Traditions of Magic: Babylonian Demon Bowls

Traditions of Magic in Late Antiquity

Protective Magic

Babylonian Demon Bowls

Within the wide category of protective magic, one local tradition stands out as unique, namely the so-called Babylonian demon bowls. These inscribed earthenware vessels were found in several sites in Iraq and Iran, dating from the 6th to the 8th centuries A.D. and are unknown outside that region. They are normally inscribed in one of three Aramaic dialects -- Jewish-Aramaic, Syriac, and Mandaic -- though some bowls are known which are inscribed in Persian (Pehlevi). The form and direction of the writing varies -- the most common form being spirals, beginning from the bowl's rim and moving toward the center. Some bowls are inscribed on the outside as well as the inside. Moreover, numerous bowls are inscribed in various pseudo-scripts, either because the person who manufactured them was illiterate, or because the text itself was deemed only a secondary component of the bowl, and could be recited orally, or dispensed with altogether. While many bowls show little sign of outside influence, others display the well-known motifs of "international" magic -- common divine names, familiar voces magicae, and symbols such as the ouroboros or the characteres.

Those bowls which are found in situ often are positioned face-down, and in some cases two bowls are found glued together with pitch, the space enclosed between them containing such items as inscribed egg-shells or human skull fragments. From their positioning, and from the images of bound demons which adorn numerous bowls, it would seem that these were demon traps, meant to lure, trap, and disable any malevolent demons, preventing them from hurting humans or causing damage to property. It seems that such traps often were placed in room corners, since the meeting of walls and floor created cracks through which the demons could sneak in -- a fact which is also verified in contemporary literary sources. However, in some cases the bowls' inscriptions reveal them to have been not so much "environmental protection" devices, but rather aggressive instruments aimed at sending the demons upon an enemy's head. Such bowls could be buried in cemeteries -- where ghosts and demons were abundant -- and perhaps also next to the victim's house and property, to enhance their efficacy and accuracy.

Go on to the Babylonian Demon Bowl display.

Recipe-Books | Amulets and Gems | Babylonian Demon Bowls | Aggressive Magic
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