Nippur: The First Great Discovery

Nicholas Harris; University of Pennsylvania

The two objects illustrated here are excellent examples of Aramaic incantation bowls. The bowls, over a thousand of which have now been uncovered, are rather mundane terra cotta utensils, except for the magical inscriptions written in ink that run around the inside of the bowls, usually in a spiral. In many of the bowl texts, including bowl 16081 (catalogue #81), we find the names of the clients who commissioned the bowl from a magic practitioner: "Gai (?), son of Aspenaz, and Moshkoy his wife, daughter of Simoy, and Adaroy, his son." The text of this bowl adjures numerous kinds of demons and devils to quit the house of Gai in the name of God, angels, other demons, and even Hermes. This example highlights the single most common theme of the bowl texts, namely, their apotropaic, or amuletic, function. Bowl 13186 describes itself as a qemi‘ah, "an amulet." In addition to the inscription, bowls frequently carry an illustration, usually in the bowl's center, of what is probably the likeness of a demon bound by a two sets of bindings or snares.

The language of the bowls is Aramaic, but a number of Aramaic dialects and scripts are represented. Three distinct scripts are commonly found in the bowls: the square script used by Babylonian Jews, the Syriac scripts used by Christians, and the Mandaean script used by a third religious community, the Mandaeans. The two bowls selected here were both written in a Jewish Babylonian script. While it is generally assumed that the particular kind of script used on a bowl must signal the confessional allegiance of the bowl's maker, the content of the bowl texts frequently poses many more complicated and vexing questions. To give but two examples, in both "Jewish" and "Mandaean" bowls, the name of Jesus can be found mentioned among other auspicious names, both divine and angelic. In "Christian" bowls, one might find no mention of Jesus, but rather an invocation to deities, male and female. This apparently paradoxical situation becomes more intractable when we consider that the clients for whom many of the bowls were made must have frequently crossed confessional lines by commissioning the bowls in the first place. In so far as names may tell us about a person's religion, we find clients with typically Jewish, Christian, Persian (presumably Zoroastrian), and Arab names in bowls of "Jewish" make alone. In fact, within the corpus of bowls from the Nippur expedition, we find the same client, a Persian woman, mentioned in both a Jewish and a Mandaean bowl. In more recent excavations at Nippur, bowls in different scripts (Jewish and Mandaean) were found buried beneath the same house. Finally, despite this seemingly ecumenical behavior among the villagers of Nippur, it should be pointed out that religious authorities among the Babylonian Jews, Christians, and Mandaeans of the period generally took a dim view of such magical practices.

Despite some claims of bowls found as far afield as Hamadan in northern Iran, the vast majority of the bowls come from the area of the lower Tigris-Euphrates basin. Until relatively recently, there was preciously little evidence for dating the bowls accurately. Many bowls were either unearthed surreptitiously and sold by antique dealers, or, during archaeological excavations, the strata containing the bowls was sloughed off in order to reach the deeper, and more prized, Babylonian and Sumerian material at a site. More recent in situ evidence from archaeological excavations has tended to confirm a range for the bowls between the sixth and seventh centuries CE, i.e., the late Sasanian and early Islamic periods. It should be noted, however, that the practice of burying bowls under the floors of houses, particularly in doorways and at corners, goes back to the time of Hammurabi.

On how they might have been used, the bowls are silent, and over the last century a number of theories and speculations have arisen. Most popular has been the theory that the bowls functioned as traps for demons who, after being sealed or bound within the bowl, were buried face down. However, while many bowls were clearly meant to ward off demons, some bowls seem to be medicinal or curative in function. Bowl 13168  (catalogue# 82) begins with a formula common in the bowls: asuta min shemiyah, "a healing from heaven." Even so, these seemingly different functions were not so clearly differentiated. The bowls and the people who used them inhabited a world filled with a veritable kingdom of demonic "species," who, like termites or mice today, called for specialists to expel them.