Enchantress by Maggie Anton

Our member Diane Goldman writes:

This is the second of 2 historical novels about Rav Hisda’s daughter.  

Rav Hisda was a 4th century sage in Persian-controlled Babylonia (called Bavel in the book).  The kernel of Maggie Anton’s books is from a story in the Talmud about Rav Hisda’s teaching his students with his young daughter at his side (or on his lap).  He calls his two brightest students to him and asks her who she wants to marry.  She doesn’t know what to say and finally answers “Both of them.”  One of the boys says, “I hope I am your second husband.”  The Talmud says that she did marry both (one at a time!).

In the first book, subtitled “Apprentice,” the two boys vie for her affection; she eventually marries one of them (Rami).  The other one (Abba) is constantly trying to show up Rami and eventually moves away to study.  The first book ends after our heroine (Hisdadukh — Hisda’s daughter in Persian) is widowed at a young age and has lost her two children (the son to her sister and the daughter to the Angel of Death).  Also in the “Apprentice”, Hisdadukh is learning to inscribe amulets and bowls to keep away demons and the evil eye.  

Throughout both books, Ms. Anton weaves in Talmudic discussions in a very easy to understand way, as a case that the rabbi is judging or in a woman’s issue.  At the end of each book, she states where each discussion came from.  Also in each book is a map, a historical time line, a list of characters, and a glossary. You need the list of characters because Hisdadukh has 7 brothers (with wives) and one sister.  And the 7 sisters-in-law (and whatever brothers are home) live with Rav Hisda.  

In the second book (subtitled “Enchantress”), Hisdadukh is returning to Bavel (Babylonia) from Eretz Israel, after her young daughter dies.  She is going to live with and continue learning sorcery from Em, a healer.  Lo and behold, also in Em’s house is her nephew (Abba’s friend) and Abba who is married by now but not living at home.  Also, he has never gotten over Hisdadukh, and he and his (childless) wife do not get along.

Eventually the two reconcile and, since Abba has been married for 10 years with no children from the marriage, he is able to divorce his wife.  

More stuff happens.  More travel to Eretz Israel and then other parts of Bavel.  The couple goes to Abba’s ancestral city Machoza, which is right across the river from the Persian capital and we get some royal intrigues.  After Hisdadukh’s mother dies, she finds out her mother was the head enchantress (sorceress) and her sponsor in Machoza becomes the head sorceress.  Eventually, Hisdadukh succeeds her sponsor and has to battle a sorceress gone wrong (a witch) who has been plaguing travelers in the dessert between Bavel and Eretz Israel.

I have to say that all the magic bothered me.  There were even rabbis doing magic.  Ms. Anton says all the incantations (and accounts of rabbis doing magic) is in the Talmud or they have found archeological evidence (the amulets and bowls).  (Even in the Bible, we have accounts of Elijah and Elisha doing magic). 

You can read this book without reading “Apprentice” (Ms. Anton recaps the important details from the first book, starting from page 20), but why not read both?   They are both enjoyable and provide a picture of life in ancient Persian and Babylon, with Talmudic law and lore.