Shalom, shalom, shalom, shalom: Magic and the protection of women and children
The Magic Incantation Bowl of The Mizel Museum of Judaica (Denver, Colorado USA)
—I wrote this in 2002. Looking through my records, it is based on a lecture I gave, and I circulated it to a number of places, including the Mizel Museum. It describes one of the oldest pieces in their collection, an incantation bowl similar to many found in the Middle East, especially in what is now Iraq–although unusual in that it has an inscription ending with Shalom “peace” repeated several times. I added an Arts and Crafts project idea for the museum context, which is also reproduced here. I do not think Mizel ever did anything with this essay.
Mizel now has exhibition space and last time I was there the bowl was exhibited as part of the permanent collection. This article is reproduced as it was written back then, with very minor revisions and copy editing.
In Hispanic culture, La Llorona is a spirit who is supposed to inhabit streams and waterways, lurking in readiness to snatch and kill young children who wander alone in desolate areas. She continues to be respected and feared at least by some.
Perhaps her story is based at least in part on the figure of La Malinche, an Aztec woman who became a Mayan slave and then the translator, guide and lover of the Spanish conquistador Cortez and mother to his children. According to at least one version of the story, she learned that Cortez planned to return to Spain with a Spanish noblewoman, taking her sons. She became despondent, realized that she had betrayed her people, and in her despair, she killed her own children. At least this is one view; others recount her story as an old Indian story or an Iberian folktale with no reference to the Spanish conquest of Central America.
Hers is a sad tale, but the classic story of La Llorona struck fear into young children, and into the hearts of their parents. In recent years, some retellings of her story have reconstructed her image into a more favorable one, stressing the pathos of the narrative and remaking her into a symbol of woman spurned, of the evils of paternalism, of the need for female heroines.
Her tale and her fate are reminiscent of stories told in other cultures when contemplating the danger inherent in childbirth and in the survival of infants and children. She may, for example, be totally unrelated to the story of Lillith. Lillith, whose ancestry is Middle Eastern, is another story of female considered demonic for generations, then associated with a figure believed to be historic. Also like La Llorona, she is now enjoying something of a rebirth as a sympathetic figure, without reference to her murderous activities.
In the Bible, there is a reference to “lilit” in Isaiah 34:14, where it may refer to a bird and is sometimes translated as a night owl. In context, this is one of a list of fearsome night creatures. Male and female night-demons with etymologically identical names are known also from ancient Mesopotamian sources.
A terra cotta bowl, probably made sometime between 400 and 800 C.E. and now owned by the Mizel Museum of Judaica contains an inscription that invokes protection against any lilliths. This bowl was apparently found around 1940 in Susa in southwestern Iran, the Biblical Shushan, not far from the border with Iraq. Hundreds of such bowls have been uncovered, perhaps more, although I am not aware of any other such bowls in museums or in private hands anywhere in Colorado. This one may have become separated from the other artifacts found by a French team excavating Susiana because, although the letters are clear, their meaning is not entirely decipherable. Nevertheless, the incantation clearly calls for the expulsion and separation of any lillith.
The “Magic Incantation Bowls” as they are often called, have inscriptions in Aramaic. This was a multi-cultural or at least multi-religious enterprise: They were prepared by Christians, Jews and Mandeans. Each wrote their own dialect of the Aramaic language, using their traditional script. Jews prepared the bowls with Aramaic in Hebrew characters. Other bowls use Syriac characters, a script used primarily by Christians. Mandeans wrote in their own Aramaic script; their religious practices included frequent baptism and the search for gnosis, specialized knowledge that would help the believer achieve everlasting life. Although each dialect had its unique features, they were all branches of the Aramaic language, the nearly universal language of Middle Eastern discourse for centuries before becoming displaced by Arabic in the ninth century or so, several centuries after the Islamic conquest. The inscriptions begin near the center and spiral outwards, facing towards the outside of bowl. Some of these bowls have illustrations in the very center of the bowl; the Mizel bowl does not. Some of the bowls also have “magical letters,” usually written with lines and circles, again, the Mizel bowl does not.
The language of the Jewish Aramaic bowls included many words and phrases in Hebrew. Perhaps the most common ending to the invocations written on the bowls was “Amen, Amen Amen, Selah,” echoing the language of Psalms and Jewish prayer. The final words of the Mizel bowl are highly appropriate, even if unusual in the incantation context; I found them in none of the magic bowls whose inscriptions were reproduced by Shaul Shaked and J. Naveh or C. Isbell, nearly a hundred inscriptions. The Mizel bowl ends: Shalom, shalom, shalom, shalom. “Peace, peace, peace, peace.”
