Magic and Occult in Egypt



To the peoples of antiquity as well as to those of the modern world, Egypt appeared as the very mother of magic. The reason for this widespread belief is not far to seek. In Egypt the peoples of the ancient world found a magical system much more highly developed than anything within their native knowledge, and again the cult of the dead with which Egyptian religion was so deeply imbued, appeared to the stranger to savour strongly of magical practice. It must be borne in mind that, if the matter of the magical papyri be omitted, the notices which we possess of Egyptian magic are almost wholly foreign, so that it is wiser for a proper understanding of Egyptian occultism to derive our facts concerning it from the original native sources as far as is possible. Like all other systems, the magic of the Egyptians was of two kinds, that which was supposed to benefit either the living or the dead, and that which has been known throughout the ages as "black" magic or necromancy. 

The contents of the Westcar Papyrus show that as early as the fourth dynasty, the working of magic was a recognised art in Egypt, but in reality we must place the beginnings of Egyptian magical practice varied considerably, but the principal means for its working remained the same. That is to say, the Egyptians relied for magical effect upon amulets, magical figures, pictures, and formulae, magical names and ceremonies, and the general apparatus of the occult sciences.

The objects for which magic was exercised were numerous. It exorcised storms, protected against wild beasts, poison, disease, wounds, and the ghosts of the dead. One of the most potent methods of guarding against misfortune of any kind was the use of Amulets. It must not be assumed that all ornaments or objects discovered on the mummy are of magical potency. These are frequently the possession of the Ka or double (q.v.), necessary to its comfort in a future existence. The small crowns, spectres, and emblems of Osiris, usually executed in faience, are placed beside the dead person in order that he may wear them when he becomes one with Osiris, and therefore a king. The scarab, fashioned in the likeness of a scarabæus beetle, symbolised resurrection. The dad symbolised the human skeleton, and, therefore, perhaps, the dead and dismembered Osiris. It has an influence on the restoration of the deceased. The uza, or eye, signifies the health necessary to the dead man's soul. The so-called "palettes" at one time supposed to have been employed for the mixing of paint, are now known to have been amulets inscribed with words of power placed on the breasts of the dead in neolithic times. The amulet of the menat was worn, or held, with the sistrum by gods, kings, and priests, and was supposed to bring joy and health to the wearer. It represented the vigour of the two sexes.

Spells. - The simplest type of spell in use in Egypt, was that in which the exorcist threatens the evil principle, or assures it that he can injure it. Generally, however, the magician requests the assistance of the gods, or he may pretend to that which he desires to exorcise that he is a god. Invocations, when written, were usually accompanied by a note to the effect that the formula had once been employed successfully by a god - perhaps by a deified priest. An incomprehensible and mysterious jargon was employed, which was supposed to conceal the name of a certain deity who was thus compelled to do the will of the sorcerer. These gods were almost always those of foreign nations, and the invocations themselves appear to be attempts at various foreign idioms, employed, perhaps, as sounding more mysterious than the native speech. Great stress was laid upon the proper pronunciation of these names, and failure in all cases was held to lie at the door of mis-pronunciation. The Book of the Dead (q.v.) contains many such "words of power," and these were intended to assist the journey of the dead in the underworld of Amenti. It was believed that all supernatural beings, good and evil, possessed hidden names, which if a man knew, he could compel them to do his will. The name, indeed, was as much part of a man as his body or soul. The traveller through Amenti must tell not only the divine gods their names, but must prove that he knew the names of a number of the supposedly inanimate objects in the dreary Egyptian Hades, if the desired to make any progress. (See Gnostics and Names Magical.)

Magical Books. - Many magical books existed in Egypt which contained spells and other formulae for exorcism and necromantic practice. Thus Medical Papyri in the Leipsic collection contain formulae spoken whilst preparing drugs; the Ebers Papyrus contains such spells; the Harris Magical Papyrus, dating from the New Kingdom, and edited by Chabas, contains spells against crocodiles. The priestly caste, who compiled those necromantic works, was known as Kerheb, or "scribes of the divine writings," and even the sons of Pharaohs did not disdain to enter their ranks.

