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Ancient Egypt Magazine

Issue Seven - June  / July 2001


Nine Measures of Magic

Part 1: Heka, its theological aspects and importance to the fabric of the Egyptian cosmos

The genius of the ancient Egyptians was renowned throughout the ancient world. Egyptian magic, in particular, was feared and envied by Egypt’s neighbours. Our own view of this, argues Dr Panagiotis Kousoulis of the School of Archaeology, Classics and Oriental Studies, University of Liverpool, is coloured by 19th and 20th century interpretations of the Egyptian Heka. He reveals that understanding Heka, magic, is fundamental to our appreciation of the Egyptian cosmos. Heka was a natural force, but it could also be represented as a god in human form.

Vignette illustrating part of the spell 23 of the Book of the Dead, referring to the opening-of-the-mouth ceremony for the deceased. Although the opening-of-the-mouth ceremony is mainly a funerary ritual, it bears strong magical connotations. The rejuvenating aspect of Heka was used by the sem-priest/magician to revive the deceased by raising ritual implements to the mouth. Funerary papyrus of Hunefer, probably from Memphis, 19th Dynasty (c. 1310 BC). BM 9901/5 (R. O. Faulkner, The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, London 1985, 54). 

Magic permeates Egyptian society

In studying ancient societies, magical and ritual sources have tended to be under-exploited, partly for their superficial inaccessibility, and partly because they have been disreputably attractive to the “esoteric” fringe. These sources do, however, provide a number of detailed insights into the relationship between real and practical behaviour and the religious, ideological explanation of that behaviour. That holds especially true for ancient Egypt, which has long been recognised as the land of myth and magic. This is best reflected in an ancient text: “Ten measures of magic have come into this world. Egypt received nine of them, the rest of the world only one measure.” Magical beliefs and practices played a very prominent role within the socio-religious morals and behaviour of the ancient Egyptians, interfering in almost every aspect of Egyptian life at all levels of society. Egyptian magic covers a time-span of almost 4000 years: the earliest protective amulets date back to the 4th millennium BC, while written magical spells make their first appearance in 3000 BC, and continue in use until the 5th century AD.

Anthropological misunderstandings

In the last two centuries, various scholars, primarily from the fields of anthropology and sociology (Taylor, Frazer, Evans-Pritchard, Durkheim, Mauss, Malinowski, Goode, Brown, Smith and Tambiah, to mention but a few), have produced works reflecting the interest of scientific investigators in the magical beliefs and practices of the ancient world. Their work, which was based mainly on observations of the social and magico-religious behaviour of primitive cultures, was directed towards the assumption of a “universal definition of magic.” Having been influenced to a great extent by generalised Judaeo-Christian theological assumptions and prejudices about the unorthodoxy and illegality of such practices, they tended to clearly differentiate magic from religion. The former was regarded as a “lower, mechanistic system” of words and actions, which demanded hybris and blasphemy from its devotees. Religious practice, on the other hand, consisted of noble and pious rituals expressing a standard theology. Thus, magic was stigmatised as illegal and antisocial behaviour and that illegality is “the one universal characteristic” of magic.

All the first historical studies on Egyptian magic seem to be “coloured” by this conjectural difference between “positive/beneficent” and “negative/hostile” actions, consisting of either pious, religious acts, or irreverent, blasphemous magical performances. For example, the British Egyptologist Alan Gardiner recognised two categories of actions: “ordinary” and “magical” actions. The first could be treated with knowledge acquired naturally, by education or habit, while the latter could only be fulfilled with the aid of Heka, which he translates as “magical power.” He also differentiates them from all the other kinds of religious and cultic acts, such as “the cult of the dead” or “the cult of the gods”, which are “implicitly classed together as ‘religion’.” Thus, he redefines magic as “private religion” and divides magical practice, according to the aims the performers want to obtain, into defensive, productive, prognostic and malevolent magic. Another prominent Egyptologist, J. Borghouts, follows the same categorisation 58 years later and elaborates on this theme by dividing the category of destructive magic into “evil sorcery and witchcraft”. The latter term was an obvious loan from contemporary European anthropological theories and its application within the general framework of Egyptian magical practice is problematic.

The “Harim Conspiracy”:
a case of black magic?