It is not clear how the bowls were used. The most frequently encountered idea is that somehow or other they captured demons and constrained them from doing any harm. This may be similar to a story about a woman mentioned in the Talmud (2-6th centuries CE.). Johanne the daughter of Retibi is mentioned as a paradigm of a woman who brings destruction to the world (Sotah 22a), but the details of her story are never mentioned. The narrative supplied by Rashi (France, d. 1105), whose glosses are printed in every traditional edition of the Talmud, is based on earlier material from Mesopotamia, and reflects traditions about how magic practitioners were understood to control magical elements associated with childbirth: 
She was a widow and a witch (makhshefa). When it came time for a woman to give birth, she would stop up her womb by witchcraft, but after the woman was in great pain she would say: “I will go and pray for mercy, perhaps my prayer will be answered.” She would then go and undo her magic and the child would come out. One time she had a day laborer in her house. When she went to the home of a woman in childbirth, the laborer heard the sound of the spells knocking around in a vessel, just as the child knocks in the mother’s womb. He went and opened the stopper of the vessel and the spells left. The child was born and it was known that she was a sorceress.
This is the only reference to this Johanne in Rabbinic sources, although the name Johanne (here, a man’s name) is encountered in some Hebrew sources as one of Pharaoh’s two chief magicians, usually rendered in Greek (including the New Testament, 2 Tim. 3:8) as Jannes. (Johanne does not occur in the New Testament, but the woman’s name “Johanna” does, mentioned in nearly the same breath as the seven demons that had afflicted Mary Magdalene, in Luke 8:2-3).
Many of the incantation bowls were found upside down, and it is sometimes assumed that they were placed that way in order to trap demons, much as one might trap a bee or wasp under a cup. Perhaps, as in Johanne’s story, these bowls were used to contain magic spells that would be released to counteract the evil. Very similar spells were written on amulets, which could be rolled up or left flat. Presumably in these cases, it was the inscription itself which made the amulet powerful not the role of its physical shape in constraining the demon world.
In this period, the Lilliths were thought at least in some circles to have fled to a cave by the Red Sea. Versions of the legend appear in many languages. In the version which has become best-known in Jewish sources, three spirits, Sanvay, Sansanvay and Samanglof seek her out and hold her down, and she promises that wherever her name is mentioned together with theirs, she will refrain from killing women in childbirth and their young infants. Based in part on a lengthy text on one of the incantation bowls, Shaked and Naveh have reconstructed further details of the story at this stage, including the relationship of the names of Lillith’s subduer in Byzantine Greek and Ethiopic versions of the story to iron. (Some of the Arabic stories about jinn also have them repelled by saying hadid “iron.”).
In the Alphabet of Ben Sira, probably a tenth century work, Lillith became identified with the “first wife” of Adam. In Genesis 1, God creates man and woman together; in Genesis 2, Eve is created from Adam’s rib. There are previous attempts to explain the difference between the two accounts by postulating the creation of an initial male and female, but the Alphabet is the first time that “the first woman” is identified by name as Lillith. She rejected Adam, making a strong statement against male superiority. This statement, in context probably a reference to sexual positions rather than social or religious equality, was taken as the motto of Lillith, the major Jewish feminist journal started in the 1970’s. In any case, the historical story provides an answer to the puzzling question of why anyone, demon or otherwise, would attack good women and helpless babes.
In the Jewish tradition, Lillith’s role continued to develop; she was identified by Kabbalists as the wife of Sammael, the prince of “the other side” (perhaps today we should translate this as in Star War’s “the dark side”), sometimes identified as the Kabbalists’ notion of Satan. In a fascinating morality tale reminiscent of earlier attempts to constrain a very different model of Lillith, Joseph Della Reyna is supposed to have chained Sammael and Lillith, and embarked on a journey to bring them forth for judgement. This would have brought their power to an end and brought about the redemption of the entire world—except that Della Reyna acceded to their request for a brief chance to rest along the way. The point of the tale is that even a momentary pause in the search to end evil can be fatal to the entire project.
