How to use ancient Egypt magic Amulets part 1/7

May 11, 2011

How to use ancient Egypt magic Amulets part 1/7
Part of The Book of the Dead of Ankhwahibre, c. 6th century BC. It shows the main amulets used on a mummy and the spells that went with them.Next to the mummy (far right) are the djed pillar and the tyet knot. Thoth (left) is opening the gates of the underworld to let in the four winds.
The use of amulets is probably the most famous aspect of Egyptian magic. Egyptian amulets were exported or copied all over the ancient world. Huge numbers survive. One catalogue divides them into 275 main types, but that is probably an underestimate. Burials of the Egyptian elite include specially made amulets in precious materials
The function of some of these amulets is described in funerary literature such as The Coffin Texts and The Book of the Dead
The amulets found in humbler graves are more likely to be those worn by the deceased in life
They could go on helping and protecting the deceased in the afterlife. As with other intimate possessions, such as cosmetic kits and hairpieces, these amulets were probably considered too personal to be passed on to anyone else.


Amulets have also been recovered from houses and from temples or shrines where votive offerings were made.
The use of amulets in daily life has been much less studied than their funerary role. Their ubiquity at Egyptian sites implies that amulets were considered a necessity of life, even by the poorest members of society.
An amulet is generally defined as a powerful or protective object worn or carried on the person. In Egypt, this definition might be extended to include some larger objects, such as headrests, which also worked through physical contact. A distinction is sometimes made between amulets and talismans.
The purpose of an amulet is to protect, while the purpose of a talisman is to enhance a quality in the wearer or to promote success. The Egyptian words sa and mkt do mainly seem to be specific to protective amulets, but another Egyptian term for amulet —wedja - is used for objects which both protect the wearer and bestow desirable qualities such as health and vitality.
Some amulets were used on a temporary basis in crisis situations; others were worn on a regular basis for permanent protection or benefit.

The types of situation which might require temporary amulets included childbirth, an illness or a dangerous journey. In a magical rite to resolve a crisis, both the patient and the officiant might wear amulets.
Permanent amulets were likely to be in the form of jewellery. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that most Egyptian jewellery had amuletic value. How conscious the wearers were of the symbolism of their ornaments is a more difficult question.

Temporary amulets were probably always reinforced with spoken magic, but it is not clear how often this would have been done with amuletic jewellery. Some types of amulet were peculiar to the temporary category; others could serve as temporary or permanent. It is chiefly the permanent amulets that survive.
Amulets of the kind worn in life are more often found in the burials of women and children than in those of adult men.
It is easy to understand why children should have been thought to need amulets. They were genuinely more at risk from disease. There also seems to have been a belief that the dead were jealous of new life. Women faced considerable risks in childbirth and were thought to need intensive protection at this time

In many cultures, the danger to women in childbirth was balanced by regular danger to men in hunting and warfare. This would originally have been true of Egypt too. In the fourth millennium BC, dangerous animals were hunted to provide food and raw materials, and warfare was frequent among tribal groups. By the end of the fourth millennium BC, hunting had become much less important than agriculture and there was greater political stability. For much of the third millennium BC, Egyptian soldiers were more likely to be involved in trading, mining and quarrying expeditions than in wars. In the second millennium BC, when the Egyptians were fighting large-scale wars, they employed numerous foreign mercenaries. This may explain the scarcity of specifically masculine amulets in Egyptian culture and the absence of spells for protection in battle.

