Myth and Magic in ancient Egyptian culture

Apr 3, 2011

Myth and Magic in ancient Egyptian culture
The god Horus spears a manifestation of the god Seth. The hippopotamus of Seth is shown as very small because it was thought to be dangerous to depict evil powers. Relief in the ambulatory of the temple of Horus at Edfu, early 1st century BC
Myth and magic are closely interwoven in Egyptian culture. Certain mythical events recur as the framework for spells or inspire the symbolism of magical figurines and amulets. A knowledge of the major myths is an essential preliminary for understanding Egyptian magic. The deities who were the focus of cult worship and personal devotion did not all have a rich mythology. The gods and goddesses who were prominent in myth correspond more closely with the deities who were important in Egyptian magic.
The striking visual images of the deities of ancient Egypt are very well known; the myths about them much less so. Egyptian religious art and literature is full of allusions to myth but long mythical narratives are comparatively rare. Egyptian religion had no official body of scriptures and there seems to have been no standard collection of important national myths. Our knowledge of Egyptian mythology has to be pieced together from a variety of sources.
The surviving temples seem the obvious source, but they are not necessarily the best one. The temples built in the south (Upper Egypt) are better preserved than those of the north (Lower Egypt), so less is known about deities whose main cult centres were in the north. For much of the third millennium BC, the biggest and most elaborate temples were those dedicated to dead kings. In the second millennium BC, many large and magnificent temples were built for the gods and goddesses of the Egyptian pantheon. Officially, the king was high priest of all these state-run temples.

The scenes and texts on the walls largely concentrate on the relationship between the deity and the king. The daily liturgy was designed to persuade deities to manifest themselves in the statues kept in the holy of holies and to bestow blessings on king, people and country.
The temples celebrate the eternal power and serene benevolence of the gods.
In myth, the gods are more vulnerable. They are subject to passions and emotions, they quarrel, fight, and even die. This vulnerability was largely taboo in Egyptian art. The power of words and images was greatly increased when they were carved in stone to last for eternity.
A magical stela showing the divine child, Horus the Saviour, triumphing over dangerous animals, c. 6th—3rd centuries BC. Among the surrounding deities are Heka (3rd row, 2nd left), Isis the Saviour (5th row, left), and Serqet, the scorpion goddess
A terrible event, such as the murder of the good god Osiris, was too dangerous to show. Portraying even a temporary triumph for the forces of evil or chaos might empower them to act in the world.

