Ancient Egypt Demons and Spirits part 1/6

Apr 4, 2011

Ancient Egypt Demons and Spirits part 1/6
Interior of a wooden coffin painted with The Book of Two Ways. The map shows two routes taken by the sun god through the underworld. Coffin of the steward Seni from el-Bersha, c. 2000 BC. 

Texts and reliefs in the great Egyptian temples of the second millennium BC portray a cosmos inhabited by deities, kings and humanity. The deities are presented as powerful but generous entities who bestow all manner of blessings on the favoured land of Egypt.
The king is the intermediary who stands between the gods and the grateful Egyptian people. Royal Underworld Books, and the funerary papyri of priests and officials, illustrate a wider range of supernatural beings, many of them bizarre and frightening in appearance
Funerary literature is often regarded as irrelevant to daily life in ancient Egypt. Yet the evidence of magical texts used in life suggests that the fearsome landscape of the Duat may have been closer to how the average Egyptian saw the world than the serene cosmos of the temples.


The first detailed representations of the realm of the dead appear as part of The Book of Two Ways on wooden coffins of the early second millennium BC (fig. 14). A map marks the mansions of Thoth and Osiris and traces the route of the sun god from east to west by water, and from west to east by land. Both routes are guarded by a series of terrifying beings. In the royal Underworld Books of the late second millennium BC, the sun voyages through a series of twelve caverns inside the earth.

Some of the caverns are worlds in miniature, containing deserts, lakes of fire, rivers and islands.


These caverns of the Duat were inhabited by a fantastic array of beings. They are shown with human bodies, but the heads of animals, birds, reptiles or insects
Some have two heads, or a head that faces backwards. Others have threatening objects, such as a knife or a torch, in place of a head. They are given alarming or grotesque names like 'Blood-drinker who comes from the Slaughterhouse', 'Backward- Facing One who comes from the Abyss' or 'One who eats the excrement of his hindquarters'. These beings are usually referred to as demons, but the Egyptian underworld should not be equated with the Christian hell.
Most of the inhabitants of the Duat were not intrinsically evil.
They might be dangerous to humanity, but they were under the command of the high gods.

Every dead Egyptian was fated to enter this underworld. One of the primary purposes of funerary magic was to help the deceased deal with the demons she or he would encounter there. When the place of judgement was reached, the heart of the deceased was weighed against the feather of Maat, which symbolized truth and justice. A monster, part hippopotamus, part crocodile, part lioness, squatted by the scales
Her name was 'Devouress'. Her role was to eat the deceased if she or he failed the test. This second death meant the annihilation of those parts of the personality that were thought to survive the first death.
Anyone who passed the judgement became an akh, a 'transfigured spirit', and could join the gods in the cosmic cycle

All this might seem to belong entirely to the funerary sphere, but The Brooklyn Magical Papyrus (c. fourth—third centuries BC) instructs the magi-cian on how to protect the living against the Devouress.
The Under-world Books were not just the product of metaphysical speculation by intellectual priests. They seem to include elements from popular belief.
Earlier this century, there was a strong tradition among the fellahin (peasants) of Egypt that a race of afrits or djinns lived in caverns below the earth.
These beings were also said to inhabit rivers, canals and pools, which were all thought of as entrances to the supernatural realm. There is some evidence for similar beliefs in ancient Egypt.
In many Egyptian tombs the burial chamber lay deep underground at the bottom of a steep shaft. This chamber, unlike the rest of the tomb, was regarded as being part of the Duat. The ba, the soul or manifestation of a dead person, is sometimes shown flying up the tomb shaft in bird form to visit the world of the living by day. The Book of Coming Forth By Day was the original name of The Book ofthe Dead. Such visits were not necessarily welcome.
In a one literary text (The Contending! of Horus and Setti), Osiris threatens to send demon messengers from the Duat into the realm of the gods if his son Horus is not made king of Egypt. This seems to reflect an ancient view of Osiris as the grim ruler of a demon host which posed a threat to the living.
The Book of the Heavenly Cow refers to chaos snakes living in the earth as a danger to gods and humanity. In desert conditions snakes do bury themselves in sand, or shelter under rocks, so it was natural to associate them with an underworld. The great chaos serpent and arch-demon
Apep was the most dangerous inhabitant of this underworld.
He was said to be thirty cubits long and his thunderous voice terrified even the sun god. One of his epithets was 'earthshaker' and Apep was presumably held responsible for earth-tremors. These would be a potent symbol of chaos, as they could reduce the temple buildings that symbolized order to ruin within seconds.
Apep sometimes confronted the sun god on land and sometimes in the celestial river on which the Sun Boat sailed. He is compared with the sandbanks that were the main hazard to navigation on the Nile and he could take the form of a giant crocodile. For any Egyptian, the crocodile lurking below the water surface, ready to drag the unwary down to a terrible death, was an emotive image of the sudden blows of fate.
The weighing of the heart of the deceased in the Hall of Justice. The god Anubis adjusts the balance. Thoth stands by to record the result. 'The Devouress' squats by the scales. From The Book of the Dead of the Theban priestess Anhai, c. 1100 BC.
Demons are strongly associated with water in Egyptian Literature of the second millennium BC. In one story, a prince becomes involved in a battle between a demon and a crocodile in the depths of a pool.
In another, a herdsman encounters what he takes to be a female demon at the edge of a lake. Fear of such encounters was not confined to fiction.
Written amulets of the first millennium BC promise to protect the wearer against supernatural beings living in river-branches, canals, pools and wells.
These amulets, and other magical texts of the first millennium BC, give long lists of the supernatural enemies from whom the living needed protection. Ranked with demons and ghosts as enemies of humanity are entities described as the bau of a deity The Egyptian word bau some-times means a divine manifestation unique to a particular individual.

