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Daniel Waller Bowls On

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[Thanks to the seagulls for background accompaniment]

In our overview we discussed the majority of late-ancient Jewish incantation bowls: made with protection and/or healing in mind, and largely devoted to quite positive ends. In a few minutes of extra discussion in this special episode, Daniel Waller discusses some fascinating minority cases. It turns out that the evil ‘witches’ against whom so many of our bowls protect their possessors did exist after all: we have a few ‘curse bowls’ which seems to stem from just such an aggressive magical milieu.

We then turn to the exquisite demonic (and occasionally perhaps angelic – it’s difficult to be sure) iconography found on some bowls, discussing the function of drawing pictures of such entities in this magical context, and the amazing window these depictions give us onto how people visualised entities from beyond the usual mundane sphere. It turns out that chicken-legs were pretty common among the demonic hosts, as were extraordinary haircuts and big, staring eyes (see gallery below for some examples).

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:

  • Bowl hoping for the victim dying a very painful death: Joseph Naveh and Shaul Shaked. Magic Spells and Formulae: Aramaic Incantations of Late Antiquity. Magnes, Jerusalem, 1993. Bowl 9, pp. 174-179. Here is an excerpt: “ … that sulphur and fire may burn in him [Judah son of Nanay] … that he may be banned, broken, lost, finished, vanquished, and that he may die, and that a flame may come upon him from heaven, and shiver seize him, and a fracture catch him, and a rebuke burn in him.”
  • The Talmud on how to tell if a demon is in your house: Bavli Berakhot 6a: for someone interested in checking whether there’s a demon in residence, ‘let him take sifted ashes and sprinkle them around his bed, and in the morning he will see something like the footprints of a cockerel’.
  • Bowls with actual captions indicating that the picture is the demon in question: e.g. Gordon Text I = Gordon, Cyrus H. Aramaic and Mandaic Magical Bowls. Archiv Orientální 9 (1937): 84–116, specifically pp. 90-91 and Plate V. Text reads: “This is the figure of the curse and of the lilith …”
  • Bowl image with figure holding a palm branch – probably not a demon: CBS 2923 in the Penn Collection.
  • Vilozny, Naama. Lilith’s Hair and Ashmedai’s Horns: Figure and Image in Magic and Popular Art: Between Babylonia and Palestine in Late Antiquity. Jerusalem: Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi, 2017. (Hebrew, but for English see, e.g. Vilozny, Naama. Between Demons and Kings: The Art of Babylonian Incantation Bowls. Pages 400–421 in Orality and Textuality in the Iranian World. Julia Rubanovich, ed. Leiden: Brill, 2015).

Gallery (with thanks to the Penn Museum):

Bowl (B16093) showing an armed demon (is that a spade in his left hand?). Note the chains on his legs, leaving no doubt of the spell’s intentions, and the stylish footwear.


Bowl (B16023) from Nippur showcasing the extraordinary hairstyle possibilities in the realm of the demons.


Bowl (B13186) showing a demon; the lines across its body have been interpreted as fetters or chains. This one starts out silly but the more you look at it, the freakier it gets.


Bowl (B16017) with a nice composite anthro- and zoömorphic demon from Nippur.