Tuesday, December 14, 2004

AJS 2004: How to Expel Demons with Pictures

I am currently trying to finish my paper for the Association for Jewish Studies meeting, which is occurring this coming weekend (panic!). Abstract of my paper follows:
How to Expel Demons with Pictures:
Performance Theory and the Aramaic Incantation Bowls
The Aramaic incantation bowls (4th-8th centuries C.E.), used by Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, and others in Sassanian Babylonia, 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. Most studies of the bowls, found in archaeological excavations in present-day Iraq and Iran, have concentrated on the written texts and not on the bowls’ pictorial depictions. In fact, the remains of the incantation bowls are filled with images – of demons, the person to be exorcised, and weapons directed against evil forces. The images also include what the ancient texts call “charakteres” – letter-like figures that appear to belong to unknown alphabets. This paper examines the images found on the bowls and their relation to the bowl texts and discusses why those who made the bowls and other amulets found it meaningful to use pictures and characters in concert with words, and explores how the pictures and characters cross cultural and political boundaries. The paper explores the use of performance theory, as exemplified by the work of Stanley Tambiah and J. L. Austin, to understand these images in their material and ritual context. Were the images considered efficacious when used alone, or was it necessary to accompany them with words? This paper concludes that it is important to analyze the pictures along with the words in order to fully appreciate this aspect of ancient Jewish material culture.
Instead of working on the paper today I sat and read many papers for my modern Jewish history course - some of them even well-written - mostly on the founding of the state of Israel and the history of the Holocaust (these were two different topics). I would have preferred that the students not write about the Holocaust but most of them opted for this as a paper topic. Perhaps the next time I teach the course I will speak about the way that fascination with the Holocaust has become a mainstay of American Jewish identity and question perhaps whether this is healthy or justifiable.

Next semester in my introduction to Judaism course we will be reading Elie Wiesel's Night, as part of a unit on Jewish theology. Afterwards I intend to introduce the idea that the committing of genocide did not end with the Shoah, and provide information about the slaughter in Darfur and some of the contemporary Jewish responses to it. A couple of years ago when I taught the book for the first time we discussed the meaning of the slogan "Never Again," and it became clear to me that the students (mostly Jewish) had learned it from their synagogue educations, but that it was essentially devoid of content for them. Perhaps if we pay attention to a currently-occurring genocide (which the world seems to be doing its best NOT to prevent) then the real meaning of "Never Again" will become clear to us.


  1. What you say about "Never again" being devoid of content for your students is saddening but unsurprising. Thank you for doing what you can to combat that.

  2. "...the real meaning of "Never Again" will become clear to us."

    After Rwanda and Darfur, I'd say the "real meaning" seems, for the time being, to clearly mean "going to happen again and again, from time to time, so long as the people involved remain an impoverished people without international political power or allies."

    But cheer up! Eventually you got a top-notch Hollywood film made about your suffering! (Interesting piece here.)

  3. Greetings I have been trying to find information on The Aramaic incantation bowls. I was wondering if you could send me a bibliography of books and articles on the topic. They had an article in the new BAR magazine but it didn't have any translations. I was wondering if anything was found from a earlier time period (early tribal league era.) I am looking into doing a paper on their relation to the psalms ...or vise versa.

    Feel free to drop by my blog for a visit. I'm npt all that good a writer but I enjoy the research.

    I enjoyed the post.