The History, People and Culture of the Nile Valley
Nine Measures of
Part 2: The role of
the Magicican in Egyptian society
the second part of our series, Dr Panagiotis Koulis discloses that the magician
was an esteemed and influential member of Egyptian society, exercising authority
over his art and those who needed his assistance, by means of powerful words and
a Late Period monument, the Metternich Stela (c.350 BC), there appears the
following declaration from Isis, the goddess of magic: 'I am Isis the goddess,
the possessor of magic, who performs magic, effective of speech, excellent of
words.’ This statement gives us the best definition of the nature of Egyptian
magical practice: inherent possession, spells and magical techniques/formulae.
In this article we will deal with the first of these three characteristics, the
inherent possession of magic that refers to the power, ability and status of the
magician in Egyptian society.
the early third century AD Clement of Alexandria regarded Egypt as 'the mother
of the magicians.' To what extent, however, did that reflect a particular cast
of private performers of the magical act, according to our Western point of
view? There seems to be no common word for 'magician' in the ancient Egyptian
language and, thus, a strict differentiation between magicians, priests and
medical healers in Egyptian society appears rather impractical.
Egypt: 'mother' of
are, however, quite a few stories referring to the lives and acts of certain
individuals that have been ascribed with the knowledge and possession of hidden
and powerful magical abilities. The most notable example of such stories, the
so-called Setna-saga, survives in written records dated between the second
century BC and the second century AD. It refers to prince Khaemwaset, the fourth
son of the Pharaoh Ramesses II (c. 1279-1213 BC).
became first setm-priest and then 'high priest' of the god Ptah at Memphis and
he was responsible for the construction of the Serapeum, a massive tomb in the
sacred area of Saqqara, and the restoration of pyramids and funerary temples in
the vast area of Memphis. Khaemwaset appears in these Late Period Setna-stories,
named after his priestly title, as a performer of magic who knew how to use the
power of amulets and talismans and how to compose magical formulae, so that he
managed to prevent a Nubian magician and ruler casting spells upon, and gaining
control over, Egypt. In the same story, Khaemwaset is also described as a 'good
scribe and very wise man,' who was trained to understand and write the 'language
of the gods,' the hieroglyphs. So, the magician in the Setna-story could combine
the functions of a priest, scribe and performer of magical acts.
in another story cycle preserved in the Papyrus Westcar, a magician transformed
a wax crocodile into a real one and used it to hunt down his wife's lover.
Another magician from the same story parted the water of a lake to recover a
magicians were 'chief lector-priests' (hery-heb), high in rank in the Egyptian
priesthood. They were responsible for the keeping of the sacred books and ritual
manuscripts in the sacred scriptorium, known as the 'House of Life' (per-ankh),
about which we shall talk later. They were mostly involved with the magical
rituals performed inside the temple precinct, rather than the common daily
cultic rituals. They were regarded as the intermediate link between the sacred
world of the temple and the outside world because they were allowed to use their
knowledge to officiate at funerals.'
execration rituals, the chief lector priest is accompanied by the 'fighter'
priest (ahAw-a), and it is to these functionaries that are addressed the ritual
incantations in the second person found in papyri and on the temple walls. Thus,
in the rubrics of the Late Period
magical papyrus Bremner-Rhind, which were addressed against the serpentine demon
Apophis, the enemy of the sun god par excellence, the chief lector priest gives
directions to the fighter priest of how to make wax images of the snake and
every enemy of the gods and the pharaoh and destroy them.' A lector-priest could
also be capable of performing medical treatments and curing various illnesses.
associated with medicine and practical healing was another group of
priests/magicians, the priests of the goddess Sekhmet. Sekhmet was regarded as
the one 'great of magic' and together with the god Ptah and her son Nefertem
made up the Memphite triad. According to Egyptian mythology, Sekhmet was
connected with the uraeus of the Pharaoh and thus became the 'eye of Re',
accompanying the king to battle, protecting him from his enemies and curing his
injuries. The priests who were under her service were specialised in medicine
and could combine medical treatment and natural remedies with magical and
magician's 'tools of the trade'
the direct priestly affiliation of magicians is highly significant, and strongly
suggests that itinerant magicians did not exist in Ancient Egypt. The best
evidence of the profession of magician/priest derives from the discovery of a
Middle Kingdom magician's box beneath the storerooms at the Ramesseum.' It
contained twenty-three fragmentary papyri with magico-religious contexts, four
broken ivory 'apotropaic knives,' amulets, various beads and figurines,
including four female dolls, a statuette of the hybrid goddess Beset holding
snakes, a bronze uraeus and an ivory herdsman carrying a calf. The amulets were
used for protective purpose, while the apotropaic wands repelled evil and
protected infants from demons.
wax figurines were used in execration rituals, about which we shall talk in
detail in a future article. They were spat upon, pierced with a knife and
burned, symbolising thus the ritual 'death' of the enemy.
magical significance of the ivory herdsman becomes apparent when it is compared
with the identical representation in fording scenes in the Old Kingdom tombs. In
such scenes the herdsman carries a calf into the water to induce the cattle to
follow. The fording scenes are usually accompanied by the recitation of a
protective spell against crocodiles or other dangerous creatures that usually
lie in the river. Those spells were recited by magicians, who accompany the
herdsman on the boat. They were called 'those who know sacred things' (rkh-kht),
a term that reveals their priestly affiliation and their attachment to the
sacred temple institute, which was known as the 'House of Life'.
