Daniel Waller’s study of magic bowls
How to catch a demon
Just imagine. Your life just has not been going that well for you lately. Vital experiments for your research have failed. You lost your wallet, just after you took out a large amount from the ATM. And your health has been better too – please let it not be Covid-19. What if there was actually someone you could blame for all your woes? Or maybe, something? If you could catch it? Neutralise it?
If you appear as a pig, I adjure and put you under oath by means of YHWH YHWH Sabaoth. If you appear as a pig, I adjure and put you under oath by means of YHW YHW. If you appear as a ram, I adjure and put you under oath “by alef-daleth, by yod-he, by Shaddai, by Sabaoth, by the Merciful and Gracious, by Him that is long-suffering and of great kindness, and by any substituted name”. If you appear as a dog, I adjure and put you under oath by means of I Am that I Am. (Bowl M 164)
To Daniel Waller, researcher of religious sciences, that thought isn’t so far-fetched. For four years now, he has been studying magic bowls. Simple clay bowls that have been found in Iraq and parts of western Iran – the area once known as Mesopotamia. All were buried, face down, in the ground. All have texts spiralling to the centre, some of which describe people descending into the depths of the earth or battling demons. Magic texts that were supposed to protect their owners from harm, while catching the demons responsible for it, like a wasp under an overturned glass.
‘What I really love about them is their simplicity’, says Waller, who will be awarded his PhD on his research this week. ‘The idea that you can use something as simple as a bowl, turned upside down and buried, as a tool to catch demons.’
She owned at least forty bowls with different spells on them
Around two thousand of these so-called incantation bowls – all from the period between 400 to 700 AD – have been found. But many more must have existed and were lost in time, says Waller, while others were sold on the black market and now reside in some private collection. But there have been excavations where bowls were found in every house. ‘There’s even the case of a woman who must have been some kind of bowl tycoon’, he says. ‘She owned at least forty bowls with different spells on them. She must have been really unwell. Or a hypochondriac.’
The bowls would be buried in corners and at thresholds, as these were the places where demons were most likely to enter. The repelling of a different demon – each had its speciality – might require an extra bowl. A different spell.
Angels and demons
There were many demons around, Waller says. They might live in a tree, a bush, or a drainpipe. They might take the form of a snake, a dog, a camel, or a monkey. They could even take on human form. ‘A potentially grotesque demon masquerade’ was threatening the people of Mesopotamia, along with the natural hazards such as disease, drought, or violence. No wonder people needed protection.
To the modern researcher of religious sciences, these bowls and the texts on them are a treasure trove providing insights into the day-to-day life of different communities living in Mesopotamia in that time. They tell us not only how the unseen world was shaped in the minds of the people and how they were trying to influence the angels and demons that inhabited it, but the texts also provide information about the people themselves, the shape of the household, or the problems that confronted them. ‘They even tell us about their access to the Bible, because many inscriptions use biblical passages.’
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Then there’s the fact that these ancient beliefs about demons were the foundation of our own, modern, supernatural beliefs in angels, devils, demons, and possessions. The next time you watch Supernatural or revisit Buffy the Vampire Slayer, remember where that came from.
Jewish magic was often dismissed as slightly embarrassing
‘For a long time, these bowls have been neglected’, Waller says. When the bowls were first being discovered in the 19th century, researchers were trying very hard to characterise Judaism as something rational and free of supernatural elements and mysticism. ‘Jewish magic was often dismissed as either slightly embarrassing or even as non-existent. The Bible also speaks out strongly against it.’
However, Waller says, when you approach the bowls ‘in good faith’, you discover the texts are not crude and repetitive as some older scholars claimed. ‘You’ll see how eloquently written many of the texts are. And how elegant and logical the idea of overturning a bowl to trap a demon is.’
The incantations he studied vary enormously. They can be curses, oaths, or commands, but many times they take on the form of an elaborate story. ‘I personally love the spell about an anonymous ‘I’ – the magician who wrote on the bowl – who travels the universe and arrives at the home of a powerful demon. This demon has a house with walls made from piled-up scorpions and beams made of the teeth of lesser demons and the skulls of leviathans. But then the demon describes the owner of the bowl, who is a powerful warrior, that raided the storehouses of demons and turned their own supernatural weapons against them.’
And they wrote and sent to Rabbi Joshua bar Peraḥia when a certain lilith was harming human beings. Rabbi Joshua bar Peraḥia sent a ban (against her) but she <did not> accept (it) upon herself, bec[ause] he did not know her name. And (so) they wrote her name in a deed of divorce [and made a proclamation] concerning her in heaven, in a deed of divorce that came to us from [across the s]ea. So you too you are subdued, etc. (Bowl AS 13)
Not only is the story beautifully told, Waller says, ‘but it’s also such a beautiful threat. This powerful creature is really warning others that they’d better not harm the bowl owner!’
It is clear to him that these bowls were no marginal phenomenon at all. There are legal formulae on many bowls – texts in which the person being harassed by a demon would divorce the creature, suggesting scribes with legal training were inscribing them. Rabbis are also known to have used the bowls, and some may even have written them. ‘It’s tempting to think of people taking a bowl from their own home, having it inscribed and taking it back again.’
But there were charlatans too – which is another sign that supports the theory that the practice was quite common. ‘Most of the bowls are written in various forms of Aramaic’, Waller explains. ‘Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, Mandaic, and Syriac. But a fair number are written in no language at all: a pseudolanguage. There’s also a handful of bowls written in a form of Middle Persian, known as Pahlavi. However, these haven’t been deciphered yet.’
Some bowls have not been deciphered yet
It may be that the maker of these pseudobowls just pretended to be able to write and scammed the buyer. However, Waller says, it may also be that language or forms of human writing didn’t really matter when you were communicating with a demon. Because central to the whole bowl-inscribing business was the act of writing and the permanence of the spell after it had been written down. ‘In many ways, it’s about the writtenness of the practice’, as Waller puts it. ‘People may have attempted to craft new forms of writing that were better suited to communicating with angels and demons.’
To him, the elaborate incantations tell the story of a time where the writing of a spell slowly took the place of the performing of it. The act of writing became a way to engage with the powers from beyond. And the beauty of it was that – this way – you could actually take the spell home with you.
‘Undoubtedly, there was way more of this magic’, Waller says. ‘Spells written on pieces of metal or on papyrus, or other materials.’ And of course: oral magic. ‘Oral spells haven’t survived the ages, but the bowls did.’
He knows his research is only a start; so much is yet to be discovered. How did these practices develop? Why did the bowls suddenly disappear after 700 AD? What kind of texts are on the Pahlavi bowls? ‘But it is clear that a more holistic study, like this, can teach us way more about magical practices of that time.’