Thursday, December 18, 2003

Jim Davila at quotes from the obituary of J.B. Segal, a noted scholar of Semitic languages at the School of Oriental and African Studies, in the University of London. He taught there from 1961-1979. J.B. Segal recently published the Catalogue of the Aramaic and Mandaic Incantation Bowls in the British Museum, together with an article by Erica C.D. Hunter. I have been using this volume in the last few days to do research for my paper at the Association for Jewish Studies, which is on pictorial and symbolic depictions in the incantation bowls, with comparisons to the Greek Magical Papyri and later Jewish magical manuscripts. My paper is entitled, "Demons, Characters, and Angelic Alphabets: Pictorial depictions in Jewish amulets and texts of ritual power." Here is the abstract:

The Aramaic incantation bowls, dating from the 4th-8th centuries C.E., are inscribed earthenware bowls whose purpose was to exorcise demons, cure illness, protect against evil spirits, and save one’s children from Lilith and other demons. They were used by Jews, Christians, Mandaeans, and polytheists in Sassanian Babylonia. Most studies of the Aramaic incantation bowls, found in archaeological excavations in present-day Iraq and Iran, have concentrated on the written texts and not on the pictorial depictions on the bowls. In fact, the ancient remains of the incantation bowls, metal amulets from Israel and Syria, incised gems from the eastern Mediterranean, and papyri texts of ritual power from Egypt are filled with images – of demons, of the person to be exorcised, and of weapons directed against evil forces. The images also include what the ancient texts call "characters" – letter-like figures that seem to belong to unknown alphabets. Pictures and characters also appear in the ritual power texts found in the Cairo Geniza, in medieval Hebrew manuscripts, and on Jewish amulets made up to the present day. In this paper, I will be examining the images found on the bowls and their relation to the texts of the same bowls, in comparison with images on Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek amulets and papyri from Israel and Egypt. This paper will examine the images and discuss what they mean, and how they relate to the accompanying texts. Why did those who made the bowls and other amulets find it necessary and meaningful to use pictures and characters in concert with words? Do the pictures and characters cross cultural and political boundaries, as the words of the spells so frequently do? Were they considered efficacious when used alone, or was it necessary to accompany them with words? This paper will argue that it is important to analyze the pictures along with the words in order to fully appreciate this aspect of ancient Jewish material culture.

I may not manage to do everything I planned to in this ambitious abstract, but I will definitely be speaking about the incantation bowls, both Aramaic and Mandaic.

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