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HEKA, Magic and Bewitchment in Ancient Egypt

By Claude Rilly

PARIS, 11 March 2001
- Magic has no homeland but it does have a cradle: ancient Egypt. Although Western occult practices probably have more roots in the civilizations of the Euphrates rather than the Nile Valley, it has always been in the land of the Pharaohs that Arab and later European magicians have placed the origins of their art. Doesn't the Kabbalah say that nine tenths of the World's magic come from Egypt alone, while the rest of the world is responsible for the remaining portion? Doesn't the Bible depict Egyptian magicians as so powerful that they can reproduce the enchantments that God allowed Moses to perform in order to convince Pharaoh? Every Egyptian is a magician in his own way, and shares in this power that the gods have given to man allowing him to act on reality, Heka. He is not a scribe, nor is he a priest who occasionally must have recourse to this practice. Irtysen, a sculptor of the Middle Kingdom, after describing his technical and artistic competence, proclaims : "I have knowledge of all forms of Heka." To sculpt a statue is in effect to make a work of Heka, because the sculptor does not see in terms of neither commemoration or aesthetic, but a means of magically extending toward eternity some of his model's existence. Tracing hieroglyphics is also a work of Heka, because mastery of the written word confers power on the object described; the extraordinary durability of the Egyptian graphic system, heavy, complicated, unhandy, can essentially be explained by the magic value of this writing.

In these conditions, we can understand the difficulty of organizing an exhibition about magic in ancient Egypt: it would have required nothing less than producing everything left to us by that civilization, because everything is bathed in magic. The commisioners of the Louvre have thus been obliged to take a somewhat small-scaled and eurocentric position and limit themselves to what we call magic in today's Western world: statues of bewitchment, rituals against divine sorcery, objects of divination, protective texts, representations of healing gods. Some 250 objects are displayed, most of which belong to the Louvre: the Museum, which already owns an important collection in this area, has in fact recently been given some new items that are now on display. The primary theme is principally sociological, magic presented in its religious and then political purpose, before passing on to daily life. An important portion is devoted to "relics of today and yesterday". One is flabbergasted particularly by some recently written magic texts that some visitors have slid under the divine statues in the Henri IV gallery in the ancient Egyptian rooms. When these sculptures were moved in 1995, the workmen were surprised to find parchments sometimes written in Greek or Hebrew, or even in runes. The sculptor Irtysen may perhaps have been right!

Statue of a prisoner in shackles (catalogue n° 83; Musée de Lille):

Politics is also a magic affair in Egypt. The Pharaoh not only counted on his armies in order to repel attackers or on his diplomats to circumvent hostile nations, he also counted on his magicians to bewitch enemy leaders. The statue presented here comes from the digs in Mirgissa, in Nubia, found by the team of the late Professor Vercoutter; it forms part of the southern frontier defense program of the Middle Empire (around 2000 B.C.), which included fortresses, garrisons and patrols, as well as priest-magicians whose role was to weaken by sorcery southern rulers whose invasions terrorized the Egyptians. The enemy leader is thus shown as a prisoner, and an identifying text completes the magic mechanism: the Prince of X, son of A and B, and all those defeated with him". The names and titles of the bewitched person are also inscribed on the clay vases that were then broken in order to bring about the victim's ruin. The same method was also used with Asian rulers on the northern frontier.

Base of a Ptolemaic sarcophagus (catalogue n° 12 and 93 ; Musée du Louvre):

The depiction of Egypt's traditional enemies on painted fabric fitted to the base of a sarcophagus is part of the same practice, generally reserved for Pharaohs of prior periods. We also have found canes in the tomb of Tutankhamen, the knobs of which depict one of Egypt's secular enemies and which, contrary to normal usage today, were carried with the knob down in order that they bite the dust at each step of the Pharaoh. We see here an African prisoner, representing the Nubians, enemies from the South, and an Asiatic prisoner, representing the Syrians, enemies from the North. Both are depicted on the base of the sarcophagus and are thus literally crushed underfoot. This theme evidently no longer had a political but a metaphorical value during the Ptolemaic period (from the 4th through the 1st centuries B.C.): in this colorful depiction, it is the deceased's enemies in the other world who are linked by the force of the Heka. We also find an echo of certain magic papyri that guarantee protection against "Nubian" and "Syrian" magic, the evocation of geographically opposed strangers offering an image of universal protection.

