Magicians and Priests in ancient Egypt1/2: the under- ground tombs

Apr 5, 2011

Magicians and Priests in ancient Egypt1/2: the under- ground tombs
Sandstone statue of Prince Khaemwaset, 13th century BC. He was a son of Ramses 11, who became High Priest at Memphis. This statue probably comes from Abydos 

In the early third century AD, Clement of Alexandria wrote that 'Egypt was the mother of magicians'. This was the general opinion in the ancient world. In the Book of Exodus in the Old Testament, Pharaoh is attended by magicians who match Moses and Aaron in performing marvels such as changing wands into serpents and water into blood. Early opponents of Christianity accused Jesus of having trained as a magician in Egypt and of working his miracles by means of magical tattoos acquired there.
The Greek Alexander Romance of the third century AD includes pass- ages about the amazing magical powers of the last native-born ruler of Egypt. The story of the sorcerer's apprentice, made famous by Walt Disney's dramatization of Dukas' music in Fantasia, was originally told by Lucian about an Egyptian magician trained at Memphis.




A high proportion of the surviving stories written in ancient Egyptian also feature men and women who can work magic.
In spite of all this evidence, some Egyptologists doubt whether there were such people as magicians in ancient Egypt. The native Egyptian stories about magic are not conclusive. Some of the magicians featured in these stories are historical figures who were revered for their know- ledge, but who may have had no connection with magic.
Two renowned sages of the third millennium BC, Imhotep and Hardjedef, appeared long after their deaths as characters in magical narratives. Imhotep was an official and architect who served King Djoser in the twenty-seventh century BC. He seems to have been responsible for overseeing the construction of Djoser's famous Step Pyramid at Saqqara, one of the world's earliest great stone buildings.
Tradition also made him the author of works on medicine. Imhotep was eventually deified
The Greeks identified him with their god of medicine, Aesclepius. In a story of the second century BC, Imhotep becomes a priest magician who has the skill to read ancient records in the library attached to the temple of Thoth at Hermopolis.
Prince Hardjedef lived in the twenty-fifth century BC. In a story cycle composed about five hundred years later, he is depicted as the wisest of King Khufu's sons and the only one who knows where to find a contemporary magician capable of performing wonders.
Later still, Hardjedef himself appears as a magician. A fragment of a book attributed to Hardjedef does survive. It is a type of literature known as a 'Wisdom' or 'Instruction Text'. These texts are cast in the form of a father advising his son about how to behave in life and succeed in society. They usually contain both ethical and practical advice.





Part of a papyrus containing stories about Khaemwaset, 1st century AD. In this Demotic story cycle, Khaemwaset and his son appear as Egypt's leading magicians
A work of this kind was attributed to Imhotep too. In a society where literacy was rare, the ability to read and write must have seemed almost magical in itself. All written words had power, so all authors might acquire a reputation for magical knowledge.
Some classical and medieval books of magic credit an Egyptian priest called Petosiris with the invention of a geomantic circle for fortune-telling. There was a priest of this name who in the late fourth century BC built a splendid family tomb in the cemetery near Hermopolis
The inscriptions in his tomb do speak of Petosiris' knowledge of the mysteries of Thoth, but these are religious truths rather than fairground magic.
The most notable example of a priest who was later regarded as a magician is Prince Khaemwaset
This prince was the fourth son of Ramses 11 (c. 1279—1213 BC). Khaemwaset entered the temple of the god Ptah at Memphis as a sem priest and eventually became High Priest there. During his tenure, Khaemwaset excavated impressive under- ground tombs for the Apis bulls who were manifestations of Ptah. He made his own tomb among them in the sacred area of Saqqara known as the Serapeum. Khaemwaset also instigated restoration work on a number of pyramids and funerary temples in the cemeteries of Memphis. Some of these monuments were already more than a thousand years old in Khaemwaset's day. These antiquarian interests, together with his priestly office and his achievements in the Serapeum, seem to have led to Khaemwaset's role in literature as a seeker of ancient knowledge.

