Jewish Incantation Bowls

Jewish Incantation Bowls

Introduction: Magic and Religion

     A frequent area of debate are the borders of religion and magic and if there are indeed any borders at all.  It is in trying to establish a distinction between the two that often causes a conundrum for religious scholars and anthropologists.  Texts and artifacts often lie in this gray area and scholars are forced by the nature of our vocabulary to choose how to label them.  In his late 19th century article “Relation between Magic and Religion”, Harvard professor Crawford H. Toy described the three leading views on magic and religion as: “…that magic is a degraded form of religion; that it is the parent of religion; and that the two are independent, mutually unrelated systems.”  However, he went on to explain why these segregations are not so simple and one must be open-minded to the gray areas magic and religion derive from.  While magic seems to conjure a certain form of chaos and religion propagating order, they seem to have sprung up in humanity together.  Reverend Witton T. Davies, a professor of Biblical Literature, also points out magic and religion’s close ties by describing the parallels between incantation and prayer and burning materials in spells and religious sacrifices.  Davies wrote that magic may be described as “… the attempt on man’s part to have intercourse with spiritual and supernatural beings, and to influence them for his benefit.”  Indeed, when thinking about it in these terms, it is quite easy to see the parallel between practicing magic and practicing religion.  For what religion does not involve itself with the supernatural world in order to either influence it or to be influenced by it? 

The Jewish Incantation Bowls – An Overview

     Since first discovered in the middle of the nineteenth century, the Jewish incantation bowls – simple clay bowls with Aramaic and Hebrew ink incantations - have perplexed scholars.  Questions about the relationship between magic and religion immediately arise when studying the bowls. Other questions also emerged, such as, how exactly were the bowls used? What influence do the surrounding cultures and religions play in their creation and use? Although the discovery is nearly a century and a half old, the scholarship on the subject is still in its relative infancy. 

     This article offers an introduction to the bowls and a discussion of various questions that are being taken into consideration by scholars. One of the questions at hand is, what exactly was the ritual process in using the bowls? One long time theory is that the bowls were drank out of in order to ingest the words written in them.  The consumption of powerful words in a mystical experience is reminiscent of the book of Ezekiel, when God told Ezekiel, “Son of man, eat what you find; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.”  (Ezekiel 3:1) In Jeremiah 15:16, the prophet Jeremiah also “eats” the words of God. However, at the conclusion of this paper, we will see why this theory is not gaining ground.

     The Jewish incantation bowls – with more than 2,000 found by archaeologists - are an intriguing look into ancient Jewish magic. They have been found in Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey and even one in Egypt. The bowls were crafted starting in either the 4th or 5th century CE up until the 7th or 8th century CE. The bowls were identical to all other commonly used bowls in Sasanian Mesopotamia which has led Professor Gideon Bohak to conclude that the bowls were bought in large quantities in the marketplace and then modified to be used for the enchantments.  The bowls are made out of clay and were crudely formed between 8-12 centimeters in circumference with ink incantations on the inside.  Most commonly, the text was written in a spiraling pattern away from the center. Another fairly common pattern is the text being splitting the bowl into three equal sections.  Rare patterns of text include four equal divisions, a sun shape, star/flower shape, and man shape. All the bowls found were completely covered with writing and drawings on the interior and so it seems an important aspect of the practice was to make use of the entire available surface.  Some had instructions on the outside of the bowls as to where the owner should place them in the house.

     Some bowls contain figures in addition to the text and the most common images are those of shackled demons.  Dr. Dan Levene describes these drawings in detail, “Many of the demons thus depicted are identifiable as being female and possessing feathered bird-like left with claws. In other bowls, there are what appear to be depictions of fierce angels, much like those described in early Jewish mystical texts, such as are in the Hekhalot and Merkabah literature.”  Other animal and hybrid figures were found as well.

      While most of the bowls found were surface finds, many bowls were found in their archaeological context and the majority of which were placed upside down in the corners of rooms, in doorway thresholds, and at tent entrances. The website of the impressive Schøyen Collection, which houses 654 incantation bowls, says the bowls were “demon traps”, in which demons became trapped underneath the bowls, which explains their unusual placement. It is interesting to note that some the demonic entities named in the bowls were previously known as local deities, such as the Mesopotamian goddess Innana and the shed, from the Akkadian word for a “protective deity” or “household god,” sheddu.  All but a few incantation bowls are specifically against demons while those outside this majority contain curses against other human individuals. On a very rare occasion, the incantation was meant to magically coerce someone to love another.  Many of the bowls are a type of divorce certificate, separating a demon from the client or clients’ house. In one bowl, an eggshell was found and believed to be a sacrifice to the trapped demons. A few discoveries revealed two bowls being bound together, rim to rim, with either bitumen or ropes.