The Ritual of Egyptian Magic. - In many instances the ritual of Egyptian magic possesses strong similarities to the ceremonial of other systems and countries. Wax figures were employed in lieu of the bodies of persons to be bewitched or harmed and models of all kinds were utilised in order that the physical force directed against them might react upon the persons or animals it was desired to injure. But the principal rite in which ceremonial magic was employed was the very elaborate one of mummification. As each bandage was laid in its exact position certain words of power were uttered which were supposed to be efficacious in the preservation of the part swathed. After evisceration, the priest uttered an invocation to the deceased, and then took a vase of liquid containing ten perfumes, with which he smeared the body twice from head to foot, taking especial care to anoint the head thoroughly. The internal organs were then placed on the body, and the backbone immersed in holy oil, supposed to be an emanation from the gods Shu and Seb. Certain precious stones were then laid on the mummy, each of which had its magical significance. Thus crystal lightened his face, and cornelian strengthened his steps. A priest who personified the jackal-headed god, Anubis, then advanced, performed certain symbolical ceremonies on the head of the mummy, and laid certain bandages upon it. After a further anointing with the oil deceased was declared to have "received its head." The mummy's left hand was filled with thirty-six substances used in embalming, symbolic of the thirty-six forms of the god Osiris. The body was then rubbed with holy oil, the toes wrapped in linen, and after an appropriate address the ceremony was completed.

Dreams. - The art of procuring dreams and their interpretation was much practised in Egypt. As instances of dreams recorded in Egyptian texts may be quoted those of Thothmes IV. (B.C. 1450) and Nut-Amen, King of Egypt (B.C. 670). The Egyptian magician procured dreams for his clients by drawing magical pictures and the recitation of magical words. The following formulae for producing a dream is taken from British Museum Papyrus, No. 122, lines 64 ff. and 359 ff.

"To obtain a vision from the god Bes: Make a drawing of Besa, as shewn below, on your left hand, and envelope your hand in a strip of black cloth that has been consecrated to Isis and lie down to sleep without speaking a word, even in answer to a question. Wing the remainder of the cloth round your neck. The ink with which you write must be composed of the blood of a cow, the blood of a white dove, fresh frankincense, myrrh, black writing ink, cinnabar, mulberry juice, rain-water, and the juice of wormwood and vetch. With this write your petition before the setting sun, saying, 'Send the truthful seer out of the holy shrine, I beseech thee, Lampsuer, Sumarta, Baribas, Dardalam, Iorlex: O Lord send the sacred deity Anuth, Anuth, Salbana, Chambré, Breith, now, now, quickly, quickly. Come in this very night.'"

"To procure dreams: Take a clean linen bag and write upon it the names given below. Fold it up and make it into a lamp-wick, and set it alight, pouring pure oil over it. The word to be written is this: 'Armiuth, Lailamchouch, Arsenophrephren, Phtha, Archentechtha.' Then in the evening, when you are going to bed, which you must do without touching food (or, pure from all defilement), do thus: Approach the lamp and repeat seven times the formula given below: then extinguish it and lie down to sleep. The formula is this: 'Sachmu.... epaema Ligotereench: the Aeon, the Thunderer, Thou that hast swallowed the snake and dost exhaust the moon, and dost raise up the orb of the sun in his season, Chthetho is the name; I require, O lords of the gods, Seth, Chreps, give me the information that I desire.'"

Medical Magic. - Magic played a great part in Egyptian medicine. On this point Weidemann says: "The Egyptians were not great physicians: their methods were purely empirical and their remedies of very doubtful value, but the riskiness of their practice arose chiefly from their utter inability to diagnose because of their ignorance of anatomy. That the popular respect for the human body was great we may gather from the fact that the Paraskhistai who opened the body for embalmment were persecuted and stoned as having committed a sinful although necessary deed. The prescribed operations in preparing a body for embalmment were never departed from, and taught but little anatomy, so that until Greek times the Egyptians had only the most imperfect and inaccurate ideas of the human organism. They understood nothing about most internal diseases, and especially nothing about diseases of the brain, never suspecting them to be the result of organic changes, but assuming them to be caused by demons who had entered into the sick. Under these circumstances medicines might be used to cause the disappearance of the symptoms, but the cure was the expulsion of the demon. Hence the Egyptian physician must also practice magic.

