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Incantation bowls and narrative spells in late antique Judaism

Daniel Waller defends PhD thesis
23 June 2020

Daniel Waller conducted research on the use of narrative spells in the magical context of the so-called Jewish Babylonian Aramaic incantation bowls. On Thursday the 2nd of July he will defend his thesis 'I descended to the depths of the earth': A rhetorical poetics of the Jewish Babylonian Aramaic incantation bowls online, in order to receive his PhD degree at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies.

Protection against demons and the power of narratives

PhD-candidate Daniel Waller conducted research on the use and function of narrative spells on Jewish Babylonian Aramaic (JBA) incantation bowls: designed to protect their owners against demons, these inscribed clay bowls do not just adjure and threaten demons but often deploy narrative materials in service of their exorcistic and apotropaic goals. Daniel describes the primary objective of this dissertation as to catalogue and investigate the roles of these narrative spells in the corpus of published JBA bowls. The rhetorical framework outlined in this work draws attention to the multiple but neglected forms of powerful narratives deployed in the bowls. His thesis collates the narrative materials in the more than 400 JBA bowls published thus far, makes various distinctions within these materials, and uses the concepts of magic, rhetoric, and rhetorical narratology to examine how different types of narrative were used in these bowls. In short, it examines how the JBA bowl texts harnessed the power of narratives to persuade or compel demons to do things.

Jewish magic

Daniel tells us how his particular interest for his dissertation subject arose: ‘My interest in the incantation bowls began when I took an MA course at Leiden University on the subject of Jewish magic. Many of the bowl spells often employ very striking, even “poetic” language, and this is what appeals to me about these objects. The spells written on the bowls are not just about the mechanical use of words to change the world; they are also a story of imagination in the service of magic.’

‘The practice of writing magic bowls began suddenly in the fifth century AD, and the bowls spotlight how interactions across the spectrum of seeing, hearing, and writing generate new concepts of media and mediation. Where protective spells were previously applied orally, my project shows that the new genre of bowl magic reflects the growing technologization of language and the increasing instrumentalization of writing as a means of accessing, materializing, and manipulating the supernatural realm. As such, my project used the bowls to illuminate broader trends within the ancient world, but it also utilized them to challenge common perceptions about ancient Judaism as aniconic and legalistic.’

Future work on magic and writing in the ancient world

Daniel Waller preferred to come to Groningen not just because the Department of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Origins in the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies were willing to fund his PhD-project about an unusual and uncommon subject: ‘The university has a strong international outlook, and my faculty and department (as well as my primary supervisor) are very strong on the study of ancient Judaism, and are willing to take new and exciting approaches to these ancient materials,’ he adds. Daniel will soon be beginning a post-doc at the University of Oxford, continuing to work on magic and writing in the ancient world.

Online thesis defence

On 2 July Daniel will defend his dissertation, in order to receive his doctoral degree, from Jaffa, Israel via a livestream that can be viewed online through this link. Daniel will be in the virtual presence of his supervisors prof. dr. Mladen Popović , Professor for Old Testament and Ancient Judaism, with special attention for Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls, also Director of the Qumran Institute and Dean of the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, and Prof. dr Kocku von Stuckrad, Professor of Religious Studies at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies of the University of Groningen.

  • When: Thursday 2 July 2020
  • Starts: 12:45
  • Where: Academy Building, livestream via this link
Last modified:25 June 2020 09.09 a.m.
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