• Sigrid van Roode

Magic squares

Numbers are as powerful as words in the symbolism of the Middle East. Usually, the number of bells and dangles on a particular pendant or amulet will be uneven, believed to be a way of warding off the evil eye. The numbers three, five and seven hold strong power and are repeatedly worked into jewelry decoration. When numbers are an important element of an amulet, their significance is often known only to the wearer and the maker and the amulet is very personal as a result. One of the ways numbers appear in jewellery, is as magic squares.

A well-known variety of the number amulets is the so-called magical square: a numerical arrangement that has magical meaning. The most widely used square is the ‘buduh’-square: an arrangement of the numbers 1 through 9 with 5 in the middle, that reads 15 in all directions.  One example of this square is visible in the silver amulet featured below. The number five in the centre of the basic magic square is significant: five is a number that carries a special meaning throughout the Middle East. The placement of the number five in the centre is also an indication of the universe, in symbolizing man in the middle of the four cardinal points. Elaborating on this idea, the central number in any magic square is often considered to represent God in the centre of His creation. Some amulets leave this middle field blank out of respect for God, or simply write Allah or one of the 99 Names of God. The magic square in this way becomes a symbol of God, holding the universe in order and controlling creation. This square is first encountered in a 9th or 10th century copy of the writings of Jabir ibn Hayyan, and is said to ease childbirth. [1]

Its origins probably are much older and to be found in China, from where it traveled along the Silk Road to the Arab world.[2] The square derives its name from the four letters on the corners of the square when noted down in the Abjad letter-numerals: b-d-w-h. Its powers were believed to be so strong that the name ‘buduh’ itself was enough to invoke that power.[3]

Since the use of the buduh-square, many other magical squares have been developed and worked into silver amulets. Their use is not limited to the Islamic world. A Christian version of a magical square can be found on the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, where the numbers read 33 in all directions. In this square however some numbers are repeatedly used, while it is preferred to use the same number only once in a magical square. The square is also not limited to 3 x3 rows, but can be expanded as well as shown in the example below.

Magical squares are often used in jewelry. Pseudo-magic squares are also in use in jewellery: an imitation of a magic square, but then with symbols and numbers arranged without any specific order. The use of pseudo-magic squares is illustrative for the decline in meaning of a true magic square: instead of the order of the universe, only the shape of the square is regarded as beneficial.

Elaborate, purpose-made magic squares are very personal and created for a specific goal, and often worn hidden from view. The magic square has been, and still is, in use throughout the Middle East in Islamic, Christian and Jewish tradition.

This post is based on the chapter 'The Evil Eye and Other Problems' in my book Desert Silver


[1] Kriss, R. & H. Kriss-Heinrich, 1962. Volksglaube im Bereich des Islam. Band II. Amulette, Zauberformeln und Beschwörungen. Otto Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden, p. 84 relate that the square should be drawn on two linen bandages, that have to be shown to the pregnant woman after which they are placed underneath her feet.

[2] See Schuyler Cammann, Islamic and Indian Magic Squares Part I, in History of Religions Vol 8 No 3 (1969) pp 181-209 for more information about the Chinese origins of this square

[3] Savage-Smith, E. 1997. Amulets and related talismanic objects, in: Raby, J. (ed) 1997. The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art. Vol. XII. The Nour Foundation, New York p. 106

Materiality of Magic-series

In the Materiality of Magic-series, I will be sharing more on these capacities of jewellery and personal adornment. It is in these expressions that we learn about the people themselves: what they feared, hoped and wanted, what their life looked like. In this way, jewellery offers us a view from within, an intimate glimpse on the life of its wearer. To me, that is the true power of jewellery and personal adornment.