Magicians and Priests in ancient Egypt2/2: the texts survive from ancient Egypt

Apr 5, 2011

Magicians and Priests in ancient Egypt2/2: the texts survive from ancient Egypt
Limestone stela dedicated to Ptah by a group of men who lived at Deir el-Medina, I3th century BC. One of the men, Amenmose has the title Scorpion Charmer of the Lord of the Two Lands. Part of a spell written by him survives

The texts that survive from ancient Egypt were mainly written for and about the male elite. Information about women's magic is harder to come by. A few personal letters from the late second millennium BC preserve references to women who were called rekhet— 'knowing one'.
These wise women were consulted as seers who could get in touch with the dead.
A magical text of the late first millennium BC features a wise woman who is able to diagnose what is wrong with a sick child


The idea seems to be that the woman can sense which evil spirit or deity is responsible. These wise women may have taken on the role of 'seer' after their childbearing years were over.
There may have been an equivalent office in some temples. At the temple of Cusae (Meir), the goddess Hathor was worshipped in her sevenfold form. The Seven Hathors were thought to visit every child on the seventh night after its birth to declare what its fate would be in life.
One text refers to seven old women serving in this temple.6 It is possible that they were consulted as seers who could foretell a person's fate.
Wooden figurine with moveable arms holding metal serpents, c. 1700 BC. This represents the lioness-demon Beset, or a woman playing her role in a magical rite. The figurine was found with a cache of magical objects and papyri in a tomb under the Ramesseum at Thebes
Very little is known about whether priestesses participated in ritual magic in temples. Literacy, which was much less common in women than in men, may have formed one obstacle. Another was the requirement of ritual purity. Sexual intercourse with a woman was thought to make a man unfit for temple service and menstruating women were considered to be 'unclean'. It remains possible that some women took on the role of goddesses in temple magic. It is known that in the late first millennium Be a pair of young twin sisters were paid to play the roles of the sister goddesses Isis and Nephthys in the elaborate funerary rites of the sacred Apis bull at Memphis.7 This required them to learn and perform long speeches or songs.



The female dead were certainly credited with dangerous magical powers and protective spells betray a fear of the magic of foreign women, particularly Nubians. Foreign sorcerers are also listed as a threat, but within Egypt itself evidence for a belief in witches is remark-ably lacking. The nearest equivalents were possessors of the Evil Eye.
Amulet of a kind used by magicians in the Roman Period. The figure shown is either
Anubis or Seth, both powerful protectors against evil forces. On the other three sides of this steatite amulet are the infant god Harpocrates, a snake, and a word of power based on the name of the Jewish god
This power of 'ill-looking' people was usually attributed to persons of malicious or envious temperament. 'May you not meet with the Evil Eye' became a standard greeting by the end of the period of Greek rule.
The contents of magical papyri from Roman Egypt suggest that by this period there were probably professional magicians who had no links with the temples. These people would perform any kind of magic for payment, including curses, spells to break up marriages, and death charms. The ritual magicians trained in the Houses of Life would have been respected members of society, but the secular magicians were probably feared and disliked. Roman law banned many of their activities, so the profession was forced to become intensely secretive.
Ordinary Egyptians may always have had ambivalent feelings about people who had access to magical power. Although doctors and scorpion charmers and amulet men appear in the surviving sources to be entirely benevolent, Egyptian literature presents a more disturbing view of some types of magician. Protective inscriptions on tombs show that lector priests were thought to have knowledge of fatal curses. It is unlikely that such people never abused their position for personal gain or enjoyment of the power it gave them over their fellows.
A scribe called Qenherkhepshef, who was in charge of administration at Deir el-Medina in the late thirteenth/early twelfth centuries BC, owned a book of dream interpretations that advocated using protective spells on waking from a nightmare. Among his other possessions were a written charm against demons and a headrest decorated with magical protectors

The villagers do not seem to have liked or trusted Qenherkhepshef as they did other scribes. Whether or not it was his esoteric knowledge that made him unpopular, Qenherkhepshef is a good example of the type of person who used magic in a private capacity.
Any literate person of scholarly pretensions was likely to include magical texts in his library. At this stage in intellectual development, all branches of learning were closely related. Magic, along with architecture and engineering, was one of the skills of which any leader might be expected to have knowledge. Local governors, and officials leading mining expeditions, sometimes boast in inscriptions of their skill at healing people.
Tomb reliefs of the twenty-fourth to the nineteenth centuries BC show agricultural activities presided over by elderly foremen who some- times make a magical gesture of protection towards their workers or animals
The dialogue attached to these scenes can include simple charms to protect livestock and people on land or in the water In a story which may go back to the early second millennium BC, a group of herdsmen are grazing their cattle in water meadows when their leader sees what he takes to be a female demon in the lake. He wishes to leave for home, but some of the other herdsmen argue that their knowledge of 'water charms' will protect them.






It has been suggested that even these foremen and herdsmen must have been part-time priests who got their 'knowledge of things' from temple books.
However, the way in which these people are shown in the tomb reliefs  does not suggest that they were of sufficient status to belong to even the lowest ranks of the priesthood. This kind of basic magic may have been passed down orally, perhaps within particular families.
The majority of ancient Egyptians were illiterate peasant farmers, but this does not necessarily mean that their beliefs were simple.
A study of village life in rural Egypt made at the beginning of this century by the anthropologist Winifrid Blackman revealed the fellahin (peasants) to have very complex beliefs. The villagers spent a surprisingly high proportion of their meagre incomes on spells, amulets and rituals purchased from women and men with specialized magical knowledge.
Line drawing of a painted relief in the tomb chapel of the Nomarch Senbi at Meir, 20th century BC:. On the far left a man- makes a magical gesture to protect a newborn calf.
Herdsmen are credited with magical knowledge in several Egyptian texts
In ancient Egypt too, every community would have had someone familiar with an oral tradition of magic.
A much smaller group of people would have had access to the more prestigious tradition of written magic. The majority of these would have held some priesdy office, but this was not essential. Magicians and priests probably overlap, as much because literacy was the key factor as because of the links between temple and private magic. The number of those using or owning written magic seems to have increased consider-ably in the first millennium BC, by which time the priesthood had become an hereditary caste. It is clear that while many categories of people used magic, magicians were not a class apart until the very last stages of Pharaonic culture. Having introduced the personnel of magic, the deities, spirits, demons and magicians, the next chapters explore how magic was worked.

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