ANCIENT EGYPTIAN SUPERSTITIONS
The superstition that spilling salt is bad luck and the custom of throwing salt could cancel bad luck was practiced by the ancient Sumerians, Egyptians, Assyrians and later the Romans and Greeks. It is believed to have been practiced since 3500 B.C.
Walking under a ladder is superstition that has been dated to 3000 B.C. in Egypt. Ladders were considered good luck but a leaning ladder formed a pyramid-like triangle that was considered to be the sacred realm of the gods and was sacrilegious for commoners to enter.
Fear of the "evil eye" is a superstition found in many cultures and is quite common in the Mediterranean. Egyptians wore kohl, the world's first mascara, in a circle or oval around their eyes, in part to ward off the evil eye.
The act of writing was believed to have magical powers and hieroglyphic were thought to possess the power of the object that they represented. Positive images were thought to bring positive rewards. Negative images such as scorpions were often intentionally left unfinished in tombs so their negative power would not affect the dead in their journey to the afterlife.
In 1972 a 3,300 year old ancient Egyptian outpost was discovered on the Gaza Strip. The Bedouin, who helped archaeologists locate it used a long screw driver like a divining rob to find it. When the archaeologists asked the man to explain how he performed his magic, the man said enigmatically, "Some days it's honey, some days onions." But surprising on a day he predicted beforehand would be honey the site was discovered. [Source: Trude Dothan, National Geographic , December 1982]
Book: Magic in Ancient Egypt by Geraldine Pinch, a professor of Egyptology at Cambridge University.
Websites on Ancient Egypt: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, escholarship.org ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Discovering Egypt discoveringegypt.com; BBC History: Egyptians bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians ; Ancient History Encyclopedia on Egypt ancient.eu/egypt; Digital Egypt for Universities. Scholarly treatment with broad coverage and cross references (internal and external). Artifacts used extensively to illustrate topics. ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/digitalegypt ; British Museum: Ancient Egypt ancientegypt.co.uk; Egypt’s Golden Empire pbs.org/empires/egypt; Metropolitan Museum of Art www.metmuseum.org ; Oriental Institute Ancient Egypt (Egypt and Sudan) Projects ; Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre in Paris louvre.fr/en/departments/egyptian-antiquities; KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt kmtjournal.com; Ancient Egypt Magazine ancientegyptmagazine.co.uk; Egypt Exploration Society ees.ac.uk ; Amarna Project amarnaproject.com; Egyptian Study Society, Denver egyptianstudysociety.com; The Ancient Egypt Site ancient-egypt.org; Abzu: Guide to Resources for the Study of the Ancient Near East etana.org; Egyptology Resources fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk
Ancient Egyptian Astrology
The Egyptians refined the Babylonian system of astrology and the Greeks shaped it into its modern form. Astrology as we know it originated in Babylon. It developed out of the belief that since the Gods in the heavens ruled man's fate, the stars could reveal fortunes and the notion that the motions of the stars and planets control the fate of people on earth. The motions of the stars and planets are mainly the result of the earth’s movement around the sun, which causes: 1) the sun to move eastward against the background of the constellations; 2) the planets and moon to shift around the sky; and 3) causes different constellations to rise from the horizon at sunset different times of the year.
In ancient times astrology and astronomy were the same thing. The Babylonians were the first people to apply myths to constellations and astrology and describe the 12 signs of the zodiac. The Greeks and Romans borrowed some of their myths from the Babylonians and invented their own. The word astrology (and astronomy) are derived from the Greek word for "star."
The names and shapes of many the constellations are believed to date to Sumerian times because the animals and figures chosen held a prominent place in their lives. It is thought that if the constellations originated with the the Egyptians were would ibises, jackals, crocodiles and hippos---animals in their environment---rather than goats and bulls. If they came from India why isn’t there a tiger or a monkey. To the Assyrians the constellation Capricorn was munaxa (the goat fish).
The Greeks added names of heroes to the constellations. The Romans took these and gave them the Latin names we use today. Ptolemy listed 48 constellations. His list included ones in the southern hemisphere, which he and the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans couldn’t see.