The rules governing what was depicted and written on temple walls changed somewhat during the first millennium BC. The temple of Hibis, begun while the Persians were occupying Egypt in the late sixth century BC, depicts an extraordinary range of mythical beings in its reliefs. The great temples constructed under Greek and Roman rule, such as Den-dera, Esna and Edfu, are inscribed with elaborate texts dealing with both creation and conflict.
A sequence of reliefs and inscriptions at Edfu tells of the struggle between the forces of order, represented by the god Horus, and the forces of chaos, represented by the god Seth.
The Great Cat cuts up the chaos serpent, Apep. The Great Cat was a form of the sun god, Ra. Funerary papyrus of a Theban priestess, c. 9 5 0 BC
The evil manifestations of Seth are shown on a tiny scale compared with the commanding figures of the god Horus and his mother Isis
From the artistic point of view, the effect is ridiculous, but good had to be shown as triumphant.
Evil had to be shown as bound to fail. Reducing the power of the enemy by reducing his scale was a magical technique as well as an artistic convention.
Statues and stelae set up in temples by private individuals are another source of information on myth. Such objects can be inscribed with hymns to individual deities or with accounts of religious festivals.
Certain types of temple stela or statue, mainly of the first millennium BC, are inscribed with magical texts that incorporate mythical narratives These texts seem to have been adapted from book-scrolls kept in temple libraries.
In the first millennium BC, temple libraries might include collections of local myths. A scroll now known as Papyrus Jumilhac contains the myths of one district of Upper Egypt, as well as magic rituals closely related to these myths. Rituals based on myth were a very ancient phenomenon in Egyptian culture. One such ritual for defeating Apep, the monstrous serpent who personified chaos and evil, may go back as far as the early second millennium BC.
A copy of the ritual as performed at Karnak temple survives in a manuscript of the fourth century BC, now in the British Museum . In this Book of Overthrowing Apep, the script includes passages in which various gods describe the creation of the cosmos and the daily struggle of order against chaos. These 'secret books' have to be put alongside the liturgy displayed on temple walls, to get a fuller picture of what went on in temples and of what the Egyptians believed about their world.
The scripts for secret temple rituals tend to survive only when they were adapted, or simply purloined, for use as funerary texts.
Gold amulet showing the god Thoth in his ibis-headed form holding the divine wedjat eye, c. 10 th century BC
Funerary literature is probably the richest source for Egyptian myth. It consists of texts intended to help the dead. These were inscribed in tombs and funerary chapels or on papyri or items of burial equipment. Such texts were often composed or copied by temple staff.
The oldest surviving collection of funerary literature is known as The
Pyramid Texts. These are the spells or incantations which were inscribed inside royal pyramid-tombs from the twenty-fourth to the twenty-second centuries BC. Many of these texts may already have been centuries old when they were first inscribed on stone. Some were probably composed specifically for royal funerals; some seem to be versions of rituals used during the lifetime of the king; while others may have been adapted from everyday magic and were not royal in origin.
The Pyramid Texts were designed to help the deceased king overcome the great crisis of physical death and achieve rebirth amongst the gods.
In this context, it was permissible to concentrate on crises in the lives of the gods. The Pyramid Texts do not contain long narratives, but they do refer to numerous mythical events and to the complex and sometimes hostile relations between deities. The process of the king's assimilation to the gods was mainly achieved by ritually identifying him with various deities. This type of identification forms the basis of much Egyptian magic.
Part of the granite sarcophagus made for King Nectanebo 11, c. 345 BC. The sarcophagus is inscribed with 'The Book of What is in the Underworld'. Heka is among the deities shown in the boat of the sun god as it travels through the Underworld
By the end of the third millennium BC, a new body of funerary literature, known as The Coffin Texts, was being used in the burials of wealthy officials. The Coffin Texts include a few passages which could be described as mythical narratives. One such passage gives an account of how the world will end when the creator god becomes too weary to continue. In the hymns used in temples, the power of the gods usually appears to be limitless and eternal. In funerary literature, the universecan be subject to a cycle of decay, death, and renewal.
The earliest versions of the texts known as the Egyptian Book of the Dead have been found on royal shrouds and funerary equipment of the seventeenth century BC. Some of these spells were derived from The Coffin Texts, others were new. Selections from The Book of the Dead written on papyrus soon began to be included in the burials of important people outside the royal family (figs 2, 15). No one copy contains the full range of spells or the illustrations that went with them. The Book of the Dead has fewer mythological passages than The Coffin Texts and places more emphasis on the progress of the individual soul through the realm of the dead. The illustrations to The Book of the Dead became increasingly important and were sometimes copied onto the walls of royal and private tombs.
Bronze figurine of the goddess Isis suckling her son, Horus, 7th-4th centuries BC. Isis wears the sun-disc and cow's horns earlier associated with the goddess Hathor
By the mid-second millennium BC, the rulers of Egypt were being buried in rock-cut tombs in the Valley of the Kings at Thebes. The decoration of these tombs included scenes and texts describing the Duat- the Egyptian underworld which contained the realm of the dead.
These appear to have been copied from 'Underworld Books' kept in temple libraries. Some of these books may also have been used as the basis for secret rituals performed in temples. The Underworld Books are the primary source for solar mythology, but the myths are presented in visual images with captions rather than in connected narratives.
From the end of the second millennium BC, burials of wealthy people from priestly families often included a copy of The Book of the Dead and a highly illustrated version of one of the royal Underworld Books. The mythical imagery of the latter became increasingly bizarre and complex.
A revised edition of The Book of the Dead was used from the seventh century BC onwards and new funerary texts, such as The Book of Breathing, appeared in the late first millennium BC.
People were sometimes buried with papyri that they had owned and used in life. Private individuals might possess ethical and literary works, books of dream interpretations and calendars of lucky and unlucky days
Days were categorized according to the mythical events said to have happened on them. A day on which two gods had fought each other was regarded as unlucky, a day on which a god had been born was fortunate.

