Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Use of Human Skulls for Ritualistic and other Purposes

The Biblical Archaeology Review of Mar/Apr 2009 carried a very interesting (and creepy) article about an ancient Jewish inscription on a human skull from Babylonia (modern day Iraq).

From BAR:

Not long ago, the well-known collector Shlomo Moussaieff acquired two earthenware bowls, the open ends of which were adjoined to form a kind of case—inside the case was an ancient human skull (see top photo). A magic incantation, written in Aramaic, was inscribed on the skull.

Ofri Illani writes in Haaretz:

Newly published archaeological evidence attests to the fact that ancient Jews used human skulls in ceremonies, despite a strict Halakhic prohibition on touching human remains.

British researcher Dan Levene from the University of Southampton published findings in Biblical Archaeological Review about the human skulls, known as incantation bowls, some of which bear inscriptions in Aramaic.

The skulls were unearthed in present-day Iraq (formerly Babylonia) and are believed to have been used during the Talmudic era. At least one of them appears to be that of an anonymous woman.

"When I presented these findings in Israel, people told me, 'It is not possible that this is Jewish,'" said Levene. "But it is certainly Jewish."

Levene added that, despite going against conventional wisdom, the talisman was likely used by someone desperate, and that there have been past cases of skulls being used to ward off increased ghosts or demons.

"The fact remains that belief in demons was widespread at this time among Jews as well as other peoples," writes Levene. "Incantation bowls are known not only from Jewish communities but from other communities as well."

To combat demons - who cause medical problems as well as other mishaps and ills - people invoked numerous magic rites and formulas. The Jewish versions are written in what is commonly known as Jewish Aramaic.....One of the names, Shilta, is derived from an Aramaic word meaning “after-birth.” The skull itself was probably that of a woman. The exact manner in which this skull was used, however, remains a mystery. A contemporaneous source, the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 65b, offers a possible clue: “There are two kinds of necromancy: the one where the dead is raised by naming him, the other where he is invoked by means of a skull.”

The use of skulls for ritual and other purposes cuts across all ethnic lines and cultures. Skulls are used in Haitian voodoo worship as well is in places like Nepal. But lest one think that this macabre usage is confined to the non-western world, one should familiarize him or herself with secret fraternal societies such as the Skull and Bones (see also this piece of recent news) which has long been known to use human skulls in their bizarre oath ceremonies.. The Skulls and Bones was founded in 1832 at Yale University, its most famous members over the years include former President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry. The society has been accused of possessing the stolen skulls of Martin van Buren, Geronimo and Pancho Villa but this has never been proven (nor will likely ever be).

I find it interesting that the use of a skull for writing purposes was in use as late as the High Middle Ages -even among Jews. Bernard M. Baruch(1870-1965) (pictured top) in his autobiography mentions an old family relic in the possession of his grandfather "a skull on which was recorded the family genealogy. It appeared that the Baruchs were of a rabbinical family and of Portuguese Spanish origin."[1].

Of course none of this is consistent with normative halacha (Jewish law).

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz writes:

In halacha, the body of a dead person is treated with enormous respect. The Bible prohibits mistreating any dead body, even the bodies of an executed prisoner or military opponent (Deuteronomy 21:23; Joshua 8:29). In addition, one is prohibited to derive any benefit, financial or personal, from a dead body (Avodah Zarah 29b). According to the Mishnah (Yadayim 4:6), the reason why the Torah considers one who comes into contact with a dead body to be ritually impure (tamei) is to prevent people from fashioning household objects such as spoons from the bones of family members; because dead bodies are ritually impure, it is extremely inconvenient to make regular use of body parts. (It should be noted that the concern of the Mishna is not an imaginary one; it was not uncommon for sorcerers to use human bones).


[1]. See Baruch Bernard, My Own Story.
Henry Holt and Company NY, 1957 p.3

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At Wednesday, November 25, 2009 8:51:00 AM, Blogger Brooklyn Habiru said...

What does the Aramaic text state? How does Levene prove that it is a specifically Jewish formulation?

At Tuesday, December 01, 2009 5:37:00 PM, Blogger Joels W. said...

The texts are written in what is known as Jewish Aramaic.

At Friday, April 02, 2010 10:07:00 AM, Blogger asianlion7 said...


At Friday, April 02, 2010 10:10:00 AM, Blogger asianlion7 said...

Your blog confirms that King Solomon left a legacy of witchcraft to this day the Jewish people have refused to lose.

At Monday, July 01, 2013 5:51:00 AM, Anonymous Lana said...

Is it possible to read the Aramaic text by PaRDeS method?

At Monday, September 02, 2013 7:22:00 AM, Blogger Joels W. said...

Thanks for your comment Lana
I do not know. I am hardly an expert on mysticism. I suppose the answer would be yes, but it would probably be conjecture.

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