Ancient Egyptian Astrology and the Cairo Calendar
According to Minnesota State University, Mankato: Most of our understanding of Egyptian astrology is contained within the Cairo Calendar, which consists of a listing of all the days of an Egyptian year. The listings within the calendar all take the same form and can be broken up into three parts: I, the type of day (favorable, unfavorable etc), II, a mythological event which may make a particular day more favorable or unfavorable, III, and a prescribed behavior associated with that day. Unlike modern astrology as found within newspapers, where one can choose whether to follow the advice there in or not, the Egyptians strictly adhered to what an astrologer would advise. As is evidenced by the papyrus of the Cairo Calendar, on days where there were adverse or favorable conditions, if the astrologers told a person not to go outside, not to bathe, or to eat fish on a particular day, such advice was taken very literally and seriously. [Source: Minnesota State University, Mankato, ethanholman.com \+\]
“Some of the most interesting and misunderstood information about the Ancient Egyptians concerns their calendarical and astrological system. Of the greatest fallacy about Ancient Egypt and it's belief in astrology concerns the supposed worship of animals. The Egyptians did not worship animals, rather the Egyptians according to an animals astrological significance, behaved in certain ritualistic ways toward certain animals on certain days. For example, as is evidenced by the papyrus Cairo Calendar, during the season of Emergence, it was the advisement of the Seers (within the priestly caste), and the omens of certain animals they saw, which devised whether a specific date would be favorable or unfavorable. \+\
“The basis for deciding whether a date was favorable or unfavorable was based upon a belief in possession of good or evil spirits, and upon a mythological ascription to the gods. Simply, an animal was not ritually revered because it was an animal, but rather because it had the ability to become possessed, and therefore could cause harm or help to any individual near them. It was also conceived of that certain gods could on specific days take the form of specific animals. Hence on certain days, it was more likely for a specific type of animal to become possessed by a spirit or god than on other days. The rituals that the Egyptians partook of to keep away evil spirits from possessing an animal consisted of sacrifice to magic, however, it was the seers and the astrologers who guided many of the Egyptians and their daily routines. Hence, the origin of Egyptians worshipping animals, has more to do with the rituals to displace evil spirits, and their astrological system, more so than it does to actually worshipping animals.” \+\
Magic in Ancient Egypt
Magic pervaded many aspects of life in ancient Egypt. It was invoked for everyday healing, in ceremonies for the dead and for court intrigues like the assassination attempt of Pharaoh Ramesses III. Artifacts with links to magic include an ivory wand in the British Museum showing 'fearsome' deities being commanded by a magician; a headrest of a scribe with protective deities including the god Bes, who warded off evil demons as its user slept; and magical cippus stelae showing the infant god Horus overcoming dangerous animals and reptiles.
Dr Geraldine Pinch of Oxford University wrote for the BBC: “In Egyptian myth, magic (heka) was one of the forces used by the creator to make the world. Through heka, symbolic actions could have practical effects. All deities and people were thought to possess this force in some degree, but there were rules about why and how it could be used. [Source: Dr Geraldine Pinch, BBC, February 17, 2011. Dr Pinch taught Egyptology at Cambridge University and is now a member of the Oriental Institute, Oxford University. Her books include Votive Offerings to Hathor (Griffith Institute) and Handbook of Egyptian Mythology (ABC-Clio) |::|]
“All Egyptians expected to need heka to preserve their bodies and souls in the afterlife, and curses threatening to send dangerous animals to hunt down tomb-robbers were sometimes inscribed on tomb walls. The mummified body itself was protected by amulets, hidden beneath its wrappings. Collections of funerary spells-such as the Coffin Texts and the Book of the Dead-were included in elite burials, to provide esoteric magical knowledge. |::|
“The dead person's soul, usually shown as a bird with a human head and arms, made a dangerous journey through the underworld. The soul had to overcome the demons it would encounter by using magic words and gestures. There were even spells to help the deceased when their past life was being assessed by the Forty-Two Judges of the Underworld. Once a dead person was declared innocent they became an akh, a 'transfigured' spirit. This gave them akhw power, a superior kind of magic, which could be used on behalf of their living relatives.” |::|
Magicians in Ancient Egypt
Dr Geraldine Pinch of Oxford University wrote for the BBC: Priests were the main practitioners of magic in pharaonic Egypt, where they were seen as guardians of a secret knowledge given by the gods to humanity to 'ward off the blows of fate'. The most respected users of magic were the lector priests, who could read the ancient books of magic kept in temple and palace libraries. In popular stories such men were credited with the power to bring wax animals to life, or roll back the waters of a lake. [Source: Dr Geraldine Pinch, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]
