The Seal of Solomon

seal of solomon2

Several Medieval Muslim exegetes, most notably al-Ṭabarī, Ibn Abī Ḥātim and al-Suyūṭī, narrated from one the earliest Qur’an scholars and the prophet Muḥammad’s Companion, Ibn ‘Abbās (d. 687 AD), the story of the Abrahamic prophet and king Solomon’s ring. In short, the narration describes how Solomon owned a powerful signet ring with which he was able to command men, Jinn and animals alike, holding power (mulkover all living beings. He wore the ring to uphold his kingship, contain the demons and carry out God’s will on earth. This is described in the Qur’anic Chapter al-Naml: 17: “And gathered for Solomon were his soldiers of the Jinn and men and birds, and they were in rows”. One night however, he entrusted his ring to his favorite wife, Jarāda. A demon, who Ibn ‘Abbās and Qatāda called akhr and Mujāhid called Āṣir, came to her in the form of her husband and asked her to give him the signet ring. Both Qatāda and Mujāhid were contemporaries of Ibn ‘Abbās and his peers in narration and exegeses. 

When Solomon returned, his wife blamed him of being an imposter, but by the time they both realized what happened, the demon had already taken over the king’s realm and ruled in his name. The Qur’anic Chapter Ṣād: 34 reads: “And we certainly tried Solomon and placed on his throne a body; then he returned”. The demon threw the ring in the sea, hoping to expel Solomon forever. Initially, Solomon did wander his lost kingdom, befriending a fisherman. The fisherman had caught a fish, and when cutting his catch open, he found a ring in its abdomen. The ring of Solomon. He presented his ring to the king, who returned to his court and drove away the demon. As he wielded his powerful signet ring once again, he ruled his kingdom and armies like before. 

It’s likely that Solomon’s ring featured an engraved seal, as was customary among the kings and statesmen of ancient times. If we compare the above-mentioned narration with several verses from the Old Testament, we discover the rather common use of signet rings by contemporary leaders, like the Egyptian Pharaoh (Genesis 41:42), the Persian king Ahasuerus (Esther 8:8) and the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 6:17). Looking over the number of cases where mighty kings had rings with seals on them, it makes only sense that king Solomon, a major Israelite ruler, would have one too. Besides, the Bible mentions that Judah the Patriarch himself even owned a signet ring with an engraved seal, as mentioned in Genesis 38:18. The Hebrew word chotham used in this verse means a seal or signet ring according to Strong’s dictionary of Biblical Hebrew. Judah being the progenitor of the Davidic line,  it’s likely that this remained customary throughout subsequent royal generations. 

There is, however, little to no evidence at all to point out what engraving was exactly featured on Solomon’s signet ring’s seal. The exact image of the seal was left to the imagination, and it shouldn’t surprise that such magical relic became a popular subject of Abrahamic lore and symbolism. Its completely unclear where it actually developed into its current hexagram or pentagram form, other than that it appeared as such as early as the 9th century in a religious apotropaic context. Muslim scholars theorized on an alternative for the hexagram, and it was proposed by some that the seal actually featured the Islamic shahāda. Ibn Rajab al-Ḥanbalī (1335-1392), among others, mentions in his Aḥkām al-Khawātim a prophetic narration reported by Jābir bin ʿAbdillāh, that the prophet Muḥammad would have said: “The seal of Solomon son of David’s ring was engraved with ‘there’s no god except God, Muḥammad is His messenger.'” However, many scholars of ḥadīth denounced this narration as baseless and false, among others Ibn Ḥibbān and Ibn al-Jawzī, most notably in the latter’s Kitāb al-Mawḍūʿāt.

Although the story of the Seal of Solomon was developed and theorized on primarily by medieval Muslim writers, it was adopted from medieval Arabic literature by the Jewish Kabbalistic traditions of medieval Spain around the 12th century and used in a talismanic and occultist context. It’s important to note that at this point in history, this distinct seal didn’t play any religious role within mainstream Judaism. According to Israeli philosopher and historian Gershom Scholem, the name “Seal of Solomon” originated with the Arabs. In his book Magen David – History of a Symbol, he states that the five-pointed and the six-pointed stars were called by this name for a long time, and no distinction was made between them. 

Despite the Reconquista and expulsion of Jews and Muslims from the Spanish mainland, the Seal of Solomon lived on in religious and occult manuscript of the 16th and 17th century Morisco Christians. As former Muslims converted to Christianity, they upheld this part of their heritage in several different works, most notably the 16th century Misceláneo de Salomón, a Morisco codex where recipes made from herbs and animal-based medicines are combined with religious phrases and magic signs. In some cases it carried an eschatological meaning, in others, it was employed for exorcism. In the last stage of the existence of Moriscos in Spain, the seal of Solomon, due to its eschatological meaning, was employed to warn community members of the imminent final judgment, the coming expulsion. As noted by E. Fernández Medina in her article The Seal of Solomon: From Magic to Messianic Device (2009), old Christian communities in areas long ruled and influenced by the Andalusian Muslims were also familiar with the Seal of Solomon and its hexagram form. It’s from this crossroads of several religions and cultures, the Iberian Peninsula, that the hexagram seal started to trickle slowly into Europe, where it became a popular tool in the so-called Renaissance Magic, the European rediscovery of ancient magical practices, and the later European occultist movement of the 18th-20th century. Famous 19th century French occult author Éliphas Lévi featured a Seal of Solomon on the front page of his Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie, and it also appears several times in English occultist Francis Barrett’s The Magus. 

