A Magical Skull

Babylonian Section

By: James A. Montgomery

Originally Published in 1911

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A unique object is contained in the Museum collections from Nippur- a human skull the surface of which is inscribed with a magical text. The skull is well preserved despite the fact that it has been broken into many pieces, happily well put together by the Museum’s experts. Unfortunately the text is too much worn to allow more than a few words to be deciphered. Among those can be read, “spirit,” “lilith,” “thou, spirit!”, so that we are justified in supposing that the inscription is of the same magical order as that which appears in the magical bowls from Nippur, some of which have been described in previous numbers of the Journal. A few names appear; one of them is a Mordecai ben Saul, a good Jewish name. The other two names are Persian; one Gaspar is of interest as related to the Gaspar (Caspar, Jasper) of the legend of the Three Wise Kings.

The use of a skull opens up some interesting vistas in magical arts. The human head and like gruesome objects are part of the common apparatus of the nearomaneer down to our own time. It represents his connection with and power over the spirits of the dead; gives him as it were a material point d’appui for his art. But it is a sacramental link not only with the dead but as well, by an easy extension of idea, probably based on primitive animism, with the world of spirits, especially those which are noxious. Hence the natural use of dead men’s bones in the witches’ brew. It is more difficult to understand the use of such uncanny things in the practice love-charms; yet in the Greek erotic incantations the same objects are used, as in Theocritus’ second Idyll, while an Arabic charm prescribes among the components of a philtre a piece of a broom taken from a cemetery,- making a rather disgusting love potion! But a love-charm involves the incantation of nefarious spirits, of Hecate and her company, and so makes use of these animistic links with the spirit-world.

One particular phase of skull-magic is the art of the “speaking head,” a human skull, which, properly prepared and enchanted, could utter oracles by its mouth. The Talmud has a reference to this of “asking” a skull.* 1 And the Sabians, esoteric heatherish sect which survived in norther Mesopotamia till late in the Christian era, had according to the Fihrist and other Arabic authorities, elaborate rites for the evoking of these horrible oracles.† 1 The modern necromancer’s skull may be a reminiscence of those obsolete rites. Skulls appear to have been used also in Graeco-Roman sorcery.* 2

It may be observed that the skull has been regarded, among various peoples, as especially the seat of life. Probably this belief was due to the observation of the extraordinary durability of the skull, which, as palaeontology shows, may last intact for millenniums. For the same reason certain vertebrae have been regarded as the connecting link between the body and the departed soul. Among the ancient Arabs the word for skull is also used of the soul,† 2 and Dr. Speck informs me that the North American Indians preserve the skulls of the animals of the chase with the object of their easy reincarnation.

But it is through another category that we can best explain our skull and its magical inscription. It falls into that class of magic which preventive of the evil eye, a large category which includes malicious spirits as well as human beings. Against this terror, one of the chief prophylactic agencies was the use of things horrible or obscene- as though the possessor of the evil eye had more sensibility than the user. The same idea underlies the grotesque and repellent funeral rites of primitive man, at least according to one school of anthropologists. Or is the practice a kind of homeopathy?

James of Edessa tells how the heathen Syrians used the dried human head as prophylactic,‡ 1 and the ancient Taurians, according to Herodotus, and some Caucasian tribes, employed the skulls of their enemies in the same way.* 3 In Italy a tiny skull-talisman is worn as an atropaic against the Jettatura or evil eye,† 3 just as a skeleton-talisman is also regarded as efficacious.‡ 2 In the same way our skull with its inscription. both sign and charm, was regarded as a potent deterrent to the evil eyes of man and spirit.

James A. Montgomery

  • * 1 Sanhedrin, 65 b.
  • † 1See Chwolson, Die Ssabier und der Ssabismus, ii. 150.
  • * 2Abt, Die Apologie des Apuleius. 141.
  • † 2Wellhausen, Reste des arabischen Heidenthames, 161, 164.
  • ‡ 1Robertson Smith, Religion of the Semites 362.
  • * 3Seligmann, Der böse Blick, ii, 141.
  • † 3 L. c.
  • ‡ 2Elyworthy, The Evil Eye, 340.

Cite This Article

Montgomery, James A.. "A Magical Skull." The Museum Journal II, no. 3 (September, 1911): 58-60. Accessed February 21, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/journal/143/


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