Real lector priests performed magical rituals to protect their king, and to help the dead to rebirth. By the first millennium B.C., their role seems to have been taken over by magicians (hekau). Healing magic was a speciality of the priests who served Sekhmet, the fearsome goddess of plague. |::|
“Lower in status were the scorpion-charmers, who used magic to rid an area of poisonous reptiles and insects. Midwives and nurses also included magic among their skills, and wise women might be consulted about which ghost or deity was causing a person trouble. |::|
“Amulets were another source of magic power, obtainable from 'protection-makers', who could be male or female. None of these uses of magic was disapproved of-either by the state or the priesthood. Only foreigners were regularly accused of using evil magic. It is not until the Roman period that there is much evidence of individual magicians practising harmful magic for financial reward.” |::|
Spells and Magical Techniques in Ancient Egypt
Dr Geraldine Pinch of Oxford University wrote for the BBC: “Dawn was the most propitious time to perform magic, and the magician had to be in a state of ritual purity. This might involve abstaining from sex before the rite, and avoiding contact with people who were deemed to be polluted, such as embalmers or menstruating women. Ideally, the magician would bathe and then dress in new or clean clothes before beginning a spell. |::|
“Metal wands representing the snake goddess Great of Magic were carried by some practitioners of magic. Semi-circular ivory wands-decorated with fearsome deities-were used in the second millennium B.C. The wands were symbols of the authority of the magician to summon powerful beings, and to make them obey him or her. |::|
“Only a small percentage of Egyptians were fully literate, so written magic was the most prestigious kind of all. Private collections of spells were treasured possessions, handed down within families. Protective or healing spells written on papyrus were sometimes folded up and worn on the body. |::|
“A spell usually consisted of two parts: the words to be spoken and a description of the actions to be taken. To be effective all the words, especially the secret names of deities, had to be pronounced correctly. The words might be spoken to activate the power of an amulet, a figurine, or a potion. These potions might contain bizarre ingredients such as the blood of a black dog, or the milk of a woman who had born a male child. Music and dance, and gestures such as pointing and stamping, could also form part of a spell.” |::|
Magic as a Form of Protection in Ancient Egypt
Dr Geraldine Pinch of Oxford University wrote for the BBC: “Angry deities, jealous ghosts, and foreign demons and sorcerers were thought to cause misfortunes such as illness, accidents, poverty and infertility. Magic provided a defence system against these ills for individuals throughout their lives. [Source: Dr Geraldine Pinch, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]
“Stamping, shouting, and making a loud noise with rattles, drums and tambourines were all thought to drive hostile forces away from vulnerable women, such as those who were pregnant or about to give birth, and from children-also a group at risk, liable to die from childhood diseases. |::|
“Some of the ivory wands may have been used to draw a protective circle around the area where a woman was to give birth, or to nurse her child. The wands were engraved with the dangerous beings invoked by the magician to fight on behalf of the mother and child. They are shown stabbing, strangling or biting evil forces, which are represented by snakes and foreigners. |::|
“Supernatural 'fighters, such as the lion-dwarf Bes and the hippopotamus goddess Taweret, were represented on furniture and household items. Their job was to protect the home, especially at night when the forces of chaos were felt to be at their most powerful. |::|
“Bes and Taweret also feature in amuletic jewellery. Egyptians of all classes wore protective amulets, which could take the form of powerful deities or animals, or use royal names and symbols. Other amulets were designed to magically endow the wearer with desirable qualities, such as long life, prosperity and good health.” |::|
Magic Used for Healing in Ancient Egypt
Dr Geraldine Pinch of Oxford University wrote for the BBC: “Magic was not so much an alternative to medical treatment as a complementary therapy. Surviving medical-magical papyri contain spells for the use of doctors, Sekhmet priests and scorpion-charmers. The spells were often targeted at the supernatural beings that were believed to be the ultimate cause of diseases. Knowing the names of these beings gave the magician power to act against them. [Source: Dr Geraldine Pinch, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]
“Since demons were thought to be attracted by foul things, attempts were sometimes made to lure them out of the patient's body with dung; at other times a sweet substance such as honey was used, to repel them. Another technique was for the doctor to draw images of deities on the patient's skin. The patient then licked these off, to absorb their healing power. |::|
“Many spells included speeches, which the doctor or the patient recited in order to identify themselves with characters in Egyptian myth. The doctor may have proclaimed that he was Thoth, the god of magical knowledge who healed the wounded eye of the god Horus. Acting out the myth would ensure that the patient would be cured, like Horus. Collections of healing and protective spells were sometimes inscribed on statues and stone slabs (stelae) for public use. A statue of King Ramesses III (c.1184-1153 B.C.), set up in the desert, provided spells to banish snakes and cure snakebites. |::|