Popular tales sometimes used themes from myth and were often about magicians. The secular skill of storytelling and episodes from myth come together in everyday magic. Many of the surviving mythical narratives from ancient Egypt form part of spells. These spells range from elaborate rituals to protect the king and state down to remedies for such mundane problems as headaches and minor burns.

The first examples of everyday spells which include brief mythical narratives date to the early second millenium BC. In these spells, the person to be protected or helped is identified with the protagonists of a suitable myth. This act of identification transfers a human problem to the sphere of the gods, so that cosmic forces such as heka can be used to resolve it.
By the late second millennium BC, the mythical element in spells could take the form of a skilfully told story. Some scholars regard the myths embedded in magical or funerary texts as artificial constructs that cannot count as 'real' mythology. This assumes that there is such a thing as pure mythology. In Egyptian culture at least, all the surviving myths serve particular purposes, such as royal propaganda or the transfiguration of the dead.
As early as The Coffin Texts, some myths are laid out like dramas with speaking parts and a connecting narrative. Magical statues and stelae of the first millennium BC are inscribed with texts in which deities express powerful emotions in dramatic language

Drama has often developed out of a culture's religion, but in Egypt the stimulus seems to be magic. The religion of the temple cults did not need to make itself more accessible or interesting to individual Egyptians. The cult was concerned in a rather abstract way with the good of the community as a whole. Magic spells, on the other hand, were usually intended to be relevant to the crises of individual lives. Engaging the emotions through dramatization of a myth was part of the process by which magic worked to heal, to protect or, sometimes, to intimidate.
Drawing on all the sources outlined above, it is possible to reconstruct many of the major events of Egyptian myth. Some myths exist in several versions, with the main roles played by different deities. This is particularly true of myths dealing with the 'First Time', the episodes leading up to the formation of the Egyptian cosmos. Important religious centres identified their local god with the creator, but did not try to suppress other identifications.
Nearly all versions agree on beginning with the Nun, the waters of chaos. Various aspects of this primeval state, such as darkness and formlessness, were represented by four divine couples known as the Ogdoad. The identity of the deities who made up this group varied, but they always numbered eight. The Ogdoad were worshipped at a place known to the Egyptians as Khemenu (Eight Town) and to the Greeks as Hermopolis. This was the main cult centre of the moon god Thoth, whom the Greeks identified with Hermes (frontispiece).

The Ogdoad came together to form a cosmic egg which was fertilized by the god Amon in serpent form. In other versions of the myth, the cosmic egg was laid by Amon in his goose form or perhaps by Thoth in ibis form. The creator sun god was hatched from this egg, so Hermopolis claimed to be the site of the first sunrise. Like other sacred sites to which creation myths were attached, Hermopolis was famous as a centre of magical knowledge. The creator sun god might also appear as a shining child inside a lotus growing in the primeval waters. At the ancient city of Heliopolis he was pictured as a heron alighting on the first mound of land to rise above the Nun. A creation myth which names Ptah, the god of crafts, as the creator is rather more cerebral. This version seems to have originated in Memphis, the capital of ancient
Egypt. It was inscribed on stone in the reign of King Shabako in the late eighth century BC. Shabako claimed that this text was copied from an ancient, worm-eaten, leather scroll found in a temple library. Some Egyptologists think that this 'Memphite theology' may go back as far as the early third millennium BC,1 but much of it is very similar to accounts of creation found in the late first millennium BC Book of Overthrowing Apep.
The god Seth is adored by the craftsman, Aapehty. Limestone stela from Deir el Medina, 13th century BC
In the Memphite theology, Ptah is identified with the first land that rises out of the primeval waters. Ptah becomes aware of his loneliness and creates other deities from his divine essence. He does this by the 'thoughts of his heart and the words of his mouth'. The Egyptians thought of the heart as the seat of intelligence. Ptah imagines other beings in his heart and wills them into existence. The spoken word, the power of creative utterance, is an essential part of summoning gods and people into being. The magician constantly sought to emulate this power.
The Memphite theology also incorporates a creation myth centred on the god Atum-Ra, whose cult centre was at Heliopolis. Atum-Ra is alone on the primeval mound in the middle of the darkness of the Nun. The creator is undivided, containing both male and female. He has generated himself and can bring forth new life. Atum takes his phallus in his hand and produces semen. From this divine seed comes the first divine couple, the air god Shu and the moisture goddess Tefnut. In a variant of this myth, Atum-Ra produces them from his spittle.
These two deities go out to explore the darkness of the Nun and are lost to their father Atum-Ra. He takes his divine eye from his forehead and sends it after them. This solar eye was identified with the disc of the sun. It could take the form of various goddesses who were regarded as daughters of Ra. The most important of these are Hathor, Sekhmet and Wadjyt.

