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Jewish Aramaic Incantation Bowls

Dan Levene

 

1. Historical context of the source

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Aramaic incantation bowls, also known as magic bowls, are types of amulets that consists of an incantation written on common domestic earthenware. This kind of object is particular to the Sasanian period (3rd - 7th Century CE), is distinctively Mesopotamian, and is found in central and southern regions of what is known today as modern Iraq. The evidence suggests that this type of amulet stopped being made during the early period of the Islamic conquest.

Incantation bowls were used by the various Aramaic speaking communities that lived in late antique Sasanian Mesopotamia. Consequently, they offer insights into aspects of cultural collaboration, interchange, and overlap that are largely absent in other sources that are available from this period, like the Babylonian Talmud, the writings of Mani, and Zoroastrian literature, which have more commonly been studied in relation to the particular communities, by disciplines that evolved to deal with their respective languages and religious philosophies.

A parallel body of magical amulets, though much smaller in number, that were produced by the Jews that lived within the Roman sphere of influence, in Plestine and the eastern Mediterranean basin, exists in the form of incantations inscribed on thin sheets of silver, or very occasionally copper alloy. The fact that the magical products of these two communities that lived under the influence of the two rival political and cultural forces of that age are different, is of great significance, and is an aid to the study of the differences and tensions that existed between these two distinct Jewish communities.

There are known to exist at least 2000 bowls in both museums and private collections, of which less than 25% have been published. The great majority is written in Aramaic dialects, a hand-full in Pahlavi, and there are two in Arabic. There are also a significant number of texts that are written in pseudo-scripts. The types of Aramaic represented in order of prevalence are: Aramaic square script (about 60%), Mandaic script (just under 25%), and Syriac scripts (under 15%). The square script is generally considered to be Jewish, the Mandaean script belongs to the Mandaeans, and the Syriac to Manichaeans, other unidentified Gnostic and/or pagan groups, and, in a few cases, to Christians.

An interesting aspect of the incantation bowls is the way in which the text is laid out upon the surface of the bowls in different ways. The most common is the spiral, starting in the middle of the concave side of the bowl and working its way in a clockwise fashion to its outer edge. The skill displayed by these scribes is suggestive of those needed to produce manuscripts on more conventional types of material, such as parchment. However, the bowls are the only Aramaic manuscripts from the period that are known to have survived in the square, Mandaean, and Manichaean Syriac scripts.

The Aramaic incantation bowl texts are overwhelmingly apatropaic, and claim to protect their owners from a variety of misfortunes that include difficulty in child birth and rearing, illness, poverty as well as afflictions caused by supernatural and human foes. Aramaic incantation bowl texts contain adjurations of supernatural entities to curb other such entities that were considered in late antiquity to be the causes of adversity. The fact that this characterizes bowls of all dialects and faith groups implies a world in which it was commonly believed that the supernatural plays an active part in human welfare, and that the interaction with it can be effective. The potency of such amulets was thought to have been determined by knowledge of words of power, such as those believed to have been spoken by the deity as part of the act of creation. Notions regarding the power of words can also be observed in the mystical literature of the period.

The Aramaic incantation bowl literature depicts a rich theatre in which a varied community of angelic and demonic types and individuals are cast in a drama of war and conflict. The incantations are both stylized and structured, and consist of various elements, such as opening formulae, name invocation, sequences in both mystical and liturgical styles, biblical quotations and historiolae—tales of magical activity located in the distant past in which well known figures of authority, such as great sages and prophets, successfully vanquished demonic forces. At the same time the incantations also have the form of legal documents, and so depict the belief that supernatural beings are subject to a juridical system that covers all created beings. In the Jewish texts, the ultimate authority is the Jewish God; in the Mandaean it is 'The Great Life'; in the pagan and Gnositc texts the nature and identity of that which holds supreme authority is less clear. This is best illustrated in the way that adaptations of the legal formula found in the Jewish bill of divorce, the get, are prevalent in the bowl incantations. The logic, simply put, is that just as the get is a binding legal document that serves to affect the separation of man and wife, so too it has the force to separate and banish demon from human.

The incantations in the bowls are often accompanied by graphic images that most commonly appear to be depictions of bound demons. Such illustrations seem to have added a sympathetic element to the amuletic object as a whole. Other types of images include a variety of animals and abstract magical symbols, known as characteres.