The most risky masculine activities were probably desert quarrying expeditions and anything that involved working on water.
Spells associated with these activities are well attested.
When men had accidents or became ill, temporary amulets might form part of the treatment, but women and children seem to have been the main wearers of permanent amulets. This may be because women and children were thought to be more at risk from supernatural dangers.
Many spells from the second millennium BC emphasize the danger of the dead taking possession of young children. In the Graeco-Egyptian papyri, young boys are used as spirit mediums. Some evidence for women serving as mediums has already been mentioned

What the Egyptians saw as the ritual impurity of menstruation may have been held to attract ghosts and demons. If purity gave protection, impurity presumably meant vulnerability.
Women were probably perceived as being weaker and more emotional than men. In some Egyptian texts, violent emotions seem to be attributed to the influence of spirits, demons or the bau of deities.
Instruction Texts lay great stress on the control of the heart, that is, the emotions. The prevalence of amulets in female graves tells us quite a lot about Egyptian attitudes to women.
The distinction between the sexes broke down in certain circumstances. All the calm, rational advice of the Instruction Texts could not protect the Egyptian male from the chaotic world of dreams.
A fear of night-terrors seems to have been characteristic of the Egyptians. Some amulets are described as a 'protection of the bedchamber.' One of the functions of headrests decorated with magical images   was to keep away nightmares. Demons were more powerful at night and each sleep was a miniature descent into the underworld. In death, both sexes had equal need of amulets, because the deceased was actually entering the realm of demons and spirits.

Amulets can be natural or manmade objects. The power of a natural amulet might derive from its shape, its material, its colour, its scarcity or any combination of these properties. Heka was thought to reside in rare or strange objects. Shells from the Red Sea came into this category and were used as amulets as early as the fourth millennium BC. River pebbles were common objects, but specimens that naturally resembled the male genitals or a pregnant woman could be used as fertility amulets.

Another natural object prized for its resemblance to something else is the cowrie shell. Cowries have been used as amulets against the Evil Eye in many cultures, and they were popular in ancient Egypt.
Their shape has been thought to resemble the female genitals as well as the eye. The
Egyptians often strung cowries to make girdles

They were probably worn in the pelvic region to protect a woman's fertility, as is still done today in parts of Sudan. A few girdles made of real shells strung on leather have survived, but imitation cowries in faience, silver or gold are more common. Natural amulets such as shells or claws were often translated into precious jewellery and worn to bring permanent benefits.

Other amulets were made of transitory natural materials. These might be herbs or parts of animals, such as hairs from a cat. Ingredients of this kind were usually wrapped up together in linen. Such amulets rarely survive from ancient times, but they are described in magico-medical texts. Their contents sometimes sound too bizarre for belief, but comparisons with recent magical practices suggest that it would be wrong to be sceptical.

Writing about village Egypt in the early twentieth century AD, Winfrid Blackman described a pair of amulet bags worn to protect a pregnant woman. These contained the head of a hoopoe, a snake's fang, parts of the lip and ear of a donkey, a camel's tooth, a dried chameleon, seven silk threads and a written charm.
We tend to think of an amulet as a single object, but the Egyptian words for amulet have a less restrictive meaning. The word sa can mean a group of objects, the cord they were strung on, or the bag that contained them, and the words and gestures needed to 'activate' them.

One of the hieroglyphic signs used to write the word sa depicts a looped cord. The cord, which was usually of linen thread or leather, was always important and sometimes served as an amulet in itself. Surviving examples have a series of knots which were probably tied by a magician in the course of a rite to bind evil forces.
A spell from the late second millennium BC describes deities, such as Isis, Nephthys and Hedjhotep, spinning and weaving the linen cord of an amulet of health, which the goddess Neith then ties knots in.
Hedjhotep was a god of weaving and amulets. The two are associated, not only through linen cords and amulet bags, but because pictures drawn on linen were a common form of temporary amulet.
In the Graeco-Egyptian papyri, knotted cords are described as Anubis threads.
Anubis presided over all the stages of mummification, including the bandaging of the corpse, so he was much concerned with wrapping and tying knots. As early as the late third millennium BC, the reef knot was a popular element in amuletic jewellery when translated into precious metals

Manmade amulets include pendants in the form of deities, demons, animals, plants, parts of the human body, furniture, tools and ritual objects. Some of these are simply miniature models of things which the deceased needed or desired in the afterlife. Such models have more in common with funerary figurines than with amuletic jewellery. 

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