Scorpion Charms and Hippo Tusks: The Power of "Magic" in Ancient Egypt


Dr. Scott Noegel is an Associate Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Languages and 
Civilizations at the University of Washington in Seattle. He holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Literature from Cornell University and has served as a consultant for both the Discovery and History Channels. He has published widely: articles, book reviews and several books. Dr. Noegel is currently the president of the newest ARCE Chapter, ARCE/NW.

Dr. Noegel's lecture surveyed several aspects of ancient Egyptian "magic", and began by noting that the term "magic" as we think of it today, is not all that useful when thinking about the ancients. In addition, it is often used to label "other peoples religions" as heretical. Nevertheless, "magic" is not an entirely foreign category for ancient Egyptians since it is they themselves who later identified their own term for it (heka) with the Greek word mageia, whence we derive our word "magic."

Our information about Egyptian "magic" comes to us both from those living in Egypt and those outside. The information from Egyptians themselves tell us that magic was a cosmic force that was morally neutral. The Egyptian word for it was heka, and those who performed heka were sometimes referred to as heka'u, "magicians", though many other titles also are associated with it including lector priests, sem priests, priests of the goddess Sekhmet, fighter priests, scorpion charmers, scribes of the House of Life, and "he who (presides) over the secrets". In each case the practitioners of magic in ancient Egypt were professionals.

Heka was also depicted as a god who existed before creation and came into being with it. Heka was particularly associated with medicine. Magical incantations generally accompanied prescriptions and other medical procedures. The prophets of heka also are called physicians, and heka is connected with medicine in the divine world as well.

Certain rites of purification, abstinence and cleansing were required of practitioners of magic, and the ritual purification of spaces - sometimes by the use of magical wands, was required to ensure the efficacy of the magic.

Dr. Noegel pointed out that to understand the believed power of the magic, one must also understand the Egyptian belief in the power of words. In this the Egyptians were much like their Mesopotamian, Hebrew, and Greek neighbors. Written and/or spoken words were not just representations of concepts or ideas, but manifestations of the essences of the things they named. If one spoke or wrote the name of a snake, it was a snake, but in the concentrated form of a word. Thus, some depictions of Apep, the snake of chaos, show ropes tying him and knives rending him in order to render his magic harmless.

Since words were the manifestation of the thing they represented, sculptures, reliefs and pictures were likewise imbued with the magical essence of the things depicted. The representation "was" the thing. When the king's sandals depicted his enemies on their soles, he in essence was magically trampling his enemies when he wore those sandals.

Scenes of judgment often found on funerary papyri, not only depicted, but inscripted the future. Names similarly contained the very essence of a person. As long as the name continued to exist, that person continued to exist. A cartouche was the essence of the king named within its magical, protective knot. Erasure of the name erased the individual from existence.

The Egyptians perceived heka and its role car-rying into the afterlife. It was heka who reanimated the dead, and heka who allowed the "ka" and the "ba" to function on behalf of the deceased in the afterlife. Heka can be translated as "he who consecrates the ka."Magic was the cosmic animator of man and gods in both life and death. It could animate a lifeless form in the afterlife, such as an ushabti, a reserve head, or a model of a workman cutting grain, which might serve the deceased in some way.

Ritual implements were used in opening the mouth of the deceased, as well as his ears, eyes and nose, so he could see, breathe, hear and eat in the afterlife. Heka was the means of accomplishing this act. Letters were written to deceased relatives requesting intercession - with a god, with another deceased person, or with the living. Clappers, though thought of as musical instruments, were also used to expel evil spirits. A hand was also a euphemism for genitalia; hand shaped wands were sometimes referred to as "Lady of the Vulva", or the "Hand of Atum" [which he used when masturbating to expel his seed so that he could create his children Geb and Nut]. This sheds light on later "magical" images of Isis-Aphrodite revealing her private parts. Throw sticks were used for drawing out hostile demons. Amulets also were used in conjunction with heka. Dozens were integrated into the wrappings of mummies, incorporated into pectorals and other decorations. Amulets were made in the form of body parts, plants, animals, demons, gods, wadjet eyes, etc. Jewelry could be more than just decorative.

Central to magic also were the use of mythological traditions that served to establish a divine precedent based on events in primordial times. A magician might even identify himself with a particular god, and employ magic associated with that god's mythology. Thus we find the wadjet eye used for its connection to the myth of the contendings of Horus and Set, in which Set put Horus' eye out, and the god Thoth restores it. It is the magician's responsibility to convince the gods of a connection between a real world situation and their cosmic well being in order to persuade them to come to his aid.

Magic was not always benign. Execration figures list the names of pharaoh's enemies and curse them out of existence. They were sometimes smashed, burned, pierced, with their throats slit, buried, or boiled in urine.

Though magic is largely a professional preoccupation, there is evidence for magic in more domestic settings. Images of gods, like Min, are known to have been used by farmers to protect their crops and bless their fecundity. Interestingly, modern Egyptian farmers at Akhmim still carry similar figures into the fields before the planting to scare away jinns [evil spirits] and ensure fertile fields. Cowry shells were symbolic of fertility in women so were often included in domestic jewelry. At Deir el Medina, many private homes had altars with pictures of naked women plus either the god Bes or the goddess Taweret, both associated with the protection of pregnant women and childbirth.

Many acts had ritual applications but all involved writing and/or incantations. Speaking a spell was an inherently magical act, but writing was equally important. The power of the written word is clearly related in the later
Tale of Setna Khaemwas, when he says, "I read another formula for writing though I cannot write. I was speaking with regard to my elder brother, Na-nefer-ka-ptah, who is a good scribe and a very wise man. He caused that a new sheet of papyrus be brought before him. He wrote down every word that was on the papyrus, completely. He soaked it in beer; he dissolved it with water. He recognized that it had dissolved; he drank it and he knew that which was in it".

In general, the mouth played an important role in magic. Knowledge and ingestion were closely tied together and heka was closely associated with both. Licking away a magical incantation allowed it to be used, sometimes against an enemy. Spitting or vomiting also had magical aspects. Many ritual acts were understood to be magical, such as circling an object, as around a house, or shrine, but the unifying element that tied them all together was the word. This explains why we find word plays often employed in order to make the spell efficacious. Dr. Noegel noted that for Egyptian magicians "the pun was indeed mightier than the sword." Heka was a completely legitimate tool for ensuring the balanced continuation of the cosmos and the 
lives of the people in it.

Nancy Corbin

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