There is very little information with which to reconstruct the praxis that might have accompanied the making and depositing of Aramaic incantation bowls that have been found within both domestic and burial contexts. Some indication occurs within the incantations themselves, which state that the bowls were deposited in various parts of the house, such as its four corners. Indeed, there are bowls that are marked on their outer side with either Aramaic or Pahlavi instructions, such as 'for the front room/bed room/ or threshold'. One bowl text mentions the use of a white cock in a ritualistic manner, but such references are rare. A sympathetic relation between the choice of words that are used in the texts and the praxis involved in the use of the magic bowls themselves can be observed. Examples are the use of the verbs 'to overturn' (הפך) and 'to press' (כבש), which signify both what is done to the demons and the amuletic object itself. Bowls were usually deposited in an 'overturned' manner (upside-down), having been 'pressed' into the ground. Other bowls refer to themselves as a 'qybl'' (קיבלא), meaning 'counter-charm' as well as 'opposite'. Many such bowls have bitumen markings on them that indicate they were made in pairs, fixed to each other rim to rim, lashed and sealed with bitumen, and then deposited in the ground. Other information might be inferred from sources such as the few magical recipe books that have survived in later manuscripts, but thought to belong to late antiquity, such as the Sword of Moses and the Sefer HaRazim.

Jewish incantation bowl texts are eclectic in that we find in them literary materials that in many cases can be traced to canonical literature such as the Old Testament, the Mishna, the order of liturgy, or known mystical literature. Other elements occur that appear to have been culled or borrowed from literary works that are unknown to us, some of which are clearly not Jewish.
The fact that the individuals who commissioned these amulets are usually mentioned within the texts, make them a rich source for research of personal names used in late antique Mesopotamia. Indeed, a study of male to female ratios, the make-up and size of families and households that are listed, and the types of afflictions mentioned all contribute to the study of the social history of the people who both made and used these objects. Most of the names are Persian, suggesting that non-Jews sought the services of Jewish amulet practitioners. Indeed, there is at least one case in which a certain client had bowls made for him by both Jews and non-Jews. Other cases are known in which bowls made by different faith groups were found in the same house.

2. Source

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2a. Transcription of the Aramaic original

( ) Uncertain readings; [ ] Restoration of lost writing; < > Omitted by the scribe by mistake;  ┌ ┐ Only part of the letter is visible; { } Superfluous writing in the text; Italics signify tentative translations.

I.

(1) לכל (2) ל (3) ליליתא בישתא

II.

(4) דפורא רמינא ושקילנא (5) {ועב} ועבדי עבדנא במתיבי (6) יהושע בר פרחיא

III.

כתבית (7) גיטא דיכרי וניקבתא משמתא מלויתא דלויא ושריא ודירא בביתיה דארדוי בר (8) כירכשידוך וכל שום דאית לה דמית(חזיא) להון בחילמא דליליה ובשינתא דיממא ואנה כתיבנא עליכון גיטא (9) גיט פיטורין ושבוקין

IV.

בשום אות מיתוך אות אותיות מיתוך אותיות ושום {מ} מיתוך השימ<ו>ת וינקבי מיתוך האל הגולי דיבהון יתכ<נ>עו (10) שמיה וארעה וטורא בהון ויתעקרון ורמיתא בהון ויתמסרון שידי וחרשי בהון עברי מן עלמא

V.

בכין סליקית עליכון למירומא מיחבלא (11) לאפוקי ולאנדויאהון שידין ושיבטין ודיוין וסטנין וחילמי סניתי שגישי

VI.

ותיזחון ותיפקון מן ביתיה ואיסקופתיה דארדוי בר כירכשידוך (12) ולא תתחזון להון לא בחילמא דליליה ולא בשינתא ┐ד┌<יממה> מיטול דפטרנא יתיכון מיניכון בסיפר תירוכי<ן> וגיטא גיט פיטורין ואיגרת שבוקין כדת משה ו<י>שראל

VII.

(13) לשמך אני עשיתי גבריאל (14) verso גבריאל ו(מיכ)אל ורפיאל ואור<יאל> .....יאל בשום (סו)ריאל סוריאל ...... יהוק יהיק רבה סלה

VIII.

ויאמר יהוה אל שטן יגער יהוה בך (15) השטן יגער יהוה בך הבוחיר בירושלים הלא זה אוד (מוצל) מיאש

2b. English translation of the source

I.

(1) For all, (2) for (3) evil Liliths

II.

(4) that I am casting and drawing a lot (5) and I made a (magical) act in the dwelling of (6) R. Joshua bar Perahia.

III.

I wrote (7) a get (to) the male and female ones, to the ban, the accompanying demon who accompanies and dwells and lives in the house of Ardoi son of (8) Khwarkhshidukh; and any name that it has that appears to them in a dream of the night and in the sleep of the day. And I have written you a divorce writ, (9) a get of releasing and sending away.

IV.