The case that is usually referred to as “witchcraft” or “black magic” is the “Harim Conspiracy” against the Pharaoh Ramesses III (Nineteenth Dynasty, c. 1186-1154BC). Here the magical process took the form of written magical spells, inscribed wax figurines and specially prepared potions, which, according to the partially preserved trial records, were produced by a priest/magician with the aid of several other functionaries. The conspirators failed to kill the king and they received the death sentence for the “great capital crime” they had intended to commit: rebellion against the legitimate state authorities. It was the hidden, insidious and rebellious intentions that were actually condemned in the above conspiracy and not the method that was used. The latter could equally have been a knife or sword, instead of a magical technique. So, the only accusation for “black magic” known from Ancient Egypt has failed to have parallels, or, further, to be equated with the well-known witchcraft trials from medieval times, or those reported among primitive tribes studied by anthropologists. Thus, any fixed and standard definition that tries to explain the theoretical and performative context behind the notion of Egyptian Heka by comparing it with non-Egyptian possession and use of magic, should be regarded at least as erroneous.

Heka, God of magic (far left), stands with the goddess Maat behind the throne of Osiris. Funerary papyrus of the priestess Nesitanebetisheru, c. 950 BC. EA 10554/88, British Museum (Pinch 1994, 11, fig 2)

The creative aspect of Egyptian magic

The Egyptian term for magic, Heka (HkA), was used throughout the Pharaonic period until Roman times. It was succeeded by the Coptic word Hik (xik), which was equated with the Greek word magia. The best definition of Heka in Egyptian terms comes from funerary spell 261 that was inscribed on a Middle Kingdom sarcophagus. The spell is entitled “To become the god Heka”:

“I am he whom the Lord of all made before duality had yet come into being … I am the son of him who gave birth to the universe … I am the protection of that which the Lord of all has ordained … I am he who gave life to the Ennead of gods … I have come to take my position that I may receive my dignity. Because to me belonged the universe before you gods had come into being. You have come afterwards because I am Heka.”

So, the notion of Heka existed before the creation of divine and mundane world and it was the cause for the emanation of cosmos. It was the “life-giving energy” which was conceived in the mind of the creator god and expressed as “divine logos”. According to the Memphite theology, as expressed in the inscriptions on a late period monument the Shabako Stone, the creation of each human or divine being and, in general, of everything that exists in the universe, by the creator god Ptah, was achieved through the verbal manifestation of the divine thought and its correct pronunciation as “logos,” (Hw), or “word, command” (mdt). The divine “logos” had as encrypted point of reference the abstract, symbolic notion of “name.” By “proclaiming the name of everything” Ptah gave birth, initially, to Shu and Tefnut and consequently to the whole Ennead) (group of nine gods). Without the notion of Heka creation was not possible. All the gods and human beings came afterwards as a result of this divine creativity caused by Heka, made manifest by the spoken words of Ptah.

Another epithet for Heka was “the one who consecrates imagery” (HkA-kA). It refers exactly to the primeval generative attribute of Heka to empower the creator’s divine thoughts and actions and translate them into their substantial equivalent in the visual and material world. Heka was the animation force behind every ritual act, state or private, beneficent or hostile. Since the creation of the “first time” was re-enacted in the daily temple ritual, “the ritual of the opening of the mouth,” every morning, the power of Heka was present in every ritual activity.


Heka visualised

The creative act of Heka is personified and depicted on the solar bark of the creator god Re. In company with Su (“creative logos”) and Sia (“perception”), Heka re-enacts the creation of the first time and the separation of heaven and earth. The theological manifestation of Heka is also present in tomb and temple representations as early as the Old Kingdom. In the Fifth Dynasty funerary temple of the king Sahure, Heka heads a procession of nome (regional) deities bearing offerings to the king. In late period documents and on the walls of the Ptolemaic temples of Dendera, Edfu, Kom Ombos and Philae, Heka appears as one of the fourteen kas of the sun-god Re, an idea that was already present in the Middle Kingdom Coffin Texts. For example, in Coffin spell 261 Heka styles himself as “Lord of kas.”

In the so-called underworld books, the corpus of texts and scenes inscribed on the walls of the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings, the god Heka protects the sun god Re during his night journey in the Netherworld (Amduat). Heka appears among the crew of the solar bark exorcising Apophis, the eternal serpentine demonic enemy of the sun god. The fight usually takes place in the seventh hour of the night when the evil serpent tries to stop the movement of the solar bark by hypnotising the crew. Apophis is defeated by virtue of the magic (Heka) of the goddess Isis and the “eldest magician” (Heka Semeshw). The qualification of Heka as “elder” should be seen as a reference to his primordial status as first-born son of Re.