"According to late accounts, his functions were comparatively simple, for the human body had been divided into thirty-six parts, each presided over by a certain demon, and it sufficed to invoke the demon of the part affected in order to bring about its cure - a view of matters fundamentally Egyptian. In the Book of the Dead we find that different divinities were responsible for the well-being of the bodies to be blessed; thus Nu had charge of the hair, Râ of the face, Hathor of the eyes, Apuat of the ears, Anubis of the lips, while Thoth was guardian of all parts of the body together. This doctrine was subsequently applied to the living body, with the difference that for the great gods named in the Book of the Dead there were substituted as gods of healing the presiding deities of the thirty-six decani, the thirty-six divisions of the Egyptian zodiac, as we learn from the names given to them by Celsus and preserved by Origen. In earlier times it was not so easy to be determined which god was to be invoked, for the selection depended not only on the part affected but also on the illness and symptoms and remedies to be used, etc.

"Several Egyptian medical papyri which have come down to us contain formulas to be spoken against the demons of disease as well as prescriptions for the remedies to be used in specified cases of illness. In papyri of older date these conjurations are comparatively rare, but the further the art of medicine advanced, or rather receeded, the more numerous they became."

"It was not always enough to speak the formulas once; even their repeated recitation might not be successful, and in that case recourse must be had to other expedients: secret passes were made, various rites were performed, the formulas were written upon papyrus, which the sick person had to swallow, etc., etc. But amulets were in general found to be most efficacious, and the personal intervention of a god called up, if necessary, by prayers or sorcery."

Magical Figures. - As has been said the Egyptians believed that it was possible to transmit to the figure of any person or animal the soul of the being which it represented. In the Westcar Papyrus we read how a soldier who had fallen in love with a governor's wife was swallowed by a crocodile when bathing, the saurian being a magical replica of waxen one made by the lady's husband. In the official account of a conspiracy against Rameses III (ca B.C. 1200)the conspirators obtained access to a magical papyrus in the royal library and employed its instructions against the king with disastrous effects to themselves. These, too, made waxen figures of gods and of the king for the purpose of slaying the latter. 

Astrology: The Egyptians were fatalists, and believed that a man's destiny was decided before he was born. The people therefore had recourse to astrologers. Says Budge: "In magical papyri we are often told not to perform certain magical ceremonies on such and such days, the idea being that on these days hostile powers will make them to  be powerless, and that gods mightier than those to which the petitioner would appeal will be in the ascendant. There have come down to us fortunately, papyri containing copies of the Egyptian calendar, in which each third of every day for three hundred and sixty days of the year is marked lucky or unlucky, and we know from other papyri why certain days were lucky or unlucky, and why others were only partly so." "From the life of Alexander the Great by Pseudo-Callisthenes we learn that the Egyptians were skilled in the art of casting nativities, and that knowing the exact moment of the birth of a man they proceeded to construct his horoscope. Nectanebus employed for the purpose a tablet made of gold and silver and acacia wood, to which were fitted three belts. Upon the outer belt was Zeus with the thirty-six decani surrounding him; upon the second the twelve signs of the Zodiac were represented; and upon the third the sun and moon. He set the tablet upon a tripod, and then emptied out of a small box upon it models of the seven stars that were in the belts, and put into the middle belt eight precious stones; these he arranged in the places wherein he supposed the planets which they represented would be at the time of the birth of Olympias, and then told her fortune from them. But the use of the horoscope is much older than the time of Alexander the Great, for to a Greek horoscope in the British Museum is attached 'an introductory letter from some master of the art of astrology to his pupil, named Hermon, urging him to be very exact and careful in his application of the laws which the ancient Egyptians, with their laborious devotion to the art, had discovered and handed down to posterity.' Thus we have good reason for assigning the birthplace of the horoscope to Egypt. In connection with the horoscope must be mentioned the "sphere" or "table" of Democritus as a means of making predictions as to life and death. In a magical papyrus we are told to 'ascertain in what month the sick man took to his bed, and the name he received at his birth. Calculate the course of the moon, and see how many periods of thirty days have elapsed; then note in the table the number of days left over, and if the number comes in the upper part of the table, he will live, but if in the lower part he will die.'" 

Ghosts. - The conception that the ka or double of man wandered about after death, greatly assisted the Egyptian belief in ghosts. 