In the name of a letter from within a letter and letters from within letters and a name from within the names and gaps from within the revealed. By which were subjugated heaven and earth, and mountains were uprooted by them, and heights were melted by them. Demons and sorceries die (lit. - pass from the world) by them.

V.

Therefore, I ascended against you to on high (11) to take out and ban them demons and plagues and dews and satans and evil confused dreams,

VI.

that you may flee and go out from the house and threshold of Ardoi son of Khwarkhshidukh, (12) and not appear to them in the dream of the night and not in the sleep of the day. For I have released you from you from you by a document of divorce, and a get of discharge/dismissal, and letters of separation according to the law of Moses and Israel.

VII.

(13) For Thy namesake I have done (this magic act), Gabriel (verso) (14) Gabriel and Michael and Raphael and Uriel … in the name of Suriel Suriel … YHWQ YHYQ the great selah.

VIII.

"And the Lord said to Satan, 'The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a brand plucked from the fire?'"

3. Discussion of the source

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The name of the client

In the bowl texts, the names of the clients are always given with reference to the mother, as opposed to the way a person would be referred to in other legal documents where the father would be mentioned. The client's name, Ardoi, might be related to the Persian ardā, which means 'righteous' or 'truthful'. The mother's name, Khwarkhshidukh, is also Persian and composed of two elements, xwar(x)šēd and duxt, meaning 'sun' and 'daughter', i.e. 'Daughter of the sun'. The facts that the client's name is Persian and that the text is written in a square script suggests the possibility that this bowl was produced by a Jew for a Zoroastrian client. This is not an uncommon occurrence in the bowls, wherein we find members of one faith group using a practitioner from another group. The exchange between communities extends also to the movement of formulae across faith boundaries. An extreme case is Moussaieff m163, in which there are names of both Zoroastrian and Christian people, and invocations of Jewish, Christian, and Pagan deities.

The structure

The eight-fold division of the text made here is for the convenience of the readers, and to facilitate the discussion of its structure. Section I. functions as a kind of title or caption, as often appears at the beginning of incantations. It states what the incantation and amulet is more generally intended for. In this case it is for the removal of any lilith demon that might be plaguing the client. Note that, in this bowl, this part of the text is placed neatly around the image, and thus makes clear that the image was inscribed on the bowl first (see below for more about the image). Section II. consists of a historiola in which Rabbi Joshua bar Perahia, a first century sage (Tana), who is known in the Mishna and Talmud as a miracle maker and the teacher of Jesus, is depicted to have successfully triumphed over demons by having served them a bill of divorce. The historiola is cited here as one would a precedent in a legal document. Section III. is written in the first person and is the voice of the practitioner who, the incantation conveys, had prepared a divorce writ, a legal document, to expel the nuisance. The formula of the get, the divorce writ, that is used here occupies most of the incantation. It may be noted that the get formula that we find here is a variation on the theme of that which is used in Jewish law (halakhah) for the divorce of human couples, in which a man releases his wife. In the case of this and incantations like it we see that the law that governs humans was thought also to apply to supernatural beings. The main difference is that, in the 'magical get', the demon always occupies the position the woman does in the 'human get' and the human that of the man. It is only the human (male or female) that can make recourse to the get, bill of divorce, device, to affect a separation. Section IV. is a name invocation, which consists of a formula that is reminiscent of mystical literature, and is imbued with concepts about the power of words and names, such as those used in the process of divine creation. Section V. provides another anecdote regarding the nature of the get, which in this case implies a type that is referred in other bowl incantations and in Jewish law as a get from beyond the sea. This type of get in its human manifestation is intended to facilitate circumstances where the husband is abroad or presumed missing. In the magical context this form has relevance, as the supernatural too is considered to be beyond human reach. Section VI. is in the second person. It is operative in nature and in direct speech: the practitioner is commanding the demons, by force of law, to depart. Section VII. begins with three words of Hebrew that are common in the Jewish bowl incantation, and are proclamations of faith in that they are directed to God and are liturgical in nature. What follows are the names of angels and divine names. Section VIII. is a biblical quote, Zachariah 3:2, which is very common in the Jewish bowl texts, and also occurs as part of the Shema on the Bed, the final liturgical benediction said at night which claims itself to be protective in its own right.

The image

The amuletic object is a combination of elements, all of which are significant factors in making it potent. These elements consist of its being an earthenware bowl that was inscribed with an incantation, adorned with an image, and buried upside-down. The image of a shackled demoness, in this bow,l shares some of the characteristics found in other Jewish and non-Jewish bowl illustrations. The principle is that just as the incantation is intended to remove and make void the power and effect of the demons, so too will their shackled depictions remove and void that power. Note the hairy bird feet, which are reminiscent of ancient Mesopotamian Goddesses, such as Astarte, and demons, such as Pazuzu. Indeed, in rabbinic literary sources from late antiquity the association of hairy legs with the demonic persists.

