Magician's wand in the form of a bronze cobra. From a Theban burial, 16th century BC. Such wands may represent the goddess Weret Hekau, 'the great of magic'.
Egypt has long been considered a land of mystery and magic. This has led some commentators, ancient and modern, to brand the Egyptians as an irrational, morbid and superstitious race. Professional Egyptologists prefer to distance themselves from the popular image of Egypt as the source of occult knowledge. They tend to stress the numerous practical achievements of Egyptian civilization and those Egyptian writings that expound a pragmatic and cheerful philosophy of life. This may tip the balance too far. Many of the practices described in this book seem weird, foolish, or even repulsive from the viewpoint of Western rationalism, but if they are ignored our picture of Egyptian society is incomplete.
The evidence for ancient Egyptian magic spans about four and a half thousand years. Amulets go back as far as the early fourth millennium BC; while magical texts occur from the late third millennium BC until the fifth century AD. Written spells are the main source material, but objects sometimes provide evidence for types of magic scarcely recorded in the texts. These objects would have been even more useful if all early archaeologists had appreciated the need to record the exact context of their finds. The large number of well-preserved tombs and the sheer quantity of tomb objects on view in museums have ensured that funerary magic has been the subject of much research. Ritual magic performed in temples and everyday magic - the spells and rites enacted for individuals in life - have been studied far less. These three types of magic were closely related and influences passed back and forth between them. The insights that everyday magic can give into the personal lives of the ancient Egyptians make it of far more than marginal interest.
The Egyptian word usually translated as 'magic' is heka. This was one of the forces used by the creator deity to make the world. In Egyptian myth, the primeval state was chaos. Before creation there was only a dark, watery abyss known as the Nun. In the Nun existed the great serpent or dragon Apep (Apophis) who embodied the destructive forces of chaos. When the first land, the Primeval Mound, rose out of the Nun, the spirit of the creator had a place in which to take shape. The creator made order out of chaos. This divine order was personified by a goddess called Maat. The word maat also meant justice, truth and harmony. Finally, the creator made deities and humans.
These deities included the god Heka, who was depicted in human form, sometimes with the signs that write his name on his head. Heka could be identified with the creator himself, particularly when the latter appeared in child form to symbolize the emergence of new life. Heka is also described as the ba (the soul or manifestation) of the sun god. He was the energy which made creation possible and every act of magic was a continuation of the creative process.
Some Egyptian deities were merely personifications of abstract concepts or natural phenomena and were never the focus of cult worship or private devotion. No major temples were built for Heka, but he did have a priesthood and shrines were dedicated to him in Lower (northern) Egypt. There was also a goddess called Weret Hekau 'Great of Magic'. Originally this was just an epithet, applied to a number of goddesses. As a goddess in her own right, Weret Hekau was usually shown in cobra form. She was one of the goddesses who acted as a foster-mother to the divine kings of ancient Egypt and she was the power immanent in the royal crowns. The snake-shaped wands used by magicians probably represent her.
All deities and lesser supernatural beings, including the forces of chaos, had their own heka. It was considered as much a part of them as their bodies or their names. Egyptian kings automatically had heka. People who were abnormal in some way, such as dwarfs, might also be thought to possess this quality. All the dead were credited with a certain degree of heka. This ancient concept is comparable with the modern Arabic barraka, a force possessed by many types of being and by some places and objects. Anything strange, exotic or ancient can be credited with barraka1 and it was the same with heka.
Another Egyptian word for magical power is akhu. This is sometimes translated as 'enchantments', 'sorcery' or 'spells'. Deities and stars used akhu power, but it was particularly associated with the blessed dead. Like heka, akhu was neither good or bad in itself. Both were powers which could be channelled towards creation or destruction. This book is primarily about the ways in which the Egyptians used these powers.
