A Visual Guide to the Demons That Spooked the Jews of Babylon

A new study depicts for the first time what Lilith, the baby-killing seductress, looked like to those who feared her and why Satan has a tail and horns.

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Images of various demons found on “incantation bowls.”
Images of various demons found on “incantation bowls.”Credit: Dr. Naama Vilozsni.
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Demons are well-known figures in Jewish mysticism. In the Talmud and elsewhere there is a wealth of information about their characters, warnings against them and means to dispel them. In keeping with the Jewish injunction prohibiting the making of statues and masks there are no visual aids to indicate how the demons look. There was a period in history, however, between the rise of Christianity and the Muslim conquest of the Middle East, when Jews (mainly in Babylon) gave demons a shape.

Painstakingly, archaeologist and art historian Dr. Naama Vilozny has copied these images, analyzed their attributes and put together the first visual catalog ever of Jewish demons. Scholars believe the reason Jews in Babylon undertook to draw demons between the 5th and the 7th centuries has to do with a series of relaxations of the strictures, which rabbis gave the Jews as a way of dealing with the challenged posed by the increasing strength of Christianity. Fearing that Jews might prefer the new religion, the rabbis agreed to allow magic that included visual images. The demons Vilozny researched were drawn on “incantation bowls” – simple pottery vessels the insides of which were covered with inscriptions and drawings.

Dr. Naama Vilozsni.Credit: Irit Ostrowski

Bowls of this sort have been discovered since the 19th century in archaeological digs beneath houses in Jewish neighborhoods excavated in Iraq. They were found inverted under the floors of homes and the hypothesis is that they were placed there prior to construction as a magical object, a kind of “demon trap.” It is believed that the demons were supposed to be trapped in the space created beneath the bowl and the combination of text and the drawings would prevent them from escaping from there and harming the people who lived in the house. The bowls were made by a magus, a sorcerer who specialized in this kind of exorcism.

Over the years the texts in the bowls have been studied. Most of them are verses from Scripture, oaths and curses against demons that threaten the members of the family. “You are forbidden and sealed with seven seals and eight ropes,” declares the text in one bowl. Another text specifically seals Lilith and later threatens that any attempt to escape will encounter “60 men who will capture you with copper ropes on your feet and copper shackles on your hands and cast collars of copper upon your temples.”

Most of the texts are written in Judea-Aramaic, and a few of them in Mandean, Syriac or Persian. Prof. Shaul Shaked of Hebrew University is the leading researcher of the bowls.

An incantation bowl.Credit: No credit

However, until Vilozny’s doctoral dissertation, no one tried to decode and study the figures that appear on the bowls. In part, this might be because at first glance the figures look like robots. Vilozny copied the demon drawings from 122 bowls and the result is an extraordinary and unique collection of demons, both male and female, that might look like nave drawings by children but for the people of those times were very palpable creatures. Recently Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi published the study in the book “Lilith’s Hair and Ashmedai’s Horns.”

Demon trap

The most outstanding characteristic of all the demons in the book is that their feet and often their hands are shackled in chains, cuffs or ropes. The binding is an important part of the curse the bowl puts on the demon. “I think about these bowls as a kind of system of multi-lock doors with several bolts,” says Vilozny. “First you draw the figure you want to get rid of and then you bind it in a depiction and bind it in words. The final lock is that you turn it over and the space becomes a prison, a demon trap.”

Most of the demons that are depicted are sort of symbolic icons and it is hard to identify them by name. Sometimes the text hints at the name of the particular demon or the visual representation has prominent attributes that make it possible to classify the demos into a number of types. The most outstanding is Lilith, a well-known succubus in Jewish texts. The Babylonian Jewish Lilith is a combination of two female Sumerian demons: Lamashtu, who specialized in strangling women and infant during births and Ardat-Lili, whose specialty was the seduction and murder of young men. Lilith, then, both endangers mothers and infants and seduces men and in the bowls that depict her attributes both female demons can be found.

Lilith is often depicted naked and with longer hair and frequently in a seductive dance pose like Ardit-Lili. In the inscriptions surrounding the images she is described as a female demon who strangles babies at their hour of birth. Mabhalta, her usual companion, is described on one of the bowls as “the great destroyer of fire.”

Illustration of Lilith on an earthenware vesse.Credit: No cerdit

Male demons

In the male sector, two names stand out: Samael, King of the Demons, also known as the Angel of Death, and his successor in the Jewish pantheon of demons – Ashmedai. They are for the most part characterized by horns and a royal crown. Clearly, whoever depicted these demons knew the local culture, as the kings of the demons are dressed very much like the Persian Sassanid kings who ruled the region during that period.

According to Vilozny, the animalistic elements in the Mesopotamian demons – horns, tails and hooves or paws – later found their way into Western culture and can be seen nowadays in Lucifer, Satan and other hellish characters in Western culture in literature, the cinema and religion.

Another male demon is Bagdana, who in fact sometimes helps humans. On the bowls he is shown as someone who helps the magus – the maker of the bowl – in his war on other demons. Though his feet are bound like any other demon’s, he carries a weapon. “He fights Lilith but you can’t trust him 100 percent — he still counts as a demon,” explains Vilozny. Rarely, the magus himself appears on the bowl, fighting demons – he is the only figure whose feet are not bound and he holds some kind of weapon. One demon was depicted in the form of a fly and he, apparently, is a demon who attacks dead humans. The bowl, presumably, was made to protect a cemetery against him. Other bowls show figures that look like cats.

Fashion items

Illustration of Ashmedai.Credit: No credit

The book contains a comparative study of various items found in the demon pictures and in the local culture: The chains that bind are well-known from Assyrian depictions of processions of captives and the shoes that look like moccasins are known to have been a fashion item in that period. One of the figures wears a hat that resembles a helmet and after intensive searching Vilozny found similar hats in images of Chinese soldiers. A bowl that apparently comes from a Syriac-speaking Christian community bears a figure that looks like a dragon with a spear stuck into it and Vilozny cautiously proposes that perhaps this is the earliest version of the dragon Saint George battled – a very familiar figure in Christian iconography.

“Their daily environment was full of demons and there are lots of admonitions to avoid encountering a demon, as well as instructions on how to know that it is a demon if you meet one and what to do about it,” she says. “The visual representation in this case is no less important than the word. It is part of the magic process. We have the opportunity to go back 1,600 years and see how they saw the demons.”

She was at home alone during the period when she was copying the images and says: “It was weird, because it’s really being with them. The pictures are spread out on the table and it doesn’t leave your mind, especially during the winter, when doors slammed in the wind.” Nonetheless she adds: “If only I could believe – life would be a lot easier. But magic works. It’s a fact that it has lasted to this day, 5,000 years by now. Today too magic is alive and kicking, from the red thread through the mezuzah to the hamsa,” she says referring to a kabbalists’ practice, the inscribed parchments rolled up in little boxes that Jews affix to their doorposts and the amulets depicting hands, common to the Middle East.

“What, actually, is magic? It is man’s belief in his ability, by taking active measures, to control his fate and in a certain sense this circumvents God. It doesn’t contradict faith but it does help God to help me. That’s why I love it, because it’s very human, especially in an era that isn’t scientific. A mother will do everything she can to protect her child from Lilith.”

Illustration of Lilith Bgdna.Credit: No credit



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