Egyptian Magic

"Get thee back, for thou art cut asunder, thy soul is shrivelled up, thy cursed name is buried in oblivion, and silence is upon it, and it hath fallen____"—From the Ptolemaic

Book of Overthrowing Apep.

That there was a connection between Jewish and Egyptian magical practices is abundantly proved by the many references to this fact in works of literature and religion. In addition to this testimony, we also know that the Semites—like the Greeks, Romans and others of the ancient world—were firmly convinced of the superiority of Egyptian magic over the thaumaturgy of other lands.

Moses, as we learn from the Bible and the Quran (41), was one of Egypt's greatest foreign disciples in the practice of the Art. Like the Egyptians, he used a magical staff or wand; like them, he caused the waters to be divided. He even knew some of the mystic 'words of power' of the Pharaonic priesthood.

When Moses fought his famous magical duel with the sorcerers of the Nile, magic was already a flourishing and integral part of Egyptian religion. Royalty, the priesthood and the people were bound inextricably by magic. Was it not the magician son of Rameses II himself who pitted his arts against Moses in 1300 b.c. (42)? Two hundred years earlier, the Westcar Papyrus tells us, a miracle identical with the reputed 'parting of the waters' by Moses was performed by the Chief Priest of the day.

So flourishing was the practice of magic in the Egypt of about 3000 b.c., that the very name of the land has passed into our language as a synonym for it. Just as the ancient Semitic word imga produced the English term Magic, so one of the oldest names for Egypt {kemt— dark, black) came to be translated Black, in place of Egyptian, Magic. Egypt, of course, was called 'The Black' not because of the diabolism of its magic, but from the colour of its earth when flooded by Nile water (43). A second term alchemy (Arabic al-kimijja) also stems from this same name. In other words, both the phrases 'Alchemy' and 'Black Art' are to be traced to an original meaning of 'Art of Egypt'.

With the possible exception of the controversy about Atlantis, there surely has been no country about whose ancient history and occult activities so much has been written, from so many points of view. Garbled versions of rituals performed in the Valley of the Kings were taken back to the desert by Arabian beduins, and embroidered upon until, all over the Near East, Egypt was implicitly believed to be peopled by a race of sorcerers. Throughout the Dark Ages this idea, stimulated by Biblical quotations and Semitic magicians, gained a firm grasp on men's minds. Even during the period of the scientific investigation of the Pyramids and other Pharaonic monuments, Western occultists have vied with one another to deduce

The amulet of the Soul

mysteries from everything Egyptian. Naturally, this produced a reaction. A group of observers—many of them with perhaps less real knowledge than the empiricist school—denounced Egyptian magic as something which had no true reality. The only 'magic' that the Egyptians had, they held, was their religion.

The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between. We know that ancient Egyptian magic and religion were strongly bound up together. We know, too, for that matter, that most forms of magic have an affinity with religious systems. Papyri and tomb-inscriptions give us many indications that rites which are familiar to students of the occult were known, and even probably originated, in ancient Egypt. And this leaves unsaid the testimony of the vast volume of secondary sources—the Greek, Arabic and Hebrew records—which contain processes which very possibly include some of those practised by the priesthood of Isis.

Were the Egyptian priests miracle-workers? Did they in fact have knowledge which is still hidden to us? Those who want to believe these things will say yes. Those who take the Jewish, Christian and Moslem scriptures as true will unhesitatingly say that there is no doubt. Others will just have to examine the evidence and try to satisfy themselves.

Generally speaking, the religio-magical rites of these people were concerned with the maintenance of prosperity, and the security of the spirit in a future life. It is against the historical background of Egyptian life, therefore, that their rites are to be examined. Works involving power and success, like those of the destruction of an enemy, form a slightly different class. These latter were, it seems, originally part of the secrets held by the initiated priesthood as a sort of political magic. Naturally, it was one of the aims of royalty to ensure that the most powerful magic was of its own group. Later, however, as the finding of tens of thousands of scarabs and other amulets testifies, magic took on a popular aspect. This remains the position, though there are a few official royal magicians in practice.

It is necessary to have some idea of Egypt in order to attempt to put oneself in the place of its people. The climate and geography— which governed so many aspects of ancient Egyptian life—have altered little in the past five thousand years. Dominating all else is, of course, the Nile. That fact alone is one of the central thoughts in the religion of Egypt, as in its magic, art and literature. For all practical purposes the country consists of a long strip of cultivable land. For nearly twelve hundred miles this strip is bracketed by mountain chains. Beyond these there is little else than desert. In the centre flows the powerful current of the Nile itself, depositing the black earth on either bank: the earth which was to give magic one of its most familiar names.