The House of
the Setna-story, we saw above, the magical acts are described as the 'deeds of a
good scribe of the House of Life (pr-ankh)'. The 'House of Life' was a sacred
institution attached to all the major temples.
there is not any solid archaeological evidence for its existence, many texts
describe its functions and the religious writings it contained. A symbolic
representation of the House of Life is depicted in a Late Period document,
Papyrus Salt 825, that also contains a ritual for the protection of the 'House
of Life.' It is shown as a courtyard that encloses the figure of Osiris,
standing within a mummy case and looking toward the ankh-hieroglyphic sign in
the top right-hand corner of the inner court. A rectangular wall pierced by four
gates surrounds the court, while hieroglyphic signs with apotropaic meaning were
drawn inside it. The four corners of the wall were protected by the deities
Isis, Nepthys, Horus and Thoth.
sacred institute was initially created for the magical protection of the gods
(Re, Osiris) and the Pharaoh, who was regarded as their representative on earth.
It had, also, acquired the role of the temple library, where all the sacred
books (mdat ntr), writings and cultic archives were kept.' Sixteen books, which
were property of the House of Life in the temple of Osiris at Abydos, have been
recorded in Papyrus Salt 825.
of them are characterised by their significant apotropaic capacities: 'As for
the books which are in it, they are the baw of Re, keeping alive this god (scil.
Osiris), and overthrow his enemies." As for the people who enter into it,
'they are the staff of Re and the scribes of the House of Life, the followers of
Re protecting his son Osiris every day.' The priests were responsible for the
preservation of these books and their regular transmission.
an important relief relating to the sed-festival at Bubastis, a procession of
long-skirted priests, most of whom hold papyrus rolls, is headed 'friends and
masters of magic.' Among the separate personages are two Hkaw-Smsw
'magician-protectors of the King of Lower Egypt,' one 'royal scribe' (ss-ntr)
and a group of people, called as 'the company of the House of Life,' synonym to
the latter 'staff of the House of Life.' In a Thirtieth Dynasty fine statue from
the Louvre, the 'chief-lector-priest' Nakhtharhab is recognised as the 'leader
of the masters of magic (Hryw Hkat) in the House of Life.’
exceptional and superior position of the magicians/priests in Egyptian society
was due not only to their training and spiritual capabilities but, mainly, to
their power to come in contact and control the spiritual realm of the divine
the course of a magical ceremony, a special relationship is developed between
the magician and the invoked deities. The phrase 'I am the god N,' which appears
very often in magical spells, consists of a very important magical technique
that assimilates and equates the human (magician) and the superhuman (deity)
magician believes that he is not merely the medium for the divine power to be
expressed through, but an independent entity who retains the will and freedom to
use and distribute this power according to his desire. Thus, for example, in an
incantation from a Nineteenth Dynasty ostracon from Deir el-Medineh, which is
directed against a human enemy, the magician 'transforms' himself into a certain
god Montu, threatening his foe:
will say: "Come to me Montu, lord of the day! Come, that you may put N born
of N into my hand like an insect in the mouth of a bird". I am Montu whom
the gods adore. I will sever your bones and eat your flesh.’
in the Spell X from the Metternich Stela, which consists of a conjuration in
favour of a man that has been bitten by a snake's bite, the magician starts the
spell speaking as the god Thoth, who invokes the magic of Horus, and completes
the rite having been assimilated with the invoked god:
adoration of Horus to glorify him. Recitation on the water and on the land.
Recitation by Thoth, the saviour of this god ... I have recited with your
magic (HkA) and I have spoken with your spells
(Akhw) and I have exorcised with your words ... May you drive away for me
all the lions in the desert, all the crocodiles in the river, all the biting
snakes in their holes/ ... May you remove for me the pulsating poison which is
in all the limbs ... Your name is invoked on this day: "I am Horus the
using imperative ('come!'), as in the first example, or perspective form ('may
you remove...'), the magician praises the divine magical abilities and power,
that helps him to execute the ritual, and reaches the divine state through the
authoritative and effecting utterance of the spoken words. The sound was the
essential 'bridge' that linked the magician with the mundane and invisible world
and enabled him to have access and power over it.'
magician not only impersonates and expresses the will of the supernatural
powers, by making himself a 'channel,' a medium, through which these powers can
be visualised in the human sphere, but also he 'transforms' himself into god:
'For I am among gods: Seth is on my right, Horus on my left, Nephthys is in my
embrace, o gods! Make way for me! I am one of you!'" This divine
transformation is without hybris, according to the Greek notion of arrogant
behaviour and action, but in complete orthodoxy with the primeval power and
superiority of the Egyptian magic.
magicians lived in direct contact with the gods, while, at the same time, they
occupied the most important positions in the political and social order. Since
Egyptian society was regarded as theocentric, it was the magicians' duty to keep
it in harmony with the gods, establishing and maintaining Ma'at.
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