Descenders to the Chariot: The People Behind the Hekhalot Literature

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The Hekhalot literature is a bizarre conglomeration of Jewish esoteric and revelatory texts in Hebrew and Aramaic, produced sometime between late antiquity and the early Middle Ages and surviving in medieval manuscripts.
These texts claims to describe the self-induced spiritual experiences of the "descenders to the chariot" and to reveal the techniques that permitted these magico-religious practitioners to view for themselves Ezekiel's Merkavah as well as to gain control of angels and a supernatural mastery of Torah.
Drawing on epigraphic and archaeological evidence from the Middle East, anthropological models, and a wide range of cross-cultural evidence, this book aims to show that the Hekhalot literature preserves the teachings and rituals of real religious functionaries who flourished in late antiquity and who were quite like the functionaries anthopologists call shamans.

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Product Details

Meet the Author

James R. Davila, Ph.D., Harvard University, is Lecturer in Early Jewish Studies at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. He is the author of Liturgical Works (Eerdmans, 2000) and he is the co-editor of The Jewish Roots of Christological Monotheism. Papers from the St. Andrews Conference on the Historical Origins of the Worship of Jesus (Brill, 1999).

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Table of Contents

Abbreviations and Sigla
1 The Hekhalot Literature 1
2 Mysticism, Magic, and Shamanism 25
3 Becoming a Shaman 55
4 Shamanic Ascetic Techniques 75
5 Initiatory Disintegration and Reintegration 126
6 The Otherworldly Journey 156
7 Control of the Spirits 196
8 The Hekhalot Literature and Other Jewish Texts of Ritual Power 214
9 Locating the Descenders to the Chariot 257
10 Conclusions 306
Bibliography 313
Indices 325
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  • Posted April 8, 2010

    'Descenders' Soars

    In this intriguing book, Davila parallels the practices and rhetoric of Merkabah Mysticism with that of late forms of shamanism (Inuit, Siberian, Native American). He contends that the Visions of the Throne were real-- that is, as real as a vision can be-- and that these experiences were the products of trance states induced by a lengthy program of asceticism and prayer; a process best described as "shamanic". Within some circles, this remains a sensitive subject as there are still many astute scholars who are in devout denial of religion having shamanic influences. Davila braves the subject tactfully, dismissing the possible use of hallucinogenic substances as "irrelevant" to the discussion. Especially interesting (and almost humorous) are the accounts of terrifying angels who immediately accost the unfortunate initiate who has not properly purified himself before attempting to gain entrance into paradise: "Mortal, son of a putrid drop, son of a maggot and a worm!"

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