Aramaic Bowl Spells: Jewish Babylonian Aramaic Bowls, vol. 1. By Shaul Shared; James Nathan FORD; and Siam Bhayro. Magical and Religious Literature of Late Antiquity, vol. 1. Leiden: Brill, 2013. Pp. xxvii + 368, illus. $144.
Northwest-Semitic epigraphy is a strange discipline. Inscriptions--especially those from biblical times, which have always been at the center of the scholarly debate--are relatively few in number, often fragmentary, and usually quite short. Time and again, the discovery and subsequent publication of a new text sparks a significant number of studies dedicated to specific points of its paleography and language, and after a few years the bibliographical items dealing with the text easily outnumber the words it comprises. This situation changes, however, as one moves to the periphery of the field, to those comers of Northwest-Semitic epigraphy that are removed in time and space from the Land of Israel and the biblical period. The many Late and Latino-Punic inscriptions from northern Africa, for example, are only recently beginning to receive the amount of scholarly attention they deserve.
On the other side of the Semitic world, in Mesopotamia, few official excavations and many more illegal digs have unearthed hundreds of Aramaic epigraphical texts from the time of the Babylonian Talmud: the Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, Mandaic, and Syriac incantation bowls. Even though such inscribed earthenware bowls have been known to the scholarly world for about 160 years, and indeed have received eclectic treatment every now and then, it is only in the last three decades that Aramaists and scholars of ancient magic have turned to this fascinating material in a more systematic manner. An informal group of "bowl scholars" has taken upon itself the task to read and edit the two thousand plus items known to exist in museums and--more often--private collections and thus lay the groundwork for further studies. As it happens, the ongoing process of editing and (re)reading also yields good returns in terms of articles and detailed studies dealing with specific philological, linguistic, or cultural aspects of the texts.
The book under review is the first volume in a planned nine-volume set dedicated to the publication of the more than 600 magic bowls from the Schpyen Collection. It deals with Jewish Babylonian Aramaic bowls only; the Mandaic, Syriac, and Pahlavi material from the collection will be published in separate volumes. The work opens with an introduction which addresses aspects of the historical, literary, and religious context of the texts (pp. 1-27). Especially noteworthy is the discussion of the historiolae, short pieces of narrative incorporated into an...