“Some have inscriptions describing how Horus was poisoned by his enemies, and how Isis, his mother, pleaded for her son's life, until the sun god Ra sent Thoth to cure him. The story ends with the promise that anyone who is suffering will be healed, as Horus was healed. The power in these words and images could be accessed by pouring water over the cippus. The magic water was then drunk by the patient, or used to wash their wound.” |::|
Magic Bricks in Ancient Egypt
Virginia L. Emery of the University of Chicago wrote: “For the ancient Egyptians, bricks not only were construction material—the building blocks of physical structures—but also were objects that could be imbued with symbolic significance. During the New Kingdom, four magic mud-bricks, one for each cardinal direction, came to be included in tombs as an element of funerary equipment and were recovered from the royal tombs of Thutmose IV, Amenhotep III, Tutankhamen, Ay, Horemheb, Ramesses I, Sety I, and Ramesses II, as well as from the tombs of queens Sitra, Nefertari, and Bentanti; they could also be included in private tombs. [Source: Virginia L. Emery, University of Chicago, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, escholarship.org <>]
“These magic bricks were inscribed in hieratic with Spell 151 from the Book of the Dead and were usually installed in niches carved in the walls of the burial chamber. Each brick was provided with a hole in it to fit an amulet, usually a Dd-amulet of blue faience and gold on the western brick, a recumbent Anubis of unbaked clay on the eastern brick, a small wooden shabti-like statuette on the northern brick, and a reed with a wick in it, probably a torch or flame of some kind, on the southern brick. The bricks and amulets were provided as an apotropaic feature of the funerary equipment, acting as the protectors of the Osiris residing in the tomb. <>
“As well as occurring in funerary contexts, bricks with magically protective qualities were also employed during birthings. Long known from textual and representational sources, a single example of a decorated birth brick was discovered during the course of excavations at South Abydos in the Middle Kingdom town adjacent to (and probably attached to/dependent on) the memorial complex of Senusret III. The brick is decorated with a polychrome scene on the base depicting a mother holding her baby and attended by two females; the entire scene is flanked by Hathor-headed divine standards. Anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures, which are usually shown protecting the sun god Ra during his daily rebirth on the eastern horizon, decorate the preserved sides of the brick, creating explicitly magical scenes of a type known from Middle Kingdom “magical knives,” but also linking to beliefs concerning funerary practices and the afterlife.” <>
Egyptian Book Of Spells with Christian Overtones
In 2014, after decades to trying, researchers deciphered an Egyptian codex that turned out to be a book of spells — with some pertaining to love, success in business, cures for diseases such a black jaundice and exorcisms — along with instructions on how to do them. Among the spells were one for befriending an enemy and ones for destroying him. [Source: Jana Louise Smit, Listverse, May 15, 2016, Live Science November 24, 2014]
The 1,300-year-old. beautifully-illustrated book is written in Coptic, an Egyptian language and is made of bound pages of parchment — a type of book known as a codex. Named the “Handbook of Ritual Power” by researchers, it contains references to Jesus as well as an unknown godlike figure called “Bakthiotha.” Some invocations are linked to the extinct Sethian religious movement, which describes Seth (third son of Adam and Eve) as “the living Christ.” Researchers believe the document shows some of the last gasps of Pharaonic religion transitioning Coptic Christianity.” The owner of the book and where it originated is a mystery. The Coptic writing style points to the ancient Roman-Egyptian city of Hermopolis as a possible candidate. <<<
“It is a complete 20-page parchment codex, containing the handbook of a ritual practitioner,” Malcolm Choat and Iain Gardner, professors at Macquarie University and the University of Sydney, respectively, wrote. The ancient book “starts with a lengthy series of invocations that culminate with drawings and words of power... “These are followed by a number of prescriptions or spells to cure possession by spirits and various ailments, or to bring success in love and business.”
To to subjugate someone, the codex says, you have to say a magical formula over two nails and then “drive them into his doorpost, one on the right side (and) one on the left.” The opening of the codex, which refers to Baktiotha, reads: “I give thanks to you and I call upon you, the Baktiotha: The great one, who is very trustworthy; the one who is lord over the forty and the nine kinds of serpents,” according to the translation. “The Baktiotha is an ambivalent figure,” Choat and Gardner said at a conference before their book on the codex was published. “He is a great power and a ruler of forces in the material realm.” Historical records indicate that church leaders regarded the Sethians as heretics, and by the 7th century, the Sethians were either extinct or dying out.
