Ancient Egypt Magical Techniques

May 3, 2011

Ancient Egypt Magical Techniques
Part of a calendar showing which days were particularly lucky or unlucky, 13th century BC The classification of the days was based on events in myth. 
Words were only one component of a magical rite. The actions that accompanied the words, and the objects or ingredients used in the rite were equally important. When the actions are not specified in the rubrics, they can sometimes reconstructed by examining similar magic in other cultures. Except in undisturbed tombs, it is rare to find the archaeological remains of an act of magic.
Many objects that survive in museums may once have been used in magical rites, but because their context has been lost this goes unrecognized.
Before such rites even began, a suitable day or hour had to be decided on and the magician had to be in a proper state of preparation. Calendars of lucky and unlucky days may have been used to determine the most auspicious day to work a spell for a private person. Rituals carried out in temples were tied in with the calendar of religious festivals.


From the first millennium BC onwards, the moon was given increasing importance in magic. The appropriate stage in the lunar cycle is sometimes specified in the rubric. The exact hour might be chosen to fit with the mythology used in a spell, so that rites invoking forms of the sun god usually took place at first light. Dawn was the most favorable time for magical operations because it was the moment of cosmic renewal. Spells against the dangers of the night were performed at dusk.

Some rubrics specify that the magician must be pure. This means in the same state of ritual purity demanded of a serving priest. Although most priests were married, they were not allowed to have sex with their wives on, or immediately before, the days when they were serving in the sanctuary. Bodily fluids such as semen and blood were regarded as unclean. Menstruating women were considered so impure that even to touch one accidentally could render a man unfit for ritual duties. This meant that pre-menopausal women were unable to engage in religious or magical rites for part of each month.
Ritual purity was attained by refraining from forbidden activities, such as eating pork or fish; by avoiding impure people, animals and sub-stances; and by cleansing the body in every possible way. Male circumcision seems to have been a requirement of purity at some periods.
Shaving off all the head and body hair was another. These rules were not always kept. The king had many ritual duties, but surviving royal mummies show that not all kings were circumcised and that most retained their natural hair.
Purity certainly involved complicated ablutions. In temples there were sacred lakes or pools for priests to bathe in and water was poured over them in the 'House of Morning'. Officiating priests were even required to rinse out their mouths with a solution of water and natron —the salt compound used in mummification. Clean linen clothes and new sandals made from reeds or palm fibres were put on after washing.
Ivory apostrophic wand 19th 18th centuries BC The wand was broken in antiquity and then lashed together with cords. The beings shown include Seth Beset and Taweret
Wool and leather were both deemed to be impure.
The area where a rite was to take place was also purified. The floor was sprinkled with water and swept with a special broom. A layer of clean sand might be spread and the area was fumigated with incense smoke.
Smoke may have been thought of as cleansing because it killed insects.
'Smoke baths' are still enjoyed in parts of North Africa today, particularly before a major life event such as marriage. The aim of all these preparations was to demarcate a sacred zone, both in a physical area and in the body of the officiant. Within this zone, chronological time had no meaning. The efficient could return to the First Time and tap the energies of creation.
Many of these purity requirements can be found in the rubrics to spells, since the magician was also creating a sacred zone for protective or healing purposes. Spells in the Graeco-Egyptian papyri sometimes state that the magician must not have had sex for three or seven days before attempting the rite. A purification period lasting seven or nine days is quite often mentioned for temple and funerary magic. The rubrics to the spells in The Book of the Heavenly Cow state that the officiant should have washed in water from the Nile flood and have cleansed his ears and mouth with natron. He is to be dressed in new clothes and white sandals, anointed with perfumed oils, and carrying an incense burner.
How far a village magician would have carried out these elaborate purity requirements is unknown, but probably all practitioners of magic made some efforts in this direction.
In The Book of the Heavenly Cow, the officiant is to have a figure of the goddess Maat painted on his tongue. Maat was the goddess who personified truth and justice. The purpose of this uncomfortable requirement was to ensure that the magician's words were true and would therefore bring what they described into being. In other cases, figures were drawn on the skin of the magician or his client to provide a 'body' for a protective deity to enter. From the first millennium BC onwards, it became common for magical papyri to include illustrations of the complex divine figures that were to be drawn onto skin, linen or papyrus

The act of making an image of these deities or demons was as important a part of the invocation as the spoken summons.
Earlier spells mention the same technique but do not illustrate the images. By their very nature, drawings on scraps of papyrus and small pieces of linen are unlikely to survive. Even more transitory were the drawings on sand or the earthen floors of houses which are mentioned in some rubrics. Drawings on potsherds or flakes of stone have a better chance of survival and some drawings on ostraca probably are relics of magical acts

