Sunday, May 3, 2009

Traditions of Magic in Late Antiquity

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Amulets -- protective devices worn around the body, or placed next to other objects, to protect them from various evils -- were common in all societies and all periods of antiquity, and their use was accepted as normal by secular, religious, and "scientific" authorities (i.e., the physicians). Almost anything could serve as an amulet -- a red string wound around the wrist, a stone carried in a small pouch around the neck, or a piece of iron tied to one's bed. Such amulets could be prepared at home, and called for no special knowledge or technical skills. Given their mundane nature, such amulets often are hard to identify -- for when we come across a decorated ring, for example, how can we tell whether it was an amulet or merely a piece of jewelry?


Protective Magic: Amulets and Gems

Within the wide category of protective magic, one local tradition stands out as unique, namely the so-called Babylonian demon bowls.

These inscribed earthenware vessels were found in several sites in Iraq and Iran, dating from the 6th to the 8th centuries A.D. and are unknown outside that region. They are normally inscribed in one of three Aramaic dialects -- Jewish-Aramaic, Syriac, and Mandaic -- though some bowls are known which are inscribed in Persian (Pehlevi). The form and direction of the writing varies -- the most common form being spirals, beginning from the bowl's rim and moving toward the center. Some bowls are inscribed on the outside as well as the inside.

Moreover, numerous bowls are inscribed in various pseudo-scripts, either because the person who manufactured them was illiterate, or because the text itself was deemed only a secondary component of the bowl, and could be recited orally, or dispensed with altogether.

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While many bowls show little sign of outside influence, others display the well-known motifs of "international" magic -- common divine names, familiar voces magicae, and symbols such as the ouroboros or the characteres.


Magic played several important roles in ancient life, and many magical texts have survived on papyrus. This popular exhibit examines these ancient, mystical traditions:

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