Almost every vegetable product grown in this area figures in magical rites carried out in the Middle East even today. Date palms, acacia trees, the sycamores, wheat, barley and millet: these are thought to be among the most powerful items in a magician's storehouse.

The Nile rises every year between the first and the sixteenth of July, bringing new life to the land dried up by many months of fierce heat. Its rising in flood by September is the signal for a festival in Cairo: the Feast of the Nile:

"Peasants," says Gaston Maspero (44), "laden with provisions come from afar and eat together ... the priests leave their temples, and carry the statue of the [Nile] god . . . ¿long the banks of the Nile to the sound of chants and music."

The priesthood of Isis—foremost magicians of Egypt—were specially important at these events. Part of the 'chant to the Nile' is given in a papyrus roll in the British Museum:

"Haii to you Nile . . . who rises to the Earth to give life to Egypt. . . men dance for joy when thou risest from the unknown . . . side by side one sees the men of the Thebaid and those of the North . . . when the horn signals that the Nile is risen, we sing to thee with the harp and beating hands."

Interpreted in magical terms, the rising of the river symbolized the marriage of Osiris with Isis: Osiris the Nile, Isis the Earth—the black earth of the area.

Modern Egyptologists claim that the ritual magic practices of Egypt must date back to pre-Dynastic or even prehistoric times (45). Legend states that Shem, son of Noah, came to Egypt at the age of three hundred years, one hundred and ninety years after the Flood, and ruled the country for another hundred and sixty-one years. During this time, magic flourished there. Jewish tradition has it, of course, that Noah himself was a magician and that certain secret books were specially revealed to him.

Innumerable stories are told in Egyptian and Greek writings about Egyptian processes for reviving the dead. While it is known that the Egyptians believed that the body would resurrect in another world, yet there are also clear indications that some of their rites were designed to revive the corpse. It is, of course, claimed that this was done not once, but many times. What makes this account interesting is the fact that one of the Pharaohs most famed for his magical learning actually caused the experiment to be undertaken in his presence.

He was Herutataf, son of Cheops (Khufu), and lived nearly four thousand years before Christ (46).

Khufu, it seems, was one day discussing miracles with his son. Herutataf said that stories were all very well, but there were few people who had seen such things done. He then promised to show his father a man who could in fact perform the miracle of revivication of those who were not only dead, but had actually been beheaded (47).

This magician was Teta, reputed to be a hundred and ten years old. He was versed in secrets from the famed sanctuary of Thoth. Even today it is not clear what they were. An expedition was accord

ingly prepared: the Pharaoh's son travelled down the Nile by barge, then on by litter, until the party arrived at the abode of Teta.

The account is filled with minute circumstantial detail, which seems to show that it probably took place, and that the legend is not merely one of imagination. We are told, for instance, that the sage was lying on a woven bed (probably similar to the angaribs which are still in use). Servants were rubbing his head and feet. Then follows an account of the meeting between the crown prince and the magician, in which the King's invitation was given, and Teta agreed to visit the capital. Leaning on the prince's arm, the sage accompanied the youth to where the boat was moored. Here he asked that his children and books be also brought, and this was done.

When they arrived at the Palace, the King ordered Teta to enter at once. As soon as he had been presented, Khufu asked why they had not met before. To this the sage replied that he came when called, and not before. "You have called, and so I have come."

Then Khufu addressed the magician again: "Is it true, according to what is reported, that thou knowest how to fasten on again to its body the head which has been cut off?" The ancient replied that he could do this thing.

The King asked that some condemned criminal be brought, but on the magician's intervention a goose was substituted.

He cut off the head of the bird, and laid it on one side of the colonnade, with the body on the other side. Teta stood up, and intoned some 'words of power'. The head and body then began to move towards each other, until they met, rejoined, and the head cackled.

Following this feat, Teta did the same with another bird, of a different species, and again, he severed the head of an ox, and caused it to be joined to the body.

This story, taken at its face value, might be thought to show that, powerful as he was, the Pharaoh Cheops had no magician in his retinue capable of duplicating this feat. History shows, however, that even while the Pyramids of Giza were being built, the magical and political power of Memphis—then the seat of government—was waning (48). Ideas cultivated in Thebes, farther down the Nile, took their place, and the Theban deity Amen-ra (Jupiter) became one of Egypt's principal gods. The power of Thebes lasted in all for three thousand years (49).