One class of object that does survive in vast quantities is the amulet.
Amulets were extensively used in everyday magic to protect both the magician and his client
Other categories of magical object are less well known. Wands of power seem to have been used both to protect and control. In the Book of Exodus, Moses, Aaron and
Pharaoh's magicians are all able to turn rods into live snakes. Serpent wands are sometimes shown in the hands of dancers masked like Bes or Beset
A few bronze examples survive
These wands can probably be linked with Weret-Hekau 'the great of magic'. Weret-Hekau was one of the manifestations of the solar eye, the goddess who protected the creator sun god.
Snake decoration, solar eyes, and occasionally the name of Weret- Hekau, also appear on the model throwsticks found in some burials. A spell in The Coffin Texts makes it clear that such throwsticks were to be used by the deceased to defend himself against demons. Demons were associated in Egyptian symbolism with flocks of wild birds. Objects used to catch or kill birds, such as throwsticks or clapnets, symbolized protection against hostile spirits and demons.
The ivory apotropaic wands are similar in shape to throwsticks
Their main use may have been to create a protective zone around the marriage bed, pregnant women, or mothers with young children.
Abrasions on the pointed ends of some wands suggest that they were used to mark out lines, probably a protective circle, in sand or clay. The wands also tend to be worn in the middle where they were gripped.
Some have been carefully mended after breaking in the middle, suggesting frequent use
Models of working wands, such as a crude clay example in the Cairo Museum, were interred with the dead or buried where a protective rite had taken place.
Staffs of various kinds were standard symbols of office in ancient Egypt, so magicians who wished to command spirits and demons naturally used them too. Spells sometimes refer to the magician holding a stick or a branch. An elaborate type of rod was used in magical rites in the early to mid second millennium BC. The best-preserved example was found in a tomb at Heliopolis, along with magical figurines.

This glazed steatite rod is made in several sections which fit together. The sides are decorated with mdjat eyes, lamps, baboons, crocodiles and felines, including a lion, a panther and a cat. Small figurines of lions, crocodiles and turtles are fixed by pegs to the top side. Another turtle was probably attached to one end of the rod. Most of the surviving rods of this type have lost all their attached figures

The sa sign ('protection') is prominent on most of the rods. They were probably a standard part of the equipment of a sau — a person who made protective charms
It is possible that the rods and the ivory wands have such visual impact because they were used for, and sometimes by, women, who would not usually be literate. No spell describes the exact use of the rods. The magician presumably tried to dominate the formidable creatures shown on the rods and turn their power into a protective rather than an aggressive force. Some of these creatures recur over 1500 years later in symbols recorded in the Graeco-Egyptian magical papyri.
More specialized equipment was used for individual types of spell.
Masks were worn by dancers in apotropaic rites
Similar masks may sometimes have been placed on the head of the patient to enhance their identification with a particular divine being.


Rubrics can specify what type of pen is to be used to draw protective symbols on papyrus or onto the skin of the patient. Spells might also be written on dishes or jars that the client could then drink out of. Lamps were an image of magical protection, an idea that may be based on the comfort of a night-light to frightened children. Lamps consisting of a wick floating in a bronze bowl of oil were used for divination.
Many spells were to be recited over figurines or amulets
Sometimes the spells were to be said over more transitory things, such as a medicine to be taken or a poultice to be applied. The aim was that the heka of the words would permeate the medicine or poultice to make it more effective. Spells were also said over objects whose purpose is not so obvious, such as a bundle of reeds or a stem of corn. Sometimes the object would have symbolized the desired effect of the spell, so the stem of corn might be an image of new life.
In other cases, the technique of transference was being used. The magician tried to transfer the harmful effects of poison or spirit possession into an object which could then be smashed, buried, or carried away in fast-flowing water, to dispose of the harmful agent.
Magical ingredients usually had to be gathered or prepared specially for the rite so that they were not contaminated by any kind of previous use. One spell from the Graeco-Egyptian papyri specifies the use of an olive-wood stool that has never been sat on. Freshly-picked herbs are to be used in remedies. Fresh oil is to be poured into divination bowls.
Virgin parchment and fresh ink are to be used for written charms. These ideals may not always have been realized. One spell to be hung at the throat was written on the back of an old letter
The finest quality linen is also specified in spells, but again may not always have been available to the magician or his client.

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