Biblical verses in the Aramaic incantation bowls

One element beyond dialect that characterizes the Jewish variety of bowls is the common use and citation of biblical verses in Hebrew. Probably the most commonly cited, and one that is found in the text presented here, is Zachariah 3:2. This verse has come to be part of the Bedtime Shema, the liturgical benediction that is recited by every practicing Jew as the last ritual of the day. This prayer has protective properties that were believed to include protection from demons, as noted already in the Babylonian Talmud Berachot 5a: 'If one recites the Shema' upon his bed the demons keep away from him'.

Cultural exchange

A final note of some significance is the fact that, apart from at least two other bowls that have versions of the formulae found in this bowl, which are in Jewish Aramaic, a third example exists, which is distinct in that it is in the Manichaean Syriac script (Montgomery 1913, no. 32). This is quite an extraordinary find, as it shows that  transmission of incantation occurred across cultural borders. This is but one of the more striking features of the Aramaic incantation bowls, which illustrates that Aramaic speaking peoples of late antique Mesopotamia shared more that just dialect.

4. Questions for discussion

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  1. Do the Aramaic incantation bowl texts fit in to our notion of Jewish practice?
  2. In what ways can incantation bowls be considered to be legal documents, and what are the implications of this?
  3. Discuss what the Aramaic incantation bowls can tell us about intercultural relations between Jews and others in late antique Mesopotamia.
  4. What do you understand the rich world of demons and angels to represent in terms of the culture, beliefs, and lives of the people who wrote and used the Aramaic incantation bowls?

5. Selected bibliography

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  • Levene, Dan. (2003) Curse or Blessing, What's in the Magic Bowl? The Ian Karten Lecture 2002. Southampton.

6. Further Reading

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Collections of bowl texts with introductions

  • Montgomery, James Alan. (1913) Aramaic incantation texts from Nippur. Philadelphia: University Museum University of Pennsylvania.
  • Naveh, Joseph and Shaul Shaked. (1987) Amulets and magic bowls Aramaic incantations of late antiquity. Jerusalem: Magnes Press.
  • Naveh, Joseph and Shaul Shaked. (1993) Magic spells and formulae Aramaic incantations of late antiquity. Jerusalem: Magnes Press.
  • Segal, J. B., (2000) Catalogue of the Aramaic and Mandaic Incantation Bowls in the British Museum. London: British Museum.
  • Levene, Dan. (2002) A Corpus of Magic Bowls:Iincantation Texts in Jewish Aramaic from Late Antiquity. London: Kegan Paul.
  • Müller-Kessler, Christa. (2005) Die Zauberschalentexte in der Hilprecht-Sammlung, Jena, und weitere Nippur-Texte anderer Sammlungen. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

Society and intercultural relations

  • Morony, Michael. (2003) 'Magic and Society in Late Sasanian Iraq' in: Noegel, Scott, Joel Walker, and Brannon Wheeler (eds.) Prayer, Magic, and the Stars in the Ancient and Late Antique World. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.
  • Morony, Michael. (2007) 'Religion and the Aramaic Incantation Bowls' Religion Compass, 1 414-429.
  • Shaked, Shaul. (1997) 'Popular religion in Sasanian Babylonia', Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam, pp. 103-117.

Liturgy and the bowls

  • Leven, Dan. (2005) 'Jewish liturgy and magic bowls' in: Hayward, Robert and Brad Embry. (eds.) Studies in Jewish prayer. Manchester: Oxford University Press.

The bill of divorce

  • Shaked, Shaul. (1999) 'The Poetics of Spells: Language and structure in Aramaic incantaions of Late Antiquity. 1: The Divorce formula and its ramifications' in: Abusch, Tzvi and Karel Van der Toorn. (eds.) Mesopotamian magic: textual, historical, and interpretative perspectives. Groningen: Styx.
  • Levene, Dan. (2003) '"A happy thought of the Magicians," the magical get' in: Deutsch, Robert. (ed.) Shlomo: Studies in Epigraphy, Iconography, History and Archaeology in Honor of Shlomo Moussaieff. Tel Aviv: Archaeological Center Publications.

Jewish magic

  • Trachtenberg, Joshua. (2004) Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion, Philadelphia, Pa., University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Bohak, Gideon. (2007) Ancient Jewish magic: a history. New York: Cambridge University Press.

7. Useful web resources

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8. Images

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bowl

More images at: http://www.edshare.soton.ac.uk/5331/