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INCANTATION BOWLS PROVIDE ANCIENT MAGICAL FORMULAE FOR BLESSINGS AND CURSES
By Stephen F. Beiner

I have been fascinated by the power of words for most of my life. It was a natural progression for me to do my graduate studies in semantics and formally study how specific language formations affected the listener. So you can well understand my fascination with incantation bowls, also known as "magic bowls," which almost 2000 years ago were used to harness the power of words and cast spells to protect the bowl’s owners from the evil spirits that lurked around them.

Ancient peoples of the Near East, from Mesopotamia to Palestine, believed that demons were responsible for infant death, disease, and even the infidelity of husbands, but also believed that certain incantations could repel or entrap the demons and render them unable to do their evil deeds. In antiquity, incantation bowls were often buried upside down under a new house. The incantation printed on the bowl spirals from the center of the bowl, presumably setting a trap for the succubus Lilith and other evil demon gods.

As beautiful and seductive as their physical appearance may be, the greatest importance of these incantation bowls lies in the texts that appear within them. Magic bowls, of which less than a few thousand exist and only a few hundred have been deciphered and published, are in essence manuscripts. They represent a rare collection of writings from the period from the 3rd to the 7th century CE. We have no other documents written from that period in Jewish Aramaic, a dialect of the language that had been used for almost a thousand years by that time, the lingua franca of the Near East. The monumental literary compellation of the commentaries, thoughts, writings, and discussions of the numerous rabbis from the same period formed the Babylonian Talmud. The writing on the magic bowls was physically written at that time. The Talmud, on the other hand, was, in fact, also created at this time and then copied over many generations; the earliest Talmudic manuscript in existence is from the 12th century. Magic bowl texts survived because they were written with permanent ink on earthenware pots that were buried soon after they were created. The Talmud and similar written material were written on vellum or parchment and were therefore doomed to perish.

Fewer than five hundred bowls have been published to date. An additional thousand or so in public and private collections are attracting the attention of scholars who are slowly deciphering them. They provide a substantial amount of important new material about the period in which rabbinic Judaism was being consolidated. Although in reality only humble amulets, the texts on the magic bowls contain a great wealth of information on a variety of subjects; they provide insight into the popular beliefs and customs of the time, which complement the highly edited, often cryptic information contained in the Talmud. The incantation bowls also provide a glimpse into the world of intimate cultural exchange between communities in antiquity that have often come to be perceived as completely separate from one another.

The purposes for which magic bowls were used. Magic bowls were used for a variety of purposes including the general protection of the client, his or her family, and his or her possessions. In other cases the magical incantation is an amulet against a very specific malady or disease or fear. Many magic bowls were often empowered to prevent miscarriages or the early death of a newborn. Some bowls entreat the magical powers to prevent the client’s spouse from being tempted by adultery. In one case, the magic bowl incantation is a love charm:
Appointed is this bowl to the account of Ansur bar Parkoi, that he be inflamed and kindled and burn after Ahath bat Nebazak. Amen.
The client Ahath commissioned this bowl to assure that Ansur, the son of Parkoi, would develop an uncontrollable lust for her. It is not clear from the text of the bowl if Ansur is her husband who has lost interest in her, or if he is a man with whom she has become enamoured, or if she simply considers him a good match. Some bowls, rather than being a charm against a generalized or specific evil, are in fact a curse directed at the client’s perceived enemies. Usually magic bowls simply sought protection from the various misfortunes that were common to all of the people of that era.

The magic in the bowls. The term "magic" has very different meanings in different cultural contexts and environments. The magic in the incantation bowls was an appeal to the supernatural by the people of antiquity to combat the everyday common woes of humanity, which plagued them: illness, misfortune, loneliness, fear, and depression. The power from which these bowls derive their efficacy is however extraordinary; the texts on the bowls are a very esoteric mystical literature that would have been the preserve of a small elite of very learned men.

