1393 kB)


ṭälsäm, yäbranna kətab, ge'ez


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