The Seal of Solomon

seal of solomon2

Several early Muslim exegetes, most notably al-Ṭabarī, Ibn Abī Ḥātim and al-Suyūṭī, narrated from one the earliest Qur’an scholars and Companions of the prophet Muḥammad, Ibn ‘Abbās, the story of the Abrahamic prophet and king Solomon’s ring. In short, the narration describes how Solomon owned a powerful ring with which he was able to command men, Jinn and animals, 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 al-Naml: 17 as: “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 Āsif, came to her in the form of her husband and asked her to give him the ring.

When Solomon returned, his wife blamed him of being an imposter, but by the time they both realized what had happened, the demon had already taken over the king’s realm and ruled in his name. The Qur’anic 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 ring once again, he ruled his kingdom and armies like before. 

It shouldn’t surprise that such magical relic became a popular subject of Abrahamic lore and symbolism. Its exact engraving is not described in Muslim sources, other that that its signet beared the name of God. Its current hexagram or pentagram form only appeared later on, when the symbol gained wide popularity throughout the Middle-Ages.

Although the story of the Seal of Solomon was developed primarily by medieval Muslim writers, it was adopted by Jews and Christians as well. According to Israeli philosopher and historian Gershom Scholem, the name “Seal of Solomon” apparently originated with the Arabs. In his opinion, the five-pointed and the six-pointed stars were called by one name for a long time, the “Seal of Solomon,” and no distinction was made between them. The earliest Jewish usage of the symbol was inherited from medieval Arabic literature by Spanish Kabbalists for use in talismanic protective amulets.

Initially, the seal only played a religious or decorative role in houses of prayer, on drinking cups, on coins or on state banners. The symbol referred to Solomon, an important figure in all monotheistic religions. It stood for piety and faith, and the loyalty of a believer towards God. According to the Catalan Atlas (1375), the two Anatolian beyliks of respectively Karaman and Candar featured a Seal of Solomon on their flags, as did a local emirate under control of the Zayyanid Kingdom of Tlemcen. The symbol was popular among the Ayyubids, Mamluks, Turkish beyliks and atabegs, and was later used extensively by the Ottomans and Moguls in their mosque decorations. It’s often featured on 13th century silver Ayyubid and 19th century copper Moroccan coins. As the star and crescent replaced the Seal of Solomon as an important public symbol of Islam, especially because of the Ottoman influence on flags and banners, the hexagram gradually slipped away into the realm of occultism and apotropaic magic.

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 spheres and even among popular belief. It is used as a warden against evil, similar to the khamsa or nazar charms, or as a connection to the world of spirits in order to summon them and command them. Consequently, and influenced by Jewish and Islamic occultist traditions, the Seal 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. 

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 solely Jewish symbol, the hexagram evokes enmity among many opponents of the Zionist movement. The only Muslim state to still feature a Seal 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 Yūsef of Morocco when his country was subject to the rule of France.

Nonetheless is the six-pointed Seal a relatively new phenomenon among Jews, let alone the Zionist movement with which many people in the Islamic world associate it today. The Seal of Solomon, which wasn’t at the time referred to as the Star of David, was sporadically used in Kabbalistic grimoires in Medieval mixed Muslim-Jewish areas in the Iberian Peninsula and the Levant. 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 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. A replica of a similar flag received by the Jews of Prague in the 17th century can be found in the Altneushul Synagogue of Prague. It was in that 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.

Could we conclude that the hexagram is in fact originally a Jewish symbol? The answer is no, not really. As historian Gershom Scholem said: “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.” The origins of David’s Star/Solomon’s Seal lie within the Muslim world, 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. Symbols tend to evolve, change and reinvent themselves over time. 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.

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

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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