The demon trap getting historians all fired up

We find out what Babylonian bowls are telling scholars about Jewish magic

By Simon Rocker, February 12, 2009
A magic bowl used by Babylonian Jews to stop evil spirits. From the Jewish Museum, London

A magic bowl used by Babylonian Jews to stop evil spirits. From the Jewish Museum, London

If you are looking for a novel half-term activity, then it would be hard to beat the ancient art of demon-trapping. On Tuesday and Thursday next week, the British Museum in London, in association with the Jewish Museum, is running family workshops where you can make an incantation bowl like the ones used by our Babylonian ancestors to keep unwanted spirits at bay. In those days, if you wanted to stop a supernatural pest from entering your home, then you would commission a scribe to produce a spell, which would be written on an earthenware bowl and then buried upside-down by a window or a door. Magic bowls are among the most curious items of Judaica. For one thing, it is commonly believed that magic is prohibited for Jews given the Torah’s strictures against sorcery. That’s a misconception, says Professor Mark Geller, of University College London’s Hebrew and Jewish studies department. “The biblical commandment not to allow a witch to live refers to witchcraft, black magic, when you put a curse on someone. But healing magic was perfectly proper and acceptable and something everybody believed in.” Dr Dan Levene, from Southampton University, who has spent many years studying the artefacts and published a 2003 book about them, A Corpus of Magic Bowls, explains: “Try to cast your mind back into antiquity. As today, life had a whole variety of difficulties and misfortunes — illness, poverty, problems with your relatives, even the dangers of childbirth. “We have modern medicine. But in antiquity, they believed — and this is true of Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians — that we share the world with a lot of supernatural types of entity, demons and spirits, which, in many cases, were responsible for ills and misfortunes.” The bowl was a device either to prevent a demonic intruder or to exorcise one that was already loose in the house. As if in some ancient version of the film Ghostbusters, the trespassing spirit would be trapped inside the bowl. Then, if the magic did its trick, it would dissolve or disappear. The tradition of burying protective talismans goes back a long way. The Babylonians “used to bury dogs made of clay with a plaster coat, painted with names like Fierce Barker”, observes Dr Irving Finkel, a curator in the British Museum’s Middle East department. “So if the demons came, they would drive them off.” Other forms of bowl magic also existed, he notes: in early Islam, a verse from the Koran written in ink might be dissolved in water and the words drunk. But the burying of bowls seems to have been popular among the Jews of Babylon in talmudic times: of the fewer than 2,000 discovered and excavated in what is now Iraq, and dating from the 4th to the 7th centuries, most are written in Jewish Aramaic, although others are in Syriac and Mandaic, indicating their use throughout the region. Some are also written in “pseudo-writing”, Dr Finkel says, and were perhaps gibberish palmed off on illiterate customers by unscrupulous scribes. “It shows a level of cynicism in the mind of people who dispensed these materials.” The spells spiral around the bowl from the outer rim to the centre, where sometimes you will find a little sketch of a demon bound and shackled. The names of various angels or even rabbis like Joshua bar Perachyah — reputed in the Talmud to be the teacher of Jesus — are invoked and there are quotations or allusions to biblical verses in Hebrew. “Suppressed are all demons, all no good ones, all pebble-spirits and liliths,” begins one incantation from a bowl now in the largest collection, the Schoyen. A lilith is a she-demon derived from the name of Adam’s rebellious first wife in Jewish folklore. Other names might be known as satana, adversary, or shed, originally household deity, or called something like rucah tzilcheta, migraine spirit. The principles of Jewish magic, explains Dr Levene, come “from the idea you get from Genesis; that God created the world by using speech. If you are privy to the combination of letters and words, you can harness supernatural forces to combat the forces that are involved in real or potential misfortune.” Dr Finkel speculates that there may have been spellbooks on which practitioners based their magic recipes. “They had a lot of spells, some general, some case specific. The client would explain the problem — ‘I’m haunted by the ghost of my mother-in-law’, ‘I’m going bald’ — and they would find the spell,” he says. One particular incantation took the form of a divorce decree. “If a man had the unwanted attention of a succubus [a predatory she- demon],” he says, “they would write a kind of get, ‘I hereby divorce you’.” Despite their antiquity, the bowls were often “despised by the people who found them”, Dr Finkel says, “they had not value at all”. At auction, they could go for as little as £10 apiece. They were even being used as ashtrays in Iraq. But scholars came to appreciate their worth. They are a “rare archive”, says Dr Levene, which he believes to be on a par with the more famous trove of manuscripts, the Cairo Geniza. Firstly, they are a source of social history: the name of client who ordered the bowl is often included in the inscription (referred to as their mother’s son or daughter — not their father’s — as when you pray for the recovery of someone who is ill). Evidence suggests that non-Jews also came to Jewish sorcerers for help. But they are also valuable , Professor Geller says, “as Jewish cultural heritage. They are contemporaneous with the Babylonian Talmud. They are the oldest manuscripts we have from the time of the Talmud.” To put that into perspective, the earliest text we have of the Talmud itself dates from the 12th century (the original manuscripts are either lost or undiscovered). But the incantations survived on their earthenware base, protected from the passage of time in the hard, dry ground. They contain quotations from the Mishnah and, intriguingly, biblical verses with different spellings from the standard Masoretic text.

Building Babylon: Half-term activities, the British Museum, London WC1, 11am -4pm, February 17 and 19 (free)

Last updated: 6:16pm, April 1 2009