Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Lilith, women, and magic

Last night, I gave a talk on "Women in early Jewish magic" at the Conservative Center in downtown Jerusalem. I talked about my research, with an emphasis on the figure of Em, the mother or foster-mother of Abaye, the fourth century Amora from Babylonia, who is knowledgeable about many matters of health and illness, and is also an expert on incantations and the use of amulets. I compared her with some of the women who are named in the Aramaic incantation bowls, looking at one bowl in particular, Bowl #17 in James Montgomery's Aramaic Incantation Texts (1913, available in full text online), where Komish bat Makhlafta exorcises the liliths from her household by means of divorce formulas known from the get, the Jewish divorce document. The point of the talk was to show how rabbis in the Talmud both blamed women for being involved in sorcery and were at the same time willing to learn from Em on healing and the use of amulets and incantations, and to compare her to a woman known from a non-rabbinic Babylonian text who uses rabbinic ritual formulas to rid her household from demons.

It turned out that at the same time I was giving the talk, Israel's television Channel One was broadcasting a television show where I appear, talking about Lilith!

Today, in the National Library, Professor David Weiss Halivni, whom I first met when had a postdoctoral fellowship at Columbia from 1996-1998, and who now lives in Israel and comes to the Judaica Reading Room of the National Library to do research, came up to me and said that he saw me on Israel television yesterday, just before the Channel One news. This was very surprising, to say the least.

It turned out that episode 9 of season 3 of the "Naked Archaeologist" (made by Simcha Jacobovici in 2010) was shown last night on Channel One. (A trailer for the episode is available on Youtube). It was called "Queen of the Night" and is about Lilith. I was interviewed for the show a few years ago, when I was in Jerusalem, talking about a variety of things, including the image of Lilith in the Alphabet of Ben Sira - as both a demon and as a rebellious woman whom some contemporary feminists take as a role model. I also talked about how Lilith is blamed for the death of children and for seducing men in their sleep.

The show interviews Dr. Dan Levene, who teaches at the University of Southampton and has written extensively about the Aramaic incantation bowls. The show (not Dr. Levene) claims that all the magic bowls were found at Nippur (which is not true, although later in the show Jacobovici says that all the bowls are from Babylon, which is true), and that after the Iraq War, hundreds of the bowls, looted from Iraq, made their way to the antiquities markets in Jerusalem (I don't know if this is true). Jacobovici is shown in an antiquities shop in the Old City looking at one bowl. It's not particularly visible on the screen. The owner of the shop says that of course it's authentic, but we have no way of knowing that.

At this point, Jacobovici says, "This is kabbalah!" and an image of the kabbalistic Tree of Life is shown on the screen. In fact, the Aramaic bowls have nothing to do with medieval kabbalah. Jacobovici then turns to the question of how the image of Lilith found its way into Christian art. He shows us a medieval carving somewhere in Europe depicting the creation scene, with Lilith coming out of the top of the Tree of Knowledge in between Adam and Eve; her top is a beautiful woman, while below she is a snake, wrapped around Adam and Eve. He finds the source of this image in the Gnostic texts from Nag Hammadi, by equating Lilith with Sophia in Gnostic mythology. As far as I know, there is no relation whatsoever between Lilith and Sophia!

In between the interviews there are lots of clips from what look like movies from the 1940s and 50s depicting vampy actresses (who I suppose are supposed to be Lilith), kitschy images of ghosts, and other irrelevant images that jazz the show up. Jacobovici does present some of the research on Lilith accurately, but the show is marred by the mistakes he makes and his attempts to create links where none exist. It's entertainment, not archaeology or scholarship.

If you'd like to see a photo of an incantation bowl, here's one that Dan Levene has published (I took the image from this site that he maintains: http://www.edshare.soton.ac.uk/5331/2/M59B.JPG):

This bowl is from Dan Levene, 2003, A Corpus of Magic Bowls: Incantation Texts in Jewish Aramaic from Late Antiquity, New York pp. 31-38

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