It’s not entirely clear if the Seal of Solomon was commonly associated with magic and talismans during the first centuries of Muslim history. The vast scale of its use, on armor, shields, houses of prayer, on coins, on banners, on drinking cups or on wooden panels either indicate a high rate of superstition in early Muslim societies or its symbolic association with Islam similar to the star and crescent today. However, as it was believed that Solomon could contain the evil spirits and demons with his signet ring, the hexagram became a common talisman and amulet in occultist and mysticist circles and incidentally in popular belief as early as the 11th century. It was used as a warden against evil, similar to the khamsa or naẓar charms, or as a connection to the world of spirits in order to summon them and command them. From the 16th century onward, the Ottoman star and crescent replaced the Seal of Solomon as an important public symbol of Islam and the hexagram seal gradually but certainly slipped away into the realm of occultism and apotropaic magic.

Today, the Seal’s meaning and origin is almost entirely lost to the modern Muslim world. Featured on the flag of Israel and popularized as a proper Jewish symbol, the hexagram evokes enmity among many opponents of the Zionist movement. The only Muslim state to still feature a Seal of Solomon in its flag, albeit as a pentagram, is Morocco. The 5-pointed depiction of the Seal of Solomon was added to the traditional red flag in 1915 by king Yūsuf of Morocco when his country was subject to the rule of France.

Nonetheless, the six-pointed Seal is actually a relatively new phenomenon among mainstream Jews, let alone the Zionist movement with which many people associate it today. Like I mentioned before, the Seal of Solomon wasn’t actually referred to as the Star of David during most of its history, and was as far as Judaism goes only confined to the Kabbalistic grimoires of medieval Spain and similar contemporary Jewish mystical traditions further to the north, like the Central European Ashkenazi Hasidim. These grimoires were textbooks on the practition of magic and spellcraft and on how to create amulets, talismans and other apotropaic objects. There was no Jewish religious connotation attached to the Seal, as its use among Kabbalists limited itself to the realm of occultism and mysticism.

Its first and earliest application as an identification for Jews was in 14th century Prague. King of Bohemia Charles IV (r. 1346-1378) prescribed for the Jews of that city a red flag with Solomon’s Seal on it. Following the Battle of Prague (1648), the Jews of Prague were again granted a flag, in recognition in their contribution to the city’s defense. According to Reuven Kashani of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that flag showed a yellow hexagram on a red background, with a star placed in the center of the hexagram. A replica of that flag received by the Jews of Prague can be found in the Altneushul Synagogue of Prague. It was in that 17th century that the Central and Eastern European Jewish communities made the hexagram into a symbol for their people and started to call the Seal of Solomon Magen David, or David’s Shield, which was later known as the Star of David.

From the 19th century onward, the hexagram became a symbol for, initially, the Zionist movement, and subsequently all Jews. It was indeed chosen to represent the First Zionist Congress in 1897, with 6 stars and a lion in it’s center, designed by Lithuanian-Jewish businessman David Wolfsohn. It’s use was still fairly niche, the Zionist movement not being universally accepted among Jews. Unfortunately enough, it became a mainstream image both for Jews and in the collective consciousness of the world during the darkest of moments in Jewish history, the Holocaust. It was used by the Nazis to identify and mark Jewish citizens of the occupied areas. The Nazis didn’t initially have a general ruling on the sign they should use, but the yellow hexagram badge was generally introduced across all of occupied Europe from September 1941 onward.

As a sign for the suffering of the Jewish people during the war and as the original 19th century symbol for the Zionist movement, awareness on the hexagram raised worldwide and its depiction came to equal and symbolize Judaism. Consequently, with the establishment of Israel in 1948, it was adopted on October 28 by the state institutions to feature on their official flag between two parallel blue bands, directly influenced by the First Zionist Congress flag. 

However, it remains a controversial symbol among certain scholars of Jewish history. The above-quoted historian Gershom Scholem said in his book Magen David – History of a Symbol: “The hexagon is not a Jewish symbol, much less ‘the symbol of Judaism.’ None of the marks of a true symbol nor its manner of origin… apply to it.” True, the origins of the Star of David lie within the Muslim tradition’s Seal of Solomon, only to become a symbol for Judaism from the 19th century onward. But then again, so isn’t the star and crescent originally an Islamic symbol and isn’t the cross originally a Christian one. That’s just a normal aspect of human history. It remains nonetheless important to observe and learn a symbol’s true meaning and origin in order to understand its importance and application. Nuance is key, especially in such controversial and sensitive subjects.

Last but not least, the hexagram Seal of Solomon played an important symbolical role in the royal Ethiopian Solomonic dynasty. This imperial house of the former Ethiopian empire claimed lineal descent from king Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. According to the national epic Glory of Kings (Kebra Negast), a 14th century AD religious account written in Ge’ez describing the genealogy of the Solomonic dynasty, this dynasty was established by Menelik I, son of the biblical king and his wife queen Makeda. According to the book, Menelik I founded this monarchical line of Ethiopia somewhere around 950 BC. This lasted until 1974, when Haile Selassie (1892-1975) was removed from the throne, and used visual symbols like the Seal of Solomon or the Lion of Judah to legitimate its claimed lineage. 

For examples and pictures, please visit this thread on my Twitter or this board on my Pinterest.

Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he’s working with both refugees from the region as well as foreigners seeking to learn the Dutch language. He wrote columns on Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place.

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