Courtesy V. Klagsbald, Jerusalem

NIGHT DEMONESS. From demoness to Adam’s first wife, Lilith has taken on many shapes over the millennia. She is first mentioned in ancient Babylonian texts as a class of winged female demon that attacks pregnant women and infants. From Babylonia, the legend of “the lilith” spread to ancient Anatolia, Syria, Israel, Egypt and Greece. In this guise—as a wilderness demoness—she appears in Isaiah 34:14 among a list of nocturnal creatures who will haunt the destroyed kingdom of Edom. This is her only mention in the Bible, but her legend continued to grow in ancient Judaism. During the Middle Ages, Jewish sources began to claim her as Adam’s first—and terrifying—wife.

In this Aramaic incantation bowl, depicting Lilith in its center (highlighted in blue), her arms appear to be crossed. A circle is drawn around her feet. Two serpents surround her. The first serpent forms a circle around her. (This ancient symbol, the ouroboros, shows a serpent or dragon eating its tail, thus forming a complete circle.) Another serpent is pictured inside the ouroboros; this serpent appears on three sides of Lilith, but not the bottom. Although the central figure looks androgynous, we know it is Lilith because she is identified by an inscription inside the circle. A text that mentions Lilith and other evil spirits is written on the inside of the bowl in spiral concentric circles.

Incantation bowls were meant to both capture and repel evil spirits. This Late Antique incantation bowl from the Victor Klagsbald Collection has a diameter of about 13 inches and measures about 6 inches tall. Compared to other Aramaic incantation bowls, it is both unusually large and inscribed with a remarkably long text.