     The bowls contain about two hundred Aramaic quotes from the Hebrew Bible and nearly half of which constitute the earliest written forms of theses verses as they were not found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, the bowls’ inscriptions of Bible verses possibly defy the Talmud, which condemns the recitation of biblical verses for magical purposes. These bowls certainly provide a glimpse into the world of Sasanian Jewish mysticism. According to incantation bowl expert Shaul Shaked, “The bowls also have the earliest examples of Hekhalot or Jewish mystical texts, as well as part of the Shema prayer or extracts from the Mishna.”  Additionally, they provide us with the only remaining Jewish epigraphic material from Babylonia during this time. See figures below for examples of the Jewish incantation bowls.

Figure 1
MS 1911 / 1
Jewish-Aramaic book script. Mesopotamia, 5th – 6th c.
“Incantation Bowl: Bible, Incantation & Drawing” The Schøyen Collection 
Figure 2
MS 2053 / 198
Incantations against demons. Near East, 5th – 6th c.
“Incantation Bowl to Ward Against Demons” The Schøyen Collection



Figure 3
Bound demon within text.
 “Curse or Blessing: What’s in the Magic Bowl?” Dan Levene

     Although multiple other types of magical artifacts have been found from the same time period - amulets written on metal lamellae (thin sheets of lead, bronze, silver, or gold ), aggressive and erotic spells written on metal lamellae or on clay sherds, magical gems, magical papyri, books of magic, and inscribed human skulls – the incantation bowls are by far the most numerous.  In addition to the inarguably magical items as mentioned above, Witton Davies speculated in 1898 that that the Jewish traditions of phylacteries, tassels, and mezuza were originally to fend off demons and were only later rationalized as being laws of God. He also speculated that moonlets worn around necks of women and camels and the bells at bottom of high priest’s garments may have been protection against demons. Dr. Wellhausen called these sort of magical demon protections “Gegenzauber” (countercharm).

     In Continuity and Innovation in the Magical Tradition, Shaul Shaked dissects definable parts of a standard incantation and solidifies terminology used for each category such as formula, spell, and segments. He defines formula as “…an ideal structure of a text which the practitioner aims at reproducing.”  A spell is defined as a “building block” for the incantation, each with a different formula. A subdivision of each spell is called a segment. “The term invocation means a direct appeal to different powers or person, sometimes with a supplication that they should act in a manner sought by the practitioner or the client.”  Shaked also contends that the repetition of spells and backwards spells suggests that the practitioners may have had a lack of confidence in his incantation and that he was in a sense doubling up on the protection.


     There is no doubt that the surrounding non-Jewish environment influenced the Jewish creators of the bowls. It is also true that the Jews may have had a counterinfluence on those that surrounded them as well. Although unusual, contemporary Christian incantation bowls have also been found in the same upside-down position from the same period and locations.  See figure 4 below. Zoroastrian bowls from this time period were also found upside down and under floors and in thresholds as well.  See figure 5 below.

Figure 4
MS 1927 / 54
Proto-Manichaean script. Mesopotamia, 5th – 6th c.
“Christian Incantation Bowl” The Schøyen Collection
Figure 5
MS 2056/12
Zoroastrian incantations against demons. Near East, 5th-7th c.
“Zoroastrian Incantations Against Angra Mainu” The Schøyen Collection


     However, out of the various religious groups using incantation bowls at the time, those from Jewish authors are in the majority. The incantation bowls do not provide us with the names of their authors; however, most of the client names on the bowls were Persian. Each bowl was uniquely created for a particular owner. Some people owned multiple bowls, created by practitioners with different languages and cultures. Bohak points out that the authors can be identified as Jewish from their use of “Jewish terms, concepts, and stories… and passages from the rabbis’ Mishnah.” In addition to Persian owners, several of the bowls have been inscribed for people with the prefix “rabbi.” Rabbis also appear in the text of the bowls, called upon as exorcists to quell the offending demon at hand. This is surprising considering the negative view the Talmud had regarding magic and condemned it as being dangerous. Verses from the Tanakh also condemn magical practices.

      Although it is nearly impossible for the Jews in Babylonia to have been completely isolated from outside cultural influences, the Talmud focuses almost solely on rabbinic issues and has little to say about the surrounding cultures.  For this reason, and that the study of ancient Iran has played a small role in North American academics in the past, a large majority of Talmudic studies have been insular or placed against the background of the Greco-Roman world. Shaul Shaked, a prolific author on the subject at hand, also noted that scholars, for various reasons, “can only manage to reconstruct a small portion of variegated religious heritage of ancient Iran.” While noting the relevance of these issues, Dr. Jason Mokhtarian in his book Rabbis, Sorcerers, Kings, and Priests contends that it is significantly important to take into consideration the Sasanian and Zoroastrian cultures when studying the rabbis and the Talmud in the Sasanian Empire of Babylonia, 224-650 C.E. Though bowls have been found with multiple religious motifs and languages, they had a confined use within this time and geography.