Divine displeasure might be experienced as an illness or a panic attack.
In other contexts, the word refers to an actual divine messenger.
Egyptian deities were capable of fission, so these messengers could be emanations of the god or goddess in question. Demons and lesser deities also acted as emissaries of the major gods to carry out their commands on earth.
Although the king acted as an intermediary in the temple cults, little reliance seems to have been placed on him to save people from personal manifestations or divine emissaries. To combat enemies of this kind, a magician often invoked extraordinary composite forms of deities.
These are portrayed as fantastic beings who have numerous different heads and are accompanied by various symbols of power

A magical papyrus from Heliopolis depicts a winged, ithyphallic deity with nine animal heads surmounted by rams' horns, snakes and knives. This exotic entity tramples on images of dangerous animals, holds scepters and serpent wands, and is surrounded by torches.
It is unlikely that the priests of Heliopolis thought of their gods as looking anything like this. The illustration unites in one image all the aspects of creative divine power which could be used in defensive magic.
These complex beings, sometimes known as 'pantheistic' deities, can combine the qualities and attributes of many different gods. This is not so much a theological development as an advanced magical technique.
There were other divine beings who were principally invoked in defensive magic. An obscure god of the Graeco-Roman period called Tutu was the son of the powerful creator goddess Neith, who was worshipped at Sais. Tutu combines attributes of a sphinx and a griffin He has a human head, the body of a lion, the wings of a bird, and a snake for a tail. The most common epithet of Tutu was 'the one who keeps enemies at a distance'. His monstrous power could be used to defend humans from demons or hostile manifestations of other deities.
Another protective god, whose cult developed in the late second millennium BC, was Shed. He is usually shown as a child or a young man triumphing over dangerous animals and reptiles
Shed is often no more than a specialized form of Horus. His function was to protect and heal by means of magic. In effect, Shed was a divine magician and his name may mean 'The Enchanter'.
Magic was not just a defence against the forces of chaos and evil. It might also be used to evade the deities who inflicted suffering on people as part of the divine plan. Personal manifestations or emissaries of these deities were greatly feared. One such deity was the scorpion goddess Serqet. She is usually shown as a woman with a scorpion on her head

It might be expected that a goddess associated with such a venomous creature would always have an evil reputation but, as early as The Pyramid Texts, Serqet appears as a friendly deity. She helped kings and gods to be born and was one of the four goddesses who traditionally protected the embalmed bodies of the dead. Her name means 'she who causes (one) to breathe'. This is typical of the way in which the Egyptians tried to neutralize a dangerous force by conciliation and flattery. If the poison goddess can be persuaded to show her benevolent aspect, her power can be used against scorpion bites on the principle of fighting like with like.
In a myth inscribed on some magical stelae and statues, the goddess
Isis is accompanied on her flight to the Delta by seven scorpions.
These are emanations of Serqet. They are protective towards Isis and her unborn child, but they punish a woman who refuses to give the goddess shelter. One of the scorpions enters the house of the inhospitable woman and stings her child to death. Isis regrets this revenge and uses her magic to revive the child. Even here, the power of the scorpion remains dangerous, the attitude towards it ambiguous
Seven was a number of great significance in magic. Ban often come in groups or multiples of seven. Hathor and Sekhmet both had a seven-fold form. In the story of the 'Destruction of Humanity' these two goddesses are presented as contrasting aspects of the same deity. Hathor is the gentle and beautiful woman; Sekhmet is the terrible, bloodthirsty lioness. The Seven Hathors are generally a positive force in magic. They are appealed to in love spells and their red hair-ribbons could be used to bind dangerous spirits. They were also the deities who pronounced on the fate of newborn children. Since one of the main purposes of magic was to avoid or alter the blows of fate, a magician might sometimes need to act against the Seven Hathors.

The fate decreed by the Seven Hathors might be good or bad. Their dark equivalent, the Seven Arrows of Sekhmet, always brought evil fortune, often in the form of infectious diseases. As well as this specific group of seven arrows, there were 'the slaughterers of Sekhmet'. The demon messengers of this goddess were particularly dangerous at certain times of year. The ancient Egyptian calendar was divided into three four-month seasons called Inundation, Planting and Harvest. In the summer or Harvest season, the river level was low. The scorching heat made this the time when 'the breath of the plague of the year' was most likely to strike. Two baboon forms of the god Khons controlled The Books of the End of the Year. These contained lists of those who were destined to die and those who would live.

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