Egyptian Magic

Egyptian Magic

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by E. A. Wallis Budge

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The power of magical names, spells, and talismans was of utmost importance to the ancient Egyptians and their religion. Here, in another classic by the foremost Egyptian scholar of the Victorian era, E. A. Wallis Budge describes and explains the magical practices in Egypt, many of which predate the belief in gods and goddesses. Illustrated with twenty line drawings,…  See more details below


The power of magical names, spells, and talismans was of utmost importance to the ancient Egyptians and their religion. Here, in another classic by the foremost Egyptian scholar of the Victorian era, E. A. Wallis Budge describes and explains the magical practices in Egypt, many of which predate the belief in gods and goddesses. Illustrated with twenty line drawings, this volume is one more key needed to unlock the secrets of this great ancient civilization.

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Egyptian Magic

By E. A. Wallis Budge

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1971 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-22681-1



IN the first volume of this series an attempt was made to set before the reader a statement of the ideas and beliefs which the ancient Egyptians held in respect of God, the "gods," the Judgment, the Resurrection, and Immortality ; in short, to sketch in brief outline much of what was beautiful, and noble, and sublime in their religion. The facts of this statement were derived wholly from native religious works, the latest of which is some thousands of years old, and the earliest of which may be said to possess an antiquity of between six and seven thousand years; the extracts quoted in support of the deductions set forth in it were intended to enable the reader to judge for himself as to the general accuracy of the conclusions there given. Many writers on the Egyptian religion have somewhat blinked the fact that it had two sides; on the one it closely resembles in many respects the Christian religion of to-day, and on the other the religion of many of the sects which flourished in the first three or four centuries of our era, and which may be said to have held beliefs which were part Christian and part non-Christian. In its non-Christian aspect it represents a collection of ideas and superstitions which belong to a savage or semi-savage state of existence, and which maintained their hold in a degree upon the minds of the Egyptians long after they had advanced to a high state of civilization. We may think that such ideas and beliefs are both childish and foolish, but there is no possible reason for doubting that they were very real things to those who held them, and whether they are childish or foolish or both they certainly passed into the religion of the people of Egypt, wherein they grew and flourished, and were, at least many of them, adopted by the Egyptian converts to Christianity, or Copts. Reference is made to them in the best classical works of the ancient Egyptians, and it is more than probable that from them they found their way into the literatures of the other great nations of antiquity, and through the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and others into the countries of Europe. In the following pages an attempt will be made to place in the reader's hands the evidence as to the magical side of the Egyptian religion, which would have been out of place in the former work, the object of which was to describe beliefs of a more spiritual nature. But, as in the book on the Egyptian Ideas of the Future Life, the facts here given are drawn from papyri and other native documents, and the extracts are quoted from compositions which were actually employed by the Egyptians to produce magical effects.

The "magic" of the Egyptians was of two kinds: (1) that which was employed for legitimate purposes and with the idea of benefiting either the living or the dead, and (2) that which was made use of in the furtherance of nefarious plots and schemes and was intended to bring calamities upon those against whom it was directed. In the religious texts and works we see how magic is made to be the handmaiden of religion, and how it appears in certain passages side by side with the most exalted spiritual conceptions; and there can be no doubt that the chief object of magical books and ceremonies was to benefit those who had by some means obtained sufficient knowledge to make use of them. But the Egyptians were unfortunate enough not to be understood by many of the strangers who found their way into their country, and as a result wrong and exaggerated ideas of their religion were circulated among the surrounding nations, and the magical ceremonies which were performed at their funerals were represented by the ignorant either as silly acts of superstition or as tricks of the "black" art. But whereas the magic of every other nation of the ancient East was directed entirely against the powers of darkness, and was invented in order to frustrate their fell designs by invoking a class of benevolent beings to their aid, the Egyptians aimed at being able to command their gods to work for them, and to compel them to appear at their desire. These great results were to be obtained by the use of certain words which, to be efficacious, must be uttered in a proper tone of voice by a duly qualified man; such words might be written upon some substance, papyrus, precious stones, and the like, and worn on the person, when their effect could be transmitted to any distance. As almost every man, woman, and child in Egypt who could afford it wore some such charm or talisman, it is not to be wondered at that the Egyptians were at a very early period regarded as a nation of magicians and sorcerers. Hebrew, and Greek, and Roman writers referred to them as experts in the occult sciences, and as the possessors of powers which could, according to circumstances, be employed to do either good or harm to man.

