Review, "Magic and Inter-Communal Relations in Sasanian Iraq: The Case of the Incantation Bowls"
A Thesis Submitted to the Faculty of the Division of Social Sciences In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements For the Degree of Master of the Arts, Department of Anthropology, by Ali G. Scotten.

This thesis begins with an imaginary scene, not labelled as such, but immediately apparent as such. The writer portrays a Mandaean priest performing a ritual for a Jewish client. While it is true that evidence suggests that incantation bowls were made for people of a different religious affiliation, there is no real evidence of a ritual accompanying the manufacture of incantation bowls.

If one were to read this thesis without having familiarized themselves with much of the other literature published about the subject, one would come away from the article with a neatly packaged idea of a "bowl ritual", for which we actually have little to no evidence of actually existing. In the writer's initial portrayal of the ritual, we find such lines as "The tall man in white flowing robes rocked rhythmically back and forth as he uttered the spell." This is utter make-believe, as much as "A winter storm raged outside, and the wind howled as it came across the canal that separated Nippur's homes from the ancient ruins to the east." The problem is that while we can clearly tell that the story is fictional, the thesis proceeds as if the central ideas of the story were facts. The central problem is that while they may possibly be facts, they are, today, only unproven hypotheses.

We have no evidence that the spells written on incantation bowls were actually read aloud, never mind whether or not the writer of the bowl would have rocked back and forth while doing so. Beyond the question of ritual, even the very function of the bowls is more in question than the writer would have us believe. In his imaginary ritual, we read "And for eternity is how long this bowl was meant to be buried—to trap this evil forever." The question of what exactly bowls do to demons has long been a matter of debate. The idea that they were meant to trap demons like an ancient roach-motel has been dominant since the relatively early days of research into them. The idea was based on the fact that many of the incantations speak of "binding" demons as well as the pictures of bound demons found in the bowls, thought by some to be a form of sympathetic magic, through what Sir James Frazer would call "the law of similarity".

I used to believe that this was the true function of the bowls, considering them like the bottles used to trap the Djinn as portrayed in stories like that in the Thousand and One Nights. I no longer hold the belief. I now believe that the bowls were simply a form of amulet or charm, as they are self-labelled in their texts, Qamaea and Qibla respectively.

When the whole corpus of published bowl texts is examined, or at least a large portion of it, we find that there are many texts which simply do not align with this idea. Even in the early days of the research, we find a "love spell", being bowl number 28 in James A. Montgomery's ground-breaking Aramaic Incantation Texts from Nippur. Further texts have shown to be curses and counter-charms, intended to send back curses to their senders. It is hard to reckon these texts against the idea of trapping demons. In order to keep the theory alive it must be modified to say that "some bowls" were meant to trap while others were not. It makes more sense, however, to scrap the theory altogether.

The pictures of the bound demons found on incantation bowls can be seen as similar to those found on later amulets which were clearly not meant to be traps. There are two styles of amulets against which these drawings should be compared. I refer to these two types as the "bird amulets" and the "flaming Lilith" amulets. Of the first type, there are many examples published, though many of them are basically reworked copies of the same woodcut. On these amulets, a demon, portrayed as a winged creature with a bird's head, is trapped and held down by divine names. The first of these amulets to have caught my attention was printed, somewhat randomly, in Naveh & Shaked's Amulets and Magic Bowls, page 133. It was printed in Warsaw in in 1867, hence my designation for it: W1867. Two different amulets with nearly identical printed portrayals, LK29 and LK30, can be found in William Gross' Living Khamsa. LK29 is from Safed. LK30 is from Algeria. A particularly exceptional hand-drawn version from India of the same basic image can be found in the Magnes Collection at The Bancroft Library of The University of California, Berkeley. It can be seen online at but a better photograph was published in Alla Efimova's The Jewish World. These amulets were discussed by Jacobus Swart in The Book of Seals & Amulets, pp. 225-241, where he also gives yet another version. The second set of amulets seem to come mostly from Persian Jews. One Persian example can be found in the Magnes collection, online at but again, a better photograph was published in The Jewish World. Another Persian example was published in Joy Ungerlieder-Mayerson's Jewish Folk Art. A third example, thought to also be from Persia, can be found in the Feuchtwanger Collection and was published in Isaiah Sachar's Jewish Tradition in Art as item 884.

All of these amulets show pictures of demons bound, admittedly by divine names instead of chains. Despite this difference, the idea is probably similar. All of the "bird amulets" are paper amulets meant to be hung or carried, most likely hung. The "flaming Lilith" amulets are all silver pendants meant to be worn. It does not seem feasible that the amulets were meant to literally trap the demons in question. It seems much more likely that they were intended to simply bind the demons from doing harm. The same can probably be said of the images in the incantation bowls.

The use of bowls for these amulets does not likely have that much to do with the form of the bowl as a container. It most likely arose from the common and widespread practice of writing amulets on potsherds. If you want to write a larger text, you need a larger surface, so entire bowls would have been used rather than ostraca. Various evidence suggests that these bowls were not made specifically to be made into amulets, but rather that ordinary bowls made for household use were used. These unglazed bowls would have made cheap and readily available media upon which to write an inscription. Writing on the inside of the bowl, buried face down or clam-shelled together with bitumen would have protected the inked inscriptions. This obviously worked, as we have many that have survived for us to translate.