The solar eye lit up the darkness of the Nun. Shu and Tefnut returned with the 'Eye Goddess'. In their absence, Atum-Ra had grown another eye. The Eye Goddess was furiously jealous. Ra pacified her by placing her on his brow as a protective cobra to spit fire at his enemies. Atum-Ra used the sweat of his body to make other deities, but humanity sprang from the tears of joy wept by the creator when he was reunited with his children.
Another tradition had the ram god Khnum make mankind from river clay. The chief sanctuary of Khnum was on the island of Elephantine at Aswan, where he controlled the annual inundation of the Nile that gave life to Egypt. Khnum shaped people on his potter's wheel and breathed life into them. He also made a ka, a vital force in the form of a double, for each person.
Shu and Tefnut were lovers as well as brother and sister. They produced two children: Nut, the sky goddess, and Geb, the earth god. Nut and Geb embraced so closely that it was impossible for anything to exist between them, or for the children conceived by Nut to be born.
The air god Shu forced his son and daughter apart and held Nut high above the earth, so that her body became the starry heavens
Nut was then able to give birth to four children, Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys
In some versions there was a fifth child, known as Horus the Elder.

The world was soon peopled by deities, spirits and demons, but the Egyptian cosmos was not secure. The struggle between chaos and order was continuous and Ra needed the Eye Goddess to defend him.
One myth relates how the Eye Goddess left Egypt in a fit of jealous anger and went south to live in the deserts of Nubia (modern Sudan). She dwelt there in the form of a lioness or a wild cat. Ra needed her back and sent a divine messenger to persuade her to come home. In the earlier versions of the myth, this role is given to Shu, or the god Anhur 'He who brings back the distant one'. Later, it was the god Thoth who played messenger.
Disguised as a baboon, Thoth lured the goddess back by talking of Egypt and by telling fables about the power of Ra. When they returned to Egypt, the Eye Goddess was transformed into a series of benevolent deities. She was reunited with her father, Ra, at Heliopolis and resumed her role as the defender of the sun god.
In a magical text called The Book of the Heavenly Cow, the enemies of Ra are rebellious humanity. This book is inscribed on one of the Golden Shrines of King Tutankhamun (c. 1336 - 1327 BC) and on the walls of some other royal tombs.2 According to this text, the sun god once lived on earth, as a king over gods and people. Ra had become old, so that his bones were like silver, his flesh like gold, and his hair like lapis lazuli.

Humanity began to plot against Ra. When he learned about their rebellion, the sun god summoned his solar eye, and Shu, Tefnut, Geb, Nut, and the Ogdoad who had been with him in the primeval waters. Ra told them how the creatures who had sprung from his own eye were plotting against him. He asked the advice of Nun, the most ancient of beings. Nun replied that the most fitting punishment was to send the
Eye Goddess, Hathor, against them. Hathor found the conspirators in the desert. She slaughtered them and drank their blood. This was how the terrible lioness Sekhmet came into being (fig. 75). The Eye Goddess returned to Ra at nightfall, intending to kill the rest of humanity on the following day. Ra decided to save them. He sent his shadow messengers to fetch red stone from Elephantine. He ordered the High Priest of Heliopolis to grind the red stone and use it to dye seven thousand jars of beer. When the beer was poured onto the ground it looked like a lake of blood.
At daybreak, the goddess came to kill humanity. She caught sight of her reflection in the beer and thought it beautiful. She lapped up the whole lake and became so drunk that she forgot her orders to kill.
Ra welcomed her back as his beautiful daughter, but pain and death had come into being. Ra had saved the remnant of humanity, but he was too weary to continue as king and desired to return to the primeval waters.
Nun ordered the goddess Nut to turn herself into a cow and take Ra on her back. She carried him high above the earth and became the sky.
Ra created the stars and the fields of paradise. The limbs of Nut began to shake because she was so high, so Shu and the eight Heh gods supported her. Ra ordered the earth god Geb to beware of the magical powers of the beings living under the earth. He appointed Osiris to be king over humanity, and the moon god, Thoth, to be his viceroy.
Thoth was to light the sky at night while Ra was passing through the underworld.
The good god Osiris ruled on earth with his wise sister Isis as his consort. Osiris and Isis were said to have fallen in love in the womb. The reign of Osiris was a golden age but it was not destined to last long. Seth was jealous of his brother's power and decided to murder Osiris.