The first magic bowl texts were published in 1853 by Austin Layard in his treaties Discoveries in the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon. Unfortunately, in most of the excavations where the bowls were found and in the reports of their discovery, careful detailing of their positioning was generally ignored or neglected. In the late 19th and 20th century, things magical were generally held in low esteem; magic was an aspect of a culture regarded as rather vulgar and unimportant.

Shape and Design. The most common shape of magic bowls is round with a round base, similar in size and shape to the average cereal bowl. Others have been found considerably larger, some as big as a large salad bowl. A number of small jug-shaped bowls have also been found. The design of the script and accompanying illustrations also varies. In the most common form, the script spirals around the bowl starting at the bottom of the concave side of the bowl and flows in a clockwise fashion towards the outer edge of the bowl. In some instances the text spills out and continues on the outer surface of the bowl, as if it were meant to overflow the bowl’s edge. In other bowls the text is designed in three separate sections within the bowl. Among the eye-catching aspects of the bowls are the drawings found within them. The depictions of demons usually occur within the bowl at its center, but can also be found on any part of the inside or outside of the bowl. Most frequently depicted are bound demons, shackled hand and foot, a form of sympathetic magic in which the creator of the bowl declares that just as the demon is bound in the drawing on the bowl, so too in real life the demons will be bound and rendered harmless. Many of the demons depicted are identifiable as being female and possess feathered bird-like legs with claws. Other bowls contain depictions of what appear to be fierce angels. Some bowls contain magic symbols, the full meaning of which are yet unknown.

The language of the bowl texts. The majority of the magic bowls are written in Jewish Aramaic but often include some portions of Hebrew, most commonly quotations from the Hebrew Bible. The texts are written in a wide variety of styles of calligraphy, perhaps because the scribes were working in different parts of the country or because they obtained different training. In some cases the poor quality of the text seems to result from the poor writing skills and schooling of the scribe; scholars ponder if such work is that of an illiterate copyist rather than a scribe. The second largest group of texts is written in Mandaic script, which was used by the Gnostic Mandaeans to write their dialect of Aramaic. Others were written in Syriac mostly by Gnostics, although there are a number that were clearly written by early Christians.

Popular religion. To fully understand the use of magic incantation bowls, one must look at the human context of a practice that might seem to us today as being somewhat bizarre. Magic bowls represent an aspect of popular religion; they are an expression of beliefs that go beyond the formal religious conventions of practice at that time. Popular religion reflects a general set of beliefs found to have been common to all of the peoples of the Near East in Late Antiquity: that we as humans share the world with a plethora of supernatural beings--angels, spirits, demons and a whole host of gods and goddesses. These supernatural beings, undetected by the naked eye, were thought to be forces that had a direct effect on human life. The incantation bowls were the contemporary technology by which one could rally positive supernatural forces that might fight the battle in the human’s behalf in an otherwise inaccessible realm that we call "magic." Magic bowls were tailor-made for each client individually and although there are a great number of different formulae, the magic incantations do have a common structure. The writer of these amulets could use various elements in different combinations to produce similar but different incantations for their clients. The sorcerer could mix and match a variety of opening formulae, lists of demons, and powerful names, depending on his knowledge, his available repertoire, and, of course, what the client could afford to pay.

The formulae in the bowl. The first section of the incantation text within the bowl is generally a declaration of the purpose and nature of the magical act that the bowl was intended to fulfill. It seems clear that the bowls were meant to be read aloud before they were buried. The driving principal which gives force to the action that is desired is linked to the idea that the utterance of certain sounds, names, and commands draws on the power of the words God uttered at Creation. The magic bowls are based on "word magic," the belief that certain combinations of letters and words would provide one who knew them and correctly used them with the ability to bring supernatural forces into play in a directed manner.