From the Hebrews we receive, incidentally, it is true, considerable information about the powers of the Egyptian magician. Saint Stephen boasts that the great legislator Moses "was learned in all the wisdom" of the Egyptians," and declares that he" was mighty "in words and in deeds," and there are numerous features in the life of this remarkable man which shew that he was acquainted with many of the practices of Egyptian magic. The phrase "mighty in words" probably means that, like the goddess Isis, he was "strong of tongue" and uttered the words of power which he knew with correct pronunciation, and halted not in his speech, and was perfect both in giving the command and in saying the word. The turning of a serpent into what is apparently an inanimate, wooden stick, and the turning of the stick back into a writhing snake, are feats which have been performed in the East from the most ancient period; and the power to control and direct the movements of such venomous reptiles was one of the things of which the Egyptian was most proud, and in which he was most skilful, already in the time when the pyramids were being built. But this was by no means the only proof which Moses gives that he was versed in the magic of the Egyptians, for, like the sage Aba-aner and king Nectanebus, and all the other magicians of Egypt from time immemorial, he and Aaron possessed a wonderful rod by means of which they worked their wonders. At the word of Moses Aaron lifted up his rod and smote the waters and they became blood; he stretched it out over the waters, and frogs innumerable appeared; when the dust was smitten by the rod it became lice; and so on. Moses sprinkled ashes "toward heaven," and it became boils and blains upon man and beast; he stretched out his rod, and there was "hail, and fire" mingled with the hail, very grievous," and the flax "and the barley was smitten;" he stretched out his rod and the locusts came, and after them the darkness. Now Moses did all these things, and brought about the death of the firstborn among the Egyptians by the command of his God, and by means of the words which He told him to speak. But although we are told by the Hebrew writer that the Egyptian magicians could not imitate all the miracles of Moses, it is quite certain that every Egyptian magician believed that he could perform things equally marvellous by merely uttering the name of one of his gods, or through the words of power which he had learned to recite; and there are many instances on record of Egyptian magicians utterly destroying their enemies by the recital of a few words possessed of magical power, and by the performance of some, apparently, simple ceremony. But one great distinction must be made between the magic of Moses and that of the Egyptians among whom he lived; the former was wrought by the command of the God of the Hebrews, but the latter by the gods of Egypt at the command of man.

Later on in the history of Moses' dealings with the Egyptians we find the account of how "he stretched "out his hand over the sea, and the Lord caused the sea "to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and "made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. "And the children of Israel went into the midst of the "sea upon the dry ground; and the waters were a wall "unto them on their right hand, and on their left." When the Egyptians had come between the two walls of water, by God's command Moses stretched forth his hand over the sea, "and the sea returned to his strength," and the "waters returned, and covered the chariots, "and the horsemen, and all the host of Pharaoh that "came into the sea after them." But the command of the waters of the sea or river was claimed by the Egyptian magician long before the time of Moses, as we may see from an interesting story preserved in the Westcar Papyrus. This document was written in the early part of the XVIIIth dynasty, about B.C. 1550, but it is clear that the stories in it date from the Early Empire, and are in fact as old as the Great Pyramid. The story is related to king Khufu (Cheops) by Baiu-f-R as an event which happened in the time of the king's father, and as a proof of the wonderful powers of magic which were possessed by the priest called Tchatcha-em-ankh. It seems that on a certain day king Seneferu was in low spirits, and he applied to the nobles of his royal household expecting that they would find some means whereby his heart might be made glad; but as they could do nothing to cheer up the king, he gave orders that the priest and writer of books, Tchatcha-em-ankh, should be brought into his presence immediately, and in accordance with the royal command he was at once brought. When he had arrived, Seneferu said to him, "My brother, I turned "to the nobles of my royal household seeking for some "means whereby I might cheer my heart, but they have "found nothing for me." Then the priest made answer and advised the king to betake himself to the lake near the palace, and to go for a sail on it in a boat which had been comfortably furnished with things from the royal house. "For," said he, "the heart of thy Majesty "will rejoice and be glad when thou sailest about hither "and thither, and dost see the beautiful thickets which "are on the lake, and when thou seest the pretty banks "thereof and the beautiful fields then shall thy heart "feel happiness." He next begged that the king would allow him to organize the journey, and asked his permission to let him bring twenty ebony paddles inlaid with gold, and also twenty young virgins having beautiful heads of hair and lovely forms and shapely limbs, and twenty nets wherein these virgins may array themselves instead of in their own ordinary garments. The virgins were to row and sing to his Majesty. To these proposals the king assented, and when all was ready he took his place in the boat; while the young women were rowing him about hither and thither the king watched them, and his heart became released from care. Now as one of the young women was rowing, she entangled herself in some way in her hair, and one of her ornaments which was made of "new turquoise" fell into the water and sank; she ceased to row, and not herself only, but all the other maidens ceased to row also. When the king saw that the maidens had ceased from their work, he said to them, " Will ye not row?" and they replied, "Our "leader has ceased to row." Then turning to the maiden who had dropped her ornament overboard, he asked her why she was not rowing, whereupon she told him what had happened. On this the king promised that he would get back the ornament for her.