According to various traditions, Seth took the form of a bull, a hippopotamus or a crocodile, to attack his brother and throw him in the Nile.
Isis and her sister Nephthys searched for the body. When they found it, Isis used her magic powers to reverse the effects of decay. Anubis, the jackal god of embalming, made Osiris into the first mummy
A tradition grew up that Seth had torn the body to pieces. In some versions of the myth, Isis joined the pieces together by her magic; in others she buried each piece where she found it.
While the two goddesses were watching over the body, Isis was able to revive Osiris for just long enough to conceive a child by him. An alternative tradition had the goddess miraculously impregnated by divine fire. As soon as she knew that she was pregnant with the egg that would hatch a divine child, Isis fled to the marshes of the Nile Delta.
She feared that Seth would try to kill the posthumous son of Osiris, so she hid amongst the papyrus growing on the floating island of Chemmis.

A group of friendly deities, including the cow goddess Hathor, and the scorpion goddess Serqet (fig. 7), attended the birth of the god Horus.
They helped Isis to nourish and protect Horus during his childhood in the marshes. Various dangers threatened the infant god. In the earliest versions of the myth, the young Horus miraculously defeated snakes sent against him
Later tradition made him more vulnerable and had Horus poisoned by snakes or scorpions. Isis persuaded the sun god that her son must be saved and Thoth was sent to heal him.
When Horus grew up, he was determined to avenge his father. He put his case to a divine tribunal presided over by Ra or Geb. Horus claimed that he was entitled to succeed his father as king and that Seth was a usurper. Horus was supported by Isis, Thoth and Anubis, but the gods found it difficult to decide the case. The quarrel between Horus and Seth sometimes took the form of a violent conflict. In one episode, Horus wounded Seth in the testicles and Seth damaged or tore out the left eye of Horus.
In his cosmic form, Horus was a sky falcon whose right eye was the sun and whose left eye was the moon. When Seth damaged the lunar eye, Thoth restored it to wholeness. The lunar eye was thereafter known as the wedjat or sound eye

After many indecisive battles between Horus and Seth, Horus was declared the victor by the divine tribunal. Horus was crowned king and carried out the funeral rites of his father. By raising the sacred djed pillar (fig. 54) and by using the power of his wedjat eye, Horus helped Osiris to resurrection in the Duat. Osiris became the king of the underworld and the judge of the dead.
As compensation for abandoning his claim to the throne, Seth was given two goddesses as wives. He was also allowed to live in the sky with Ra and be the god of thunder and desert storms. The strength of Seth was needed by the gods at the most dangerous point in the cosmic cycle.

Each morning, the sun was reborn from the sky goddess, Nut. The sun god crossed the sky in his Day Boat accompanied by protective deities.
At nightfall, Ra was swallowed by Nut and journeyed through the underworld in his Night Boat. This was sometimes called the Boat of Millions, because of the numerous deities, demons and spirits of the blessed dead who accompanied the sun god
They were all needed to defend the sun against the terrible forces of chaos and evil gathered in the dark caverns of the underworld.
At the midpoint of the night, the rays of the sun woke the sleeping dead and revived Osiris. After a brief, mystical union between Ra and Osiris, the Night Boat moved on. Before it could reach the end of the caverns, the boat was attacked by the great chaos serpent Apep. It was at this point that the strength and magic of Seth were needed. When all the enemies of Ra had been overcome, the sun was transformed into
Khepri, the winged scarab, and dawn brought the renewal of life for all creation.

