Mesopotamian Incantation Bowl

Incantation Bowl with Aramaic Inscriptions
Mesopotamia Sasanian Period, 6-7th century AD
University of Pennsylvania Museum 1st Babylonian Expedition, 1889.

The artifacts in the Ancient Near Eastern galleries of the Metropolitan Museum are not always easily identifiable as obviously religious or secular. The legs of chairs, bases for urns, and handles of tools are often carved depictions of animals or human-like figures that could easily be interpreted as religious in nature. But occasionally, as you move through the exhibit, you spot a relic here or there that is clearly religious, and there are sections of the galleries where religious relics are displayed together.

Of these, I found my imagination most captivated by a number of “incantation bowls.” The bowls were all about the same size, similar to that of a large modern soup bowl. But incantation bowls were created to hold something altogether different from soup: they were meant to hold demons.

The bowls are all made of clay, smooth and simple in form. The outer side of the bowls can be entirely devoid of design, but often they are decorated with writing, and some are adorned with images of a demon or demons in bondage. Sometimes the demon in bondage appears on the inside of a bowl. In the bowl I chose to draw, such an image is placed at the bottom – the dead center. Although I am a poor artist, I do think that I copied the primitive, almost goofy portrayal of this particular demon. He looks a bit like the Tin Woodsman from “The Wizard of Oz,” with his pointy hat and barrel chest. In his hands he holds a sword and spear. His legs are bound in chains. He is smiling.

Like every other incantation bowl, the inner side of this one is covered with writing – spells that lure the demon, or that secure the demon’s captivity. Among the people of ancient Mesopotamia, these bowls indicate not only a strong belief in the presence of invisible forces at work in the world, but a conviction that mankind has a hand in these forces. Magic was seen as a tool that could be employed to change men’s fortunes, and alter the course of events.

I picture a priest or pious religious practitioner using this bowl to perform a ceremony that will rid them of an evil influence that is at work in their midst. They recite the inscribed incantations, and possibly perform some additional rituals, to draw the demon into the bowl. At a critical moment, the bowl is then inverted, and the demon is trapped inside. Although evil spirits would normally be able to pass through solid objects, the spells that cover the inner walls of the bowl render the demon powerless to escape, and it is trapped forever. Or at least until some archaeologist comes along a few thousand years later, and upturns the bowl out of curiosity.

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