An incantation bowl, also known as a demon bowl, devil-trap bowl, or magic bowl, is a form of early protective magic found in what is now Iraq and Iran. Produced in the Middle East during late antiquity from the sixth to eighth centuries, particularly in Upper Mesopotamia and Syria, the bowls were usually inscribed in a spiral, beginning from the rim and moving toward the center. Most are inscribed in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic.
The bowls were buried face down and were meant to capture demons. They were commonly placed under the threshold, courtyards, in the corner of the homes of the recently deceased and in cemeteries.
The majority of Mesopotamia's population were either Christian, Manichaean, Mandaean, Jewish or adherents of the ancient Babylonian religion, all of whom spoke Aramaic dialects. Zoroastrians who spoke Persian also lived here. Mandaeans and Jews each used their own Aramaic variety, although very closely related. A subcategory of incantation bowls are those used in Jewish and Christian magical practice. (See Jewish magical papyri for context) The majority of recovered incantation bowls were written in Jewish Aramaic. These are followed in frequency by the Mandaic language and then Syriac. A handful of bowls have been discovered that were written in Arabic or Persian. An estimated 10% of incantation bowls were not written in any real language but pseudo-script. They are thought to be forgeries by illiterate “scribes” and sold to illiterate clients. The bowls are thought to have been regularly commissioned across religious lines.
To date only around 2000 incantation bowls have been registered as archaeological finds, but since they are widely dug up in the Middle East, there may be tens of thousands in the hands of private collectors and traders. Aramaic incantation bowls from Sasanian Mesopotamia are an important source for studying the everyday beliefs of Jews, Christians, Mandaeans, Manichaeans, Zoroastrians and pagans on the eve of the early Muslim conquests.
A subcategory of incantation bowls are those used in Jewish and Christian magical practice. Aramaic incantation bowls are an important source of knowledge about Jewish magical practices, particularly the nearly eighty surviving Jewish incantation bowls from Babylon during the rule by the Sasanian Empire (226-636), primarily from the Jewish diaspora settlement in Nippur. These bowls were used in magic to protect against evil influences such as the evil eye, Lilith, and Bagdana. These bowls could be used by any member of the community, and almost every house excavated in the Jewish settlement in Nippur had such bowls buried in them.
The inscriptions often include scriptural quotes and quotes from rabbinic texts. The text on incantation bowls is the only written material documenting Jewish language and religion recovered from the period around the writing of the Babylonian Talmud. Scholars say that the use of rabbinic texts demonstrates that they were considered to have supernatural power comparable to that of biblical quotes. The bowls often refer to themselves as "amulets" and the Talmud discusses the use of amulets and magic to drive away demons.
At the same period and in the same region, Christian incantation bowls are also found, often in Syriac, which is a dialect of the Aramaic language.
See also: Mandaic lead rolls
There are also many incantation bowls written in Mandaic.
Bowl with incantation for Buktuya and household, c. 200-600 AD - Royal Ontario Museum
Bowl with incantation for Kuktan Pruk during her pregnancy, Southern Mesopotamia, c. 200-600 AD - Royal Ontario Museum
Bowl with incantation to protect Anush Busai and his family against bad luck, southern Mesopotamia, c. 200-600 AD - Royal Ontario Museum
Incantation bowl with Mandaic inscription
Incantation bowl with inscriptions in Mandaic, Mesopotamia
c. 5th-7th century, incantation bowl, 19x7.5 cm, 44 lines in cursive Mandaic script in 3 blocks at different angles radiating from the centre