A cycle of stories about Khaemwaset, known as Setne (a name derived from his tide of sem priest), survives in versions written down between the second century BC and the second century AD J In the story cycle, Setne is represented as having a considerable library and as owning powerful magical amulets. One story describes his attempt to steal a book of spells written by Thoth himself from its hiding place in a tomb at Memphis. The owner of the tomb, who appears in the story as a powerful ghost, can probably be identified with Hardjedef.
The Setne of the stories seems to bear little relationship to the historical Khaemwaset.
Just as all learning tended to be equated with magic, so the great achievements of the past, such as the Step Pyramid and the Serapeum, were sometimes attributed by later Egyptians to magic.
Much of the Hardjedef and Setne story cycles seems pure invention, but some details in these and other Egyptian stories do correspond with reality. There were practitioners of magic in ancient Egypt, but the people who used magic had other functions as well.
Most commonly they belonged to the priesthood. Full-time secular magicians probably did not exist in Egypt before the early first millennium AD and some would dispute their existence even at this period.
Judging from the amulets found in graves of the fourth millennium BC , magic was a part of Egyptian culture from the beginning. Little is known about the type of people who may have practised magic at this period. After Egypt was united in around 3100 BC, kings were credited with magical powers. In The Pyramid Texts, the king is referred to as a hekau - a possessor of magic. Some of the important officials who served kings in the third millennium BC have the tides of 'Royal Manicurist' or 'Royal Hairdresser'. In myth, a god's bodily fluids retain his divine essence and creative power. Anything that came from the king's person was thought to be embued with heka. It therefore had to be preserved, or else disposed of very carefully. Presumably the king's nail or hair clippings could have been used to work magic against him, as the sun god's saliva was used to poison him in the story of the secret name of Ra.
Line drawing of a relief from the Festival Hall of Osorkon II at Bubastis, 9th century BC. Magicians (bottom row) are shown among the learned men from 'Houses of Life' attending the king at his jubilee celebrations
Originally, all magic must have been handed down orally. The introduction of writing around 3 200 BC brought major changes in the control of knowledge. In Egypt, writing seems to have developed as a tool of government. For most of the third millennium BC, very few individuals would have owned books and palace libraries were probably better equipped than those of cult temples. It is even possible that written magic was a royal monopoly for a time. Parts of The Pyramid Texts may have been recited at non-royal funerals, but they were only inscribed on stone for kings. The standard spell used in non-royal tombs to provide offerings for the dead is stated to work through the power of the king.
What was the origin of these funerary texts? Parts of The Pyramid Texts may have been written down on papyrus as early as the twenty-seventh century BC. There could have been a long period of oral transmission before this. It has been suggested that the earliest Egyptian, rulers were advised by shamans and that some funerary texts could have developed out of their rites.
Shamanism is a form of religion whose practitioners answer questions and carry out protective or healing rites after getting in touch with the spirit world. Such contact is made in dreams or trances, the latter sometimes induced by alcohol, hallucinogenic drugs, or violent forms of exercise such as dancing. Another characteristic of shamanism is identification with an animal totem. Shamans often wear special costumes made of animal skin. The leopard skin worn by several categories of Egyptian priest could be a relic of shamanistic rites.

A story in Papyrus Jumilhac (c. 300 BC) explains the custom by relating how Seth once turned himself into a panther after attacking the body of Osiris.
Anubis captured and branded the panther, creating the leopard's spots. The jackal god decreed that leopard skins should be worn by priests in memory of his victory over Seth. Real or artificial leopard-skins were worn by sem priests when they officiated at funerals and by the High Priest of Ra at Heliopolis, whose title was 'The Seer'. Depictions of leopards or panthers are found on some of the earliest ritual objects from ancient Egypt. These animals were associated with the starry night sky, which at this period was regarded as the realm of the dead.
Some of The Pyramid Texts do have a visionary and ecstatic quality, giving the impression that they are records of journeys into a spirit world. They describe a complex realm of deities, using striking visual images such as the sky goddess strewing green stones to create the stars.
When spoken or, more likely, chanted aloud, the many repetitious passages would have had an almost hypnotic effect.
As the written word gained in prestige, the dramatic and intuitive rites of the shamans would have been replaced by standard rituals, whose form and content were fixed in sacred books. The people in charge of such books were men who held the title of hryhb, which is generally translated as 'lector priest'.

