Tuesday, March 21, 2017

A visual guide to incantation bowl demons

NEWS YOU CAN USE: A visual guide to the demons that spooked the Jews of Babylon. A new study depicts for the first time what Lilith, the baby­-killing seductress, looked like to those who feared her and why Satan has a tail and horns (Nir Hasson, Haaretz).
Demons are well-known figures in Jewish mysticism. In the Talmud and elsewhere there is a wealth of information about their characters, warnings against them and means to dispel them. In keeping with the Jewish injunction prohibiting the making of statues and masks there are no visual aids to indicate how the demons look. There was a period in history, however, between the rise of Christianity and the Muslim conquest of the Middle East, when Jews (mainly in Babylon) gave demons a shape.

Painstakingly, archaeologist and art historian Dr. Naama Vilozny has copied these images, analyzed their attributes and put together the first visual catalog ever of Jewish demons. Scholars believe the reason Jews in Babylon undertook to draw demons between the 5th and the 7th centuries has to do with a series of relaxations of the strictures, which rabbis gave the Jews as a way of dealing with the challenged posed by the increasing strength of Christianity. Fearing that Jews might prefer the new religion, the rabbis agreed to allow magic that included visual images. The demons Vilozny researched were drawn on “incantation bowls” – simple pottery vessels the insides of which were covered with inscriptions and drawings.

I suspect the second paragraph above credits the rabbis anachronistically with more cultural authority than they had at the time. Be that as it may, this article gives good coverage of the demonology of the Babylonian Aramaic incantation bowls and it also has some excellent photos of some of the demon images they bear. Information on Dr. Vilozny's dissertation is here:
However, until Vilozny’s doctoral dissertation, no one tried to decode and study the figures that appear on the bowls. In part, this might be because at first glance the figures look like robots. Vilozny copied the demon drawings from 122 bowls and the result is an extraordinary and unique collection of demons, both male and female, that might look like naïve drawings by children but for the people of those times were very palpable creatures. Recently Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi published the study in the book “Lilith’s Hair and Ashmedai’s Horns.”
For past PaleoJudaica posts on Lilith, start here and follow the many links. A past post involving Sammael is here and one involving Ashmedai is here. The third male demon, Bagdana, is new to PaleoJudaica. Some past posts on the Aramaic incantation bowls are collected here. And for more, run "incantation bowls" through the blog search engine.

The Haaretz article is behind a subscription paywall, but you can get access to it and a limited number of articles every month with a free registration.