Then the king commanded that Tchatcha-em-ankh should appear before him at once, and as soon as the sage had been brought into his presence he said to him, "O Tchatcha-em-ankh, my brother, I have done "according to thy words, and the heart of my Majesty "became glad when I saw how the maidens rowed. But "now, an ornament which is made of new turquoise and "belongeth to one of the maidens who row hath fallen "into the water, and she hath in consequence become "silent, and hath ceased to row, and hath disturbed the "rowing of those in her company. I said to her,' Why "dost thou not row?' and she replied, 'An ornament "[of mine] made of new turquoise hath fallen into the "water.' Then I said to her, 'I will get it back for "thee.' "Thereupon the priest and writer of books Tchatcha-em-ankh spake certain words of power (hekau), and having thus caused one section of the water of the lake to go up upon the other, he found the ornament lying upon a pot-sherd, and he took it and gave it to the maiden. Now the water was twelve cubits deep, but when Tchatcha-em-ankh had lifted up one section of the water on to the other, that portion became four and twenty cubits deep. The magician again uttered certain words of power, and the water of the lake became as it had been before he had caused one portion of it to go up on to the other; and the king prepared a feast for all his royal household, and rewarded Tchatcha-em-ankh with gifts of every kind. Such is a story of the power possessed by a magician in the time of king Khufu (Cheops), who reigned at the beginning of the IVth dynasty, about B.C. 3800. The copy of the story which we possess is older than the period when Moses lived, and thus there can be no possibility of our seeing in it a distorted version of the miracle of the waters of the sea standing like walls, one on the right hand and one on the left; on the other hand Moses' miracle may well have some connexion with that of Tchatcha-em-ankh.

