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Egyptian Magick

The Magician was an esteemed and influential member of Egyptian society, exercising authority over his art and those who needed his assistance, by means of powerful words and actions.

In a Late Period monument, the Metternich Stela (c.350 BC), there appears the following declaration from Isis, the goddess of magic: 'I am Isis the goddess, the possessor of magic, who performs magic, effective of speech, excellent of words.?This statement gives us the best definition of the nature of Egyptian magical practice: inherent possession, spells and magical techniques/formulae.

Egypt 'Mother of the Magicians'

There are quite a few stories referring to the lives and acts of certain individuals that have been ascribed with the knowledge and possession of hidden and powerful magical abilities. The most notable example of such stories, the so-called Setna-saga, survives in written records dated between the second century BC and the second century AD. It refers to prince Khaemwaset, the fourth son of the Pharaoh Ramesses II (c. 1279-1213 BC).  

 Khaemwaset became first setm-priest and then 'high priest' of the god Ptah at Memphis and he was responsible for the construction of the Serapeum, a massive tomb in the sacred area of Saqqara, and the restoration of pyramids and funerary temples in the vast area of Memphis. Khaemwaset appears in these Late Period Setna-stories, named after his priestly title, as a performer of magic who knew how to use the power of amulets and talismans and how to compose magical formulae, so that he managed to prevent a Nubian magician and ruler casting spells upon, and gaining control over, Egypt. In the same story, Khaemwaset is also described as a 'good scribe and very wise man,' who was trained to understand and write the 'language of the gods,' the hieroglyphs. So, the magician in the Setna-story could combine the functions of a priest, scribe and performer of magical acts.

These magicians were 'chief lector-priests' (hery-heb), high in rank in the Egyptian priesthood. They were responsible for the keeping of the sacred books and ritual manuscripts in the sacred scriptorium, known as the 'House of Life' (per-ankh), about which we shall talk later. They were mostly involved with the magical rituals performed inside the temple precinct, rather than the common daily cultic rituals. They were regarded as the intermediate link between the sacred world of the temple and the outside world because they were allowed to use their knowledge to officiate at funerals.'

 A lector-priest could also be capable of performing medical treatments and curing various illnesses.

 Closely associated with medicine and practical healing was another group of priests/magicians, the priests of the goddess Sekhmet. Sekhmet was regarded as the one 'great of magic' and together with the god Ptah and her son Nefertem made up the Memphite triad. According to Egyptian mythology, Sekhmet was connected with the uraeus of the Pharaoh and thus became the 'eye of Re', accompanying the king to battle, protecting him from his enemies and curing his injuries. The priests who were under her service were specialised in medicine and could combine medical treatment and natural remedies with magical and sacerdotal methods. 

 The magician's 'tools of the trade'

Thus, the direct priestly affiliation of magicians is highly significant, and strongly suggests that itinerant magicians did not exist in Ancient Egypt. The best evidence of the profession of magician/priest derives from the discovery of a Middle Kingdom magician's box beneath the storerooms at the Ramesseum.' It contained twenty-three fragmentary papyri with magico-religious contexts, four broken ivory 'apotropaic knives,' amulets, various beads and figurines, including four female dolls, a statuette of the hybrid goddess Beset holding snakes, a bronze uraeus and an ivory herdsman carrying a calf. The amulets were used for protective purpose, while the apotropaic wands repelled evil and protected infants from demons.

 The wax figurines were used in execration rituals, about which we shall talk in detail in a future article. They were spat upon, pierced with a knife and burned, symbolising thus the ritual 'death' of the enemy.

 The magical significance of the ivory herdsman becomes apparent when it is compared with the identical representation in fording scenes in the Old Kingdom tombs. In such scenes the herdsman carries a calf into the water to induce the cattle to follow. The fording scenes are usually accompanied by the recitation of a protective spell against crocodiles or other dangerous creatures that usually lie in the river. Those spells were recited by magicians, who accompany the herdsman on the boat. They were called 'those who know sacred things' (rkh-kht), a term that reveals their priestly affiliation and their attachment to the sacred temple institute, which was known as the 'House of Life'.

Magician as the god 

The exceptional and superior position of the magicians/priests in Egyptian society was due not only to their training and spiritual capabilities but, mainly, to their power to come in contact and control the spiritual realm of the divine entities.

 During the course of a magical ceremony, a special relationship is developed between the magician and the invoked deities. The magician believes that he is not merely the medium for the divine power to be expressed through, but an independent entity who retains the will and freedom to use and distribute this power according to his desire.

  The magician not only impersonates and expresses the will of the supernatural powers, by making himself a 'channel,' a medium, through which these powers can be visualised in the human sphere, but also he 'transforms' himself into god: 'For I am among gods: Seth is on my right, Horus on my left, Nephthys is in my embrace, o gods! Make way for me! I am one of you!'" This divine transformation is without hybris, according to the Greek notion of arrogant behaviour and action, but in complete orthodoxy with the primeval power and superiority of the Egyptian magic.

So, magicians lived in direct contact with the gods, while, at the same time, they occupied the most important positions in the political and social order. Since Egyptian society was regarded as theocentric, it was the magicians' duty to keep it in harmony with the gods, establishing and maintaining Ma'at.