Introduction: Magical Literature


The collection of some 800 magical manuscripts covers all continents spanning over 4,500 years. The oldest of these, from 26th c. BC from North Syria, has nine incantations by the first named author in history, Ur-Gibil, who was also a scribe, and wrote the text himself and signed it as well. This makes the present manuscript one of the first, if not the first, signed literary autograph.

The main part of the magical collection consists of 654 Jewish-Aramaic incantation bowls and jugs from the Near East, dated between 5th and 7th c. AD. The majority of the bowls have incantations against demons written inside in Aramaic, with no less than about 200 quotes from the Bible in Hebrew. Of these, over 90 are not present on the Dead Sea Scrolls, which makes them the earliest witnesses to the original text of the Old Testament.

The bowls are not only part of our common heritage and that of the Sassanian Empire but, more specifically, of the Jewish people. These quotations are also the only witnesses from the crucial Masoretic foundation period of the Hebrew Bible. The bowls also have the earliest examples of Hechalot or Jewish mystical texts, as well as part of the Shema prayer or extracts from the Mishna. We also find named Jewish rabbis and demons as well as information about Jewish legal practice.

Even if most of the scribes of the bowls were Jews, most of the client names are Persian, since greater Mesopotamia was part of the huge Sassanian Empire. Most of the more than 2,000 incantation bowls known come from the core areas of the Empire, Iran and foremost present Iraq, including parts of Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. But an incantation bowl has even been found in Egypt, which was part of the Empire in the years 616-628, and an inscribed jug was found in Uzbekistan on the Empire’s Eastern frontier, attesting to the vast geographical extent of both the Sassanian Empire and the incantation texts.

Over two-thirds of all discovered incantation bowls have an unknown original provenance, as they are usually surface finds, rather than artefacts found in a particular strata or location of an archaeological dig. The reason is that they were placed with the bottom up to trap the demons at the corners of rooms or under thresholds in the houses, or at the entrances of the tents. The usual number found at a house or tent site ranges from a single bowl to a very few only.

Therefore the largest collections today have all been built over a long time. Iraq Museum’s holding of about 650 bowls have been collected over 65 years; the 142 bowls in the British Museum, over 150 years; and the Schøyen Collection’s 654 over more than 55 years by two generations of the Rihani family in Irbid and Amman in Jordan.

Since 1995 Professor Shaul Shaked at the Hebrew University, the world’s foremost authority on incantation bowls, has taken on the Herculanean task of publishing the bowls in the Schøyen Collection. So far only about 220 (10%) of all known incantation bowls known have been published; the 142 bowls in British Museum took over 30 years to see publication.

The Schøyen Collection’s 654 incantation bowls have been housed at University College London for the convenience of Professor Shaked, and the bowls have now been returned. More information can be found in statements on our NEWS page.