      There are many reasons why the surrounding cultures of the Jewish incantation bowls should not be dismissed. While the Talmud may attempt to isolate the rabbis from their neighboring cultures, in reality the rabbis and the Jewish people were not isolated. Along with sharing geography and community, they shared this mysterious practice of incantation bowls. In addition to other religions having their own incantation bowls, Jewish practitioners also used the names of pagan gods and the Christian Holy Trinity. Levene wrote about the fascinating discovery of three texts, written in Jewish Aramaic, Syriac, and Mandaic, but all containing nearly the same formula. However, Mokhtarian also points out that too much enthusiasm for comparative studies can be disadvantageous and result in an unfortunate filter of over-interconnection. It is often the case that comparative studies result in the exploitation of similarities while diminishing the importance of differences.

     However, symbolic influence should not be overlooked at as well. We know that imagery was used throughout rabbinic Judaism, despite the Talmudic laws against it. The Tannaim (Mishnaic rabbi sages) prohibited symbols and forms of mysticism that they judged to be pagan but did not oppose ones they felt were appropriately Jewish. Similarly, they distinguished amulets to be either outlawed or appropriate. Unfortunately, we do not know if the incantation bowls were deemed appropriate or if they were condemned by the Tannaim. Avigail Manekin Bamberger makes a very interesting note in her article “Naming Demons: The Aramaic Incantation Bowls and Gittin”: “Although the incantation bowls are not mentioned explicitly in the Talmud, the use of amulets is mentioned in several places in rabbinic literature, and the bowls refer to themselves as amulets, as can be seen from a common formula that appears on a number of them: הדין קמיע – ‘this amulet.’”  Jacob Neusner, in his book Early Rabbinic Judaism, proposed the theory that the destruction of the temple in 70 CE caused some Jewish people to reach out to pagan symbolism despite Tannaitic law. Neusner contended that the influence of Hellenization contributed to the use of pagan symbology and that the circle of influence of the rabbis may have shrunk during this time. Perhaps it is within this vacuum of shrinking rabbinic influence that made room for incantation bowls.

 A Question of Transmission

     Whether the spells cast in the bowls originated from an oral or written tradition is another question not answered yet. No magical instruction books were found in Babylonia, but the fact that the Babylonian Talmud includes sections regarding magic spells gives us an indication that these books may have existed there. (The Mishna has little to offer regarding magic, divination, and demonology, but the Talmud and other post-biblical writings delve into these subjects with much more detail.)  Jewish magical formula instruction texts from other parts of the Jewish world were found, dating from the 4th to 7th centuries CE.  The Oxyrhynchus Inscription, appearing to be a part of a collection of spells like the Babylonian incantation bowls, is further evidence of that the incantations may have been transmitted textually. The Oxyrhynchus inscription, dating from 5th-6th century in Egypt, is believed by Mark Geller to be part of a recipe collection since the first part of the inscription seems to be addressing the demon Shemhaza while the second part, after a few indecipherable lines, is in regard to a dog bite.  (This is not an uncontested opinion though, as Gideon Bohak believes that the format and fold lines suggest that the lines are all part of one spell.)  However, this does not exclude the possibility that spells were handed down orally and, while some of the incantations’ authors were finely literate, some struggled with handwriting and spelling, perhaps suggesting an oral background to the text.  Also, the repeated mistakes in biblical verses should be taken into consideration when contemplating an oral transmission.

Laboratory Testing

     Moïse Schwab, in his 1917 article “Amulets and Bowls with Magic Inscriptions”, states that people would drink from the bowls to protect themselves from the demons making them sick. However, we do not have the evidence to conclusively concur with this hypothesis. While it is uncontested that the writings in the bowls are magical incantations, exactly how the bowls were used and why they are so different from other magical amulets is still in debate a century later. As mentioned previously, a current primary theory is that they were traps for demons. While this does seem to make sense considering the figures, the spells, and their upside-down placement within homes, conclusive evidence is still lacking. At the very least, one should question why apparently ordinary bowls were used as opposed to a “trap” that was custom built. It is plausible for both theories to be true as one could easily imagine a person drinking or eating from the enchanted bowl to ingest the power of the spell as well as placing it under the floor for the purpose of a trap. However, further laboratory testing would be needed to discover if food residue were in the bowls. A common method of residue testing uses a mass spectrometer. Unfortunately, though, this testing requires scraping material from the clay which would damage the inscriptions.

     I asked a few experts previously mentioned above - Dr. Jason Mokhtarian, Dr. Shaul Shaked, and Martin Schøyen – if testing had been done on the bowls to determine if they once held food, oil, or wine.

