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.
34. Kelsey Museum 19501
Seleucia-on-Tigris 6th or 7th century A.D.
Note the repetitive signs, perhaps meant to imitate writing.
35. Kelsey Museum 19502
Seleucia-on-Tigris 6th or 7th century A.D.
The "text" is written in a pseudo-script, in lines emanating from the center. The meaning of the design at the center is unclear, but it might be a drawing of a room with demon-bowls at the four corners.
36. Kelsey Museum 19503
Seleucia-on-Tigris 6th or 7th century A.D.
This bowl is "written" in a pseudo-script, clearly meant to imitate Syriac (an Aramaic dialect and alphabet, used on many demon-bowls).
37. Kelsey Museum 19504
Seleucia-on-Tigris 6th or 7th century A.D.
Text: (Panel 1) [...] Negray daughter of Denday and from her male sons and [...] I have heard and the voice of the weak [...] of the men who are fighting [...] of raging women who curse and afflict and cause pain they have descended against them [Azdai], Yazdun and Yaqrun, Prael the great and Ruphael and Sahtiel and seized them and by the tufts of hair and the tresses of their heads and broke the horns which were high and tied them by the tufts of hair of their heads and said to them "remove that which you have cursed" and they said to him "from the pain of our heart we cursed and from the bitterness of our palate we resolved to curse" I have made you swear and adjure you in the name of Azdai and Yazdun and Yaqrun and Prael the great and Ruphael and Sahtiel that you release (Panel 2) and free [...] Negray daughter of Denday and [...] male and female from [...] all the curses [...] cursed and from the curses of [...] and the mother and from the curse of the prostitute [...] and the fetus and from the curse of the employee and employer who stole the wage and from the curse of the brothers who did not divide truthfully among themselves and from the curses of all people who curse in the name of idol demons and their surrenderings you are the healer you are the healer who heals sicknesses with words you are the healer who turns away the sicknesses and the curses of those who cursed Negray daughter of Denday in the name of Azdai and Yazdun and Yaqrun and Prael and Ruphael and heal and annul the curses of those who curse Negray daughter of Denday. And upon a stone (Panel 3) which is unsplit I sat [...] and I wrote all of the curses upon a new bowl of clay and I sent back the curses of those who cursed Negray daughter of Denday to their masters until they release and bless in the name of Sariel the angel and Barakiel the angel and in the name of Sariel and Barakiel you release from the curses of those who curse Negray daughter of Denday as a man as a man is freed from the house of bondage and from the house of weapons amen amen selah [...] may there be health and sealing [...] and to the house of Negray daughter of Denday and to the male sons [...]
The text is written in Mandaic, an Eastern Aramaic dialect and script, in three wedge-shaped panels, each panel beginning on the bowl's rim and moving inward. The text itself is a copy of a long spell which appears on several such bowls, and into which the client's name -- in this case Negray daughter of Denday -- was inserted in the proper places. It was meant as a counter-spell, to protect the client against all her enemies' curses, whatever they may have been.
Bibl.: Unpublished. The translation and notes were provided by
Timothy La Vallee, who is preparing these bowls for publication.
38. Kelsey Museum 19505
Seleucia-on-Tigris 6th or 7th century A.D.
Meaningless signs, or badly effaced Aramaic letters.
39. Kelsey Museum 33756
Seleucia-on-Tigris 6th or 7th century, A.D.
This bowl was found on top of another bowl (the excavation report does not specify which one), with an "inscribed" egg shell between them; unfortunately, the egg shell never made it to Ann Arbor. The "text" on the bowl is written in a pseudo-script, but the bowl's general appearance -- with the figures surrounded by a "text" (real or imaginary) -- is typical of the genre. Note the bound male demons -- their hands are tied, their feet are chained -- a clear sign of what the bowl itself was meant to achieve.