Among the Greeks and Romans considerable respect was entertained, not only for the "wisdom" of the Egyptians, but also for the powers of working magic which they were supposed to possess. The Greek travellers who visited Egypt brought back to their own country much information concerning its religion and civilization, and, though they misunderstood many things which they saw and heard there, some of the greatest of thinkers among the Greeks regarded that country not only as the home of knowledge and the source of civilization and of the arts, but also as the fountain head of what has been called "white magic," and the "black art." In some respects they exaggerated the powers of the Egyptians, but frequently when the classical writers were well informed they only ascribed to them the magical knowledge which the Egyptian magicians themselves claimed to possess. A striking instance of this is given in the second book of the Metamorphoses of Apuleius where, it will be remembered, the following is narrated. The student Telephron arrived one day at Larissa, and as he was wandering about in an almost penniless condition he saw an old man standing on a large block of stone issuing a proclamation to the effect that any one who would undertake to guard a dead body should receive a good reward. When Telephron asked if dead men were in the habit of running away the old man replied testily to the effect that the witches all over Thessaly used to tear off pieces of flesh from the faces of the dead with their teeth, in order to make magical spells by means of them, and to prevent this dead bodies must needs be watched at night. The young man then asked what his duties would be if he undertook the post, and he was told that he would have to keep thoroughly awake all night, to gaze fixedly upon the dead body, to look neither to the right hand nor to the left, and not to close the eyes even to wink. This was absolutely necessary because the witches were able to get out of their skins and to take the form of a bird, or dog, or mouse, and their craftiness was such that they could take the forms of flies and cast sleep upon the watcher. If the watcher relaxed his attention and the body became mutilated by the witches, the pieces of flesh torn away would have to be made good from the body of the watcher. Telephron agreed to undertake the duty for one thousand nummi, and was led by the old man to a house, and, having been taken into the room where the dead body was, found a man making notes on tablets to the effect that nose, eyes, ears, lips, chin, etc., were untouched and whole. Having been provided with a lamp and some oil that night he began his watch, and all went well, notwithstanding that he was greatly afraid, until the dead of night when a weasel came into the chamber and looked confidingly at the watcher; but he drove the animal—which was no doubt a witch—from the room, and then fell fast asleep. In the early morning he was suddenly wakened by the trumpets of the soldiers, and almost immediately the widow of the dead man came to him with seven witnesses, and began to examine the body to see if it was intact; finding that no injury had been done to it she ordered her steward to pay Telephron his fee, and was so grateful to him that she promised to make him one of her household. In attempting to express his thanks, however, he made use of some inauspicious words, and immediately the servants of the house fell upon him, and buffeted him, and plucked out his hair by the roots, and tore his clothes, and finally cast him out of the house. Soon afterwards, whilst wandering about, he saw the funeral procession pass through the form, and at that moment an old man went to the bier, and with sobs and tears accused the widow of poisoning his nephew so that she might inherit his property and marry her lover. Presently the mob which had gathered together wanted to set her house on fire, and some people began to stone her; the small boys also threw stones at her. When she had denied the accusation, and had called upon the gods to be witnesses of her innocence, the old man cried out, "Let, then, Divine Providence decide the truth, in "answer to her denial. Behold, the famous prophet , "Zaclas the Egyptian, dwelleth among us, and he hath "promised me that for much money he will make the "soul of the dead man to return from the place of death "in the underworld, and to make it to dwell in his "body again for a short time." With these words, he led forward a man dressed in linen, and wearing palm-leaf sandals, who, like all the Egyptian priests, had his head shaved, and having kissed his hands and embraced his legs he implored him by the stars, and by the gods of the underworld, and by the island of the Nile, and by the Inundation, etc., to restore life to the dead body, if only for the smallest possible time, so that the truth of his accusation against the widow might be proved. Thus adjured Zaclas touched the mouth and the breast of the dead man three times with some plant, and having turned his face to the East and prayed, the lungs of the corpse began to fill with breath, and his heart to beat, and raising his head and shoulders he asked why he had been called back to life, and then he begged to be allowed to rest in peace. At this moment Zaclas addressed him, and telling him that he had the power, through his prayers, to cause the fiends to come and torture him, ordered him to make known the means by which he had died. With a groan he replied that the wife whom he had recently married gave him poison to drink, and that he died in consequence. The wife at once contradicted the words of her husband, and of the people who were standing round some took one side and some another. At length the husband declared that he would prove the truth of his own words, and pointing to Telephron, who had attempted to guard his body, told those present that the witches after making many attempts to elude his vigilance had cast deep sleep upon him. They next called upon himself by his name, which happened to be Telephron, like that of his watcher, and whilst he was endeavouring feebly to obey their spells, his watcher rose up unconsciously and walked about. Seeing this the witches forced their way into the room through some unknown place, and having taken off the nose and ears of the watcher they placed models of these members in their places. Those who heard these words looked fixedly at the young man, who at once put up his hands and touched the members, whereupon his nose came off in his hand, and his ears slipped through his fingers on to the ground.


Excerpted from Egyptian Magic by E. A. Wallis Budge. Copyright © 1971 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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