Book of the Dead spell
In ancient Egypt, amulets were carried by the living and wrapped with mummies. The mummy of King Tut had 143 of them. Their primary purpose was to attract “sympathetic magic” that would protect the wearer from misfortune and maybe bring some good luck. Amulets were inserted in different stages of the embalming process, each with special spells and incantations to go along with it. Some bore inscriptions and were made of materials, such as gold, faience (a blue stone), lapis lazuli, carnelian, green feldspar, and green jasper.
Diana Craig Patch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “An amulet is a small object that a person wears, carries, or offers to a deity because he or she believes that it will magically bestow a particular power or form of protection. The conviction that a symbol, form, or concept provides protection, promotes well-being, or brings good luck is common to all societies: in our own, we commonly wear religious symbols, carry a favorite penny, or a rabbit's foot. In ancient Egypt, amulets might be carried, used in necklaces, bracelets, or rings, and—especially—placed among a mummy's bandages to ensure the deceased a safe, healthy, and productive afterlife. [Source: Diana Craig Patch, Department of Egyptian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. October 2004 metmuseum.org \^/]
“Egyptian amulets functioned in a number of ways. Symbols and deities generally conferred the powers they represent. Small models that represent known objects, such as headrests or arms and legs, served to make sure those items were available to the individual or that a specific need could be addressed. Magic contained in an amulet could be understood not only from its shape. Material, color, scarcity, the grouping of several forms, and words said or ingredients rubbed over the amulet could all be the source for magic granting the possessor's wish. \^/
“Small representations of animals seem to have functioned as amulets already in the Predynastic Period (ca. 4500–3100 B.C.). In the Old Kingdom (ca. 2649–2150 B.C.), most amulets took an animal form or were symbols (often based on hieroglyphs), although generalized human forms occurred. Amulets depicting recognizable deities begin to appear in the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2030–1640 B.C.), and the New Kingdom (ca. 1550–1070 B.C.) showed a further increase in the range of amulet forms. With the Third Intermediate Period (ca. 1070–712 B.C.), there was an explosion in the quantity of amulets, and many new types, especially deities, appeared.” \^/
Different Types of Ancient Egyptian Amulets
Amulets with protective cobras, ba (winged symbols of the soul), re (sun disk), ankhs, and scarabs were popular. There were amulets for limbs, organs and other body parts and ones derived from the hieroglyphics for “good.” “truth.” and “eternity.” Hearts, hands and feet were often found on mummies in places where the real body parts were normally found, the idea being that they could be offered as substitutes if the real ones were coveted by demons.
There were amulets for at least 50 principal gods and a countless number of local ones. These amulets took the form of the gods themselves or their symbols. Popular ones included Anabus (a jackal), Horus (a falcon), Thoth (an ibis) and Hathor, the Egyptian goddess of love and fertility. The old amulets were found in simple burials dating to 3100 B.C.
The amulet symbolizing udjat (health)---the eye of Horus---connected the wearer with the god Horus, who lost his eye in a cosmic battle with the god Seth and later had the eye restored. The udjat is regarded as one of the most powerful of all amulets, preserving the wearer and making him strong in the afterlife. Tyet amulets of Isis are red in color, symbolizing her blood. They also brought strength and good health to the wearer.
