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Ancient Egypt Magazine

Issue Nine - November/December 2001


Nine Measures of Magic

PART 3: 'Overthrowing Apophis': EGYPTIAN RITUAL IN PRACTICE.

Throughout Egyptian history, a major focus of ritual activity was intended to overcome personal, divine or foreign enemies of the king or state. Other members of Egyptian society also availed themselves of these apotropaic practices, which are described for us in the final part of our series

by Dr Panagiotis Kousoulis.

In the Book of Overthrowing Apophis, the longest and most important part, in terms of its magical value, of the Papyrus Bremner- Rhind (4th century BC), the expression 'what is said consisting of magic' is followed by the statement 'when Apophis is placed (on) the fire', indicating that verbal expressions (spells) and physical modes of action (known as apotropaic techniques) provide the core of ceremonial Egyptian magic. Each episode of a ritual was composed of a series of threat formulae and magical utterances combined with a number of symbolic gestures and techniques. This combination was essential for the effective outcome of the magical procedure.

Spells and conjurations

Terracotta model of a woman pierced with iron nails c.200-300 AD. This figurine was buried in a pot with a lead tablet inscribed with a love charm. Louvre inv. E 27145 (Pinch 1994, fig 48).

Spells and oral conjurations form the corner stone of a magical ritual. The importance of spells is very well exemplified in the direct equation and identification of heka with the spoken word. In col. 24/17-18 of the Apophis Book in the Papyrus Bremner-Rhind we read: 'Retire, turn back at this magic (heka) which has come forth from my mouth for Pharaoh!' Magical speech during the ceremony formed the channel through which the magician could activate and reinforce both his magical capabilities and the accompanied apotropaic techniques.

It was the special meaning and apotropaic force, hidden within the literary structure of a magical narrative, that caused the mobilisation of certain powers and actions during the course of the ceremony.

The pronunciation of special 'words of power' could extract, either through their own verbal ascendancy or in conjunction with other literary elements within the narrative, specific forces from the mythical world into the mundane sphere and divine world into the mundane sphere and the situation the magician needed to deal with

Cultic language was the medium and process to access the divine and to link the mundane and terrestrial spheres into a united ceremonial performance.

The mechanisms involved in the assembly and function of a magic narrative could vary, from the simple quotation of a mythical background (historiola), that comprises the main point of reference for the mobilisation and development of the magical action, to more sophisticated literary techniques, such as the identification of the magician with a specific god whom he invokes during the rite (divine speech), the enumeration of certain parts of the body with their divine proection (lists) and specially designed threat and curse formulae within a broader performative and liturgical environment.

'I have overcome the enemies of Pharaoh'

Within this ritual environment, the power of the oral incantations was reinforced by the symbolic destruction of wax figurines in the form of the enemies of cosmic and political order, or the burning of a sheet of papyrus, with the name and figure of the enemies drawn on it:

'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 ... I have overthrown all the enemies of Pharaoh from all their seats in every place where they are. See, their names written on their breasts, having been made of wax, and also bound with bonds of black rope. Spit upon them! To be trampled with the left foot, to be fallen with the spear (and) knife; to be placed on the fire in the melting-furnace of the copper-smiths ... It is a burning in a fire of bryony. Its ashes are placed in a pot of urine, which is pressed firmly into a unique fire. '

Although it is not unlikely that an exeration ritual continued occasionally to involve human sacrifice, the use of execration figurines made of wax and drawings on papyri was the rule for the majority of the sacrificial actions performed during the ceremony.

This special use of objects has its own symbolic meaning and apotropaic value, which rely on the specific material that is used and the magical principle of analogy and similarity that is expressed between the two poles in the ceremony, these being the figurine or iconographic papyrus (the object or medium) on the one hand and the divine or human enemy (the target), on the other.

The similia similibus formulae are traditionally referred to as sympathetic or homeopathetic rituals, but they can more precisely described as 'persuasively analogical'; ritual of this kind is not based on poor science or a failure to observe empirical data but rather on a strong belief in the persuasive power of certain kinds of formulaic language.

Images of wax

The choice of wax as the basic constructive material for the figurines is related to its peculiar physical properties, that makes it quite suitable for magical operations, and to its mythological association with the divine realm: wax as a primeval substance was said to be created by the sun god himself. Yet, an object made of wax is characterised by its vulnerability and, thus, it could easily be destroyed during the rite. Also, the fact that it can be burnt without leaving any ashes distinguishes it as a perfect symbol guaranteeing the total eradication of the hostile image that it represents. The same attributes could also apply to the papyrus plant, which was used on which to write the various spells and draw the hostile images.

For the Egyptians, the colour green (w3d) was derived from and was associated with the papyrus plant (w3d), as a symbol of flourishing (w3d) and eternal renewal. Both bear, amongst other properties, strong protective attributes expressed in a variety of ways and contexts. 'Papyrus column' amulets made of green stone were regarded as very effective in expelling evil in the real world and the hereafter. From the Ramesside period onwards, and especially during Graeco-Roman times, lion- headed goddesses, particularly Bastet, Sekhmet and Menhet, carry the papyrus as a symbol of protection and elimination of every harmful notion or enemy.

'Spitting upon, trampling and spearing'

After the formation of the appropriate implements that could serve as medium and solid points of reference for expelling an amorphous adversary, the ritualist commences the magical procedure.

According to the rubric of the Apophis book, quoted earlier, the magical procedure is basically developed into the following steps with occasional variations: 'spitting upon' (psg) the hostile image, 'trampling upon (sin) it with his 'left foot' 'spearing' (hw) it with his 'spear' (m'b3) or 'knife' (ds) 'binding' (q3s) and wrapping it in the papyrus, before placing it on the fire (hh). In addition to the positive, curative aspects of spitting and its role to the creation of cosmos, which is envisioned in so many Egyptian myths and tales, its potential nature as a weapon of destruction and corruption is well emphasised in the magical texts and well practised in the apotropaic dromena.