The effects of Egyptian magic on Greece were profound. For example, Papyrus No. 75, of Reuvens, is a long roll, having a demotic text of twenty-two columns, each with over thirty lines. On the reverse is a Greek translation. Among the drawings are a sceptred deity with an ass's head and one of Anubis, standing by a mummy stretched upon a bier.

Leemans gives a translation of the Greek text, which is crammed with magical lore, derived from Egyptian sources. Their headings may be briefly noted. Magical ceremonies of great thaumaturgic power, by means of love; the receipt for a remedy by one named Hermerius; a formula for happiness and future fortune; a method of producing a dream—then two more for the same purpose. Next comes a rite by which the operator can consult a divinity. Those who are given to bouts of unbridled temper may find their salvation in yet another process. They continue, almost interminably: from the making of a ring which will bring success to every enterprise, to the Sphere of Democritus. Then there is a method of causing strife between man and wife. Finally a means whereby a person is robbed of sleep until he dies is illustrated by a drawing of an Egyptian god.

It is thought that the author may have been one of the priesthood of Isis whom Porphyry criticizes:

"How absurd a thing it is," he says, "that one subject to all the infirmities of humanity, should affect by threats to terrify not only demons or the spirits of the dead, but the Sun God himself, the Moon and other celestial beings. The magician lies in order to compel the

Magical design on the coffin of Priestess Ta-Ahuti (British Museum No. 24793)


heavenly bodies to tell the truth: for when he threatens to shake the heavens, or to reveal the mysteries of Isis, or the secret thing that lies hidden in Abydos, or to stop the sacred boat, or to scatter the limbs of Osiris to Typhon, what a height of madness does it not imply in the man who thus threatens what he neither understands nor is able to perform," (50)

And yet Chaeremon (first century a.d.), the sacerdotal scribe, mentions these things as having been high in the favour of the Egyptian priests, in their incantations.

We have it on good authority from Iamblichus that the Priests of Isis did in fact practise magic. He goes on to remark that the invocations of the priesthood to their gods did contain threats.

There is a strangely familiar ring about all this, to one who has studied the magical rituals of the West: especially those in the Jewish tradition. The following process, too, said to be ancient Egyptian in origin, will be familiar in tone to some readers:

"To be wrought by help of a boy, with a lamp, a bowl and a pit, I invoke thee, O Zeusl Helios, Mithra, Serapis, unconquerable, possessor of honey, father of honey. . . . Let the God whom I invoke come to me and let him not depart until I dismiss him. . . ." Then the ritual proceeds ". . . fill a brazen cup with oil, and anoint your right eye with water taken from a boat that has been wrecked."

In spite of the many magical rituals recorded in such works as the Book of the Dead and other papyri, it seems probable that many which were used in ancient Egypt survive only as part of composite rites which have been handed down by Arab, Hebrew and other writers. One reason is that some of the miracles allegedly performed by Egyptian wizards are not catalogued among their own books of spells. It is likewise possible that many of the processes perished due to the Law of Transmission prohibiting their being confided to any but suitable adepts: and a limited number at that.

It was in the use of amulets that much of the religio-magical practice of the Egyptians excelled. Familiar to most people is the scarab: a model, often in clay or stone, of one of the types of beetle indigenous to Egypt. In addition to being a symbol of the Sun-god (hence of life), the scarab, when placed in a tomb, was believed to possess the power of bringing the dead to life again. All that was needed in addition to the scarab for recalling the life was a knowledge of the words of power, to say over the body.

This scarab-cult passed to Greece, whence we are given directions for charging the scarab with power before it is worn:

"Place the sculpted beetle, place it upon a paper table. Under the table there shall be a pure linen cloth. Under this place some olive wood, and set on the middle of the table a small censer wherein myrrh and kyphi shall be offered. And have at hand a small vessel of chrysolite into which ointment of lilies, or myrrh, or cinnamon, shall be put. And take the ring and place it in the ointment, having first made it dean and pure, and offer it up in the censer with kyphi and myrrh.

Leave the ring for three days; then take it out, and put it in a safe place. At the celebration let there lie near at hand some pure loaves, and such fruits as are in season. Having made another sacrifice on vine sticks, during the sacrifice take the ring out of the ointment, and anoint thyself with the unction from it. Thou shalt anoint thyself early in the morning, and turning towards the east shall pronounce the words written below. The beetle shall be carved out of a precious emerald; bore it and pass a gold wire through it, and beneath the beetle carve the holy Isis, and having thus consecrated it, use it."

The speU in question was "I am Thoth, the inventor and founder

Anubis, God of the Dead


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  • charis mckay
    Did Moses practised Egyptian magic?
    2 years ago

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