Kathlyn M Cooney of UCLA wrote: “The most common scarab type is the scarab amulet, so ubiquitous that it is usually referenced in the Egyptological and archaeological literature simply as “scarab”. The beetle form was ideal for use as an amulet. Most scarab amulets are quite small, measuring between 10 mm and 50 mm in length. They are ovoid in shape, the back of the amulet depicting the head and folded wings of the insect and the sides depicting the legs. The scarab amulet is usually pierced longitudinally, so that the owner could wear the object as a ring, necklace, or bracelet. The blank oval underside of the scarab amulet was an excellent location for the inscription of personal names, kings’ names, apotropaic sayings, geometric designs, or figural representations. The scarab amulet could be carved from a variety of stones, including costly amethyst, jasper, carnelian, and lapis lazuli, or from less expensive stones, such as steatite, which was usually glazed. A great many scarab amulets were molded from faience, especially in the New Kingdom. The earliest scarab amulets are dated stylistically to the 6th Dynasty; most early examples are uninscribed. The first scarab seals, bearing the name and title of the owner, developed in the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2030–1640 B.C.). The scarab’s use continued in ancient Egypt until the Ptolemaic Period (304–30 B.C.), although production after the reign of Ramses III was limited. The so-called “scaraboid” also belongs to this class of object and describes any amulet carved in the standard ovoid shape but depicting an animal, such as a goose, cat, or frog, rather than a beetle.”[Source: Kathlyn M Cooney, UCLA, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2008, escholarship.org <>]
“It is quite common to organize scarabs by the type of decoration found on the scarab base. The first type of scarab base decoration includes examples ranging in date from the Middle Kingdom through the Late Period, depicting apotropaic and divine iconography, including images of gods and so-called good- luck sayings. This group also includes scarabs from the New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period that are particularly associated with the god Amen and the many cryptographic writings of this god’s name. <>
“The second type of scarab base includes rulers’ names, epithets, and images, and these examples also date from the Middle Kingdom through the Late Period. The scarab represented the rebirth of the sun god and was therefore intimately associated with cycles of masculine royal renewal and, by extension, Egyptian political power systems. Because of the association of the king and the sun god, scarabs were often inscribed with the names and/or depictions of the king (either currently reigning or deceased). In many ways the scarab was meant to be a gendered object. The word xpr, when used as a noun, is masculine, and most iconography on the underside of scarabs revolves around the masculine political world—of kings and courtiers. This is not to say that a scarab amulet could not depict or be owned by a woman, just that it was more representative of masculine spheres of power and kingship. <>
“A third category of scarab base decoration features non-royal personal names and titles, suggesting the scarab’s use as the owner’s personal seal, a type that reached its height in the Middle Kingdom. Most of these non-royal names and titles belong to holders of elite offices or priesthoods. A fourth decorative group depicts motifs of northwest Asian origin, in addition to foreign adaptations of Egyptian iconography. Many of these scarabs date from the late Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period (the period of Hyksos domination). Others date to the New Kingdom, when Egypt’s empire reached its apex. <>
“A fifth scarab amulet group features geometric and stylized patterns, many of them dating to the Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period. Most common within this group are abstract geometric, scroll, spiral, woven, floral, and even humanoid patterns. It should also be mentioned that many scarab amulet undersides are uninscribed, and many such examples are made of semi-precious stones.” <>
Uses of Scarab Amulets
Kathlyn M Cooney of UCLA wrote: “The small size and compact shape of the scarab amulet facilitated mobility and distribution, making the object amenable to various public and private political agendas. In the Middle Kingdom, scarabs were often utilized as seals by non-royal bureaucrats, and many personal names and titles are found on scarabs. Scarabs were manipulated as political tools by the Hyksos kings and their officials during the Second Intermediate Period, when inscribed examples were ostensibly distributed to elites and vassals. During the New Kingdom, scarab amulets and seals were spread throughout the increasingly connected Mediterranean and Near Eastern worlds, and particularly the Levant; as such, the occurrence of kings’ names and figures became especially common. The New Kingdom also saw a blossoming of personal piety in scarab amulet design, when seal iconography increasingly turned towards divine figures, aphorisms, and cryptography. [Source: Kathlyn M Cooney, UCLA, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2008, escholarship.org <>]
“The wide range of scarab decorative genres complicates the issue of scarab meaning and, by extension, function. Scarab amulets fulfilled multiple uses: as administrative tools, as markers of social status, as distributed propaganda messages, or as apotropaic talismans. It is therefore very difficult to place these objects into specific religious, political, or socio-economic categories. Discussion of a given scarab’s decorative genre and function is partly dependent on its production, distribution, and reception—all processes that are difficult to discern in the preserved ancient record, and especially that of unprovenanced scarabs from private collections. <>
“The small size of the scarab base required the creation and utilization of abbreviated, abstracted, and “loaded” iconography that could be multi-functional and multi- interpretational for the scarab owner. Such iconography provided layers of complexity, because conceptual signs and symbols have multiple grammatical and semiotic meanings, resulting in the overlap of genres and thus scholarly confusion about scarab function. Ultimately, the best explanation of scarab function is that the scarab amulet held a number of meanings and functions simultaneously, depending on the manu- facturer’s intent, the owner’s understanding of the piece, and the occasions of its use. Some of these meanings are amenable to protection and personal piety, while others point to a socio-political use. The scarab amulet’s symbolism was intended to be inclusive and broad, rather than confined to one particular meaning in a given circumstance.” <>