Of all issues connected with ancient magic, none has evoked more fascination, attraction, or revulsion than the image of the lone magician, closed in his or her room, manipulating voodoo dolls and chanting hymns of violence and destruction. From ancient literature to modern scholarship, this aspect of the magical praxis -- often labeled "Black Magic" -- has received more attention than any other type of magical activity, apparently because it is here that the practitioners' otherwise innocuous activities acquire a very sinister tone. For the ancient, practitioners themselves, however, the distinction between "protective" and "aggressive" magic seems to have made very little difference, as can be seen from the intermingling of both types of recipes in the extant recipe-books (cf. no. 1), and from the many similarities between both types of praxis.
Aggressive magic could take many different forms, the commonest one -- of those that were committed to writing -- being the lead tablets known in Greek as katadesmoi and in Latin as defixiones. These cursing and binding tablets seem to be a specifically Greek invention, known in Greece from the 5th century B.C. and spreading from there throughout the Mediterranean world. The earliest ones consist merely of the victim's name, scratched on a thin sheet of lead and thrown into graves, pits, or wells, thus handing the victim over to the care of the chthonian demons and the ghosts of the dead. As time went on, such tablets became more elaborate, with long texts and elaborate designs, and their preparation often entailed complex rituals, including the binding, piercing, or burning of wax, clay, or lead voodoo dolls, representing the spell's intended victim.
Defixiones appear in many different social contexts, from the disgruntled lover who wishes to coerce the object of his or her desire, to the chariot-races, theaters, courtrooms, and business transactions, where one participant would try to ensure his or her victory by "binding" or "fixing" a rival. Thus, such texts not only provide us with valuable information on ancient magical practices and beliefs, they also allow rare glimpses of the social tensions and everyday conflicts of ancient society.
While defixiones -- written on lead, a non-perishable material -- are common, they certainly were not the only form of cursing practiced in late antiquity, and examples are also known of curses being written on gems, papyri, wooden tablets, and Babylonian demon bowls (cf. above).
40. PMich 757 (=inv. 6925)
Egypt 2nd to 4th centuries A.D.
Text: (Top): vowel-column, followed by ablanathanalba-triangle, aeêiouô-triangle, iaeôbaphrenemoun-etc.-triangle, ôuoiêea-triangle, akrammachamarei-triangle, two vowel-columns. (Bottom) aberamenthô oulerthexa n axethreluo ôthnemareba, I deposit this binding spell with you, chthonian gods -- Pluto and Kore uesemmeigadôn and Koure Per- sephone Ereschigal, and Adonis, also called barbaritha, and chthonian Hermes-Thoth phôkensepseu earektathou misonktaich, and mighty Anubis psêriphtha, who holds the keys to those in Hades, and chthonic spirits (and) gods, and those who suffered an untimely death, boys and maidens, year by year, month by month, day by day, night by night, hour by hour. I adjure you, all spirits in this place, to assist the ghost. Rouse yourself for me, ghost, whoever you are, whether male or female, and go into every place, into every quarter, into every house, and bind Kopria, whom her mother Taesis bore, the hair of whose head you have, for Ailourion, whom his mother named Kopria bore, that she may not submit to vaginal nor anal intercourse, nor gratify another youth or another man except Ailourion only, whom his mother named Kopria bore, and that she may not even be able to eat nor drink nor ever get sleep nor enjoy good health nor have peace in her soul or mind in her desire for Ailourion, whom his mother Kopria bore, until Kopria, whom her mother Taesis bore, whose hair you have, will spring up from every place and every house, burning (with passion), and come to Ailourion, whom his mother named Kopria bore, loving (and) adoring with all her soul, with all her spirit, with unceasing and unremitting and constant erotic binding, Ailourion, whom his mother named Kopria bore, with a divine love, from this very day, from the present hour, for the rest of Kopria's life. For I adjure you,