Some past studies of Egyptian magic have been contemptuous in tone. According to one scholar 'Magic, after all, is only the disreputable basement in the house of religion'. Another scholar peppered his book on Egyptian religion with references to magic as a form of senile imbecility. This judgemental attitude was partly based on the outdated theory that magic and religion must be seen as opposites. Most definitions of magic concentrate on trying to distinguish it from religion. It is paradoxical that, while Egypt is famous as a source of magical knowledge, many of the best known theories about magic do not easily fit the Egyptian evidence.
In his famous book The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer defined magic as the manipulation of supernatural beings by a human who expects that the correct sequence of words or actions will automatically bring about the desired result. This, Frazer held, was in contrast to religion, in which humans were dependent on the divine will and supplicated deities to grant their requests. He did recognize that the same supernatural beings might be involved in both magic and religion, but he saw magicians and priests as belonging to rival groups.
In Egypt, magic and religion enjoyed a symbiotic relationship. Rituals which would count as magic under Frazer's definition, were more commonly performed by priests than by any other group. Magicians are often said to be distinguishable from priests because they have clients instead of a congregation, and because they are not expected to exercise any moral authority. However, this description would also cover most ancient Egyptian priests, who were paid specialists in ritual rather than moral teachers. The theory that magic is always unorthodox and subversive, part of a religious and political counterculture, does not seem to apply in Egypt where ritual magic was practised on behalf of the state for at least three thousand years.
Some Egyptian priests used magic for private purposes, even when it involved practices that might seem blasphemous from a religious viewpoint. Egyptian spells may plead with and command a deity to carry out the magician's desire. Other spells go as far as threatening the gods with sacrilegious acts and cosmic catastrophe. One such spell was owned by a priest named Hor, who lived in the second century BC, yet he was an exceptionally pious man who dedicated his life to the service of the god Thoth after receiving divine visions. Frazer's categories of manipulation and supplication are distinct, but the same person might approach a deity in both these ways.
Frazer's theory that magic involved a sequence of words and actions which, if performed correctly, would bring an automatic response is still useful, but it could be a general definition of ritual rather than just magic. The daily cult performed in every major temple in ancient Egypt might be considered just such a ritual. The Polish anthropologist, Bronislav Malinowski, suggested that ritual action in general, and magic in particular, were resorted to when a society reached the limits of its technological capability. This sounds very plausible, but the Egyptians did employ magic to deal with health problems that their medical technology was capable of treating. They also used magic against foreign enemies whom they could and did defeat with their military technology. Parallel practical and ritual action aimed at the same problem seem characteristic of Egyptian culture. These two types of action were obviously expected to work in different ways, or perhaps on different planes of existence.
Malinowski argued that magic is usually aimed at solving a specific problem, while religion is, or can be, an end in itself. Another anthropologist, Mischa Titiev, defines religion as 'calendrical' and magic as 'critical'. In other words, religion is concerned with regular rites carried out on behalf of the community, while magic is mainly performed for individuals at times of crisis. The primary concern of the state-run temples of ancient Egypt was to benefit society as a whole, not to cater to the religious needs of the individual. This benefit was achieved by means of the daily ritual and through a calendar of religious festivals. However, the principle of crisis was built into Egyptian theology. Each setting of the sun was a cosmic crisis which required ritual action. These rituals were often very similar to acts of private magic and they were performed by the same type of priest who might work magic for individuals.
It is true that in the private sphere many Egyptian magical practices were associated with standard life-crises, such as the dangers of childbirth, or with sudden disasters, such as an accident or an infectious disease. Magic may be a form of 'crisis management', but it was not only resorted to when a crisis had already happened. A high proportion of Egyptian magic was prophylactic. It aimed to prevent trouble by setting up a magical defence system for an individual, a group or a place.
The wishes of an individual can conflict with the welfare of society as a whole, but examples of 'anti-social' magic are quite rare in the Egyptian record before the period of Roman rule. Many cultures have divided magic into acceptable and unacceptable types. When unacceptable magic is mentioned in Egyptian sources it is usually attributed to foreigners.