In the story cycle preserved in Papyrus Westcar, the sons of King Khufu vie to entertain him with stories of the magical deeds of famous lector priests. The first story was probably about Imhotep, but this is lost.

The second is about a chief lector priest who transformed a wax crocodile into a real one and used it to hunt down his wife's lover

The third involves a chief lector priest who parts the waters of a lake to recover a dropped pendant. In Papyrus Westcar, the main duty of these lector priests seems to have been to attend the king. This may have happened in reality, but most lector priests would have been attached to an institution known as a House of Life.
Many cult temples, and perhaps some mortuary temples, had a House of Life inside or close to their sacred area. This institution was like a library, scriptorium, school and university all in one.
Subjects such as medicine and astronomy were studied there, but the production and transmission of protective rituals seem to have been the main function of the Houses of Life. The lector priests were skilled in reading the books kept in the House of Life. Their reputation as dream interpreters was probably based on the consultation of standard 'Dream Books'.
Although they were subject to the same rules of ritual purity as other priests, lector priests were not part of the main temple hierarchy.
They probably played no part in the daily service in the sanctuary, but they were in charge of some of the magical rituals which were performed in temples on a less regular basis.
Lector priests were an important link between the temples and the outside world because they were allowed to use their knowledge to officiate at funerals. They almost certainly performed other kinds of magical rites for lay people, but this is not so well documented.
These services would have been paid for, but it is not clear how much of the fee would have gone to the temple and how much to the individual priest.
Since most priests were paid with a fixed share of the temple offerings, it was in their own interests to boost temple revenues.
Chief lector priests were associated with magic throughout Egyptian history. So too were people who bore the title of Scribe of the House of Life. These were men who were trained to read, copy out, and perhaps compose, the books kept in the House of Life. Their specialist know- ledge secured them a place among royal advisers and they were some- times sent on diplomatic missions. One of the magicians in Papyrus
Westcar is described as being both a Chief Lector Priest and a Scribe of the House of Life. In a story from the Setne cycle, the king turns to a Scribe of the House of Life when confronted with the powerful magic of a Nubian sorcerer.

A real-life incident described in a tomb echoes the fiction. King Neferkara (c. 2400 BC) and his courtiers were inspecting progress on building work supervised by the vizier and chief architect, Washptah.
The king praised the building but found that his vizier was taking no notice of his words. When Washptah fell to the ground, the king thought that the vizier was prostrating himself in apology. After telling him to rise, Neferkara realized that his vizier had suffered a seizure.
The king had Washptah carried back to the palace. He sent for lector priests and doctors and had them consult books of medicine and magic.
In fiction, the lector priests usually perform miracles. In reality, their powers were more limited. The lector priests declared that there was nothing they could do for Washptah. The king showed his grief and respect by commissioning a unique ebony coffin for his vizier.
The first mention of priests of the god Heka dates to around this period. Heka was worshipped as a primeval deity at Heliopolis, Memphis, and Esna but he was not the principal god at any of these sites.
Basalt statue of the priest Hornebkhaset, 6th century BC. He was a director of Sekhmet priests, a title also held by his father. Sekhmet priests were involved in medicine and magic
During the third and early second millennia BC, most priests were only part-time. They served in temples one month in four and spent the rest of their time following another career. Some of the priests of Heka were also doctors. Hekau was a general term for anyone who used magic, but the 'Hekau of the House of Life' were probably specialists in ritual magic. People who worked in a House of Life are more likely to have been full-time priests.
In the Festival Hall of King Osorkon II (c 874—850 BC) at Bubastis, three magicians (hekaii) with scrolls in their hands are shown in a procession of learned men from Egypt's Houses of Life