ghost, by the fearful and dreadful name of him at the hearing of whose name the earth will open, at the hearing of whose name the spirits tremble with fear, at the hearing of whose name the rivers and seas are agitated, at the hearing of whose name the rocks are cleft, by barbaritham barbarithaam chelmobra barouch ambra Adônaiou and by ambrath Abrasax sesengenbarpharangês and by Iaô Sabaôth Iaeô pakenpsôth pakenbraôth sabarbatiaôth sabarbatianê sabarbaphai mari glorious marmaraôth and by Ouserbentêth and by Ou(s)erpatê and by marmarauôth marmarachtha marmarachthaa amarda maribeôth. Do not disobey my commands, ghost, whoever you are, whether male or female, but rouse yourself for me and go into every place, into every quarter, into every house, and bind Kopria, whom her mother Taesis bore, the hair of whose head you have, for Ailourion, whom his mother named Kopria bore, that she may not submit to vaginal nor anal intercourse, nor gratify another youth or another man; and that she may not even be able to eat nor drink nor get sleep nor be at peace in her soul or mind in her desire, day and night, for Ailourion, whom his mother named Kopria bore, loving (and) adoring him with all her heart, with all her spirit, like her own soul, Kopria, whose hair you have, loving with a divine love, until death, Ailourion, whom his mother named Kopria bore. Now now quickly quickly! (characteres and vowels). (Top, right) (vowels) marza maribeoth. Do not disobey my commands, ghost, whoever you are, but rouse yourself for me and go into every place, into every quarter, into every house and bring Kopria, whom her mother Taesis bore, whose hair you have, to Ailourion, whom his mother named Kopria bore, burning, blazing, melting away in her soul, her spirit, her feminine part, loving (and) adoring with a divine love, until death, Ailourion, whom his mother named Kopria bore. Now now quickly quickly! I am barbadônaiai barbadônai who conceals the stars, who preserves heaven, who establishes the cosmos in truth. Iattheoun iatreoun salbiouth aôth aôth sabathiouth iattherath Adônaiai isar suria bibibe bibiouth nattho Sabaoth aianapha amourachthê satama Zeus atheresphilauô.
This elaborate defixio is unique for its size (most defixiones are much smaller) and complexity. It is also unusual because several different "versions" of it are known, and there is an extant recipe-book -- like the ones in cases 1 and 2, only much longer -- which contains instructions for the preparation of these very tablets (PGM IV.296-434). A comparison of these defixiones shows no two to be identical, and none follows exactly the instructions in the extant recipe-book -- a vivid testimony to the great variations which occurred when recipes were passed on from one individual to the next and each practitioner found ways to improve a recipe's efficacy or adapt it to changing circumstances. The extant recipe calls for the preparation of two voodoo dolls -- of an armed male and a naked female, down on her knees with her hands tied behind her back -- and for the penetration of the female figurine with 13 copper needles, in key points of her body. (One of the other defixiones of this type indeed was found together with a clay female figurine, with the needles still sticking out of her body.) Both the (now lost) figurine and the lead tablet (folded, to judge from the cracks) were deposited in the grave of someone who had died violently or prematurely, so that the restless ghost -- "whoever you are, whether male or female" -- would search for Kopria and "deliver" her into Ailourion's hands. To help the ghost in its task, something intimately connected with the victim -- in the present case, some of Kopria's hair -- was attached to the figurine. The mention of the protagonists' mothers, rather than fathers, is the normal procedure in such instances, presumably because one's mother is known for certain, while one's real father is not.
Bibl.: David G. Martinez, PMich 757: A Greek Love Charm from Egypt
Ann Arbor, 1991.
41. PMich inv. 1444
Egypt 1st to 3rd century A.D.
An incantation, written in Demotic (late Egyptian script), against a private individual, invoking a spirit of the dead and the jackal-headed
god Anubis, who is noted in the text and depicted at the bottom, shooting the victim with a bow and arrow. Given the mutilated condition of the text, many details remain in doubt.