In medieval Europe, a distinction was made between Demonic and Natural Magic. The former relied on invoking demons to carry out the magician's commands. Demonic Magic was held to be bad because dealings with such beings inevitably led to the moral corruption of the magician. Natural Magic, on the other hand, simply utilised natural phenomena, such as astral energy, and could therefore be used by Christians. Most ancient Egyptian magic would have to be classed as Demonic, since it invoked all manner of supernatural beings including the fearsome inhabitants of the underworld In Egyptian theology, however, few of these beings were regarded as evil, so communication with them involved no spiritual danger. A type of Natural Magic, partly based on the principle of analogy, was practised in Egypt, but usually in conjunction with Demonic Magic. Either type of magic could be used in a defensive or an aggressive manner, according to the intentions of the magician.
Many of the ideas behind Egyptian magic are difficult to comprehend from the viewpoint of Western rationalism. Feats of engineering such as the Giza pyramids suggest that the Egyptians understood a great deal about the scientific laws of cause and effect, but these laws would not have been regarded as the only ones by which the world worked. A belief in the creative power of words and images was central to Egyptian magic. The magician also strove to discern the true nature of beings and objects and the connections between them. These connections were created by shared properties such as colour, or the sound of a name. Similarities which seem irrelevant to our classification systems were considered significant by the Egyptians. Once a pairing had been established, it was thought possible to transfer qualities from one component to the other, or to produce an effect on the one by actions performed on the other. Heka was the force that turned these connections into a kind of power network.
Magic is sometimes interpreted as primitive science, but science proceeds by experiment to verify a single cause for each effect. Magic tends to multiply causality. A dozen possible causes for a problem may be listed within a single spell, and natural phenomena are credited with complex motives and intentions. Bizarre as this may seem, it had distinct psychological advantages.
The magical approach was primarily concerned with anticipating or diagnosing the ultimate causes of misfortune. The source of a disease, for example, might be traced to the anger of a deity, the magic of a foreign sorcerer, or the malice of a demon or ghost. Magic therefore answered the question which is so often asked when disaster strikes, 'why me?'. The religious answer to such a question might be that the afflicted person had sinned, or that suffering was the general lot of humanity. Magic gave the more comforting answer that there was some accidental but specific cause, conceptualized in an understandable form. Magical texts often make the afflicted party the innocent victim of circumstances. Ritual action might be required to repair the damage, but repentance was unnecessary. Some magical texts went further and laid the blame for human suffering on the gods. Magic then became a legitimate defence for humanity.
The appeal of magic was twofold: it identified the cause of your troubles and it promised hope in even the most desperate situation. Magic was described by Malinowski as ritualized optimism. In the sense that it satisfied the participants, Egyptian magic worked. Protective magic presumably gave people the comfort of believing that they had taken all possible precautions. This may have made tragedies such as the death of a child a little easier to bear.
In a text known as the Instruction for Merikara,, which may have been written as early as 2000 BC, heka is described as a gift from the creator to humanity 'to ward off the blows of fate'. In magical texts at least, even the gods were subject to fate and needed their heka to overcome misfortunes. The next sentence in the Instruction for Merikara names kingship as another gift to humanity. Magic and the institution of kingship helped humanity to order their world and deal with natural and supernatural forces.
In Egypt, magic and religion were part of the same belief system. Much that is usually classified as religion could equally be regarded as magic. Ancient writers refer to the daily ritual performed in Egyptian temples to 'animate' divine statues, as an exalted form of magic. This does not make it morally inferior. Temple magic was believed to be a great work performed for the benefit of all Egyptians. Indeed, one esoteric text claims that the land of Egypt was 'the temple of the whole world'.
FURTHER READING B. MALINOWSKI
Magic, Science, and Religion and Other Essays Illinois, 1948. J. NEUSNER et al. Religion, Science and Magic: In Concert and In Conflict Oxford, 1989. S.J. TAMBIAH Magic, science, religion, and the scope of rationality Cambridge, 1990.