Attached to larger Egyptian temples was the library known as the Per-Ankh—the “House of Life”. Here texts were kept and studied by magician-priests called kher-heb or “lector priests”. These were learned scribes who determined the texts to be written on temple walls, clarified religious texts, maintained the temple’s collection of magical papyri, and wrote magical spells. On a wall of the House of Life in the Temple of Edfu the following list of magical books are recorded:
The Book of Appeasing Sekhmet, The Book of Magical Protection of the King in his Place, Spells for Warding Off the Evil Eye, The Book of Repelling Crocodiles, The Book of Knowledge of Secrets of the Laboratory, The Book of Knowing the Secret Forms of the God.
Kher-heb priests in their official duties recited incantations and hymns during temple and state rituals. They were also well versed in magic and the interpretation of dreams. Laymen would come to them in the House of Life if they needed a spell or amulet, to have dreams interpreted, to cure illness or seek protection from malign sorcerers, demons or ghosts. When not serving in the temples, the kher-heb “moonlighted” as magicians in the community.
Evidence of their practices comes from the discovery of a shaft burial known as the Ramesseum Tomb or “Magician’s Tomb” dating from the Late Middle Kingdom (1773-1650 BCE). In it was found a magician’s box—a “tool-kit” containing twenty-three papyri and numerous reed pens. The image of a jackal, associated with the jackal headed god Anubis, is sketched on the lid of the box. This identifies its owner as an official who had access to “cultic mysteries”, according to Egyptologist Robert Kriech Ritner.
Along with these objects were found ivory wands (see above illustration) and broken knives used for magical protection as well as an assortment of beads, and amulets. Among these was a bronze Cobra or uraeus serpent which may have been used as a magic wand, found entangled in a mass of hair, as well as several female figurines.
One of these is a doll-like figure of a lion-headed woman with articulated arms, holding a serpent in each hand. Some experts have conjectured she may be a female version of Bes, the lion-headed god of protection. My guess is that she could just as well be a representation of the goddess of magic Weret Hekau—sometimes depicted as a woman with lion’s head as well as in the form of a serpent. As mentioned in the last post, Heka the god of magic is depicted holding a serpent in each hand.
The papyri found in the box are mostly magical, consisting of hymns and rituals. Others are magico-medical, and literary in nature. The beads and amulets were used for healing and protection, the knives were intended to magically protect infants from demons, while the statues were of protective deities, according to Ritner. The hair was perhaps used along with the charms for protection rituals. Ritner writes that the owner of the tomb was a magician with competence in general medicine, feminine fertility, protection from serpents and demons, childhood ills, and agricultural magic.
Ritner proposes the papyri and pens were probably used to write amuletic charms, while the literary texts imply the owner of the box combined the roles of storyteller and entertainer with that of magician. This suggests the figurines and other objects may have been used during healing and protection rituals. These same arts—magic, storytelling and performance–have been practiced since time immemorial by tribal shamans as part of their communal healing ceremonies.
In ancient cultures, illness was believed to be caused by evil spirits or demons, and physicians used magical rituals as part of the cure. Spells were recited over medicinal prescriptions to activate their curative powers. There was obviously more than superstition involved here since these practices endured for millennia. In fact modern medicine is rediscovering the power of the so-called “placebo effect” in which the patient’s belief in the healing power of the physician plays a significant role in their recovery.
According to modern researchers, shamans in their healing rituals induce altered states of consciousness in their patients through hypnosis, suggestion, and guided imagery. These techniques decrease anxiety while strengthening the immune system of the patient, resulting in the alleviation of a wide range of psychological problems and physical diseases. Similar shamanic approaches were likely used by ancient Egyptian healer-magicians.
The priests of Sekhmet, the lion-headed goddess, often specialized in medicine and magic. Sekhmet was also the bringer of plague and disease, and had to be propitiated by her clergy. The scorpion goddess Selkhet also had her own magician-healers who specialized in curing the bites of scorpions and snakes.
In one such spell for curing snakebite the magician created a small sculpture of the god Horus which he placed on the head of the patient, accompanied by this spell: “Flow out, poison! Scatter yourself on the ground! Horus curses you, he wipes you out! He grinds you underfoot!… You creep away, And you are not seen again. So speaks Horus the Great Magician!”
Demons with foreign names derived from Semitic languages spoken in Syria and Palestine are common in Egyptian magical texts, and were blamed for various kinds of sickness, fevers, and infectious diseases. A technique for dealing with demonic possession was to find a spirit powerful enough to drive the demon out—or negotiate with it. Along with demons are the bau of deities—their divine manifestations—which could also threaten mankind. A person might offend a god and experience their displeasure as an illness or panic attack.
Egyptian magicians invoked strange composite deities to combat the bau of the gods. One of the most notable of these was Tutu, known by titles such as “he who keeps enemies at a distance”, as well as “great of strength”. He had a sphinx-like form consisting of the head of a man and body of a lion with snake’s tail. Tutu was considered the chief of the demons who could also harness their forces. He was prayed to and given offerings to protect against bad dreams.
The practice of magic in Egypt was not exclusive to the priesthood, or to men. Wise women known as rekhet, meaning “female knower” were thought to have the ability to communicate with the gods and the dead. They were consulted as seers, and their clairvoyant abilities were apparently passed down through families.
The rekhet exercised powers similar to modern “mediums” and were able to reveal which bau of the gods had placed a spell on a person, causing them misfortune. An ancient text reads: “I have gone to the wise woman and she told me the manifestation (bau) of Ptah is with you”. They also found out what the grievances of the dead were against the living and how they might be satisfied, since it was believed the “restless dead” or angry ghosts–those who had died in an unhappy condition or hadn’t received a proper burial–could bear grudges against the living and torment them. It was thought such wise women could diagnose which evil spirit or deity was responsible for causing the illness of a sick child.
The goddess Isis may have been associated with the rekhet. A stone tablet from the thirtieth dynasty, the Metternich Stela, records Isis as saying: “I am a daughter, a knowing one (rht) in her town, who dispels a poisonous snake with her oral powers. My father has taught me knowledge.”
On the stela are recorded numerous spells and rituals for healing of snake and scorpion bites. Water was poured over the stone and collected and drunk by persons as a means of magical healing.