"According to them a man consisted of a physical body, a shadow, a double, a soul, a heart, a spirit called the khu, a power, a name, and a spiritual body. When the body died the shadow departed from it, and could only be brought back to it by the performance of a mystical ceremony; the double lived in the tomb with the body, and was there visited by the soul whose habitation was in heaven. The soul was, from one aspect, a material thing, and like the ka, or double, was believed to partake of the funeral offerings which were brought to the tomb; one of the chief objects of sepulchral offerings of meat and drink was to keep the double in the tomb and to do away with the necessity of its wandering about outside of the tomb in search of food. It is clear from many texts that, unless the double was supplied with sufficient food, it would wander forth from the tomb and eat any kind of offal and drink any kind of dirty water which it might find in its path. But besides the shadow, and the double, and the soul, the spirit of the deceased, which usually had its abode in heaven, was sometimes to be found in the tomb. There is, however, good reason for stating that the immortal part of man which lived in the tomb and had its special abode in the statue of the deceased was the 'double.' This is proved by the fact that a special part of the tomb was reserved for the ka, or double, which was called the 'house of the ka,' and that a priest, called the 'priest of the ka,' was specially appointed to minister therein."

Esoteric Knowledge of the Priesthood. - The esoteric knowledge of the Egyptian priesthood is now believed to have been of the description with which the Indian medicine man is credited plus a philosophy akin to that of ancient India. Says Davenport Adams:

"To impose upon the common people, the priesthood professed to lead lives of peculiar sanctity. They despised the outer senses, as sources of evil and temptation. They kept themselves apart from the profanium vulgus, 'and,' says Iamblicus, 'occupied themselves only with the knowledge of God, of themselves, and of wisdom; they desired no vain honours in their sacred practice, and never yielded to the influence of the imagination.' Therefore they formed a world within a world, fenced round by a singular awe and wonder, apparently abstracted from the things of earth, and devoted to the constant contemplation of divine mysteries. They admitted few strangers into their order, and wrapt up their doctrines in a hieroglyphical language, which was only intelligible to the initiated. To these various precautions was added the solemnity of a terrible oath, whose breach was invariably punished with death."

"The Egyptian priests preserved the remaining relics of the former wisdom of nature. These were not imparted as the sciences are, in our age, but to all appearances they were neither learned nor taught; but as a reflection of the old revelations of nature, the perception must arise like an inspiration in the scholar's mind. From this cause appear to have arisen those numerous preparations and purifications the severity of which deterred many from initiation into the Egyptian priesthood; in fact, not infrequently resulted in the scholar's death. Long fasting, and the greatest abstinence, appear to have been particularly necessary: besides this, the body was rendered insensible through great exertions, and even through voluntarily inflicted pain, and therefore open to the influence of the mind. The imagination was excited by representations of the mysteries; and the inner sense was more impressed by the whole than - as is the case with us - instructed by an explanation of simple facts. In this manner the dead body of science was not given over to the initiated, and left to chance whether it would become animated or not, but the living soul of wisdom was breathed into them.

"From this fact, that the contents of the mysteries were rather revealed than taught - were received more from inward inspiration and mental intoxication, than outwardly through endless teaching, it was necessary to conceal them from the mass of the people.

So says Schubert, dealing with the same subject: "The way to every innovation was closed, and outward knowledge and science could certainly not rise to a high degree of external perfection; but that rude sensuality, inclination for change and variety, was suppressed as the chief source of all bodily and spiritual vices, is clear, as well as that here, as in India, an ascetic and contemplative life was recommended.

"They imparted their secret and divine sciences to no one who did not belong to their caste, and it was long impossible for foreigners to learn anything; it was only in later times that a few strangers were permitted to enter the initiation after many severe preparations and trials. Besides this, their functions were hereditary, and the son followed the footsteps of his father."

"Concerning that which passed within the temples, and of the manner in which the sick were treated, we have but fragmentary accounts; for to the uninitiated the entrance was forbidden, and the initiated kept their vows. Even the Greeks, who were admitted to the temples, have been silent concerning the secrets, and have only here and there betrayed positions. Jablonski says, 'that but few chosen priests were admitted into the sanctum, and that admission was scarcely ever permitted to strangers even under the severest regulations."

Dealing with the subject of hypnotism in Egypt, Montfauçon says: "Magnetism was daily practised in the temples of Isis, of Osiris, and Serapis. In these temples the priests treated the sick and cured them, either by magnetic manipulation, or by other means of producing somnambulism." Presenting a painting of a mesmeric scene, he says: "Before a bed or table, on which lie the sick, stands a person in a brown garment, and with open eyes, and the dog's head of Anubis. His countenance is turned towards the sick person; his left hand is placed on the breast, and the right is raised over the head of his patient, quite in the position of a magnetiser.


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