Bibl.: Unpublished. The above information provided by Robert K. Ritner, who is preparing the text for publication. For the invocation of a ghost, cf. no. 41.
42. PMich inv. 3565
Egypt 6th century A.D. or earlier
Text: + Al + o + daughter + of Ae + se ++ and Phibamon e ô ô ô ô ô ô ô I write; I adjure you, Saôt Sabaôt, that you receive this incense from me and speak a word to my advantage over Alo daughter of Aese. Ha[..]ouel, you must bring loss and grief. May the adjuration go (up) to heaven until you act on my behalf against Alo daughter of Aese. Upon Alo shall (the) curse (of) God come. May the darkness take her, Alo daughter of Aese.
From afar (?) you (pl.) must beg this one (?) to receive this incense from me (?). The curses of the Law and Deuteronomy will descend upon Alo daughter of Aese. May hunger and misery rule the body of Alo and Phibamon. May their eyes .... May furnace flame(s) come from the mouth of Alo daughter of Aese. May (the) curse (of) God descend upon Alo and her entire house(hold). May the fear of death be in Alo's house. May you make them bedridden. Amen, Amen, Sabaô[th]! Apa Victor son of Thibamon.
A Coptic curse of Apa Victor against Alo daughter of Aese and against Phibamon. Why exactly he wanted to curse them is unclear. Note that Apa Victor invoked the curses of the Law (the Pentateuch) and Deuteronomy (cf. esp. Deut 28:15ff) upon his enemies' heads -- a not uncommon practice among both Jews and Christians. Although this Christian curse employs no voces magicae or characteres, it does display vestiges of pre-Christian, "international" magic, such as the vowel-sequence in line 2.
Bibl.: Meyer-Smith, no. 104.
I "Vorderer Orient, Relief und Gewässer=Middle East, Relief and Hydrology (AI1)," Tübinger Atlas des Vorderen Orients,
Wiesbaden : Reichert, 1977-
II Photographic Enlargement of No.13, obverse and reverse
III Photographic Enlargement of No.32, obverse and reverse
IV Photographic Enlargement of No. 27, obverse and reverse
Photographic Enlargement of No. 25, obverse
V Photographic Enlargement of No. 8
Photographic Enlargement of No. 35
VI Photographic Enlargement of No. 37
Photographic Enlargement of No. 39
Poster in Graduate Library Lobby:
Photographic Englargement of No. 16
Bonner = Campbell Bonner, Studies in Magical Amulets, Chiefly Graeco-Egyptian, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1950.
GMPT = Hans Dieter Betz, The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Including the Demotic Spells, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986 (2nd ed., 1992).
Meyer-Smith = Marvin Meyer & Richard Smith, Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power, San Francisco: Harper, 1994.
PDM = Demotic Magical Papyri, translated in GMPT.
PGM = K. Preisendanz, Papyri Graecae Magicae, 2 vols., Leipzig: Teubner, 1928-31 (2nd ed. Stuttgart, 1973-4).
PMich = The Michigan Papyri, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1931- .
Suppl. Mag. I = Robert W. Daniel and Franco Maltomini, Supplementum Magicum, vol. I, [Papyrologica Coloniensia XVI.1], Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1990.
Suggestions for further reading:
Valerie I.J. Flint, The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.
John G. Gager, Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Michael A. Morgan (tr.), Sepher Ha-Razim: The Book of the Mysteries, Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1983.
Joseph Naveh & Shaul Shaked, Amulets and Magic Bowls: Aramaic Incantations of Late Antiquity, Jerusalem: Magnes Press,1985.
Joseph Naveh & Shaul Shaked, Magic Spells and Formulae: Aramaic Incantations of Late Antiquity, Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1993.
Christopher A. Pharaoneh & Dirk Obbink (eds.), Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Geraldine Pinch, Magic in Ancient Egypt, London: British Museum Press, 1994.
Robert K. Ritner, The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practice, [Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization, 54], Chicago: Oriental Institute, 1993.