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Nine Measures of Magic

Part 2: The role of the Magicican in Egyptian society

High Priest of Amun HorekhetIn 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 actions.

In 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.

In 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 the magicians

There 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).  

 Khaemwaset 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.

 Similarly, 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 dropped pendant.

 These 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.'

 In 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.

 Closely 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 sacerdotal methods.

 The magician's 'tools of the trade'

 Thus, 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.

 The 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.

 The 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 Life

 In 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.

 Although 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.

 This 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.

All 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.

 In 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.

 The magician as god

 The 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 entities.

 During 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) being.

 The 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:

 'I 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.

 Similarly, 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:

 'An 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 saviour". '

 Either 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.'

 The 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.

So, 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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Copyright 2002 Empire Publications, Manchester. Last modified: January 23, 2002.