A Love Charm On an Incantation Bowl

Babylonian Section

By: J. A. Montgomery

Originally Published in 1910

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The incantation bowls from Babylonia are mostly of a prosaic and monotonous character. As one of the bowls in the Museum finally proves, these vessels, properly inscribed, were inverted, duplicates being placed at the four corners of the house, so that by the process of sympathetic magic the demons might be imprisoned. The exorcisms are of a domestic character, for the banishing of all ill spirits from the house and bed and persons of the family concerned. By a natural development we find certain bowls, not represented, however, in our collection, destined for use in the graveyards, to lay the ghosts of the dead.

The inscriptions are tiresome repetitions of the names of the evil spirits and of the formulas which are efficacious to bar them. They are of interest to the philologist as original documents of interesting dialects. The student of religion finds in them clues connecting the syncretistic faiths of the Babylonia of about 500 A. D. with their earlier sources, They cannot be said to be of general interest.

The Museum collection contains two exceptions to this grey monotony, and these are unique among all the bowl inscriptions. They spring from the passion which “makes the world go round”; as love-charms they will arrest the attention of many who have no interest in archaeology.

One of these is a charm effected by a woman to gain the love of her husband. The text is badly mutilated, but it appears that the woman is childless and desires a woman’s blessing of children. The merely prophylactic character of bowl magic has been ignored, and the bowl has been used as a piece of convenient magical material.

But the other inscription is worth quoting at length. The translation reads as follows:
“In the name of the Lord of heaven and earth. Appointed is this bowl in regard to Anur-1 son of Parkoi, that he be inflamed and kindled and burn after Ahath, daughter of Nebazak.
“Presses of eternity (?) which have only been pressed (?) . . .2 a man in his heart. (3) One takes hrk and hot-herbs, which they call sunwort, mtlln and peppers . . . and the mysteries of love which she has sprinkled upon . . ., she shall sprinkle upon this Anur, son of Parkoi, so that he be inflamed and kindled and burn after Ahath, daughter of Nebazak. and in passion and in the mysteries of love . . . pieces from his heart. . . .
“In the name of the angel Rahmiel and in the name of Dlîbat the passionate . . . the gods, the lords of all the mysteries. Amen, Amen.”

This is a veritable love-philtre to gain the affections of a young man. Theocritus’s second idyll at once recurs to us, in which the enamored girl goes through her adjurations of Hecate and performs the proper rites to rouse up love. Here, too, we have the deities invoked, the Lord of heaven and earth, out of convention; but more to the point are Rahmiel, whose name means love, and Dlîbat, a form of the Oriental Venus. And as in Theocritus, we have the magic herbs. So far as their names can be interpreted, they are all pungent in character, and so symbolize the heat of passion.

For the same reason fire is a proper element in these amatory incantations, at least in the Greek and Arabic charms. In an erotic charm published by Doutté, Magie et religion dans l’Afrique du Nord, p. 253, the recipe is coriander, caraway, gum of terebinth, lime, cummin, verdigris, myrrh, blood, and a piece of a broom from a cemetery,—in which, however, the principle of selection is not evident.

The inscription is too obliterated to ascertain the modus operandi. Is the magic compound to be sprinkled over the person of the beloved? Or are we to understand a wax. image of the object of passion, which is to be peppered with the hot herbs as the lady in Theocritus cruelly burns the wax figure in fire? This would be in line with old Babylonian magic.

The inscription is unique in the Semitic field, outside of the Arabic, as it is the only erotic charm of the kind that is known. This arouses the suspicion that it is of occidental origin, and is to be connected with the widespread love-magic of the Græco-Latin world, vouched for by its literature and by the numerous original charm inscriptions found on papyrus and other materials. And the supposition is proved by an interesting identity of expression.

A most charming love-incantation on a lead tablet has been found at Hadrumetum, in the ancient Roman province of Africa. It has been frequently published; the English reader may be referred to Deissmann, Bible Studies, p. 271 (=Bibelstudien, p. 23). In it there is repeated again and again the desire of the girl that her lover come to her ἐρὣντα βασανιζόμενον ἀγρυπνοὓντα or ἐρὣντα μαινόμενον βασανιζόμενον,— “loving, tormented, wakeful,” or “loving, mad, tormented.” This trinity of terms3 corresponds to our text “that he be inflamed and kindled and burn.” Also, the obscure references to the “heart” betray Greek origin, as to the Semite the heart is not the seat of love.

The inscription thus represents the reaction of western magic upon that of Babylonia. I have found other similar clues, but this is the most evident case.


J. A. Montgomery

  • 1The latter part of the name is lost.
  • 2These dots indicate lacunae or unintelligible passages.
  • 3It is found also in an erotic papyrus inscription published by Wessely.

Cite This Article

Montgomery, J. A.. "A Love Charm On an Incantation Bowl." The Museum Journal I, no. 3 (December, 1910): 48-49. Accessed February 21, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/journal/103/

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