Magic bowls of antiquity

Sometime around 650 AD, Mahdukh, daughter of Newandukh, had a headache. I first read about Mahdukh’s migraines – excruciating and debilitating – on the inside of a bowl. Her name is written in black ink among spiralling, partially faded lines of Jewish Aramaic, the language of late antique Mesopotamia’s Jews, on an unglazed clay vessel’s inside surface.

Just beneath the lip of the bowl, a black circle surrounds the 15 lines of text. ‘By your name, I act, great holy one,’ the scribe, who was also the magical practitioner, begins in the first person. ‘May there be healing from heaven for Mahdukh daughter of Newandukh.’ The incantation calls powerful intercessors to her aid: divine names, magical words, angels and spirits and biblical verses.

Surprising though it might seem, Mahdukh’s headaches have changed how scholars understand a crucial period in Jewish history. At the same time, her migraines have become entangled in debates over ethics, ownership and our responsibility to the past.­

Read the whole story from 2016 in Aeon.