Magic traditions are highly adaptive, and leave traces long outlasting their original context. As noted above, some incantation bowls contain “magic letters,” as do some amulets written centuries later. These letters are often thought to be based on ancient Greek magic. Although long removed in time from Greek influence, the forms were retained. Perhaps La Llorona and the jinn combatted by yelling “iron” evidence continuity with Mesopotamian, Jewish and Byzantine accounts of Lillith. Or perhaps they are different ways in which mankind has tried to explain our dangerous world.
The Mizel Museum currently has no exhibition space. It is hoped that the very near future will see the construction of its new home, and that the bowl will have a prominent place in its permanent display.
An Arts and Crafts project based on the Magic Bowl
Arts and Crafts Project: I discussed the Mizel Museum bowl at a recent presentation on calligraphy at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities. Art teachers present at my talk were enthusiastic about the bowl as a vehicle for children’s arts and crafts projects. I am grateful to them for this project idea, and to Ashley Kaszprzak for urging me to put my thoughts into written form.
Youngsters have fears and hopes. Create a small terra cotta bowl and write an inscription. The Mesopotamian bowls’ inscriptions begin near the center and spiral outwards; the letters face towards a reader on the near side of the bowl. Some of these bowls have illustrations in the very center of the bowl, usually schematized depictions of what look like people. Perhaps they are illustrations of the demons described in the bowl, or amuletic representations of the person for whom the bowl was made.
Some of the bowls speak about night visions and evil dreams; youngsters might want to write inscriptions to keep away nightmares or other scary visions they might have at night. No doubt, some will want to write similar inscriptions hoping that pesky sibling never invade their personal space. In any case, youngsters’ inscriptions can hope for safety for themselves and their families.
Many cultures have fears associated with snatching away babies or young children of various ages. The magic incantation bowls may have been a unique approach in terms of the shape and material used; but the ideas behind the amulets, good luck charms, and warnings about demons or the “bogeyman” may well be pervasive. Art teachers creating inscriptions for bowls to be made by youngsters may have the making of a multi-cultural program, perhaps incorporating the creation of other objects with similar, protective purposes. Nevertheless, teachers should exercise diligence and care regarding community sensibilities and appropriateness of inscriptions.
The Mizel bowl provides at least a suggestion for an ending to the inscription that should be appropriate any context: “Peace, peace, peace, peace.”
 Thanks to Molly Dubin, who first brought the Mizel Museum of Judaica Incantation Bowl to my attention; to Ellen Premack, who greatly facilitated access to the bowl, and to Ashley Kaszprzak. Thanks also to Edward Yamauchi and Shaul Shaked, who offered much sage advice about the bowls in general and this bowl in particular. Most of this article was written in conjunction with a lecture given in 2002 at the Arvada Center for Arts and Humanities funded by a grant from the Colorado Council for the Humanities, or shortly thereafter. Only minor editing has been possible since that time.
 Tina Griego, writing in Denver Post, 27 February, 2002, p. B1, recalled warnings about La Llorona offered in her youth and found them still to be very much alive today.
 On La Llorona, see for example Domino Renée Pérez, “Caminando con la llorona : traditional and contemporary narratives,” in Norma E. Cantú and Olga Nájera-Ramírez, edd., Chicana traditions : continuity and change . Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 2002. Robert F. Gish, Beyond bounds: cross-cultural essays on Anglo, American Indian, and Chicano literature, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.
 Griego referred to advertisements for milk and other products in which there is no mention of La Llorona’s infanticide. Probably the most striking turnaround in Lillith’s stature is the cooption of the name of this demon—feared as a killer of women in childbirth, seducer of their husbands, and killer of their children—for the name of the preeminent monthly magazine devoted to Jewish feminist issues.
 On the Incantation Bowls, see works by Montgomery, Isbell, Yamauchi, Cyrus Gordon, Naveh and Shaked. Rebecca Macy Lesses, Ritual Practices to Gain Power, Harvard Theological Studies 44; Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1998, has interpreted the bowls within the context of other mystical practices used to gain power over demons. Shaked examined digital photographs of the bowl, and confirmed that the inscription is mostly indecipherable.
 In traditional Talmud editions, the same story (with minor variants in wording) is also found in a commentary by another French expositor, Shimon of Sens. The story was also known to the Geonim (Iraq, c. 600-1031 CE), as it is found in a Geonic responsum.
 There is a lengthy tradition in Jewish literature of associating Jesus with magical arts, including linkages between Jesus and Mary Magdalene and Egyptian magic. Anything more than this quick reference is beyond our scope here.