Magic and Temple ritual

A re-enactment of Apophis’s defeat takes place daily in cultic ceremonies in all the major temples. The ritualist, magician/priest, plays the role of the god Heka and executes the serpent of chaos by smiting, breaking or burning his wax image. In the Late Period document, the Papyrus Bremner-Rhind, there are magical instructions of how to make wax figurines of the serpentine demon or other divine or human enemies:

“This spell is to be recited over (an image of) Apophis drawn on a new sheet of papyrus in green ink, and (over a figure of) Apophis in red wax. See his name is inscribed on it in green ink. To be spat upon, smitten with a knife. To be put on the fire. It is a burning in a fire of bryony.”

This magical procedure “was performed daily in the temple of Amun-Re, Lord of the thrones of the Two Lands, who dwells in Karnak.” So, in ancient Egypt magic was closely interconnected with the religious activities and form of the state and it was not only the concern of individuals performing rituals for their own benefit.

Magical rituals were performed as part of religious festivals. That is best illustrated in the Ptolemaic festival in favour of Horus of Edfu (the Behdetite), celebrated over a fourteen day period at Edfu, where images of the serpent Apophis, together with those of hippopotami and crocodiles, symbolic of the god Seth, are used in execration rituals against the enemies of Horus. The rituals were completed with the “striking of the eye” (of Apophis), the offering of the hippopotamus cake, the “trampling of fishes” and “destruction of all the enemies of the king.”

At the temple of Esna, the ritual against Apophis was developed within the proper cultic liturgy in favour of the goddess Sekhmet on the first day of the year. It was performed by the same Sekhmet-priest, for there was not a caste of professional magicians in Ancient Egypt. This magical work was considered as just one of many priestly duties and the literate lector-priest (khary-hebet) was at the same time a public servant of the cult and a private practitioner of magic. Also, the spells and techniques of Heka, about which we shall talk in detail in a future article, are those of temple ceremony: invocation of gods as assistants in the magical operation (divine speech), erasure of names and mutilation of images (damnatio memoriae), threats, enumeration of the human bodily parts that are ascribed to particular deities (lists), just to mention a few.

The Pharaoh was responsible for defeating chaos (isefet) and maintaining order (maat). This antithesis between order and chaos is not regarded as an exclusive subject of the magical rituals, but it permeates almost every cultic activity. Order versus chaos provides a crucial theme of reference in Egyptian ritual. Ritual is central to both religion and magic. It consists of the main point of reference, composed of a sequence of actions that express and fulfil certain purposes through the mobilising of specific mythological or “theological” events. So Heka, as a mobilised force within a certain performative environment, could be considered as a personification of the power of ritual. In the Middle Kingdom teaching of Amenemhat I, there is a definition of Heka that clearly shows its protective and apotropaic / ritualistic nature: “He ( the sun god) gave to them (mankind) magic (Heka) as weapon in order to repel the strokes of bad events.” These beliefs were not only held as intellectual ideas, but acted out in the daily ritual in temples.

For the Ancient Egyptians magic as Heka is a neutral, amoral creative force that is not opposed to religion but which animates it. This approach to Egyptian magic helps us to study the anthropology and sacred praxis (work) of Heka rather than to see it as a compilation of superstitions and popular beliefs.


Further Reading: a selection of sources

1. J. F. Borghouts, Ancient Egyptian Magical Texts (Leiden, 1978).

2. J. F. Borghouts: ‘Akhou - Hekaou’: two basic notions of Ancient Egyptian magic, and the concept of the divine creative word,’ in A. Roccati and A. Siliotti (eds.), La Magia in Egitto ai Tempi dei Faraoni (Milan, 1987), 29-46

3. J. F. Borghouts: ‘Magie’ in Lexikon der Ägyptologie, v. III (Wiesbaden, 1980), cols. 1137-51.

4. P. Eschweiler, Bildzauber im Alten Ägypten (Göttingen, 1994).

5. A. Gardiner: ‘Magic (Egyptian),’ in J. Hastings (ed.), Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, v. 8 (New York, 1922), cols. 262a-269a.

6. Y. Koenig, Magie et Magicians dans l’ Egypte Ancienne (Paris, 1994).

7. G. Pinch, Magic in Ancient Egypt (London, 1994).

8. R. Ritner, The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practices (Chicago, 1993).

9. R. K. Ritner, ‘Egyptian magic: questions of legitimacy, religious orthodoxy and social deviance’ in A. Lloyd (ed.), Studies in Pharaonic Religion and Society in Honour of J. Gwyn Griffiths (London, 1992), 189-200.

10. S. J. Tambiah, Magic, Science, Religion and the Scope of Rationality (Cambridge, 1990).

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