Apart from the events of the First Time, the Egyptians were not much concerned with placing their myths in a chronological framework.
They were more interested in linking them to regional geography. The account given above does not correspond with any single Egyptian source and draws together myths of widely differing dates. It does, however, serve to introduce many of the deities and events which are found in magical texts.
A number of the deities involved in these central myths were specifically linked to magic. Heka himself appears in the boat of the sun god, along with, or instead of, two other personified forces: Hu 'creative utterance' and Sia 'perception'

Heka sometimes changes roles with Shu, the oldest son of the creator. Heka is occasionally shown holding the earth and sky apart instead of Shu, while in the first millennium BC Shu was increasingly credited with magic powers that renewed the cosmos.3 Heka can also be shown behind the throne of Osiris (fig. 2). All these roles stress the centrality of Heka in the Egyptian cosmos. Heka was one of the forces that held the universe together and brought life into being.
The god who possessed the power of heka more than any other male deity was Thoth. His temple at Hermopolis had a library which was famous for its ancient records and books of magic. Thoth was said to be the inventor of both magic and writing and he was the patron deity of scribes
Thoth was particularly associated with the hieroglyphic script, for which the Egyptian name was 'the divine words'.
In the regional myths collected in Papyrus Jumilhac, the incantations of Thoth feature as a powerful weapon on the side of order. Although he was sometimes regarded as a creator deity in his own right, Thoth usually exercised his magical powers on behalf of the creator sun god.
Thoth was linked in myth with two potent images of power used in magic, the sun eye and the moon eye. The two are often treated as identical in Egyptian myth and both may be shown as a wedjat eye
The image of the Thoth baboon beside a wedjat eye occurs on magic wands as early the twentieth century BC. The goddesses who could embody the solar eye also had an important role in magic, but were a dangerous force. The lioness Sekhmet, who personified the most destructive aspects of solar energy, was invoked in magic rituals to protect the state.

The lunar eye that Thoth restored to Horus was in general use as a protective amulet, both for the living and the dead
The wounding of Horus is a constant theme in magical texts. Horus has a double role in magic as both victim and saviour. In many healing spells, the sick or injured patient is identified with the wounded Horus. Yet Horus is also a god who uses his magical powers on behalf of people. He has titles such as 'the good doctor' and Horus pa shed— 'the Saviour' or 'the Enchanter'.4 Living Egyptian kings were identified more closely with Horus than with any other deity. Horus partakes of human nature in his vulnerability, but he also seems to represent the powers given to humanity to defend itself and establish the rule of order.
Isis, the mother of Horus, plays a dominant role in magic. As early as The Pyramid Texts, she was credited with extraordinary magical powers which were able to reverse or prevent the decay of her husband's body.
She features in numerous spells throughout the second millennium BC. In spite of her prominence in myth and magic, she tended to play a secondary role in cults. No major temples were dedicated to Isis before the late first millennium BC. In magical texts she appears as a popular goddess, sympathetic towards the humblest members of society.
Of all Egyptian deities, she was the one most closely associated with the kind of suffering experienced by the majority of humanity.
Isis could also be given the epithet 'The Saviour' indicating her willingness and ability to help individuals through her magic. 'Great of Magic' (hekd) is one of this goddess's most frequent epithets and she is often referred to as using her akhu. By the late first millennium BC, when ritual magic was playing a more open part in temple cults, Isis appears with her son Horus 'overcoming the Followers of Seth by spells'. The famous temple of Isis at Philae was built on an island close to the Egyptian border. It was probably intended to act as a magical protective barrier. The danger of both physical and supernatural invasions from Nubia was to be countered by Isis who was 'more powerful than a thousand soldiers'.

Similar epithets are given to Isis in a twelfth century BC: manuscript known as the Turin Magical Papyrus. One anti-venom spell in this collection incorporates the story of how Isis acquired her supremacy in magic.
This myth seems to be set in the period before the rebellion of humanity, when Ra was still living on earth.

