Shallow ceramic bowl with writing painted inside

Iran or Iraq (ancient Mesopotamia)
Late Antiquity (ca. 6th-7th centuries CE)
Clay and ink
Gift of Dr. Helen Glueck
SCC A0954

In the ancient Near East, magical texts were often written on the inside of bowls, normally in one of three Aramaic dialects: Jewish Aramaic, Mandaic, and Syriac. When they are excavated, they are often found face-down. In some cases, two bowls are found sealed together, enclosing inscribed eggshells or human skull fragments. The magical texts on these bowls contain mythical stories from the various religious cultures of Late Antiquity. Many bowls include depictions of demons shackled hand and foot, which can be understood as a kind of sympathetic magic: the demon bound in the drawing is bound also in reality and it is thus made harmless.

Incantation bowls, like this one in the Skirball Museum collections, represent the popular religion of their time. They are expressions of beliefs that go beyond formal religious practice. The magical power of the writing on the bowls helped to direct supernatural forces for the purposes of protecting the patron from harm, illness, and misfortune.