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.
In Egyptian myth, magic (heka) was one of the forces used by the creator to make the world. Through heka, symbolic actions could have practical effects. All deities and people were thought to possess this force in some degree, but there were rules about why and how it could be used.
Dreams & 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.
Priests were the main practitioners of magic in pharaonic Egypt, where they were seen as guardians of a secret knowledge given by the gods to humanity to ‘ward off the blows of fate’. The most respected users of magic were the lector priests, who could read the ancient books of magic kept in temple and palace libraries. In popular stories such men were credited with the power to bring wax animals to life, or roll back the waters of a lake.
Dawn was the most propitious time to perform magic, and the magician had to be in a state of ritual purity. This might involve abstaining from sex before the rite, and avoiding contact with people who were deemed to be polluted, such as embalmers or menstruating women. Ideally, the magician would bathe and then dress in new or clean clothes before beginning a spell.
Metal wands representing the snake goddess Great of Magic were carried by some practitioners of magic. Semi-circular ivory wands – decorated with fearsome deities – were used in the second millennium BC. The wands were symbols of the authority of the magician to summon powerful beings, and to make them obey him or her.
All Egyptians expected to need heka to preserve their bodies and souls in the afterlife, and curses threatening to send dangerous animals to hunt down tomb-robbers were sometimes inscribed on tomb walls. The mummified body itself was protected by amulets, hidden beneath its wrappings. Collections of funerary spells – such as the Coffin Texts and the Book of the Dead – were included in elite burials, to provide esoteric magical knowledge.