How to protect your home and family, the Sassanian way.

August 7, 2009

Ok, I’ll be honest. At first I just chose this image of an Aramaic incantation bowl as the fun friday image of the week because: “look! cute child-like monster drawings!”.

Penn Museum object B2945, image #152805. From Nippur (present-day Iraq).

But the more I learn about this esoteric corner of the archaeological world, the more relevant these little bowls become.

For several hundred years between 400 AD and 700 AD, when much of what we call the Middle East was under the influence of the Persian Sassanid Empire, these bowls were produced. Inscriptions in various dialects of Aramaic were painted on the bowls, (or inscribed in metal sheets or stone amulets) generally naming a long list of demons, spirits, and evil beings that were to be kept from harming the owner. For added emphasis and power, sometimes the demon itself would be drawn.

The inscriptions were probably produced by local magicians or scribes, but ordered by individuals who hoped to rid themselves of some persistent problem. Some bowls are customized with the owner’s family members’ names, or with a specific problem, such as to protect them 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”. [1]

What is both intriguing and frustrating to the scholar is their variety, and inconsistency. These objects contain texts in several different scripts, and many separate dialects of Aramaic. Late antiquity was a time of a great proliferation of religions, and the bowls appear to have been used by members of Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, Mandean, Islamic, and pagan groups. A single bowl will often name deities associated with several religions, and use magical words or phrases from more than one tradition. It seems that the users of these objects often tried to ‘cover their bases’ by invoking any powerful spirit they could think of – from any of their neighbors’ religious traditions – either for help or censure.

Like all archaeological specimens, these objects can tell us things about many different aspects of life in Iran and Mesopotamia in late antiquity. We can learn about family structure, naming traditions, literacy levels, socioeconomic pressures, and religious practices.  What is exciting to me about these bowls, particularly, is the insight they provide into the religious syncretism that may have been commonplace in these communities.

The syncretistic features of incantation texts reflect a society where the members of different religions living side by side shared many ideas and practices on the level of popular beliefs and customs that were not necessarily accepted by the leaders of those religions.(Morony, 2007).

The invocations weren’t always positive – often the gods of one group were transformed into demons by another – but these objects show how aware they were of each other. It’s always good to be reminded that we’re not the first multi-cultural, globalized society, and to see how others have done it before.

In the meantime, keep an eye out for this guy:

Penn Museum object B16017, image #141859. From Nippur (present-day Iraq).

Sources/Further Reading:

[1]: Bohak, Gideon. 1995. “Traditions of Magic in Late Antiquity”, a web exhibit. http://www.lib.umich.edu/files/exhibits/pap-/magic/intro.html

[2]: Morony, Michael G. 2007. “Religion and the Aramaic Incantation Bowls”. Religion Compass, vol. 1, no. 4. pp 414-429

Noegel, Scott B, Joel Thomas Walker, and Brannon M. Wheeler. 2003. Prayer, magic, and the stars in the ancient and late antique world. Penn State Press.

Corbett, Joey. Word Play: The Power of the Written Word in Ancient Israel.