The second section of the text generally provides the name of the client, the existing and future members of his household, and his property and possessions. Interestingly, the name of the mother of the client is virtually always mentioned in Jewish magical texts. The list of demons found in the texts is also of great interest. Most often we find satana ("the persecutor"), a term derived from Persian meaning an "adversary." Another common term dewa can also be traced to Persian, in which it describes a type of devil or demon. Another common term is shed which is derived from the Akkadian sheddu which originally meant "protective deity"; it is interesting to note that once feared gods had become in time feared demons. It is not surprising that in the Babylonian Talmud we find a warning that one should not go near the ruins of ancient temples because of possible falling debris and because, although once the home of the gods, they are now inhabited by demons. Innana also know as Ishtar, at one time the most important goddess in Mesopotamia, was commonly associated with war and sex. Yet by the time of the writing of incantation bowls, Ishtar was demoted to the mere rank of a category of demon which could either be male or female. Ishtar is often depicted in the bowls with wings and bird feet, features that are attributed in the Talmud to Lilith and other demons. Lilith is a category of demon commonly depicted the incantation bowls; during this period Lilith begins to emerge from the status of a category of demon to the individual personification of the evil and lascivious child-snatcher. The origin of the Lilith demons is probably twofold. Firstly, there is the ancient Babylonian Ardat-lilit who is a spirit formed at the time of the untimely death of a girl or maiden who has never had sex or borne children. Ardat-lilit was thought to have been condemned to eternal unrest as she yearns for fulfillment; she takes her frustration and wrath out on pregnant women and young babies. The other precursor of Lilith is the Babylonian goddess Lamshtu who is described as having the head of a lion, the teeth of a donkey, naked breasts on which a leopard and piglet suckled, a hairy body, bird’s feet, and bloody hands with long finger-nails, each clutching a snake. Lamshtu’s mission was to do evil; her chief victims were unborn and newly born babies.

The third and final section of the incantation on the bowl is the conclusion in which the authority by which the incantation has gained its power is cited. It is interesting that the magical incantation has the form a legal document, containing the name of the client and his/her adversaries (supernatural or human), and the agency by which the edict that it dictates is to be enforced. The magic bowl operates on the premise that if the incantation is properly written and set out, a chain of events will ensue and the appropriate forces will be brought into action, leaving the demons or evil spirits no choice but to depart as if compelled by law.

Magic had a cross-cultural currency that dealt with issues that were not culture specific, which explains why people did not always choose practitioners according to their cultural or religious affiliation, but rather according to their reputation of the sorcerer. The evidence suggests that one cannot assume that the religion of the sorcerer and the client are synonymous. Jewish magic bowls are no different from the amulets and magic books of other cultures of that period, which apparently borrowed quite freely from each other. Jewish sorcerers readily made reference to non-Jewish gods and other powers. The magic of the incantation bowls is so eclectic that even a bowl written in the Jewish-Aramaic language does not necessarily imply a Jewish exorcist. Client’s use of practitioners of faiths other than their own is attested to by the fact that bowls written in different Aramaic dialects were found in the same house. Scholars suggest that magicians of different religious groups might have exchanged "trade secrets" or consulted with each other on "professional matters." Also, converted magicians brought with them their old stock of trade as they crossed into new religious communities. As with the entire world of magic, the codes are so secretive and the evidence so sparse that many questions about magic bowls and their use are still unanswered.

The Jews, while only one of a number of communities in Mesopotamia, apparently were a significant minority; some scholars estimate that there were close to one million Jews in Mesopotamia. The incantation bowls show us that in terms of popular beliefs, the Jews were not significantly different from the other peoples that surrounded them. Their understanding of illness and misfortune as part of a supernatural realm that they believed could be accessed and interacted with is an understanding that was common to all the peoples of the Near East. Their belief in the magical qualities of these bowls made the difference between feeling totally helpless in the face of misfortune or having a sense that there actually was the extraordinary possibility of changing ones’s circumstances. The belief in the magical effect possible from the incantations on these bowls offered to the people of antiquity, above all else, a sense of hope.


STEPHEN F. BEINER practices family law; wills, trusts, estates, and probate law; and art law in Boca Raton. Together with his wife, Dr. Judith Beiner, he owns the GRIFFIN GALLERY OF ANCIENT ART, Gallery Center, Boca Raton, Florida.


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