Magic Bowls

Ancient artifacts reveal Jewish attitudes toward incantations, demons, and the supernatural.

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For the most part, however, even references to specific holy men or the use of particular incantations are uniform across the religions. Identification of the bowls as Jewish, Christian, or Mandean, accordingly, usually depends primarily upon the script in which the incantation was prepared: Aramaic letters are Jewish, Syriac script indicates a Christian source, and Mandean lettering suggests a Mandean origin.

Incantations & Demons

The majority of extant magic bowls were found during excavations in Nippur in 1888-1889.They were found upside down in the ruins of houses, with one or more bowl found in almost every house as well as in cemeteries, where they apparently served to lay ghosts at rest.

The bowls were used by individuals and families seeking protection for houses and property, e.g., cattle, often with a particular concern for domestic sexual life and unborn babies. Frequent targets of the bowls are Lilis and Liliths, which personify sexual abnormality, prey upon women and children, and were understood to produce offspring with human beings.

The chief element of the bowls is an incantation composed of repeating phrases, words, or syllables believed to have the power to bind favorable powers, on the one side,or demons, on the other, to some designated action. Angels, in Jewish bowls,and deities, on pagan ones, frequently are adduced, and there appears to have been an attempt to use as many names as possible, to harness, as it were, as many forces as were available against as many demons as might be active.

The spell's main power, however, derived from terminology declaring that the demon has been rendered unable to exercise its control, for instance, that it is "bound, sealed, countersealed, exorcised, hobbled, and silenced." The separation of a Lilith from her victim often is expressed in terms of a writ of divorce.

Recognizing Powerful Forces

The incantations generally begin with an invocation, followed by the name of the client or clients, the categories of demons to be purged, the names of the angels or deities in which the spells are pronounced, and a conclusion. Jewish texts frequently refer to the angels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. The name Yahweh also occurs often broken down into individual, repeated letters or syllables.

The evidence of these magic bowls suggests the extent which Jews, like other people of late antiquity, took for granted the existence of special powers in the universe, deriving from deities or demons, from gods or from the God. These powers could be controlled and used to the benefit of those with special knowledge and/or piety.

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Dr. Alan J. Avery-Peck

Alan J. Avery-Peck is the Kraft-Hiatt Professor in Judaic Studies and Chair at Holy Cross University and a prolific author. Dr. Avery-Peck's primary research interest is Judaism in the first six centuries C.E., with particular attention to the literature of Rabbinic Judaism.