Oracles in Ancient Egypt
Karnak in Thebes (present-day Luxor is regarded by some scholars as the first oracle center. Its name translates as “'The most perfect of places.” It was said that that all other oracles originated from Karnark and they communicated with one another by using of “homing' doves” that enabled them to “see into the future.” An Omphalus (religious stone artifact) excavated in the sanctuary of the Great Temple of Amon at Karna, by G. A. Reisner supports the Greek traditions of doves flying between Delphi and Karnak. [Source: Ancient Wisdom ancient-wisdom.com/*/]
Two ancient Egyptian texts interpreted as providing evidence of oracles in Karnak read: ‘Ye people from south and north, all ye eyes that see the sun, all ye who come from south and north to Thebes to entreat the lord of gods, come to me! What ye say I shall pass to Amun at Karnak. Say the "offering spell" to me and give me water from that which ye possess. For I am the messenger whom the king has appointed to hear your words of petition and to send up to him the affairs of the Two Lands.’ /*/
And “Ye people of Karnak, ye who wish to see Amun, come to me! I shall report your petitions. For I am indeed the messenger of this god. The king has appointed me to report the words of the Two Lands. Speak to me the "offering spell" and invoke my name daily, as is done to one who has taken a vow.’ /*/
Siwa Oasis in present-day Libya was specifically mentioned in relation to Karnak and Dodona by Herodotus. Alexander the Great went out of his way to consult the Oracle of Amun in 331 B.C. before his conquest of Persia. The King of Persia led an army of 50,000 to destroy the oracle that resulted in the entire army being lost to the desert. /*/
Oracles in Ancient Egyptian Law Courts
Oracles were introduced to Egyptian law courts in the New Kingdom (1550–1070 B.C.) Sandra Lippert of Universität Tübingen wrote: “Oracle proceedings used the same system as other oracles: the answer of the god was derived from the movements his cult statue made during a festive procession. A forward motion, called hnn, “nodding,” was considered as affirmative answer, a backward motion, called naj n HA=f, “receding,” as negative. Oracular proceedings are best attested from Deir el-Medina. [Source: Sandra Lippert, Universität Tübingen, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, escholarship.org <>]
“The procedure for oracular trials resembled normal procedure inasmuch as the plaintiff gave his statement, sometimes probably in writing, including the presentation of documents. Oracles were approached for mainly the same types of suits as local courts. But the presence of the defendant seems not to have been necessary, especially since oracular procedures were quite common in cases of theft when the culprit was unknown. Three basic methods to address the god can be distinguished: 1. oral yes/no questions like “Is A’s claim correct?” or “Is B the culprit?” which the god answered with “yes” or “no” movements; 2. orally presented lists of possibilities (e.g., of possible thieves or prices for disputed goods) during the reading of which the god gave his assent at a certain point; 3. double written statements (positive and negative versions of a statement or the statements of plaintiff and defendant) between which the god chose, possibly by moving towards one of them. Like normal court sessions, oracle sessions were recorded. <>
“In the transcripts, the participants and onlookers were put down as witnesses for the judgment. The movement was usually translated directly into the standard judgment formula (see above), e.g., “X is right, Y is wrong.” The condemned was able to appeal at another god’s oracle. It remains unclear whether oracular trials took place on days when there were religious processions anyway or whether special processions had to be arranged for them: the fact that in Deir el-Medina most oracle trials are dated to the 10th, 20th, and 30th day of the month when the workers had their day off cuts both ways. During the 21st and 22nd Dynasties, when Amun became nominally head of the Upper Egyptian state, oracles also took over the notarial functions of courts, i.e., the authentication of documents.” <>
“The evidence for oracular proceedings in the Late Period is sparse and indirect. A lavishly illustrated transcript of an oracular proceeding of the 26th Dynasty with an exceptionally large number of witness copies concerns the transfer of a priest from one priesthood to another and is therefore more administrative than judicial in nature. Herodotos II, 174 reports that king Amasis of the 26th Dynasty had repeatedly been acquitted from quite legitimate accusations of theft in his youth by the oracles of some gods but condemned by others, with the effect that, as king, he esteemed only the latter and did not take the first seriously any more. There is no evidence for real oracular proceedings after the 26th Dynasty—what Seidl supposes to be writs in an oracular trial are letters to gods containing prayers for protection against injustice. Although oracle questions with legal content, usually concerning cases of fraud or theft with unknown perpetrator, are still to be found in the Roman Period and, in Christianized form, continue into the seventh century CE, these are no longer part of a proper trial.” <>
Curses in Ancient Egypt
The ancient Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Jews, Christians, Gauls and Britons all dispensed curse tablets to placate "unquiet" graves and call up the spirits of the underworld to make trouble. One Egyptian curse outside a tomb read: "Listen to you! The priest of Hathor will beat twice any one of you who enters this tomb or does harm to it. The gods will confront him because I am honored by his Lord. The gods will not allow anyone bad to enter my tomb, [the] crocodile, [the] hippopotamus, and the lion will eat him. A curse found in a tomb near the pyramids read: “As for any person, male or female, who shall do evil against this tomb and shall enter therein, the crocodile shall be against him upon water, the hippopotamus shall be again him in the water, and scorpion shall be against him on the land.”