     Dr. Mokhtarian, who is a current scholar on Sasanian Jewish society, said that he was unaware of anyone doing this sort of testing, but does not believe that the bowls were used for food or drink.

     Dr. Shaul Shaked also doubted they were used for food and expanded on the subject. He said that while studying the bowls in The Schøyen Collection, he had never come across any evidence of food residue in the bowls and that laboratory testing would most likely damage the inscriptions, as mentioned above.  In his letter, he said that in the Islamic period, metal bowls with incised incantations were sometimes drank out of, but that it is unlikely practitioners would have done that with the Jewish bowls, considering the was used for the incantations. Dr. Shaked felt a more important test would be on the material of the bowls themselves and compare it with earth samples from the area to determine if a precise location of production could be discovered. Neutron activation analysis could find trace elements in clay to produce this study. Another possible test is petrographic analysis, which can look at the physical composition of clay. However, Dr. Shaked pointed out that the logistics for such a large-scale project are not practical at the moment because of security risks in the Middle East.

     Martin Schøyen stated that none of the 654 bowls in his collection were tested for food substances. He felt that perhaps food residue might be found if the bowls had been used prior to the inscriptions being made; however, conservation of the bowls would have destroyed this evidence. He also said that bowls that have not gone through the conservation process may show signs of ash, because some archaeologists in the Middle East – not impressed by the bowls – used them as ash trays.

     In summary, a few of the leading bowl scholars of today believe that the potential damage to the inscriptions and the difficult logistics are not worth the risk of doing further testing at the moment.


     The bowls leave us with a unique and challenging view of Jewish life in the Sasanian Empire. As we can see, the questions far outweigh the answers. We are thwarted by the rudimentary and destructive practices of previous archaeologists and by the political climate of today’s world. We live in a time where chemical analysis can give us grand and conclusive results, but the price of destroying the antiquities is just too high. Despite the obstacles, there is no doubt that there will be important progress in the days to come, as scholars around the world peer into an ancient culture where emerging rabbinics and Jewish magic collide.



  • Bamberger, Avigail Manekin. “Naming Demons: The Aramaic Incantations Bowls and Gittin.”
  • Bohak, Gideon. Ancient Jewish Magic. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
  • “Ceramic Residue Analysis.”  Molecular Archaeology.
  • “Christian Incantation Bowl.”  The Schøyen Collection.      
  • Currid, John D. Doing Archaeology in the Land of the Bible.  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999.
  • Davies, T. Witton.  “Magic, Divination, and Demonology among the Semites.” The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literature 14, no. 4 (1898): 241-251.
  • Geller, M. J. "An Aramaic Incantation from Oxyrhynchos." Zeitschrift Für Papyrologie Und Epigraphik 58 (1985): 96-98. 
  •  “Incantation Bowl: Bible, Incantation & Drawing.” The Schøyen Collection. hebrew-syriac/4-6-3-jewish-aramaic/ms-1911-1
  •  “Incantation Bowl to Ward Against Demons.”  The Schøyen Collection. american-magic/incantation-bowl-ms-2053-198
  • “Introduction: Magical Literature.”  The Schøyen Collection.
  • Levene, Dan.  “Curse or Blessing: What’s in the Magic Bowl?”  The Ian Karten Lecture, 2002. 
  • ---.  Jewish Aramaic Curse Texts from Late-Antique Mesopotamia.  Leiden, UK: Brill, 2013.
  • Mokhtarian, Jason Sion. Rabbis, Sorcerers, Kings, and Priests. University of California Press, 2015.
  • Neusner, Jacob.  Early Rabbinic Judaism.  Leiden, UK: E. J. Brill, 1975.
  • Schwab, Moïse.  “Amulets and Bowls with Magic Inscriptions.”  The Jewish Quarterly Review 7,4 (1917): 619-628.
  • Shaked, Shaul.  Dualism in Transformation: Varieties of Religion in Sasanian Iran.  London, UK: School of Oriental and African Studies, 1994.
  •  ---.  “Transmission and Transformation of Spells: The Case of the Jewish Babylonian Aramaic Bowls.” In Continuity and Innovation in the Magical Tradition, edited by Gideon.
  • Bohak, Yuval Harari, and Shaul Shaked, 188-218.  Boston, MA: Brill, 2011.
  •  ---, Siam Bhayro, and James Nathan.  Aramaic Bowl Spells.  Leiden, UK: Brill, 2013.
  •  Toy, Crawford H.  “Relation between Magic and Religion,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 20 (1899): 327-331. 
  •  “Zoroastrian Incantations Against Angra Mainu.”  The Schøyen Collection.
  •  “Zoroastrian Incantations Against Demons.” The Schøyen Collection.
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