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Feminism and Women's Studies

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The Nippur Bowls - Incantation Bowls (circa 600 CE)

Found in Nippur, Babylonia, these bowls contain some of the most lengthy and explicit references to Lilith up to this point. Of the 40 bowls which were excavated, 26 explicitly mentioned the figure of Lilith, and at least three of these bowls contain sketches of Lilith as their central image (Pereira 53). While the date was originally placed at 500 CE, 600 CE is the more currently accepted date (Montgomery 28, Patai 225). The bowls were used mostly by Jews, a detail which is substantiated by the fact that an important Jewish colony was located in Nippur during the sixth century and also by some of the "incontrovertible evidence" contained within the bowls themselves (Patai 225). As Raphael Patai points out, these bowls are particularly important, for "while the Talmud contains the views of the learned elite about Lilith, these bowls show what she meant for the simple people. It is surprising to see to what extent the sages and the quacks shared the fear of Lilith and the belief in her evil nature" (225).

As a whole, the texts of these bowls are "magical incantations against various forms of illness and demons" (Periera 52). The ones which feature Lilith, however, give enough additional information as to provide a synopsis of how the "simple people" viewed her during this time. Says Patai: "It appears that Lilith was regarded as the ghostly paramour of men and constituted a special danger for women during many periods of their sexual life cycle: before defloration, during menstruation, etc. A mother in the hour of childbirth and her newborn babe were especially vulnerable, and therefore had to be protected from the Liliths" (225). It would appear, therefore, that two of the strands of Lilith have joined together at this point: child-slayer and succubus.

It is beneficial to quote the text of a bowl, illustration #2, where Lilith appears naked and wingless with long loose hair, chained ankles, prominent breasts, and strongly marked genitals. This text, which appears in various scholarly sources in a number of slightly differing translations, appears below in Patai's translation:

You are bound and sealed, all you demons and devils and Liliths, by that hard and strong, mighty and powerful bond with which are tied Sison and Sisin. . . . The evil Lilith, who causes the hearts of men to go astray and appears in the dream of the night and in the vision of the day, who burns and casts down with nightmare, attacks and kills children, boys and girls -- she is conquered and sealed away from the house and from the threshold of Bahram-Gushnasp son of Ishtar-Nahid by the talisman of Metatron, the great prince who is called the Great Healer of Mercy . . . who vanquishes demons and devils, black arts and mighty spells and keeps them away from the house and threshold of Bahram-Gushnasp, the son of Ishtar-Nahid. Amen, Amen, Selah. Vanquished are the black arts and mighty spells, vanquished the bewitching women, they, their witchery and their spells, their curses and their invocations, and kept away from the four walls of the house of Bahram=Gushnasp, the son of Ishtar-Nahid. Vanquished and trampled down are the bewitching women, vanquished on earth and vanquished in heaven. Vanquished are the constellations and stars. Bound are the works of their hands. Amen, Amen, Selah. (229)

This text demonstrates clearly that Lilith's guises of child-slayer and succubus were linked at this point, at least in the cultures of the lay-people.





amy.scerba@english.cmu.edu

Last modified 2005-02-10 03:39 PM

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