The Old Testament scenes in which Pharaoh is surrounded by magicians probably reflect conditions in the early first millennium BC, rather than at the time of the exodus itself, several centuries earlier.
Another group of temple personnel associated with magic were the priests of the goddess Sekhmet
These priests often seem to have specialized in medicine. Sekhmet herself was the bringer of plague and disease and had to be propitiated by her clergy. This could involve large-scale magical rituals. The numerous statues of Sekhmet dating to the reign of Amenhotep III (c. 1390—1352 BC) seem to be the relics of such a ritual

Magico-medical texts often state that they are for the use of 'any doctor or any Sekhmet priest'. One individual is known who served as an Overseer of Magicians and an Overseer of Sekhmet priests as well as being Chief of the King's Physicians.
The Egyptian word sunu, which is usually translated as doctor or physician, covered people who used both practical medicine and magical remedies. The Egyptians did not see these two categories as opposites.
The method of treatment chosen depended largely on the diagnosis of the ultimate cause of the patient's problem
Among the gods, Thoth, Isis, and Horus can each be referred to as a sunu. The same word was used for the class of priests who supervised animal sacrifices in temples.
In the third millennium BC, doctors seem to have enjoyed a high social status. Some served at court and could afford handsome tombs, the chief indicator of success in ancient Egypt. Many held part-time priest-hoods. At this period there are a few possible examples of women doctors.
Later, the title of sunu was only used by men. From the second millennium BC, there is more evidence for doctors of lower social status.
Surviving records from Deir el-Medina show that some workmen were paid extra for medical services or allowed time off work to prepare medicines

The office ofvillage doctor seems to have been handed down in certain families. The doctoring they provided is likely to have contained elements which we would class as magical.
Another function that was usually part-time was that of scorpion charmer. The title of kherep Serqet, 'one who has power over the scorpion goddess', was sometimes held by doctors and lector priests. A few men describe themselves as 'scorpion charmer to the Lord of the Two Lands'. This may mean that they were employed by the state rather than that they protected the king himself. Some of the artists and workmen at Deir el-Medina were also scorpion charmers
The same skills were used against snakes. The scorpion charmer's role was the prevention and cure of all kinds of stings and bites. Many surviving spells relate to this problem (see further Chapter Ten). In some cases, the title may merely indicate that the holder had general magical knowledge.

In Egyptian religion, snakes and scorpions can symbolize the forces of chaos, but they were a genuine hazard of everyday life. Snakes were a particular problem in the fields at harvest-time. Scorpions lurking under rocks were a danger to stone-cutters and builders. Expeditions that went from Egypt to the turquoise mines in Sinai included scorpion charmers among their personnel. In modern Egypt, families of scorpion charmers can still be employed to clear an area of venomous reptiles and insects.
Expeditions to Sinai in the early second millennium BC might also include men with the title of sau. Sau is formed from the Egyptian verb sa 'to protect'. 'Sau of the King of Lower Egypt' are included in the procession of wise men at Bubastis. A sau might practise medicine, but such people were primarily makers of protective charms. The term is sometimes translated as 'amulet man'. It included both those who made protective objects such as amulets, and those who used spoken or written charms. 'Amulet men of Serqet' presumably specialized in anti-venom charms.

Titles such as magician, scorpion charmer, Sekhmet priest and amulet man often seem to be used interchangeably. One man might hold several of these tides. Sau is distinctive in that it can be used of women as well as men. Midwives and nurses 'made protection' for pregnant women and young children. A wooden figurine found in a seventeenth century BC tomb probably shows a female sau. She wears a lion-demon mask and holds snake wands 

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