Returning to the idea of a "bowl ritual", the writer makes statements such as "The incantation bowl ritual, on the other hand, referred not to an ethnic or religious group, but to a separate ritual community made up of a variety of peoples living in the area at the time." In this statement, he not only presupposes a ritual, but a ritual community. Evidence shows us that incantation bowl texts were passed back and forth between Mandaean and Jewish writers, but this does not mean that we can assume a "ritual community" even if it were certainly true that there was such a thing as a "bowl ritual".

The writer continues with statements like "In the face of an emerging bowl ritual community, however, many Persians likely still retained a sense of membership to the Zoroastrian religious community." The fact that many incantation bowls in Jewish Aramaic and Mandaic script, even with Jewish and Mandaean divine names or entities, were written for clients with Zoroastrian theomorphic names does not mean that Zoroastrians were participating in any "bowl ritual community". It simply meant that they bought amulets from Jewish and Mandaean practitioners, who may or may not have performed rituals to accompany the bowls. If, for example, a Christian decided to have their astrological chart read by a Jewish astrologer, should we say that they have become part of a Jewish astrological community? I would not think so.

In his conclusion, the writer states that "In and of itself, each line of evidence discussed above does not provide concrete proof of a ritual community. But when taken together, the bowls speak loudly in favor of such a phenomenon. Though distinct characteristics do distinguish bowls in each dialect from one another, the similarities outweigh the differences substantially." The problem with this statement is that no real evidence for a bowl ritual, which must be assumed to support the idea of a "ritual community", has been given. The thesis starts with the supposition and builds upon it without supporting it. If there is no ritual, there can be no ritual community.

The writer is correct in his assertion that "the similarities (in bowls of differing dialects) outweigh the differences substantially" but there are ways to explain this away without supposing a Jew and a Mandaean ever even spoke to one another, much less formed a "ritual community". For example, many bowls may have been dug out when new people moved into houses previously occupied by others. Since these bowls often protected a client by name, they would not be useful for the new tenants whether or not they were of the same religious affiliation as the previous tenant. They also may have been removed by new tenants of a different religious affiliation because they "wreaked of paganism" or offended the purist views of a Mandaean family. These discarded bowls may have been inspected by interested magicians of religious affiliations different than the bowls in question. They may have even been brought to magicians or holy men for safe disposal. These magicians may then have adapted the materials with alterations. Other possible scenarios can be imagined as well. Magical source-books may have been stolen or purchased and the spells modified to fit the religious affiliation of the new user. In neither of these scenarios do we need to suppose that there was any direct contact between Mandaean and Jewish bowl-writers to explain the similarities in Mandaean and Jewish incantation bowls. Even if it is assumed that the texts were based primarily on an oral tradition, which some evidence suggests might be the case, this does not preclude that practitioners of either tradition may have inspected bowls from the other and borrowed ideas from them. The point of all of this is that there are many ways that formulae may have passed from culture to culture without there necessarily having been an open, common culture.

It is likely that we do not even need to look for scenarios where there might be a transition of knowledge regarding these bowl spells. We tend to think of such incantations as some sort of secret arcana known only to the magicians who used them and their close associates. This was probably not the case. We should note Gideon Bohak's comments on medieval magic books. He notes that they were in common circulation, available to the elite and the masses alike. "apparently, there was nothing esoteric about such texts, and they were not the hidden possessions of a secretive guild of magicians, but available for all to see." While he was referring to texts a few centuries later than the bowl texts, it is likely that it applied to our earlier texts as well. It is likely that both old bowls and the spell-books upon which they were based were easily available on the common market.

Given our present state of knowledge regarding the incantation bowls, there is no reason to believe that the bowls were not made in the writer's own home or workshop with no accompanying ritual and were then delivered to or picked up by the client, in the same way that a silver amulet would have been made in the workshop of the silversmith and then given to the client. In fact, the evidence of the bowls themselves suggests this, as some bowls are marked on their outside with the location they are to be placed in. This would hardly be necessary if the bowls were written in the home they were to be used, or even if created beforehand and brought by the magician to the client's home where he would perform a ritual. If this were the case, he would know where the bowl was to be placed. Marking the bowl's intended location on it suggests that it was purchased and then brought home and buried by the client. The language of these placement inscriptions is sometimes different than the language of the incantation itself. While the incantation was most likely in the language of the magician, the placement inscription was most likely in the language of the client.

The writer holds that the central point of his thesis is "to illustrate the utility of incantation bowls for a study of the broader sociocultural processes of the time period". The bowls may, indeed, have much to tell us. As more are published, I am sure that they will tell us more. We should, however, temper the conclusions that we make from them by noting what they do not tell us. In many regards they do not tell us much more than they do tell us. We have no descriptions of the use of bowls as amulets in any literary sources. We have only the inscriptions on the bowls and the most often imperfect records of the archaeologists who discovered a minority of them. For most of the bowls, we have no real idea of their provenance or any details as to how they were found. The inscriptions were meant to perform a function and to explain themselves was certainly not that function. We should keep in mind that even what we thought we knew about the bowls at an early stage in their research has often been called into question, such as that the dialect in which a bowl was inscribed was a reliable indicator of the religious affiliation of the practitioner. This premise, taken as fact by the earliest writers on the subject, has been shot down by later researchers and is no longer seen as a tenable premise. It has even been noted that the language of the bowls, being formulaic and possibly archaic, may not be the wonderful evidence for linguistic trends of the time that it was once supposed to be. We should certainly be careful about attempting to use the bowls as evidence of such far-reaching topics as "the broader sociocultural processes of the time period".

- B.R. Gendler