Dr Geraldine Pinch of Oxford University wrote for the BBC: “Though magic was mainly used to protect or heal, the Egyptian state also practised destructive magic. The names of foreign enemies and Egyptian traitors were inscribed on clay pots, tablets, or figurines of bound prisoners. These objects were then burned, broken, or buried in cemeteries in the belief that this would weaken or destroy the enemy. [Source: Dr Geraldine Pinch, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]
“In major temples, priests and priestesses performed a ceremony to curse enemies of the divine order, such as the chaos serpent Apophis-who was eternally at war with the creator sun god. Images of Apophis were drawn on papyrus or modelled in wax, and these images were spat on, trampled, stabbed and burned. Anything that remained was dissolved in buckets of urine. The fiercest gods and goddesses of the Egyptian pantheon were summoned to fight with, and destroy, every part of Apophis, including his soul (ba) and his heka. Human enemies of the kings of Egypt could also be cursed during this ceremony. |::|
“This kind of magic was turned against King Ramesses III by a group of priests, courtiers and harem ladies. These conspirators got hold of a book of destructive magic from the royal library, and used it to make potions, written spells and wax figurines with which to harm the king and his bodyguards. Magical figurines were thought to be more effective if they incorporated something from the intended victim, such as hair, nail-clippings or bodily fluids. The treacherous harem ladies would have been able to obtain such substances but the plot seems to have failed. The conspirators were tried for sorcery and condemned to death. [Source: Dr Geraldine Pinch, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]
Dr Joann Fletcher of the University of York wrote for BBC: “Although the ancient Egyptians did occasionally use such 'curses' in their tombs, the relatively few examples which have been found are fairly understated. More concerned with making sure anyone entering the tomb is sufficiently pure, the deceased place their trust in the gods to see that justice is done if their tomb is harmed. A rare example from a royal tomb is to be found in the Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts, which warn that 'anyone who dare lay a finger on this pyramid and on this temple which belong to me and my ka (soul) will face the judgement of the gods and will cease to exist!'. Perhaps the most graphic warning occurs in the Sakkara tomb of Ankhmahor, with the tomb owner stating that 'As for that which anyone might do against this my tomb, the same will be done to his property. I am an excellent priest, knowledgeable in secret spells and all forms of magic, and as for anyone who enters my tomb impure or who do not purify themselves, I shall seize him like a goose and fill him with fear at seeing ghosts upon the earth.... But as to those who enter my tomb pure and peaceful, I shall be his protector in the court of the Great God', a reference to Osiris, Lord of the Underworld, who was the ultimate judge of dead souls. [Source: Dr Joann Fletcher, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]
“It seems that curses were more widely employed for the benefit of the living, largely confined to temple rituals performed to combat malevolent forces and enemies of the state. Recited in the form of 'execration texts', priests often inscribed the names of those to be cursed on pots, which were then smashed to destroy the enemies' power. Alternatively, figurines made from wood, clay or wax were then smashed, burnt, pierced or bound to gain power over those invoked, their names and various spells again added to make them more effective. |::|
“Such figurines were also used on a more personal level by those wishing to gain control over specific individuals. The courtiers put on trial for the attempted assassination of King Ramses III (c.1184-1153 B.C.) were accused of making wax figurines of the palace guards in an attempt to overwhelm them, and the curse figurine which appears in our story is based on a rare wooden example dating from c.2000 B.C.; with its arms tied behind its back to render the intended victim harmless, its hastily scribbled inscription simply states 'Die Henwy, son of Intef!' |::|
Book: Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World by John Gager, professor or religion at Princeton (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, escholarship.org ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Tour Egypt, Minnesota State University, Mankato, ethanholman.com; Mark Millmore, discoveringegypt.com discoveringegypt.com; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2018