An incantation bowl, also known as a demon bowl, devil-trap bowl, or magic bowl, is a form of early protective magic found in what is now Iraq and Iran. Produced in the Middle East during late antiquity from the sixth to eighth centuries, particularly in Upper Mesopotamia and Syria, the bowls were usually inscribed in a spiral, beginning from the rim and moving toward the center. Most are inscribed in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic.
The majority of the Mesopotamian area's population was either Christian, Manichaean, or those of the ancient Babylonian religion, all of whom spoke Aramaic varieties. Zoroastrians who spoke Persian also lived here. Mandaeans and the Jews, both minority populations, each used their own Aramaic variety. The majority of recovered incantation bowls were written in Jewish Aramaic. These are followed in frequency by the Mandaic language and then Syriac. A handful of bowls have been discovered that were written in Arabic or Persian. An estimated 10% of incantation bowls were not written in any real language but pseudo-script. They are thought to be forgeries by illiterate “scribes” and sold to illiterate clients. The bowls are thought to have been regularly commissioned across religious lines.
To date only around 2000 incantation bowls have been registered as archaeological finds, but since they are widely dug up in the Middle East, there may be tens of thousands in the hands of private collectors and traders. Aramaic incantation bowls from Sasanian Mesopotamia are an important source for studying the everyday beliefs of Jews, Christians, Mandaeans, Manichaeans, Zoroastrians and pagans on the eve of the early Muslim conquests.
A subcategory of incantation bowls are those used in Jewish and Christian magical practice. (See Jewish magical papyri for context). Aramaic incantation bowls are an important source of knowledge about Jewish magical practices, particularly the nearly eighty surviving Jewish incantation bowls from Babylon during the rule by the Sasanian Empire (226-636), primarily from the Jewish diaspora settlement in Nippur. These bowls were used in magic to protect against evil influences such as the evil eye, Lilith, and Bagdana. These bowls could be used by any member of the community, and almost every house excavated in the Jewish settlement in Nippur had such bowls buried in them.
The inscriptions often include scriptural quotes and quotes from rabbinic texts. The text on incantation bowls is the only written material documenting Jewish language and religion recovered from the period around the writing of the Babylonian Talmud. Scholars say that the use of rabbinic texts demonstrates that they were considered to have supernatural power comparable to that of biblical quotes. The bowls often refer to themselves as "amulets" and the Talmud discusses the use of amulets and magic to drive away demons.
At the same period in Syria, Christian incantation bowls are also found, often in Syriac.
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- Orientalia 65 3-4 Pontificio Istituto biblico, Pontificio Istituto biblico. Facoltà di studi dell'antico oriente - 1996 "may have been Jewish, but Aramaic incantation bowls also commonly circulated in pagan communities". ... Lilith was, of course, the frequent subject of concern in incantation bowls and amulets, since her presence was ."
- The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia p217 Geoffrey W. Bromiley 1986 2007 "D. Aramaic Incantation Bowls. One important source of knowledge about Jewish magical practices is the nearly eighty extant incantation bowls made by Jews in Babylonia during the Sassanian period (ad 226-636). ... Though the exact use of the bowls is disputed, their function is clearly apotrapaic in that they are meant to ward off the evil effects of a number of malevolent supernatural beings and influences, e.g., the evil eye, Lilith, and Bagdana."
- A Dictionary of biblical tradition in English literature p454 David L. Jeffrey - 1992 "Aramaic incantation bowls of the 6th cent, show her with disheveled hair and tell how"
- Descenders to the chariot: the people behind the Hekhalot literature Page 277 James R. Davila - 2001 "... that they be used by anyone and everyone. The whole community could become the equals of the sages. Perhaps this is why nearly every house excavated in the Jewish settlement in Nippur had one or more incantation bowl buried in it."
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- Kedar Dorit, Who wrote the Incantation Bowls? PhD Diss. (Freie Universität Berlin) 2018.
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