OVERVIEW OF ANCIENT EGYPTIAN MAGIC
There are many definitions of Magic. One of the definitions of Magic in The American Heritage Dictionary is: "The practice of using charms, spells, or rituals to attempt to produce supernatural events or to control events in nature."
Another definition from another source is: "Magic is the attempt to produce a response in the god and to manipulate him or her for human purposes. Ancients believed that the gods could be manipulated."
I have defined magic as the following:
"Employing a technique or ritual, to manipulate or control a natural or spiritual phenomena or event, by supernatural means."
Using this definition, let us look at what we call the "Indian Rain Dance". How does it fit into the term magic?
1) It is a technique or ritual - There is an actual dance carried out with specific movements, etc.
2) It's purpose is to manipulate or control the weather, i.e. cause it to rain.
3) It is supposed to work by supernatural means.
Notice that cloud seeding by airplanes does not fit the term magic since the manipulation of nature is not by supernatural means but by science. Using my definition, something is considered magic only if it meets all 3 criteria.
My definition goes well with the Egyptians use of the term Magic. The Egyptians used magic for both practical and religious purposes. They believed magic was a divine creation for the benefit of humanity. It was considered a field of knowledge just like architecture, literature, medicine, etc. It was just another category of knowledge to be used in coping with their environment and religion.
In our modern society, the word magic does not convey the force it did in the ancient Egyptian culture. To the Egyptians, magic was a real and potent force. It was a tangible means of communicating, manipulating, and controlling their gods. For example, their life depended on agriculture and thus the weather. Using magic to control the weather was important for their survival. Also, as we will be exploring, magic was essential after death for safe passage through the afterlife.
Examples of some important ancient Egyptian magic rituals concern defense against enemies. Wax or clay figures of the enemy were ritual destroyed. Also magic was used to keep away spiritual enemies (i.e. god's that were not favorable towards them or wanted to harm them). Also personal spells were used against someone's enemy. For example, there are spells that invoke evil gods to appear in a person's dreams. Also personal use of magic included the use of love potions. It usually consisted of some liquid or food that came with an incantation. To the ancient Egyptians, it would not differ much from a medical prescription. Remember, magic was just another field of knowledge like medicine and was very real to them.
The purpose of the magic was to compel the help of divine powers. Usually, the person carrying out the magic was identified by name with a deity to obtain from him the power of that god. Also the person might threaten that god with dire consequences if his demands were not met.
Many of the Egyptian gods were invoked using magic, but the most frequent god invoked was Isis, since she was the protector of her son (Horus), with whom the person seeking help would be identified with.
Dreams and Prophecy
Magic was also used for the prediction of the future. One way this was done was by asking the statue of a god which acted as an oracle. Also prediction of the future could be obtained through the interpretation of dreams. The Egyptians viewed dreams as a means in which the gods could make contract with humans. Another practice, known as "incubation", involves the sleeping in a temple in order to receive prophetic dreams from a god.
The following is an example of a dream interpretation taken from the Chester Beatty III papyrus.
"If a man sees himself in a dream slaughtering an ox with his own hand, good: it means killing his adversary.
"Eating crocodile flesh, good: it means acting as an official among his people.
"Submerging in the river, good: it means purification from all evils.
"Burying an old man, good: it means flourishing.
"Working with stone in his house, good: fixing a man in his house.
"Seeing his face in a mirror, bad: it means another wife.
"Shod with white sandals, bad: it means roaming the earth.
"Copulating with a woman, bad: it means mourning.
"Being bitten by a dog, bad: it means he will be touched by magic.
"His bed catching fire, bad: it means driving away his wife.
Amulets were also used for magical protection. They were used both by the living and the dead. Many amulets have been found in Egyptian tombs. These amulets are in the shape of gods, goddesses, animals, objects, parts of the body, etc. and were believed to contain special powers. Many amulets were wrapped up with the mummy. The mummy of King Tut is a good example and many such amulets were found wrapped in his mummy. Many different substances were also used in the making of amulets which included stone, wood, clay, etc. Since certain substances possessed certain powers, it was important to choose the right substance for a specific type of amulet. Magic writing was also considered an amulet and many such types of magical papyrus have been found in tombs. Thus, wearing of amulets during life was the means of seeking the gods protection and help. After death a special protection was also needed and we will be discussing this.
Use of Magic in Medicine
Medicine was practiced both on scientific and magical levels. Prescriptions also relied both on pharmacology and sympathetic magic. There were many spells to help cure snake bites. Also spells were used for childbirth, pregnancy, and conception. Many incantations have been found for birth, protection of babies, providing of milk, and defensive against childhood diseases.
Magic for the Dead
In the afterlife, it was important for the deceased to be equipped with magical spells for their protection. The earliest collection of such spells were found inscribed inside Old Kingdom royal pyramids. These are called "Pyramid Texts" since they were inscribed on the walls of the pyramids. Approximately 800 of these incantations have been found. Osiris first appears in these texts as the lord of the dead.
Initially, only the King had the promise of immortality. During the First Intermediate period, this promise started to be extended to a wider social class. Thus during this period there was an expanded collection of these incantations. In fact, more than 1100 spells have been found. These spells were now copied onto the interior surfaces of coffins. Thus these texts are referred to as "Coffin Texts". Many of these were basically guide books to the underworld so the spirit would not get lost.
Later, during the New Kingdom, these spells were copied onto papyrus scrolls and were available to anyone who could pay for them. We know these as the "Egyptian Book of the Dead". The Egyptians called it by its true name which is the "Book of Going Forth by Day". These books were not standardized and many variations occur. Thus, magic was important not only to the ancient Egyptian in this life, but also in the afterlife.
Ancient Egypt, David Silerman, 1997.
Mummies, Myth and Magic in Ancient Egypt, Christine El Mahdy, 1991.
Ancient Egyptian Magic, Bob Brier, 1980.