Magic balls (catalogue n° 57 - 60):

The magic ritual of the four balls is explained in a magic papyrus of the Metropolitan Museum of New York, and on the walls of the temple of Hibis in the oasis of Kharga. It is a cultural practice destined to act against the enemies of the god Osiris, notably his evil brother Seth, whose attacks could affect the smooth running of the world. Every day, in certain temples, four balls of clay were modeled, each inscribed with the name of a god, and over which were recited a formula against one of Osiris's possible attackers. The rite ended with the clay spheres being thrown to each of the cardinal points. The four balls on display are inscribed with the names of the goddesses Bastet, Sekhmet, Sechemtet and Ouadjet.

Oracular papyrus-amulet (catalogue 138 and 139; Musée du Louvre):

Among all the talismans with which the Egyptians were covered, there is one very interesting category found only in the Third Intermediate Period (start of the first millennium B.C.): narrow bands of papyrus (about 6 cm.), but which could be longer than 1 meter. Twenty or so of these texts have been found up to now, mainly in the region of Thebes. Each of them carries a long blessing decreed by certain gods, protecting the individual from illness, evil spells and various misfortunes that might strike him and which are explicitly listed in the document. The following extracts from one of these papyri give a good example of the type of text:
"We protect Bouirouharkhons, whose mother is Djedkhons, our servant and our offspring. We will keep her healthy in her body and bones. We will open her mouth so that she can eat and we will open her mouth so that she can drink. ... We will protect her from all male and female demons. We will protect her against a demon of the river, a demon of a canal, a demon of a well, any demons from a lake. … We will protect her from any ailment of the heart, any ailment of the lungs, any ailments of the spleen, any ailments of the head, any ailments of the abdomen. … We will protect her against any distress and any illness. We will protect her from the evil stars in the sky; we will protect her against the stars in the sky that carry disease. We will protect her against Amon, Mout, Khonsou Rê, Bastet and against any god or goddess that exercises his power when he has not been placated."

These documents were rolled up and preserved in a case of leather, wood and even sometimes gold, like that displayed in the exhibition and inscribed with the name Shaq (catalogue n° 138). This custom, which subsequently disappeared in Egypt, continued in Nubia, and some of these texts, written in the language of the kingdom of Méroé several thousand years later, have recently been published. At the same time, the custom of wearing magic texts in cases attached to the neck or arm is still prevalent today in almost all the countries of eastern Africa.

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Magic statuette, "pantheistic" god

Magic statuette, "pantheistic" god (catalogue 140 a; Musée du Louvre):

At a later period statuettes of composite divinities, called "pantheistic" gods (from the Greek pantheios: "common to all the gods). This one is particularly impressive, and miles away from a peaceful and majestic Egyptian art as it is generally thought of by the general public. It depicts the dwarf healing god Bes, who is given additional pairs of arms, wings and an erect phallus. The god crushes such animals as serpents and scorpions under his feet. All these attributes confer on him a many-sided power against all dangers to humans.

To complement the exhibition, the following books are recommended:

In English

Egypt by Vivian Davis and René Friedman: (British Museum Press 1998)
A recent work by two specialists .

The Art of Ancient Egypt by Gay Robins: (Trustees of the British Museum, British Museum Press 1997)
A recent work, superbly illustrated, about architecture and sculpture.

The Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt by W. Stevenson Smith, revised by William Kelly Simpson: (Yale University Press, Pelican History of Art Third Edition 1998).

Ancient Egypt by David P. Silvermann 1997:
An excellent work analysing daily life and religious concepts in ancient Egypt.

In French -

L'Egypte, sur les traces de la civilisation pharaonique, édité par Regine Schultz et Matthias Seidel, Ed. Könemann (537 pages - ff. 300,00)
A recent work translated from German, offering a rich and original iconography, and first-hand information on digs and research through 1995.

Catalogue: HEKA, Magie et envoûtement dans l'Égypte ancienne
Paris - Musée du Louvre 2000

Claude Rilly is a professor of classical languages and literature in Paris. He is also an egyptologist and specialist of meroitic language and civilisation. Claude Rilly has contributed on Greek archaeology in GEO (France), and on meroitic phonology in the Göttinger Miszellen (Germany). He is archaeology editor of

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