Isis was a wise woman who was familiar with millions of gods and spirits. There was nothing in heaven and earth that she did not know, except the secret name of the sun god, Ra. Isis decided to find out the name of the highest of the gods. Ra had become old. His limbs trembled and he sometimes dribbled. When Ra's saliva fell to earth, Isis mixed it with clay. She made a snake and animated it with her magic. Isis hid the snake near the path taken by Ra each day.
Ra left his palace to walk through the land. The magic snake bit the-highest of the gods and then disappeared. Ra cried out. The gods who were with him asked what had happened. Ra could not answer at first.
He trembled as the venom penetrated his body as the Nile irrigates the land. He was blinded by the poison. Ra could not identify what had poisoned him, so he ordered the deities who were the most skilled in magic to attend him. Isis diagnosed that Ra had been bitten and claimed that she needed to know his name in order to cure him.
Ra told her that he was the god who had created heaven and earth and that it was he who made the Nile rise. Darkness fell when he closed his eyes, and it became light when he opened them again. His names were Khepri in the morning, Ra at midday, and Atum at evening.
The venom continued to circulate and Isis said that Ra's true name was not con-
tained in what he had told her. The fiery pain became unbearable, so Ra allowed knowledge of his name to pass from his body to hers. Then Isis, the great magician, conjured the venom out of Ra.

The alleged 'true name of Ra' is not revealed in the course of the spell. Such knowledge may have been passed down orally. When such names were written down it was usually in a disguised form. Another story in which the ability to work magic is dependent on the knowledge of a being's true essence is told in a less elaborate spell in the same papyrus.
In this instance, Seth is the god who is suffering and Horus the Elder is the one who offers to cure him. Horus says, 'One is able to work magic for a person by means of their name'. Blustering Seth calls himself by grand names belonging to other deities. He claims to be 'Yesterday and Tomorrow' and 'Pot of milk that flows from the breast of Bastet'. Horus dismisses these and other names. Eventually, Seth admits that his name is 'the evil day on which nothing can be conceived or born'. This name expresses Seth's true nature, so Horus can then work his magic.
The spell requires the human patient to be identified with Seth, in spite of this god's bad reputation. Seth was a force of chaos, but it was not until a late stage in Egyptian culture that he was seen as totally evil.
In the Underworld Books, Seth defends Ra against Apep. One badly preserved myth tells how the strength and cunning of Seth were needed to save the goddess Astarte from a sea god who was demanding her as tribute.

Seth sometimes seems representative of the worst human, or at least masculine, qualities. An Egyptian manuscript of the thirteenth century BC contrasts the reserved man, who is wise, patient and in control of his emotions, with the drunken 'Sethian man' who is full of anger and lust.
Seth's unrestrained sexual behaviour is often mentioned in spells and stories. A headache remedy relates how Seth was punished for inappropriate lust by having his own semen rush to his forehead and cause him agony. Isis is called in to cure Seth at the command of Ra.
Even in the period when Seth had a role akin to that of the devil, he might be invoked in magic. One of the basic principles of Egyptian magic was that like should be fought with like. When something dangerous and chaotic had to be overcome, a being who possessed those qualities needed to be enlisted on your side. The chaos monster Apep never seems to be used in this way, but protective serpents are common.
In the same way that the gods utilized Seth's strength and energy to overcome Apep's attack on the Sun Boat, a magician might harness Seth's power to overcome troublesome demons.
Specific attributes of Seth could be isolated and used in a positive way. Seth was associated with rape and unnatural sex, which to the Egyptians seems to have meant intercourse that could not result in conception.
Gems engraved with images of Seth appear to have been worn in Roman Egypt to seal the womb to prevent miscarriage or to stop heavy menstrual bleeding.
One interpretation of these gems is that the sexual aggression of Seth was invoked to frighten the womb into staying closed until the proper time.
This is just one example of the complex role of deities in magic. An intimate knowledge of Egyptian myth was required by those who practised such magic. That knowledge had to extend beyond the major deities of the Egyptian pantheon to a wide range of supernatural beings.


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