an Essay on Language, Illness and Demons
I made a painting for my sister Miranda on behalf of her one year “Coronaversary” – a semi-ironic celebration of a year passing since we both first came down with corona. She had suffered her way through a year of “long Covid” buzzing, shaking, aching and more. The least we all could do was get her a present, and this was mine.
The painting finds its inspiration in the iconography of Sassanian Aramaic incantation bowls. The bowls were found in modern day Iran and date from around 5th to 7th century CE, and are written in various Aramaic scripts (including but not limited to the dialect called “Jewish Babylonian Aramaic”). The “incantations” are diverse, but most commonly serve an apotropaic function. They typically name the client and provide protection or relief on their behalf from a specific demon or a host of demons. Often, those formulas are explicitly meant for healing. Much of the time, the bowls include drawings, mostly of demons: identifiable by their chicken feet, sometimes in shackles, sometimes with horns.
In this painting, corona is a demoness in red in the foreground. Her hair hangs down, long and disheveled in a posture of shame, and her hands and feet are bound in chains. In the background are three apartment buildings, with repeating Hebrew letters as the windows. The repeated characters play on the content of so-called “pseudo-script” bowls, which are written with characters that resemble but do not correspond to any known script, or with letters from known scripts that do not seem to form (and often, with strings of repeated letters, do not seem to try to form) words. Instead of legible written incantations for demon-protection or healing, then, the pseudo-script bowls give us a mystery: are they the work of charlatans, fooling the illiterate into buying a less carefully crafted bowl, or do they hold hidden meaning?
The motivation to depict the virus as a hellish creature is in many ways obvious. COVID-19 feels like an evil force spreading through our bodies and our world. Making a painting to ward off the “demon” of COVID-19 may seem like a joke, or a last-ditch effort to appeal to a “Jewish” practice long-forgotten. A bout of wishful thinking, perhaps: make a bowl-inspired painting; exorcise the virus; heal ourselves and our world. But the impulse to draw on bowl imagery and Jewish demonology goes beyond this: it digs at a desire to express what neither our familiar medical nor religious vocabularies can. Our language is insufficient.
Back in November 2020, Miranda published an article trying to describe her experience. It was everything she had tried to tell me, everything that I sort-of knew about her long COVID, and everything that was still entirely foreign. Her words echo:
For better and for worse, medicine is a language devised by scientists, not poets. Fatigue, wonderfully efficient and extraordinarily nonspecific, is a category, a clinical stand-in, and incredibly useful when what you’re looking for is a linguistic cop-out. When I tell you today that I can’t get up right now, it’s not really because I’m tired. It’s because someone has unplugged my brain and replaced it with an air conditioner and I am lying in bed freezing cold and shaking like a chihuahua... I am not napping under the covers, I am crying, sometimes on and off for hours on end, because I am uncomfortable and unhappy and someone has suddenly switched off the part of my brain that tells me that everything is going to be okay… I barely want to tell my doctor, but I do, and she looks at me like a foreign substance and notes vaguely that what I’m feeling must be frustrating. She has nothing else to say… Because what I am trying to tell them — what I have just told you — are not symptoms. They are experiences, and alien ones at that. (1)
Medical terminology, particularly terminology for chronic illness, such as that ever elusive “fatigue,” misses something. Medical lexicons provide abstractions and higher-order categories for the sake of ease and the clarity of diagnosis. Despite their concern with embodied, physical experience, our vocabularies are designed to help medical professionals know what to do, and not to help those who are ill describe what they feel. The clarity that is gained through medical dictionaries and quick diagnoses diminishes illness to a set of clinical terms that neglect the lived experience of being ill.
The religious language of Judaism, however, approaches the body through a non-specific lens, and an almost dualist pairing of body and soul. In Jewish liturgy, the prayer for healing epitomizes this approach. Typically, when someone is ill within the Jewish community, the Mi Shebeirach is recited on their behalf:
May the One who blessed our ancestors [. . .] bless and heal the one who is ill:
[. . .] May the Blessed Holy One overflow with compassion upon him/her, to restore him/her, to heal him/her, to strengthen him/her, to enliven him/her. He will send him/her, speedily, a complete healing — healing of the soul and healing of the body — along with all the ill, among the people of Israel and all humankind, soon, speedily, without delay, and let us all say: Amen! (2)
It is significant that Jewish tradition considers both issues of body and mind/soul to have bearing on illness. However, the non-specificity of the best-known Jewish formula for illness fails to provide a satisfying alternative for medical terminology. There are sprinklings of more here and there within Jewish tradition—within the asher yatzar blessing, which is recited after using the bathroom, and in certain psalms associated with healing—but, on the whole, embodiedness, particularly the sense of living within an ailing body, is not one of these texts’ primary concerns.
Unlike Western Medicine, demonology is a worldview that few these days subscribe to. However, demonology as expressed in the incantation bowls can provide another language of experience: a language at once supernatural and grounded in the natural, physical experience of being human. The language of demonology is rich because it is bidirectional: illnesses are demons and demons are illnesses. Lilith, the most well-known Jewish demoness, is found as a sort of species of demon in the bowls – there are male Liliths and female Liliths, Lilith-zarna, lilith-hablas, and the list goes on. In addition to liliths, the corpus contains a huge range of other named demons, including a number which are associated with specific symptoms such as Baroqta, the cataract demon. To ascribe your shaking, cataracts, or migraines to a supernatural being that has overtaken your body is an affirmation of the loss of control, and the deeply embodied discomfort of illness; something very alive and malevolent is inside of you.
This can be better illuminated by an exploration of a section of a bowl for Mahdukh bat Newandukh. Mahdukh had been called a hypochondriac by some, chronically ill by others – with only the bowls to testify, it is obviously impossible to tell between the two, but the fact remains that she had dozens of bowls written on her behalf. One of her bowls reads:
“By your name I act, great holy one. This amulet shall be for Mahdukh daughter of Newandukh. And may she be healed from the migraine of her head, from all spirits… I adjure you and I beswear you… that you may move and be removed from the head, from the temple, from and from evil amulet spirits, and from wicked spirits, from the two hundred and fifty-two members that are in her, from her heart, from the sinews of her body, from the sixty-six members of her body ---”(3)
The healing and migraines have been discussed above, but this bowl exemplifies the way these elements function in the original text. It also introduces the motif of the demon expelled from all of a client’s 252 bones, which appears frequently in the bowl corpus. This motif, and the litany of anatomy that follows, provides a powerful model for describing an embodied experience of illness. The accuracy is neither here nor there — the specificity of the number of bones, juxtaposed to the unexpressed and unknowable essence of the demon, articulates an oxymoronic experience of our bodies that rings deeply true.
Even, and perhaps especially, the mystery of pseudo-script provides another outlet for expressing the inexpressible. Though scholarship does often relegate the pseudo-script bowls to the realm of charlatanism, there has been an attempt to reconsider their function within the world of the incantation bowls. In the words of Daniel James Waller, pseudo-script “may have been intended to mean anything or everything, and to express this through the supersession of conventional processes of semiosis.” (4) While it cannot be claimed that these repeated characters constitute a language, there is nevertheless a certain comfort in their usage. Though the search for better language, more descriptive ways of sharing and understanding the embodiedness of illness is never-ending, ultimately we might find solace in a (perhaps) mystical, almost compulsive acknowledgment of all that we cannot say.