Segol (2020 Congress)

Marla Segol
(State University of New York at Buffalo)

New Title:

“Gender and Scrying in 16th Century Ottoman Kabbalah”

Previous Title:

“Ritual Innovation and Gender in 16th-Century Ottoman Kabbalah”

Abstract of Paper
Intended To be presented at the 55th International Congress on Medieval Studies [CANCELLED]
(Kalamazoo, 2020)

Rescheduled for the 56th International Congress on Medieval Studies
(Kalamazoo, 2021)

Session I of II on
“Revealing the Unknown”
Part I:  “Scryers and Scrying in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period”

Co-Sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence and the Societas Magica
Organized by Sanne de Laat and László Sándor Chardonnens

2020 Congress Program

2021 Congress Program Planning

[Published on 22 March 2020, with an Update on 17 November 2020 reporting the New Title and the Rescheduling for the 2021 Congress]



The Ottoman cities of Safed and Damascus played a crucial role in the development of modern kabbalah and its ritual practices. The kabbalists of Safed and Damascus radically reimagined the myth and ritual of 13th Century Iberian kabbalah, as they searched for new interpretations of older cosmological myths, and new rituals to act on them.

And often they sought them by scrying. Their methods included oil drop divination, geomancy, conjuring angels and demons with mirrors, posing questions upon awakening or going to sleep, mystical weeping, midnight study vigils,  and prostration upon graves, among many others. For kabbalists such as Moshe Cordovero, Isaac Luria, Hayyim Vital, and Joseph Caro, information gained by these means helped to establish individual authority, to elaborate on older myths, and to develop new ritual practices.

And yet there is another layer. There were a number of powerful women who served as patrons and advisors in these communities. They too practiced scrying rituals, and in this they participated in the process of ritual innovation, but even more, in that of mythical-ritual authentication and establishing authority.  Interestingly, scrying plays different roles in the process, as they sometimes scry to answer the kabbalists’ questions, but sometimes they forego the ritual and claim direct insight from the divine or from spirits. In these latter cases it can show greater authority than insight that is ritually cultivated, and it can also demonstrate social power. It can also do the opposite, such that ritually cultivated knowledge shows more rather than less authority.

This paper will examine the various scrying techniques employed by both men and women in 16th Century Ottoman kabbalah, their attachment to gender and social position, and their changing roles in ritual innovation and in establishing authority.


We thank Marla for her contributions to Research Group events over the years.

See, for example, the Abstract for her Paper at the 2013 Congress .