Because the act of spitting was hostile and magically threatening, it could be easily associated with the ejected venom of serpents, scorpions, insects, and other creatures. Thus, spitting figures prominently in both the recitations and praxis of execrations directed against wax figurines representing the divine demons and their associates.

Trampling upon an enemy was a standard gesture in magical rites. It derives from the common imagery of the traditional enemies of Egypt, represented on the king's footstool and on the sole of his sandals, so that he was constantly trampling on them.

The same idea is found in funerary magic. The casting of the hostile image with a spear or knife follows the spitting technique. In fact, this formula dominates the relevant reliefs on the walls of the Ptolemaic temples. The king, represented by the priest in the everyday re-enactment of the rite, spears the enemy (human or divine) in the presence of the patron deity of the temple (the temple statue in real life). The sacrificial immolation of the figurines comes as the final apotropaic step and symbolises the total destruction of the enemy.

The theme of the burnt offering is not normally considered central to Egyptian ritual, but where it is developed, it carries the theme of sacrifice of the enemy. Quite often, the precise place where the fire takes place is clearly stated in the rubrics of the magical papyri: 'To be placed on the fire in the furnace of the coppersmiths' and, elsewhere, 'the furnace (w3w3) shall consume you. '

Preserving the House of Life

Magical healing statue of Djedhor from basalt (323-317 BC). It was inscribed with magical spells against snakes and other malign creatures. In its front part, it shows the young god Horus trampling upon crocodiles. (E. Russmann, Egyptian Sculpture: Cairo and Luxor, London 1989, 195)

The term w3w3 is a reduplicated form of the verb w3 ('to roast') meaning 'fire flame.' It is attested quite often in the funerary texts of the Middle and New Kingdom referring to the divine flame, personified as the uraeus or 'mistress of fire', that burns up the enemies of Osiris in the Underworld. There is, here, a direct conformity between the ritual burning of wax figures as common cultic practice on earth, and the mythological execution of criminals and sinners in the Underworld Based on this analogy between religious practice and funerary dramatisation, the representations of such furnaces on the tomb walls could help us conceive an idea could be traced back, at least, to the Middle Kingdom depiction of a small brazier in the context of offering scenes. An oval cavity, 68m deep, in the form of a truncated cone, excavated at Mirgissa could have served a similar purpose. Into this pit were placed five unbroken crucibles of dried mud, duplicates of the typical crucible used for copper smelting.

Since wax does not leave any residue after being burned, it was the ashes from the papyrus that had to be collected 'in a pot of urine' and placed, consecutively, on a new fire. There is a parallel correlation, here, between a by-product of the human body, the waste liquid, which has to be discharged from it as totally useless and, somehow, dangerous for its harmonious function, and the visible symbolic remains of a superhuman foe, which are still regarded malicious until they are completely dispersed.

The power of encircling

After the burning of the enemy's physical 'body,' assimilated to a wax substitute or a drawing on a sheet of papyrus, the magician endeavours to control his malicious activities in the Underworld through the magical technique of 'encircling' (phrt) his 'shadow'. Although the term phr is especially involved in prophylactic rites for purification, its destructive, aspects cannot be dismissed.

In the Underworld, the 'subjugation' yielded by the technique of encircling consist a major threat for all the parts of the personality of both the blessed deceased and hostile demons. It is this function of phr that is meant under the rubric of this book and is performed

to retain cosmic order and to repel the forces of chaos. There is again here, as with the burning formula above, a direct juxtaposition and integration between the funerary rites as these are expressed through the multifunctional funerary texts of the New Kingdom, and the magical apotropaic techniques and formulae.

A suitable day and hour The choice of the suitable day and hour for the magical operation was essential for the success of the rite. Such choice was determined by the nature and character of the rite, as well as the special mythological bonds that connect it with the divine sphere. Thus, rituals that were related to the sun god and his adversaries, usually took place in the morning, while spells against the dangers of the night were performed at dusk. Also, calendars of lucky and unlucky days, where the classification of the days was based on events in myth, play an important role as guidelines for the designation of the time the performance. Very often, a particular rite, like the one against Apophis, could be practised every day. This frequent performance reflects the daily fight between Apophis and the sun-god in the Underworld, which was common and well developed theme within the context of the funerary papyri, Underworld books and apotropaic sun hymns of the New Kingdom onwards.

Horus of Edfu The performance of the magical practices within the liturgical environment of a temple was closely interconnected with all the major religious festivals. Thus, during the festival in favour of Horus the Behdetite, celebrated over a fourteen day period at Edfu, execration images of serpentine images of Apophis, together with those of hippopotami and crocodiles, symbolising 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.' The destruction of the enemies should also have been part of the Busirite liturgy of the Osiris Mystery performed from 23 to 30 Khoiak near the tomb of Osiris in the divine necropolis at Dendera.

Another allusion to the Apophis' destruction as a liturgical component is found in the Apis bull embalming ritual described in the Papyrus Vindob. 3873.

After the mummification process, the coffin containing the mummy is placed on a boat and is then transported to the Lake of the Kings in a procession attended by the goddesses Isis and Nephthys and headed by the god Wepwawet of Upper Egypt and the god Wepwawet of Lower Egypt, Horus and Thoth. On the arrival at the Lake the Apis is lifted up onto a raised platform, while priests sail across the Lake reading from nine sacred books. The Apis then undergoes the Opening of the Mouth ceremony before it returns to the Embalming House. Two of the nine books being recited by the priests are entitled 'The book of the protection of the divine bark' and 'the book of exorcising of (evil).' These rituals could be addresses against any malign demon or human.

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