Podcast episode

Episode 147: Daniel James Waller on the Jewish Incantation-Bowls

[Thanks to the Penn Museum for fair use of the image above (which they present online in voluble digital form)]

In our last episode we discussed the broad range of evidence available for Jewish magic in late antiquity. In this episode we get into one of the most important of such bodies of evidence – the Judæo-Aramic incantation-bowls – with researcher Daniel James Waller.

We discuss:

  • The bowls and where to find them (and the fact that the majority have been found by illegal excavators and are held in private collections),
  • The diverse fauna of angelic and demonic entities addressed by the bowl-texts (and the evidence in some bowls for a background belief in the story of the Nephilim known to us from 1 Enoch and the Qumran scrolls),
  • Some intelligent speculations on a few of the details of bowl-practice (why are the bowls found inverted in situ? were there off-the-shelf and bespoke bowl-options available?),
  • Some thoughts on what the bowls tell us about ‘normative’ early Rabbinic Jewish practice and piety,
  • Along with some interesting and useful reflections on the usefulness and pitfalls of the term ‘magic’ in the context of the bowls.

Interview Bio:

Daniel James Waller works primarily on late-antique ritual practices, with a particular focus on the Jewish Babylonian Aramaic magic bowls and the intersections between magic, rhetoric, and poetics. He completed his PhD at the University of Groningen, while his earlier studies were in Film Theory and Religions & Theology (Trinity College, Dublin) and Hebrew & Aramaic Studies (University of Leiden). He is currently working on some demonological aspects of the JBA magic bowls, and has recently completed a study of the biblical quotations in the magic bowls.

Works Cited in this Episode:

  • Brill’s Magical and Religious Literature of Late Antiquity (MRLA) series can be checked out here.
  • The Rabbis say we have thousands of demons crowding around us: Bavli Berakhot 6a; cf. Ps 91.7: ‘It has been taught: Abba Benjamin says, If the eye had the power to see them, no creature could endure the demons. Abaye says: They are more numerous than we are and they surround us like the ridge around a field. R. Huna says: Every one of us has a thousand on his left side and ten thousand on his right side.’
  • Shaul Shaked on bowls as ‘acts of piety’: See e.g. p. 8 of Shaked, Ford, and Bhayro below.
  • The aggressive magic bowl discussed can be found in Naveh and Shaked (see below), Bowl 9, pp. 174-179.

Recommended Reading:

On that ‘Jesus’ magic bowl, see Dan Levene. ‘… And by the name of Jesus …’: An Unpublished Magic Bowl in Jewish Aramaic. JSQ, 6:283–308, 1999.

  • Tapani Harviainen. Syncretistic and Confessional Features in Mesopotamian Incantation Bowls. Studia Orientalia, 70:29–37, 1993.
  • Geoffrey Herman. Jewish Identity in Babylonia in the Period of the Incantation Bowls. In Dikla Rivlin Katz, Noah Hacham, Geoffrey Herman, and Lilach Sagiv, editors, A Question of Identity: Social, Political, and Historical Aspects of Identity Dynamics in Jewish and Other Contexts, pages 131–52. De Gruyter, Berlin, 2019.
  • Dan Levene. Jewish Aramaic Curse Texts from Late-Antique Mesopotamia: “May These Curses Go Out and Flee”. Brill, Leiden, 2013.
  • James A. Montgomery. Aramaic Incantation Texts from Nippur. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010.
  • Michael G. Morony. Magic and Society in Late Sasanian Iraq. In Joel Walker, Scott Noegel, and Brannon Wheeler, editors, Prayer, Magic, and the Stars in the Ancient and Late Antique World, pages 83–107. Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, 2003.
  • Christa Müller-Kessler. Lilit(s) in der aramäisch-magischen literatur der spätantike, teil i: Wüstenbeherrscherin, baum-lilit und kindesräuberin. Altorientalische Forschungen, 28:338–352, 2001.
  • Joseph Naveh and Shaul Shaked. Magic Spells and Formulae: Aramaic Incantations of Late Antiquity. Magnes, Jerusalem, 1993.
  • Shaul Shaked. Transmission and Transformation of Spells: The Case of the Jewish Babylonian Aramaic Bowls. In Gideon Bohak, Yuval Harari, and Shaul Shaked, editors, Continuity and Innovation in the Magical Tradition, volume 15, pages 187– 217. Brill, Leiden, 2011.
  • Idem. Rabbis in Incantation Bowls. In Markham J. Geller, editor, The Archeology and Material Culture of the Babylonian Talmud, pages 97–120. Brill, Leiden, 2015.
  • Shaul Shaked, James Nathan Ford, and Siam Bhayro. Aramaic Bowl Spells: Jewish Babylonian Aramaic Bowls, volume 1. Brill, Leiden, 2012.



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